Tilting at Windmills

Thu, January 20th, 2011 at 11:58pm PST | Updated: January 21st, 2011 at 6:12am

Comic Books
Brian Hibbs, Staff Writer

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CULTURE SHRIFT

I didn't think I was writing a column this month.

It happens from time to time -- this column is number one hundred and ninety-nine, and I really do run out of things to say on occasion -- plus we're in January, which is always a rough month for me, work-wise: I'm totally bushed after the strong sales of the holiday season, and I have to do once-a-year stuff like putting together my accounting for the entire year. Plus, my source has given me the BookScan numbers for last year, and it takes me 6-ish weeks to assemble all of that into (next month's) annual column on what the book market for comics is looking like. And so on. So I thought "yeah, let's skip one."

But then I was hanging about the store, chatting with my fellow Savage Critic Jeff Lester, and the subject turned to Patton Oswalt's recent column for Wired magazine, where he discussed how Geek Culture is changing in the face of "Etewaf" (or: "Everything That Ever Was -- Available Forever")

Jeff and I both thought it was an intriguing think piece, but that Patton (in Jeff's words) "Failed to stick the landing."

Well, I don't know that I can necessarily do any better, but I realized that, at least, I had supporting anecdote, much of which is in entirely different direction because I have a small child now (Ben, my son, is seven years old), and that I thought I might be able to tie it into what's happening in our specific comic book industry -- that comes towards the bottom of the column, but stick with it, I think it is worth it.

In fact, I'd been thinking about something a few weeks before which is nearly the inverse of Patton's thought. I was thinking about how language changes over time. How the meaning of words, and almost certainly their pronunciation, changes and mutates over time. The most extreme example might come in reading Chaucer, the 14th century author of "The Canterbury Tales". Here's just a quick random selection:

Whan that Arcite to Thebes comen was,
Ful ofte a day he swelte and seyde `Allas,'
For seen his lady shal he nevere mo;
And shortly to concluden al his wo,
So muche sorwe hadde nevere creature,
That is, or shal whil that the world may dure.
His slep, his mete, his drynke is hym biraft,
That lene he wex and drye as is a shaft.

That's slightly incomprehensible to the average modern reader, I'd say!

The question, which I'm not sure if it can be answered exactly because there certainly aren't any recordings from this time, is if you invented a time machine and found yourself in 14th century England, would you be able to verbally understand the natives, and they you?

One reason (as I understand it at least, being no linguist) is that language changes over time in part due to geographical separation -- the people in New England lived days or weeks of travel away from the people who lived in Texas, so regional dialects appear because the two different "cultures" are separate from one another, with few opportunities to intermingle.

Modern transportation makes that geographical distance much less meaningful -- one can go from Dallas to Cape Cod in a quarter of a day at most now, so I'd imagine that "new" regional differences in American English will be fewer and farther between in the future. But, even more so, we now have culture permanently recorded, and available globally. If I'm learning English, and I live in China, I no longer (in theory, in theory) would need to travel large distances or do extraordinary things to hear native English speakers speak English natively -- I can just pop a DVD of "Friends" into the player and listen and learn how English is spoken, absolutely in the context of daily use. (as opposed to, say, the more formal language of poetry which has survived the centuries in Chaucer or Shakespeare)

So, this notion made me think that if our time machine guy decided to go 600 years into the future (rather than into Chaucer's past), it would seem reasonable to me to assume that the sound of language will have changed significantly less.

Now, obviously words and meaning will still change and shift as time passes -- in 1941 "I'm gay!" has a terrifically different meaning than it does in 2011 -- and of course we're constantly inventing new words: that person in 1941 probably wouldn't have a clue what I mean if I tell them "I've just downloaded the new podcast to my iPhone!" but it seems to me that we're less likely to change the sound and spelling of words over time now that we have an actual record of what our predecessors sounded like, and that geographical differences are "meaningless".

(Here's where a cunning linguist will go onto the talkback thread and tell me 27 reasons I'm utterly wrong)

These are the kinds of thoughts I get in the shower.

Like I said, this is almost the inverse of Patton's thoughts but it comes from the same place, what Patton calls "Etewaf" (Again: "Everything That Ever Was -- Available Forever")

I see first hand, through the eyes of my son, aspects of Etewaf.

Let's try this example: when I was 11 years old, "Star Wars" was released to the movie theatres. That film impacted an entire generation of kids. Still to this day I vividly remember playing Star Wars with my friends in the neighborhood (I wanted to be Han, but I had to be Luke because I was blond -- while Luke was pretty cool with his rope lines in his pocket, and his light saber, it still meant you had to Kiss the Princess, and at 11, girls are still cootie-filled creatures. Yuck!)

"Star Wars" was important to us in a way I can't explain to my son. And it was that way because you had to make a serious effort to even see it in the first place. Man, you had to go to the movie theatre. That cost money, that took effort, that took convincing parents to take you (at least to the door, if not inside), that took planning and co-ordination. I don't remember for sure, but I believe that I managed to pull it all off 3, maybe 4 times in that first theatrical release. On the second and later trips me and all of my friends were watching it nearly desperately, trying to memorize every scene and line of dialogue as it whizzed past at 32 frames a second. If you had to go to the bathroom during the showing? Man, you just held it, no matter how much it hurt! And we discussed it, crazily, obsessively with our friends: "Wow, that part was cool when such and such happened!" "No, first they did this, then they did that!" "Oh, right, right, then he said this!," just trying to desperately keep every frame of the film in our heads.

There was no Home Theatre then. No VCRs in most of our homes, no DVRs. Your brain was the only recording device for anything other than sound. ( Here's a link to a column from last year where I discuss trying to desperately find something I had only ever seen once as a child)

Now we're in 2011, and, while I haven't kept track exactly, I'm sure my 7-year old Ben has already seen the first "Star Wars" movie more than I did before I turned 12. All he needs to do is walk over to the bookshelf and pull it down (well, metaphorically speaking -- we still control and limit Ben's TV time). Heck, if he cared about such things, he even gets a choice in my house of DVD version and Han-Shot-First video cassette release.

In theory, he has 24 hour a day access to it. He could watch 20 minutes of it today, and another half an hour of it tomorrow if he wanted. If he has to go pee, he presses the pause button, and does so. If he wanted to get the exact dialogue, or watch a scene again, you just press another button to rewind it. And that's cool, man is that cool! But it, I think, changes our relationship to the art.

Ben really really is into Star Wars...but he's into it as a brand, not as a specific film. He's almost certainly more into Clone Wars (Probably because that's giving him new content weekly, for 13 or 26 weeks or whatever a season is) than he is into "Star Wars" specifically (I really refuse to call it ":A New Hope", or, even worse, "Episode 4", sorry) -- and when Ben's friends in the schoolyard play Star Wars, they're playing Star Wars generally, in the "whole universe" of it, rather than all of the kids my age doing "The further adventures of Luke, Han, and Leia" that summer.

(And can I add in here just how weird it is to me to watch all of the kids running around wanting to play Anakin? In my heart I just scream "No, no, he's Darth Vader, beware!" Lucas convinced an entire generation of children to want to be the villain of the story)

(And, actually, while I'm digressing, let me throw in here that I'm now convinced, as an adult, that "my" trilogy is actually about the Fall of Luke Skywalker -- he goes from White to Grey to Black as the films move on, he always does exactly the opposite of what his teachers tell him, always to bad results, and at the end of Jedi when the Emperor screams at him to strike in anger and give in to the Dark Side, what does Luke do? Yup, strike in anger. Anyway…)

Ben certainly likes the first film, but he doesn't have the kind of obsessive relationship with it that a lot of my generation still has.

It's like that with a lot of the media he wants to consume, really.

I blew his mind, I mean literally he-didn't-understand-what-I-was-talking-about when I tried to explain Saturday Morning cartoons to him. How we all used to purposefully wake up before our parents on Saturday mornings to watch that 4-6 hour block of shows because it was our time. That for kids of my generation (and my parent's generation for that matter), there were precisely proscribed times to watch cartoons because they weren't on at any other time. How we would all swoon for the Fall Previews issue of TV Guide (what's that?) so we could plan out our viewing. How if you missed a show, that was it, you missed it, you might not ever ever see it again, and if that's what every kid was discussing the next day, well, you just weren't part of that conversation.

We didn't have DVDs, or On Demand, or Hulu or YouTube. We didn't have DVRs, where we just record everything we want to watch and watch it on our terms. And we certainly couldn't just turn the TV on 24 hours a day and have a choice of which of five different cartoon shows we might want to watch "live"! Cartoons, Science Fiction, these things have networks now, not tiny little blocks of time.

In discussing all of this Jeff Lester reminded me that none of us actually liked, say, "Buck Rogers" with Gil Gerard, but all of us geeky kids religiously watched it each week because it was all of the Science Fiction we could get.

Now, Jeff's position was that, no, today is better, because it meant that Sci-Fi and Fantasy and Cartoons have to be better now. Nobody would really bother to watch "Buck Rogers" today because you have so so many better options, and it forces creators to really up their game.

Me, I'm less sure that's inherently good, because the availability of everything, or Patton's Etewaf, means that it is that much harder for new creators to bring fresh ideas to market because expectations are constantly increasing.

From the major Entertainment companies POV, they're naturally more inclined to try and create franchises and brands, and to do things to try and sustain those franchises and brands than to inherently create a new interesting idea (or even a new and interesting take on an old idea) -- because, ultimately, especially if you fall into a "hot" brand, all of the money you generate from toys and clothes and kickknacks are more meaningful than the creation that caused you to have the interest in the objects in the first place.

I see it with Ben's generation -- he takes his entertainment choices less seriously than my age group did, because he's utterly spoilt for choice. There's significantly more hours of things we'd consider "geek/pop culture" any given week than any single person could consume, it's no longer possible to watch/read/hear it all. And that's just the new stuff coming out, not even counting the hundreds of thousands of hours of stuff from the past you could enjoy.

And because all of it is so widely available, the nature of our relationship with it has clearly changed. Once upon a time I used to think "I must watch every new sci-fi/comics related show on TV", then it became "I must try every new sci-fi/comics related show on TV" then it became "I must try anything related to comics...and maybe any sci-fi stuff I hear is good" and so on and so forth, becoming weaker and less committed with each iteration.

As Patton correctly notes, Etewaf yields "Weak Otaku", but the great paradox he doesn't touch is that this also makes the objects of our geek love that much weaker. Why? Because what were previously stories have now become very powerful brands... and a brand is perceived as having value in and of itself, detached from the "story". And, of course, to a multi-national corporation, that's clearly true -- but to us, as consumers, it often, in essence, sells out the very thing that we loved in the first place.

We live in a world where the music network hasn't shown music in almost a decade, because the "brand" of "MTV" is more important than the music that "made" that brand. We live in a world where The Cartoon Network shows live action comedies, where the Science Fiction network shows things that aren't remotely connected to science fiction.

And it leads to a world where the new Editor-in-Chief for Marvel comics has this to say (this is a great interview, by the way, click through!)

ALONSO: I wish it weren't the case but the fact of the matter is the sure fire way to spike a monthly title is to tie it in [to a larger event]. The zeitgeist of the day is determined by the man or woman who goes into the comics store on Wednesday, and they want to know [the story] counts. And the only way they know it counts is for other people to say it counts because it's tied in to the bigger title.

Comics have become a part of the "greater mindscape" of Pop Culture, which is something that we all wanted to happen, but along with that we're feeding into the same kinds of overproduction of culture which makes it that much harder for any individual piece to stand out and succeed on its own.

I'd submit to you that most of the most exciting pieces of comics, at least in the Direct Market era, are the bits where we let maverick creators be mavericks -- in the mainstream superhero market, I'm thinking of Moore on "Swamp Thing", Miller on "Daredevil", Simonson on "Thor", runs like that -- but that level of passion the creators bring doesn't necessarily play very well with the drive to spike sales to their highest possible level.

Think of, say, the Raimi Spider-Man films. Two of them were terrific, but the third is hopelessly marred by what appears to be the outwardly-mandated insertion of the Venom storyline. You could tell that Raimi wasn't thrilling on that storyline and character, and we assume that that kind of creative interference is the reason that the next Spidey film is going to "reboot" the "franchise", without Raimi involved at all. I'm sure this will make fine money for the producers (and, as I recall, "Spider-Man 3" was actually the biggest grosser of the three films), and it can't help but sell more Spider-Man pajamas and nightlights, but this process doesn't seem like it will inherently created a thrilling piece of art as a natural process. It sure didn't in the case of Spider-Man 3.

So yes, the sure-fire way to spike up circulation on a book is to tie it into something that is bannered and discussed as "counting", but the drawback is that the "outside mandate" of "counting" only works to the point where the underlying idea is creatively strong, and where the consumer hasn't gotten cynical about the very nature of the "event driven" culture. That is to say that because it isn't humanly possible to keep topping oneself in a universe-spanning story, eventually the consumer goes "you shouted ‘wolf' one too many times" and moves on to the next piece of Etewaf that catches their eye.

Etewaf implies that you start to compete against the best of all things, because attention is the only commodity that matters any longer. For comics, that means that if the consumer has ready access to "Watchmen" and "Maus" and "Dark Knight" and "Love & Rockets" and you name it going all the way back to 1938, then you have to be at least as compelling as "Watchmen," etc. to expect that customers will want and find you.

When I have a store full of hundreds of hours of compelling, fascinating reads in the Etewaf form of graphic novels, the monthly comics experience has to be at least as good as what's wrapped up in spines for the consumer to want it. While the "serialized itch" is a great one to inculcate in the reader (I'd rather be scratching that itch once a month on a "Walking Dead" than having to wait six months between bites on the TPs, personally), it does "have to count".

Here's the deal though: the trick is to make it count because it actually counts, not because you have something on the outside saying that it counts. "Civil War" sold better than "House of M" sold better than "Siege" which is likely to sell better than "Fear Itself" -- by constantly going back to the crossover well, you're the one telling customers it only "counts" when it's bannered on the cover.

To me, the better thing to do is to make "everything count" by not producing that what doesn't "count" in the first place; not by trying to produce more places to say, "Hey, this one counts; no really!" because diminishing returns begin to kick in; that is to say the consumer translates "this counts!" as, "Ah, Wolf!"

Axel's definition of what "counts" (at least in the context of this interview -- that may not be "his belief"!) appears to be based on the idea that what "counts" must matter to the larger Marvel Universe (which is really too big by its nature to have a cohesive throughline anymore) as opposed to the idea that what "counts" must come from the story of the talent of the creator. Alonso is obviously a champion of the story and the creator (or, at least, has been previously) but the sales that tie back into the brand tend to grow weaker with each iteration -- that is because they're being sold as strengthening the Marvel Universe's story, when it's really just using the idea of story as a brand... which is why there are diminishing returns in periodical comics sales in the first place!

(And, no, Marvel is nowhere near alone in that regard -- Didio's DC perpetually faces the same problem)

Either way, the fractionalizing of markets because of overproduction (be it the old school "Marvel Zombie" becoming "[Franchise] Zombie" becoming "[Character] Zombie" becoming "ex-reader"; or be it The Cartoon Network showing reruns of "The Office") is a necessary (if unwanted) byproduct of Etewaf. Because of that first "E" -- Everything.

Everything That Ever Was -- Available Forever, means "everything", not "only the tippest of the toppest" -- there's so much out there to consume, it all becomes a formless mass. One way to succeed in that mass is, as Patton fears, to pander to and self-reference the Eteaf (which, generally, creates more formless muck in the end), the other way, the better way to my way of thinking (and no doubt to the health of my own business) is encourage mavericks to take more chances, to do new ideas and fresh takes, and to stay as far out of their way as you can while they do it even as you support them with all of your toil.

That's what I think, as least.

It isn't easy, and it takes more effort -- but you actually get passionate stories then, not just brand extensions, and reinventions and mash-ups. Again, the currency of the consumer is actually attention, which implies that the goods of the creator is really passion.

Passion is everything, passion makes strong Otaku, and passion is almost never actually and truly towards the brand...but rather the individual components within it. It is easy to confuse, but I think there's a clear difference between the two.

Next month: column #200, and BookScan 2010!

Brian Hibbs has owned and operated Comix Experience in San Francisco since 1989, and is a founding member of the Board of Directors of ComicsPRO, the Comics Professional Retailer Organization. Feel free to e-mail him with any comments. You can purchase a collection of the first one hundred Tilting at Windmills (originally serialized in Comics Retailer magazine) from IDW Publishing. An Index of v2 of Tilting at Windmills may be found here. (but you have to insert "classic." before all of the resulting links)

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