Trying to get your arms around a show as fast-moving, varied, and all-encompassing as the San Diego Comic-Con International is undoubtedly a fool’s errand, but below is my attempt to summarize the show from my tiny vantage point as a small press exhibitor.
First, thanks to everyone who stopped by my booth. This was my 11th appearance at Comic-Con as an exhibitor. I’m delighted that people continue to enjoy and follow the series—a few fans pointedly told me that mine is the first booth they visit when they attend the convention. It also was great to hear that people were aware of my appearance in advance through my website and blog, as well as through online plugs like Heidi MacDonald’s webcolumn, The Beat.
It's a great experience that new fans continue to discover the series. Very often, people are first struck by the art, become sold by the concept, and then pick up a sample issue or two, or a sample pack. Many even return before the convention ends to pick up the remaining issues after they’ve had a chance to sample the series! Other times, people have needed little persuading to simply pick up the entire series at once, causing me to remark that I wish selling the series was always so easy!
Still, sales overall were slightly lower than last year (which ranked among my best ever). This seemed to be the case, anecdotally, for many of the small press exhibitors I spoke with. I attribute this in part to the sheer overwhelming scale of the show. With so many comics, movies, television shows, toys, games, and round-the-clock programming competing for people’s attention and hard-earned cash, small exhibitors like myself are the proverbial needle in the haystack, making it difficult for new readers to take everything in and process it, and difficult for even those who should be my target audience to even come across me and my work.
Even after all these years, readers discover me at the show for the first time by accident, even if they have attended for many years. While some will say they vaguely recall hearing about my book online or in a review, others sometimes say they picked up issues many years ago but didn’t realize I was still publishing!
Figuring out how to cut through the noise (both during the show and the other 361 days of the year!) will be my goal in the coming year.
In order to avoid rush hour traffic, it’s become my habit to leave Los Angeles for the show very early in the morning in order to set up for the “Preview Night," which is traditionally held from 6 to 9 p.m. the Wednesday evening before Comic-Con’s official opens on Thursday. This year I left L.A. at approximately 4:30 a.m. and arrived in San Diego at 6:20 a.m.! (It’s about a 130 mile drive.) For the third year in a row, I ran into 1995 NCS Reuben Award winner and fellow CAPS member Sergio Aragones upon my arrival at the convention center. We discovered we both employ identical strategies for setting up and departing the show. I guess great minds think alike!
My brother, who always attends and is a great help, flew in on an early morning flight to help me set up my booth. He was there by 8:30 a.m., but we were delayed by the fact that my section of the small press area was not yet set up because it's a staging area for the convention’s workers who are responsible for setting up the convention hall and delivering pallets of goods throughout the floor. (At this hour the floor is teeming with workers and forklifts, and legally off-limits to minors!) In their rush, they also forgot to install the curtains behind our booths, so the booths in my section looked a bit less dressed than usual.
As noted at my blog, I designed a new booth banner and display stand because last year’s banner, which was new last year, required too much jerry-rigging. The new display went up easily, required little sweat and effort, and actually is taller than last year’s display. So it looks like I have a keeper! (The art to the booth banner is pictures at left. Click on it to see it full size.)
After finally assembling the booth in quick order, my brother and I went into San Diego’s Gaslamp District downtown for lunch, just across the street from the convention center. I then parked my car at the hotel, picked up my family’s complimentary guest badges at the convention center, then met and checked in my wife and two children at the hotel when they arrived mid-afternoon. This was the first time they came down on the Wednesday before the show. In past years, they usually drove down the first day of the show, Thursday.
This turned out to be fortuitous. In one of the biggest snafus of the show—though it was through no fault of Comic-Con—there was a major accident early Thursday morning, the first official day at the show, on Interstate 5. The I-5 is the major north-south freeway artery that connects San Diego to L.A. and the rest of the state. As a result, rush hour and Comic-Con traffic became snarled and bottlenecked into a single lane into San Diego. People I spoke with at the show (including cousins of mine who came down and surprised me), were trapped in their car from 5 to 7 hours for what normally is a 2 to 2.5 hour drive!! Thus, by coming down a day earlier than usual, my family saved themselves a lot of grief and frustration. (Better yet, I didn’t have to leave my booth in the middle of the show to help them check in at the hotel!)
The properties that received the biggest buzz at the convention were the upcoming Watchmen film adaptation (whose movie trailer debuted right before the show) and, to a slightly lesser extent, the upcoming Spirit movie, as adapted and written by cartoonist-turned-film auteur Frank Miller. (A video link to the Spirit movie teaser is provided at right.) The presentations for both films were held in the 5000-seat Hall H on Friday, which strangely made the rest of the show anticlimactic in some ways.
As always, there were many celebrity cameos at the show, with people like Kevin Spacey, Samuel L. Jackson, Paris Hilton, and Keanu Reeves making appearances. I personally spotted on the floor Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, and Scotty in the upcoming Star Trek relaunch); Breckin Meyer; Robert Culp; William Katt; actor-comedian Jay Johnston (walking rather incognito and sporting a bushy mustache—he smiled when he saw my daughter in her Batgirl outfit); and several cast members of NBC’s “The Office” television show, who appeared on a “Writers of the ‘The Office’” panel: Mindy Kaling, B.J. Novak, and Melora Hardin. (Pegg understandably declined to take a photo on the floor requested by a fan because of the fear it would set off a frenzy on the floor. Novak similarly declined my own request as he walked past my booth, though he did thank me when I said, “Love the show!”)
The Comic-Con also is a place for networking and business-dealing, and I must admit I engaged in a little of that. However, compared to past years, I saw fewer professional friends and colleagues, something I again attribute to the size of the show since there is so much going on that demand people's attention. Some fellow pros I saw included, as mentioned above, Sergio Aragones (pictured at left, who I visited with my two children); Batton Lash; and Len Wein.
Some relaxing moments I enjoyed were the late night dinners after the show with friends and family, often at fine restaurants not far from from the more crowded eateries. Once again, we varied our cuisine each night, having Indian, Japanese and Afghan food on different nights! One night was set aside for a poolside pizza party with some old friends by one of the nicer hotels, watching the kids enjoy themselves. (My family, without me, also went to LegoLand on Friday.)
As usual, since my wife and I had our two young children with us, I had little time for extracurricular or evening program and activities. But I did get plenty of good firsthand reports from friends and family who got to take advantage of the diverse programming. On the plus side is that I was in bed at a relatively reasonable hour and fairly fresh and rested for the next day's efforts!
Reflecting the ongoing evolution of Comic-Con, many of the projects featured at the convention had very little, if any, connection to comics or even the broader “geek” ethos. Though people in recent years have expressed concern about this continuing trend, the incursion and creeping dominance of the entertainment industry at Comic-Con seemed more apparent than ever this year. The L.A. Times (here and here) and other outlets and observers —including bloggers and commentators like Heidi MacDonald—have run stories noting that comics seem relegated to the background at its own party.
I’ve long maintained that as long there are other comic-book conventions around the country that possess the aura and flavor of the Comic-Con's early days as a showcase for just comics—and there are—I think it’s fine and, I must admit, validating to have a show like this that shines such a huge public spotlight on the field.
This year, however, I saw the flip side of the coin. As I mentioned in my blog prior to the show, Comic-Con attracts people who I suspect simply want to be part of the spectacle but have very little (if any) interest in comics at all.
Though I'm not sure I completely agree, respected comic-book retailer Chuck Rozanski goes as far to say that he feels “greed” now drives many attendees and that the focus on freebies and Comic-Con exclusives are a recipe for disaster. He also makes the interesting distinction that because of the shift in Comic-Con's focus, it can no longer claim to be North America’s biggest comic-book convention since comic-books are so secondary.
Nevertheless, Comic-Con is a "big tent" event that accommodates a wide range of interests. An NPR reporter, as quoted by CBG editor Maggie Thompson at her blog put it best: "Comic-Con is whatever you want to make it." So if all you’re interested in is comic-books, you can still find plenty of gems on the floor. (For myself, the First Second Books booth of its line of graphic novels was a delightful discovery.) Admittedly, the convention’s frenzied, circus-like environment makes it difficult to browse in a leisurely fashion, but you'll certainly find the full range of comicdom represented there under one roof.
But it will be interesting to see whether the organizers decide to draw a line in the sand to protect the heart and soul of the event, or instead allow the entertainment juggernaut to slowly take over more of the show in pursuit of growth and size. Given the attention and money they bring, one can see the allure of going over to the dark side. (Already one major lower-tier publisher that has emerged strong in recent years, IDW Publishing, has made noises about not returning to Comic-Con, despite the fact that they actually are based in San Diego and local to the show. IDW's president, Ted Adams, speaks thoughtfully on this subject, and seems to focus on whether the marketing value is worth the expense and time away from production. The varied reactions to his public ruminations can be found here.)
As mentioned above, comics retailer Chuck Rozanski—no doubt expressing the private thoughts of many of his peers who remember the Comic-Con from its early days—spoke frankly about the things he thought was wrong with the current show. By the same token, Rozanski also acknowledged that, “Upon reflection, I keep coming back to the fact that I love this convention so much that I would miss it beyond all words if I did not come each year…. After 36 consecutive years of exhibiting here, this convention has become ingrained into my spirit and soul.”
That pretty much sums up my own feelings. I grew up professionally with Comic-Con, and have established a presence at the event. It’s also in my own backyard here in California which is also why I attend. Rumors have emerged in recent years that Comic-Con is considering other venues to accommodate its continued growth. L.A., Anaheim, and Las Vegas are usually mentioned as possible new locations. While I probably would still attend and exhibit if the show was in L.A. or Anaheim given their proximity to me, I doubt I’d go to the show as regularly if it were in Vegas or any other place. At that point it would cease to be Comic-Con for me.