Monday, October 21, 2013

No School Like the Old School

The 2013 San Diego Comic Fest Reviewed

Earlier this month, I spent a day and change checking out the San Diego Comic Fest with my family. The Comic Fest, held Oct. 4-6, debuted last year and was founded partly as a counterpoint to the behemoth that the San Diego Comic-Con has become. For some, the size and media frenzy surrounding Comic-Con has had a negative impact on the fan experience and pulled the show away from its comics roots. Indeed, the Comic Fest was founded and organized by many people who were involved with the original Comic-Con since its earliest days. I became aware of the show last year at the San Diego Comic-Con when its organizers were promoting the first Comic Fest.

First let me say that I have never begrudged Comic-Con’s growth over the years. Change is an inevitable part of life (you can indeed never go home again!) and, having attended nearly every show since the mid-1980s—and exhibited at nearly half of those—it has been fascinating to watch Comic-Con morph from fairly humble origins to its present position as the largest and, certainly, most influential such pop culture celebration in North America. Though the show is indeed very different from its early days and, yes, overwhelming, I’ve always taken comfort in the fact that other “old school” conventions still exist in other parts of the country. I recall those earlier Comic-Cons fondly, noting that back in the day the biggest celebrities at the event were people like Clayton Moore and Noel Neill from, respectively, the original Lone Ranger and Superman television shows. So props to the organizers for putting together a show to their liking rather than bemoan what Comic-Con has become.

Artist's Alley
The Comic Fest is intended by design to be a much smaller event (indeed, attendance was capped at 1500) and capture the spirit of the original Comic-Cons which gave fans an opportunity to mingle and speak with comics fans and creative professionals in a more relaxed and social atmosphere.

The show was held at the Town and Country Hotel and Convention Center in the Hotel Circle area of San Diego. The Town and Country also is an official hotel during Comic-Con (as are most of the hotels in the area) and is sited a few miles away from the San Diego Convention Center where the Comic-Con is now held. During the 2012 Comic-Con, I was one shuttle stop from the Town and Country, so though I had never been inside, I was familiar with it.

According to Town and Country’s website, the family-owned resort opened in 1953 and I must say it certainly showed its age—to be kind, the facilities are well-worn and do have the feel of another era — which made the venue, in its way, perfect for the kind of show the organizers planned, harkening back to Comic-Cons decades ago.

Sgt. Rock print personalized by Russ Heath
Like most comics shows, the Fest consisted of a dealer’s room, an artist’s alley and panels. They also had programming directed at families/all ages.

The dealer’s room was fairly small, held in a single meeting room, with the usual mix of artists and self-publishers, back issues dealers, toy and memorabilia dealers, etc. To be frank, I’m not sure whether the dealers' room, given its small size, would have been worth the trip itself and, given the cap on attendees, I am curious whether the dealers found the convention profitable and worth their while. Though I did meet some dealers from out of town, I presume most were locals, which would certainly help keep overhead low. The highlight for me was meeting Russ Heath, from whom I happily purchased several affordable prints/original page scans, reproduced with this blog. (And I'm now kicking myself for not thinking of taking a photo of Heath holding the signed print at right!)

I have to admit that, partly because of my own inherent shyness, I have never put much emphasis on the social aspect of comic-book conventions. Having said that, it was nice to speak a bit with some of the artists and catch up in a more relaxed atmosphere with fellow pros like Batton Lash, Jackie Estrada, Michael Auschenker, and Ken Meyers, Jr.

Personally, the highlight for me were the panels. I have mentioned in past reports of Comic-Con that I seemed to have lost patience in sitting through most panels—I’ve always presumed it was a simple aspect of getting older, but I guess it’s just a result of the Comic-Con atmosphere. The fact that I have other things on my mind (i.e., guilt that I should remain at my booth), the stress over possibly being unable to attend a panel due to overcapacity, the crowds, and the impersonal (and sometimes corporate) nature and sheer size of the panels have likely all contributed to this feeling.

In contrast, the opportunity to sit in a smaller room in a more relaxed, conversational and intimate atmosphere seemed to make all the difference. The panels I attended included:

The Schanes Brothers’ Story: From Swap Meets to Pacific Comics: Working independently but in parallel with others across the country, Bill and Steve Schanes helped establish the modern-day comics distribution network and opened some of the earliest comic-book stores. They also founded Pacific Comics, one of the first independent comics publishers to operate in the fledgling direct-sales market, which first published, among others, Jack Kirby’s Captain Victory and Dan Stevens’ Rocketeer. Like many such pioneers, they demonstrated an entrepreneurial bent at an early age (at least one of them was still a minor when they got into business) and learned the business, flying by the seat of their pans, as they went along. The brothers shared their fascinating story as direct-sales and indie publishing pioneers in a conversational, entertaining, funny and self-effacing manner.

Marty McFly's car from the film Back to the Future
While some may be tempted to look back on those days with nostalgia and fondness, their stories show that the opening era of the direct-sales comics market was a true Wild West as entrepreneurial types moved in as they realized there was money to be made on filling an unmet need. The Schanes talked—with some humor in hindsight—of the rather unsavory underworld types who ran the early days of the comics and magazine distribution system. (At one point, Bill Schanes talked about getting his four automobile tires slashed every day for two weeks as a company tried to convince him to do business with them.) And even during what some might believe was the collegial, chummy world of comics fandom, they described their experiences dealing with strong-arm tactics and behavior.

The Secret Origins of IDW: IDW, based in San Diego, celebrates its 10th year anniversary this year and marked the occasion with this panel hosted by IDW CEO and Publisher Ted Adams, who, as he spoke, introduced various members of the publisher’s leadership team to talk about the company’s various areas of focus. My main familiarity with IDW is through their American Comics Library imprint, through which they have published several fine collections and overviews, including those I’ve reviewed focused on the life and art of Alex Toth and Milton Caniff. So it was interesting to hear their history of getting into comics—which was never in the company’s original business plan—through both creator-owned properties and licensed characters like Transformers and G.I. Joe.

A special treat was the free book they provided to attendees at the panel, which came in an impressive slipcase. The book consists, I believe, of the covers to all of the comics they have published to date.

They also announced that IDW was entering the tabletop games arena.

Ito, Beck and Norman from Song of the South Panel
Who’s Afraid of Song of the South? Race and Ethnicity in Animation: This panel featured two veteran animators, Floyd Norman, who is African-American, and Willie Ito, who is Japanese-American, moderated by animation historian Jerry Beck. Both animators have extensive, impressive credits, which include stints at Disney, Warner Brothers, Hanna Barbera, etc. (I do not know Floyd personally, but we both belong to a local Southern California cartoonists’ group.)

Though the discussion touched on the Disney's film, Song of the South (which is not available domestically) and the issues of race in animation, it was also an opportunity for Beck (and the audience) to ask about and be regaled by stories from the glory days of animation by two men who were there. Their comments about Walt Disney were especially instructive—Disney’s alleged anti-Semitism and his politics often arise when he becomes the topic of discussion and, as I have heard Norman do in the past, he dispelled these rumors through his sharing of personal anecdotes and experiences, delivered as always in his gracious and balanced manner. As anyone who has seen the knowledgeable Norman speak, he is no apologist—Norman is always clear-eyed and candid with his thoughts and opinions, which along with his very easy-going manner, makes him a very credible and entertaining source.

I could probably write a whole blog on this panel, but one of the highlights was when someone asked Norman to describe Walt Disney the man. Norman said that if anyone wanted to truly know what Disney was like, to watch the upcoming film, Saving Mr. Banks, which stars Tom Hanks as Disney and focuses on Disney’s efforts to convince P.L. Travers, the author/creator of Mary Poppins (played by Emma Thompson). Norman, who has seen the film and said that he spent some time with Hanks on the set, said, “Mr. Hanks may not look like Mr. Disney, or sound like Mr. Disney, but I assure you, he is Walt Disney.” A glowing review if I’ve ever heard one! (See trailer at the end of this post.)

I enjoyed the Comic Fest though I’m not sure I would attend this annually (esp. since I also attend the San Diego Comic-Con). Though nostalgia for the comics of one’s youth has always been a part of the Comic-Con experience, the Fest seems a bit more steeped in it, as opposed to highlighting what is the now and new in comics. This is not a bad thing, but it certainly is something potential attendees should consider when planning to attend any kind of comics show. Every comics convention has its own personality and focus—Comic Fest yearns for a simpler time when the convention was more relaxed and there was less of a barrier between fans and pros, which the sheer size of Comic-Con has made necessary. For anyone wishing a more relaxed show and a taste of the early days of Comic-Con, Comic Fest is certainly worth a visit. Next year’s show is scheduled at the same location, Oct. 17-19, 2014.

BELOW: Trailer for Saving Mr. Banks.

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