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2020 has brought with it... well, a lot! And one thing that has really thrown people has been the loss of the regular rituals. Their morning commute, regular dinners with friends, movie night at the theater, New Comic Day... almost everything has been disrupted. And while it's necessary for everyone's safety, I do understand why it's been so traumatic for so many people.

Rituals of all sorts have been with man since... well, the dawn of man. We use them as a stabilizer in our lives. Back in the day, mankind simply didn't understand much of what was going on around him, so he fell back on rituals to provide some continuity in his life. He wasn't sure if he would be able to even find a mammoth, much less be able to kill and eat it. So he developed a ritual to perform in advance of the hunt because it was a way to give him security and confidence before taking steps outside his cave into the unknown. He knew that, even though he couldn't count on the outcome of the hunt, he could count on the activities proceeding it.

By the twentieth century, man had figured out a great many things. Everything from fire and the wheel to creating and harnessing electricity to bring a small amount of daylight to the city streets at night. But while man's knowledge has increased, providing a great many answers to what was previously unknown, we keep raising new questions at an increasingly rapid pace. So while I -- a resident of the 21st century -- can rest pretty comfortably knowing that I can reliably get something to eat any time I step outside my dwelling, I don't have any clue what my long-term future looks like. In effect, my future is just as uncertain as that of our Australopithecus afarensis friend, Lucy -- the only difference is that my future extends further out than my next meal.

Alvin Toffler, back in the early 1970s, noted this and began touting the notion of "future shock." The idea being that life is indeed moving much faster than at any point in man's history (and, indeed, man's prehistory!) and we, as human beings, are being forced to constantly adapt ourselves to ever-changing status quo; further, that some people simply cannot keep up mentally and experience a form of culture shock within the very culture they've been living in. In extreme cases, future shock can resemble post-traumatic stress disorder.

A man living in the 1800s could pretty well assume that his day-to-day activities weren't likely to change that radically over the course of his lifetime. He still had to question whether or not he could earn enough of a living to buy food and keep his belongings secure, but he knew that if he was a cobbler, his job wasn't going to appreciably change. At all. By contrast, today's jobs are radically different than they were even ten years ago. A decade ago, people found it amusing to see Leonard Nimoy with a cell phone, unintentionally mimicking Mr. Spock using a communicator. But that visual is not only passe but it's out of date, as it's almost common to see people wearing wireless earbuds. Compare the political landscape of 2010 and that of today? We truly live in a completely different world than the one we inhabited a decade ago.

All of which points back to mankind's ability to adapt. We can, collectively, push societies and cultures forward with leaps and bounds on many levels but, as individuals, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep pace as we affronted from all sides by different forces, of which we may have only the most peripheral knowledge. Check out the latest Mindset List if you have any doubts about the wide range of changes going on in our lives. And do you know HOW we're able to keep up and adapt?

Rituals.

In an age when the jobs we have today will not be functional in tomorrow's economy, in an age when whole nations are leap-frogging themselves in technological revolutions, in an age where planning for anything beyond next week is almost laughable, we use rituals to keep ourselves sane. It provides that sense of stability and comfort in our lives so that we know there's at least that small portion of our life that we can rely on to be there over and over. The ritual gives us a focal point to relax and unwind -- however briefly -- from the rest of the world racing past us. Some people have a routine/ritualistic approach to how they get ready in the morning. Others focus around their favorite TV show on a weekly basis. Holidays provide annual outlets that work on a decidedly longer-term basis. And those of us who live and breath comic books have New Comic Day.

Comic Book Guy
New Comic Day gives us an oasis for our lives' stresses. Whether you go on your lunch hour or after work or whenever, you stop by your Local Comic Shop for some period of time during which you can drop whatever's troubling you on their doorstep. You can, for the time you're in the shop, have your biggest worry be whether or not the new Wonder Woman costume sucks. If you hit the shop at the same time every week, you're likely going to run into the same folks week after week as well, all doing the same thing. They've checked their concerns at the door, too, and can discuss "Identity Crisis" instead of the real ones in the rest of your life.

Maybe you take that a step further, and you scan through the wall of new comics in ritualistic manner as well. Maybe you take an extra few moments in every visit to admire the CGC 7.5 Detective Comics #27 beneath the glass counter. Maybe you flip through the latest issue featuring Spider-Man, even though you don't have any intent to buy it. It's all about creating a mental comfort zone for yourself, so that you can forget -- for a short while -- about their job security and Trump and COVID and climate change and...

It's pretty well documented now that the more life changes you might face in a short period of time, the more at risk you are to physical illness. With life speeding up on the whole, it's increasingly more likely for you to experience more and more of these life changes. Marriages don't last as long as they used to. Knowing more people almost inevitably leads to going to more funerals. Changing jobs, if not whole vocations, is commonplace. We're in a society now that reshapes itself on an almost daily basis, and I think that helps account for the seemingly increased problems we're collectively having. People are using more drugs to fight off sicknesses because their immune systems are collapsing under the weight of the life stressors. Crime, especially violent crime, is becoming harder to combat because more and more people are not able to adjust to the world changing around them and flip out by going on a shooting spree.

Many people still need New Comic Day. But where I used to think they needed it to keep their favorite stories from getting spoiled or being more "in the know" than the rest of the comic book community, I now know they need New Comic Day for their mental and physical health. An anchor with which they can tether their rowboat of sanity for an hour or so, not having to battle the increasingly turbulent societal waves crashing down on a daily basis.
I grew up in an area of the country where a sugary carbonated beverage was called "pop." I can't imagine not having heard "soda" before college, but it was around that time that I consciously decided that "pop" was an ugly word, and "soda" was rolled off the tongue much more easily. I suspect the change had something to do with drinking more soda in college than I had previously, and possibly being in a more diverse environment where I heard different slang from other parts of the country, but it was a deliberate choice on my part. I made active choice to change my internal dictionary to reflect my thoughts.

Several ago, my (at the time) brother-in-law came out of his kitchen with something he called an I.C.D -- improvised chocolate desert. It was my birthday, and he knew my penchant for chocolate so he put together this combination of chocolate ice cream with chocolate chips, chocolate syrup and a Kit Kat bar. He handed it to me, wishing me a happy birthday, and I responded "Cheers!" It's not a word used much in the "hey, thanks" sense here in the United States. In fact, I think, prior to that utterance, I had only heard it on British TV shows and movies. But I had watched enough of them over the years that it slipped into my personal vocabulary. That was the first time I'd actively noticed that my own word selection had been surreptitiously affected by media consumption.

More recently, I was trying to explain a technical problem to a group of non-technical people at work. Technical jargon obviously won't work in this instance, so I believe I said something to the effect of, "If the two computers have trouble talking to each other, the data gets all wonky." Someone stopped me immediately. "Did you just say 'wonky'?" The word has since cropped up in a number of other meetings.

My individual word choices are based on a combination of conscious and subconscious decisions. If I hear a word or phrase that I like, I might decide to adopt it. If I hear a word or phrase that I don't necessarily like, but hear repeatedly over an extended period, I might adopt that as well.

Todd McFarlane drawing of Spider-Man
What I'm wondering, in light of that, is what kind of impact visuals have on our language. Does seeing drawings of Spider-Man swinging by a web with his arms and legs going every which way influence how we think about... something? I don't know what that something might be, but it seems like there ought to be some effect based on the repetition of seeing that same type of image over and over. I'm sure it would influence how other artists draw Spidey, but what about people who don't draw?

Not just Spidey, of course. How do all of the repeated images of our favorite characters impact how we see? I'm not just talking about how being able to read comics impacts our thought process, but how do specific images -- or types of images, like the Superman akimbo pose or the brooding, wrapped in his cape Batman pose -- impact how we express ourselves?
I first watched Star Wars when it came out in the 70s. I was six. Everything about the movie was absolutely new to me. I had no conception of what old serials Lucas was alluding to, or who Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing were, or the cultural impact of naming them "Stormtroopers"... I didn't question what a womp rat was because, by the time they got to that reference in the movie, my head so over-flowing with other new ideas that I didn't even have room for anything else.

Star Wars then became a cultural education of sorts for me. I thought it was a fun movie, of course, but my interest spread out into seeing where Lucas' ideas came from. From Buster Crabbe to World War I. Not surprisingly, the works of Joseph Campbell came to my attention since Lucas specifically cited his works as a model/template for his basic story structure.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces
Campbell, if you don't know, studied and wrote about mythology. Rather than just relay old myths or study their origins, he focused on broad themes and ideas that were common among many cultures. His research led him to what he called the "monomyth". In The Hero with a Thousand Faces he outlined the basic plot structure of many major myths, pointing out not just the story beats but how they work and why they're important. It's become more commonly known as "the hero's journey." You see it in stories from Gilgamesh to King Arthur to Beowulf.

What's happened, though, is that modern writers have been formally taught to this. They're told to study Campbell and learn how to write stories that follow the hero's journey because it's effective storytelling. Which it is.

Until it isn't.

See, the problem is that EVERY fiction writer has studied Campbell at this point and, while they often try to still write their own unique stories, they often resort to pat rehashes of Campbell's structure. While you can deviate from Campbell's work (indeed, Campbell himself notes that there are many potential deviations in the monomyth) many who work in overly commercial ventures like comic books and movies stick to the same patterns, most likely because of external pressures like deadlines.

One of the reasons I stopped going to movies was because I kept seeing Campbell being used over and over again. The films became exceedingly predictable and, therefore, boring. You can frequently pick out the archetypes Campbell identified within seconds of the actor stepping in front of the camera.

The longer form works that I've been enjoying lately are the ones that bear the least resemblance to the monomyth. While there are still elements of the hero's journey in play, and I can spot those pretty readily, they're changed pretty significantly in some way so they don't feel hackneyed. In One Piece for example, the wizened old teacher that takes the hero under his wing doesn't really show up until nearly 600 chapters into the story! At which point, the story jumps to two years later after the training is complete. In Bakuman, the same archetype is embodied in 28-year-old Hattori who, instead of teaching the protagonists, maneuvers people and situations around them so they educate themselves. Compare this against the more obvious Merlin/Yoda style versions that show up everywhere.

I happened to watch Big Hero 6 over the weekend, and one of the things that I was very pleasantly surprised about was how they changed up some of the monomyth tropes. The older mentor character was Hiro's 20-something brother Tadashi, who dies pretty early in the film. But he continues to act as a mentor through his last project and his notes about it. It continues to follow the same ideas Campbell laid out, but does so in an unconventional and almost subversive way. I kind of half-think they weren't deliberately trying subvert the monomyth at all, and they just happened to land on a similar structure, but approached it differently out of ignorance.

More of that please!
Here are this week's links to what I've had published recently...

Kleefeld on Comics: Meta Comic Strip
https://ift.tt/2KtgxNL

Kleefeld on Comics: Aland Davis's FF, circa 1982
https://ift.tt/3nPlcIk

Kleefeld on Comics: Marketing Comics in the 21st Century Redux
https://ift.tt/3mi6glu

Kleefeld on Comics: Happy Thanksgiving
https://ift.tt/3meztxS



Ron Cobb, 1967
I wrote the following back in 2009, so I've been sitting with these ideas for over a decade. I think they're all still perfectly valid, but I don't know how widespread this type of thinking is among comics folks, so I thought it might be worth coming back to it again. I've gone through and updated some of the topical references, but the basic points remain.




Cultural capital.

Attention economy.

Social media.

Three phrases that are rolling around in my head right now, and I'm trying to wrap my head around all three concepts as they pertain to comics. How about I start with some definitions so that we're all on the same page?

Cultural capital is a term that was introduced in the early 1970s by Pierre Bourdieu. He argued that there were three forms of capital: economic, social and cultural. Economic capital is what we typically think of when we use "capital." We're talking about money and assets. Social capital is a more analytical view of social standing; it's not unrelated to popularity, though there are some differences. Cultural capital is the knowledge, skill and experience one has tied to a particular culture or sub-culture. In terms of comicdom, it's how well you know the Spider-Man mythos, whether or not you can recite the Green Lantern oath from memory, being able to determine who inked a comic just by looking at the style... that kind of thing.

Herbert Simon noted in the early 1970s that we, as a society, were beginning to experience information overload. People were bombarded by so many messages and ideas that the attention they could give each one was being substantially diminished. This information overload gave rise to an attention scarcity -- there's more information than attention to receive it. The problem wasn't so much getting your message out there, but filtering out everybody else's. You're battling for people's attention. The number of viewers matters. Your ratings matter. This is an attention economy.

Finally, social media are outlets which foster communities and personal interactions. It's easy to cite things like Facebook and Twitter which showcase popular social media, but old school BBSes and message boards certainly qualify too.

Here's where things get tricky. There seems to be a connection there, like all three notions are somehow related, but it's hard to verbalize cohesively. I think, though, that by trying to walk through a particular example -- in this case, comics -- might help facilitate some understanding. Let's start with social media, since that's probably what most people are most familiar with.

What happens when a creator puts a webcomic online? A group of people find the comic, and presumably some like it. Many, if not most, of the online comic publishing options available include some sort of feedback option, so readers leave a note about how they like the comic. Maybe the creator(s) respond(s). Maybe somebody else just says, "Yeah, I like that too!" Sometime afterwards, a small community develops around the comic in question.

People have a natural inclination to seek out others similar to themselves. It produces a feeling of self-worth and validation, certainly, but when you get down to it, it makes life more enjoyable when you surround yourself with people you're comfortable with. And the use of comics is essentially just a bridge to achieving that end. It provides a common ground for everyone to start from as they get to know one another.

"Hey, you like Questionable Content? I like it too! What do you like most about it?"

It provides a direction for your introduction into a group, as opposed to walking into a room full of strangers and being asked, "Tell us about yourself." That's a totally open-ended question, and anyone could go off in a million different directions. By focusing on one aspect -- your enjoyment of a specific comic -- you can introduce yourself in a more directed (i.e. less ambiguous, more comfortable) manner.

Now, as you probably know, any group is composed of individuals. And each individual is going to bring different knowledge and experience to the table. And what is the sum of our knowledge and experience but cultural capital? This means that, in a group of people founded on the enjoyment of a shared resource, a hierarchy of sorts will emerge as each person reveals their cultural capital relative to that group.

"Wha...?"

Let me explain via a personal example.

One of my favorite comics for years was The Fantastic Four. I read everything about them I could get my hands on, and I developed a pretty keen awareness of the characters and their fictional histories. In the mid-1990s, I started developing a website to collect all my knowledge about the FF. Some of it was strictly factual (who worked on what issues) while some of it was theoretical (how the story from issue #5 could be reconciled -- and expanded upon -- with very real accounts of the historical Blackbeard). I participated in FF fan groups and garnered a name for myself on various message boards and the like. Over the course of the next decade, I became relatively well-known as THE expert on the Fantastic Four. And I eventually came to be asked to assist on a number of official FF products; you can see me credited in Fantastic Four #500, Marvel Masterworks: Fantastic Four vol. 10 and the extended edition of the Fantastic Four movie DVD among other places. I was being sought after by others precisely because of the cultural capital I developed over and above what most FF fans accumulated.

Now those people with a relatively high amount of cultural capital in a given group? Those folks are what might be called influencers. The group has high regard for them, and are more likely to follow their lead on various opinions. "After all, they are experts, so they must know more than I do on the subject." This is essentially an old practice. Magazines devoted to a given subject are often given review copies of products related to that subject, in the hopes that the magazine will review it favorably and get others to buy it. In the 21st century, though, expertise has less to with having your name in print, and more to do with actual expertise. (Or, more accurately, perceived expertise.) The experts are now Twittering and Facebooking and YouTubing. They're accumulating their cultural capital through social media. Which means they're capturing people's attention.

(See where I'm going with this?)

The people who are out there, developing their cultural capital, are ALSO developing an avenue through which they can break through people's attention filters. People have ALREADY decided that those with cultural capital are attention-worthy, and allow those messages to pass through their filters. Regular readers of this blog have a pretty good idea what to expect when they come here. I've generated whatever cultural capital I have and become an avenue for a certain type/style of message. And if you, as a creator, think the people who typically receive that type/style of message overlaps with your intended audience, then it's a prime outlet to target YOUR message. I have obtained something of value (readers' attention) that can be exchanged for something else (money, comp. copies of comics, etc.). But, it should be noted, it's only of value if my audience, such as it is, is who you are targeting. While I certainly don't have data to back this up, but I doubt my audience has a lot of overlap with, say, The Beat's or CBR's. If you're trying to target the folks who read those regularly, it's probably not worth your time treating me like an influencer because, for that audience, I'm not.

Still with me? On to practical application.

Most comic creators don't have the PR budget of Marvel and/or DC. Options are limited because of resources. Whether we're talking about webcomics or pamphlet books, creators need to understand our three subject areas specifically as it pertains to their creation.

Who is the target audience? There is no comic anywhere that's for everyone. (Even yours.) So creators need to first identify what sort of people are likely to enjoy it. Are they people who read Fleen, fans of Cat and Girl, anyone who kind of likes the Hulk, what? It's crucial to understand who a creator is to speaking to (generally) to understand who a creator needs to speak to (specifically).

Once the general audience is identified, a creator then needs to determine A) who has significant cultural capital in that group (the influencers) and B) what social media does they tend to gather around. Webcomics have something of advantage here over pamphlet comics since most social networks are technologically oriented like webcomics delivery systems themselves. Pamphlet comics certainly can and often do use those same social media, but not necessarily, and not necessarily in as concentrated locations. Fans of Sinfest tend to hang out right there at the dedicated forum; fans of Action Comics have quite a few more locations available to them. But some extended research is probably required; popping up out of the blue and asking, "Hey, who's got clout around here?" isn't likely to garner the best responses. A creator might have to sift through messages for quite some time to get a sense of who might have sway over the group.

Once the influencers are identified, the creator then needs to assuage their attention economy. How much do they feel their eyeball traffic is worth? Are they happy just to look at any new work? Are they so swamped with other things that an extra incentive (like an original sketch) is necessary to stand out a little more? Are they small time and happy to speak to any creator, or do they operate more professionally and have a specific address for review material? A creator needs to do more research, essentially, on how to influence the influencer.

Bear in mind that winning over the influencers isn't a sure sign to financial rewards. It is likely to win some cultural and possibly social capital, but economic capital is another matter. Like it or not, we're still in a society that runs on economic capital and I'm fairly certain we won't be counting Whuffie any time soon. But without making exchanges in the attention economy, monetizing a comic is a lost cause. The greatest comic in the world, after all, has no chance of improving your bank account if no one knows about it.
I found this squirreled away with some old files. If I recall correctly, it's the first piece of professionally printed Alan Davis artwork. Or one of his first pieces at any rate. It was a pin-up that was used in the second issue of Marvel UK's Fantastic Four book from 1982.
Marvel UK pinup by Alan Davis

Maybe it's just me, but I'd say he's improved a bit over the intervening years...
Fantastic Four Empyre by Alan Davis