Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Present ≠ The Future

You may have seen this story recently:
Barnes & Noble Inc. BKS, +0.22%   announced Wednesday that it is doubling the size of its sections for graphic novels and manga (Japanese comics) in all its U.S. stores. 
The move reflects customer demand for the genres and illustrates the company’s push toward bringing more customers into stores, rather than buying online from its own site and rivals such as Inc. AMZN, +2.10% 


Sales of comic and graphic novel to consumers in the U.S. and Canada reached $935 million last year, the most since 1993, according to estimates from comic researchers ICv2 and Comichron. Print sales, at $835 million, was the most since 1995; digital sales brought in the remaining $100 million. 
Some of the sales gain is tied to recent releases of superhero movies as well as the “Walking Dead” comic series, according to Ron Salkowitz, a consultant on fandoms and author of “Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture.” 
Barnes & Noble has been seeing the same sales trend, as manga and graphic novels rank “among the top of the list for 2015 [sales],” according to Mary Amicucci, vice president of adult trade and children’s books at Barnes & Noble.
People outside the industry, or people who weren't involved in the industry 20 years ago probably take this for granted, and can't imagine just how remarkable this is, historically speaking.

Not 15 years, at the turn of the millennium, pundits were not only writing obituaries for the comic book industry but for the superhero genre itself. The 90s had seen a string of superhero movie flops and the entire industry was holding its breath to see how Bryan Singer's X-Men adaption would fare. That it was a hit was a relief, that it didn't set the house on fire was a concern.

15 years I attended a convention in Westchester County and though I didn't do an exact count, I believe that exhibitors outnumbered customers. New York had been without a major con since Great Eastern had gone belly up and all that was left were very low rent shows in depressing venues. The now gargantuan NYCC was a long way away.

Comic stores were still closing, sales were going down and artists and writers couldn't find work. Everyone I talked to* assumed this was it; comics - and superheroes- were at the end of their ninth life. It didn't turn out that way.

I've often noticed a tendency among pundits to project the present into the future, but the future loves to make fools of pundits. I keep seeing articles about AI and transhumanism and all sorts of technical inevitabilities, but as I've written before these inevitabilities always seem to be just beyond our reach. (And even if these transhumanist promises ever do pan out- which I see no real evidence for at the moment- you and I will never share in the bounty).

I'm beginning to wonder just what role science and technology will play in the future, given the reemergence of brute force as a major factor in world politics, a reality that I don't recall seeing in many premillennial forecasts (cyberattacks certainly were, however, and those are becoming epidemic lately).

We've been sold the inevitability of a technocratic future but technocrats are remarkably indifferent to the great majority of the population. At some point the people who aren't invited to the party will realize they've just been looking in on it through a two-way mirror and if things get desperate, may well wish to express their displeasure at their exclusion. That was the spark that lit the wildfires tearing through the Islamic world at the moment. Only a fool would imagine that it can't happen here. Hungry people are the same everywhere.

The present doesn't equal the future and no one is seriously preparing us for what the future may bring.

What it might bring is a crisis in consciousness, a realization that the reductive materialism we've been shamed into abiding by doesn't amount to much if your material is severely reduced. It didn't really matter if pundits thought comics were dead 15 years ago, but it matters a lot that pundits think today that the religious impulse -and the concurrent potential for religious fanaticism- is dead.

All the mockery on Vice or Comedy Central isn't going to mean shit if people are hungry and homeless and desperate. Scratch that- it will be a red flag waved in front of a particularly nasty and pissed-off bull. Religion has survived a lot worse than whatever it's facing today and has done so because it offers a good product to people who are down on their luck.

But what about our new state religion? The past few years have seen an almost childlike faith in science and technology to solve deep-seated problems, and a lot of people believe that science and technology will rise up to defeat any problems that may emerge in the coming years. 

But I suspect this faith may be based on a steady flurry of bullshit press releases put in front of the public in the form of news, and we may yet see that faith shaken to the core. And there are a lot of serious people whose vision of the future doesn't include technology at all.

Trends- even longstanding trends- have an irritating habit of reversing or drastically changing course.  The future is continually rewriting itself, whether we like it or not.


* I did not, and wrote some editorials in Comic Book Artist at the time arguing that comics were not finished.