Sigh: We May Have Already Reached Peak Geek
Author Rob Salkowitz attended his first Comic-Con International in San Diego in 1997. Back then you could simply walk up to the convention center, buy a badge, and stroll inside. But since that time attendance at Comic-Con has more than quadrupled, and acquiring badges and hotel rooms has become like something out of The Hunger Games.
“I can feel the Internet dim a little bit when all of the millions of people are rushing onto the site trying to grab these badges,” Salkowitz says in Episode 201 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “This year I think that if you weren’t in the queue at 90 seconds after the badges went on sale, you weren’t getting one.”
The massive popularity of Comic-Con might lead you to think that the comic book industry is thriving, but that’s an illusion. Huge crowds will turn out for conventions, or for the latest Hollywood blockbuster, but the sales of actual comic books are in decline, and publishers have become increasingly desperate.
“If you look at what DC is doing, they’re starting to reboot their universe for yet another time,” says Salkotwitz. “They’re really having trouble connecting either with new fans or with their old fans, with the catalogue of stuff that they’ve got.”
He worries that we may have reached “peak geek,” an upper limit to the public fascination with superhero movies and other geeky interests. It’s an issue he explores in his book Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture.
“It seems to me likely that we’re going to exhaust people’s interest and exhaust people’s money,” he says. “I mean, eventually everybody that wants a picture with William Shatner is going to have one.”
In recent years comic books have enjoyed a cultural cachet, boosted by prominent authors like Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, and Junot Diaz. But Salkowitz points to a growing backlash among cultural elites as a sign that the tide may be turning.
“No pop culture trend lasts forever,” he says.
Listen to our complete interview with Rob Salkowitz in Episode 201 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Rob Salkowitz on intellectual property:
“DC and Marvel, their characters are corporate-owned. I don’t think anybody wants to create the next blockbuster for Disney and not get compensated for that. … And modern creators take note of that. So creators that go in there, they take their money and they write their stories, but for telling their original stories, or for creating new characters, they want to be in an environment where they can participate in that money. … Almost all of the other companies that are out there have provisions for creators owning and participating in their works in a much more equitable way.”
Rob Salkowitz on geek girls:
“I think the generation of women that came of age in the ’90s, who were not only reading comics but were watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Xena, and reading Harry Potter and all that stuff, gave permission to succeeding generations of geek girls to really get into fandom, assert themselves, and become vocal contributors to the fan culture. I was doing some demographic research for a client, and at this point fandom—in terms of who’s going to conventions—is almost exactly 50-50. For years the perception was that this is an all-male hobby, and that if you went to Comic-Con it would just be aisles and aisles filled with Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons, and that is so far from the reality now.”
Rob Salkowitz on the superhero backlash:
“One of the things that happened that drove comics into the mainstream in the early 2000s was a bunch of up-and-coming thought leaders in the elite community came out of the closet as comic fans—people like Ta-Nehisi Coates, who’s now writing Black Panther for Marvel, and Ezra Klein, and Spencer Ackerman, people like that. … What we’re seeing now is a lot of these same people—or the same kinds of people—are now pushing back from the table and saying, ‘Enough with the superhero movies. This stuff was great for a while, but now it’s kind of stupid. It’s repetitive, it’s loud, it’s boring, it’s uncreative, it’s corporate.’ … So that’s an early indicator to me that the cultural dialogue is changing a little bit.”
Rob Salkowitz on influencers:
“If you look at the reaction to Batman v Superman among the fan community, fans hate that movie, and they hate Man of Steel too. Both of those were very controversial interpretations of the character, and yet the film made a staggering amount at the box office. So the role of influencers in the fan community, which was really prized by marketers and by entertainment companies at Comic-Con in the early 2000s, is now, I think, way less important than what the mass audience thinks. I think one of the things you’re going to see is that entertainment companies are going to start pulling back from big participation at San Diego Comic-Con, because it’s just not that important to them anymore. They’ve already got that audience.”
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