Comics

Generational Lag?: Talking With Rob Salkowitz #1

"Are we as fans prepared for a scenario where Joss Whedon's Avengers might have tanked?," Rob asks at one point… Talking with Rob Salkowitz is an education not only in fandom, but in the business of popular culture.

Some of the obvious difficulty is for Gen-X comics fans is coming to terms with the not only the sense of self-exclusion (Gen-Xers saw firsthand comics' move from newsstands and notionally still being a mass medium, to the ethereal boutique culture of comicbook stores), but also the sense of postmodern reinterpretation of beloved icons.

Tim Burton's Batman coming on the heels of Frank Miller's Batman (which graced the pages of The Dark Knight Returns) was separated in time by Mike Barr's Batman (the Batman of Year Two and Full Circle and the like) and Jim Starlin's Batman which saw the murder of Robin in A Death in the Family. These very powerful, very different visions of the Batman served only to emphasize one idea--that the Batman himself was malleable and benefited from the artistic visions of various writers, as much as from the diverse visualizations of artists.

John Byrne's reboot of Superman would only serve to underline this point. Following on from the Crisis on Infinite Earths megaevent of 1985, Superman offered a more coherent Superman than the various Batman depictions, but nevertheless offered Superman scarcely recognizable in comparison with the Superman that culminated in the Alan Moore story, Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?. Between 1986 and 2000 Gen-X and fans of other generations saw Superman grow his hair, unmask to Lois Lane and eventually marry her (deleting the Lois-Clark-Superman love triangle), we saw Superman kill (just preceding the events of Exile in Space), we saw Superman die (the suspiciously usefully titled, Death of Superman), and we saw Superman's archnemesis Lex Luthor elected to the White House (President Lex), and eventually push Superman from the pages of Action (in Paul Cornell's "The Black Ring" of 2010).

Against the Boomer comics of a generation prior (circa 1954 thru 1984), a generation of comics produced by an industry concerned with self-regulation to the point of self-censorship, the narrative stakes seem very different. Gen-X seems to be about imprinting its stories with its own generational concerns, not least of all responding to a sense of popcultural alienation with pride in a kind of self-exclusion. Boomer-Gen comics on the other hand seemed in an ongoing fight to secure comics as a mass medium. But as useful as this generational schema is, it doesn't yet explain the wildly variant attitudes to comics icons like Batman and Superman prior to and post-1994.

Following on from the same summer where Bruce Wayne broke his back and conceded the Batman identity to another, and the summer where Superman died, why were things so very different? Was there a generational shift there as well? Could it have been some kind of micro-shift?

It's much later in our West Coast morning-long conversation that Rob gets to talking about precisely this point. Rob Salkowitz is media analyst and consultant, and the author of Young World Rising and Generation Blend, and a passionate comics fan. It's this passion that led him to write Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture, a book which blends together his love of comics, with the hard-edged business of scenario-planning.

When we get to the point of pre- and post-1994 Superman and Batman and others (notably JLA and Green Arrow), he offers one of the most cogent insights. There's a difference, he reminds me, between the generational shift of readers, and the generational shift of creators.

During that first phase, prior to 1994 comics creators were still very much of the Boomer generation. Sure things had changed. Books like John Ostrander's Suicide Squad cast villains as lead characters in a covert-ops team. Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's The Killing Joke saw Barbara Gordon left a paraplegic by a savage attack from The Joker. It was this that saw her evolve from Batgirl in the information broker Oracle.

But these changes were changes effected by Boomers in a response to the increasingly vocal fandom of Gen-Xers as much to a sense of the times having changed. It's only later, with creators like Grant Morrison on books like JLA and subsequently New X Men, Kevin Smith on Green Arrow: Quiver, James Robinson on Starman that Gen-Xers themselves step into the roles of creators.

Rob muses on the idea that there's always a kind of generational lag in comics. It's the idea that comics' fandom shifts generations much earlier than comics' creators. And that the art isn't always up-to-speed with the artists.

Some time after our conversation, I find myself rereading HST's Fear & Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72. It's one of the most beautiful books about that era, and also one of the first (wholly prescient for the actual time it was written in) to treat Nixon as looming, monolithic figurehead rather than an individuated human being animated by his time. It's early on in the book when Thompson himself comes face to face with the idea of the youth vote, and at that point when he offers his own concerns around the idea that the youth vote might be the decider in that election.

It's surreal to read that HST encounter armed with Rob's analysis. Especially so coming to realize that this was perhaps the last youth vote for the Boomers. By the time of Reagan's election, the first Gen-Xers would already be eligible to vote. The 72 election was perhaps the last time that the youth vote and their concerns coincided with the concerns of the larger electorate.

Rob's incisive analysis of this generational micro-shift puts in mind to ask one thing--what will it look like when Millennial creators enter the fray. The creators who themselves grew up never not knowing digital distribution or transmedia. When I voice this idea with Rob, he points out another presupposition, that transmedia will somehow continue to last undiminished and unchanged.

"Are we as fans prepared for a scenario where Whedon's Avengers might have tanked?," Rob asks at this point. Talking with Rob Salkowitz is an education not only in fandom, but in the business of popular culture. And late into crisp, Seattle morning, we continue to talk about the idea of transmedia and how it has sustained the comics industry over the last few years.

* * *

Rob Salkowitz's Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture releases on 6/10. It is a cogent, vivid study that makes business thinking accessible for comics fans and the vibrant ideals of comics culture available for business. At a crisis-point in pop culture, this book already seems generationally definitive.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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