Monday, July 9, 2012

Comic Con and the Business of Pop Culture-A review

A Review of: Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture: 
What the World’s Wildest Trade Show Can Tell Us about the Future of Entertainment by 
Rob Salkowitz.

I enjoyed reading this 300 page hardcover book and I give it an “A”. I also learned a lot and there is a great deal to think about.  (I bought it at Amazon for $15 with shipping). It also contains several black and photos.

First, it’s a very enjoyable, easy reading book not just for fans who have gone or want to go to conventions, but for people interested in the current state of the comic book industry and its future.  The last few chapters are a bit more educational as Salkowitz takes an academic view of where the industry is and its digital future. That isn’t bad, it’s always absorbing.

Mr. Salkowitz, in his introduction, tells us that he has been a fan and a collector. He attended his first convention, in the mid 1970s. He lets us know that he will be discussing the phenomenon of the convention, the actual comics and their creators and the business of comics.

Immediately, I feel he gets it. The business aspects of the media drive it, not artwork and storytelling. Sadly, he discusses that the industry is run by corporations more interested in the fees they make from the characters than with the creation of the characters themselves.  Why deal with “finicky” artists who create and the characters and what a share of the profits when you already have a stack of characters to exploit without those damn creators.  Salkowitz has a rooting interest, he wants comics to succeed. Bestselling books, he points out rarely sell more than 75,000 copies, most sell about 10,000. In my day ½ a million to a million were common. In his day too! Mr. Salkowitz tells us what he has learned:

   “Sales of individual comics in the United States average around $270 to $300 million per year for books usually priced at $2.99 to $3.99 at retail, available mainly at the country's estimated 1,800 to 2,000 independently owned comics stores. Graphic novels (an umbrella term for any bound edition, whether it is a collection of previously printed materials or an original work) account for another $300 to $315 million, and digital comics clocked in at $6 to $18 million, for a total market of about $625 million…, sales declined across the board from recent highs in 2008—not surprising, considering the general state of the economy. The problem is that floppy sales really can't go much lower. Most midlist titles are barely viable. Even at $3.99 per copy, books that sell less than 3,000 units at retail are hard-pressed to cover the costs of printing, distribution, and retail markup, not to mention the paychecks for the writers, artists, letterers, colorists, and editors who produce them.
   Publishers typically expect to make the money back when the poor-selling individual issues are collected in deluxe trade editions, sold through wider channels at prices ranging from $10 to $12 for basic black-and-white paperbacks to ultra-fancy "Ultimate" or "Omnibus" hardcovers that can retail for $75 or more. These have become so ubiquitous that large numbers of readers skip the monthly books altogether and "wait for the trade" to get the entire story line collected in a more convenient format.”

Salkowitz takes us into the real world.  Borders, is now closed as are many other smaller bookstores and the TPB sales will go with them. Comic book stores are not greatly profitable and if they lose even 20% of their business to digital sales, many will close. He also brings up the point I have often made to my friends: women, mothers and fathers hesitate to go to comic book stores, even if they can find them in their neighborhood.  There are always, always, a few guys that look like they are out of a Simpson’s TV show. With few comic book titles available at bookstores or at newsstands, the comic book farm team is left out.  Salkowitz also points that “newbies” can be intimidated by a zillion X-Men titles, all of which are continued from last issue and will be continued in the next.

Salkowitz takes us through the Conn’s previews, opening day, closing day and after hours and uses the convention, and it’s exhibits, to open up on discussions many subjects, including individual artists, writers, concepts and companies, including independents.  While you read the book you feel you are seeing it with him. He describes the current circumstances around characters like Superman by describing his new writer, Grant Morrison.  Most importantly, and this is how I know the book is accurate, is he discusses his adventures with my friend, Batton Lash, creator of Supernatural Law! So we learn about the convention, how it is set up, what Batton contributed and what Batton learned about publishing and distributing comics and making money off his characters. 

Yancy Streeter, Dr. Mike Vassallo had gone to the convention every year and tells stories similar to Salkowitz, in his first chapter, “Hoteloween.” Now that there are as many as 130,000 people coming (his endnotes say more like 150,000), and piping $168,000,000 into the local economy it’s hard to get a hotel room unless you book it the day it becomes available. So just making arrangements to go can be an adventure. And you only get to see about 10% of the convention, it’s big and it’s crowded and it is not all about comics, but Comic Culture. Salkowitz says, “Comics Culture is a tightly woven matrix of art and commerce.” It is the conns, movies, video games, sweatshirts, music, TV shows and specials are out there, but maybe showing its age. That is, no thinks a comic book project is instantly marketable anymore.   He sees the failure, for example in the Watchmen. It made the movie too close to the book in order to feed the comic book fans, ignoring that this was a movie, told 25 after the cold war. He also point out the failure of picking the wrong director for the Spirit, one of the worst movies I have ever seen.

No idea in this book is just thrown out there without thought and explanation. It is thoughtful and entertaining throughout. He does get back to why I don’t read new comics:

The big publishers… are stuck in a dilemma. The popular, household-name superheroes like Spider-Man and Superman are more than characters. They are brands, properties and licenses whose value is based on their familiarity. They can't change much without risking their value as recognizable icons, but without changing, they can't hold reader interest.

DC and Marvel manage their universes of superheroes through an increasingly centralized bureaucracy of executives, editors, and creative directors, sometimes plotting out story lines in detail years in advance. Artists are selected for their personal styles and have some latitude for creative expression, but writers are hired (and fired) purely for their ability to bring predetermined story lines to life and keep fans coming back issue after issue.

Individuality is gone, the corporate mentality prevails, and their goes the creativity that created these characters. Referring to “What If” the comic that ended Marvel’s single universe, in 1976, Salkowitz discusses the future scenarios of comics, both for its good and its possible failure. He says, “Comics, indeed have a digital destiny.”  This is not a prediction, but an observation that we are at the beginning of that evolution. The characters will survive, but what will be the future of comics?”


  1. There's something about an actual comicbook that its digital counterpart can never capture. Unfortunately, new readers, largely unaware of the delights of a 'physical' comic, find it easier to go down the digital route - while traditional readers (like myself) lament the decline of what seems likely to become a bygone age.

  2. Kid,

    At the end of the movie, “The Summer of ‘42” Hermie says, “Life is full of comings and goings. For everything we take with us there is something we leave behind.”

    Because of their poor distribution systems and the lack of the comic corporations to attract new great talent, the next generation will not know the thrill, or the small, of a fresh new comics filled with action, adventure and maybe a few surprises. But they also will have no need to go to back issues stores, the comics, digital, will always be on line.