By the time you read this, the 2012 San Diego Comic Con will be over and preparation will have begun anew for next year’s event. “The Con” now operates in a cycle comparable to the perpetual campaigning of American politics. There are badge numbers, online sales and hotel reservations to secure, not to mention getting to the actual event itself, where endless lines and throngs of assorted humans and aliens occupy San Diego every July.
Rob Salkowitz’s book, Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture, is a fascinating look at this experience. In it he explores his own personal encounters with the Con (he and his wife have regularly attended since the late ‘90s) but also the event’s ascendance as the epicenter of entertainment business and culture. Being a comic fan, Salkowitz avoids the pitfalls of the “ZAP! POW! Comics Aren’t Just for Kids!” stories which annually announce the arrival of the Con. Despite the event’s recorded attendance of 130,000 in 2011, actual comic books—the staid monthly print magazines sometimes obnoxiously referred to as “floppies”—aren’t exactly doing a booming business. Comics-related properties generate billions of dollars in licensing revenue, covering everything from movies and games to socks and breakfast cereal. Best-selling comics however,, Salkowitz writes, rarely sell more than a few 100,000 copies.
Salkowitz uses the 2011 Comic-Con as a lens through which to view the issue. The big questions are: how do publishers avoid making the same mistakes as the film and music industries when it comes it digital content? And how can the publishers grow the market for an “old fashioned” product like comic books with so many other diversions vying for consumers’ cash?
Salkowitz gets to the heart of the disconnect. Publishers aim to please an aging but vocal fan base at the expense of creating new readers. Constant “event” stories in which everything/nothing changes, limited availability, and the sometimes unwelcoming, boys club atmosphere of comics shops give new readers, especially women and children, few opportunities to jump on board. The same fans from 20 years ago are still buying the same things, but this feedback loop will eventually have to end.
These days, Salkowitz writes, making comics, “...seems little more than an expense required to keep the intellectual property assets current and trademarks up to date.” This sounds like a damning indictment, probably because it’s true. Salkowitz points to the biggest comics publishers—Marvel and DC—and notes they’re both merely blips on the balance sheets of gigantic media companies (Disney and Time-Warner, respectively).
Salkowitz is no doom and gloom prophet, however, and his book isn’t that of an angry fan spouting off against the industry. Salkowitz sees the value, both monetary and cultural, in keeping comics viable across any number of platforms. Much of his argument rests on the “transmedia future”, in which comics can easily be a big player. This phenomenon, in which stories featuring valuable intellectual property are spread across a number of different media, has existed for a while, and it’s fast becoming a cornerstone of successful creative empires. This is crucial, Salkowitz says, because it allows room for fans to not only consume content but to create it.
Community has long been a part of comic book culture, with no better example than the San Diego Comic-Con. Now, with the tools for creating music, film, and even comics easily within reach of fans, entertainment companies can’t afford to not look to the fans for the Next Big Thing.
What’s best about Salkowitz’s book is not the personality he brings to his subject or his ability to make a speculative graph of the future media landscape accessible. Rather, the self-described futurist not only understands where comics and pop culture in general may be headed, he also understands the important role the past has to play. He understands the delicate balance between nostalgia and tradition, and he doesn’t dismiss things which might be lost (back issues!) as publishers begin the inevitable march toward broad digital distribution.
Above all, Salkowitz understands the key to comics future: telling good stories. Reading his book, that should come as no surprise.