SDCC 2010: ALL FIRE IS THE SAME FIRE

All due apologies to Mr. Grant Morrison, from whom I nicked the above title. In turn, that phrase came out of his notes that constantly writes to himself, or at least pretends to when the documentary camera is turned upon him. Yes, I’m fanboy enough that I went to that panel. But I’m ahead of myself already.

Personally, this was a weird year into which was thrust the annual gathering of the tribes, the nerd prom, all invectives you can possibly imagine that you could possibly hurl at this endeavour. To which a new one was added this year: “Douche prom.” Yes, it’s coarse and crass and unforgivable, but there’s times that you find yourself stepping into a shoe that happens to fit you perfectly. The annexation by Hollywood and Other Distasteful Media Personages of SDCC continues apace. But it’s what comics seem to want, or it’s emblematic of what comic companies are becoming.

I said last year, at my end-of-the-decade wrapup, that the biggest single story of the time was also the biggest story of the year, that being the October Surprise of Marvel being bought out by Disney, followed rapidly by the the long hand of Warners reminding DC that they’re a subsidiary of Warners. And it continues to be so. Only we now get to see that in the after-hours scene surrounding SDCC. Parties purportedly put on to celebrate comic-related properties or comic companies often to seem to remember to invite everyone but the people who created the comics upon whose backs these new properties are borne wealth undreamed.

Or all-too-easily-dreamed and reaped.

I said reaped, dammit.

So yes, SDCC has become more commercial, more spectacle for its own sake, and not only those, but in a lot of ways, a lot more corporate. Not simply in that people are walking around wearing suits (there’s precious few, actually). But it is more regimented, more secured, more risk-free (minus the Constab 2010 incident). Free items are given out more forcefully, with hawkers working far and away from their home bases, exhorting “come on, it’s FREE!” to pass out their comic samplers and onesheets and trifles. Maybe that’s the economy talking. But you’d think that free would be enough of an enticement as it was. Free isn’t what it used to be.

There was a lot more Hollywood this year. More disingenuousness. More shaking and howdying. More glad-handing and youdaman-ing. Or maybe I’m more sensitive to it. There’s a lot of producers high-fiving themselves that the job got done and not a lot of interest in how good the job actually is.

It was the year that Scott Pilgrim tried to overshadow RED FACTION and maybe didn’t quite pull it off. But even so, he’s got a pretty big row to hoe in terms of expectations generated. True, he’s young, he’s fresh, he’s full of energy and all the kids are down with him on the show floor, but will he live up to the expectations that have been built up? I’m not talking about with the fans, but with the producers. They’re a tougher lot to win over, their knives are sharper, but you’ll never hear the producers bellyaching on messageboards before they start snicker-snacking.

I hope SCOTT PILGRIM outdoes everyone’e expectations. Mr. O’Malley and his team are all talented guys who’ve found a nerve, even it doesn’t happen to be my particular one. But then the only news that made me beside myself with happiness was that Michael Zulli (he of PUMA BLUES and SANDMAN and SWEENY TODD fame) will have a new book out in November. That’s the kind of thing that pleases me. Well that and the bomb dropped that there was going to be an ABSOLUTE WE3 with additional pages by Frank Quitely off of Grant Morrison’s script. Oh, and that there was positive motion in the direction of an eventual FLEX MENTALLO collection. Understand that I’m not happy because I’ll finally be able to read it; I’ve had it for years in multiple forms. However, I’m happy that all the millions of new Grant Morrison fans that have been created by FINAL CRISIS and such will finally get to read a deeply personal and engaging work.

Or it may yet along the wayside not unlike SEAGUY, which was announced to have a third episode eventually, mostly written. I might’ve missed some other nuggets from Mr. Morrison’s panel. Though I did stick around for his answer to the “How old is Batman?” question which served as a launching pad for a pretty direct summation of the metaphysics of fiction, all boiling down to “None of it is real so it doesn’t matter.” Other people can quote it directly. Next time I hear a continuity question that covers anything other than a character’s essential nature, I’m gonna direct people there.

Funny, but I was talking with a friend on Saturday, a game designer for one of the big companies, and he more or less said that “Story doesn’t matter in games, but atmosphere does.” I haven’t decided yet if the same applies to serial comics and characters, but there may be some truth to it.

This also turns towards an interesting moment that came up during the “DC Town Hall Meeting” towards the end of the day on Sunday. Dan DiDio was offering up an argument against Elseworlds titles saying “I don’t want these alternate realities presenting cooler stories than the other eighty comics a month I’m putting out” and he brought up the examples of KINGDOM COME and WATCHMEN, and maybe one other, completely missing the fact that those books are interesting because they’re complete works and not part of an interminable serial. Pretty sure that someone straightened him out on that point, but who knows if it took.

Ah, I’m wandering.

So yes, this was a weird year for SDCC and myself personally. I’m here at San Diego and not back at home where I perhaps ought to be, since I’m staring at a pretty concrete deadline on a big project. At the end of June, I was significantly ahead in terms of finished pages. That’s a damn good thing, since I haven’t had a solid string of work time all July, culminating in the madness that is this annual trip to my once-hometown. If I get home and put out another twenty pages this week, I’ll be just on this side of being behind. But on the bright side, I got word that two projects which had been somewhat up in the air are now landing on the right side of the fence, as it were. More importantly, personal contacts were established/maintained, so perhaps the trip wasn’t a waste after all.

All the same, it would have been nice to have the energy to come back from the show and be able to pound the keys some. Yes, I suppose this is pounding the keys, but this is just blogging, not writing. This is more like typing in the Mailerian sense of the word.

I arrived in San Diego to find it only about thirty degrees cooler than Sacramento, but also about thirty times more humid. It’s hard to remember when this was home, though it wasn’t all that long ago. This is another part of things that make coming to SDCC weird. I go to places I used to, like Tommy’s for a chili burger followed by a trip to Comickaze, but it’s not the same. It’s just not. In that, the furor and hullabaloo of the show floor is welcome, since it’s more the same than it isn’t. There’s some of the same costumes, some of the same superheroes and Captain Kirks, some of the same heroes, even if just for one day.

But Comic Relief wasn’t there, so there I was reminded that Rory isn’t with us still, and now even this part of his legacy isn’t.

Old Con was there, though, as named by a woman wise in this sort of thing. You know Old Con, the banks of comic stores selling (still) overpriced, real collector item comics. They’re still there, and I still paw through the longboxes to marvel over the covers sheathed in plastic like so many Laura Palmers still and blue and lifeless, pretty enough to remind you of what they were in life but still not alive. But I’m not one of those guys who’s going to put down money on those books, not real money anyways. Give me the quarter bins. I’ll buy all kinds of crap for a quarter.

Though I can’t bring myself to stand in line for most of the free comics being offered. Rankly smelling Bronze Age comics, though, still sharp with the smell of pulp acidifying, yeah, I’ll buy all kinds of those. Which is why I was staying away from those bins. I didn’t come down this year to buy a lot of stuff, and mostly I stayed true to that, managing to get away with only a copy of Gail Potocki’s THE UNION OF HOPE AND SADNESS and a few other random trades and something from the Partyka table (which was being shared with Tom Neely, who will indeed destroy you.)

Ms. Potocki’s book is remarkable, and I’m kind of upset with myself that I waited as long as I did to pick it up finally, after having seen it a couple of years ago at Wonder-Con, I think. It’s a darkly gorgeous work, infused with a very quiet power, exploring the axis between memory and knowledge. Heady stuff, but the Century Guild booth always provides a welcome anchor for those like myself wandering the floor.

This year, the layout seems to have been perfected in that if you want comics stuff, it’s easy enough to get to all the comics stuff without going through the movie and television and celebrity stuff, which I more or less decided was the heart of darkness. Albeit a brightly-lit one, pasted over with giant video screens and pumped with absurdly loud and juiced soundtracks and pretty girls handing out free things that I didn’t want in the first place. I’m sure there was a Kurtz there, bald-pated like Brando in APOCALYPSE NOW, bug-eating and heat-drunk, surrounded by a harem of slave Leias, atop a pyramid of properly-boxed toys and custom vinyl figures. I’m just glad I didn’t find him.

So the comics material was easy enough to find, easy enough to stick to without cross-contamination. Though there was still the steady stream of producers and movers and shakers, like great whites in the kelp forest, unseen until you lingered too long for a moment, just a moment. I suppose I should be grateful. Sometimes creators even manage to hit it relatively big with the help of these movers and shakers, but I can’t help but see the contempt that a lot of them walk around, swinging like an absurdly long pachuko pocketwatch.

Figure I should mention that the other big property on the show floor, aside from Mr. Pilgrim was THE WALKING DEAD. It wasn’t inescapable, but it wasn’t going to go quietly into the dark night, either. And hey, the show even looks pretty darn good. Though I was more than a little saddened to see that there wasn’t a single piece of Tony Moore’s artwork attached to any of the promotional material. Half of why people started reading the book in those crucial first months was Mr. Moore’s art, and he did plenty of covers as the book picked up steam, but it’d be hard to figure that out from what you’re seeing on the show floor. Still, that long trailer looks solid. But then so did the footage from WATCHMEN that I saw a couple years ago.

I was also struck on Sunday, after having taken the day off on Saturday to sneak out and visit friends in the County Orange and to see INCEPTION, that there was very little in the way of connection to the number one film in the country. That being INCEPTION, which seems a natural for the Comic-Con crowd. But all there’s been has been a couple of props and costumes and the tie-in comic from Udon. Where’s the synergy?

Sure, there’s room to hype things that haven’t come out yet. In that, SDCC has become E3 writ large. E3, for those of you who don’t know, is the premiere gaming show where companies trot out demos and videos and previews of games that are in progress but not out yet. It’s also an incredibly frustrating business, since it’s nothing but previews and videos and press conferences and precious little new actual content. It’s content to make you want content, but not content in and of itself. Sure, there’s plenty of actual comics to buy and take home, but the announcements are more and more just announcements and not things to be taken away other than in the wanting.

Honestly, I’ve kinda lost my patience for that. So I don’t go to a lot of preview panels. About the only one I went to was the Vertigo panel, which is something of a tradition for me, as I’ve managed to go to most of them since the imprint even started some seventeen years or more ago. What did I see there? I saw announcements for a lot of standalone graphic novels (which is nice) and the continuation of a few stalwart monthly titles, but I don’t recall seeing a huge bolstering of the monthly line. Now, I’ll freely admit that I came in a few minutes into things and maybe I just missed it, but I don’t think I did.

Also interesting was a direct statement that all of the characters from the DCU which had once been the purview of Vertigo, SWAMP THING, SANDMAN, HEX, etc, are all reverting to the DCU. Madame Xanadu might be a holdout. Oh, and John Constantine, who is apparently getting married. No, really. But that’s an interesting turn from the way things were just a short while ago. Vertigo is now a home for original properties and genre stories and literary fictions, exclusively. For the moment. It’s like the last stage of the rocket is separating and there’s some tin-can floating going on. Not that it’s directionless, I don’t believe that for a moment.

And it was funny, but the Vertigo presentation was held in a room the same size that the Grant Morrison panel was, only I think Mr. Morrison’s was better attended. Though I suppose he’s got a much larger audience based on the big crossover series and books like BATMAN AND ROBIN. Still, interesting. He’s just as charming and engaging a speaker as he was back in 2003 when I first saw him speak in a room maybe a quarter the size of that one, or less.

As mentioned way above, I did stick around late for the Grant Morrison documentary movie panel, and it looks to be worth the price of admission, at least for a relatively diehard fan like myself. And he certainly looked like he was having fun rolling with the interviewers. Sure, I’d heard a lot of the stories before, some of them firsthand from Mr. Morrison himself, but there were some patches as yet un-illuminated. Oh, and Chris Weston’s reaction to the first page of THE FILTH script that he was illustrating was absolutely priceless and made the trip up worthwhile.

Mostly, though, the show was a mix of catching up with friends (and the first experience of referring to people by their Twitter handles before learning their actual names in real life – weird), trying to talk with editors (something that I’m truly, epically terrible at) and just getting a sampling of what’s out there on the floor. Honestly, though, I was much more interested in making this a social thing. I can buy stuff anytime. I don’t always get a chance to hang out with net-folk in the meatspace. I don’t always get a chance to talk with Pat Mills (which was truly my major geek-out moment of the show) about the genesis of MARSHAL LAW and how Archie Goodwin was likely horrified by what he’d gotten himself into.

Too many people I saw too briefly or not at all, which is probably my big regret of the show. There were too many “I’ll catch up with you later” moments and not enough sitting down and talking about the ripples and undercurrents of the show. Sure, there was some of that here and there, of the lunchtime parade where people come and go from the table like anthropomorphs coming and going from a mad tea party. I barely had an opportunity to congratulate friend John Layman (and his partner in crime, Rob Guillroy) on their Eisner for CHEW. Hell, I didn’t even see Tom Spurgeon once. I guess he was actually out there doing the work, where I was treating the thing like a gigantic house party, working my way from one end to the other with a red Solo cup filled with foamy beer and trying not to step into anything too sticky.

But I never took the hustling aspect of this work too terrifically seriously. Primarily because I’m not very good at it, and I’d rather spend my time on the work itself. I’m not very good in bars, crowded or otherwise. Can’t write in bars. Would rather be writing. Wapner. Yes. Can’t miss Wapner.

Sorry, RAIN MAN moment. Crowds sometimes do that to me. I’m much better in small groups or with crowds that I can’t see. Like right now for instance. I’ve been told that this is a career shortcoming. No, really. And I suppose it’s no less true than in other businesses I’ve been in, like animation. Personal networking in animation did a lot to get one jobs.

Oh, but I’m digressing. Though I’m not, since a large part of why people go to conventions is to get connected to get work. But I’d just rather do the work. I know. It’s not about what I want, but what people want out of me. Then I get tangled up in this, which is one of the reasons why the run-up to the show is not unlike the day before finals, angst-drenched and uneasy-making. Can’t really help that, just how I ended up being wired, and rewiring is not a trivial process.

But you probably want to hear about the craziness on the floor or how Dan DiDio, who’d rumoredly been very low-key the earlier days was in full Vince MacMahon mode on Sunday at the DC Town Hall Meeting. Which he was. I actually enjoyed coming to these in the past, since they were very low-key operations where people got together and chatted about what DC was doing, how it might be done better, comics in general.

I suspect it had something to do with the addition of Jim Lee, who, sure, is co-publisher of DC, but he’s also still a superstar artist and artists will always fill a room if they’re superstars. So my read on the vibe in here was that it was all very much the DC faithful, regular comic store visitors who really don’t want to see much changed up.

If you’re listening, misters Lee or DiDio, here goes. I have an iPad. I’ve downloaded a handful of titles, mostly free ones or books that I already own and are classics. I haven’t bought any of DC’s new comics because I really don’t like what I’m seeing out there with the exception of BATMAN AND ROBIN and maybe ACTION or SECRET SIX. I already have BATMAN AND ROBIN in singles and there’s no compulsion to buy the digital copies. I bought both ALL-STAR SUPERMAN #1 and BATMAN: YEAR 1 #1 because those are both gold standard superhero comics and I want to have something to show people.

If you have something worth reading, I’ll pay two bucks for it. I don’t care about page turning and holding the physical object in my hand. I don’t think the comic book has any tangible advantage any more, since I can lay out a comic book flat. Gatefold and double page spreads are a non-issue and I wish you’d stop bringing that up as a reason not to adapt to the realities of digital comics. Gatefolds are so rare as to be nearly meaningless. Most double-page spreads are served just fine by turning the damn thing on its side.

Some of the archival material looks very nice, but at two dollars an issue is simply too expensive. Bundle runs. Aggressively cross-market. Build up your readership but most of all, show some patience. You both admitted that its three weeks into things. This a long haul paradigm shift thing. And if you don’t grapple with it successfully, someone else will. But cleaving to the old way of things simply because it’s the old way of doing things isn’t a winning proposition.

Oh, and the guy who said there should be done-in-one adventures of your three marquee characters (and at least one other character to be showcased a month) is absolutely essential. Bring back single-issue stories and consider it a cost of doing business. I’d almost say that you need to listen to Jim Shooter’s advice and remember that every comic is potentially someone’s first comic. It can’t all be six-or-twelve-issue arcs and work.

If you’re insisting on selling line-wide stories, then I can’t help you. I think that’s a crazy-making proposition and will ultimately break the back of your readership at four dollars a chapterlet. Selling the entire line, or even a majority of it at a time is a huge endeavour, but it also limits the choices that you’re going to have in terms of stories and genres. There can’t just be one set of genre tropes and get a wider range of readers. I know, DC does superheroes, but they could do so much more.

SDCC is still a great show, though for the first year I felt like there just wasn’t enough time. I still missed people, still missed opportunities to linger at booths. But then trying to do it all is probably a crazy borderline suicidal business. But what a way to go.

Imaginary twitter stream will follow some other time. I’ve got to get to work on something that actually, y’know, pays. If you were missing the flavor of my previous reports, you might look for some of it there.

3 comments to SDCC 2010: ALL FIRE IS THE SAME FIRE

  • Tom Spurgeon

    1. So where were you?
    2. There’s a new Michael Zulli book coming out?
    3. I wish I’d written the phrase “like great whites in the kelp forest”
    4. Don’t you find it weird and slightly adorable that comics people still sort of expect to be let into those companies in greater numbers?
    5. I wouldn’t call it working, exactly.

  • Tom Spurgeon

    by “companies” I mean “parties” — not being let into the companies is going to come in the next few years

  • 1. I wandered the floor. I never saw you, but I did see your goatee’d evil twin many times. I took that as an ill omen.
    2. There indeed is. It’s a symbolist manifesto, in his own words, but is indeed a comic. There’s info about it here: http://centuryguild.wordpress.com/2009/10/30/michael-zulli-and-the-fracture-of-the-universal-boy-part-one/
    3. I don’t remember writing anything like that. I actually wrote this fresh out of the show and on the plane, mostly.
    4. Weird and slightly adorable, but also, y’know, completely reasonable.
    5. You posted more than a lot of other people did at the show. I’ll give you credit for work done.

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