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July 23, 2013

A Few, Final-ish Thoughts On Comic-Con International 2013


By Tom Spurgeon

Here are a few over-arching thoughts about the 2013 version of Comic-Con International. I may add to them a bit over the next few days, although I doubt I'll do another post. I'd love any letters or responses from anyone that attended the show -- or didn't -- and would like to add something to the conversation. We should run a collective memory every day for the next few days, too.

* I thought that was a good show, solid and entertaining; it was very pleasant to attend. I don't know if there was anything in terms of the way the show unfolded that would distinguish this show from those in past years, at least not structurally or con-news wise. I always have a good time, and the show is always terribly useful to me, and this version was both of those things.

* I was struck by talking to a few of the regular attendees how many worlds-within-worlds there are at the show. Like at one point I was told it was a big weekend for a group of film industry professionals that I'd honestly never heard of before -- and my brother is a Los Angeles-based actor. This was always the case at Comic-Con. In 1995 I was struck by the fact that there were people that showed up and just table-top gamed the whole four days, and in 1998 I was amused by this whole vaudeville-like Star Trek cosplay circuit. There are just more worlds now. Mark Gruenwald would be very happy with the theory of it, anyway.

* it's somewhat odd to go to the show as you get older. Your relationships deepen, and you really value sitting down to a meal or having a moment with folks you might only see once or twice a year, these folks that had you grown up down the street would have been your friend for life. When you're younger, you tend to blow past that part of it. Conventions in general and this one in particular are basically Old People Events, too. Let's be honest. You walk around, you socialize, you stand in line, you watch people lecture, you eat nice meals, you have a few cocktails, you might even meet someone. They are cruises on land, with Felicia Day your Julie McCoy.

One big difference for me being older, and as someone that covers the show, is the nature of the exhaustion involved. I turned a corner recently where I simply can't remember everything that happened the day before when writing my daily notes. Those are more like "Flashes of Information From My Decrepit Mind" than true "Notes From The Floor" now. I didn't get more than five hours sleep any single night , and on the Tuesday before the show I stayed up straight through -- I drove to the Tucson airport for a 5:30 flight and it is three hours away. I was a little cranky and a little out of it at various points all weekend. It's a strange thing. I actually have to recover sleep-wise for a couple of days now, and ten years ago I'm not even sure I even believed anyone really had to do that.

* I talked to a bunch of merchants this weekend, in the guise of someone who was obviously attending the show -- like maybe I had a badge on -- and as someone who didn't who expressed bafflement about everything going on. You sometimes get interesting opinions tossed your direction if you play the role of the curious outsider. Nobody buried the show, which I think is a first. My two cab drivers were even nice. In fact, most of the people I talked to were positive about the weekend, and that wasn't the case even a half-decade ago. The niceness of the con attendees was cited a number of times. Some folks -- including a couple of hotel concierges, including my own -- noted that it's actually a light weekend in terms of certain services because people at the show tend to have very focused agendas. If I got one thing that I thought worth noting it's that some were surprised by the year-to-year capriciousness of what audiences responded to. One merchant set up to sell packaged lunches whose business killed with that offer in past years barely sold a one, and couldn't figure out why. Some of the restaurants were full, but others were very empty, to an alarming level for a mid-summer weekend. And so on. I think like a lot of con-goers there, the merchants are adjusting to a fairly major, ongoing change in what kinds of audience show up at these events.

* I think that's the big story, actually, that the audiences are different than they used to be. It was a little bit light for a lot of comics folks on the convention floor business-wise. Well, to be more exact, the business being done ranged wildly, but the overall consensus was that it was off a bit. My general hunch is that the mid-sized indy publishers did very well, smaller publishers and single-creators booths did a range of business but mostly okay, alt-comics and indy publishers of a certain size were noticeably but not disastrously down (there were exceptions) and back-issues retailers were a bit down more generally. These aren't hard and fast distinctions. It also felt light, like there was a notable lack of traffic. This was true during the day and even, as more than one person pointed out, true at the end of each day when the con floor cleared more easily than at any time in recent memory. The busiest day I saw on the comics end of the floor was Sunday, which was weird.

* the other big, more general story is that the context of such shows has changed. Comic-Con International doesn't need to be everything for all the comics people, not anymore. More importantly, comics people are starting to get better at figuring out how to use the array of shows put before them. There was a tremendous amount of distaste on the floor for attitudes and opinions of hand-waving "Comic-Con isn't about comics anymore" proclamations. The counter-opinion seemed to be that Comic-Con is what it is: a specific kind of comics show in a very specific pop-culture context and the pressure is on the comics companies to figure out how to make use of the show. We're kind of out of the era where you can just kind of show up at any show, including that one, and have that world kind of bend itself in your direction. I heard a lot of reports from my media peers that for the first time certain publishers reached out to them for coverage on the floor, which is an astonishing thing considering how long that show has been around. I know I'm still figuring out how to best use that particular weekend. This should get better.

Once you turn that corner, the problem becomes cost: the comics show there is high-quality, and can go program to program, guest to guest, with a lot of what's out there. It just costs a lot to go there. I only spend more on Toronto of the North American shows, and I have very little to pay for other than myself and a per diem for my photographer. Something I noticed in a very basic way that I hadn't really thought of before is that the book sales may not be primarily important for all publishers. I mean, duh, but it took me several years to figure this out, I guess. Some have books there just to facilitate any curiosity on the behalf of folks on hand and to mitigate, rather than match or exceed, the show's costs. I would imagine that we're going to start seeing some fairly complex strategies enacted in future years at this show. Image Comics, with its Expo making San Diego a place to catch some of the interest generated two weeks earlier, has one approach. Archaia, with its volunteers working the aisles and the related programming to drive people to their store, has another. We'll see more.

Conventions are a strength right now, and they can be a strength for publishers, professionals and press; we just have to figure out a variety of strategies that make this happen. I think comics will get there.

* it was a big Kim Thompson show in terms of public and private affirmations of his crucial role in the development of an entire expression of comics. I was happy about that. While Kim had become an every-other-year guy at San Diego about a half-dozen years ago, his work was very important to him. To see so many of his peers and fellow-travelers express so much admiration in his direction… I don't know if that's important, and it had to be a chore to constantly catch those sentiments all weekend after an exhausting summer already, so I felt for the Fantagraphics folks, but the absence of praise for Thompson would have made me sad.

* I wondered out loud a bit if there were some Boston Marathon bombing-style fears at the show. When the security started herding people to different front doors, I thought this might be a part of it, but I'm told that was just a glitch in their instructions. I only had one encounter with a security person of the weird and slightly unpleasant nature that didn't involve me walking in a door, when one guy asked me and Johnny Ryan and Eric Reynolds and Steve Weissman to step out of an aisle. That one was only absurd in that there was little to no traffic in that aisle save for that security guy, but hey, you don't want to be a jerk to some poor guy doing his job. Other areas of the floor were nutso, of course, traffic-wise and some of the temporary aisle-making the security did seemed to me a good idea. In general, people like taking photos of celebrities and people in costumes. Celebrities in costumes, were one to know of their existence, would probably stop the show dead.

* I was glad to see Fanfare/Ponent Mon and Rebellion doing well or at least reasonably so at the show; Rebellion in particular had a bunch of stuff to sell and thought they would get rid of most of it before the wholesalers swooped in end of day. That's actually one of the better shopping opportunities, the Rebellion booth, because a lot of those books are only available via the high-shipping option of mail order from overseas.

* it seemed like the backroom aspect of the show is more alive than ever -- not just the informal late-night shmoozing, which seems to me to have become Balkanized into a dozen different locations rather than one or two, but the actual setting-up-meetings part of the show. I even take meetings now, sort of, and I'm a slacker with almost no business agenda and very few clean shirts that sport collars. In an informal sense, just being able to hit twenty or so publishers with a little face to face time is an enormous boon, and I'm not sure there are many shows that offer that specific opportunity. I think the show will continue to have value that way, and that value may intensify.

* the value of the convention behind the convention is one reason I continue to greatly dislike the creep of the show in terms of it reaching into all corners and all times. It's not like I don't understand why people want programming at 8 PM -- it's tough to satisfy everyone's desires and PR requirements. It's a real culture clash for comics, though. I don't care if people don't get to all the parties they want, but some of those events -- the publisher cocktail hours for instance -- are important for coverage, and just in general it's nice to have room to let the show breathe a bit so that meetings and interviews and encounters and everything can be scheduled or allowed to happen without there being a formal time-clash. I also think that comics people are using their panels to drive follow-up attention to their signings and their booths, and it's hard to do that when you can't ask people to stop by until the next day. I know I'll probably get a couple of e-mails defending this -- not for publication e-mails, probably -- but I'd love to see a less is more approach in terms of formal convention schedule for the comics core.

* programming in general is more sophisticated than ever, which is why the lower-end panels seems to stick out like a sore thumb. One thing I think might help is if the con was able to turn the corner in terms of fuller recording of these panels -- if you're preparing something people will continue to see, it might put more pressure on you ensuring a quality end result. I say this as one of the worst moderators in comics history, so not in a judgmental way, I swear. I enjoyed talking to my blogging peers, but I think were I to moderate that one again I'd pull the trigger and do it along with a slideshow presentation and would pre-interview the participants so they could prepare. As far as anything that came out of that panel, was happy that some of my peers talked about the money issue: The Beat doesn't pay anything right now after doing $5 an article previously, and this is a significant concern for Heidi MacDonald, while Graeme McMillan is a talented writer that owns none of the comics writing he's doing, which I think abominable. Also, I guess the people that employ Rich Johnston pay a small salary to certain writers in lieu of per-article pay...? That's kind of interesting. As far as the make-up of the panel itself: It's always nice to chat with Rich Johnston. It was fun to meet Tony Isabella. I had never met Alexa Dickman, and was generally impressed by her forthright, articulate responses.

* I'm hoping to sort out the publishing announcement slate by next Tuesday's Bundled, although nothing blew me away right off the top of my head in the manner of Fantagraphics doing the EC Library, say. Almost nothing but the typical -- and potentially true, at least one of them should be just percentage-wise -- talk of certain mainstream talents migrating was able to penetrate my consciousness in a rumor-sense.

* this was the year I saw no celebrities in casual, off-hand moments (of the running into that guy from that one TV show in the bar variety); this was the year I did not visit the Hyatt; this was the year I thought I had more than made it on time to the Eisners but failed again, this was the year I did not attend a single panel Saturday or Sunday because I was busy. Also in the space of a single convention year I've gone from "love the site" to "love your twitter" to "I stopped following you on twitter" which probably doesn't bode well.

* I'm told the CBLDF did well. Oh, I also get the sense that BOOM! did very well, although I never formally checked in.

* thank you to everyone that helped me out, said nice things about the site, or was nice to my brother. I apologize to everyone that might have suffered from my scattered, clumsy, exhausted nature. It was nothing personal.

* finally, another item of interest from my perspective is how quickly talk of the show fades; individual conventions, including the biggest one in North America, just don't penetrate as deeply as they used to. We're less than two decades removed from the only coverage coming six weeks or so later in various comics publications, and ten years away from a three-week flurry of fevered blogging about such shows. The independent folks were already talking about Autoptic by Sunday; I caught two people making plans for Baltimore and NYCC not even halfway through the weekend.

And so we join them.



posted 12:20 am PST | Permalink

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