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Book Review: Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture by Rob Salkowitz

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Though I’ve been a comic book lover for decades and have attended my share of midwest and east coast conventions, I’ve never been to the grandest con of them all, San Diego’s Comic-Con. All things financial considered, I don’t see myself attending it any time soon in the future either, but like many stay-at-home fans, I won’t stop reading the on-line reportage once the event kick-starts.

Timed for release ahead of this year’s Comic-Con, Rob Salkowitz’ Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture (McGraw Hill) is designed to provoke plenty of thoughtful panel talk about this monolithic pop cultural event, its role in the broader entertainment industry as well as the future of the medium that sparked its existence in the first: the humble floppy comic book. Salkowitz approaches his topic as both a business analyst and a longtime fanboy—and he shows a commendable breadth of knowledge about both the medium and the somewhat clannish fan culture. Though he grew up on superhero comics, he is capable of discussing alternative/literary comics, manga, digital comics, et al. As such, the man balances a futurist’s focus on the  struggling comics industry with an amused appreciation of the medium’s history and the workings of what’s become “the world’s wildest trade show.”

Accompanied by his wife Eunice—herself a fan with her own distinct interests— Salkowitz takes us on a day-by-day trek through the 2011 Comic-Con, describing its functions as an archival celebration of comics history, a p.r. hub where Hollywood and game companies unleash their promo hounds for an ultra-critical fan audience, a marketplace where artists and dealers try to score big sales (and discerning collectors try to score that one item that’ll make their collection complete—at least for a moment) and a forum where industry folk and their readers consider the future of the medium they love.

As Salkowitz repeatedly makes clear throughout his book, at this point in history, comics’ flagship format—the 32-page floppy—is struggling to stay alive. Currently dependent on the gasping direct market as repped by funky little comics shops across the U.S. along with the big bucks optioning of Hollywood studios, the “mainstream” comics industry is in a tenuous position. As with the rest of the publishing industry, the digital wave of tablets and e-readers has made the business end of the industry confusing. And as Salkowitz points out, the major comics companies—perhaps feeling cushioned by their movie moneys—have been calamitously cautious about embracing the digital.

To be sure, there are doubtless members of the alt comics community with little allegiance to the mainstream that wouldn’t be bothered by a future without the big guys. But those of us who value greater diversity in our comics—or still hold a nostalgic attachment to the Marvel and DC comics of our youth—will doubtless find it troubling. To be sure, a good number of the current Comic-Con attendees would.

But Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture is not just devoted to potential doom-y scenarios. It also takes in the con’s celebratory nature: the costumes, the near encyclopedic appreciation of favorite titles and creators, plus other manifestations of nerd culture. “My aim in this book is to balanced color and insight, personal passion and analytical observation,” Salkowitz notes at the outset, and to a large extent he succeeds. He describes the most visual aspects of the event without indulging in any cheapshot caricaturizing. Through the course of the book, we get to meet several major creative players in the field (superstar comics writer Grant Morrison, witty indy creator Batton Lash, former underground comix publisher Denis Kitchen, the Inevitable Stan Lee) along with thoughtful comics bloggers like Heidi MacDonald. The book takes in as much of the scope of Comic-Con as it can, so its fannish beginnings as a celebration of nearly forgotten Golden Age artists is recognized alongside panel presentations on web comics.

And, of course, we can’t forget the other major manifestation of Comic-Con: its role as a publicity springboard for upcoming comic-tied movie and game releases. Salkowitz has some fun at the expense of Hollywood beautiful people all coming out to woo the fans, rhapsodizing about their perhaps invented early geek love of comics, though he’s clear-sighted in considering both the pros and cons of this cross-media relationship. More than anything, the Hollywood connection has been a factor in Comic-Con’s growth, though there are doubtless some old guard con-goers who look fondly back to the good old days.

For them, the writer offers one of four possible futures for Comic-Con 2017: one in which “the digital thing went bust and Hollywood moved on,” yet comics survived and “returned to the people who love it.” That’s a pretty picture for many of us geezerly geeks, but whether we make it to Earth-One, -Two, -Three or -Four is dependent on market and economic variables that even the most thorough futurist can’t fully predict. For those who want to ponder the foreseeable possibilities, though Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture makes for some entertainingly thoughtful reading.

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About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.