View From Portland New York: NYCC

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JUST BACK FROM NEW YORK. I didn’t have a computer with me, so no play-by-play updates, and now that it’s already Wednesday, many others have already covered the NY Comic Con pretty well. So, instead of re-treading that ground, a few personal observations on my first out-of-state con experience.


Fan Culture

Unlike what I’ve heard about other cons, the convention floor was devoted mostly to comics. Movie-related events were largely tied closely to comics, such as the cast of Hellboy 2 appearing at the Dark Horse booth, and DC and Marvel movie events taking place at their respective booths. There was certainly a video game presence, but it was fairly unobtrusive. There were of course people dressed as any fandom-related thing you could imagine: superheroes, anime characters, Mario Bros. and other video game characters, etc. I was surprised at the number of Ghostbusters and the relative lack of Indiana Joneses, though there was at least one.

An institutional presence of non-comics material was more apparent in the panel area. On my way into the Scott McCloud Zot! panel, I had to cut across a throng of fans lined up for the Avatar: The Last Airbender (Nickelodeon) panel. The room housing the Zot! panel was about half-full of appreciative but reserved fans, while across the partition, we could hear frequent waves of screams from the capacity crowd in the Avatar panel. On my way out, an equally large line had formed for the Venture Brothers panel (I’ve subsequently read that the panel area had to be shut down due to over-capacity around this time).

Diversity!

Portland is hip, and we get a fairly decent gender and age balance at our comics events, but there’s no way around this: Portland is white. If there is little racial diversity on Wednesday, or at Stumptown, or the Portland Comic Book Show or whatever, it’s because there’s little racial diversity in Portland. Coming from that background, it was heartening to be reminded that not all of comicdom is so pale. Even people running the booths and in Artists Alley surprised me, though there’s certainly a ways to go as far as representation in the creative and decision-making sides of the culture. But it’s good to be reminded that there’s more going on than is apparent in my corner.

Kyle Baker rocks

If I’d somehow had any doubts about this before, they would have been dispelled as soon as I approached his table. Behind him, he had a TV playing cartoons featuring the characters from his series, The Bakers. I asked if The Bakers was being made into an animated series or if it was just a demo to attract people to the booth. “I just did those for fun,” he said.

Awesome.

We chatted a bit, but I was mostly entranced by watching Baker drawing a commission. It was a full-figure drawing of Batman. “All the sketches today have so much black,” he commented, fretting over the impending demise of his Sharpie. Some of his earlier commissions had been of The Shadow (one of the many things he’s been known for over the years) and Black Canary.

Zot’s back!

Scott McCloud, author of Understanding Comics, was in attendance, but not to promote one of his non-fiction studies of the medium. Rather, he was talking about his 1980s alternative superhero series, Zot! In the series, Jenny Weaver and her brother Butch are transported to a parallel universe in which it is the far-flung future of 1965 and a utopian earth is protected by a teenaged hero named Zot. It ran ten issues in color, then returned for twenty-six more in black and white. The occasion of the panel was Harper Collins’ upcoming reprinting of the black and white issues in a new volume, and McCloud and the audience reminisced about the series.

Like other McCloud talks I’ve seen, this one employed a fast-paced PowerPoint presentation, each thought receiving a series of images (McCloud has a side career as a corporate speaker, as his ideas about comics apply to other forms of communications, such as the dreaded PowerPoint). This one began with some technical difficulties, which he and his wife, Ivy, worked out while convention staff bizarrely remained in the back of the room. Once that was cleared up, McCloud spoke of his childhood friend and writer Kurt Busiek getting him into comics. He then moved on to his early career in the DC Comics production department, where he spent his lunch hours at a nearby Japanese bookstore, absorbing untranslated manga, once accidentally taking some books all the way back to DC while talking with another comics professional before realizing he’d forgotten to pay for them.

Next, McCloud spoke about the Zot! series itself (originally envisioned as “Zick Dorback”), describing the two kinds of villains Zot faced, the powerful “quiet” villains––Deco, Zybox, and 9-Jack-9––representing “futures with credibility,” and the more impotent “loud” villains––The Devolutionists, Rumboult Bellows, and the Blotch––representing futures without credibility, though they strike me as more representing the past. McCloud seemed most haunted by 9-Jack-9, the potential for technology to destroy humanity, stating that he still thinks “we’re going to blow ourselves up” before the end of the century. On a lighter note, he talked about the storyline in which readers were invited to vote for which character they’d like to see hit with a pie in the face. Jack won, but has no face, so the pie goes through, and hits Zot. Worrying that those who voted for Jack may have felt cheated, though, McCloud also included a page in which everyone who received votes (including the late Steve Gerber, who mysteriously received four votes) gets a pie in the face. Another key issue featured Jenny’s best friend, Terry, coming out as a lesbian. McCloud said that at the time, most comics featuring gay characters were underground titles that were shelved in the back of comics shops, and he wanted something that teenagers could access to speak to the issue.

During the question and answer period, one fan asked about the unfinished mystery of who is editing history in Zot’s world. Elaborating on this, McCloud explained that in Zot’s world, “There was an Apocalypse Now!, because it was a great movie, but there was no Vietnam war.” In answer to the question, McCloud said that he had more Zot! stories to tell, and may get to them someday. Another audience member asked if McCloud’s three books about the nature of comics might make it more difficult to return naturally to comics. McCloud responded that making comics never came naturally to him––it was always “plodding, methodical, intellectual,” which was why he made those books in the first place. Therefore, all he could do was “take it all the way” and control his work “to the point that it no longer looks controlled.”

On his new graphic novel, McCloud was closed-lipped, revealing only that it would be 3-400 pages, a love story with some supernatural elements, set in contemporary New York, and “operatic.”

Someone asked if, after twenty years and three books about the comics form, McCloud had been tempted to adjust any of the art in the new Zot! collection. “The temptation was terrible,” he replied, “and I did it!” McCloud revealed that he had redrawn elements of a couple hundred panels and finessed some dialogue, such as toning down a bully’s rants.

Finally, asked (by me, actually) about the difference between working with comics publishers and major book publishers, McCloud said that he’d never had problems with comics publishers, though he’d “veered close to disasters” with them. His relationship with Harper Collins, he said, is “very breezy,” and commented that book publishers lack “the gnarly bits” that comics publishers, as smaller companies, sometimes have. In particular, he thanked his editor for the cover design of the new Zot! collection, which he called a great improvement over his own.

In which I meet my boss

Former sort-of boss, that is.

An initial visit to the Top Shelf booth saw it manned by Jeff Lemire and Jeffrey Brown. That’s right, if your book comes out from Top Shelf, expect to be put to work––not that either seemed to mind. Both were friendly and chatted with me about their work, from Top Shelf and elsewhere.

On my return trip, I met Chris Staros. Having interned at Top Shelf last year under the company’s Portland co-publisher, Brett Warnock, it was a pleasure to meet the other half. Chris turns out to be a nice, soft-spoken guy who doesn’t necessarily give Top Shelf books the hard-sell, but succinctly explains the appeal of, say, Lost Girls in a way that made everyone who considered buying it while I was hanging out at the table decide to do so. I had had a little trouble finding the booth (though less trouble than Josh Neufeld had), which was toward the back, near Artists Alley, but Chris explained that this was somewhat by design. Since the show is still new, Top Shelf’s putting in an appearance, but not expending too many resources. As the show grows, expect the company to move closer to the front and develop a larger presence (I wonder if this answers Neufeld’s concerns to a degree).

Interlude

Overheard on Saturday:

“Man, it’s not as big as I expected, but I’m still overwhelmed. I’ve just been to so many cons this year.”

“Do you think you’re getting burned out on cons?”

“No way. Next weekend I’m either going to Stumptown in Portland or Fangoria in LA.”

“Portland will be cooler.”

“Yeah, but Fangoria will probably be less pretentious.”

I didn’t hear what they eventually decided.

Shocker: People love Stan Lee

Sunday was a lot less crowded, but I nonetheless thought that it made sense to take out insurance on getting into the Grant Morrison/J. G. Jones panel, so I ducked into Room 1E12 halfway through the panel preceding them. Turns out I had unwittingly walked into the Stan Lee panel. He was at NYCC promoting Election Daze, a humor book featuring photos of the 2008 presidential candidates with word balloons and captions added by Lee. It could be sad seeing the co-creator of the Marvel Universe reduced to this novelty project, but it’s worth pointing out that this sort of thing actually goes a long way back for Lee, who has launched similar photo caption projects several times throughout his career.

It’s pretty clear that being Stan Lee is Stan Lee’s main business these days. The examples shown from the book weren’t particularly funny and had no real pertinence to any of the issues or debates of this election cycle, relying largely on stock humor. Lee himself, however, has his act down, and he completely charmed the audience with off-the-cuff quips and jokes. While I didn’t laugh at many of the gags from the book, Lee’s live riffs were definitely entertaining and fun to behold.

And the audience was his. Most of them had been for decades. It was the rare questioner who didn’t begin with some variation on, “you taught me my moral code,” or “you were my second father.” One audience member wished Lee would include his own political views in a follow-up book, under the theory that the country could benefit from Lee’s moral instruction. The commenter went onto say that Lee had always instilled the highest morals and standards in his work (he had apparently never heard of Stripperella), and that comics should return to that. Lee responded that he’s never tried to impose his personal views on readers and tended to leave it at “Good is good, bad is bad, and that’s enough,” hoping readers would “try to be like the good guys.”

When it was all over, the audience mobbed Lee, reaching for his hands and snapping photos. I do not deny being swept up in the moment myself, though the jostling of the crowd meant that this blurred photo is the best I got:

It was strange to see Lee looking frail as he was helped down from the stage after the panel. On the one hand, he had needed someone sitting next to him to relay the questions that he couldn’t hear; on the other, he displayed tremendous energy and enthusiasm in joking with the audience and answering their questions. He’s showing his age, but he clearly still loves being Stan Lee. He made several mentions of the 2012 edition of Election Daze, at which time he will be 90.

Not my kind of panel

I made a promise to myself, and then I broke it. I said I would not attend any panels where the experience of reading about it online would tell me all I needed. But it was Grant Morrison.

If I’d caught Morrison’s spotlight panel on Friday, I suppose I could have avoided this, but that was my one full day in the city, and I was enjoying medieval art at The Cloisters and sun in Central Park. Surprised that it was so easy to get into, I broke my promise to myself and attended the Final Crisis panel on Sunday. Not that there’s anything wrong with that per se, but I can wait until next month to see if Aquaman is in it or not.

It definitely reminds you that you’re at a fan conference and not an art conference when people, some dressed as superheroes, line up to ask about plot details of an upcoming series, and seem very, very grateful to receive the scraps they’re given. “God, thank you,” one said when told that Kamandi played a role in the story.

This is not to say there weren’t highlights. An animal rights lawyer came to the microphone and thanked Morrison for changing his life and setting him on that path by writing Animal Man #15, the dolphin slaughter issue. Asked about event fatigue and the cost of buying event tie-ins, Morrison replied “You have to discriminate… you don’t have to buy all of the books, because some of them are crap.” After editor Eddie Berganza commented that Geoff Johns and Greg Rucka might take exception to this, Morrison added, “Oh, I was talking about other companies… that other stuff you just shouldn’t be bothering with.” On J. G. Jones’s art, Morrison gushed that he was going to a level of darkness that many artists couldn’t provide, comparing a scene in which the Mad Hatter is beaten with a toilet seat to Martin Scorsese.

Another fan asked about influences outside of comics. Morrison answered that the influences on his comics style were largely other comics: “When you talk about cinematic comics, I don’t know if there is such a thing.” He cited All Star Superman, saying that it was designed so that, rather than taking a storyboard approach, entire scenes are summed up by a single image, emulating the directness of comic book covers. When Jones was asked about which characters he’d like to work on, he answered that he doesn’t think in terms of characters, but is attracted to stories and writers.

So there was some interesting stuff in there, but a lot of it consisted of questions of the “what’s gonna happen?” variety. In retrospect, I wish I’d stuck with my plan of attending Mark Evanier’s Jack Kirby panel.

The Haul

I didn’t buy a lot, as I had to schlep everything home, but a few things were irresistible. Vertical had the first volume of their new Tezuka translation, Dororo, ahead of the store date, so that was a must. After the McCloud panel, I was in the mood to read his Superman story, Strength, and found the three prestige chapters at a good price. It’s not a deep story, but gets mileage out of the notion that Superman’s true strength lies in the human side of his personality and has some clever ideas throughout.

As mentioned above, Jeff Lemire and Jeffrey Brown were running the Top Shelf booth on my first visit. From Lemire I bought the haunting Lost Dogs, his Xeric Grant-winning first book, about a giant’s refusal to behave like an animal despite everyone around him seeing him as one. It’s interesting also for its look into Lemire’s art in an earlier phase of development. From Brown I picked up Cat Getting Out of a Bag and Other Observations, signed to my girlfriend as a gift (she’ll have to find something else to read when accompanying me to the local comic shop, I guess).

C.B. Cebulski may not have been told he was moderating the “How I Got My Job” panel, but I had the opportunity to meet him at his table anyway, and picked up Wonderlost #1, his autobiographical book employing different artists to illustrate stories from his awkward teenage years. I also picked up the two issues of Comic Foundry, which is a fun mixture of lifestyle pieces, silly throwaway humor and some genuinely thoughtful longer pieces. You’ve got to love a magazine that covers Secret Invasion and Final Crisis, then two pages later is writing up Ganges #2.

As for free stuff, DC Comics is the champion, providing the first issues of two new Vertigo series, Brian Wood’s Northlanders and David Lapham’s Young Liars, as well as a convention variant of a WildStorm book called The New Dynamix, plus a PowerPuff Girls digest, a Minx sampler and a preview of the new WildStorm crossover.

It’s funny how convention hype makes a lot of the exclusive stuff seem hard to find, when in reality Marvel wouldn’t let me leave their booth without a Skrull mask. So many people tried to put them in my hands that eventually I took one so they’d stop. More interestingly, they had a sampler of their new translated Soleil comics, which I’m excited to see. Konami was giving out free Hellboy comics, though I didn’t figure out why, and Virgin was giving out ashcans of some of their comics. The award for most amusing thing someone shoved in my hands has to go to the people selling insurance policies for comics collections. Good times.

Closing Thought

There are lots of kids at these things. Try not to knock them over so much. I was sad to see the disregard many adult attendees seemed to have for young children. I know it’s crowded, but c’mon, you don’t need to get anywhere so urgently that you should just push through the kids like that. Let’s do better, comics fans! Maybe in 2009?

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