By Andrew A. Smith
Two excellent books involving comics and economics have arrived in time for this all-review issue of CBG; one is a book about general economics in comics form, another is about comics economics in prose. Both are well worth the time of comics fans.
The first is Economix: How Our Economy Works (and Doesn’t Work) in Words and Pictures (Abrams ComicArts, $19.95), by writer Michael Goodwin and artist Dan E. Burr. It’s essentially a history of capitalism from roughly the system’s beginnings to the present, along the lines of Larry Gonick’s The Cartoon History of the Universe — which, Goodwin told CBG, was an inspiration.
Goodwin, a freelance writer, came to write the book from an honest interest in the subject. “I’m a history nut,” he said, “and, if you learn enough history, history keeps coming back to economic patterns. And at some point, I thought, ‘OK, I have to understand more about the economy.’ It just keeps on coming up — the price of bread in revolutions, and everything.”
So around 2002 Goodwin began immersing himself in the subject. Before long he realized he had quite a story to tell — one that hadn’t been told in comics form before.
And that’s a medium that came naturally to Goodwin. His stepfather is Rick Meyerowitz, once a major cartoonist for National Lampoon, so Goodwin grew up around comics. Another reason was, “I knew from Larry Gonick that you just remember things better when they’re in comics form.”
Yet a third reason was the discipline the medium forces on the writer, which prevented Goodwin from writing “a 20-volume work,” he said with a laugh. “I’m interested in everything, and any panel in this book I could have expanded into another book. Often what happened is that I was looking at a book on my shelves, and I remembered I read that book, so I wrote, like, 20 pages on it, cut that down to two, cut that down to one, cut that down to a panel, and then took the panel out.”
Not having artistic talent himself, Goodwin, his agent, and his publisher searched for someone who would mesh with the content. That resulted in locating the award-winning Dan E. Burr (Kings in Disguise).
“Dan just got the tone right,” Goodwin said. “When I look at the book, it’s what I imagined it being. Other artists I’d be, ‘Oh that’s good, but not what I was thinking.’ Also, we brought all the samples to the publisher, and the publisher was, like, ‘That one.’ ”
The result was Economix, which not only explains the “dismal science” in an entertaining way but forages for truth amid the myths. For example, Goodwin says, today’s free-market advocates misrepresent Adam Smith’s groundbreaking Wealth of Nations, as do many economists, who fall back on ideal models that don’t take into account the real world.
“Basically they took one part of his idea, which is the invisible hand of the marketplace, and it’s very important, but they sorta plucked it out of the book and forgot everything else in there,” Goodwin said. “Smith’s approach was to look at everything in the real world and draw conclusions from that. People who came after him didn’t even look at how the free market worked any more. They took Smith’s free market, assumed that it had already done its work, and looked at what the economy would look like if that had happened. That’s often still the case today.”
Another problem with those ideal models is that they exclude the exercise of power to influence the free market, so that it’s no longer really free. “Trying to explain the economy without mentioning power is like trying to explain politics without mentioning money,” he said. “Economic power and political power always go hand in hand. If you have money, you have power, and, if you have power, one of the things you use it for is to get money.”
Despite today’s economic problems and political deadlock, Goodwin — and his book — remain fundamentally optimistic. He looks back to The Depression for inspiration, where the political ice broke at a critical moment, allowing FDR to push through The New Deal. That resulted in “a good 30-40 years of real prosperity,” he said. “What’s forgotten now is how unthinkable all these advances seemed in even in 1932. But there was a whole generation there when people actually remembered The Depression and The New Deal and the war, which were a great economic lesson. So for a whole generation nobody listened to the conservatives.”
Which raises one problem for Economix — it skewers a lot of sacred cows on the right of American politics, such as free-market fundamentalism and trickle-down economics. Is Goodwin worried about a conservative backlash?
“I should be so lucky as to become big enough that they have to respond to it,” he laughed.
Goodwin on Famous Figures
On Nobel-prize winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman: I end up dismissing in one panel all of the developments in economics since the 1970s — because nobody talks about them. Krugman does talk about them, but his real influence is just as a pundit bringing common-sense thinking, not necessarily that he’s bringing the abstruse developments in modern economics.
On Ron Paul, champion of the gold standard: I agree with some of Paul’s position but not the gold-standard one. It was tried; it didn’t work. It’s a yearning for a golden age rather than a well-considered idea about policy. And I think that’s what gives it its power. Not everyone wants to sit around and think about policy and look at the past and look at the 19th century and the gold standard and see how often the economy was crashed even though we were stripping entire continents of their gold. People look back at the 19th century and say, “Look at that incredible century and they were on the gold standard and they must have been doing something right.” And what they were doing right was stripping the earth of its gold.
The second book is sort of the inverse of the first. Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture: What the World’s Wildest Trade Show Can Tell Us about the Future of Entertainment (McGraw Hill, $27) explores how the comic book has ended up at the center of pop culture, through the lens of Comic-Con International: San Diego.
Comic-Con is written by Rob Salkowitz, an author, teacher, expert in digital media, and a man who calls himself — like Tony Stark — a futurist. He walks readers through Comic-Con 2011 — the panels and trade meetings he attends, the shows, the cosplayers, the media presence — and uses that as a spine, and source of examples, for his narrative.
The specifics of the Comic-Con experience won’t be of much interest to those of us who have already attended a San Diego show or anything comparable — we know that part already. But it should prove fascinating to the business executive who is (probably) the primary target audience for the book, and, what the heck, it doesn’t hurt us experienced fans to re-experience a comics show through different, business-oriented eyes.
Comic-Con really takes off when Salkowitz does his thing: explains how things got to where they are and where they are likely to go. I know he’s good, because, every time he makes a point, it seems completely obvious, even inescapable, in retrospect. You know in your bones he’s right and are vaguely surprised you didn’t see it yourself. Moreover, Salkowitz is a clever writer who can turn a phrase.
And he knows his beans, from a comics-fan perspective. In a discussion of the synergy of comics and other media he uses Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Guild as examples of how a property can use the “feedback loop” between media to build a brand — but cautions that not every writer is as “multilingual” in various media as are Joss Whedon and Felicia Day. He explains how the big comics publishers have “lashed themselves to the mast” of mainstream entertainment media, to rise or fall based on Hollywood’s interest in exploiting Marvel and DC characters, which itself relies on the fickle public’s interest in continuity-centered, overarching universes. He shows how the minnows of the comics industry survive on the crumbs falling off the table of the Big Two, waiting for the one big break into movies that will make them all rich. He goes into the dichotomy of old-school, continuity-minded fandom, which he describes as “the rudder that helps all pop culture media steer toward the future and the anchor that keeps them bound to the past.”
In short, this is a book to make every fan exult in how our years of comics reading has been validated thanks to acceptance by the larger pop culture — and fall into despair, because this, too, shall inevitably pass.
But that latter part is still in the future. For now, read Comic-Con and enjoy being a fan. We deserve it!
On comics creators: As someone who studies entrepreneurship in creative industries, I am constantly stunned by the low returns on ingenuity and effort that seem to haunt the comics business. Publishers like Dynamite, IDW, and Avatar Press … are all fighting like dogs over scraps in a tenement yard.
On Hollywood catering to fans: Even the biggest film stars who come to San Diego now act as if they are casual comics fans, as steeped in esoteric trivia as the guy in the third row in the Ambush Bug costume.
On actresses claiming geek cred: The burden of having to seem geek-tolerant and totally not the kind of popular girl that dissed nerds in high school falls especially heavily on the shoulders of the hot young actresses cast in comics-oriented action movies. But, you know, they’re actors. They can pull it off.
On the future of mainstream comics: Their future is in the hands of studio executives and marketing teams, who see them, and the comics audience, as useful but ultimately disposable pieces in a much bigger game. Waiting in the three-hour line to get into Hall H on the weekend, it’s easy to imagine the future of comics with the transmedia winds at their back. It’s also chilling to consider what might happen if the gales ever subside.
On digital delivery: It is a huge unknown for an industry and a fan community with a conspicuous cultural preference for the tried-and-true.
On digital piracy: In a media world where no content provider or publisher welcomes piracy, the revenue-poor comics industry’s posture toward the “online sharing” community resembles that of a starving man guarding his last bread crust from a nest of rats.
On the future of creators: The comics business comes down to the individual visions and talents of creators, people with imaginations and stories to tell in the most profound and ancient human tradition. Changes in the business might disrupt their income, changes in technology might affect their craft, but nothing will silence their voices.
On the business model of the Big Two: They derive most of their income from licensing properties to everyone from toymakers to fast-food restaurants. The income they make from selling comic books amounts to a rounding error in the corporate balance sheets.