Emerald City Comic Con and the Future of Media

Emerald City Comic Con, a convention like other comicbook conventions, finds its inspiration in fictional characters renowned for their technical prowess like Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne. Technology was, however, surprisingly absent on the show floor. None of the publishers offered big screen experiences to draw in the throngs. iPads were everywhere, but most were connected to Square card readers so merchants could exchange real money for fantasy. The show felt nearly as quaint as my “press,” badge, but not nearly so, because nothing is really quaint that involves a Star Wars inspired storm trooper outfitted with full battle helmet, complemented only by white corset, short white skirt and shinny white go-go boots.

No, the real future of media wasn’t evident on the floor. All those Doctor Whos, Batmen and damsels in various forms of undress wandered rather familiar halls filled with pen and ink, plastic and resin, paper and cloth. In a small panel room, second door to the right of the escalator and straight on, a cadre of comicbook elites explored the incestuous, organic and emergent ideas that will reshape not just comicbooks, but how consumers think about media, and how the media industry thinks about consumers, over the next decade.

The discussion in room 204 was sponsored by the University of Washington’s Communication Leadership program, and facilitated by organizer Robert Salkowitz, a member of UW’s CommLead faculty, and author of Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture: What the World’s Wildest Trade Show Can Tell Us About the Future of Entertainment.

Salkowitz see the early 21st century as a transformational moment for media: “Comics have gone from the fringes of culture and commerce to the center of both. That means a lot of companies are spending a lot of money to make fans happy with big-budget adaptations of comic stories in movies, videogames, deluxe print editions and even the occasional Broadway play. It also puts comic content on the front lines as we enter a new era for media, with tablet-based apps, media experiences that blend digital and physical world (like augmented reality), cross-platform/multi-screen stories, new kinds of games and other cool stuff.”

The first panel, featured IDW CEO Ted Adams, painted the broadest and most ambitious view of the future. His vision was comicbook-centric without really being centralized at all. Adams sees comicbooks as part of a great continuum of media that will swirl around, cross-fertilize, co-create and spawn one thing from another. Comicbooks, of course, drive blockbuster movies, but recently, they have begun to inspire novels or be inspired by them. IDW is publishing Jonathan Maberry’s V Wars as a collection of fiction, but that is just its first media stop. Soon V Wars will be a comicbook and television show. At the core though, traditional linear narrative rules here as it is the universe that must be described. Words, as they do at the beginning of the bible, bring worlds into being.

But comicbooks extend beyond the word. Liam Sharp, founder and CEO of MadeFire demonstrated that comics could effectively become a medium of motion, while retaining a clear sense of panel and reading, an approach that allows for new types of emphasis, better techniques for reveals all and a sound track that crafts mood and invokes emotion. A sound track that could easily be be marketed as its own digital property in its own right.

By contrast, husband and wife team Yen Yen Woo and Colin Goh of Yumcha Studios demonstrated their children’s comicbook series the Dim Sum Warriors, delivered as an illustrated app that does not include animation or movement. Dim Sum Warriors instead animates activity by allowing children and others to explore the story in two languages, English and Mandarin, and to effortlessly and fluidly move between the two in order to progress the story, or review it.

But the transformation doesn’t end there. Comicbook publishers are now becoming television and movie producers in order to retain more control over their properties. IDW Entertainment, the newly launched division of IDW, announced a partnership on April 1, 2014 with Entertainment One to co-develop, co-fund and co-produce television shows based on the IDW portfolio. Rather than license entire ideas to traditional studios in hope of them becoming the seed of the next franchise, IDW, and likely other independent comicbook publishers, will strike deals that allow them to selectively parcel out rights to studios and other partners.

And many of the ancillary products that were once licensed to specialist firms become in-house investments, like games based on a comicbook. IDW has developed a Kill Shakespeare game in response to the popularity of their Kill Shakespeare line of books. And the game will, for now, be strictly analog.

For the My Little Pony line of children’s comicbooks, IDW launched My Little Pony Micro Fun Packs that combine age appropriate comics with hidden treasures of stickers, tattoos and diminutive posters, along with how-to draw instructions for aspiring artists. Collection, multiple form engagement and other collectables beckoning 21st Century youth like colorful Cracker Jack boxes less the popcorn, calories or teeth gumming carmel coating.

At the core is engagement. Salkowtiz observes: “Comics are not only fun, spectacular and exciting, they inspire incredible levels of fan engagement and loyalty. Just look around at the crowds. It’s no surprise they’ve taken over media, entertainment and marketing. Everyone wants fans. Everyone wants the kind of energy you get at places like Emerald City.”

And other forms of media swirl around the comic as well. Individual books become graphic novels in compilation, audio book versions provide auditory experiences. Videos games push and tug in the ecosystem, title-by-title, for source dominance, a kind of media genetic vector that either with games in some instances driving media outgrowth, an in others, existing as a component that enhances an already thriving market looking for that one last thing to fill a niche that consumers know is void because their game-play receptors feel under nourished.

Of course, swirling around all of this change, like a cosmic vortex streaming through an other worldly rip in the fabric of space-time is the Internet, facilitating connections across seemingly disparate forms of media, fashioning a grand unified content universe to the envy of string theorists.

Whatever the Internet may be, the mass of its appeal and its use, is for information exchange—information most often exchanged in the form of a story. That story my be a robot-written news blurb that simply strings together facts and cliches, or it may be a multimedia extravaganza that offers at once to engage mind, body and soul as does Marvel’s Avengers. Comicbooks become movies. Movies becomes soundtracks, games like Avengers Battle for Earth, become interactive experiences. Movies becomes stage shows, and return back to comics, toys, collector figurines—and they become spin-off television shows, amusement park rides, birthday party adornments, cellular phone cases and skins — all wonder of experience and product. All wonder driven by a story and characters that represent the wishes, the dreams, the desires and the fears of readers who so identify with them that that take time out of their lives to literally, to the best of their budget and imagination, to become them, the go out into the world as Captain America, as Thor as Black Window and Wonder Woman.

Although the Internet democratize content creation and smooths access to supply chains, it also act as a serendipitous channel for fandom that connects the dots in-between cons and their moments of cosplay. The Internet, through its reach into all things electronic, binds people and ideas together in ways that the physical world cannot, even if every spin-of or derivative was co-located i space and time. Physical space limits access at the edges of atoms that by their nature repel other atoms. Media may retain some of its physical manifestations for those who want to hold and coddle, collect and revere, ogle and covet, but the real money will be made through the not so tenuous filaments of glass and copper that pump billions of bits a second across computer screens and mobile device displays.

Salkowitz see this as a new “golden age” and that may be very true. Not since the age of pulps have such diversity, openness and happenstance ruled the creation of media. As much as big entertainment will play its role, start-ups, individual artists, small companies and even those in orthogonal industries will create new channels for content delivery, and new ways to bundle and combine the channels that already exist. We may not be able to forecast the end-game for media, but we can say that what sits on a bookshelf will only represent a fraction of the world, and the rest of it, rather than being at the beck-and-call of your hands and eyes, will likely envelop all of yours senses wherever you are and whatever you may be doing. At some point in the not to distant future, yelling “flame on” my invoke metadata and that will give those wearing Google Glass the sense that you just erupted in blaze of photorealistic fire. Then it will be your turn to tell those around you the story about why there and then, and what it all means, at least as long as they are willing to pay attention.

Interior Art from Geeky Hostess and Snowbuni.