Human Revolution: The Exclusive with Pop Culture Business Guru Rob Salkowitz

We get to Rob at his most human much later, some two hours into the interview. At this we’re still only about half the way through the morning long interview. What’s kept me going this far was nothing other than a sense of journalistic plunder. Rob has one of the keenest minds in the arena of business, and with his newest book, Comic Con and the Business of Pop Culture, he’s now plumbing the depths of his passion — pop culture and specifically the subculture of comics fandom. We got to talking about the deep vitality that lies at the core comics fandom, and then we kept going. But now, around the two hour mark, we have something else entirely, we have the human revolution.

“You’re the reader, so you tell me”, Rob says almost confessionally, “I’m glad you liked it, and I’m glad you think it works well. And I hope it’s going to find other readers as its found you”. There’s a caring and a fatherliness to Rob’s reply. A sense of someone who wants to see his children do well, to find themselves. Already I’m far away from the intellectually-motivated mercantilism that I entered into this conversation with. Rob is a crisp, clear-thinker who can articulate solutions where others might find it hard to even see problems, sure. And there is, given the limited time I have with Rob, every impulse to exploit this unique mind, this unique way of looking. But with that turn, there’s something else. There’s a deep emotional reality his work and his writing. Almost a kind of discipline.

But what comes next is the courage.

Rob’s Comic Con is written as a sort of travel-diary for ComicCon 2011. It’s Rob and his wife Eunice, at every moment during the trip to San Diego last summer, and even the planning phases for this trip. But more than just a travelog, Comic Con is a deep meditation on the phenomenon of transmedia. On what this new notion means practically, and how it might shepherd us all into a new form of engaging our media in the 21st century. At each moment then, and each stop Rob and Eunice make at Comic Con 2011, Rob offers his insights, observations, meditations on the freedoms and on the limitations implicit in the idea of transmedia.

This book is going to sit very comfortably on three shelves in your local bookstore. It’s going to find its way into Comics, naturally. But it will be equally at home on the History/Current Affairs/Culture shelf, and on the Business shelf. It’s a testament to publisher McGraw-Hill that they’re prepared to publish such an iconoclastic book that doesn’t easily fit in with traditional notions of publishing categories. But more so, it’s a testament to Rob. To conceive of such a book, where the readers (at least some of the readers will fall into this category) will enter as readers of pop culture, and exit as business strategists. Put simply, Comic Con and the Business of Pop Culture upgrades you. It not only illumines a world you might only have guessed at (a world of business strategy for the popculturalist, or vice versa), but it builds those tools you’ll need to competently live in that world.

As Rob himself puts it, Comic Con is written for two audiences. But more than that even, it’s written for one audience to fully become the other. And when the courage comes, it looks like this. It looks like Rob fretting about whether or not he might have missed either of these audiences, or worse, whether he might have missed both.

That’s not the case I assure him. Not only does Comic Con stand as a viable piece of cultural criticism, but it’s evoking my business mind. And the same is true for business readers. Colleagues immersed in business journalism tell me that it’s as if suddenly my world of cultural criticism has been opened to them.

The courage, when it comes, looks like a hesitancy on the part of the writer behind the project. A hesitancy in the face of reassurances of success from critics in both fields. It’s when I identify this uniquely human moment that a quiet revolution kicks in in my own mind. There’s a secret Shakespeare here. Henry V after the victory at Agincourt. “Steward I know not if this day be ours, or no…”. But the human revolution that kicks off in my own mind is the realization that the idea of human revolution has been at the heart of what Rob’s been writing about ever since the beginning of Comic Con.

Recently, other business books that have entered the cultural mainstream have done this to very different effect. Ken Auletta’s Googled has described a sudden and stealthy and irrevocable change in the way in which relate to information. But like those 50s Red Scare movies, the scifi ones where aliens appear on the horizon, rather than actual Reds, Auletta’s book reads like a small, neat and ongoing apocalypse.

David Kirkpatrick’s The Facebook Effect on the other hand, reads in tight, terse prose reminiscent of a classic Chandler or Thompson (Jim rather than Hunter) or Ellroy. The Facebook Effect happens intellectually, and at a great distance. Comic Con however…

I’m taken back to earlier in the conversation when we spoke about how strange a project this has been for Rob. Strange in that Rob himself has been a comics fan for decades now, and a regular attendee of ComicCon each year for nearly twenty years. The professional of his business consultancy has thus far always been divorced from his personal life as a fan. Comic Con and the Business of Pop Culture pushes those two worlds together like India breaking off from Africa and colliding into Asia.

Part of the strange has been Rob observing his friendships with creators in the comicbook world, friendships built over time, as he might professionally. I ask about this, was there any cognitive dissonance? And I ask specifically about Rob and Eunice’s friendship with creators and publishers, Batton Lash and his wife Jackie Estrada. The “Wednesday: Preview” chapter opens with Rob and Eunice helping to set up Batton and Jackie’s Exhibit A Press booth.

“It’s interesting you should ask this now”, Rob begins, “We usually meet Batton and Jackie at San Diego each year, but we’ve just met them last week at Stumptown, (the comics convention for indie comics)”. Rob’s focus is the personal again, the deep-seated connectedness between art and artist and appreciator. “He’s a very gregarious guy, and he’s very easy to get to know. We’ve known him for a long time and I’ve shown him the book (Comic Con and the Business of Pop Culture) and everything, and his comment to me was, ‘Y’know it’s really weird to read about myself in this book in an objective way, and then to step back and realize that this is written by a friend of mine. And yet it reads so objectively’. He said, ‘If I had a stranger tell this story, about me I would feel like I’d really gotten the message across’. He was happy with his portrayal in the book. To me it’s an act of balance. I admire Batton’s independent spirit, I like his work. I think the stories are good, the ones in Supernatural Law. He has some other work where he does political cartoons and things like that, and we sort of agree to disagree on that. Honestly, in this age of polarized politics, this does not get in the least way in terms of our relationship with them”.

We continued, I remember, by speaking about the fractured cultural landscape, fractured by politics. Rob has some interesting ideas, ones that I’d love to hear developed in conversation with Ian Bremmer, author of G Zero. But right now, some two hours in, that’s not the takeaway for me. For me, for right now, the takeaway has got to be that human revolution, the network of invisible connections we make with our art, in this case comics, and how that artform constructs our social reality. What Bertolt Brecht might have called a “gestus”.

But that’s not even the real treat of the phase of the conversation that comes next. The real treat is how comics own modes and conventions becomes the foundation-stones of an entirely new kind of media. A media unique 21st century. And as the Seattle morning turns over, we continue to talk.

The exclusive with Rob Salkowitz will continue during the weeks leading up to ComicCon 2012.