Generational Lag?: Talking With Rob Salkowitz #1

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.

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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.

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