Wednesday, August 5, 2009

2009 San Diego Comic-Con: Finding Your Bliss

Below is my annual report on the 2009 San Diego Comic-Con (SDCC). While I always qualify my reports by saying that my experience working at one tiny booth in the huge convention hall during the four days of Comic-Con probably limits my ability to provide a full and accurate accounting of the show, I've also usually found many of my observations and experiences confirmed in the commentaries and reports of others. So with that disclaimer out of the way....

Click here to skip this report and go straight to my photogallery slideshow for the 2009 Comic-Con International. Short video clips from the show are available here and embedded in the report below.

This year was the San Diego Comic-Con's 40th anniversary. The convention marked its anniversary in many ways through scheduled programming and in a nicely-done history included in the souvenir program. In time for the convention, the organizers also published a handsome coffee-table-sized book about the history of the show, Comic-Con: 40 Years of Artists, Writers, Fans and Friends (pictured at right), which I pre-ordered for pick-up during the convention.

I began attending SDCC back in the mid-1980s, when it was still being held at the Convention and Performing Arts Center in downtown San Diego. The convention moved to its present site, the then newly-opened San Diego Convention Center, in 1990. Back then the big Hollywood names at these shows consisted of folks like Clayton Moore (Lone Ranger), Kirk Allen (of the '40s Superman movie serials), and Noel Neill (from the Superman television show)! But it always was a magnet for the biggest names in comics, science fiction and fantasy.

Over this time I made the transition from a fan to a professional. And thanks to the show, I've made some good friends, both professional and personal, and met some of the top talents and names in the comics industry.

Obviously, the show has evolved and changed immensely. Though some have decried the changes the convention has undergone over the years, SDCC proven resilient and flexible enough to be a "big tent" for all things pop culture and geeky, ranging from comics, to fantasy and science fiction, to film, to gaming, and costumes. While the convention's original focus on comics seems to risk being overwhelmed by its own success, the organizers nevertheless have found a way to stay true to its core mission, even while attendance and popularity have soared, and the glamour of celebrity and Hollywood hog all the attention. If you're just about the comics—whether new, Silver Age or Golden Age comics, original art, manga, graphic novels, or meeting the professionals (or any of the many other specialized fields of fandom covered at the convention)—you can easily find your bliss, and ignore the rest of it.

The Teeming Masses

A recurring theme in the reports I've read from this year's show are the lines. Of course, this always has been an unavoidable aspect of Comic-Con—especially since going viral the past few years—but lines seemed even more a part of the show than ever. For example, Tom Spurgeon over at the Comics Reporter website commented that he "saw at least a half-dozen lines to a few random panels that ten years ago would have had a hard time putting together 40 people that were dauntingly long this time out." And there were many reports of people standing in line for 2 hours or more, and still not getting into a scheduled presentation (it's not uncommon for people to stay in one of the large halls all day to see a panel scheduled for later in the day).

I experienced this personally—on Friday, I casually strolled over to a panel on "Comics Marketing 101" a few minutes it was due to begin. In years past, this was the kind of panel I usually could show up in the middle of and casually walk in to a room only about a third full. This time around, I found a line that wrapped around several corners. It's quite possible I would have still made it inside the room, but never one for lines, I skipped the panel and walked around the floor instead.

The floor easily looked as crowded as last year (and, in numbers, probably was moreso). Trying to walk the middle of the floor at certain times was often slow-going and shoulder to shoulder—and I did it once inadvertantly with my grade school-aged daughter in tow!

But from my vantage point, there also seemed to be less of an overall frenzy among the attendees. It may be that more people are now old hands at the show; others attributed this to stricter and tighter security and crowd control, and restricting aggressive giveaways on the floor (I personally witnessed several people a few times venting at the security personnel.) Given the alternative, though, I think the security people at the convention did a great job. When one considers the sheer number of people who must be processed and badged to be let through the door and then walking around trying to get into panels, you have to give a lot of credit to the organizers for the controlled chaos.

I know it can be a little different for regular attendees, but I literally walked right up to an attendant when I picked up both my exhibitors' badges and my courtesy professional guest badges for my family. This was partly good timing, but also a testament to how streamlined the organizers have made the process.

The Bottom Line

It wasn't until after the show when I tallied my sales and receipts did I realize that this was a very strong year for me in sales—in fact, one of my best. This was due in large part to selling a few original art pieces (pictured below).

Thursday and especially Friday turned out to be my strongest sales days (many retailers also reported strong sales during Wednesday evening's three-hour "Preview Night" block). On Saturday, sales were very weak for me. Even though this has been a trend I've noticed the past few years so I have come to expect it, it's still always a bit of a downer. But from what I've read, I was not alone—many sellers on the main floor reported poor sales that day as well.

In the "old days," Saturday was traditionally the biggest sales day of the convention, primarily because it was a weekend day when the majority of attendees could make the show. That seems to have flipped in recent years though. Starting a few years ago, Wednesday's "Preview Night" (for 4-day pass holders only) became just as crowded as any other day, including Saturday. Before this sea-change, Wednesday was a bit more mellow, which allowed everyone to ease into the rigor of the 4 official days of the con. But no more.

In any case, the traditional wisdom on the depressed sales on Saturday is the fact that less people are on the floor and have been sucked upstairs into the presentation rooms since that day is usually when Hollywood's big guns show up.

Nevertheless, for me, the floor on Saturday seemed as packed as ever, but I suspect the crowd was less of a comics crowd and there to see the media blitz. At best, many of the people simply may have been sizing up the huge hall before committing to purchases. Sunday picked up again, though not to the same extent as Thursday and Friday.

Due to the expanded scope of the show, I can no longer automatically assume as I did in the old dayhs that someone who comes by my table is a comics fan or is even receptive to buying a comic-book.

Twilight versus the Rest of the World

One of the interesting dramas that emerged during the show was the Twilight phenomenon. The Twilight books and film adaptations have engendered a new generation of fans—many of them females and of the tween and teen set—and they flocked to Comic-Con. Late Thursday evening after dinner, I encountered a line at a movie theater downtown and learned that a special screening of Twilight was going to be held there and the cast was going to be appearing at the showing. Twilight-related events at the show encouraged fans to camp themselves throughout the city and in the convention hall days and hours in advance.

Interestingly, a small backlash against Twilight emerged at the show. Fortunately, this distraction between the older traditional fans and this new generation of fans seemed partly manufactured, perhaps in response to the lack of monster buzz for any one project at the show. Personally, I have no interest in Twilight, but as I said at the top of this report, Comic-Con is large and flexible enough to accommodate all comers; and it's very easy to tune out anything outside your scope of interest. Nevertheless, many people did feel compelled (such as Kevin Smith) to come forward and "defend" Twilight fans, often noting that anything that gets young girls and other kids interested in reading should be considered a good thing.

And for those who take the demarcation a little too seriously, talk about the pot calling the kettle black!

Out and About

With a bunch of Boba FettsAs usual, I was fortunate to be helped at my booth by family and friends who traditionally attend the show with me, and give me an opportunity to occasionally take breaks and see the show for myself.

More than a few observers noted that, in keeping with our more austere times, there seemed to be less people in costumes. Though there still were plenty of people dressed up, I noticed this assessment as well.

This year I also made a point to not take pictures of some of the same people in costumes that I noticed were there every year. Again, this did not seem too hard, and there definitely was a lot of "new talent" there in this regard (just check my photogallery!).

I also made a point to begin taking pictures with more friends, fans and colleagues who I see every year at the show. I didn't completely succeed in this regard, but at least I have begun to add to my collection. I also took more video than in past years for posterity.

For the reasons mentioned above, and the fact that I needed to be at my booth to push my comics, I didn't attend too many panels. I attended one hosted by ComicsPro, a professional organization of comic-book store retailers, that was targeted to publishers like myself. Afterwards, I spoke with some of the presenters, retailers who were familiar already with my book and very forthright in providing feedback about the special challenges in marketing my book. Another retailer was very supportive of my plans to begin publishing the book in trade paperback format.

Submitted piece for souvenir program (unplublished)
Another panel I attended was IDW's presentation of its upcoming comic strip reprints. IDW has made a splash for itself in recent years as a comics publisher, and particularly in its high quality reprints of classic comic strips. It recently completed, for example, a 6-volume collection of Milton Caniff's Terry and the Pirates (1934-46). While I haven't bought the series since I already own the full run through Flying Buttress's seminal 1980s compilation, when looking through a volume at Comic-Con, I was shocked to see how good quality their reprints were compared to my original run. They obviously used good proof copies or the originals for their source, and I never realized how poor a quality the Flying Buttress's run was until I saw this collection. While I doubt I'll go back to buy the full run, I may pick up a volume to have a nice clean version of some of the strips (the Sundays are also in full color). The quality of the strips reflects IDW's commitment to put a lot of love and detail into these collections. Reflecting a true love for the medium and its artists, their upcoming projects include full runs of Family Circus and Bloom County, reprints of Bringing Up Father, and biographies of Alex Toth and Steve Ditko.

As usual, I saw far more comics than I could afford, mostly in trade paperback format. Among those I did purchase were Comic-Con: 40 Years of Artists, Writers, Fans and Friends; volume 6 of Leonard Starr's Mary Perkins On Stage; Fantagraphics' hardback reprint collection of Blazing Combat (along with two issues of the company's Comics Journal magazine, now in squarebound format); 01 Comics' graphic novel Laika by Nick Abadzis.

I'm fortunate that my wife and children enjoy the show immensely; my wife loves dressing up the kids for the show, and they enjoy wearing the costumes. For the third year in a row, my little girl went as Batgirl, and my son chose a Superman outfit (as much as we tried to steer him towards Robin). The kids often were asked to have their picture taken—to quote my daughter, "People love taking my picture because everyone loves Batgirl!" Yeah, right!

The kids even scored the nice sketches of Batgirl and Robin below, by kid-friendly Tiny Titans artist Art Baltazar who, with his partner, Franco, won the Eisner Award the night before for Best Publication for Kids. Baltzar confided to my wife that he had only gotten two hours sleep the night before due to the awards (and, no doubt, the post-award show parties), but obviously he was a trooper—my wife told me that the artist started sketching Batgirl the minute he saw my daughter.

Speaking of the Eisner's, with the addition of more star power, the show has truly earned its nickname as the "Academy Awards of the comics industry." Hosted by Bill Morrison and organized by Jackie Estrada, the show now regularly features people like Patton Oswald, Jane Wiedlin and Samuel Jackson as presenters. While the demands of having a young family make it difficult for me to attend, it sounds like this year's show was another success.

Cartoonist Leonard Starr (Mary Worth On Stage)
and friend
Among the fellow prominent pros I connected with this year were Mad Magazine cartoonist Sergio Aragones; comics writer and longtime Rob Hanes Adventures supporter Kurt Busiek, with whom I shared lunch with my family and dragged down to my booth afterwards for a photo; Flying Colors comics retailer Joe Field; Supernatural Law creator Batton Lash; Bongo Comics artistic director and cartoonist Bill Morrison; Isotope Lounge comics retailer James Simes; Mary Perkins On Stage and Little Orphan Annie artist Leonard Starr, who was signing two booths over from me (see picture), and who signed a book I purchased of his work; and comics legend Neal Adams, who stopped by Starr's booth to pay homage to the artist.

Among the celebs, I saw actor Frank Whaley ("Two and a Half Men") walk by my booth with, presumably, his son, in civilian clothes enjoying the convention floor; Edward James Olmos walking in front of my buddies and me in the Gaslamp District just outside the convention hall right after the show ended on Saturday; and porn legend Ron Jeremy loitering around the corner just off the main floor with a small entourage of handlers. As I said, I didn't attend the main panels, but this year's guests included directors James Cameron and Peter Jackson, who spoke on a panel about film technology; Robert Downey, Jr., to promote both his upcoming Sherlock Holmes film and Iron Man 2; and Johnny Depp, who apparently made a surprise appearance at Tim Burton's presentation for his upcoming film adaptation of Alice in Wonderland.

Anyway, it was another exhausting and fun show. Note your calendars now for Comic-Con 2010: July 21-25!

Click here for the full photogallery for the 2009 San Diego Comic-Con

Below are some additional videos from the convention:

In the main exhibition hall:

Front lobby of convention hall:

Outside the Meeting Rooms:

Striking down the booths:

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