Monday, August 27, 2007


McLuhan famously said that you know a medium has died when people use it to create 'art.' He was probably wrong to use the word 'dead', but as with much of what McLuhan said, it's thought-provoking.

For some time now, I have considered what this idea of McLuhan's means in terms of comic books. A very brief history of comic books goes something like this: In the 1930s, comic books were created largely for a juvenile audience. As comics became more popular during the 1940s, there came into existence a wealth of genres of comic books. These genres included: crime comics, horror comics, superhero comics (duh), kiddie comics, pirate comics, war comics, romance comics, and much else. Numerous producers (and a few distributors) of comics enjoyed the benefits of a robust demand for all kinds of comics. Of more importance here, the 'exhibitor/vendor' role for comic books was almost always played by supermarkets and drugstores (where comics were, of course, placed right next to the Pep cereal and the ointments). The Comic Book Code and competition from television in the 1950s began to eat away at the comic book market. The number of producers dwindled, as did the viability of the comic book market.

Cut to the 1980s, when a new way to sell comics came into its own. The comic book specialty store (exemplified perhaps by "the Android's Dungeon," of Simpsons fame) came into its own. As Amy Nyberg explains in her very good book on the Comic Book Code--"Seal of Approval"--the specialty store was unanticipated by the creators of the Comic Book Code, and gave comic book producers (including small, independently-run outfits) the chance to bypass the provisions of the Code, while also a) creating a market for adult comic books, and b) opening up a chance for autonomy on the part of comic book artists/writers/producers. By the late 1980s, specialty stores could be found throughout the suburban U.S. Journalists began running with the "comic books aren't just for kids any more" story. Long story short: a change in how comics were sold fed back into the system by which they were created and distributed. I would argue that this change in production also represented a new blooming of the comic book medium (albeit one that gets tremendously blown out of proportion).

Let's do what the title of this post suggests: let's use this as a model for other media. I'll start with television. Television was the definitive form of 'mass communication' for decades. The 3 big networks staked claims on very-large audiences. Think M*A*S*H. Think Cosby Show. Think They Honeymooners. Cable television comes along, and eventually, there is the opportunity to differentiate markets much more, creating the opportunity for something similar to the specialty sales of comics. Television has become increasingly unmoored from the "big 3" approach, and this has led to new specialty programming, including almost anything that tv critics hail as 'genius': The Sopranos is an obvious example, Deadwood goes right along with it, and let's also hear it for Turner Classic Movies. Much as when comics began to move into a specialty market, the production of television programming has been hitched to a creative class of writers, actors, and producers. At the risk of sounding like I agree with laissez faire apologists for the existing media structure (who get things precisely wrong on this stuff; more on that later), this new system is more supportive of experimentation with programming, and also more capable of supporting quality programming. This doesn't mean everything is okay now (far from it), but there are echoes of McLuhan here: just as 'television' as traditionally construed, seems to be dying, there's some really great stuff out there. In a sense, it's because the stakes have been lowered (because no one can expect the kind of ratings bonanzas that tv had in the 1970s) that creativity has crept in.

This argument I am making may sound elitist, and I'll own up to it. Opening up television to a creative class is something very different from handling it to 'the people'. But I'd rather have programming that comes from a creative class--in this case, people who have worked for years on their crafts--than solely in the hands of unresponsive plutocrats. Gramscians are rightly suspicious of manipulation of this creative class by the power-holders. Others (including Joe Turow) suspect that this breakdown of the mass audience may go hand-in-hand with the erosion of any common culture in the U.S., and that specialty audiences may represent the development of virtual gated communities. These suspicions are well-founded. Still, there is something to be said for expanding options from a surprisingly competitive marketplace. Now, the job is to make it both more competitive, more varied, and more responsive to the needs of the public. I'll try to get this done by Thursday...

The same changes that occur when a medium is hitched to specialty audiences can be applied to music, and to radio. More on that later.


Blogger Archambeau said...

Hey hey.

Great post! But (as Columbo would say), there's just one more thing I gotta ask here: does the whole narrowcasting/cable thing really only lead to programming by and for a creative class? I mean, sure, it does. Right. And for all the reasons you describe. But what about all of the crappo cable? The Home Shopping Networks and Spike TV-style channels? I don't mean to knock Spike -- I like MXC as much as the next giggling idiot on the couch -- but you'd hardly call it highbrow.



10:24 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home