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July 28, 2010


Comic-Con 2010: A Final Report

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* here are my final thoughts on Comic-Con International 2010. I could stew on these for days and potentially come up with something a bit better, but in the spirit of the late Harvey Pekar I'm going to get it down on paper and deal with the consequences then.

* I think my lingering memory from Comic-Con International 2010 will be the cast of Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World on stage to present the first three Eisner Awards. The tiny men and women of that talented movie ensemble -- let's be honest, Brandon Routh was the only one who appeared as if he could ride all the rides at Disney World -- could not have looked less like they wanted to be there. Routh and a few cast members most people in the audience never heard of did the actual card reading and envelope opening. The rest of the actors stood there with blank stares on their faces -- most memorably the well-placed-for-video Jason Schwartzman. The actors left quickly, no doubt to parties of the kind popular mainstream comics writers have in recent years complained to me the Eisners kept them from attending. Now, I don't think I would have thought about it again, but afterward and for the next couple of days, about a dozen total comics people that were in attendance groused in my direction that the more popular cast members (basically Schwartzman and Michael Cera) ceding card-reading duties to others when the Eisner audience wanted to see them and not the lesser-known cast members was somehow disrespectful. That's an idea that even if true carries its own potentially ugly baggage about the way people should behave towards comics, people that don't have the same investment as the person shooting resentment their way. So it wasn't a flattering encounter on either side, although I think it was a telling one. No one needs to be automatically happy that a group of film actors are taking a moment to support a creator whose work they've interpreted (and have a PR moment besides); no one needs to be automatically upset if in doing so that group of performers doesn't act the way one imagines they should.

* CCI 2010 was a strange show. It was a pleasant one, with several surprises, but it was odd. I had a fantastic time, but I sense that others didn't, and that things are slipping in directions that may vastly reduce the value the show has for me and others like me.

* personal experience and intuition is a tough pair of strategies with which to analyze Comic-Con. Let's face it: nothing says the show shouldn't change under my feet. I'd have to be an egomaniac to think that a gigantic pop-culture event would be best served catering to the whims and exhortations of a 41-year-old comics obsessive. One thing that has been made more real to me in 2010, the year of the convention, is that conventions generally and Comic-Con specifically operate according to that old cliché: several thousand different experiences, all of which generate their own legitimacy. There are people that go to Comic-Con that do nothing but work on their costumes, or play games, or track down non-comics illustration, or fill their sketchbooks, or look for boutique toys. It's hard not to be churlish in making suggestions that might hamper someone else's experiences for the sake of making more universal my own.

* not that it's going to stop me.

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* so what was the source of the show's underlying, odd feel? I know that blanket pronouncements are a dime a dozen with these events, so I apologize for what's about to happen, but I have to say that it simply felt to me like the energy shifted to the movie end of things to the point it permeated the show experience even if one has no interest in movies. I say this as a guy whose last movie panel was 10 years ago when I stopped to tie my shoes in one, and as someone who reports almost solely on comics stuff when he's on site. For the first time at Comic-Con in 16 years, I felt surrounded by the film and television industries. I felt like I was attending the comics portion of their show. When I left for the day I felt like the film and television tracks had set the agenda. If I were to casually communicate to anyone who might ask via e-mail how I spent my day, I explained it to them in terms of pushing away from the other end of the exhibition hall rather than embracing the one I love. There are a lot of reasons that film and TV has become so dominant there. It's not just proportion. So many comics companies are movie companies now, first and foremost; others act that way for a long weekend; articles speak solely in cinematic terms. The shift might be best seen in the comics coverage in mainstream sources, both in the pity fuck nature of a lot of it and the fact that most of the comics stories end up being movie and television stories, too. Chew isn't a surprise publishing hit, it's a surprise publishing hit with a fast-track option. The Walking Dead isn't the series that's kept a lot of serial comics buying alive in comics shops and has made a superstar comics writer of Robert Kirkman, it's AMC's The Walking Dead. And so on. Film and television has become the medium through which we understand and communicate the cultural potency of things that aren't film and television, and that can't be healthy.

* the tendency to think in terms of other media speaks to a recurring theme in many of my conversations with comics folk. A lot of people are worried about the comics industry's ongoing fade. I hear this even from those for whom comics is an industry that hasn't served them particularly well. One cartoonist told me that he wants more than anything in the world to be able to sell comics. Not an option on a comic. Not licensing based on a comic. He wants to sell enough comics to be able to make it an ongoing, respectable, self-sustaining concern. Another cartoonist put it even more strongly, saying that if you were using your comic to lead people to buy something else, you were selling that something else, not comics. He was sick of hearing from those who manage to sell t-shirts or prints based on a comic, or a movie option based on a comic's cinematic promise, extolling these admittedly very real achievements as if they were a direct reflection on the comic rather than the t-shirt itself or the value of the license. Now, I'm not sure that argument would hold if you examine it with the bug-eyed scowl of the Internet pseudo-lawyer, and I think there's always going to be some value in selling things near something you create that does reflect on the creation. I also imagine most people who find a mechanism to keep publishing simply don't care if it has two mostly divorced avenues. But you know what? I find making comics for the sake of selling comics a thrilling way to think. Whatever happened to a focus on being able to sell these things? Why have we given that up? Why in the midst of the greatest explosion of excellent comics the art form has ever seen have we been so quick to settle for modest returns and so desperate to look elsewhere for profit?

* that being said, the biggest comics news story of the show in my opinion was not any one individual piece of book news or anything to do directly with movies but the rash of new publishing announcements, new imprints and new lines. I like and respect many of the people involved, but this is a totally ludicrous trend. The existing comics business infrastructure simply can't handle as many more books as seem planned, and the digital market is so woefully under-developed there's almost no chance for something to flower there as of yet. More than ever this is publishing towards a movie deal, towards one hit justifying the industry-weakening and life-unsettling chaff of 100 failures by those whose investment maybe isn't full time and heartfelt, towards plotting an additional and successive goal of a career in mainstream comics where then you can maybe make some money that in reality is one of the world's toughest games of musical chairs. It's madness, and because the infrastructure is skewed due to obsolete Distributor War agreements, these moves don't just have dire consequences in and of themselves but punish everyone, industry-wide. It needs to stop.

image* the floor of the show looked mostly the same to me, definitely so from about First Second all the way down to artist's alley. The biggest difference was right past the art comics publishers. There was no anchor area to send people. There was no Comic Relief at all. Bud Plant there at a reduced size from years past. I swear to God this is a true story: Someone walked up to me after the International Graphic Novels panel (Milo Manara, Moto Hagio, Emile Bravo, Stuart and Kathryn Immonen) and said they only had an hour left at the show -- was there one place they could go to buy the books talked about by the panelists, including their own? I had to direct them to a few publisher booths and hope they had time to find everything they wanted. Ugh. Until the digital world operates at a rate of sophistication where at the end of a panel moderators can direct people to a virtual place they can buy all of a panelist's books at a special price arranged for people at that panel, or when con-goers can sit at breakfast at Saturday morning and click a link whereby the books that interested them will be bundled and waiting on the floor, and I think barring economic setbacks that day or something like it will come, the con needs an anchor retailer or three. I hope they will consider finding one and make convincing them to exhibit a priority through any and all of the soft-influence means available to them. If that's not viable, maybe they would grant a temporary license to someone to do a only-exists-at-the-con store with all of the guests' books in it and all the Eisner nominees.

* the crowd never got as bad on the comics end of things as in past year, but people were buying stuff, at least according to my slightly-over-double-digits sample survey and what I've read since the show ended from people like Chuck Rozanski. The comics dealers to whom I spoke seemed a lot less worked up than in years past; there was much less of that feeling where you felt the dealers were hustling to maximize their profits in a way that makes you tense when you're shopping at those booths. I know a couple of people who bought comics early in the convention for what seemed like Sunday prices. One reported that the retailers seemed a lot more flexible in taking a counter-offer than in years past. I love having the convention experience of buying comics, so I hope that this represents a bounce-back year and the various exhibitors with old comics to sell have figured out a strategy to make that work on their behalf.

* on the other hand, three different people I know who buy original, older art complained in almost the exact same words that that particular market is a little overpriced right now. If you ever wanted to buy a Ditko or a Kirby or a Wood, you've hopefully already made this purchase. A couple of folks selling more modern comics art -- like classy Peter Birkemoe at The Beguiling -- reported decent although nowhere near record-breaking business from both new customers and yearly patrons (that may have changed given the floor hours since I asked them that question). I'm sure individual experience varied. I also heard that enough retailers were on hand to buy up remaining stock from a number of publishers who didn't wish to ship a lot of books home, which is always a worry considering how that element of convention business has changed since the days one or two gentlemen would seep through the publishers like someone on the grocery store game show where you keep dumping items into your cart.

* so in other words, between this and the daily reports a mostly positive image of sales floats to the surface: several book sell-outs, several almost book sell-outs, and so on. That's a good sign. As much as Comic-Con has changed in the last few years in a way that makes the marketing end of it difficult to gauge, companies still understand a bottom line, and as long as the trip is even slightly profitable, I can't imagine wholesale bailing out.

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* I do feel there is definitely some tentativeness in how the marketing end of it works. I think the broader marketing implications of Comic-Con are easy to figure out and are very real, no matter how hard to measure. I strongly suspect it's good to have a presence at a big show if you can afford it, that it's a further good for relationships with certain talent, and that's it's even an overall positive to have cartoonists representing themselves on panels and meeting press and meeting other cartoonists. I had several people tell me they were reconsidering a cartoonist or making it a bigger point to check out their work after seeing them on a panel or running into them during a signing. Vanessa Davis was someone people kept asking me about, for instance. I don't think a lot of traditional comics fans followed the Tablet comics as closely as they might have a print work. But if you think about it for a second, who wouldn't want to at least try a Gene Yang comic after meeting Gene Yang? That guy's nicer than your memories of your kindergarten teacher. Who wouldn't treat a reading of Carol Tyler's latest with a sense of discovery and respect after hearing her talk in passionate, forthright and funny fashion? Who wouldn't want to pick up Iron Man or Casanova at least once after seeing Matt Fraction play a filthier-mouthed, comics-centric Spalding Gray?

* Fraction's performance piece -- apparently he also did in the same club where Snoop Dogg performed a day later, which is sort of nuts -- reminds me that one thing that was a positive at this show is that we've finally reached a saturation point where more people do something with visuals at their panels than don't. That's not to say that old-school panels can't be great -- Peter Bagge being interviewed by Jason T. Miles was as fun a panel as I saw all weekend, and I always enjoy when Pete swoops down from the Pacific Northwest to remind everyone he's one of the funniest men in comics -- but I think if you're going to have programming take place in the context of the tremendous leeway afforded other industries' panels where you get to routinely lock eyes with beautiful people, it's worth trying things like Seth's oft-performed visual essays from 2009 or Carol Tyler inviting people out on the balcony to talk after her panel or Craig Yoe's post-panel "tea party" or Fraction's performance piece or even the well-honed insult-throwing of the panelists sitting on the Best Of/Worst Of manga hour. I know after WonderCon I personally never want to see dudes in turned-around baseball caps going straight to audience questions ever again. Some people enjoy that kind of thing, of course, but I think panels can be more than a few publishing announcements and the audience being tolerated for the other 47 minutes. Social media is going to drive changes to a lot of panels as that reaches its own saturation point the next few years, but creative solutions between now and then have to be welcome. Comics is the best art form and should have the best panels.

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* back to the floor. As far as the big display areas, Marvel's booth was one people talked about a bit. It featured the forthcoming Thor movie's throne of Odin. I guess this was the actual throne from the film set. If you measure booths solely on memorable visual impact, that one was a hit. I didn't know what the hell it was until almost 12 hours after I saw it, but I sure remembered the damn thing. At the same time, there was something slightly sad about it: the reduction of a culturally significant publishing movement into a novelty photo opportunity on the Atlantic City boardwalk. I think people liked it because it was big and gaudy and if you were so inclined you could indulge in the look-at-me self-regard of getting your photo taken on a hit convention set piece. But was it a Comic-Con booth for the ages? No. It doesn't even connect to anything significant from the comics. No one to my knowledge has ever looked back on their childhood and thought, "When I was a kid I dreamed of sitting on Odin's throne" and no kid without serious issues is going to think that leaving next year's movie. I'm leaning towards "it was stupid," even by the relative standards of an event that once offered "half-naked woman under glass." I look forward to DC's giant Sit-Behind Perry White Desk in 2011 and Archie's giant Stand-Behind Pop's Soda Shop counter in 2012.

* by the way, the only thing that keeps me alive when walking to the eastern end of the hall -- the non-comics end, or, as I heard it called, "the popular end" -- is the paralyzing tension between wanting to kill myself and not wanting to die until I kill everyone else in the room first. It can't be helped in the main. That's where the more popular booths are. Spreading out those booths would likely be a disaster on a lot of levels. In the end, there's just no way to screen guests in terms of what they're going to the convention to see. You know what would be nice, though? If the con forbade the use of video screens when the booth doesn't have a space within its borders to watch that screen. Any company that decides to extend its display space into where I have to walk, that's a company I want to see fail.

* speaking of companies I've wanted to see fail, CrossGen is apparently making a comeback. Some of the Disney-owned comics will see new publishing life at their funnybook division, aka the House That Jack Built. This was not the biggest announcement of the show, but it was sort of the funniest. Everything I've said about the cramming of more stuff into a comics market that's already over-saturated with product applies here. Still, I guess that's what's to be expected in this day of corporate synergy. Some days you see a flood of comics people being offered jobs in animation, which is great for those creators. Some days you get more Sigil. Also what struck me is that this counted as an announcement. Is it my imagination, or have the publishing announcements made by the Big Two since they made their big ownership and operation moves a while back been really lame? I don't know that I could pick a single maneuver by either company that seems like an exciting, brand-new direction that couldn't have happened under either old regime.

* a surprising amount of industry chatter within my limited range about the big companies. There's still worry expressed that the move to digital is going to discombobulate how people are paid to make comics, that a lower price point may gut page rates. There was a lot of talk about various big comics companies questioning their commitment to comics shows like CCI. This is something that came up at 2 AM one morning, but isn't the big worry if DC moves to Burbank that the company will start filling up with horrible Hollywood people, socially adept ladder-climbers with an eye on getting into or back into the film side of things and even less of a feel for publishing than the worst of the current crew?

* I don't know if I've mentioned this already, but the best theory I heard about the popularity of big bags is that they play into the desire by many con-goers to embrace the infantile. Being an adult and holding a giant bag is akin to being a child and holding a regular-sized bag: the Lily Tomlin school of embracing one's youth. Given the number of folks well over 40 that looked like they were dressed for recess -- I'm an unkempt slob, but I do manage to wear long pants away from water -- there may be something there.

* let's talk a bit about San Diego the city. First, I want to repeat my statement made during the show that I both appreciate the people of San Diego and the businesses that benefit from Comic-Con putting a best foot forward in order to maybe help keep the show and I also feel terribly, terribly sorry that it's come to that. I have something just short of withering contempt that such a significant portion of the comics community has such a self-confidence problem -- or a just plain mean problem -- that they're somehow delighting in this display of concern over future lost income on the behalf of local businesses. Seriously, does anyone who goes to a Pharma conference get pissy on their blogs for weeks afterwards if they feel the local service staff didn't show enough interest in off-site validation service trends or whatever? I still feel that San Diego hospitality workers are collectively a much better host than Comic-Con attendees are guests. One morning during breakfast I watched two groups of con-goers storm the buffet from which I was eating and inspect it closely, and, well, loudly, in terms of its suitability as a place for them to spend their money. They were acting in a way that should have been left behind in middle-school, just completely unsocialized and rude. Two different groups in the space of 20 minutes. If San Diego does lose the show, there's certainly going to be a lot of anecdotal Pepto-Bismol to soothe the economic sock in the gut.

* maybe I was just looking in the wrong places, but it seemed like there were a lot more homeless closer to the hotels than I've seen in ten years, and lot of storefronts abandoned that were filled just a year or two ago. There were also no cranes in the skyline as was the case five years ago when the city looked like the final wide shot of War Of The Worlds. All of this indicates to me that San Diego is on the 1:00 or 1:30 hand in relation to the high noon of urban renewal they've seen in the last 15 years. Just an observation, don't know if it's true.

* that said, I'm still astonished that con-goers treat 7th avenue like some sort of invisible force field. San Diego has developed a section of downtown that seems to repel convention-goers. I ate in two restaurants a bit east of the main Gaslamp action, both of which had walk-in and sit tables available at 8 PM, neither of which had entrees over $12, and neither of which had another table with what seemed like con-goers sitting at it. The mind boggles, especially when the third longest line I saw the entire weekend was at Richard Walker's Pancake House. Every morning when I walked down seventh and then over to sixth and then finally to fifth I saw multiple parking lots with plenty of places open at 9:30 to 10:00 AM. One parking lot on Sunday at 9:30 AM, located half the distance from the show my old and not very healthy self was walking, had one car in it. It seems to me that downtown San Diego can more than handle the outlying hotels and day-visit parking, and deal with the Comic-Con nighttime crowd, if people will just spread themselves out a bit.

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* it may be that I'm just getting old and I'm taking extra delight in being able to sit down, but it seems like the last couple of years the programming has been consistently strong, and stuffed to the brim with watchable events. You can read about the panels I attended in the daily reports. I concluded this was an abundance of riches when I realized that on Saturday, you could spend three hours in the same chair and see talks with Jillian Tamaki, Peter Bagge, and Gabrielle Bell in rapid-fire fashion. That's a good day all by itself. I must have attended parts of 20 panels, no kidding, and I could create a full, awesome day out of ones I missed: Matt Fraction's Sunday spotlight with Bill Hader and his aforementioned performance piece, Keith Knight's spotlight panel, the comic strip reprint panel, the comics publishing panel, the comics criticism panel, the Milo Manara spotlight, the Jack Kirby panel, the ComicsPRO meet-and-greet, this year's Quick Draw with Bil Stout and the Scott McCloud moderated talk with James Sturm about the Center for Cartoon Studies. And that's working from memory.

* one thing that struck me in the panels is how serious so many of the panelists were about making art. Not glum-serious, but lack-of-bullshit, this-is-important-to-me serious. It was a good year for panelists across the comics spectrum that chewed on the questions asked and came up with honest answers. I've seen so many glib and smarmy panels over the years that the earnestness in the air at CCI 2010 was a more than welcome change. There was only one panel I saw that felt contrived and desultory to me, where the participants came across as if they saw the programming schedule and were like, "Ugh. A panel. Well, if I have to." It stuck out like a sore thumb.

* another thought about the convention: one thing I wish attendees and professionals would abandon is automatically blaming the con for things that are clearly the result of their mandate running wild. That's not to say the buck doesn't stop wherever their offices are, but I think there could be some sympathy for simply expanding what you do if people are interested. We're all victims in some way or another of this rapid growth in attendance and attention. I think it's best to keep in mind that the surge is a relatively recent and sudden phenomenon. There's going to be some scrambling. Every year brings with it a new group of solutions and a new set of problems. The shelf date on new ways of conducting business can be extremely limited. For instance, a press thing: a couple of years ago when companies started having events and PR opportunities off-site at hotels, this seemed like the greatest idea in the world to me and my small circle of Fourth Estate pals. You get to take a break from the main show and go to a place where the people you want to learn about have your full attention at the same time they have yours! And yet this year I know a number of my press buddies when asked to trudge off site treated it like an invitation to throw that whole day right in the toilet. There are so many small events to attend and small deadlines to hit that taking the time to go to the W or wherever for a single interview struck many as crazy. The point is, everyone is still adjusting. I know I am.

* by the way, James Sturm pointed this out to me and he's right. Is there any more amusing guest of Comic-Con than King Features' Brendan Burford? He's one of the ten most powerful guys in comics, one of maybe five guys in North America whose interest in you can all by itself make your career. There are people who would climb over their mothers to have five minutes of his time. Plus he's super-nice and smart and funny. But instead of being mobbed or constantly hassled, Burford wanders around the show chatting to people that he knows, picking up a couple of books here and there, seeming to all assembled like another young-looking comics fan with a bemused, tired half-smile on his face. He's like the Don Rosa of comics executives. It's hilarious.

* other than Berke Breathed being convinced that a lot of people adored Bloom County -- he told me that his spotlight panel's crowd was the easiest and most receptive audience he ever had; plus it was standing-room only -- I couldn't really track any strip news beyond Burford saying that Dustin continues to pick up paper and five or six people asking me if I've seen the new Jay Stephens-drawn, Bob Weber Jr.-written strip Oh, Brother. The traffic at the NCS table seemed pretty light, although maybe I stopped by during lean times.

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* to take this back to comics, I thought there were a number of intriguing publishing announcements. As much as I'm depressed by the piling on of publishing initiatives to the relative detriment of distribution and sales issues, and as much as the movie-centric focus of so many comics announcements further sends me to bed early to have a good cry, there was good news for those of us that just want awesome comics to read. Fantagraphics winning the Floyd Gottfredson stakes is great news for a lot of reasons, but mostly because when Gottfredson was in his adventure-comics prime that strip killed it for weeks and weeks at a time. Both D+Q announcements they released here I think are promising: I've wanted to see more of that Mimi Pond work for a while now, and Shikeru Mizuki making it to North American shores is, as Chris Butcher points out, huge news. Top Shelf has this near-army of of quality books coming out. Marvel continues employing its deep writers' bench in a variety of ways. Fantagraphics isn't denying they may tackle Franquin after having some success with Jacques Tardi. Abrams is going to do that Someday Funnies book Bob Levin wrote about in the Journal, and is hanging in there with the Carter Family book. It looks like a lot of compelling work to come.

* one thing that may not be public knowledge and that I think is really telling about Comic-Con is that Fantagraphics was thinking about not announcing the Gottfredson books for fear of being lost in an assumed wave of publishing news at the show. Instead of being lost, the Mickey Mouse series was one of the showpiece news items, the kind about which you read supplementary interviews and post-acquisition analysis. It just goes to show you that everyone is still feeling out the way the show works best.

image* I'm sure there are other, small memories I'll want to put in this paragraph. Sam Gross of all people came up three times in three different conversations over the weekend. It's not like I minded. I love Sam Gross. I Am Blind And My Dog Is Dead may be one of the greatest collection titles ever. I had two different conversations about there still not being a definitive Trots And Bonnie collection. During one of them a pair of young, talented cartoonists admitted they'd never heard of Shary Flenniken. Someone fix that, please. This was the year I started to be grateful just seeing guys near my own age still working in comics in some capacity. I checked off everyone on my See Them At CCI bingo sheet except Moritat and Paul Sloboda. That said, there was a frightening number I didn't see at all, and others I lost track of halfway through the show like they weren't ever there in the first place. Emile Bravo was gracious, funny, and a fascinating guy to watch hold court. I suspect that of the major international guests Bravo came closest to surviving the convention rather than enjoying it, but he's a total pro. CCI 2010 was the kind of show where a new Kevin Huizenga book is out and it doesn't get mentioned until 5000 words in. Having to take books on the airplane and being forced to pay for a second piece of luggage or an overweight/overstuffed first piece changed more buying habits than I think anyone would care to admit.

* so enough with the con. Bring on the post-con announcements: DC in Burbank, CCI's location starting in 2013, CR's studio move. It should be an intriguing August.

* my personal thanks to all those (including one person in particular) who were so nice and supportive -- a special shout-out to Team CA for being so gracious on Friday night -- and a thank you to my brother Whit for taking most of these photos and a ton of others, besides. The best encounters of the weekend were hearing from smart-seeming people that read and appreciate the site and wanted to tell me so. Thank you. You don't know what an encouragement that kind of thing can be.

* oh, yeah: a guy got stabbed in the face with a pen, too. And in the end, it wasn't all that big of a story. I told you it was an odd year.

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photos by Whit and Tom Spurgeon

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any additional thoughts on the show will be published in this site's "Four-Color Festival" column

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