Tag Archives: Rick Liebling

Death of the superhero?

Screen Shot 2019-08-18 at 8.04.59 839AMReading the future is hard. It takes sharp eyes. It takes lively imaginations. It takes smart models. (There is a “good head on your shoulders” joke to be made here, but I’m going to restrain myself.)

Most of all, reading the future takes the ability to see the things coming when they are a mere smear on the radar screen, a trace of green. Is that Southwest flight 1440 taking a film crew to Sante Fe? Or is it an artifact of an aging navigational system. Only the very gifted can say.

On Thursday (Aug. 15), Chris Ryan and Sean Fennessey convened on the blog called The Watch to discuss a new show called The Boys (around the 12:00 mark). This show is interesting because it posits a world in which superheroes now work for the corporation. They have been corrupted. They are cynical. These superheroes are all working for the man.

At roughly the 14:15 mark, Fennessey says the advent of The Boys is telling.

“This is how you know we are in stage 3 of superheroes as an important cultural force.”

Fennessey believes this is indeed the final stage of the superhero moment. The first was defined by Spider-Man. The second was defined (and dominated) by Marvel. And this third as defined by the likes of Dead Pool, Suicide Squad and now The Boys. Here at stage 3 the genre gets darker, nastier, more worldly. Idealism is swapped out for story lines and characters that are more complicated and less predictable.

Hey, presto. Someone makes a prediction. Fennessey takes a stand. We have a prediction. Superheroes are in their last moment. And a great chunk of popular culture hangs in the balance.

Thank you, Mr. Fennessey. This is a real public service. There are lots of people who claim to see the future coming. Almost no one is prepared to stake a claim, to go on the record, to risk being wrong.

In fact most of us in the forecasting biz are disingenuous. We don’t often make predictions. And when we do, we erase them, the better to create the impression that we are faultless, immaculate, batting at least 900%. When it comes to predicting the future, people like to backdate their checks and otherwise fudge the record.

This is cowardly, but it is also disappointing. Because predictions are useful even when they are wrong. They tell us about possible futures (“adjacent futures” as Stuart Kauffman calls them). Now we are prepared. Now some of us can look at that smear on the radar and go, “You know, I think that could be that thing Fennessey was talking about.”

It’s useful to look for alternate explanations. As part of our “Superhero watch,” I propose two. I am not saying Fennessey is wrong. I am saying let’s get our best ideas on the table, the better to see the future coming.

1) What Fennessey sees in the advent of stage 3 is perhaps not the Icarian fall of superheroes. It may be a simple case of genre going post genre. And let’s face it, it had to. Superheroes were increasingly, to use a second term from Stuart Kauffman, “overformed.” They had quit growing. Increasingly they were a forced march, an exercise in the indubitable. We could see outcomes a long way off. Change or die, it applies even to superheroes.

2) What Fennessey sees as the advent of stage 3 is part of a larger development identified by Hargurchet Bhabra, the Canadian novelist and culture guru. Bhabra observed the improvements taking place in popular culture and said, in effect, “As long as popular culture was the captive of commercial forces, it was going to disappoint from any genuinely creative or intellectual point of view. But now that is now also the possession of large and active audiences, it is getting steadily better. And that means, at some point, popular culture becomes culture plain and simple.” By this reckoning, the superhero arc is following the trajectory of everything in (popular) culture. It started small. It’s getting better. This means letting in the dark, amongst other things.

I don’t intend to make a prediction about Fennessey’s prediction. It was a moment of illumination for me. I am trying to map and track everything in contemporary culture so anytime I can get a head’s up from an expert, my job is easier and I am grateful.

Post scripts:

  1. One more methodological point for the trend watching reader, what are the best metrics for tracking the genre and constructing our “superhero watch?” I would be grateful for any and all suggestions: grant27@gmail.com.
  2. Speaking of the “adjacent possible,” see what Rick Liebling is doing with the idea here. Very interesting.
  3. Check out the rate for Wired subscriptions. 10 bucks! I was looking at the Kauffman article on Wired and up came the inevitable “subscribe now” invitation. “Great,” I thought, “someone else wants $100 for a subscription.” This has got to be the best bargain in publishing.

Church, state, and the new rules of marketing

selbst fotografiert

selbst fotografiert

Buzzfeed has leaked an internal report from the New York Times.

I was struck by this passage:

“The very first step … should be a deliberate push to abandon our current metaphors of choice — ‘The Wall’ and ‘Church and State’ — which project an enduring need for division. Increased collaboration, done right, does not present any threat to our values of journalistic independence,” the report says. […]

“It’s the old world where the publisher and the editor work together,” senior editor Sam Sifton, who worked on the cooking project, told the report’s authors. “It’s not lions lying down with lambs. It’s a mutually beneficial, symbiotic relationship.”

I just finished working a project for Netflix and Wired, and I got to see collaboration up close.

Certainly, this project represents a repudiation of the old “church and state” distinction.  The “state” called Netflix paid for content that appeared in the “church” called Wired.   (And I wrote the “copy.”)

Some people will accept this as the kind of break-through that Jonah Peretti of Buzzfeed has been arguing for for some time.  Others will decry it as the invasion of capital into journalism.  Still others (AdAge’s Michael Sebastian, to be exact) suggested that this story might give us a glimpse of the future in some of the ways that NYT’s Snowfall did.

But there is an anthropological observation to make, and that is none of us (and by “us,” I mean Netflix, Conde Nast and me) appeared to be looking to make this content shill for the sponsor.  More to the point, we were not conflating church and state.  If anything we were being at least as fastidious as the old order.

None of us was looking to amp up the pitch.  No one said, “Grant, can you dial up the emphasis on Netflix, please.”  In fact, the only editorial intervention was the removal of the names of shows that I had used to illustrate the power of the new TV, and this was occasioned by the fact that non-Netflix properties did not want to have their shows appear in a piece sponsored by Netflix.

Why were we being so fastidious?  I think there is a simple marketing answer here.  Any marketing exercise that shills now actually diminishes the power of the communication.  Consumers just dial that stuff out.

We have entered a new era in which viewers, consumers take intelligence and imagination as the necessary condition for their attention.  Shilling is clumsy and overbearing.  It disqualifies itself.   

This is what happens when popular culture, driven by commerce, becomes culture plain and simple.  It has to stop acting like a shilling exercise, or suffer the consequences…and these are immediately exclusion from readerly interest.

“Oh, it’s only an ad.  Next!”

The new rule of marketing says you can’t buy your way into people’s lives.  If you make marketing with scant regard for the way this marketing draws on and contributes to culture, you provoke an instantaneous push back from the consumer.

This must qualify as good news.  Even as the “grey lady” (aka NYT) wonders whether she can risk the conflation of church and state, the world of marketing is finding that it is obliged to be fastidious.  Whew.

Acknowledgements

Thanks Rick Liebling for the head’s up.