One of the very worst things about grunge in its nascency, Dear Reader, has always been its unpluggedness. Commercialism is soul-destroying we were always reminded. And that, as Bryant Simon reminds us in his profound Everything But the Coffee, consumerism was just waiting to be redeemed by ethically pure brands. In the ‘90s we banked on Starbucks, because of the sound ethical stance of sourcing practices. We also, given its sheer size, banked on Microsoft becoming a more open, more ethically-pure company. But what underpinned these hopes was the idea that the very practice of consumerism could some how be redeemed from crass commercialization. That the industrial complex as it exists, need not be exploitative of third world production-oriented economies, and of ourselves. But for the most part, for your Targets and your WalMarts and your thousands of other brands, we simply needed to unplug.
If anything, media and business analyst Rob Salkowitz, addresses this concern head on in his new book, Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture. The issue at stake—why did we choose to “unplug” and how have be built an entirely new kind of world as a result. Salkowitz does this in a prodigiously novel way. Comic-Con leverages his almost unique position as business analyst and longtime comics fan. The book itself is a kind of travel diary of his and his wife Eunice’s trip to the globally recognized San Diego ComicCon in 2011.
Each chapter comprises a separate day of the Con (save the highly engaging first chapter, “Hotelaween” which deals with the actual process of booking the trip some months in advance). And each chapter-section deals with a different event or booth or hall or movie screening or roundtable. The analysis offered in each of these sections is not only a popcultural analysis, but a business analysis as well. Salkowitz is supreme not only in balancing these two very different concerns, but making both accessible to the two very different readerships each genre would comprise. For readers of popculture, all the building blocks are there to make a compelling case for being interested in the business elements of the industry. Similarly, Salkowitz makes compelling business arguments for why popculture should be considered as an enterprise.
This effect of transitioning (business readers becoming popculture readers and vice versa) is really the core of Salkowitz’s achievement with Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture. The real topic up for consideration, as distinct from the grunge values of unplugging, is the idea of transmedia. Simply put, transmedia is the appearance of iconic characters or settings or stories, across various media platforms. It’s the idea that Ben 10 will appear as a TV show, as a comicbook, as a videogame, etc. And that each media platform will see Ben 10 being able to compete with other high-end shows or comics or games.
Comics fandom and the superhero genre have been crucial to transmedia. And because of this, Salkowitz asks a set of questions that he himself can uniquely formulate. How has comics struggled to appeal to a wider fan base? And by what mechanism did transmedia find itself determined by such a self-exclusionary fan culture as comics?
The former question comes as no surprise. For decades now, comics has (by practice rather than by intent) been more exclusionary than inclusive. Moving from newsstand-based distribution to a direct marketing model (heavily reliant on specialized comicbook stores), as the comics industry did in the late ‘80s, meant losing the larger part of its mainstream audience. Throughout the ‘90s and the years of grunge, comics was no longer just for kids. But shocking, neither was it for women or teens or the elderly. During the high age of comicbook stores, it seemed that comics was still exclusively for those adult men who had read comics 10, 20 years prior, while they themselves still were kids.
Salkowitz’s careful, analytical mind uncovers the strange path by which comics and the superhero genre, have transformed themselves to become inherently transmedia objects. And he effects this same transition, at the level of reader experience, by transitioning popcultural readers into becoming business readers (and vice versa). In this respect, Salkowitz’s Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture stands as a quiet, but lasting achievement.
Recent books in this genre have focused on the monolithic and the impenetrable (Ken Auletta’s Googled, for example, reads like an oldtimey Red Scare movie where aliens simply appear on the horizon), have outlined a comedy of errors to recent events (the general human absurdity in Michael Lewis’ The Big Short and Boomerang is plain to see), and have presented a plea for us all to participate in our own social engineering (David Kirkpatrick’s The Facebook Effect reads perhaps more like a defense of social media).
Salkowitz in contradistinction, discovers the new as the evolving of the old. “You’ll find the things that worked will always work,” Warren Buffet said in an interview with Charlie Rose, during the darkest moments just following on from the financial crisis. And in doing so, Salkowitz finds a way to offer up a mirror, so that we may begin to recognize the transmedia objects we ourselves are already becoming.