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

July 27, 2009

Why The Success Of Comics Conventions Isn’t Always A Good Thing For Comics

Yesterday Comic-Con International ended. I'm guessing this year's CCI is shaping up to be a pretty successful show: that was my impression, anyway. 2009 has been a good year for comics shows. Except in the case of the Wizard conventions, where one might allow that the company simply lacks the basic resources to run those shows as they've been run in past years, comics conventions seem to have done pretty well. I'm a big fan of comic conventions, and I've been to all of the majors. This is my 15th year at Comic-Con International.

A successful convention is a good thing in and of itself. I very much believe that. Yet I also think there's an argument that can be made -- and should be made for the purpose of further dialogue -- that comics conventions doing well is not necessarily a good sign for comics. There are, I think, four reasons.


1. A successful convention rarely leads to increased industry success because the infrastructure is damaged in fundamental ways -- or has a hitch step -- that keeps this from happening

You can have the best convention in the world, and we're getting closer and closer to having some of the best conventions ever, and that convention ends on Sunday afternoon at 5 PM -- no matter if you want it to or not. Some of that is unavoidable; conventions offer peak experiences. The best article from an on-line source like Comic Book Resources isn't going to match being told that news by Joe Quesada sitting 15 feet away from you. Unless you live in New York and LA, you're not likely to see a whole lot of signings and appearances and presentations. Listening to an interview with Hope Larson on Inkstuds isn't quite the same as getting to ask her a few questions at her booth on the con floor. And so on.

Still, the drop-off from major comics convention to the routine provided by many local comics shops is much, much steeper in most cases than anyone cares to admit. It may be steeper today in more places than it was a quarter-century ago. When I was a teen, my friends and I used to head to Chicago's big convention to buy all the weird stuff on the Fantagraphics and Kitchen Sink tables our stores didn't carry. Today, the stuff my store won't carry includes a significant percentage of Marvel and DC comic books. It carries nothing published by Fantagraphics, nothing by Drawn and Quarterly, one book from Archaia, nothing from Oni, one book from Top Shelf. Plus, my store is three hours away. As books and music and movies have all become easier to casually access, you can argue that entire classes of comics are harder to find than ever before outside the floor of a convention. This can't be healthy.

The film and television industries use San Diego to draw attention to works that will soon be available in millions of homes across America or in every town with a movie screen. The comics industry uses that same weekend to celebrate works that may only be available in a few dozen places scattered across the country or on-line by sifting through hundreds of similar projects. I would trade giving an award to the best retail outlet for a concentrated effort on making the top 200 of them looks less like places where one goes to pick up methadone and more like the vibrant stores many of them tend to be on the inside. I would trade a Johnny Ryan OGN sell-out or a mini-comic breakout success story that consists of being talked about for a day for 50 more stores that carried such work with devotion. I would trade the half-off Marvel trade paperback sale for a presence by that company at my local big box bookstore that represented their best work and deep bench. The lifeblood of an art form can't be something that meets its best audience six or seven times a year; the industry could use greater attention to follow-through.


2. Conventions are growing in popularity not because of their subject matter but because of the intensified nature of social interaction with the advent of on-line communication

There was a time when people thought that on-line message boards and chat rooms and blogging would fill the hole that comics fans and industry employees used to stuff with five days and four nights of carousing and laughter and booze on the site of a major convention. What it's done instead is allowed more people to have more relationships with more people that are then consummated -- not always literally! -- at the convention. Instead of going to a show to be amongst your people for a weekend, many are attending the big conventions to solidify friendships they carry with them all year long. Look at a lot of internet postings about a comics convention, and it sounds like a social event to the extent that it's sometimes difficult to find exactly what's binding these people together. There are more posts about the good times had than the great works bought.

The danger is that deep down and in more and more overt ways, more energy will be expended and more joy will be had getting to X, Y, or Z bar on a Thursday night than coming to a greater understanding of a prickly medium or simply encountering for the first time some of the great art that the North American comics industry has to offer. It's not ridiculous to suggest that a greater amount of thought was given this past weekend towards what people were going to wear to the Eisner Awards than to, say, Gilbert Hernandez's astonishing Luba Conquers The World. Even when a book does make an impact at a show, the vast majority of discussion is about its status as a "buzz book" -- great art as a talking point, as fuel for social interaction, as a signifier for this group of collective experiences over that one. There needs to be at least some room for exploring great art and questioning industry practices in addition to making money and enjoying one's friends; the industry suffers without those things. Cons can continue to be wonderful experiences, but they should be able to encompass functions that work on behalf of industry and art form.


3. The more successful a convention becomes, the more it may preach to the choir

Some folks believe that comics culture ignores the casual fan to favor the hardcore fan while others believe that comics doesn't value the faithful reader who really pays the bill as much as it does new ones who might read a magazine article or hold up a comic book on a TV show. What's clear is that conventions are the kind of experience that increasingly favors the hardcore fan over the casual one. Not only is there potentially some cost involved with attending any show, shows like Comic-Con are becoming the purview of those who plan months ahead with a huge investment involved over those that might casually decide to go the Wednesday before in a car with friends and be home by 9:00 PM. This skews the convention away from the likely readers of several kinds of comics.

I'm also not sure that comics conventions are as friendly as they used to be even 10 years ago, and it's not like they were the greatest places on earth back then. My own experience is that walking with someone who doesn't have a passionate interest in comics through a convention in 1997 is a very different experience than walking someone through in 2009. If nothing else, there are more costumes now than ever -- still a general trend if in slight decline this year -- more aggressive salesmanship, more elaborate props, more bodies, more strollers, more families.... all of this can be confusing to just about anyone unless you're used to it. To many folks, the swelled crowds and increased business that have been a beneficial result of an increased pop culture emphasis at Comic-Con International have come with a price of increased frustration in terms of getting around, getting a room, getting to the show. The end result is making comics look and feel like something in which it's necessary to be very involved, and certainly making many cons seem that way. I don't think that's always the best lesson to have. I wish more attention were paid to this in the future, that festival aspect of comics that's not a part of most North American comics shows. Until then, I'm going to think that too many kinds of comics readers are frozen out of the typical convention experience for us to evaluate that experience on positive terms.


4. A flea market is still an odd way to meet the world

I've met many of my non-comics art heroes in a variety of ways: at parties to which we were both invited, through a mutual friend, in the lobby of a local Equity playhouse, at an art gallery or two, even a couple of times as I was having a book signed at a bookstore. In contrast, I've met maybe more than a quarter of my comics-making heroes in the course of some kind of commercial exchange. The latter seems more and more odd to me the more I think of it. I can see in my mind's eye some of the greatest artists in the world impatiently looking around their table stock, asking me outright if I'm interested in buying anything, acting in an understandably impatient fashion to the point of actually breaking off contact when I'm not a good customer. Meeting someone as they stand over their wares hoping to make some cash is different even than receiving a book through a signing or any of the other ways we might make a great artist. As I've been doing it so long that I can call up from memory the sense of it, I have to imagine similar feelings are being felt at least subconsciously by folks who do less aisle-wandering than I do.

I'm not sure how this could ever change, or even if it should. A lot of programming is by nature commercial, too, and some of the most traditional and popular are outright marketing presentations. There's also an argument that having artists represent themselves like this humanizes artists in a way, and I guess that might be true for some people. But I've never quite gotten over it, and with conventions more popular than ever, the salesmanship aspects start to dominate my memories. The only thing I might suggest is that the wider culture and industry entire make it a goal at their major shows that the experience be worth having if not a single dime is spent on purchasing anything once within the walls -- paying close attention to programming, bringing in more festival aspects, having focused signings that aren't in a commercial context and may even feature giveaways. I think there's a reason why the people that frequently come off best at the show have the least to do with their core function.


Just as there was a lot of ramp-up to Comic-Con International talking about all this work there was to do to get ready for it, I expect there to be as much talk about exhaustion and let-downs and recovery. And while there of course should be a bit of that, the rest of the year should be about building on whatever we saw and learned at the big shows. We need to stop acting as if the reward of 361 days of hard work as a long, crazy weekend in the California sun and more in the idea that four days off wandering the streets of San Diego is temporary time away from getting to work in an honorable, healthy, exciting industry serving the best of all the art forms.

posted 7:55 am PST | Permalink

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