Comic-Con suggests we might be living in a new comics golden age

Comic-Con suggests we might be living in a new comics golden age

After the last of the 2012 Eisner Awards were handed out, and before the after-party began, all the year’s winners gathered on the stage at the San Diego Bayfront Hilton’s Indigo Ballroom for a group photo. The evening’s grand champion was front and center: writer Mark Waid, whose work on Daredevil and other titles had netted him three Eisners. Also honored: Darwyn Cooke, for his adaptations of Donald Westlake’s Parker novels; Craig Thompson, for his epic romantic folktale Habibi; James Kochalka, for the goofy kids’ comic Dragon Puncher Island; and the publishers IDW, Fantagraphics, and Drawn & Quarterly for their reprints of classic material from the U.S. and abroad. Looking at the assembled talent, Maggie Thompson (one of the original comics journalists, via her editorship of Comics Buyer’s Guide) noted the diversity of the material that had just been honored: superheroes, archival newspaper-strip collections, true crime, children’s books, Japanese war stories, and much more. “This is the golden age,” she said.

I come here not to bury San Diego Comic-Con, but to praise it. This was my first year at SDCC, and I’d been well warned about all the convention’s problems, the biggest one being that it’s long-since stopped being about comics, and has become a catchall pop-culture marketing-fest. SDCC is no longer exclusively tailored to the sci-fi/fantasy crowd; in addition to the superhero movies and zombie TV shows, there are plenty of panels now dedicated to material that isn’t even remotely geeky, such as Showtime’s Shameless. The biggest problem I saw with Comic-Con, though, is that we in the media are coaxed into covering it when most of it is not for us, necessarily. Movie and TV companies want the press to show up to generate publicity for their projects; but most of the people reporting on the Con aren’t well-served. They stand in line for hours just for the chance—not guaranteed—to see early footage and to be in the same room with stars. In other words: They’re asked to waste an entire weekend to get the kind of access that they usually get just as part of their job. No wonder they grumble; I don’t blame them.

But nearly every day I’d take a long trolley ride to and from my hotel, surrounded by ordinary Con-goers, who’d be buzzing about the cool stuff they’d seen, the pictures they’d taken with celebrities, and the yet-to-be-released videogames and toys they’d played with. And it’s hard to be cynical about that, even though I was annoyed by those same people when they were blocking my path in the main exhibit hall so they could snap photos of sexy, cat-eared booth-babes.

Our own Todd VanDerWerff wrote elegantly a few days ago about the experience of walking around the exhibit hall—the noise, the smell, the overstimulation—so there’s no need for me to re-cover that ground. It was on the floor, though, that I had a revelation similar to Thompson’s at the Eisners. For about the past half-decade, San Diego Comic-Con has been written about—often derisively—as some kind of massive victory party for geek culture, celebrating how the ascendancy of computer technology and teen-targeted blockbusters has invalidated the decades upon decades of nerd-mocking by high-school jocks and late-night talk-show hosts. And there is some of that “hooray for us” vibe evident on the exhibition floor, particularly in the sections dedicated to videogames, TV, and movies, which are consistently choked with people grabbing for freebies and enjoying seeing their interests validated.

But I’d made my mind up before I arrived in San Diego that I wasn’t going to stand in any lines unless there was a cup of coffee waiting at the end of it. No panels in Hall H for me. No organized autograph/sketch sessions. No being herded along a wall for a half-hour to pick up an Expendables 2 mini-poster. (I did violate my policy to get a Django Unchained T-shirt, but that was a press event, which only required me to mill around outside the booth for 5 minutes, waiting for it to open.) Fortunately for me, the part of the Con floor I was most interested in was also the least populated: the section where the alt-comics publishers had set up shop. At the Top Shelf booth, Eddie Campbell, Jeffrey Brown, Jeff Lemire, James Kochalka, and Nate Powell were around all weekend, selling their work and signing for fans. NBM had Rick Geary. IDW had Darwyn Cooke. Fantagraphics had Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, while Drawn & Quarterly had Kate Beaton—and those three were mobbed by admirers all weekend. That’s just a small sampling of creators and publishers doing business in the big hall. The artists weren’t manning the booths all the time, but they were around a lot, and were easy to approach, not blocked off by velvet ropes and volunteers wielding “End Of Line” signs.

Here’s what impressed me: The different worlds represented at Comic-Con aren’t as rigidly separated as they may appear. Just as the movies, TV, and videogames sections of the floor represent a cross-breeding and flowering of geek culture, so does the comics section represent a larger embrace of geekdom and highbrow. At one point, I was in the middle of a conversation with someone whose feet are firmly planted in comics’ artier camp when suddenly she stopped to admire a cosplaying Daenerys Targaryen. “Sorry,” she said sheepishly. “I love Game Of Thrones.” Later, at the panel co-hosted by Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly, the companies previewed their upcoming projects, which included a new memoir by Holocaust survivor Miriam Katin and a new slice-of-life graphic novel by Joe Ollmann, but also a collection of Pippi Longstocking children’s comics from Sweden, a series of reprints of Shigeru Mizuki’s popular Kitaro comics, and a continuation of Fantagraphics’ artist-focused EC Comics anthologies.

This, I think, is the real legacy of Comic-Con: the elevation of the medium’s literary merit and public profile combined with the preservation of its past. At the end of the Fantagraphics/D&Q panel, an attendee asked whether the latter had any plans to continue its hardcover collections of John Stanley comics, and added that he was going to pass along the answer to a gathering of Stanley fans at the Con. It used to be that comics buffs relied on word-of-mouth and the few existing comics histories to find out who the greats of the medium were, and then relied on back-issue dealers to track down the actual work. That’s what comics conventions were for: to share that accumulated, not-always-easy-to-access knowledge, and to provide buying opportunities. The outcome of all that? Handsome hardcover editions of Floyd Gottfredson Mickey Mouse strips, and brisk-selling new comics inspired by the best of the past.

On Saturday morning, I moderated a panel for the upcoming indie romantic comedy Save The Date, co-written by alt-comics stalwart Jeffrey Brown, and starring Alison Brie, Lizzy Caplan, and Martin Starr, all of whom were on the stage. But while the audience fawned appropriately over the stars, most of their actual questions were for Brown, and for the movie’s director Michael Mohan. A few hours later, I sat in a room with a hundred or so Love And Rockets fans, listening to a panel celebrating the 30th anniversary of Fantagraphics publishing Los Bros Hernandez. Jaime and Gilbert talked about the influence of Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Alex Raymond, and Dan DeCarlo on their work, and their publisher Gary Groth showed comparative illustrations. Cartoonist Mike Allred stood up during the Q&A and gushed over the Hernandez brothers, saying that reading Love And Rockets as a young adult had rekindled his love of comics, not just because of Los Bros’ aesthetic and narrative sophistication, but because Jaime and Gilbert were able to put across what they loved: about Kirby, about punk rock, about wrestlers, and about women.

At the end of the Hernandez panel, Groth buried the lede, announcing as the crowd was shuffling out that Fantagraphics had signed an agreement with the app comiXology to start distributing Love And Rockets books digitally—the first such Fantagraphics digital project. It’s a long-overdue move, given the potential of digital to expand the comics market. The physical experience is now, and always will be, a major part of comics’ appeal. Comics are art-objects, and art-objects occupy space. But comics are also literature, and there’s something to be said for allowing at least the option of reader convenience.

It’s noteworthy that Top Shelf, which now boasts a lineup of creators to rival Fantagraphics and D&Q, has been one of the most aggressive of the big-time alt-comics publishers in terms of establishing a digital foothold. At its panel, the Top Shelf director of digital Chris Ross talked about the ambitious anthology Double Barrel, in which Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon are serializing their latest graphic novels, monthly. The hook for Double Barrel (beyond the work itself, which is very good) is the price. Top Shelf is offering more than 60 pages of comics a month, on multiple digital platforms, for $1.99; and when each new issue is released, the previous issue drops to 99 cents. That’s not unusual for Top Shelf. The publisher is also releasing the archives of James Kochalka’s daily cartoon diary American Elf on a monthly basis, at $1.99 for each year’s worth of strips. And the company’s graphic novels are attractively priced. Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s massive From Hell, one of the high-water marks of the medium, can be had digitally for under 10 bucks, whereas physical copies run more than twice that. It’s clear that Top Shelf isn’t just dipping a toe in digital; it wants people to buy.

And that matters, because as healthy as the comics industry has become from an artistic perspective, not all is well, either on the business side or at the Con. The website The Beat reported that some longtime attendees have either curtailed their San Diego activities already or are making plans to abandon the Con altogether. As I mentioned, the section of the big hall dedicated to comics was much less-trafficked this year than other sections, and some publishers, retailers, and artists reported that their sales were too slow to justify the hassle of coming to SDCC and being treated like second-class citizens.

But I also heard that Fantagraphics had to bring in more copies of the new Love And Rockets book because it had sold out of its supply by Thursday. And Drawn & Quarterly was doing a brisk business with Kate Beaton books and calendars, as well as with advance copies of soon-to-be-released work by Adrian Tomine and Brecht Evens.

The existence and output of these companies—and so many others—are a strong testament to where the medium is right now. Throughout the weekend, I kept thinking about Bill Blackbeard, the late newspaper-comics scholar and collector whom Gary Groth inducted into the Eisner Hall Of Fame this year. Groth closed his speech with a quote from Blackbeard about the importance of recognizing and preserving the true American art form that is the comic strip, and then noted that Blackbeard had written this in 1976. It’s taken a lot of fits and starts—and more than a few sexy, cat-eared booth-babes—to get to this point where such a wealth of old and new material is available in multiple formats, and is of such high quality. We have access to heartfelt middlebrow melodramas, visionary avant-garde work, slick pulps, artful memoirs, and so much more these days, and we can pretty easily compare them to the best work of the past century, which is more manifold than many had recognized at the time.

But the people coming to comics conventions knew. And they’re still making the case, in the corners of San Diego Comic-Con where it’s easier to hear and be heard—far from the boom of the T-shirt cannons.