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Buzz From the No-Buzz Con
posted July 25, 2005
 

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Before the 2005 San Diego con falls the rest of the way out of the rear view window -- it's been about 27 years in Internet time since the show ended a week ago today -- I wanted to make a few last notes, mostly for my own benefit.

Conventional wisdom called this year's show a show without "buzz," which I take to mean there was no driving story or shift in emphases to delight over, puzzle after and talk about. Nothing happened to drive conversation in a single direction, or at least not a direction that I was aware of, like I had been in previous years. Although I've since received some complaints that there was plenty of buzz in the air, mostly from people who felt they were the cause of some, I think that the characterization of the show as kind of event-light gathering is a fair one. Not only that, but it sort of makes sense. It's logical that most comics companies are looking to places other than the Big Show for their major announcements.

One way this happens has become pretty obvious. Comic-Con International officials can finesse the point all they want, but it's clear that Marvel, and to a lesser extent the other mainstream comics companies, are more actively targeting the Wizard shows for a significant number of their major publishing announcements. There's format to consider, too. These little presentational panels at both Wizard's suite of shows and at San Diego are a way of not just disseminating information but a method of generating buzz that favors those companies' favored direct market communication vehicles. Wizard has a clearer shot at hosting this kind of thing, being, well, run by Wizard; there are also more Wizard shows. If these companies only wanted to disseminate their top news to a wide variety of sources, they would start doing press conferences again.

For smaller comics companies, shows like Book Expo America and events like the release of the next season's book catalog are more important publicity events in terms of their overall business model. These companies are rarely managers of sweeping fictional storylines, and thus there's little in the way of added benefit that big companies get in making pronouncements out of the acquisition of books. Does that make sense? I mean, the announcement from a major company is two-pronged, right? 1) Superstar Filmmaker (or whomever) to write Wolverine and 2) Wolverine will never be the same again (or whatever). For a smaller company, the news isn't so much the procurement but in the execution of those books, and with sell-through over time being more important than initial DM sales, repetition is more important than an initial news splash. Also, I'm not even sure they do general small-company panels at San Diego anymore, to be honest, which used to be a way to talk about several books at once.

All that out of the way -- sorry, but I warned you this would mostly be for me -- we turn to the show itself. And just because there wasn't one or two things people everywhere were talking about doesn't mean there weren't a short list of thigns being mulled over at various points throughout the show. I'm probably the least in-the-know guy there is, but here are a few even I heard discussed more than once.

Image's Secret Weapon -- People have begun to put two and two together. If media rights are going to become more important as an income stream for comics properties, and God help us, then there's something to be said for a company set up as a confederacy of self-publishers that takes zero percent of these rights. Image's comeback is a lot tougher than Erik Larsen attracting bigger names; the way Image is set up on a fee basis per title means you can have momentum problems establishing new comics. The zero percent taken for media rights could help ameliorate that by make the company popular for creators who already have some sort of relationship with filmmakers or agents but still want to get a property out into the comics market. It may also put some pressure on mid-sized companies that do almost nothing on behalf of the creators in this arena but who take 10, 25, 33, even 50 percent of the rights.

Mellow Alternatives -- I had quite a few people mention to me how odd it was for so many of the smaller companies to be attending the show and generally not being full of basket cases. NBM and Slave Labor I think have recently settled into a good, beneficial relationship with San Diego that carried over into this year; having Papercutz and a Disney Deal to talk about and celebrate just sort of added to their serene glow. But this year Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly, both companies that have had rough times in the last half-decade, seemed to have lots of books there, more planned, and no worries about making X-amount of money at the show to avoid having to fire an art director upon their return home or whatever. There was even one arts comics guy in the Small Press area who was planning on buying more space at the '06 show by the end of the '05 version. Ten years ago it would have been so weird to hear any artist like that express that sentiment I would have begged him not to buy the booth until I brought a doctor by.

Con Set-Up -- I heard a surprising lot of talk about con set-up issues; nothing bad, just people musing on the state of cons and how people display there. My favorite was eavesdropping on a pair of folks wondering out loud about DC's booth -- "Do they have a smaller one, you think, for modest shows? Or is it either all this (hand sweeping around) or nothing?" Also, I don't remember any super-serious complaints. It was pretty obvious to anyone who walked both ends of the exhibition hall that one end was more crowded than the other, but early rhetorical evidence suggests people seemed to enjoy their fair share of business. Mostly I heard people slightly puzzled about the presence of the comic strip people, kind of scattered in the comics retail end of the con, and that sort of makes sense, too. The other "families" or grouping in comics have been together at the show long enough for to settle into what Mark Evanier points out as pretty much general sort-of neighborhoods. The comic strip people and companies, having only been around a few years with any force, don't seem quite there yet. No one would describe a booth in terms of it being in the comic strip "area," for example. It should happen as people get used to those folks being there.

The Lull Before the Infinite Wars -- I admittedly only talk to about a dozen to fifteen mainstream comics folk at a show like this, but I thought the tone during many of the conversations was sort of interesting. It seemed that while there was an admission that DC Comics was becoming aggressive again, and that this should probably lead to an interesting next 36-40 months, this doesn't yet feel like a line versus line battle. Or, as one artist old me, "Not yet." When I think about it that makes total sense as the emphasis all seems to be on the first five titles in any given month, which would only affect a few creators. It's like there's a front line and a home front this time around.

Everybody's Got Something Going On -- If there wasn't buzz around a specific subject, there were certainly enough conversations about specific, legitimate projects. With DC/Vertigo planning a new line, Speakeasy and Alias doing more traditional brokered fantasy and adventure titles, AiT/Planet Lar doing more graphic novels, Scholastic expanding, Roaring Brook about ready to go with First Second, and Tokyopop doing more English-Language books, what was once "I have some minis here and maybe will get something going while I'm here" back in 2002 and 2003 became "I'll have a 128-page softcover out in November" in 2005. I don't think the market can bear all of these books becoming a hit, but there may be enough that a majority sneak through without punishing their host companies beyond repair. And in addition, it should be interesting to see how the industry is affected long-term by so many talents getting a chance to publish. It should be fun to watch.

cover to Aaron Renier's new book, a debut at the con