Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

April 24, 2008

One Last Essay About NYCC 2008


I enjoyed myself last weekend at the 2008 New York Comic-Con, but in case there was any confusion about my overall opinion regarding the convention itself, let me be blunt: I didn't like the show. Like most such events it had its successes and failures, and I've pointed out examples of each in this post. I'm sure it was a good convention for many people, and a great convention for some.

For me, however, this year's New York Comic-Con felt weakly conceived and poorly run. NYCC has less of a special identity in its third year than any major con has managed to develop in a similar time period. It simply should have more to distinguish it by now. Merely being the New York con isn't enough. Too much of the industry is someplace other than New York and while it's one of two cities in North America where a regional convention automatically has national weight, seizing the brass ring abandoned by Chicago underneath San Diego's crown should bring with it at least a little bit of unique flavor and feel. The most accurate description of New York Comic-Con I heard was an oft-repeated "Wizard World With Book Publishers," which also has the advantage of being funny. But other than perhaps for those blogging about comics and working in the field in the immediate vicinity, the NYCC still feels like a non-essential show. As one busy company executive put it to me this week, "I'm not doing any conventions this year. There's something I'm going to miss about every show except New York, which I'm not going to miss at all. Nothing against New York, but what am I supposed to miss?"

Weak conceptual work can be buoyed by strong execution, but that doesn't look likely to develop here anytime soon, either. NYCC has become quickly and almost relentlessly mainstream American comics-focused at a time when mainstream American comics is only one of comics' many surging camps. Imagine putting together a sports card show and pretending that 90 percent of the guests being hockey players made sense, and you begin to develop an idea of how odd this is. NYCC '08 also seemed haphazardly administered for a show in its third year with the backing of convention giant Reed Exhibitions. Multiple panel mediators expressed their confusion to me over the focus and make-up of their panels (two of the more notable used the word "disaster"), and anecdotes suggest more than a few participants simply chose not to show up at their scheduled panel even on days when it was hardly a crowded madhouse on the floor. The meat of the programming outside of Thursday's graphic novels conference felt perfunctory and scattered. The arts comics presence throughout the show was almost non-existent. A sizeable number of booths were situated without rhyme or reason in a way that needlessly isolated certain vendors.

Further, my strong suspicion is that some exhibitors were treated much better than others, and not in a way that's easily understandable or necessary. A few smaller publishers have told me they practically had to beg for one or two extra passes for specific authors. Larger publishers seemed to even have generic badges on hand, some of which at a certain book giant appeared to be worn by relatives and children. There are now rumors of price gouging in terms of equipment and furniture being made available to exhibitors. Such an accusation at the very least indicates a terrific lack of communication between convention and exhibitor. None of these things helped NYCC feel like a show with the backing of an experienced trade show staff and infrastructure. The limp result certainly had a hard time keeping my interest for more than a few hours at a time, and I'm a big-time comics fan that's easily amused.


Some days I wonder if conventions of any kind are able to offer something of unique value beyond the social opportunities they generate. Are they really vital entities or business propositions with marginal returns for which people feel nostalgia? Nearly every reason I went to conventions as a teenager -- to buy comics I couldn't find locally, to meet other fans, to get back issues at a discounted price from a wide array of dealers, to be able to slip into a casual comics panel or two and see some cartoonists talk -- can be found elsewhere at this point or is slowly slipping away from the fan experience. One piece of pop culture analysis notes that conventions remain viable as social gatherings because the act of meeting other fans has transformed itself into consummating on-line relationships with face-to-face contact. This makes sense. I'd say a similar phenomenon exists for business relationships. But as we get a bit older do we really need more hobby pals? How many times do we need to put faces to names to conduct business as the years go by? Is the most efficient way to do either?

All of that may sound obvious to some of you, but I never thought of it exactly that way before last weekend. Trying to limit my time at the show to better enjoy New York forced me to make a concerted attempt to get what work I can do at a con out of the way rather than have work come to me at its own pace as I might in San Diego or at a Small Press Expo. Working the show rather than hanging out at one, I found a surprising number of booth workers and company employees to be outright unhelpful when it came to doing rudimentary things that is so easy to get people from other industries to do for you at their trade shows. You know, little things like talk to you, recognize you're standing there, solicit a question, perhaps even agree to do something reasonable when you ask for it rather than send you to someone else. I was snubbed for photos by roughly a half-dozen professionals that chose to continue personal conversations (in a public space, badges not flipped) rather than take 10 seconds to help me cover them. I can recall three publisher representatives to whom I spoke that whiffed on basic questions like what might be coming out the next season. One benign request for help with a photo led to shrugged shoulders and a request to ask someone "in charge," but no indication as to who that might be. I visited dozens of booths; I was welcomed and asked if I could be helped at exactly three of them. Two exhibitors picked at the legitimacy of this publication before deciding to answer rudimentary queries about future books, or, really, listen to me at all. It was a long day.

While I bear Mike Richardson no ill will, I can't help but think his complaints the last two days that I'm biased against his company betray an ingrained comics industry outlook that the highest function of the press is to serve as a marketing arm of their companies. Sometimes they have reason to assume this, but it doesn't mean all of us want to be treated as if we agree this is a great idea. Several times I was made to feel as if I somehow wasn't doing my job properly by asking questions and looking for stories rather than anticipating answers, shmoozing and getting right to the promotional groundwork. On the other hand, at least I was press. The fans I saw looked even more invisible to dozens of industry people and creators milling all around them at some booths, save for the opportunity readers have to enjoy a prescribed, structured interaction with a superstar or two. I'm guessing the joys of that experience may be leavened by the creeping knowledge the whole affair is costing them a not insignificant amount of money. It's still better than nothing, I suppose.

I know the above sounds like one long whine about unfair treatment. I swear that's not where I'm going. I hope you'll take me at my word when I say these kinds of encounters aren't personally upsetting to me. I know that some this seeming, growing absence of any kind of professional function to comics shows is simply part of being at a big convention and having different goals than the people with whom you're trying to interact. Dropped conversations and distracted people walking off -- these things happen a lot in your typical con weekend. However, when such instances occur dozens of times in two hours rather than spread out over 96, when they start to happen at the booths rather than in the hallways, when they feed a malaise and general lack of purpose that seeps into functions across the facility, I think it may indicate a bigger picture to be drawn. In this case, it's a picture of an industry where large groups of people seem to have no idea what to do at such a place other than be at such a place, where the only justification for all that time and expense is to write another chapter in the con's ongoing self-history and to draw an x through dates in a few folks' social calendar.

Comics deserves better. Here's another way of putting it: I just went to a publishing industry convention and after asking 100 people questions I was only able to learn about three new books. I heard much more about television stars than I did comic book stars. I was asked not to take photos and to stop asking questions by the very people who would stand to benefit from my doing so. I listened to more personal statements from attendees at panels than I heard challenging questions from journalists. I talked about my personal appearance more than I did any comics issue by a 15 to 1 margin. No one spoke to me about the Siegels, the biggest story in recent comics industry history. One person mentioned the Gordon Lee case resolution, in passing. Many people were happy to share news of their next deal or which party they were going to that night. People socialized at their booths and when they left them it was for more socializing -- for the first time in 14 years of con-going, I didn't receive a single recommendation for another booth's work from a comics industry professional. It's hard to imagine a more dispiriting weekend spent surrounded by art supported by a thriving group of businesses. It felt like the entire field was going through the motions at a moment in time when it should be most alive and engaged.

If you feel comics are the best part of the comics industry, NYCC 2008 may have been for you as it was for me a terrible show, bland and pointless, the kind of event that calls into question the entire enterprise more than it makes a case for the ascendancy of a shining new example. Maybe I was too quick to judge: NYCC is quickly becoming the industry's analyst's couch. The first year of New York Comic-Con put on display the comics insider's disdain for fans that don't maneuver through needlessly challenging barriers to the hobby with a panache and savvy to match their own. The second year saw the con commit to a mainstream comics strategy that may needlessly alienate a staggering group of comics fans within five years at the same time it feels like a big plate of comfort food. The third year was a symphony of missed opportunities and a lack of engagement with the art form that should be at such a show's heart. Everyone celebrated a successful show but no one could say what measure was being used to mark the limits of that success.

There's a sickness at comics' core that many may not recognize because for the first time since 1992 and maybe 1947 it comes from success, not deprivation. A lost sense of opportunity in New York is only the first sign of potential troubles to come. It's like we've been given the keys to a wonderful car and delivered the down payment on a beautiful home and we're still insistent on treating them like the beater and cabin loaned to us for the last two weeks of summer. Would anyone not in NYC miss the show were it gone tomorrow? If they threw the parties and canceled the convention, would they really be significantly less attended? Did any of what just happened matter to comics in the slightest?

posted 8:05 am PST | Permalink

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