Did Somebody Say McThor’s?

The analogy in the headline “Thor 2 is a Cinematic McDonald’s Cheeseburger” (Eileen Jones, Jacobin) is apt. There is indeed a strong parallel between the predominance in comics-to-film adaptations and diner-food restaurants: A few homogenous, formulaic products aimed at broad mass-market appeal. But far from Jones’s “perfect example of how market competition does not actually provide us with the highest quality product,” both are textbook illustrations of Benjamin Tucker’s 1899 observation that “the trusts, instead of growing out of competition, as is so generally supposed, have been made possible only by the absence of competition, only by the difficulty of competition, only by the obstacles placed in the way of competition — only, in short, by those arbitrary limitations of competition which we find in those law created privileges and monopolies.”

When asked by Equal Time for Freethought if the fact that “we have McDonald’s, we have Burger King, we have Arby’s; we’ve got a number of entities out there competing with our business” means the current market economy is fundamentally different than the overt chartered monopolies of the mercantilist age, Douglas Rushkoff replied that “McDonald’s and Burger King are essentially the same thing; in the long run the same class of speculators, of shareholders, who are running these companies. The problem is that it’s impossible for smaller, local entities — for people who actually do things, who create value in sustainable ways — to compete against them. And the worse the policies of these companies get, the harder it is actually for us to compete against them, because they get regulations put in place by government that actually cements their place in.”

Intellectual property law is similarly written to benefit big established players, concentrating monopoly rights to the backlog of ideas. A sequel to an adaptation of a character based on mythology owned by a corporation whose bread-and-butter is drawing on folklore exemplifies the funnel effect. It’s even explicitly noted in Jacobin that Marvel is “focused to an alarming degree on denying ownership rights to its content creators.”

Rushkoff notes that contrary to the view that due to economies of scale, “mass production and industry is somehow more efficient than local commerce, local creation of goods and services” in fact “[i]t’s only more efficient when you write laws that make it more efficient. So while big industry is certainly more efficient for, maybe, making microchips, or making things that you need big companies and thousands of people to do, it’s not more efficient to make oats that way, or corn that way; or any of the things that we can make and store locally for one another.” One of which is engaging sequential-art stories on paper. The small teams of writers and illustrators that produce individual comics stories issue-by-issue resemble the independent mom-and-pop diners that predominated before the subsidized rise of fast food chains. Rather than taking centralized production as given and reining in its worst aspects, removing the chokehold of distribution gatekeepers would allow a multitude of small-scale producers to connect directly with their audience.

Only in an industry with grotesquely overextended operating costs could a film like Hulk take significant creative risks, gross a quarter-billion dollars, and still be regarded as box office poison. Even in an economy stacked against their audience awareness, comics properties like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Walking Dead have achieved multimedia success while remaining independently owned. Steadily decreasing capital costs for multimedia production could allow this to become the rule rather than the exception.

In the early twentieth century, competition between local newspapers for readership produced comics masterpieces like Little Nemo in Slumberland and Krazy Kat. A Tuckerite competitive market would unleash that ferment on — to borrow an idea invented in those funny pages — Popeye’s spinach.

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