Master Of The Obvious: Issue #55

Wed, August 16th, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

Had a conversation with an internet startup last week.

I've had this chat before, with other startups. Same chat each time. It starts with them asking me for material I really want to do, and ends with them asking about franchise material. The franchise: the golden fleece of modern American pop culture. Also known, courtesy of some Internet idiot savant, as "sticky content," that magical substance that will guarantee an audience time and time again, and which, in a perfect world, they'll ultimately be willing to pay for. (Currently thought in some circles, for some reason, to be children's ephemera like cute little puzzles.)

Online comics companies don't seem to have hipped to the only true "sticky content" (in more ways than one) on the web: porn. If they really want to make money they'll dump all the Cadillac Cowboys and Cyberduck and whatever, and just produce porn. Ka-ching.

But it's not just internet startups. It's everyone.

The concept of the franchise has distended culture beyond belief. It's the McDonalds concept of popular art: make it cozy, bland, familiar, relatively cheap, and as marginally nutritious as possible, and sell gobs of it. The McDonalds concept makes a lot of sense, for fast food restaurants. People pay you for the use of your trademark, and you manage standards and practices, making your profit skimming off the top, and everywhere across the land, across the world, when you see those Golden Arches, you know what you're in for; while the product of individual McDonalds restaurants is hamburger, the product of the McDonalds corporation is their public image. They make their money off their name. (It's a dirty little secret just how much McDonalds depends on the toys in their kids' Happy Meals, but we'll let that go.)

"Online comics companies don't seem to have hipped to the only true "sticky content" (in more ways than one) on the web: porn."

But McDonalds has one advantage pop culture doesn't: people have to eat. If all you want is to fill up a family for relatively little cash, it's hard to beat.

Whereas, culture. More specifically, media: magazines, radio, TV, movies, comic books, the music industry, even newspapers, and now the Internet. All ephemeral. Not one of them is necessary to our existence. Sure, you might pleasantly while away an hour watching TOUCHED BY AN ANGEL (if a coma's your idea of a good time, anyway) but if the show vanished tomorrow - if CBS vanished - if the whole concept of television itself vanished tomorrow - you'd get along just fine. You might not like it, and those potential serial killers currently short-circuited by mind-numbing doses of JUST SHOOT ME and THE McLAUGHLIN GROUP might get to be a problem, but life would go on. And that's the terror that lurks in the recesses of the heart of every comics publisher, of every Hollywood producer, every Internet startup: what they produce is not needed. What we produce is not needed. What I produce is not needed. This column is not needed.

Not on any basic level of existence.

That doesn't mean what's produced isn't worthwhile, or that all that labor is wasted. But it's entertainment. Enforcedly entertainment. No one in our culture is really much interested in art, even those who purport to make a living from it, nor is it clear what qualifies as art anymore. "Art" is now usually a term trotted out to paradoxically lend importance and credibility, to rationalize away lack of attention ("of course they don't like it, it's art!"), or to justify exorbitant prices. (An amusing bit in Tim Robbins' recent CRADLE WILL ROCK, set against the labor turbulence of the 30s, has Nelson Rockefeller, recently stung by a mural from pro-Communist Mexican artist Diego Rivera, conspiring with Wm. Randolph Hearst - "my papers will review them and tell everyone they're good, Nelson" - to henceforth patronize only abstract art which carries no intrinsic meaning and therefore can be considered socially unthreatening.)

Psychologist Abraham Maslow developed in the 40s and 50s a hierarchical theory of human motivation, or human needs. From bottom to top, the pyramid goes: physiological needs (food); security (shelter); belonging and love; and esteem. Only when lower needs are fulfilled are higher needs taken into account in most instances, in Maslow's estimation. (Maslow also postulated a fifth level - self-actualization - which is where the artist comes in, and the informed and progressive "receiver": the need to know, learn and create. But that's about the last thing franchisers want to consider.)

If the need for entertainment fits anywhere, it's with esteem. Entertainment means escape from boredom, and boredom undermines sense of well-being. Here, in theory, is also where franchises come in.

The problem with entertainment is that it's fleeting. All other things being equal, the unfamiliar entertains more than the familiar. The familiar becomes boring with repetition. Why moan about the vapidity of The Backstreet Boys when their (cultural) lifespan is only marginally longer than that of the common housefly? (When was the last time you heard Hanson mentioned apart from SPACE GHOST reruns?) Britney Spears, exemplar of everything mechanical and insipid in modern bubblegum music, is already reduced to cheesy bump-and-grind routines in concert to project an interesting image. It's only a matter of time before she's wetting down her hair and making goo-goo eyes in softcore men's magazines. They'll all be suing their ex-managers in four years. And these "icons of pop" have already far outlived most recent TV shows and comic books.

Content, in modern parlance, doesn't mean story, art, thought-provoking material, tear-provoking material, none of that. It doesn't mean what you think it means. It means: that which makes a thing look newer than it did the last time we did it. In internet jargon, this column is "content." It may entertain, some may find it intellectually stimulating, it may anger others, or bore them, or leave them exasperated at its unbridled pretentiousness. But none of that makes it content. It's content because you came back to see what was different from last week.

"[Content] means: that which makes a thing look newer than it did the last time we did it. In internet jargon, this column is "content.""

As far as anyone who finances culture cares, that's all that really matters. If you come back, the theory goes, someday you'll pay for the right to come back. Or you might. Maybe. (No, Jonah's not turning CBR into pay-per-view. It's just an example.) If viewing becomes habitual enough, MASTER OF THE OBVIOUS becomes a brand name. (It's already a trademark.) T-shirts, baseball caps, shotglasses. Ring it up. Your love give me such a thrill, but your love won't pay my bills - I want money.

Bingo. A franchise.

The whole idea of a franchise is to bump past that fourth level esteem thing into Maslow's third level: belongingness. The franchise is the thing that you identify with, that your cultural self-image revolves around. Being there every Thursday night to watch FRIENDS. Buying SPIDER-MAN even though you haven't liked it in years. Standing in line for 5 weeks for the latest tepid dilution of STAR TREK at the theaters. In pop culture, whatever creates a reflex response to fork over money or attention is a franchise.

So everyone wants franchises. But in playing to the Maslow's third level, franchises are diametrically opposed to fourth level needs; a sense of belonging requires stability, and glacial change if any. They feed conservative paranoia: a terror that the franchise might go away, or that it might change into Not The Franchise, something that challenges or undermines the sense of belonging.

In comics, this is a particular problem. Franchises are the game now. What companies, whether online or in print, want is something they can peddle as action figures, videogames, movies, cartoons, underoos, etc.

There are always going to be franchises. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with them. But you can't "create" franchises, in most cases. (People do get lucky, as with MIGHTY MORPHIN' POWER RANGERS, which is pretty much petered out as a franchise now.) Any real franchise, anything with staying power, has to come out of material, not the other way around. The obsession with franchises is an expression of the rampant "something for nothing" mentality of money players in this business: maximum profit for minimum risk, regardless of intelligent behavior.

Did Ian Fleming conceive of James Bond as the franchise he is today? Or was he just lucky enough to write stories that caught on (with the help of John Kennedy, who said he read them, and Sean Connery, who gave them an iconography)? Raymond Chandler didn't intend Philip Marlowe to be a household name, he was just writing some short stories and a book, trying to write a character he liked. Dashiell Hammett only wrote one THIN MAN novel, and one Sam Spade. Humphrey Bogart made Sam Spade a franchise, and Spade made Bogart a franchise, and Hammett only came back to write more Spade stories when the Spade franchise was firmly established through film and radio and he needed the money.

"The obsession with franchises is an expression of the rampant "something for nothing" mentality of money players in this business…"

Mass media has sped things up, but these things still have to develop naturally. It's hard to remember now that STAR WARS didn't become a franchise because of the hype, because there was no hype. The studio didn't hold out much hope for it. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko didn't create Spider-Man as a franchise, they were just trying to keep their jobs.

Most characters don't deserve to be franchises, but that doesn't invalidate the stories they're in. It doesn't make them bad stories. It's not unusual for writers to use up all the interesting aspects of characters in a single story, and that doesn't make them bad stories. Would being a franchise character make Hamlet any more interesting? It really wasn't until the penny dreadfuls of the late 1800s (the same place comics gets its anemic definition of "hero" from) that the concept of the recurring character even arises in modern fiction. (Even in mythology, where many stories are told about a hero - mostly by accrual - the hero usually has a specific finite storyline from birth to death.) The franchise is a commercial gimmick generated by mass media that demand to be fed.

It has gotten to ridiculous levels. I've had fans tell me very seriously that they don't want to buy mini-series without recurring characters because they don't want to get emotionally involved with characters they'll never see again. But way too often writers run out of interesting things to say about characters or interesting things to say with the characters, but publishers keep trying to beat franchises out of the characters anyway. Which only exacerbates the work-for-hire mentality, the concept that the continued existence and marketability of the character is more important than the stories.

And it skews the business against stories that don't fit the franchise mold, though those stories are most likely to present something genuinely new, something that would upend reader boredom and create genuine excitement. It from these that tomorrow's true franchises are most likely to organically grow. But that shouldn't be our focus. Stories should exist for the sake of the stories, and whatever else grows out of them grows or it doesn't. By an insistence on continuing characters, on familiar characters, on ancillary market sales instead of on the stories, the real content, by treating the core material as if it's virtually irrelevant byproduct in a war for hearts and minds and wallets, we're strangling our own future in the crib.

Rumor has it X-MAN #68 is out this week. As this has been acclaimed as both "the X-book for people who hate X-books" and arguments have been breaking out over whether it qualifies as a superhero book, you might enjoy it. If you're not already reading it. You certainly owe it to yourself to find out, anyway.

Also, last week's announcement that I'm reviving WHISPER, my crank political action-adventure series of the 80s, in a graphic novel next year garnered tons and tons of e-mails. Thanks, everyone; the first news brief goes out early September. If you're interested, sign up here (and only here) to be put on the WHISPER PROPAGANDA BUREAU MAILING LIST for updates on the progress of the project.

Lots of new material on @VENTURE the all-fiction online pulp magazine of the 21st century, including more Anna Passenger by Adi Tantimedh, more Comeback by Michel Lacombe, more Hodag by Mike Baron, and more Tequila by me. Plus an assortment of short stories from the likes of Scot Snow, Nat Gertler and Christopher Mills. Read.

My info site, Steven Grant's ALLEGED FICTIONS has moved and been redesigned. On the site is a bio, selected bibliography, script samples, writing advice, a comics art test, a cover gallery, up to the minute news on my projects, and sundry other items.

Question of the week at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board: do you now or have you ever consumed comic books on the basis of the publisher name? In other words, did you ever buy virtually any Marvel comic that came out because Marvel published it? Do new ABC titles go on your list automatically? Would you marry Dark Horse if you had the chance? If so, explain. If you used to and don't anymore, why did you abandon that behavior? If you never did buy on that basis, can you envision a situation wherein you would? Which is several questions, I know. But they're all really the same question. Tell me. Now.

Whatever questions you might have about me can probably be answered with a quick trip to Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions. You can also express your own views at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board, or send me mail. Bear in mind that while I read all my mail, time constrains me from replying in most cases. Thanks.

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