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News: Comic-Con International is Really Big in '03
posted August 30, 2003
 

Over 70,000 people made the trip to the San Diego Convention Center for the 2003 Comic-Con International (July 16-20), and boy, were their feet tired. This year's show featured yet another hall's worth of space opened by organizers to create room for the vast rainbow of exhibitors, giving fans some 48 rows to walk through before the Artist's Alley area, art show, and the upstairs panel and conference rooms. The elephantine room soon became the elephant in the room that no one could resist pointing out, as nearly everyone in attendance seemed shaken and stunned by the sheer size of the hall and made running commentary about it -- sort of a spatial weather report. Combined with the Balkanization of the late night social scene into tiny, fierce tribes of cocktail parties, hotel bar get-togethers and the occasional one-company soiree, and the general impulse that many had upon returning home from the show was to get on-line and read about all the people they failed to see over the weekend.

While attendees may not have seen all the people they remembered from past shows, celebrity sightings were at an all-time high. After years of slowly building star drop-ins and a small undercurrent of actual celebrity attendees, some sort of critical mass was reached in 2003 that drew the attention of media outlets like Entertainment Weekly and People Magazine to America's largest pop culture event. Fans in attendance now had the option of leaping out of the way of Halle Berry's bodyguards or being blocked from moving down an aisle by people watching Quentin Tarantino shop. Darryl Hannah visited her favorite Goth cartoonist, the actor who played Jackie Chiles showed his support for Kobe Bryant, hobbits signed autographs, and several dozen people managed to recall Brian Posehn's name.

There was actual mainstream publishing news at the show, a sign that the industry has recovered from its late 1990s doldrums at least to the point of starting to beat the crap out of each other again. Hearts of middle-aged fanboys swelled in nostalgic glee as the giant robot-style war between the American Big Two once again leapt to the industry's center stage. The presence of DC and Marvel in San Diego was a study in contrasts. DC Comics anchored the comic book publishers' portion of the main floor. Marvel decided not to exhibit at all. DC Comics wined and dined entire facets of the comic book industry in much-whispered-about fetes with the entire editorial staff on hand. Marvel offered up a reasonably well-attended hospitality suite with a few key personnel. DC Comics signed exclusivity deals with Marvel talent. Marvel did a spit take and vowed revenge at Wizard World. The announcement of new contracts is believed by many to be the sign of a new, more aggressive policy regarding talent by the venerable publisher, and the first big test for the Bill Jemas/Joe Quesada "New Marvel" to keep its sales and buzz momentum in an increasingly competitive -- at least in musical chairs fashion -- comic book market.

Other publishing and industry news abounded. Random House announced a line of manga under their Del Rey imprint to be run by former Viz marketing director Dallas Middaugh. Tokyopop provided the first details on its new line of American manga and a line of hip-hop influenced manga, in addition to describing which new titles it will release/unleash here. Mega-retailer Chuck Rozanski accepted the 2003 Defender of Liberty award from the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. Convention guest Dave McKean told those attending his panel of his intention to do another long comics work. Writer Brian Bendis gave Marvel a mini-breakthrough at the Eisner Awards. Highwater Books ended its long publishing hiatus by arriving at the show with three new works. Fantagraphics Books thanked as many people as they could for the company-saving results of their crisis-instigated sales plea in late May. CrossGen Entertainment provided details to the press about the new DVD versions of its graphic novels (created with an in-house platform they also believe may be attractive to buyers) and its education initiatives. The substance of each announcement and event deserves its own article, but together they prove the continuing attraction Comic-Con International enjoys as a place to make news.

Comic-Con International has long been a group of shows within a show. A comic book fan might stumble across the masquerade crowd and become totally lost trying to track its big names and weekend high points. Gaming aficionados, alternative comics fans, and science fiction fan communities are among those who have for years enjoyed their own cluster of retailers, programming, and social events. More recently arrived factions began to make their impact felt in 2003. Movie-driven entertainment franchises could safely be separated into their own show at this point, dominating the convention center's big ballroom and driving the bulk of best-attended signings. On-line cartoonists were also out in force, bringing in their unique and significantly self-participatory audience; cartoonist Justine Shaw of Nowhere Girl was a key 2003 attendee if simply for the groundbreaking nature of her Eisner nominations, the first to Internet-only content. Manga publishers like Tokyopop, Comics-One and Central Park Media made for a growing presence oddly (for the comics landscape post-1949) driven to great extent by young female fans. Retailers who offered manga, anime, and related products were typically swamped, particularly on Saturday. The effect on comics industry people was both salutary in that traffic was high, but the crowds and variety of events also seemed to throw some into a degree of psychological disquiet. One joke repeated often was that alternative and mainstream comic book publishers were finally united in their fear of manga, but it was more like comics struggling to keep a place for itself in the wash of extremely popular events that had little or nothing to do with them. Comic-Con International has never contrasted more sharply with intimate, wholly comics-driven events like Small Press Expo [SPX] and the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art's comics festival [MoCCA].

Convention organizers battled various growing pains that had little to do with issues of identity. At Thursday's panel on convention feedback, organizers sat calmly while a passionately articulate man berated them for at least a half hour on the hardships of waiting in the long lines for entry. Attendance lines were consistently an hour long, up to three or four in the early morning for those waiting to register. Because of security concerns mandated to them by fire officials, and the desire that many fans have to crash the exhibition floor as early as possible, there seems little the convention can do other than try and make things as efficient as possible and provide specific aid to anyone who finds the ordeal overpowering. The convention increasingly seems to find itself in no-win, or at least small-win, situations. A dedication to keeping Artist's Alley space (rows of mostly artists set up in mini-booth fashion) free out of respect for a beloved, interactive institution that drove early San Diego Cons has to be balanced against the needs and desires of paying exhibitors. Thus the Alley is moved to one side of the massive hall or the other, and traffic for even well established cartoonists showing in that area may frequently fail to match the number of people moving through a Lord of the Rings exhibit in the center of the room. The back issue dealers are still an important presence at the convention, but the rise in table prices and the general ability of comics fans to be able to track down their current favorites on-line has meant a larger preponderance of rarer Silver Age titles with their better per-issue return on profit. Original art, which can bring thousands of dollars for a single item, has fairly exploded as well -- the final spread from Neal Adams' Superman/Muhammad Ali team-up has become as familiar a sight to con attendees as Mark Evanier and bicycle taxis. And concerning the general placement of exhibitors, the line can be razor thin between making someone feel isolated amid dissimilar booths and making them feel like they've been placed in a ghetto out of the convention's mainstream.

Alternative: Looking Elsewhere

In the realm of arts comics publishing, perhaps the biggest news of the convention was a non-event; specifically, the decision made by Jeff Mason not to show with Alternative Comics. Mason told the Journal that the decision not to attend was due to a couple of factors. One was time. "I had a big felony trial the Thursday starting the San Diego Comic-Con and had jury selection on another big felony trial on the Monday following the San Diego Comic-Con. I have an ethical obligation not to neglect my clients. We won the first trial and the second trial was continued because the State of Florida provided us some evidence at the last minute that we'll need to still examine," the publisher told the Journal. The other reason has to do with the nature of the convention and the needs of his company. "I am still getting used to growing my company. I am publishing many, many more books than I did just a year or so ago. I simply didn't have the $1,500 to give to CCI for our booth space at the San Diego Comic-Con because I had to give that $1,500 to my printer so that our books would come out as scheduled. The space that $1,500 would have bought for us at San Diego Comic-Con would not have been large enough for us to properly display our books and cartoonists. San Diego is tremendously expensive for travel, as I and many of the Alternative Comics cartoonists live on the East coast. San Diego is tremendously expensive in terms of hotel rooms. Alternative Comics also gets rather lost in the crowd at such a gigantic show."

Questioned by the Journal, Mason added that other shows have started to play a larger role in his company's plans. "SPX, APE [Alternative Press Expo], and the MoCCA Art Festival are all much less expensive places to be an exhibitor than the San Diego Comic-Con or any of the other large shows. I am still a very small company, with a staff consisting only of myself. Because there are SPX, the Alternative Press Expo, the MoCCA Art Festival, and a surprising number of other up-and-coming smaller shows, I am not really inclined to exhibit again at the San Diego Comic-Con. SPX, the MoCCA Art Festival, the Alternative Press Expo, and others are generally geared toward the types of comic books that I publish and the types of readers that seem to be interested in my comics." The bottom line for Mason is that his company's money may be better spent elsewhere. "For the same $1,500 I could have spent on booth space at San Diego Comic-Con, I could have purchased at least ten tables at the MoCCA Art Festival just the other month. As the number of high quality small shows increases, my desire to exhibit at the larger shows decreases."

Money isn't the only concern for Mason; his company's established goals for comics shows call for at least paying for the cost of the convention, but also include putting fans in touch with Alternative cartoonists, raising the company's profile, and networking with industry folk and media. Asked if the changes at Comic-Con International over the years had led to his decision, Mason responded. "Yes, absolutely, the San Diego Comic-Con has become more of a pop-culture event. I used to exhibit at the Chicago Comic-Con until the folks from Wizard took over the show and made it into a pop-culture event, and I haven't exhibited since. I am not very interested in exhibiting Alternative Comics at 'pop-culture' shows. We don't attend comic book conventions to acquire licenses or movie options for our books." He added, "I understand that SPX, the MoCCA Art Festival, APE, and all of the other up-and-coming shows will face similar crises of identity. SPX, as reported in The Comics Journal recently, is facing such a dilemma. I would really like to see these shows retain their character and flavor as much as possible. I enjoy the more personal atmosphere of these events."

Mason isn't optimistic about his company's return. "In all honesty, 2002 was probably Alternative Comics' last exhibition at the San Diego Comic-Con. In 2002 I was not happy at all with how the location and arrangement of the booths separated artists alley, the small press pavilion, Cold Cut's Indy Island, and pushed publishers including Fantagraphics Books, Drawn & Quarterly, Top Shelf Publications, Highwater Books, Last Gasp, and Alternative Comics out into what truly felt like a ghetto. From what I've heard from exhibitors at the 2003 San Diego Comic-Con, the locations for these exhibitors did not improve over 2002." Mason added that he will continue exhibiting at shows like the Alternative Press Expo, where his company actually grossed more money than in San Diego. He also plans to explore becoming a presence at other small shows across the U.S., at book trade events, and internationally. Shows like Comic-Con International, the various Wizard-run shows, and the convention in Pittsburgh are likely to remain less of a possibility.

Alt-Comics: Conflicting Opinions

The Journal canvassed other traditional alternative comics publishers about their relationship to Comic-Con International, and how they feel about their plans to exhibit in future years. The bottom line has never been better. Publishers reported generally good to great sales. "I think we had our best year ever and best single-day ever (Saturday) in terms of gross sales," said Fantagraphics Marketing Director Eric Reynolds. Another longtime exhibitor, NBM's Terry Nantier, piped in with equally good news. "It went great. We did 20% better than last year which itself had posted a 20% gain. The show always has paid for itself, yes and is the best show hands down of any for us." Highwater Books Publisher Tom Devlin told the Journal that he always does a little better every year, and 2003 saw improvement of the last year he exhibited, 2001. Chris Oliveros reported that Drawn and Quarterly sold 110 copies of its brand-new hardcover from Chris Ware, ACME Novelty Datebook, and sold out of books from attending professional Adrian Tomine, including 60 copies of Summer Blonde. While Top Shelf did not answer an invitation to comment for the article, the company's show representative Wayne Beamer reported in the Journal's on-line forum that the company moved a staggering 530+ copies of the Craig Thompson book Blankets, a number that publisher Chris Staros later confirmed to the Journal as 536.

Many when asked agreed that the show had changed in recent years. Tom Devlin noted how the show's broad exhibitor range affected where Highwater Books was located and who they were next to. "I could see an effort on their part to make an indy area, but let's face it: I was still next to a card manufacturer with a pinball machine, Spike and Mike, some sort of mullet tee-shirt booth, a toy manufacturer and a nudie sticker booth. I guess all that stuff in one place is pretty neat but it sure does make an arts publisher feel like a fool." Yet NBM's Nantier believes that the convention's diverse appeal helps his line continue to find readers. "It is quite a circus now, not really a comics con anymore as a media con. But, in light of how the show is doing for us, it certainly looks positive," the publisher told the Journal. "I guess by attracting more of an audience, the show gives us more exposure in turn. As long as it attracts the broad cross-section of fans and readers that it always has, this show will be excellent for us, since our own publishing program has a fairly broad and diverse appeal." Chris Oliveros opined that the show's makeup is really nothing new to comics. "The San Diego convention is fairly representative of the comics industry as a whole in that somehow this small group of relatively like-minded publishers (us, Fantagraphics, Highwater, Top Shelf, etc.) co-exist with everything else that has very little in common with what we publish." Oliveros noted that most of his sales come to regular customers who attend every year and who are interested in alternative comics; Devlin and Harkham reported that most of their business to new faces came in the form of t-shirt sales. Said Harkham, "Usually at shows like APE or SPX, most people who buy a t-shirt do so because they like the comic. At San Diego, so much of the stuff there is just nice liking merchandise, and art comics I guess are just part of the general sea of ephemera, if you know what I mean."

Asked if the show had lost some of its allure to alt-comix professionals because of the changes in emphasis or the rise of other shows directly aimed at their type of work, Fantagraphics' Reynolds admits, "A little of both." He said that many of Fantagraphics' cartoonists aren't big convention-goers, citing Jim Woodring and Charles Burns, but that others may have stayed at home. "[Dan] Clowes's absence the last two years has been rather conspicuous, I think, just because he's Dan Clowes and he used to go every year," said Reynolds. "Now that he's more popular than ever but has taken two years off, it gives a sort of skewed perspective along the lines of what you're suggesting. But just as importantly, I think APE and (especially) SPX/MoCCA have grown considerably, so you're seeing San Diego lose out to those shows in terms of cartoonists who only have a budget to attend one show a year. That's especially true of East Coast cartoonists, most of whom have replaced San Diego with SPX and/or MoCCA as their convention of choice, for better or worse. As is it, I still think we had something like 17 authors or so signing in San Diego, so this distinction is a small one." AdHouse Books' Pitzer freely admitted that his company did better business at the alternative-friendly shows, explaining, "The cost is much lower and the audience is more on target." Tom Devlin calls the smaller shows like those cited by Reynolds, "the future of art comics." Noting that the books he publishers sell better there, Devlin hastened to add, "And for more than just the focused product aspect. Imagine being a kid who's into comics and you go to the local show and there are tables by Highwater, Top Shelf, Drawn and Quarterly and Fantagraphics." But until a number of regional shows achieve the status of the top indy-focused conventions, Devlin has no plans to discontinue exhibiting in San Diego.

Neither do Reynolds and the company for which he works. "It's hard to imagine the show not being an important part of our schedule, because it is still the biggest comics-related event in North America despite the influx of other pop culture detritus that increasingly obfuscates that fact as every year passes." Reynolds says that a publisher like Fantagraphics does face unique challenges that will involve some clever strategic planning. "I do think it is almost too huge, in terms of just how exhausting it is -- and please note that I am absolutely not parroting the 'boo-hoo, San Diego has gotten so big that it isn't about comics anymore' party line, that's not what I'm talking about. For us, something really has to give. I really hope the people running the convention are listening because almost every exhibitor I've spoken to has told me the same thing. Granted, it's probably not a coincidence that most of the people I'm thinking of are all longtime, mid-level exhibitors who are too poor to pay the exorbitant union fees required to have the convention center staff do your heavy-lifting, but also not a self-publisher with just one or two titles to sell who can do it super bare-bones. I'm talking about exhibitors with substantial inventories who are breaking our backs to come down and sell it and are forced to do so at a minimum of expenditures because we are a company operating close to the margins. The convention has become so huge, with so many regulations and expenses that you need to either be a giant conglomerate that can absorb the expense as part of a larger promotional budget or be a tiny self-publisher who can go the one folding table and a box of books route." While the new unionized contractor working the convention center was reported to have a more lenient policy regarding what could be brought onto the floor, it is unclear whether this is a tenable position publishers of the type publishers will be able to count on in years to come.

As for changes that could be made on the convention's end, both Oliveros and Devlin expressed their desire that media attention could be to literary comics, Drawn and Quarterly's publisher pointing out that a further commitment to that side of comics would put the convention in step with so much of the medium's best recent publicity and be good for the medium in terms of helping keep readers. FBI's Reynolds had particularly savage things to say about a more specific matter, a structural change at the show that has seen the addition of a Wednesday Preview Night whereby four-day pass holders are allowed first crack at what is being displayed at the weekend convention. Although Comic-Con International reports the added evening of display is a hit with fans and will be continued, others feel the move simply cuts into sales that would be made on other days of the show and forces exhibitors into additional work. "The addition of Wednesday night is just brutal to our staff," Reynolds said. "I'm convinced that we make no extra money despite having to spread out expenses out over an extra day, forcing us to come in a day earlier than we used to. I really think it's a bad idea; it gets the entire show off on the wrong foot. At a certain point, enough is enough, you know? I know they want to reward the people who bought four-day badges and all, but Christ Almighty, you're going four days in a row already. Does anyone really need a fifth? I've heard talk that it's also a reward for exhibitors, that it's 'our' time to shop, but I have yet to hear a logical explanation as to how an exhibitor is any more free to shop on Wednesday night than Thursday or Friday or Saturday or Sunday. If you're open for business, you're open for business, you know? I feel very strongly about this. We are a small staff, and after five days of being at the convention center from 9 AM until almost 8 PM we're ready to die." Reynolds says that because of these business strains, the company may downsize its presence at next year's show in spite of the monies earned.

The result of such overwhelming business that many publishers do at Comic-Con International is that future appearances at the show may be contingent on that business continuing. Reynolds claims that the hectic nature of the show precludes his company from doing much in the way of business or networking above manning the booth. Tom Devlin told the Journal he isn't even sure what extra business a company like Highwater could do at the convention. Only Terry Nantier at NBM claimed a full slate of business meetings the days of the show. "I was outrageously busy at this show with meetings with general trade wholesalers -- a new type of attendee -- to foreign publishers to looking at submissions, I felt pulled in all directions and spread quite thin. This is the only show where I have to deal with such an incredible variety of duties, it can be demanding but hey, that's the thrill of publishing, right?" Even so, NBM plans to downgrade some of their hands-on involvement with the convention set-up by contracting with a retailer for their display in 2004. Chris Pitzer at AdHouse Books was also able to do some business at the convention. "I met with new vendors, creators, store owners and pushed one of our upcoming releases," he said, crediting the show's diverse offerings. "Given the amount of pop culture at the show, it is a good place to meet other companies that you might not be able to meet otherwise. SDCC is a good schmooze-fest." Still, this was no guarantee of future AdHouse appearances. Pitzer: "My future exhibiting plans will depend on factors like number of new books, promoting future publications and Eisner award nominations." More succinct was Drawn and Quarterly's Oliveros, who overtly tied future appearances into a specific business model. "The decision to attend depends almost entirely now on how many new books we have to debut at the show; we need at least two or three new titles to make the show worthwhile."

Comic-Con: Hang In There

The Journal spoke to David Glanzer, the director of marketing and public relations for Comic-Con International and general spokesperson, on issues of overall interest to the convention and those areas of specific concern to traditional alternative comics publishers. Responding to the call for increasingly focused press coverage expressed by Devlin and Oliveros, Glanzer shed some light on one underutilized aspect of its press policy. According to Glanzer, the convention makes its lists of pre-registered press people "available to any exhibitor who requests it." That way, a company's press person can contact appropriate people to help arrange coverage at the show, be they comics or not. "This year we received requests from a number of comics publishers as well as movie companies and gaming companies," Glanzer said. Glanzer confirmed that this was an option open only to exhibitors as opposed to attending professionals. "We even received requests from non exhibitors, which of course we don't release to." While utilizing the list isn't a perfect solution for publishers as many press people reportedly register on-site, Glanzer suggests it as a possible resource, along with requesting a "Local Media List" from San Diego's local convention and visitors association and those of nearby towns -- essentially providing a hook for this type of television and press coverage that descends on the show from regional sources. "A number of small publishers had great local press this year because they sought out local media."

As to concerns about publishers who are feeling financial strain as the show gets bigger, Glanzer reiterated the organizers' support for comic book publishers as a key focal element of their shows. "Comic-Con International is dedicated to comics, regardless of the size of the companies producing them and that is evident not only at Comic-Con International, but in our other shows as well; WonderCon and the Alternative Press Expo." He indicated that the Independent Press Pavilion and various Small Press areas would remain part of the show's strategy to serve its smaller exhibitors, and that programming tracks featuring issues of concern to smaller publishers of all types would continue to be offered. . In terms of the financial burden involved to simply make an appearance, Glanzer announced that booth prices would go unchanged for 2004. Further, he pointed out that by looking towards future exhibitions and paying in advance exhibitors could save hundreds of dollars: $550 on a $1600 booth if they paid a year in advance and $300 on the same booth if purchased by May 1 -- saving significant enough to perhaps attract capital-light companies like arts comics publishers to make an advanced payment.

Speaking to specific concerns about the continuation of Wednesday evening's Preview Night, Glanzer explained why the event was established in the first place -- as an attendance premium. "Preview Night was created, in part, to reward pre-registered four day attendees. It would give them, and professionals and press, an opportunity to see the show in a less crowded atmosphere. It would also allow them to make purchases from exhibitors who choose to exhibit." Glanzer also indicates that, "Exhibitors aren't necessarily required to exhibit on Wednesday evening, and in fact, some choose not to." When asked why his company simply didn't skip Preview Night, Eric Reynolds pointed out that Wednesday is the only time to properly set up for a company Fantagraphics' size.

Glanzer also indicated that other publishers loved the chance to exhibit Wednesday night, and directed the Journal to Larry Young of AiT/Planet Lar. The predominantly-trades indy publisher sees the preview as an opportunity to hit a fanatical core audience. "From a business standpoint, it's a valuable tool for a publisher to have such a targeted audience of the faithful; from a personal standpoint, it's very gratifying to start the show off with such a high-energy, high-sales, high-traffic love-fest." Rather than see it as an extra night, Young says his company sees it as an added feature in the midst of a three-week convention period that includes gearing up before the show and catching up after. It also allows for the publisher to restock items that turn out to be inordinately popular. "Honestly, the Preview Night is also an insurance against dropped balls. We've set up at maybe 20 or 30 conventions and trade shows... at this point, I can pretty much predict the stock levels needed on our books to last the show. But this year I seriously underestimated the interest and attention that Last of the Independents would garner at the show. In fact, in those two-and-a-half hours of Preview Night, we sold half of the copies we had brought with us. Because of the cushion of Preview Night, not only were we able to just move those books into the hands of our most faithful readers, but I also had time the next day to have Fed Exed five more cartons without having to pay for Saturday delivery, too, like I would have had to if that had happened on a Thursday." Young told the Journal his company plans to support Preview Night for as long as the convention wants to offer one.

With different views on different events still being processed by convention organizers, much of what actually becomes policy will develop over the next several months. One area in obvious need of close attention is the show's continuing growing pains, both in terms of exhibitors and attendees, from finding a place for everyone in the hall to alleviating the suffering caused by long, crowded lines. Said Glanzer, "We hope the 2004 show will run much smoother."

Wednesday Preview Night is less than 11 months away, July 21.