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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
The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.Copyright © 2012Rob Salkowitz
All rights reserved.
DAY ZERO: HOTELOWEEN
It's a cold, rainy March day in Seattle, and my wife, Eunice, has taken the morning off to dial the same telephone number over and over until she gets through. Across the room, I am on two different computers trying to load a website that went live just seconds ago. The hourglass on the browser spins as the page starts to fill one character at a time, as if we were still in 1988 and connecting to CompuServe with a 300-baud modem.
Welcome to "Hoteloween," the term coined by comics journalist Heidi MacDonald for the dreadful day when the hotel reservation lines for the San Diego Comic- Con open. Though the show itself is still four and a half months in the future, the next moments are crucial. In a high-stakes game of musical chairs, more than a hundred thousand frenzied attendees are angling for a limited supply of discounted rooms in hotels near the San Diego Convention Center. If you don't get through in the first hour, you are likely to be stuck miles away, out in Mission Valley. If you wait more than a day, you will be lucky to get a room for the "special rack rates" that apply that week, which can run over $500 per night. Before the end of March, just about every hotel, vacation rental, catered apartment, and couch in the greater San Diego area will be reserved by fans who are willing to do anything to make it to the big show.
Securing a place to stay is just one of the many hurdles facing would-be Comic-Con attendees in recent years as the show has become the pop culture event of the summer. Tickets, hotels, airfare, onsite registration, lines that make Disneyland look like a county fairground—all these make going to Comic-Con an uncertain, frustrating, expensive, and complicated undertaking.
What's so special about Comic-Con that it generates this much crazy activity so far in advance? After all, not many people read comics these days. Sales of the bestselling titles in early 2011 topped out at half the annual attendance at Comic-Con. Even if you're a fan, there are plenty of other conventions around the country that don't require nearly the same effort and preparation.
Yet starting around 2000, attendance at the San Diego Comic-Con has skyrocketed, breaking record after record, to the point that it now takes over downtown San Diego for the better part of a week. During those five days in July, fans have been known to line up for days, sleeping on the streets just to get a chance to see one panel. Parties go on all night. Entire blocks are transformed by giant floats, banners, and structures erected just for Con-time. Every year, the Con is accompanied by thousands of reports of different aspects of the proceedings that amount to a room full of blind men describing an elephant. Even when you separate the signal from the noise, there is still so much signal that it is impossible to get a clear reading on what just happened.
Comic books and Comic-Con alone are not responsible for this; comics culture is. Comics culture is the blend of superheroes, animation, movies, video games, television shows, art, fashion, toys, accessories, and personalities that has emerged as the result of a postmillennial convergence of media and the concurrent explosion of online channels for connecting fans with the objects of their fandom.
Comics culture is a tightly woven matrix of art and commerce. Extending out in one direction is the "comics as art form" continuum, in which the medium of graphic storytelling (pictures in sequence with text) is applied in all kinds of formats (comic books, webcomics, graphic novels, comic strips) and all kinds of styles (minimalist, "mainstream," fine art) to tell all kinds of stories, from superheroes to satire to autobiography to political commentary. The other path heads toward "comics as genre," where the distinctive graphic look and storytelling elements associated specifically with superhero comic books, such as plot-driven continuity, the creation of entire fictional universes, and the predominance of supernatural and power-fantasy motifs, have taken hold in other media like film, television, and video games.
Over the past 20 years, comics have expanded in both the artistic and commercial dimensions, moving from the fringes of the high culture and entertainment worlds to the centers of both. The comics art form has been embraced by some of the most serious and accomplished creators working today all around the world. Comics aesthetics and comics genres, especially superheroes, are mainstays of the entertainment industry, responsible for billions in revenues across various media and through various licensing tie-ins.
The appeal of comics-related subject matter, whether it is fantasy-based, humorous, or in a more literary style, is rooted in the medium's unique use of words and pictures to tell stories. Comics are catnip to consciousness. They engage us at multiple levels: through stylized visuals; through narration; through their ability to create convincing, self-contained worlds; through the way they make preposterous characters and situations more real and plausible than everyday life; and through the distortions of time and space that are possible only with the medium of sequential art.
The simplicity and accessibility of the comics medium appeals to kids who might be too young to read the words, but who can follow the story through pictures. The fanciful story lines capture young imaginations, especially when they are reinforced across media through cartoons, video games, and prose fiction in comics-type genres (fantasy, mystery, heroic adventure, and so on). Comics exert a powerful allure for older folks who remember them basted in the glow of nostalgia. Graphic novels, webcomics, and manga (Asian-style comics, typically embracing a wider range of genres) engage readers who have no interest in traditional comics subjects.
The power of the medium combines with the curious history of comics in the United States to create irresistible intrigue for certain kinds of people. Comics themselves are full of details and story points to amuse obsessives. Every artist has a unique approach to storytelling, layout, and rendering, giving the connoisseur much to appreciate. Comics are sequentially numbered, making them easy to catalog, giving them a built-in appeal for completists and collectors. Publishers and creators are the subject of gossip and lore; real insiders know the stories. Even comics fandom has a history. All of this renders the world of comics more than a hobby and more than a category of "media content." In terms of stickiness—that intangible factor that keeps the audience coming back for more, so desirable in today's attention-deficit world—the medium makes superglue seem like Teflon. That extra richness is what makes comics important in the wider spectrum of entertainment media, and what makes the adaptation and evolution of comics so problematic.
Comics fandom transcends economic class, race, region, educational attainment, and (despite stereotypes) gender. For decades before the mainstreaming of comics and nerd culture, those who remained fans beyond childhood tended to be intellectuals, autodidacts, and outsiders whose peculiar interests turned out to be well suited to the emerging information economy. A disproportionately large number of creative professionals are or were involved in some aspect of comics culture at some point in their lives. This secret army of comics fans includes sleeper cells throughout the entertainment, marketing, high-tech, and media industries who signal their affiliations by subtle and overt means, ranging from the occasional adept use of comics-tinged imagery to the advocacy of comics- oriented projects "done right" (as fans would want the
Excerpted from Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture by ROB SALKOWITZ. Copyright © 2012 by Rob Salkowitz. Excerpted by permission of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc..
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