A Middle-Aged Dad at a Drake Show Looking Around for Approval

When older people talk about younger people, which does periodically happen, the best they can do is demonstrate knowledge of what matters to the young, without wandering into “middle-aged dad at a Drake show looking around for approval” territory. The young certainly have the same conversation about the old, but the cool ones can’t afford to go to a Drake show anymore. Why should they go anyway, when you can stream his album or watch him perform on any number of free content providers on the Internet?

My conversation with Youth in Decline publisher Ryan Sands, about the generation gap in comics publishing keeps veering into comparisons to the music industry, and even Drake is already a dead metaphor. At several junctures I make mental notes to look up names not just of musicians but of musical categories I’ve never heard of, such as “cloud rap remix DJs.”

One might take for granted that we can simply say or type any phrase into thin air and hear or read a concise definition, today, because this is not the case for companies like Youth in Decline. Few tech brands state what exactly they do on their home page, for example. There is no About Page on Youth in Decline’s home page. That is, the About Page is hidden in a link adjacent to the site’s copyright notice and says:

Youth in Decline is a publisher of lovely and strange zines, comics, and books. We are based in San Francisco, and work out of a small office/Risograph print shop called Mission Risoplex.

When I ask Sands about hiding About pages, he says his and the publishing company’s role should be to remain invisible in the process of promoting artists, so the site is actually moot.

“Ideally, you’re interviewing the artists and not me, but since I’m doing this, it means I haven’t done a good job of being invisible. Being a good publisher means getting out of the artist’s way, and me doing this interview is me not getting out of the way.”

The balance of publisher and persona is negotiated very awkwardly, as Sands is in fact well-known in the industry for his personal editorial discretion. But if Sands is sheepish about his role as a publisher it’s because he’s a self-proclaimed naif to The Industry.

Ryan Sands of Youth in Decline.
Ryan Sands of Youth in Decline.

Having a persona in the independent comics scene is a little awkward anyway. Independent comics publishing can sometimes feel like a subaltern cottage industry, its market composed of creators of other comics. This makes each member of the industry a person of interest as a buyer and a seller. For effect, it’s worth thinking about how the major comics publishers operate. Ironically, it is major comics publishing that gets mired in controversy with attempts to keep authorship ambiguous by bifurcating the creative pool of artists and writers. This is presumably to differentiate for readers, but more likely just a complicated licensing problem.

Of course, this difference between an old publisher with a house full of nameless creators and a new publisher with a famous individual editor is clearly not generational, since many in the major houses are quite young and plenty of independent artists are well into their dotage. The difference here is simply economical. Editors of franchise comics have to focus on a byline that will generate sales in multiples of a thousand, and smaller scale editors are lucky if they move a hundred zines.

The pattern of creative difference between the young and old is most evident in how we use digital and social media. Older publishers have added digital platforms as a matter of course, whereas most newer publishers launch on the Internet as a matter of default. This is in turn qualified by social media, mobile interfaces and crowd-funding: all but completely alien concepts but 15 years ago.  If the Internet is a litmus for age, it would make Sands the youngest publisher in spirit: aside from working full-time at YouTube (he runs YID after hours and on weekends), Sands started as an early member of the Google Books team.

Google Books’ copyright controversies now seem almost quaint but accidentally paved the way for new online content sharing models. The Authors Guild v. Google Inc. case demonstrates the angst of digital media and publishing in the early 2000s. Today, in hindsight, the digital publishing economy seems to be organized by Amazon controversies, and most notably in 2012, when Apple Inc. alongside five major publishers lost an antitrust case presumably meant to gird themselves against Amazon hegemony.

From a content point-of-view, though, these cases performed a necessary sort of digital interference to make way for new means of sharing and showing content unhindered by copyright wars. Arguably, the ground zero of conflict-free Internet content is Tumblr, where “K-Hole” frequently follows its utterance, and describes a late night foraging of obscure tags leading to everything from “ASCII art” to “dad pussy.” What users get to forget while in these rabbit holes is that this wild content frontier is still just another corporate delivery system.

Today, many publishers and comics artists exist in part or whole within this Tumblr gateway. As a platform, it is a literal extrapolation of the “show, don’t tell” credo, focusing as a backend technology on the act of sharing, and on the front-end as a seamless showcase, primarily for art.

Youth in Decline has a Tumblr account, but Sands reiterates about his company’s site organization that “the website should be the books.” The purpose of the site is only secondary and in support of the organic primary Internet that forms in individual user behavior.

“The idea of you coming specifically to the site is strange. I mean how often do you look at YouTube videos on YouTube versus seeing it on your own social media feeds? And how often to you interact with a comic in the thing that made it? It’s fairly uncommon. So if you even manage to get to the website, I do want you to go straight to the books.”

The assumption is telling. Many readers will immediately counter that they are on YouTube dot com all the time. According to a Google User Behavior report comparing YouTube and Facebook viewership, 68% of viewers go to YT for a specific purpose, compared to 37% of those who go to Facebook for specific videos. The ratio is exactly opposite when those surveyed were asked where they go to discover things that will interest them. This research would suggest that the person Sands has in mind is looking to be introduced to content, while those who question his assumption may already know what they want.

If an article purporting to discuss a generational gap in the comics industry is spending a lot of time talking about video, it is only to elucidate precisely how different our Internets are, and how this may translate to how we consume comics today. Video continues to be a dominant media format in the younger more mobile demographic but elude older media consumers who use “Snapchat” as shorthand for “very young person tool.”

The very nature of the Internet also informs Sands’ selection process: “I have a couple theories about the scene being weird, mostly from my being naive, but it seems like in 2015, language barrier should be a fake reason to not know about something. It should be an artificial barrier to knowing other scenes in other countries. It’s not true but it seems like it is. How boring and annoying is it that with Google Translate you can’t know a lot more about what’s happening in other countries. Half the books I’m publishing, I’m trying to find in other countries, or find from the Internet, which I think is another meta-fictional country, and bring them to American audiences.”

At this point in the interview, my jaw clenches in horror. The idea that any automated translation program could do the job of a trained human interpreter (full disclosure: I am a trained human interpreter), is frankly depressing. I ask if this mightn’t also be a generational thing but he concedes that of course, nothing is better than a real writer, because we’re both being diplomatic.

The moral is that the Internet used as a literary domain isn’t without its problems, but how can an industry informed by the print format take advantage of the reading culture created by the Internet?  Where does content start to suffer its medium and where does it thrive?

I share with Sands a bit of conversation I had with Dan Nadel in prepping for the interview. Nadel sees the content shift somewhere with 90s pop culture. To him, those who did not experience the 90s as adults, i.e. the young, seem “unironic and ahistorical.” If I were to take this a dialectical step further, those who did bloom in the 90s, could be identified conversely, as “ironic and apolitical.”

Sands agreed a lot had changed since anti-system grunge culture to open-source Tumblr culture. Today’s popular cultures are self-aware in their consumerist fervor, which has created the anthemic devices some of the older folks may deem self-obsessed. The classic accusation is “millennials are all narcissistic.”

When I suggested comics were shifting from navel-gazing and self-loathing to absurdist plot victories to my 27 year old business partner Graham Kolbeins (i.e. young), he countered with examples of the depressed characters in Simon Hanselman’s “Meg Mog and Owl” and mentioned the importance of critical reader feedback, including Hanselman’s criticism of Johnny Ryan’s Prison Pit. I asked him if perhaps the Internet engendered flame wars at the expense of a real dialogue. He says, “I think we’re going through a normal negotiation of terminology but exacerbated by the Internet and the rapidity of change that technology brings. Sexual identity in particular had gotten so much more specific and profligate in its categories, and that’s exciting on the one hand for youth who are struggling to define themselves, but sometimes eye roll-worthy for older people still getting used to the LGBTQ standards.”

Such a dilemma raised by the young typically raises the ire of the older. There is no better case in point than magazine editorial obsession with an ironic person’s greatest bugaboo: political correctness.

Tim Hodler shared a telling anecdote from a recent survey course on graphic novels he taught to undergraduates, in which he assigned Ghost World  by Dan Clowes. Many of the students reacted poorly to the book, and came away with the conclusion that Rebecca and Enid didn’t have to be so "mean.” I initially guffawed at this criticism, like a typical Old. These two girls were heroes to me when I first read the book as a lonely disenchanted teen. Hodler clarifies that while he was initially a little surprised, these are very intelligent students who were "thoughtful and engaged and taking stuff seriously in just the way they should have been. There may be some generational shift in terms of how people process certain kinds of irony, but I'm not 'concerned' about the direction of society."

So I re-read Ghost World, and have to admit: Rebecca and Enid are dicks. Perhaps times have changed, but not in the substance of irony, rather the substance of humor. Ghost World is still awesome, but readers today have moved on from identity politics to identity rhetoric, and these girls now present as brats instead of misfits.

Sands is uneasy assuming sides when I asked about this divide. He joked that he too re-read Ghost World and can see how they are mean, and even though he felt he was an Old, he would always side with the young if forced to choose in a debate. He repeated, “always.”

For context, I spoke to an elder statesman of manga, Gengoroh Tagame, mostly because it was convenient to ask him opinion at the time as I was wrangling him on tour. I asked Tagame what he thought had changed in manga craft since the digital age. The change he identified wasn’t political or emotional at all, but about craft. He suggested today’s manga artists are more influenced by gaming culture, which manifests itself in a heavier focus on character design. This doesn’t so much bother as perplex him.

“When I was honing my manga skills it was all about storytelling and writing. Today I think it’s more about icons and individuals.” Jillian Tamaki, who also just happened to be nearby when Sands and I were having our initial conversation, noted something similar. “The secret to comics isn’t that you’re good at drawing, but that you’re good at writing,” she says.

As far as the virtue of publishing craft is concerned, it may be that previously, the point of publishing was the book as the final product, or a motion picture adaptation if you weren’t scared of lawyers. This may have lent itself to a deeper focus on narrative. Today, the comics product can easily preclude merchandise, and even non-merchandise: a tally of Likes, Retweets, Reblogs, and Followers. Sands notes that the alacrity with which brands like MASSIVE GOODS (which I own) has moved shirts and sweatshirts so unapologetically seems more a testament to changed times, than whether “kids today” are more or less ironic or self-involved. I have to agree. In the 1990s perhaps, you were a dickhead to collect band merch before the records. Today, even the albums are just tokens. It is possible that today, comics are just part of a larger visual commercial culture that does not necessarily depend on format or revenue anymore, and this means we are getting closer to a purely abstract visual culture of engagement. But what if all the abstraction is subterfuge, and at the expense of history and a certain kind of craftsmanship? When we step back and look at all of this, could it be it’s just one big ad for Cool Marketing?

In a recent follow-up to his original 2001 documentary “Merchants of Cool,” capitalism ombudsman Douglas Rushkoff points out that his original reveal was that kids refused to be marketed to, and that’s why the jobs of professional marketers became necessarily insipid. Today, by distinction, the youth market relishes in their obedience to brands. Kids today consume in exhibitionist reward states. In one poignant sting, a young woman says “I don’t think ‘sell out’ is negative. It’s positive!” Far from a moral judgment, this just means that in a so-called ahistorical un-ironic culture, one has to be completely transparent about their endorsements. And it’s possible kids in the 90s didn’t avoid consumer dictates. They just looked the other way in a way we can’t today.

Tamaki points out the obvious. “To go from writing comics at home to being a professional artist, you need to enter the paid ecosystem. This is how many people decide to pursue careers in graphic design and other client-oriented creative service professions.” Jessica Abel also recently wrote at length about the treachery of balancing artistic integrity with salesmanship, and what Tamaki earlier would have referred to as the crucial art of “straight up, making money.” In other words, “selling out” has lost its sting because youth today are just fighting “to sell.”

The presumption of marketing behind art is not lost on Sands. “Publishing is just two clicks away now. It used to be seven. I just help with the two, and barely. I want to double-bump the trampoline to amplify them into higher air.” (I challenge anyone still questioning whether there is a generational divide to picture Gary Groth saying he’ll double-bump the trampoline for Jaime Hernandez).  Sands notes that creators have unprecedented direct access to their readers today, and that this can affect both the content and the delivery system. This gives artists leverage, and makes finding a publisher less urgent.

Finally, today’s creator can self-publish with almost no stigma at all. In a final example of how generations use digital technology in the new direct-with-consumer process, I’ll address the successful crowdfunding campaign. Aside from it sometimes seeming like just a small step above panhandling from friends, the only real controversies Kickstarter suffers is the public appraisal of the creator’s financial needs, signifying our troubled relationship with selling versus exploiting (re: Tentpole directors like Joss Whedon making millions on private projects through consumer marketing). There can be unforeseeable fallout from even a successful campaign with the best intentions.  For example, a brick-and-mortar bookstore will be rescued by online contributions, and have no positive effect on their in-store sales (example: St. Marks Bookstore in New York City). But if Kickstarter were officially a comics publisher, they’d be worth $38 million across three thousand projects.

But again, Kickstarter succeeds as a patron precisely because it claims not to own the work, and has stayed largely invisible in the branding of projects. Asking Sands again about the importance of publishers as branded patrons, he says “you hopefully get to a certain size where someone can say ‘that’s a Youth in Decline book’ just by looking, and I guess the work should speak for itself. But like a record label… in the 90s, which is our touchpoint for all these weird decisions we’re making, you need to have a brand. Not a brand, but an absence of a brand. A feeling, a vibe.” And a vibe can be completely unironic and beautiful.