There is genuine meaningfulness to be found in the creative process that produced Batman Begins. Nolan began working on the treatment by writing in his garage in the LA summer heat. First he roped in co-writer David Goyer, next his longtime collaborator, set-designer Nathan Crowley. The three would circuit through each others’ ideas. Crowley would visualize the settings as scale models, while Nolan would consider shot-angles for the emotional weight Goyer would bring to bear on the story unfolding before them.
Nolan’s project came with prefabricated secrecy. Even to Warner Brothers’ corporate the project could not be named as Batman. 24-hour news cycles might kill any chance the project had of being realized as the visionary output Nolan hoped for. Ironically perhaps for the comics-cultural world that Nolan’s project was being birthed into, the director had chosen the title Intimidation Game to designate the new Batman movie.
But if there was an Intimidation Game being run on the Kid in the Candy-store, if That Kid was being taught to say ‘yes’, it is because he was a known squealer. That Kid had learned to say yes a long time back. The cusp of the millennium was a strange time. It was marked by the cultural ascendancy of comics and the simultaneous refusal of the superhero genre that had once had such a vital role in popularizing the medium. Hushmoney was being handed out, cultural legitimation long fought-for was now being awarded to the medium. Dire times, but this situation had its roots in the machinations that produced comicbooks as a unique publication format. Cultural legitimation of the comicbook was something of a false trail, a failed concept. The search for legitimation of the comicbook is the newer, sleeker model of a far older debate—the radicalization of the pulp industry which comicbook publishers hoped would put them on equal footing with mass-published daily newspapers.
But contending for the cultural legitimacy of the comicbook, or for that matter of comics themselves, loses the true mass-broadcast popularity of the Icons that graced the panels of the medium. There has always been something revolutionary about comics’ association with superheroes. Something mindbendingly elegant about seeing our everyday world mirrored in eerily familiar ways. Lest we forget. Superman was always the fictive frontman for FDR’s New Deal. He was busting up Depression-era crime syndicates and proving that authority figures could be trusted. Reed Richards and the Fantastic Four would always be the postwar hopefulness most typified by public scientist Richard Feynman. With comics a part of the daily cultural mainstream, there seems very little need to perpetually rally to its defense. As a standalone item sold for no other value than its own, a faction continually decrying it as a Secretly Dying But Vital Part of culture becomes a surprisingly effective marketing tool.
By the millennium, the implicit plea of elitism would very nearly win the day. Comics would conceivably endure perhaps even Evolve well beyond superheroes. If this were to happen, it would be for no other reason than comics longtime fans had already been educated in minimizing losses. That tradition goes back to the 1950s, when in the wake of psychologist Frederic Wertham’s publication of Seduction of the Innocent and the ensuing Senate hearings, the comics industry accepted a self regulating board. The Comics Code Authority as it came to be known, would hold the industry in its thrall for two generations. The rampant creativity of the old EC comics, books like Tales from the Crypt or MAD, would never be repeated under the Code’s watchful eye. After all, the Code was the only antidote for the homosexual ravings of a Bat-costumed S&M’er who regularly put underage youth in the line of fire. Wertham’s thesis in Seduction might have been the firestarter, but comics as an industry was ready to shut itself down.
Nick & Nora Versus The Infinite Playlist
The True Victory does of course arrive. The victory over both cultural marginalization as a result of the good work done in the 80s, and the victory over the far more subtle, far more insidious waves of elitist secession of the late 90s. Batman Begins tabled the debate, but 2008’s season of summer blockbusters, including Jon Favreau’s culturally redemptive Iron Man and Nolan’s formidable Bat-sequel The Dark Knight, would ultimately settle the matter. Superheroes could be credibly exploited in other media, while comics continued to enjoy cultural legitimation. What had suddenly happened between these short few years? What had changed? The answers may lay in another 2008 movie, the indie sleeper-hit Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist.
It is hard to spot at first. Once you see it however, it’s hard to see anything else. But Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist is really a modern retooling of an old Dash Hammett pulp fiction series, “The Thin Man”. The dead-giveaway clue (for anyone sufficiently familiar with both the 2008 movie and Hammett’s Prohibition-era socialites, the Charleses) comes right at the end of the film when Nick and Norah forego the band they chased down the entire length of the movie. Nick grabs Norah’s hand and they flee into the bright, cold warmth of Penn Station. ‘We’re missing it’, she whispers. ‘We’re not missing it’, Nick shoots back, ‘This is it’. The audience is caught in that same elegiacally urgent energy that impels Our Sweethearts down into the womb that is Pennsylvania Station. And the end-credits begin to roll.
What distinguishes Nick & Norah’s, and what situates the film historically is the ‘playlist’. An emerging cultural phenomenon, playlists only have real meaning after iTunes and Napster and the anthropologically ubiquitous iPod. Before the era of widescale piracy, and P2P exchange networks, before Demoniod and The Pirate Bay, playlists had almost zero cultural value. But the rise of the playlist is also the fall of the hit. The full and finer mechanics of this phenomenon are interpreted by visionary thinker Chris Anderson in his lucid and thoroughgoing book The Long Tail.
Anderson writes something momentous, what amounts to Adam Smith’s classic The Wealth of Nations for a 21st century cybermarket. In it he describes how limited shelf-space (attention span) meant a hit-driven economy was the surest way to ensure a revenue stream. But hits, for all their economic certainty, make for an uncomfortable creativity. Hits cater to 60% of the population, 60% the time. Limited shelf-space and limited attentions make hits an absolute necessity in the old economy, but with the digital marketplace, hits become a thing of the past. Subcultures become the order of the day, with subgenre and micro-genre being the industry standard. Choice is the watchword for the new economy, and the cultural end-user, the reader or listener, becomes the focus. It is the reader that assembles the culture.
Haunted by having dispelled the shadows of cultural illegitimacy, and the manticore of isolationism that was paraded as elitism, comics stands at the fore of this renaissance of social media. A media driven by the choices and concerns important to readers is also a media only just now coming to terms with the wrestlings of comics since Miller’s Dark Knight Returns.
In the comics industry, the hit-driven economy was already decimated in the early ‘90s. It is in this way that comics’ recent history becomes a roadmap for the navigations that await the major genre of the popular culture mainstream. Music, cinema, television, even print journalism are beginning on that same path that will soon enough see business models once thought to be rock-solid, crumble. What stands out however, is the redemption of the Icons that have always been the true socio-intellectual yield of these mass media. There will always be a Superman. The New Marketplace simply means that there will always be a Hellboy too.
With ten years already under the bridge, PopMatters Comics is gearing up for this New Marketplace of Social Media. The recent buy-out of Marvel by Disney and the establishment of a Warner Brothers’ corporate entity for exploiting DC properties as movies means Second Gen publishers have rallied in the early stages. Will Third Gen publishers like Image and Dark Horse, publishers predicated on creator rights and creative freedoms, be wholly eclipsed? Or will they themselves rally.
With comics already having walked the path away from a hit-driven economy, PopMatters Comics becomes central to delivering cultural commentary on not merely comics itself, but on bridging the gap between the intellectual boutique of comics culture, and the mainstream of popular culture. We’ve refined our tools. We will rely on our vast, internal libraries of comics, using them to comment on the day-to-day. We will deliver topical content, no longer strictly determined by publication schedules. We will trace the legacies and the histories of the Icons that inspired our younger life.
Since our summer 2009 reboot, we’ve begun unveiling our new publication format. Regular features like “The Iconographies” and “My Perfect Panel” are absolutely necessary in explaining both the inspiring and the tyrannical nature of comics in popular culture. These Icons and their medium haunt us in the best of senses. They provide fertile soil for early dreams. In the weeks and months to come, we will be expanding our format to reach even deeper into this strange nexus of imagination and inspiration and dread. These are Strange and Terrible Times. They can only be properly understood through a full exploration of the subjunctive cultural vectors that have haunted a century of American comics. In its lingering battle for cultural legitimacy, in its weird engagements with cultural secession, in its crucially unacknowledged skirmishes with elitism, comics offers a richly-textured cultural complex. PopMatters is uniquely positioned to deal with such cultural complexity. Won’t you join us in watching as this New Journalism unfolds?