Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

April 25, 2010

Two Wider Cultural Conversations That May Remind You Of Comics

* The first conversation that's been reminding me of comics lately is a bit obtuse, so I'll ask you forgive me in advance. I'm getting at this too late to be able to offer a link to the essay that started it all, but what basically happened is that perhaps in order to goose interest in his 2005 book The Fall Of Rome, the historian Bryan Ward-Perkins wrote an essay comparing the current recession to the financial difficulties facing Fifth Century Rome. There are a lot of fascinating blog posts ricocheting off of that piece for Financial Times -- now behind a firewall -- such as this one here. In broad terms, and it's the broadest definitions that are the most useful for our purposes, Ward-Perkins describes a general relationship between complexity created through growth and a resulting fragility that isolates elements of the market and makes other much more susceptible to outside intrusion.

imageThe only huge, complex economic system with which I have a daily relationship is the comics industry's Direct Market While it's admittedly absurd to compare the empires of Caesar and Geppi in too many ways, I think it's worth asking just how fragile the DM is due to factors of complexity: its byzantine structure, say, the at-once gigantic spread of publications and formats it's supposed to serve and tiny gradations between certain products -- this comic here is for fans of Wolverine, while this one is for fans of dark Wolverine -- it's asked to honor. There may be something to how the DM historically has suffered some of its most severe hits during times of rapid expansion (the black and white boom, Deathmate), and that you can count on one hand those events that seem to have greatly benefited the system in recent years (Watchmen post-trailer boom; Obama comic books).

So what does that all portend? Not much, but it may provide an intellectual framework for judging future moves within that market -- that simplifying and streamlining the process may be more important than adding greater structure and more rules. For instance, as the market struggles with the possibility of street dates, it may react better in terms of deciding to use one basic model instead of sorting through a dozen possibilities. That eventual policy may come into being without a complex enforcement element. At any rate, any notion that can nudge the comics industry in the direction of risk assessment and testing for strength in ways other than how much money gets delivered to the various big-company overlords has to be a good thing.

* The second conversation that's reminded me of comics is a bit more straightforward: Christopher R. Weingarten's yearly appearance to scream at people about how various actors have reacted to a change in technology by becoming more crass and numbers-obsessed. It's an entertaining and for most folks probably annoying short speech with a lot of f-bombs in it. When the writer Sean Collins brought it to my attention he did so by comparing it to a rant-style employed by not a few writers-about-comics out there. You know who you are.

imageComics isn't where music is for a lot of reasons. For one thing, I imagine it's harder to get a bunch of hard-headed oddballs to follow trends than it is writers about other forms, forms that tend to attract more rational folks for a slew of more rational reasons up to and including the possibility of reward. Getting writers to do something is herding cats, getting writers about comics to do something is casting cats in a stage performance of Arcadia. And yet anyone who refuses to see at least one thing in comics that relates to something in that speech is either lying or wool-hat stupid. Nor is it much of a leap to see how things could get a lot more like the music industry as the bigger companies take a renewed interest in protecting/maximizing their respective catalogs; it's already a different game for the book publishers and their imprints involved. The acts of reporting and criticism being compelled to become commodities is a show that's constantly on stage, I'm not immune to it, and maximizing traffic was certainly much more on the minds of the folks attending the comics coverage panel I saw earlier this year than any qualitative issue.

I don't think the problem is so bad that comics folks have to chop their way out, not yet, but it might be worth taking a look at some of the benign-looking vines that have popped up around the camp site. One funny thing is that Weingarten's solutions right at speech's end could easily be applied to the kinds of choices we make about how we interact with comics. Active resistance may be the best policy, even if you're not totally convinced of the threat.

I hope a screenshot is fair use; I'll happily take it down if it's not
posted 2:45 pm PST | Permalink

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