Axel-In-Charge: Unmasking the "Totally Awesome Hulk"
I don’t remember having this problem last year, but security was especially tight at the show. Saturday evening I got booted out at closing time while talking to one of the artists I was rooming with and Sunday morning press wasn’t allowed onto the floor until the show opened at 10:00. I’m not complaining exactly, it was just different from the open access I remembered from last year. Even Friday morning this year we were allowed onto the floor during the set-up hours before 10:00.
But if I hadn’t had to wait in line to get in Sunday morning, I wouldn’t have met Doug Zawisza, who was covering several panels for CBR, including the Mark Waid/Matt Fraction one that I’d enjoyed so much on Saturday. We talked about that, about what comics we’re reading, and about what our kids are into. I’d forgotten that one of the joys of conventions is just meeting and chatting with people who love comics as much as you do.
Speaking of kids, one of the best panels I attended all weekend wasn’t on the program. It was dinner after the show on Friday with Robot 6’s Brigid Alverson (who also writes for Good Comics for Kids), Eric Wight (Frankie Pickle), school librarian extraordinaire John Schumacher, and Chris Samnee (Thor: The Mighty Avenger). Seriously, if you take me out of the mix, you couldn’t organize a better panel on all-ages comics if you had a year to do it. We talked about our favorite kid-appropriate books, how comics for young people are in better shape than ever, and how nice it would be if DC and Marvel got on board.
But back to Sunday, once the show opened my first stop was the comiXology booth to talk to CEO David Steinberger. We chatted a bit about their digital storefront program, a bit more about their new Comics 4 Kids app (currently in Apple’s approval process), and more still about their “website in a box” program for retailers. With all the rest of the digital talk all weekend, I was especially interested in hearing Steinberger’s thoughts on how retailers could be part of that business and I’m looking forward to talking to some retailers about that too.
I spent the rest of the morning talking to people, including an early webcomics pioneer who’s considering returning to that format, at least in part. Back in the day, my perception – and I imagine I wasn’t alone in this – was that webcomics were a step towards print, which is where any sane creator really wanted to be. Once you’d proved yourself online, hopefully Image or somebody would pick you up and you could leave the web behind.
Webcomics creators today still want to be printed, but the big change is that I don’t hear a lot of talk about abandoning the Internet once that happens. Webcomics isn’t a ghetto to be broken out of; it’s a legitimate format in itself that creators continue to use even when their print volumes are published. That’s not a new revelation, I understand, but I hadn’t thought about that old perception in a long time. It wasn’t until I started talking with this creator and thinking about the early days of the format that I realized how much attitudes have changed.
After lunch I went to the Archaia/Jim Henson panel expecting to learn about a comics adaptation of some unused Muppet project from Henson’s early career. What I learned about instead was this whole other side to Henson; a second career – no less quirky or funny than his puppet work – in which he used actors and animation to express counter-cultural ideas in fascinating ways. We got to see some short films (and an aspirin commercial) that reflected this side of his creative output and then learned about an unproduced script for a feature film called A Tale of Sand.
In it, a man wakes up in a desert town to find that people are encouraging him to start the race, which is about to begin. The man has no memory of a race he’s supposed to be in, but he lets the townsfolk push him out of town and into the desert. After a while, he looks back at the town and sees another person chasing after him. The race has begun and the rest of the story is about the man’s trying to figure out what’s going on and survive as he encounters strange creatures and people in the wilderness. Archaia’s EiC Stephen Christy described it as Alice in Wonderland meets 127 Hours. Ramon Perez is illustrating it directly from Henson’s screenplay with no intermediary writer and the pages we saw reminded me a bit of Y: The Last Man where a stylized realism is used to give weight to the fantasy.
Sunday afternoon was full of panels. After Archaia/Henson, I went to the horror writers panel featuring Gary Reed (Deadworld), Rafael Nieves (Hellstorm: Prince of Lies; Bob Howard: Plumber of the Unknown), Cullen Bunn (The Damned; The Sixth Gun), and Dirk Manning (Nightmare World). Moderated by horror podcaster Decapitated Dan, the panel focused initially on what fans could do to advocate for more horror comics. The unanimous message was to tell people about what you’re enjoying, even if those people don’t think they like the genre.
Bunn explained that he gets comments all the time from people who “don’t like horror or westerns,” but love The Sixth Gun, a horror-western. The trick is that Bunn hasn’t set out to write a typical horror book that follows all the standard tropes. This was echoed by the rest of the panel as well. Nieves said that he just wants to write stories about the human condition, but throws in monsters so that “you guys will read it.” He was smiling when he said it, but the point is sound and applies to any genre, not just horror. As Reed said, “The story dictates the genre; not the other way around.”
The discussion then led to gateway horror where Manning also had a nice moment. He passionately criticized people who get down on Twilight fans. “It may not be your thing,” he said (I’m paraphrasing), “but it’s a gateway to horror.” There was some applause and amens from the audience on that one.
On the topic of horror comics in particular, someone made the comment that comics are considered ghetto by popular culture at large and need to be advocated just as much as the horror genre in general. That may or may not be a fact, but – coupled with my earlier conversation at the comiXology booth – it made me realize something.
As I’d talked with David Steinberger about retailers and digital comics, the thing happened that always happens when I think about the future of the Direct Market. On the one hand, I’m an advocate for whatever change is coming. Those who are smart will get on board and figure out how to ride it. Those who aren’t will go out of business. It’s survival of the fittest and the rational part of me doesn’t think that the industry should manipulate the change or inconvenience customers just to protect the weak and the slow.
On the other hand, I love my comic book shop. I mean, mine in particular is neither weak nor slow and I expect it to do just fine, but there’s an emotional component to this whole thing is what I’m saying. I don’t want the DM to go away if it means no more comic book stores.
But what I realized in the horror panel was that the Direct Market doesn’t equal comics shops. If periodical, single issues die, so be it. Comics shops don’t have to go down with that ship. In addition to diversifying into other areas of geek culture (as many are already doing), they can specialize in graphic novels and trade paperbacks. And through programs like comiXology’s “website in a box” they can get in on digital comics while still capitalizing on the customer loyalty they’ve created in their physical stores. There’s no reason they shouldn’t survive the coming change.
The final panel of the day was Moonstone’s on jungle comics. Ed Catto (of Captain Action Enterprises and one of the driving forces behind Moonstone’s new jungle girl comic, Savage Beauty) led the discussion with Moonstone’s Joe and Lori Gentile and writer Paul Storrie (who’s writing Moonstone’s new Sheena comic). After an historical overview of jungle girl comics in general, the panel discussed the genre and why it endures.Cheesecake is of course a factor (though I’d point out that jungle comics are equal-opportunity and just as filled with beefcake), but so is the opportunity to write and read about strong women. As Catto mentioned in the overview, Sheena was the first female character to headline a comic book, predating Wonder Woman by a few months (Sheena, Queen of the Jungle #1 has a Spring 1942 cover date; Wonder Woman #1 was Summer ’42). In a time where more and more girls and women are reading comics and enjoying adventure fiction in general, Moonstone is looking for more and more properties with strong female leads to make comics about.
After the panel, there was just enough time to walk around and say good-bye to a few people before the show closed. Rafael Nieves, for instance, had been so smart, funny, and entertaining on the horror panel that I wanted to swing by and pick up the first two issues of Bob Howard: Plumber of the Unknown, the self-published book he does with Dan Dougherty. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but if it’s half as cool as Nieves himself, I’m in for a treat.
As on Saturday, everyone I talked to was very pleased with how the show turned out. With 6500 more people than last year in a slightly smaller space, the convention had a lot of energy that lasted all weekend. Fans had a great time and exhibitors made money. Unlike last year (though that was a great show too, in my opinion), I heard no speculation about whether C2E2 was going to be around for the long-haul. The Midwest has its big-time comics convention again and everyone knows it.