December 21st, 2013
One of the jokes that the other Mindless Ones have about me is that while I often complain about not having written enough, I’m ridiculously productive (I write two or three books a year, on average). They only make this joke because unlike me, they don’t know Phil Sandifer.
Phil recently released TARDIS Eruditorum vol 4, the fourth volume of his look at every Doctor Who TV story (and many of the books and audios), A Golden Thread, a critical history of Wonder Woman, Last War In Albion Chapter Four, the latest in a series of short ebooks charting the parallel careers of Grant Morrison and Alan Moore, and Flood, a book in the 33 ⅓ series, in which he and co-author S. Alexander Reed look at the classic They Might Be Giants album.
And by recently, I mean in the last two months. He might have released something else since I made that list — I haven’t looked since lunchtime.
Much, though not all, of his work is serialised on www.philipsandifer.com (where I’ll be doing a guest post next week on Final Crisis, incidentally) and readers of Mindless Ones will, I’m sure, find it worth checking out.
To start with, you describe what you’re doing with Doctor Who as ‘psychochronography’ — a term that obviously brings to mind for our readers people like Alan Moore and Iain Sinclair. For those who don’t know your work, how would you describe psychochronography?
Well, let’s start with psychogeography, on the off chance that The Mindless Ones has one or two readers who aren’t steeped in 1960s French Marxist theory.
Psychogeography was an avant garde tactic developed by the Situationist Internationale, which aimed to revolutionize urban spaces by altering how one thinks about them. So they’d engage in quasi-random walks of urban spaces, taking, instead of major roads and established pedestrian paths, odd routes that traced other logics, and write about the experience of the city from that perspective.
Moore and Sinclair have both used the technique, so you get stuff like London Orbital, where Sinclair describes London by walking the path of the M-25, or the iconic chapter of From Hell where Gull takes an occult tour of London landmarks to explain why he has a pressing need to butcher a bunch of women. It’s a way of looking at an urban space according to a different logic.
Psychochronography takes psychogeography and asks “well, why not do it to time?” After all, if Alan Moore’s notion of ideaspace has any use, surely it means that we can navigate history like a physical space. So instead of taking an expected route through history, why not take one according to the narrative of a particularly long-running television show. So it’s still following the last fifty years of history in roughly chronological order, but instead of telling history, it’s telling, broadly speaking, what history is like from the perspective of Doctor Who.
Your take on Doctor Who is very much a reaction to the conventional wisdom of fandom (in fact arguably a reaction to a reaction to a reaction to conventional fan wisdom, there having been a fairly continuous process of re-evaluation of the show over the last thirty years as old episodes came to light). To what extent is that a matter of you wanting to find something different to say, and to what extent do you think it’s just fandom often being wrong?
Certainly there’s a need to say new things. I think any time a reader walks away from a TARDIS Eruditorum essay thinking “yeah, that’s what I thought he’d say” it probably means I did something wrong. If retelling the history of the last fifty years from the perspective of a television show produces expected results, what’s the point of doing it?
That said, I do tend to think fandom takes a dully myopic view at times. I still get a lot of flak for my willingness to engage in political readings of the show, which bewilders me, because they often come from a perspective that wants to act as though nothing political ever happened on Doctor Who. And that’s just nonsense that’s not even worth taking seriously. So, certainly, if you’re the sort of fan who thinks it’s really problematic and upsetting that it’s difficult to line up Cybermen continuity between the classic series and the new series, but thinks that The Talons of Weng-Chiang isn’t appallingly racist, which, alarmingly, a large amount of fandom is, well, yes, I should hope my writing appalls and horrifies you.
But to some extent I think the joy of TARDIS Eruditorum comes from deliberately taking fannish impulses a little too far. I love any time I get to do a close, obsessive reading of an episode and come up with a wonky continuity theory that’s completely out of touch with fan consensus and, for that matter, with anything anyone writing the show ever dreamed up. And, more broadly, a lot of the myopia of fandom comes from people for whom Doctor Who is the absolute most important thing in the world for them. Which, given the psychochronographic approach I use, is the underlying premise of the project. It’s just that, to me, that doesn’t mean insulating Doctor Who from political concerns – it means assuming that Doctor Who represents a cultural force of primal, unfathomable power.
You bring up The Talons of Weng-Chiang, which is the last story you deal with in the latest Eruditorum volume. It’s fair to say you find it problematic at best. To what extent do the problems with that story reflect on the whole period you cover in that book?
Fairly well. I mean, the early Tom Baker era is interesting, because it corresponds to something of a low point in British culture. It’s off in the years between glam and punk, in the sort of quiet between the Three Day Week and the Winter of Discontent. It’s this cultural moment where things were about to go south, but they hadn’t quite yet. And there’s not really any aesthetic movement that wants to move forward. Even glam, which was the big aesthetic movement that coincided with the Pertwee era, was a nostalgia movement in shiny clothes. And after glam there just wasn’t anything until punk, which wasn’t really interested in being constructive, and was always going to be an odd fit for Doctor Who, which keeps one foot in the establishment anyway.
So in the absence of that you had a period where Doctor Who tunnelled inwards a bit and focused on the past. The Hinchcliffe era is full of old and dead threats returning – even if they’re ones we’d never seen before. It’s not nostalgic, so much as it’s concerned with the idea that the past is still around and haunting the present. The past becomes this source of tremendous anxiety and horror. And that’s wonderfully compelling.
But then you get Talons, where the story falls into this maddening blind spot because of its obsession with the past. Because Robert Holmes dusts off a bunch of old genres for a delightful romp and doesn’t stop to think about the implications of doing Fu Manchu in 1977. And yet despite that, it’s brilliant. It really is a thrilling, clever, terribly fun story.
But there’s an arrogance to it that’s really troubling. It’s like Doctor Who, having unplugged from the culture a bit and gone down its own visionary rabbit hole, completely forgets that there’s a culture out there. And so it’s fitting that this tone-deaf bit of genius is where the Hinchcliffe era goes out, because in practice that’s also why Hinchcliffe got sacked – because he got politically out-maneuvered by a media illiterate fundamentalist nutjob.
With your previous volumes, you’ve split them by Doctor. This time, you’ve only covered Tom Baker’s first three years, leaving the last four to the next volume. Could you explain why you’ve made that choice?
Well, the lofty aesthetic reason is that Talons of Weng-Chiang really does mark the end of an era. The last proper essay in the book is one I’m very proud of about Mary Whitehouse and the sacking of Philip Hinchcliffe. And there’s a real transition there. Doctor Who comes out of it hobbled – Graham Williams comes in and is basically told to make a neutered and watered down version of the program, which is a nightmarish assignment, and despite a truly noble effort on his part he never quite gets it to work. Then comes the decade-long John Nathan-Turner era. So that is, in many ways, the beginning of the end. The first four books are Doctor Who’s imperial phase. The next are something a bit different.
The much less interesting and ultimately more immediate reason is that the print on demand service I use caps out at 828 pages. Volume Three weighed in at 380 pages on five seasons, and none of those essays were the sprawling epics that are the essays on The Deadly Assassin or Logopolis, the first of which is something like twelve thousand words, and the latter of which is something even more grotesque like seventeen. And so the idea of a book that spanned seven seasons with those two essays in it made me worry I was going to run up against the maximum page count.
It’s not the only volume I’m going to have trouble with – the McCoy book is going to be an absolute beast because it has all the New Adventures stuff in it too. But the Tom Baker era has a fairly logical point to split it at that gives you two satisfying books. Whereas TARDIS Eruditorum Volume 8: The Out of Print Seventh Doctor Novels After Ace Left just doesn’t seem like a book that’s going to earn back its production costs. So I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it, but for this one, at least, the choice was pretty straightforward.
One criticism your work has received in the past is that you build very elaborate superstructures of theory on factual bases that don’t really hold their weight — for example, the evidence for David Whitaker having an interest in alchemy mostly comes from a single interview of dubious provenance. To what extent do you think that’s a fair criticism?
Completely and devastatingly fair. But I feel like one of the nice things about Doctor Who is that it is so thoroughly well-documented. I mean, the factual account of Doctor Who’s history is well-sourced and well-recorded. If you want to know the basic story of what happened, you’re spoiled for choice.
I don’t think TARDIS Eruditorum could exist without that. Because what I’m doing isn’t just interested in factual truth. I mean, I don’t want to get to the point of being demonstrably and falsifiably wrong, but my goal is to tell and interesting and plausible story that allows Doctor Who and the world to be looked at in a different sort of light. I’m not so much shooting to be right as I’m shooting to not be wrong, and to be interesting and worthwhile.
So, yes, Whitaker’s fascination with alchemy… I mean, regardless of the provenance of the interview, the actual material is there. Esoteric and alchemical readings of Whitaker’s work are profoundly easy. Of course, they’re profoundly easy of Moffat’s work too, so this has little useful biographical weight. The text still supports it. Whatever Whitaker (or Moffat, for that matter) thought they were writing, what they actually wrote consistently reads well along those lines. That’s enough to justify exploration.
In the end, if you want to look for where the factual basis for my reading breaks down, it’s probably somewhere around where I decide to treat Doctor Who as a quasi-sentient metafiction that embodies a primal cultural force in late 20th century Britain.
You made that decision largely around the time of your essay on The Tenth Planet, William Hartnell’s last story (and one very much in the spirit of Whitaker, though not actually by him). You’re currently working on a second edition of the first TARDIS Eruditorum volume, after a successful Kickstarter — have you gone back and altered many of the essays in that volume to fit that idea?
A bit – it certainly was nice to revisit The Edge of Destruction and The Rescue a bit in light of Whitaker’s visionary genius. And I took the opportunity to add an essay on Doctor Who in an Exciting Adventure With the Daleks, in part to have something that really focused on David Whitaker as a writer. But I found that the book led up to its conclusion well. Much of the Hartnell era consists of the show inventing itself and figuring out what it wants to be. It starts to figure itself out in the second season, but I think it really is around The Tenth Planet that it gets brave enough to start exploring the darker side of its era. It’s only quite late in the era that you get a suggestion that maybe science and technology might not be straightforward paths to utopia – it gets set up a bit with Ian Stuart Black’s two stories in Season Three. But the book is, for me, very much the story of Doctor Who coming to life, so to speak.
One view you’ve repeatedly expressed in your blog posts and books is that modern Doctor Who — and modern TV in general — is simply better, on the basic levels of acting, writing, music, and so forth, than TV of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. This is obviously something which we disagree about profoundly, but it’s something you’ve usually stated as an obvious fact. What evidence can you point to to back this up?
Well, there’s always going to be an underlying value judgment to this that goes beyond evidence. The evidence I’d marshall is that there’s a thorough consistency to Doctor Who these days – a conscious decision to make sure everything is working towards storytelling instead of just working towards hitting the transmission date. The fact that there are tone meetings and people spending tons of effort on little, tiny details of the sets or costumes make Doctor Who a far richer, denser experience. As, honestly, do the shorter episodes and the requirement that the show get on with the interesting bits and discard as much waffling about as possible.
But on some level we’re on a “radio is better than television because the picture is so much more vivid” argument here. Certainly I had a much easier time spinning out 4000 word epic (mis)interpretations of the Pertwee era than I do with the Tennant era, because the Tennant era is so densely packed that there’s not the same sort of marginal bits of the text to pry my way into. So from that perspective the new series is infuriating crap that ruins my every waking hour.
To some extent this is probably just a personal idiosyncrasy. It comes down, in the end, to the fact that I can’t bring myself to let go of the idea that history is teleological, and that progress is a thing. And it’s entirely possible – probable even – that I’m wrong, that civilization is a disease that destroys planets, that everything that looks like progress is just the hubris leading to an economic and ecological collapse, and that we’d have been much better off in the long run if we’d just stuck to an oral tradition and cave painting.
Moving on to The Last War In Albion — you’re on to part four, and so far you’ve got as far as Moore’s backup strips in Star Wars Weekly. How long do you plan this project as lasting?
Well, you know, a man reaches the age of 31 and thinks, “you know what I need? A massive project that will take these pesky remaining decades of my life away from me.”
More seriously, when TARDIS Eruditorum wraps next fall I expect that I will move The Last War in Albion to the main feature of the blog, though possibly only twice weekly. And from that position I expect it will run an amount of time comparable to TARDIS Eruditorum’s near four-year run, possibly a bit longer. The project is designed to be alarmingly definitive and complete – right now I’m trying to get Chapter Five so that it contains at least some discussion of all sixty short stories Alan Moore did for IPC in the early 1980s. Because what Alan Moore scholarship is really missing is a thorough discussion of “Skirmish” from Prog 267 of 2000 AD. (Which is actually interesting, as it’s one of three times Alan Moore references Space Invaders, which appears to be the only video game he has ever engaged with meaningfully. I can only assume some pub in Northampton had a Space Invaders machine.)
The point, of course, is to take what is in reality a petty spat between two geniuses who are too similar to ever possibly get along and inflate it until it becomes a symbol for all questions of creativity and artistic vision over the last thirty-five years or so.
What do you see as the basic thesis of The Last War In Albion? Do you have one yet?
The basic thesis is that once you scrape away the hilariously bitchy personal attacks, the pedantic priority disputes, and all the decade-old spats between oversized egos, the feud between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison is actually one that embodies a fundamental tension in British culture and history, which is the tension between burrowing into a place (a tension embodied by the great British tradition of eccentric and magical spaces hidden in the ordinary) and wanting to expand and reach outwards (a tension embodied by the somewhat less great British tradition of conquering the world).
You’ve already talked about bringing in discussions of people like Warren Ellis and Mark Millar, and the larger phenomenon of British comics writers working on American comics, as The Last War In Albion moves forward. How do you expect to deal with the fact that while Morrison has interacted with, and been influenced by, these people, Moore seems to be completely ignorant of anything in superhero comics from about 1995 onwards?
Well, the War is always going to remain rooted in Britain. In part because of Alan Moore, who so thoroughly embodies that inclination to create magical and eccentric spaces within the ordinary. The fact that he’s decided he’s never leaving Britain again, leaving Northampton as rarely as possible, and that his literary concerns are going to draw more and more inwards while simultaneously growing more and more intellectually expansive (as in the movement from Voice of the Fire to Jerusalem, which is wildly longer and about a much smaller portion of Northampton) makes him embody one particular tradition, and one that you can see writers like Ellis and Gaiman keep a foot in. Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane strikes me as tremendously influenced by Moore, and much as Ellis works primarily in the US, his work seems to often be about treating American spaces like British ones and burrowing into them. Certainly that seems to me to describe Gun Machine.
Whereas Grant Morrison… what’s the last thing he did that really felt rooted in Scotland? “St. Swithin’s Day?” Even if we broaden it to feeling British, we’re at, what, The Invisibles? Which is just as rooted in America. He’s off at the other end, embodying an altogether more imperialist tradition. But I don’t mean to paint him as a villain here, because everyone save Moore himself is equally taken by that approach, writing with a furious desire to get outside of the UK. So Moore and Morrison end up on opposite ends of a spectrum that other people end up in the middle of.
So much of your work is about British creators or characters — do you find that you’re at a disadvantage with being based in the US?
To an extent. I mean, ignorance is often one of the easiest paths to creativity, for better or for worse. I’m sure being outside of Britain gives me a different perspective on British culture, and that no amount of research about British history or culture is ever going to eliminate that slight outsider’s perspective. Which is a mixed blessing, as I find out every few weeks when someone in the comments section points out something that would be incredibly obvious if I were British that I completely missed.
And, on a practical level, there are some barriers. I suspect I could approach Last War in Albion differently if I were in the UK and could go to conventions and post-convention pubs and get to know some of the relevant parties and sweet talk my way into getting some interviews done.
But equally, the Atlantic Ocean is a lot smaller in 2013 than it used to be, and it’s easier to be a part of a British cultural scene from the US than it was even five or ten years ago.
Your Wonder Woman book is, I think, the first major book about the character to have been written. Why do you think that such a popular character has been more or less ignored by writers?
Because, as some comics writer or another suggested, the superhero comics audience is primarily made up of emotionally subnormal middle-aged men. Which is why I try to spend no more than about $30 a week on superhero comics.
Which is to say, I think the problem with Wonder Woman is that she’s popular, but not really among the mainstream comics audience, for whom an unwavering symbol of female dominance is perhaps somewhat anxiety-inducing. So Wonder Woman gets caught in an odd position – she’s beloved of almost everyone except her target audience. Which is what fascinates me about her, but is also why it took a while for comics scholarship to get around to her.
That said, I have to give credit to Tim Hanley, whose book Wonder Woman Unbound was probably finished before mine, but which is coming out through a real publisher and thus is slower to print. And which I expect to be a corker. So I may be the first one published, but I don’t think I’m the first one written.
Your original idea for the Wonder Woman book was very different from the book it became — how did the idea evolve over the two years in which you wrote it?
The main issue was that I overestimated the degree to which William Moulton Marston’s visionary weirdness would survive his departure. I really wasn’t prepared for the twenty year slog of Robert Kanigher comics that followed Marston’s reign, in which everything interesting about the character was systematically drained and she became the most generic thing imaginable. So what was originally going to be a book about this weird, visionary quality and how it transformed over the decades became a book that was about the give and take – how writers would determinately try to stamp out any trace of Marston’s wonderfully insane worldview only to see it stubbornly sprout up again in a new form. Hence the title change – the original title, Paradise Dungeons, was to be about that central Marstonian tension between BDSM and utopianism. Instead it became A Golden Thread, which is a reference both to Wonder Woman’s lasso and an old Pete Seeger song about utopianism, and which suggests a sort of ongoing strand of history that weaves in and out of a larger fabric.
Your preface for the Wonder Woman book talks about how utopianism has essentially disappeared from our current culture — which is actually a point that Lawrence Miles made to me, in almost the same words, earlier this week, which struck me as interesting because you so often disagree profoundly with Miles’ take on culture — what do you think the causes of that lack of utopianism are, and what do you think can be done about it?
I wonder sometimes if the only thing Miles and I really disagree on is that issue of teleology that I think you and I split on. Miles thinks we’re all screwed, and I still assume we’re probably not.
I think utopianism and eschatology are really two sides of the same coin. They both assume that some massively transformative event is going to happen that’s going to completely change the nature of society. They only disagree on whether we get a happy ending or all die horribly. And so utopianism is on the wane right now because at the moment most of the plausible candidates for huge historical transformation look like they’re going to kill us. As they have since the atomic bomb, really. I mean, I think you can really point at Hiroshima and say “there’s where the changeover happened.”
But I’m not sure that the lack of utopianism is a problem as such. History suggests that the transformative event is going to happen, because it always has before. Change happens. Ruling powers fall and new systems of the world rise up to take their place. Historically this is neither eschatological nor utopian – those are just different sets of metaphors for grappling with the phenomenon. I tend towards the utopian almost out of protest – because I’m interested in new ways of looking at the future. I love that bit in The End of the World where Davies has the Doctor tease Rose gently for how humanity never takes into account the possibility that they might survive. I think it’s brilliant – because yes, that is the unexplored possibility right now.
But ultimately, I think the way for utopianism to come back is for there to be a big change. I’m kind of increasingly becoming a neutral fan on this one – I’m not rooting for utopianism or eschatology any more, I just want to get on with it and find out which one we get, and I’m hoping for a good, interesting patch of history. Clearly I’ve already been cursed with interesting times, so I may as well enjoy being interested.
On a completely different note, you’ve recently attained a minor degree of celebrity for your actions over the horrific misgendering of Chelsea Manning by Wikipedia. For those who weren’t following the situation, what happened?
Oh, man. Well, basically, there was a big and very contentious debate on Wikipedia over whether the article on Chelsea Manning should be listed under her name, or under her birth name. And this argument had numerous upsetting and problematic dimensions, many of them caused by the arbitration committee, who are basically the de facto authority structure on Wikipedia. And I wrote a couple of blog posts reporting on what happened in some detail, and the arbitration committee responded to those by trumping up some fairly ridiculous reasons to ban me from the project.
I should clarify that the problem here really is the arbitration committee. The Wikimedia Foundation, who own the servers, were consistently appalled by the debate, considered it self-evident that the article should be titled Chelsea Manning, and have largely been sympathetic over my ban. Unfortunately, the monster they’ve created in the form of the English Wikipedia community and the arbitration committee has gotten so out of their control that they’re afraid of rocking the boat, and so as much as they’re sympathetic they’re also totally powerless. There’s some lesson here about digital communities, anarchism, and structures of authority, I’m sure.
And finally, I was going to ask you some insightful and interesting questions about your book on Flood (which is an album I love, incidentally), but your publishers still haven’t sent me the promised review copy, so I can’t. If I were to ask you an interesting question about that book, what sort of interesting answer would you give?
Well, as with any book like this it’s a lie constructed to tell an interesting story, so I imagine that in reality you can’t actually explain the entirety of the 1990s in terms of Flood, but we get closer than you’d expect. I think the aesthetic of flooding – which gets back to what I was saying about how the new series of Doctor Who has such a dense construction. I think there is a strong case to be made that oversignification is the new normal, and that They Might Be Giants were ahead of the curve on that.
I assume the question was “what do you get when you multiply six by nine.”
And since asking that question, you’ve been good enough to email me a PDF, which means I can ask some intelligent questions about it, or at least some questions. You talk about the aesthetic of “flooding” and how that makes They Might Be Giants appealing to, for want of a better word, “geeks”. Now what interested me about this was something you didn’t specifically state, but it seems to me that that “flooding” is very much analogous to the sensory overload that comes with autism spectrum disorders (the ‘intense world’ hypothesis), and without wanting to pathologise too much, it’s safe to say that a lot of geeks are on the spectrum. I don’t really have a question here, but it’s an observation I thought worth making.
That’s really interesting. There is, of course, a longstanding tradition of philosophical tomes that are based around various sorts of non-normative psychologies. You’ve got Deleuze and Guattari’s landmark Capitalism and Schizophrenia, for instance. And Michel Foucault makes much out of the idea that what sorts of non-normative psychologies fascinate a society tells us a lot about that society. So it feels like we’re due for a big, philosophical treatise that takes autism as the defining condition of our time.
Whether or not that’s a good thing, of course, is massively up for debate. Certainly I’m not going to be the one to write it – I’m far too wary of the way in which it would be pathologizing and over-generalizing. But yes, I suspect you could retool the Flood book to be about why They Might Be Giants are a comforting and accessible band for people on the autism spectrum without changing the argument too much.
But one point you do make is about how They Might Be Giants are very distinct from someone like Jonathan Coulton, who is a much more explicitly geek-focussed songwriter. Do you think that the mainstreaming of geek concerns has led, at all, to a predictability and pandering in media aimed at geeks, compared to the way people like They Might Be Giants were creating music that geeks happened to like?
Well, it’s not like Jonathan Coulton is scoring hit records, even if he is getting ripped off by Glee. You’d be hard-pressed to find any explicitly geek rock that had the cultural impact of Flood save for that kind of awful eighteen month period where The Presidents of the United States of America were popular. And even there, we’re far enough down the road that I think we can be pretty definitive in answering whether “Birdhouse In Your Soul” or “Peaches” left a more lasting cultural impression.
So I’m hard-pressed to say that there’s been a mainstreaming. I think what there’s been is a bunch of technological changes that make being outside of the mainstream a less financially suicidal creative move. I don’t know that you could have Jonathan Coulton or MC Frontalot or the Minibosses before the Internet. Indeed, one of the points we try to make in the Flood book is that you can’t really have They Might Be Giants before the Internet.
You talk a lot in the book about how They Might Be Giants’ work is driven by technology, whether the way their early songs don’t fade out (because they were designed for live performance), or the way Dial-A-Song forced them to come up with something new every day. This is a theme you also talk about, to a lesser extent, in the Doctor Who books — the way a creative work is dependent on the means of production. What changes do you see happening in creative works over the next decade as a result of the mass ownership of technology which a couple of decades ago was unattainable even with Hollywood budgets?
Stipulating that nobody ever gets the answer right when presented with a question of the form “try being a futurist…”
We’ve already seen the midlist drop out in a lot of media. Every interview Terry Gilliam gives, practically, he bemoans how Hollywood only wants to make $100m films or $5m films, and doesn’t want to do the sort of $40m films he likes to do anymore. And that’s what you see across the board – that we’re in a situation where there’s massive, high budget tentpoles that are meant to be hugely popular, and there’s people with marginal audiences that they can make a living off of because of advances in technology and distribution, but the middle of the road options are just withering and dying. And this isn’t just true of movies – you can make the claim pretty well in any medium except maybe television, where the outright marginal still isn’t quite doable. But even there, the Internet seems set to change that with stuff like Felicia Day’s The Guild and Jane Espenson’s Husbands.
It seems a pretty safe bet that the tentpoles are going to implode, as lumbering giants often do. It’s only going to take a couple of really high profile busts to bring the whole system crashing down. Eventually someone’s going to make a really bad bet and an Avengers or Avatar sized movie is going to take a company down. I mean, you already saw MGM nearly go under just a few years ago. And I assume the same risk exists in any other medium. DC or Marvel are going to get the summer event wrong two or three years in a row and some executive is finally going to say “wait a moment, why are we even bothering in this dying market” and pull the plug on the comics lines. I’d bet on that happening somewhere around a decade from now, if not sooner.
Which is going to leave the tiny, niche products. Which is an interesting cultural place to be – the death of the mainstream. That said, I remember earlier today you were sharing a Lawrence Miles quote on Tumblr about how he doesn’t think there will be any great novelists anymore, and it was a really interesting quote, but I think he’s completely wrong because he’s assuming that the reception a work gets at the time is terribly relevant to its long-term greatness. I mean, nobody at the time would have picked “The Tyger” as a likely candidate for “the greatest poem of 1794,” but the only people who would disagree with you on that now are people who want to advocate for the importance of The Book of Urizen.
Which is to say that I think the interesting question becomes preservation. When you have an era where all of the art is marginal and made for small audiences, the question becomes what’s even going to stick around in a century. Digitization is really scary in that regard, because platform changes happen way too often. There’s no shortage of libraries that proudly acquired loads of books on CD-ROM expecting that they were riding the wave of the future only to end up looking like dinosaurs. Fifteen years ago Encarta looked as sure a bet for what reference books would be in the future as Wikipedia does now. But now, who even has a computer that can run Encarta 96? That’s basically a lost work already.
The stuff that seems set to survive is the stuff with idiosyncratically invested fan communities. You can go to any major torrent site right now and get the complete run of DC Comics because there are crazy fans who preserved them. Which is a big deal, because huge swaths of that stuff is never going to get a legally authorized reprint from DC itself. Likewise, the NES is outlasting its hardware because people made emulators. So in this regard, geek culture seems a good bet because it appeals to the people who are invested in archiving and backwards compatibility.
Which oddly brings us back to Doctor Who, which survived the purge of 1960s television better than almost any other series because it had weirdo fans who made audio recordings of every episode and who have acted decisively in the dying years of the existing archives to salvage whatever episodes remained. But that’s not because Doctor Who was more popular than other shows, it’s because its fans were more obsessive. And I think that same logic is going to be true about a lot of media over the next few decades.
And finally, who would win in a fight — John Flansburgh and Alan Moore versus Grant Morrison and John Linnell?