Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Future of 'Geek': Interview with Rob Salkowitz

Author Rob Salkowitz has closely observed how Comic-Con and the geek world it embodies influence global pop culture.

Elaine Burke

Originally Appears in Issue 11

‘Futurist’ sounds like the profession of a character from a comic book but, in these days of fast-moving trends and companies trying to keep up with them, it’s a genuine job title; one that belongs to Rob Salkowitz, author of Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture. Salkowitz has been attending Comic-Con with his wife since 1997, not just as a fan but as a business analyst trying to find out how cultural trends are transforming old business models.

There are many comic book conventions, but we’re talking about the big one here: Comic-Con International, held every year in San Diego. Over time, Salkowitz has seen it grow into a giant pop culture singularity swallowing up comic books, Hollywood, TV, video games and everything in between.

If there’s any doubt that comic book heroes have become a cornerstone of pop culture, a glance at the summer box office takings puts paid to that. But we don’t need proof. This is nothing out of the ordinary. “It’s sort of part of the cultural furniture, the idea that The Avengers movie makes a billion and a half dollars worldwide, and The Dark Knight Rises – that these are routinely the highest grossing movies doesn’t move the needle. People expect that,” says Salkowitz.

But there are questions; the concerns of the purists. “Is that a permanent, sustainable part of our culture now? Has that bridge been crossed and has geek culture become irreversibly mainstream?” Salkowtiz wonders. “Or is this a sort of an oscillation that in a few years, maybe – for reasons that nobody can predict or entirely control – it goes back to being a subculture and people sort of look at it in the rear-view mirror as they would with disco or the Spice Girls or something like that and say, ‘What were we thinking? And why were we dressed like that?’”

It has happened before, and it could happen again.

Revenge of the Nerds
In Salkowitz’s crystal ball, the scenario where geek culture comes back to the geeks could be more challenging for business, but also more artistically and culturally rewarding. In fact, he sees this happening already with the success of independent production and distribution coming from surprising sources.

“You hear these stories every day,” he says and then asks me if I’ve heard of Axe Cop. I’m ignorant but intrigued. “So, this guy is a professional comics artist and he has a much younger brother who’s like five years old,” Salkowitz begins. “He was home for Christmas playing with his brother, and his brother was telling these stories about this character he invented called Axe Cop who was a highway patrolman who kills monsters with an axe. The [illustrator] was looking for new work to do in his portfolio and he said, ‘You know, this is a better script than I’ve gotten from most of my writer friends. I’m just gonna draw this’.”

And so, Ethan Nicolle, the illustrator, captured his little brother Malachai’s imagination in a web comic that he posted to Facebook. “In the time between when he got on the aeroplane to leave the family gathering and when he landed, this had gone viral,” continues Salkowitz. “‘Axe Cop’ became a top 100 Google search term and it became one of the most popular web comics overnight.”

As quickly as the popularity surge that brought it to public attention, Axe Cop was picked up by Dark Horse Comics and a graphic novel and animated series are already in the works. “It went from literally the mind of a five-year-old kid into the mass media machine that quickly,” says Salkowitz with a mix of awe and admiration.

Salkowitz also remembers when everyone got a Kindle Fire for Christmas and went online to download some comics to read on their shiny new toy. “They went to the Amazon store and the No 1-selling digital download graphic novel over the holiday season was called How to be a Super Villain. It wasn’t Watchmen, it wasn’t The Walking Dead, it wasn’t The Avengers – it wasn’t any of the usual suspects. It was this book called How to be a Super Villain, which was self-published by a person named Rachel Yu who is 14 years old. And this was her third book.”

When a teenage girl is outselling powerhouses like DC Comics and Marvel, and veteran creators like Robert Kirkman, you know that something terribly exciting is occurring. “It’s a whole new world,” says Salkowitz. “It’s not only gonna be Rachel Yu in the United States, or Ethan Nicolle, or any of these people. It could be somebody in India, or in Latin America, or in Ireland, or wherever. The barriers to access are gone.”

From Geek to Chic
Just like the creators are changing, so too is the fanbase. It’s not like the typified ‘geek’ – a myopic male with bad skin that hardly leaves his bedroom – is the only fan we associate with comic book culture, but, like all stereotypes, the image is persistent. To break down these assumptions, we see events such as GeekGirlCon, which recently took place in Salkowitz’s hometown of Seattle.

Even for a forward-thinker with his finger on the pulse, this event was an eye-opener. “This is the future of fandom,” he announces. “As a futurist putting on my business analyst hat and looking: the audience for this stuff is not the 40-year-old geek sitting in his basement any more; it’s not male-oriented nerd culture. It’s much broader, it’s much more international, it’s much more diverse in the things to be nerdish about, and it’s much more plugged into knowledge economy and engineering and science and those sorts of things.”

GeekGirlCon 2012 celebrated everything there was to nerd culture, beyond the confines of comic books and sci-fi movies. There were rocket scientists, roller derby girls, software designers and Quidditch players. (Yes, that’s right, with broomsticks and everything.) And, despite the title, the event wasn’t ‘girls only’, merely a geek-centred programme that completely defied the notion that all participants would be pasty-faced boys in Star Wars T-shirts.

In the Hands of the Fans
New voices – teenage girls and five-year-old boys – are coming to the fore, but at the same time that this is happening, we’re also seeing unprecedented consolidation of media channels at the top end. “Certainly one future of pop culture involves letting a thousand flowers bloom from all over the place, and letting all of these dissident voices and crazy, wacky new ideas get heard; but another future is that this is all being decided in committee rooms by brand managers and by teams of transmedia producers that are engineering this experience in a very top-down way and trying to consolidate all of these audiences around their product, around their channels,” opines Salkowitz.
So what’s it going to be? There’s billions of dollars backing the big guys, but the little guys are still making an impact thanks to the democratisation of distribution heralded by the Internet. Which will define the flavour of global pop culture in the next 10 years?

More than likely, it will be whoever has the fans on their side as even the big-shot Hollywood execs are out courting the fans at Comic-Con hoping for a thumbs up. “And that’s what makes fans different from consumers,” declares Salkowitz. “Fans are educated and engaged and passionate, and they feel themselves to be the co-owners of these properties along with the creators and to have an equal say in how they’re gonna be developed and how they’re gonna be brought to market.”

But while a thumbs down from Hall H (the largest room at Comic-Con with a massive 6,500 seats) can be a death knell for a project, that doesn’t mean a positive reaction guarantees success. “It’s a complicated relationship between what the fans like and what the mainstream audience likes. Not everybody has the deft touch to get that right,” explains Salkowitz.

“It, among other things, proves the extraordinary talent of somebody like Joss Whedon,” he adds, referring to Whedon’s work writing and directing The Avengers – a production that Salkowitz believed to be “fraught with peril”.

“It looked to me like it could very easily have been a ridiculous fiasco – just an embarrassment. And the script is not gonna win any awards,” he remarks. “Yet [Whedon] managed to get just enough of the nerd cred for everybody to be cheering at all the little Easter eggs that he put in there, and also have the mass audience not rolling their eyes and saying, ‘Ugh, I’ve had it with these superhero movies.’”

Very few people have this kind of skill, and pleasing the hardcore geeks and general public simultaneously is never going to be easy. “As long as Hollywood and the mass media is in marriage with the fan community, as demonstrated at Comic-Con, it’s always gonna be tricky, and that’s good. Because if it ever becomes a simple formula, then all of what is great about comics and everything that we love about them – as quirky and individual and personal as those creative visions are – starts to go away and it starts to become engineered, and it becomes a money machine,” says Salkowitz, who wants the geeks to continue making it hard for the mainstream media. 

“Even as big as Comic-Con has gotten, and as well exposed and as sophisticated as the brand people have gotten about managing that, they still can’t quite get it right. And I hope they never do.”

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