Comic-Con, Day 4: Artists' Alley

Comic-Con, Day 4: Artists' Alley

Missing the real stories

When Al Wiesner looked at the superhero landscape in the late '80s, he thought something was missing: Judaism. Naturally, he responded by creating his own superhero, a strange rock-turned-man called Shaloman. Shaloman rides the uneasy line between parody and straight-up superhero comic, and it's never immediately clear if even Wiesner knows his true intentions, outside of one issue, his favorite, which he constantly refers to as "the parody issue." But the parody issue doesn't look appreciably different from the regular issues, outside of jokes like "Nosir Nyafat." ("Instead of Yassir Arafat," he says.) Behind him, a woman I take to be his wife is digging into a bagel and lox. She's tired. He's tired. Last day of Comic-Con, and the last chance to pitch Shaloman to people like me, who stop by, curious about what the hell "Shaloman" could mean. Prices have been drastically reduced, and he assures me, once he sells out issue 1, he will print no more, not like Marvel or the other big boys. The woman just stares into the middle distance.

I'm in Artists' Alley, one of the elements that the original San Diego Comic-Con grew out of years and years ago. This was the place for comics artists to set up booths to show off their artwork and network with each other. Over the decades, it's shifted from the center of the convention to the far corner of the show floor. Has it gotten smaller? Larger? I get different answers from different people, and I think the truth lurking behind the conflicting statements is that the Artists' Alley section of the Con has gotten definitively larger, in the sense of size and area, but has gotten smaller in terms of how important it is to the show. Now at the center of the show floor, as near as I can tell, is a perfect recreation of Bumblebee from the Transformers movies.

Creativity always, always gets shunted aside by commerce. It shouldn't be as depressing as it is, but the constant reminders of this fact in seemingly every aspect of our lives somehow don't stop feeling like new, fresh stabs at the vital part of ourselves that demands something GOOD, for God's sake. Something true and original and bold and precious, something driven by a person or small group of people that has something to say, even if that something to say is as basic as, "I wish there were a Jewish superhero." There's a reason so many movies pitch the scrappy underdogs beating the giant, corporate behemoth, beaming with pride at the end as the big guys realize that they were wrong all along. There's also a reason these movies have multi-million dollar advertising budgets.

I keep trying to slot Artists' Alley into my preferred story of the Con: Artists' Alley has gotten less and less important as time has gone by because the organizers behind the Con made a deal with Hollywood to bring in panels geeks might be interested in, then let the money Hollywood brought lead them down a path paved with good intentions but ultimately leading to ruin. The problem, though, is that this story just isn't true. Every artist I talk to says that having more people at the Con means more people wander by their booths, means more of them stop to talk, means more of them buy sketches or merchandise or stuff. Having more people visit the booth allows them to float along on commissions or sketch sales until one of the comics companies comes calling, and having a very popular booth is also a potential way to attract the attention of those companies.

The comics industry, for the most part, is sort of like that "Gotta Dance" number in Singin' in the Rain, at least to hear some of these people tell it. It's all about knocking and knocking on doors until someone answers and sees you and likes what you have to offer. Obviously, it's not like that completely, and it's not nearly so egalitarian, but the industry remains small enough that someone like a Chrissie Zullo - whose covers for a Fables miniseries have been justly celebrated - can get a job simply by sending an attractive image as an e-mail attachment. Sure, she has to find that e-mail address somewhere, and she has to have the talent, but there's a sense that these doors are easier to knock on than the doors in other entertainment industries. (Granted, the people I talk to have mostly broken through. For many with talent who haven't broken in, it must feel as impossible as winning So You Think You Can Dance? feels to me.)

I talk to Richard Peter Han, who's here with his creation, Sprocket and Gear, which is a tale of a friendly cat and rat who use crazy inventions to accomplish their tasks. Han's sketches of the characters burst with color and life, and somehow combine the influences of cute animal cartoons, early Disney, Depression-era comic strip street scenes, and the inventions of Leonardo da Vinci into a blend of influences that feels new. The sketches, at least, are enough to make me want to see a full comic featuring the two characters. Han's hoping to turn them into a TV series. He came out of video games, and he'd like to break into that industry. All along, his high school art teacher sits off to the side, a quiet smile on her face. She knows this stuff is good. She knows he's got the initiative. Sprocket and Gear will likely go somewhere. Han just has to find the right medium for his characters.

But the experience of Artists' Alley also requires seeing people who are just here because they're hanging on to a dream that will likely never come true, a piece of themselves that is dedicated to something that will always exist outside of themselves, no matter how hard they might race after it. You can almost see the difference in their eyes, a kind of quiet panic, a brain firing synapses that keep saying, "This isn't right, this isn't right, this isn't right." They were supposed to be famous by now. They were supposed to be something other than this, something other than people trying to get a flood of fellow humans headed toward Bumblebee to stop for a second and notice them and say, "Hey, you're the best artist ever." But the flood rushes past, not even having the dignity to sweep them along with it.

Artists' Alley is the best part of the Con because it's the most HUMAN part of the Con. Every booth is a little story of its own, a narrative in process. Katie Cook - whose blog I read regularly, so I sought her work out - is pregnant and recently quit her full-time job to pursue her bright, cartoon-y art. I buy a handful of her drawings, thank her for her sunny characters. Jackie Huang wanted to find a new kind of toy for a newborn child and took up needle felting, something I'd never heard of. Now, he's surrounded by little stuffed toys that gaze out from wide, uneven eyes, a unique expression in plushie form. A giraffe towers above him, and he kindly smiles at someone who asks if it's for sale and says no. He'll be hanging on to that one. Over there is Gary Friedrich, co-creator of Ghost Rider, who shuffles his sketches and script replicas with wrinkled hands and watchfully scans the crowd for anyone who might stop by and say, "Hey, I LOVE Ghost Rider," so he can smile and say thanks and show off his wares. And next to him is Al Wiesner, insisting to anyone who stops that Shaloman isn't a Jewish story, it's a human story, and the woman, still staring into the distance, still working through that bagel, still looking as though she's just ready to pack up and head home.

Creativity can be the most horrible thing in the world. It's a piece of yourself that breaks off and wanders out into the world, where everyone else can see, on some level, who you really are. There's a mask between you and the rest of the world, most of the time, but a creative work removes that mask, asks people to judge you, on some level. That's why so many creative people never risk sharing their work. To be told it's not good enough, that they're not good enough, is simply too painful. It leads to a long, slowly decaying life of trying to find that person who thinks you're good enough, a long life of panic growing tight behind the eyes, the mask working harder and harder to contain it. I don't terribly understand Shaloman, but I buy an issue anyway because I like Al Wiesner a lot. I read it later while sitting in line for a panel filled with the people who let that piece of themselves out and found others ready to embrace it, and I still don't understand it. It is a thing Wiesner is desperate to tell me that I can't wholly grasp. Somewhere along the way, I lost the ability to decode it.

Inside Ballroom 20, teenagers shriek for the cast of Glee. I look up from Shaloman to see TV cameras sweeping along the line of us waiting to get in - we won't. Downstairs, I know, similar cameras are trained on the people around Bumblebee, all part of an easy local news piece on the craziness that is Comic-Con. They'll pack up and go, too, and they'll all file reports filled with footage of people in elaborate costumes, complete with reporters giving the raw numbers of how many people attend the Con and how many went to the Hall H panels. The anchor will smile at the camera after the report is done and say something like, "Looks really fun, Jeff," then cut to the weather.

And there you go. That's the story. Cut and print.

In Artists' Alley, they're packing up, too, putting the pieces of themselves back in the trunks they brought them in and wearily making their way to their cars. Maybe it was a good year, maybe it wasn't. Maybe this is it. Maybe they'll never be back. Maybe 50 people will be dressed up as Sprocket or Gear next year. Maybe that giant giraffe will get sold and Jackie Huang will always regret it. Or maybe he'll hang onto it and be able to spend the rest of his life looking at it and knowing that he, at one point, driven by something he maybe didn't even fully understand, made that. And no one can take that feeling of accomplishment away.

They say goodbye to their friends from the next booth over and head out on the road into the California never-dark. And no matter how disheartened or enthused the reaction to their works at Comic-Con made them, they will face a point in the next few weeks where an idea will spring to their minds, unbidden, while doing the dishes or taking a shower or walking the dog. And they will find a blank piece of paper or pick up their needles or grab their watercolors.

And they will begin.

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