Spinner Racks and The Keepers of Post-Industrial Folklore

Note: this article represents the uncut version of remarks I delivered at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Museum at The Ohio State University in November 2013. The talk was part of a panel that included Aaron Kashtan, Geoffrey Long, and Henry Jenkins.

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When I interviewed him for my book, COMICS FOR FILM, GAMES AND ANIMATION, former Batman group editor and writer Denny O’Neil told me of the backlash he faced after readers decided the fate of Jason Todd in BATMAN #428. He said that in that backlash came a realization, that he was more than “just a writer-editor,” he was the “keeper of post-industrial folklore.”[1] The simple truth (and therefore the hardest to see) of neverending, serialized storytelling is that it represents a legacy passed on from one generation to another and perpetuated through the inspiration to create. I fear that mine may be the last generation to feel that inspiration.

Like most kids of the ‘80s, my first exposure to the superheroes of the Marvel and DC Univi was in other media: SUPERFRIENDS; SPIDER-MAN AND HIS AMAZING FRIENDS; Tim Burton’s BATMAN; re-runs of the 1960s BATMAN TV show. That same means of exposure has reached a fever pitch today, as movies based on comic book characters become the de-facto entry point for a new generation of comics fans and rake in astronomical gobs of money. However, in my book, I stressed that the material waiting for the new comics reader–for the uninitiated who has become a fan of a character through other media–must be absolutely irresistible and instill in the new reader a burning desire to dig deeper, to explore the world of the story, be it in a single medium or fragmented across media parts, by telling stories that reflect and distill current generational values. This was unspoken pact was understood, though in its twilight years, during my comic book-reading pubescence.

Today, we are in an age of the erroneous belief that legitimacy for one medium, comics, must first be found in the box office draw of another medium, film, and that irresistibility has to do with seams on costumes, brand consistency and nostalgic pangs of iconisism. In its rampant quest for legitimacy, specifically after the amalgamation of the two biggest mainstream comics publishers, Marvel and DC, by large corporate parent companies and subsequent neutering into R&D departments, the comics industry, and DC Comics in particular, has lost sight of the power of irresistibility, bastardized the emotional core and draw of exploration that made their product and characters so exciting to young readers, and in so doing, has hammered yet another nail into the coffin of the long-term survival of comics industry by forsaking their role as keepers of post-industrial folklore and failing to inspire the next generation of storytellers. DC’s own survey, conducted in 2011, right after the roll-out of their “New 52” reboot, revealed that less than two percent of respondents were under 18 years of age[2]. Kids are abandoning comics… but let’s not mince words: comics abandoned kids first.

However, I believe there’s a way to rectify that egregious misstep and set the industry on a path towards redemption and long-term survival.

Returning to my comic book pubescence, my first comic book was GREEN HORNET #3, written by Ron Fortier and published by NOW Comics. I pulled it from a spinner rack at Rite Aid in Millersburg, Ohio. My grandmother bought it for me. We had gone there to buy Peeps or Metamucil or something. When I picked up that comic book off the spinner rack, I had no idea who the characters were, though I vaguely remembered Bruce Lee on Channel 23’s reruns of the 1960s Batman show. The Green Hornet even had a heart attack at the end of the issue. I came in in the middle of a storyline. All I knew was that the story was cool and I wanted to learn more. What did I do? I learned as much as I could about the character – and this was before the ubiquity of the Internet. I learned that the character got his start in radio in 1936, a revelation which began a lifelong obsession with radio dramas and led to my unabashed love of The Shadow, particularly Denny O’Neil and Mike Kaluta’s 1973 series and the 1937 Orson Welles radio show, that has permeated every iota of my storytelling in the 24 years since. Today, that comic book is framed in my office, as much a memory of her as of my first experience with comics and the obsession that wrought.

The newsstands and the grocery store / Rite Aid spinner racks, the vehicles for my physical discovery of the medium – not necessarily the characters – and for most kids of my generation and the generations previous, are a relic of the past. Sure, you may see the odd one at a grocery store, but the contents of most are untouched, lost in the entertainment shuffle to the bright screen in one’s hand; at best, the spinner rack selection might pique the curiosity of shoppers bored to tears with the selection of beef tips and cream cheese.

Where are the Spinner Racks and newsstands now? According to a survey conducted by Common Sense Media,

“among families with children eight and under, there has been a five-fold increase in ownership of tablet devices, such as iPads, from 8% of all families in 2011 to 40% in 2013.”[3]

The study goes on to find that,

“the percentage of all children with access to some type of ‘smart’ device at home (e.g. Smartphone, tablet) has jumped from half (52%) to three quarters (75%) in just two years.”[4]

As their ubiquity increases, tablets and smartphones have the potential to be the new Spinner Racks. They have the potential to be as powerful a vehicle for discovery as corner newsstands were in the cities of the Golden Age and the Spinner Racks born in the suburban flight of the 1950s. But why haven’t we seen that push, that, pardon the Gladwellian term, that tipping point, with digital comics and comics delivered digitally? If my grandmother was tickled pink to buy me a comic along with her Metamucil and Peeps, what’s stopping a parent from letting their kid purchase a comic when they buy the latest app they never use?

I see four ways.

 

Price & Discoverability

 

The idea of charging the same amount for print as digital is asinine. An “issue”–a term I use very loosely now–of a digital comic should cost no more than a song on iTunes. At best, ten cents, adjusted for inflation is $1.99; let’s not forget that those 10-cent comics were almost always 64 pages.

With print comics, the page count and paper quality is often the deciding factor in determining a price point. With digital comics, paper quality is irrelevant and page count can be irrelevant. The main transactional currency with digital reading is the time it takes to consume the product, not the number of pages. Examples of this can be found with Medium’s “two minute read” demarcation on new posts and Madefire’s time-based consumption of their motion-comics / digital comics hybrids; Amazon’s Kindle tracks amount of time left in each book. Let me be clear: I neither condone nor decry this “innovation,” I simply state for the purposes of this pondering that “it exists.”

Purchasing a comic on a spinner rack in the days of yore was not a designed purchase. It wasn’t my intention when I went with my grandmother to purchase Peeps and Metamucil to come out with a comic book. I was drawn to the comic book through my own wanderings in a controlled environment on a trip to purchase something else. In short, the guiding beacon of a digital comics purchase has to be the same trigger as in the Rite Aid: there has to be some base appeal, be it covers, content, or the sheer cool factor.

To purchase comics direct from an app designed to sell comics is more akin to the comic shop experience. While this is an invaluable experience, it’s also one where the intent is to purchase comics, not to be invited to purchase through their appearance in everyday life. I’ve often said that the best and most exciting transmedia experiences come from technology already at use in our everyday lives–in other words, expecting someone who doesn’t play video games to go buy a console to get an integral part of your story from the film is counterproductive. The discovery of digital comics should be no different.

But here’s the rub: the Internet and the iPad and all other tablets are a beacon of a culture of push, less one of pull. How can we create that irresistible feeling of pull in a culture designed to push a seeming unending strain of content down the gullets of readers? The short version? I have no idea. As my friend Geoff Long said when we discussed this paper in its talk form back in November, “if you can solve that, you can solve the Internet.” Nobody knows; or, rather, everybody thinks they know. If you figure it out, go collect your billions.

 

Recapturing Fun Stories

 

I’ve often said that comics were 70 years ahead of their time when they were first created, and are now 30 years behind it. What made those Golden and Silver Age comics so good, so addictive? They were fun. They weren’t WATCHMEN or THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS – both of which, obviously, have their place, though I would venture that the “mainstream legitimacy” they brought to comics, while saving the industry and readying it for the 21st century was also a Trojan horse that has gone wildly unchecked.

The gateway drug for many of us were disposable reads that could be read and thrown aside for the next thing. They weren’t envisioned as collector’s items or to be handled with white gloves. Their value was directly tied to the content and stories and the value that we, as readers, implanted on those stories–not in the collectible value that publishers, through variant covers and whatever, told us, the readers, to find. Comic books were designed to be entertainments. They were designed to be read on subways on the way to work, in a bleary, pre-caffeinated haze. The great comics creators of decades past, the Kirbys, the Eisners, the Siegels, the Lees, the ones that birthed the medium and fueled its rise understood that they were making entertainment for kids, yes, but also entertainment for adults. There was an outlaw value to their simplicity and fun. They were, quite simply, cool.

The two traits that have always attracted me to Golden and Silver Age comics are their sense of fun and their sense of making it up as they went along. The stories were entertaining and fun, and clearly, the creators were having fun doing it (in some form or another, working conditions notwithstanding). There was always a flair of experimentation that has been sadly lost, replaced with an unflattering self-seriousness that does no one, least of all the readers, any good. Digital comics can recapture that sense of experimentation; creators are free of the constraints of print… so why act like digital comics is the digital delivery of a paper product when in fact, it represents an entirely new medium, one custom-built on a delivery platform that kids can’t get enough of?

 

New, Touch-based Continuities

 

Clay Shirky has a marvelous quote in his book COGNITIVE SURPLUS about a friend’s four-year old daughter:

“In the middle of the movie… she jumped off the couch and ran behind the screen. My friend thought she wanted to see if the people in the movie were really back there. But that wasn’t what she was up to. She started rooting in the cables behind the screen. Her dad asked, ‘What are you doing?’ And she stuck her head out from behind the screen and said, ‘Looking for the mouse.’”[5]

Shirky goes on to say that:

“Four-year-olds, old enough to start absorbing the culture they live in, but with little awareness of its antecedents… will just assume that media includes the possibilities of consuming, producing and sharing side-by-side, and that those possibilities are open to everyone.” [6]

How can we bring Shirky’s postulation into comics? Continuity.

I like to call continuity a series of story links agreed upon in a silent (or not-so silent) pact between creator and reader. Let’s take that link argument a step further, into the realm of possibility: I would love to be able to dig into a fight between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin that happened an issue before, just by touching that little editor’s note star. And who’s to say that I couldn’t participate in that battle if the version in the comic before became a small video game? Or maybe it didn’t even happen in a comic, but rather in an animated short? And then from there, dig deeper.I could see fragments of stories, a panel here, a panel there. I could see how the world fit together, I could move it around just like the pile of photos in my photos app. It’s Wikipedia comics reading and just as comics presents unlimited storytelling possibilities, so can a marriage of comics and touch technology present unlimited opportunities for exploration and the sharing of expertise and excitement. It would be the world’s coolest editor’s notes.

Through the creation of digital-native continuities that are based in currently available technology, comics publishers could create a comics experience for digital natives, not a skeumorphic replication of the pamphlet-reading experience. What if readers could literally touch continuity; manipulate it? What if they could move it with their fingers, open up whole new worlds inside a single comic and choose to share them in an environment conducive to fun? The possibilities are quite literally, endless, and could present a veritable storytelling goldmine for creators and publishers that would bring comics into the 21st century in a way only dreamt of by the mad scientists of the Golden Age.

This approach doesn’t negate the already pre-existing fan and comic-shop based continuities. It can exist side-by-side with the current way of doing things. DC can still make their comics for 45-year olds and do whatever they want. Marvel can keep on now, Now, NOW-ing the hell out of their line. I’m talking about a refocusing of efforts on digital continuities, not half-measures. They can still do their direct-to-digital adult comics, they can do their television continuations. All I ask is a little more thought for their legacy and their place in the history and future of not just comics storytelling, but storytelling as a whole; I ask for a recapturing of the experimental, outlaw spirit that has been lost in a creative culture that rewards storytelling homogeneity and brand consistency in spite of pervasive eclectic posturing.

 

Tools for Creation & Sharing

 

When one finds the urge to explore, the urge to create isn’t far behind. I’ve often said that the appeal of the great comics characters and the reasons for their longevity is that the characters are so elastic: you can do anything with them and it will still work.

Let’s not forget something important about comics, something made beautifully clear in this quote from the Telegraph:

“At book events around the country and talking with children, I’ve noticed that when they fall in love with comics, they’re inspired to pick up a pencil and make comics, in a way that they very seldom respond to books without pictures. Comics don’t make for passive kids; they’re all about doing and making. The format is wonderfully approachable: if you don’t know how to draw something, you write it; if you can’t write it, you draw.”[7]

Comics don’t make for passive kids; they’re all about doing and making. That’s true, isn’t it? I know it was with me. But I was inspired to do that by the fun stories told in the comics I was reading. I fear we’re not seeing that today.

Along with entertaining stories, digital comics producers should provide readers with a regulated platform for creating and sharing their own stories. Imagine if DC brought back Elseworlds as a fan-fiction arena. Note that I do say “regulated.” These characters are the intellectual property of a corporation, and I recognize that.

A combination of touch-based continuities and built-in creation tools wouldn’t just ensure a future for digital comics and comics in today’s digital culture, it would be absolutely revolutionary: stories brought to digital life that would inspire a new generation of storytellers to create by giving them the means to absorb, create, and share without fear or confusion.

 

• • •

The best way to understand and, more importantly, to get excited about, any medium is to create within it. If DC allowed kids, the market they seem to have abandoned, to integrate comics more into their lives in a way natural to them, with stories that excite and inspire–in other words, utilize the idea of transmedia storytelling, that the stories meet the audience in arenas that are already part of their lives–the industry would be in a much better place.

Why does DC insist on their current path? It’s because it’s safe. It’s safe for now. It’s far easier to think in the short term than it is to think in the long-term; it’s easier to think selfishly than selflessly. It’s easier to think that ownership of a character is only a legal document. It’s easier to keep making the same mistakes than admitting that somewhere down the line, you went down the wrong path and lost sight of your true role, keepers of post-industrial folklore.

Aside from all the technological jargon and tablet visioning I threw out, it’s worth remembering that all great folklore is passed through sharing. From the first stories shared around a campfire to the immersive tales told through video games, sharing and creating is what makes a folklore vibrant. Digital comics and transmedia storytelling offer a way to do that, and inspire that next generation by speaking to their values and the technological tools they have at their ubiquitous disposal.

But, I’ll admit. I’m too much of an idealist here. The only was major companies will learn is with the power of the wallet, and that’s not going away. As long as something makes gobs of money, the slippery slope into long-term obsolescence will grow steeper and more perilous. As much as it pains me to say this, I fear that the mythologies of DC Comics are beyond saving under the current regime and mindset. Maybe, hopefully, somewhere down the line, new keepers of the post-industrial folklore will emerge and bring DC back to its roots by understanding and utilizing all that the digital world has to offer beyond a new way to cram nostalgia down the throats of anyone who will hazard to read them.

But, in spite of all this talk about cool technology and whatever, the future of storytelling is the same thing it has been since the dawn of time immemorial: great stories that inspire an emotional reaction in the audience and a desire to explore. I can only hope that a refresher course in this lesson isn’t swept under the rug.

 

SOURCES

[1] Tyler Weaver, Comics for Film, Games & Animation: Using Comics to Construct Your Transmedia Storyworld (Boston, Focal Press, 2012), p. 179.
[2] “New 52 Appealed to Avid Fans and Lapsed Readers.” ICv2, February 10, 2012. Available online at http://www.icv2.com/articles/news/22113.html
[3] Common Sense Media, Zero to Eight: Children’s Media Use in America 2013 (Common Sense Media, 2013), p.9
[4] Ibid.
[5] Clay Shirky, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age (New York, The Penguin Press, 2010), p. 212.
[6] Ibid, p. 213
[7] Sarah McIntyre, “Comic Adventures for Kids of All Ages,” The Telegraph, September 01, 2013. Available online at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bath-childrens-literature/10273425/Comic-adventures-for-kids-of-all-ages.html