WONDER-CON 2010: THE MORE THAT I TRY TO ERASE YOU, THE MORE THAT YOU APPEAR
Remember that tired cliché about real estate: “Location, location, location.”? Well, turns out that’s mostly true. This should come as a surprise to no one who’s gone to a comics show. There’s always an aisle that people find themselves in and realize that the only way they’ll make it through with their souls intact is to immediately turn their gaze downwards, eyes on the concrete never engaging with the vendors on either side. These vendors that are so feared, so reviled? They’re not the cult celebrities (Hell, the Honky Tonk Man is downright approachable and will happily let you pose with his championship belt). They’re not the workers of plasticine or macramé, handcrafted pop culture goodness.
No, this purgatory of the convention center, this artistic hinterlands, this no-persons-land that even angels fear to tread is what we call “Small Press.” And don’t tell me that you haven’t behaved the same way, cringing from the earnest purveyors of amateur publications, sticking to the middle of the aisle and scrutinizing the epoxy-sealed concrete as if it had all the significance of the Rosetta Stone. Don’t tell me that you haven’t done that, because I have been there myself. I have seen the folded tabloid pages saddle stitched into something approximating respectability. I have seen the creators who start earnest and engaged on Friday and beaten into senselessness by Sunday. I have seen it because I too have been there.
So let me preface this by saying that Wonder-Con 2009 was the best single convention I’ve ever sold at. In one weekend I sold about one-third of the copies that I sold in the entire initial DM sales of STRANGEWAYS: MURDER MOON. And I’m not alone in that assessment. Many retailers I talked to had great weekends in 2009.
And maybe they did in 2010, if they were in their old location. I, however, was not. I was in one of the outside lanes (the one closest to Fourth St. if that helps, the highest numbered aisle on the outside.) This is the aisle that people don’t walk down unless they’re trying to get somewhere else. This is the Ninth and Hennepin of convention aisles, home to fan clubs (both AVATAR and FIREFLY) and small presses. On Friday, it was easy to attribute this to being simply Friday and not everyone getting out to the show or wanting to spend money immediately.
That was Friday. On Saturday when the aisle I was in was sparsely populated, mostly with people moving swiftly to make the hard right (or left) to get over to the next aisle (which was too busy to walk through efficiently), then you begin to wonder. And the show itself was busy. My gripes (and let’s face it, they are gripes, not necessarily neutral observations of a dispassionate attendee) are not about the attendance of the show in general. To all reports (firsthand, I might add, as I walked down to the little boy’s room), the show felt as busy as San Diego did. Many people whispered that “It feels like Con out there,” by which they meant the Big Mamajamma, The Ayatollah of Rockandrollah, the Samuel L. Jackson wallet of comic shows, the San Diego Comic Con.
And it did. I had to throw elbows just to cross the floor (even avoiding lines for guys like David Finch or Geoff Johns, the real big-ticket items). It was packed. It was packed everywhere but I was. Now normally I’d attribute it to my prickly personality, but I’d gone through months of intensive one-on-one therapy so that I could get past my interpersonal relationship issues. The fact of the matter was that there just weren’t many people where I was. Even fewer buying. In fact, so few bought, that I’d have been disappointed with the sales had the show been a smaller local instead of a smaller national (which Wonder-Con is; traditionally the first of the year, though ECCC stole that thunder this year.)
Could this be fixed? I don’t know, honestly. If this was designed to be a transit lane and not a shopping lane (it was wider than others) then, well, it served its purpose. I’ve never planned a show for retailers and vendors (though I did help organize a SF fandom show back in…oh 1987, let’s say, back at UC Irvine where I was going to school at the time), but nothing approaching the scale of this one. I can say, however, with some certainty that I will not be buying a small press table at Wonder-Con again (and I do plan on showing at Wonder-Con next year, though in the Artist’s Alley). I love the show, though there’s some trends that I find troubling (which I’ll get to in a bit).
But small press? Never again. If I have to, I’ll split a table with someone and upgrade to an actual vendor booth, assuming the second STRANGEWAYS book comes out to anchor things (that’s a tangled mess of its own right now.)
However, I’ll offer a couple potential solutions instead of simply griping. 1) Remove the curtains that isolate booths in small press. They destroy line of site and make everything seem to be tiny little islands instead of being connected to anything else. SDCC is set up like this and there’s every reason to do the same thing at Wonder-Con. Yes, line of sight limitations would change on small press booths, but that’s hardly a big deal for 90% of the small press setups that I saw. 2) Intersperse some bigger small press folks/creators with the lesser known. Make that aisle a destination, not an expressway. I’m sure the same principle gets applied to Artist’s Alley. 3) If needed, create a dedicated outer perimeter that has no vendors. The floorspace was there (or at least seemed to be there from where I was standing—but I’m not privy to all that behind-the-scenes planning.)
As for the troubling trends, I mentioned above. Okay, so DC had a booth, right out front. Only DC’s booth was mostly white tablecloths and a couple takeaways, a whiteboard and some stand-up art. Very few creators there (though I did see Greg Rucka there more than once, and Gail Simone). It looked to me to be a very perfunctory and minimally functional setup.
Marvel didn’t have a formal presence there (but then they haven’t in years, have they? Even Marvel setting up at SDCC is a relatively recent happening). There were Marvel panels (and a lot of Marvel chatter on the floor, particularly regarding their software on the iPad), but no big official presence. That’s the Big Two with either a limited or nonexistent booth setup. If you’re looking at the Floor Wars (I just made that up, feel free to retweet with the hashtag #floorwars), the winners are Image, IDW and Boom! (all of whom, coincidentally, are doing book sales at their booths). Dark Horse would normally be in that company, but I didn’t see the same buzz at their booth most of the times that I walked past. Could be that they poured it on thick on Friday/Saturday (but I was out there then and didn’t get the feeling that they were a hive of activity.)
Wonder-Con (and ECCC and other shows) is clearly more important to those second-tier publishers. One, to connect with fans, and two, to move some units. I know that I bought the last ART OF STEVE DITKO book from IDW on Saturday. They seemed to be doing a pretty brisk business in all sorts of other things (and THE MAN WITH THE GETAWAY FACE was the one essential takeaway from the floor, a takeaway that’ll be the best two dollars you spend on comics this month, I’ll add.)
I can’t say for certain firsthand, but most reports I got about most of the publisher-driven panels were that they were simply not that good. Personality-driven panels are another thing entirely. The Greg Rucka panel was a highlight of the show (read the transcript here, from Comics Alliance) and I hear that Geoff Johns knocked the fans dead at his panel. I was able to attend neither.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be troubled by the Big Two only making token appearances at Wonder-Con. Maybe that’s just the way of the world. They have the comics internet to drive their respective fandoms all year ‘round. They don’t need to do conventions in the same manner that other publishers do. Things are changing. Since I’m not the biggest reader of material out of the Big Two, it’s not especially any skin off my nose. It’s not like there was any shortage of people un-interested in mainstream superheroes. There were plenty of them. I’m sure that most artists, even the indiest of the indie, were asked to draw Green Lantern a lot more than they were their own creations. Same as it ever was.
But let’s look over the good things. Like seeing my friends and colleagues who I only hear from in text. Seeing Heidi MacDonald and Tom Spurgeon flown out for the show was a refreshing surprise. Normally all those journalists you hear about at shows, yeah, they’re there on their own dime. An interesting aside regarding that: I heard that SDCC had more reporters covering it than the Super Bowl. Think about that for a moment.
I’m always happy to spend time with the San Francisco comics mafia: David Brothers (who, like Spurgeon said, ought to consider moonlighting as a panel moderator), Jeff Lester (not quite so savage in person as in print), Esther Inglis-Arkell (whose last name I had to look up), Graeme McMillan (no longer in the SF mafia, but a member emeritus), Ian Brill (who’ll always life in SF to me), Ash (who is FUCKING METAL), Ken (Commander Kneisel to the rest of you), Brian Hibbs (who should need no itroduction), James Sime (also ditto), Jason MacNamara (the most dangerous man in comics), Stormy (who really doesn’t need the eyeliner to make his eyes pop) and the rest. Oh, Carla and Lance who are not in SF, neither is JK, or Tom Bondurant, but honorary members all.
Panelwise, I only caught two of them. One of them was Darwyn Cooke’s, (link to Graeme’s writeup at CBR) who spoke remarkably frankly about comics and creation and the tension between doing creator-owned and interpretive/franchise work. Always a pleasure, even if it’s often a bucket of reality in the face. Also caught the comics journalism panel, which was interesting for not really being about journalism but much more about operating a comics website in the web 3.0 world. Secretly I’m disappointed that Graeme didn’t announce Fanboy Rampage 2.0, but it’s probably better that it never happens. The internet can only split in half so many times. Katherine Dacey was a standout here, sharp and smart. I don’t have the time to read comics critique/commentary that I once did, but I’ll try to make it a habit to stop by Mangacritic.com when time allows me. And she also gets bonus points for giving away a dynamite thesis project that’ll make some grad student’s career.
That’s it for programming for me. Wanted to go to the Murphy Anderson panel (and by extension, the Cover Artist’s panel that followed) but couldn’t.
Spoke with Jeremy Bastian on the floor, grabbed the last issue of CURSED PIRATE GIRL, set up an interview with him at some point in the future (anyone wanna run that?). He’s in that fine art/comic art nexus that sometimes pulls in people like Mike Kaluta, Dave McKean, and Charles Vess (a diverse but interesting crowd) and I really enjoy his work (and am insanely jealous of his lettering.)
A word here about my table-mate, Alex Sheikman (whose beautiful book ROBOTIKA is put out by Archia Studios Press), whose conversation kept me sane in the wasteland of the land of no customers. Anyone interested in a taste of something different in their comic art should give his work a look (and his 2010 sketchbook contains many surprises for fans of cosmic bronze age comics). I hear he’s got a story in the upcoming MOUSE GUARD series too, which should get him a lot more attention.
Always a treat to talk with Barron Storey, who I see at most SF shows now. Ran into some of his students and I really hope they know how lucky they are to have a teacher of his caliber. Were this another life, I’d drop out and take his classes and actually do art. But that’s not this one.
Spent time at both Comix Experience and The Isotope on Saturday night. Both were as busy as I’ve ever seen them (including the fabled Back Room at CE, which is filled with all kinds of 80s goodness, hitting my sweet spot nicely.) Munched Mexican food and got a chance to talk with Josh Fialkov (of TUMOR and a bunch of books from Top Cow whose names I can’t recall at the moment, sorry Josh) and Dean Trippe (who I didn’t really know before aside from Project Rooftop). CE was nicely busy, social, manageable.
The Isotope, well, was the Isotope on a big event night. I didn’t even try to get in until nearly midnight, just hanging out on the sidewalk out front which was plenty busy in and on its own. Things “calmed down” enough so that you could hear yourself scream on the inside after James administered birthday spankings to Dave Johnson at midnight (a sight that I’ll take with me to my grave). Darwyn Cooke was resplendent in his red mountie jacket (though I apparently missed the hat) and a good bunch of people were dressed in suitably western wear for the Jonah Hex theme. Not me. I don’t do westerns very well.
There’s more, I’m sure there’s more, but it’ll have to wait. Back to work for me and maybe even back to work for you.