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Documenting Comic-Con

July 2, 2012 1:08 p.m.


Rob Salkowitz, author of "Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture"

Neil Kendricks, filmmaker of the documentary-in-progress, "Comics Are Everywhere"

Related Story: Documenting Comic-Con


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

ST. JOHN: You're listening to Midday Edition here on KPBS. I'm Alison St. John. Comic-Con is the largest pop culture convention in north America, and it start in just over a week at the San Diego Convention Center. It's come a long way from the few comic book Sci-fi and film fans who gathered back in the hotel in 1970. It offers hundreds of hours of programming and has an estimated economic impact of $180 million in San Diego. Rob Salkowitz has just written a book called comic books and subculture. And Neal Kendricks, in the midst of making his new documentary, comics are everywhere. So let me ask each of you how you got interested in comics. Can you remember the first comic that you hooked you?

SALKOWITZ: Well, the first memorable one for me was one called the spirit. It's like saying in the movie world, I got into movies by watching citizen cane.

ST. JOHN: You approach the subject of Comic-Con from the business perspective. Tell us a bit about your background and how you decided that a highly popular culture event like this is a good subject for a business book.

SALKOWITZ: It's true. I am a balance writer. I've written several other books that have nothing to do with pop culture, generations in the workplace, and young entrepreneurs and things like that. But I've been a comics fan my entire life. And this opportunity to marry my personal and professional interests was irresistible. A lot of my friends had been asking me to use my 4ist superpowers to look into the industry, and it turned out to be a great story all together about one of the world's most fascinating events.

ST. JOHN: And Neal?

KENDRICKS: You know, I remember reading comics, probably some of my earliest memories as a kid is flipping through the pages of a comic book, and it's hard to pinpoint a specific comic, but I remember reading batman comics, and superhero comics as a kid, and in a lot of ways that sparked my love of drawing, and I kind partly learned how to draw by looking at comics and copying the images this. And I think it's just one of these art forms that is misunderstood and not really appreciated for how sophisticated and maybe even avant garde it could be in terms of visual story telling. I still read comics. I'm not embarrassed to say that. Some people sometimes feel that it's something that you grow out of it, but I think that there's books for all age groups. And when you go to Comic-Con or any of the major comic conventions around the country, you'll notice that most of the people attending tend to be adults or adolescent, and not a whole lot of kids.

ST. JOHN: Right. And you're producing a documentary which focuses on the people producing this, who are all adults who love it. Why did you decide to make this documentary?

KENDRICKS: R, just to clarify, my project comics are everywhere, looking at a group of artists who are working in comics or who are influenced or impacted by comics. So the phenomenon of Comic-Con is only one of several backdrops that my project takes place. But if you're going to do a film about comics and about the art form, you have to address Comicon it's the elephant in the room, and it's a beautiful elephant. It's something that I started going to as a high school student, and I still attend it every year. I've never missed it. I think it used to be a golden hall at the old San Diego Convention Center, to its gargantuan self that is manifesting itself at the larger Convention Center. And what sparked my interest is again, this is an art form that's one of two indigenous art forms from the United States. A lot of people think of comics as -- it's always there, but unless you're really immersed in it, maybe you don't pay attention to it want upon but what a lot of people don't know is the only two truly indigenous art forms of the United States are jazz and comic books. Everything else comes from some place else. But jazz and comics are distinctly American. They're distinctly part of our vernacular so to speak.

ST. JOHN: And it all began with the actual comic, the magazine in your hand. We're moving into different platforms now. Digital and online comics. There was a lot of uncertainty about the impact they'd have. And reading your book, it did suggest that they might undercut hardcopy comics. Has that happened?

SALKOWITZ: Actually it's a very interesting development. On one hand, comics are a physical media, and the comic books that people know and love and collect and keep in their long white boxes in their basement are paper-printed objects, and to get away from that tried and true medium of distribution is a big step. But what we've seen is that with the advent of the iPAD and other tablet devices this is a perfect way to read comics in digital format. There's 29.5 million tablet users in the United States right now. That's up from zero three years ago, basically. And as a result, digital comics are not only exploding, they're pulling a lot of old fans or people that didn't really know that comics were still in business back into the stores. So rather than being a zero-sum game, it's helping both sides of the industry for the time being.

ST. JOHN: Well, that's reassuring. The takeaway question for your book was would the hardcopy comic disappear? But it seems like you're suggesting that actually they're going from strength to strength.

SALKOWITZ: It seems that way. There are people who like them in print. There are people who like the content in digital. There are new formats that are only possible through digital that are hybrids of graphic story telling and motion and video games and things that we're just starting to explore. So it's opened up a lot of new horizons, it hasn't cannibalized the existing market without growing it.

ST. JOHN: Morgan spur lock's produced a documentary that will be ready for Comic-Con this year. Neal, how is your approach different from this?

KENDRICKS: What you see with a lot of films, the few films that are out there and available to audiences that touch on comics, they tend to go with the easy targets, the kind of geek culture that has emerged and surrounded itself around comics and so forth. But I'm really interested in the creative process, what does an artist deal with what's universal when they're tackling the empty page of what might become a comic book? And also artists that are bridging the gap between comics and the art world. So some of the people that I've interviewed, who range from artists like JJ Vallard, who is an matter, who does some self-published comics, to people like Danny Lao, who is a Chinese-American artist. And better known art of authors like Daniel Klaus, what is best known for ghost world. Their work has transcended the world of comics and has now found its way into art galleries and museums. Some of the people we interviewed were the curators of the Oakland museum of California that currently has an exhibition of Daniel Klaus's work, a mini-retrospective of what I think -- he's one of the best cartoonists working today.

ST. JOHN: So anyone who really appreciates these comics will get interesting insight into some of these artists, their backgrounds and what turns them on.


ST. JOHN: Let's play a clip from your teaser trailer.

NEW SPEAKER: This is my comic, unlovable, and it's based on a diary I found in a gas station bathroom. I really love the universal story of trying to belong and fit in, and trying really hard to please people that you later learn are not worth pleasing. Through comics, I was able to publish something that I -- that was rejected by a lot of major publishers.

ST. JOHN: That's a great theme, isn't it? Trying to please people who you find out later aren't worth pleasing. How common is it for women to be breaking into the comic book world, Neal?

KENDRICKS: Well, what's so wonderful about comics is that I think almost anybody, if they've got a great story, and they put the time in to learn how to draw, or team up with a good artist and find the right story that's going to work on paper, it's not something that's restricted by gender. I did an interview with Renee French, who is a woman cartoonist at the alternative press expo in San Francisco. And she's someone who in a way stumbled into comics. She worked in real estate for a while and always was drawing. And decided she had this very unusual story that became a comic book called Byrd bath, which is underground, very alternative. And she found a publisher that was willing to take a chance on her. And it turned into a career. No longer is she doing real estate, but she's now a full-time artist. And you find there's a lot of stories like that time and again. And I found that fascinating, there's this sort of interweaving narrative that as you talk to different people, they got hooked on comic for many different reasons that ultimately they arrived at the same place. And in a way, they become masters of their own destiny in a way that other art forms, you don't get that type of freedom. When you're doing a film, you have to have a lot of collaborators, raise money, and so forth. What's so wonderful about comics. If you have a story that's burning inside you, and you think it's going to work on the printed pain of a comic. No one is holding you back except yourself.

ST. JOHN: But you do need to find a publisher. And that story you told about somebody meeting a publisher at Comicon that's a conference obviously, it's like a festival for the fans, but does a lot of business take place there?

SALKOWITZ: Well, there's all kinds of contacts between artists and publishers, a lot of the people in the industry feel almost they have to show up there in order to get face time with people who might hire them. But the more interesting level of business that's been happening for the last 10 or so years is that Comic-Con has become the great minor league team for Hollywood. And as I write in the book, you see these Armanni-clad prince charmings who are cruising the place looking for Cinderellas to take to the prom. Option money will keep a cartoonist in business for year, and it's not very much to the studios. So a lot of properties have been discovered, things like Cowboys and alien, and men in black, and things like that have come out of contacts that were made at Comic-Con between the publishers, the creators, and the studios.

ST. JOHN: So if you're not somebody who's trying to actually break into the world of comic book writing, can you suggest a couple of panels for people who are going that they might not even think of attending?

SALKOWITZ: Well, if you're interested in the medium of comics and the art form of comic, Marc Ebanier, who has been coming from the very beginning. He hosts a whole slate of panels interviewing some of the old time guys, talking about things in the business. There's another fella that he works with who's one of the great cartoonists in the north American comic business and is just a wonderful person to see draw, talk. So going to Comic-Con and seeing mark and Sergio's panels is always a highlight, I would say.

ST. JOHN: And Neal, what might you suggest?

KENDRICKS: What I would recommend to people more so than going to panels, because you can kind of get lost in a lot of panels, there's a lot of great ones in terms of learning how to draw, learning about the process of making comics. But something that I would recommend people do is check out the artists' alley, which is downstairs in the main exhibit hall. This kind of addresses your earlier question about do you need a publisher. When you go there, you find a lot of people who are doing comics on their own, self-publishing on the Internet, or scraping together the funds to publish their own books. They are both the author, the artist, and the self-publisher. I talked to several of them for my documentary. And that's what I meant by my earlier statement that the usual means of distribution, although those are appetizing if you want to say, have a more lucrative or mainstream career, but if you have a story that's not going to fit under the existing paradigms, and maybe it's something very, very unusual, these people are still finding a way to get their stories out there.

ST. JOHN: Do you think, Rob, in terms of business, the most and creative ideas are coming out from different platforms like the movies? Or do you think that the creativity is still originating with those people who are scribbling on the back of an envelope and trying to get published as a comic?

SALKOWITZ: Oh, I think Neal is absolutely correct. At the end of the day, it all comes down to the individual creative vision and voice, and because comics is such an approachable art form, and the barriers to entry are much lower, that all it takes is one talented person with an idea, and the ambition. One of the themes I explore in the book is this dichotomy between the bottom-up creative innovation that we're seeing becoming unleashed because of self-publishing, things like Kickstarter, that allow individual creators to make a direct connection to their audience without the publisher in the middle, versus at the same time all of this incredible consolidation going on at the top of the media industry, where you have the big owners who are the same people who own the movie studios and all that.

ST. JOHN: You will be at a book signing on Monday in Mira Mesa. Neal is still working on his movie, comics are everywhere.