Saturday, July 18, 2015

What Comic-Con Dreams are Made Of

Here's my report from the floor of the 2015 San Diego Comic-Con. To go straight to the photogallery from the show, click here.

As a longtime exhibitor and attendee of the San Diego Comic-Con, the words that come to mind to describe the show are exhausting and invigorating. For exhibitors—especially those like me who are  a one-man operation and tethered to a table for pretty much the duration of the show—the 4-plus days of the convention is a bit of an endurance test. But it is not much easier for the attendees either, who are running around all day, standing in lines, or sitting in a darkened exhibition hall for hours, or sometimes all day. At the end of the show, when the announcement is made that Comic-Con has come to a close, cheers go up around the floor—not simply because another successful show has hit the books, but also out of relief.

But, of course, the show is also incredibly invigorating. Originally created as a comic-book convention for hardcore fans in 1970, the show has morphed into the world’s largest mainstream pop culture mega-event that embraces all things geek, bringing under one umbrella movies, television, gaming, cosplaying, books, science fiction, art, comics, and more. Movie studios have been known to shut down their sets to bring their cast and crew to the show and no other event gives fans such close access to the artists and performers who are responsible for their favorite movies, shows and comics.

At its core, Comic-Con is a consumer show—but the palpable excitement of everyone in attendance makes it also feel like a big celebration with a crowded party atmosphere (as evidenced by the bagpipe players who snaked around the convention floor at various times), which spills over into the streets of the Gaslamp District outside the convention center, both during the day and night. The comparison people have made of Comic-Con to Mardi Gras is no exaggeration.

Some of the stories that came out of this year’s show served as a reminder why Comic-Con is the ultimate fan experience. Perhaps the most indelible was the Star Wars panel in the infamous 6,500-seat Hall H. After a surprise appearance by Harrison Ford at the panel, who joined the film’s director, J.J. Abrams, and cast, including fellow Star Wars original cast members Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher on stage, at the end of the presentation, the entire hall was escorted outside and treated to a surprise concert by the San Diego Symphony of composer John Williams’ Star Wars score outside the convention center by the San Diego Bay, which culminated with a fireworks show. It was, of course, a deft piece of promotional showmanship, but also a genuine gift to the fans.

It’s what Comic-Con dreams are made of….

Life as an Exhibitor
As a small press exhibitor, my table is just a small spec in a sea of booths on the immense convention hall main floor, which provides one with a rather narrow view of the show. I’ve written in the past that the show's changing nature has made it quite a challenge to be a pure small press comic-book publisher at Comic-Con, which others have now reported. Not everyone who attends Comic-Con is there for comics any longer and it’s hard work trying to get noticed among the sensory overload that’s Comic-Con. Many small press exhibitors rely on other merchandise to amp up sales, such as prints and t-shirts, often featuring characters and properties that have nothing to do with their comics. And while it’s still heartening to have attendees be instantly drawn to my comic-book by the art, being at Comic-Con requires strong salesmanship and the drive to put yourself out there. It’s not a role I’m entirely comfortable with, but fortunately my enthusiasm for the series still comes through as I hawk my work. I feel fortunate Rob Hanes Adventures has developed a modest fan base at the convention—many from overseas—and I enjoy the opportunity to introduce the series to new readers every year.
Below: I'm not in this report on the status of the small press at Comic-Con, but my booth can be prominently seen in the background during the interview with my booth neighbor, Lonnie Millsap!

It’s been oft said that Comic-Con is what you make of it—with so many programs and activities running concurrently and 24/7, there’s no single Comic-Con experience and it would be literally impossible to attend and see everything. As an exhibiting self-publisher, I’m bound to my table for most of the show. I’m fortunate to have friends and family to watch the booth when I’m away, but as the single artist-writer of my series, I’m beholden to be at my booth most of the time. I usually explore the floor in the hour or so I arrive at the convention hall before the doors open, taking photos and scoping out what I might want to purchase so that I can do so quickly on breaks during the show.

Some other general impressions and comments:
  • I resolved to be a bit more present on social media this Comic-Con. My limited presence in the past was partly technological: posting on Facebook and Twitter prematurely drained my mobile device’s battery, so this year I invested in an external battery booster for the show. My social media skills, however, continues to be a work in progress—I can see that I need to plan my social media strategy in advance as much as I do the other logistical elements of the show.
  • While my work has always appealed to an international audience, it seemed especially so this year. Classic adventure comics like Rob Hanes Adventures are a particularly popular genre overseas, and this year readers both new and old from the Netherlands, Italy, Brazil, and Saudi Arabia were among those I had the pleasure to meet.
  • This year was the first time I wholly embraced the Comic-Con app on my mobile device rather than used the traditional print program, and found it incredibly convenient. It was easy to peruse the daily program and save specific items as a customized list, as well as to find other exhibitors and pin-point them on a map in the app. Having an aisle booth, I often had attendees requesting directions who didn’t know to use the program to find their way around. The app made helping them much easier! Having said that, I attended few panels due to the need to man my table—I simply saved those scheduled panels I might want to see or bring to the attention of my wife and children.
  • In the last year or so, the harassment of female cosplayers has been an issue that has come to the fore. I noticed that one woman cosplaying as Elastigirl from the film the Incredibles pointedly said politely, “Thank you for asking” to everyone who asked to take her photo—a gentle way to remind attendees of respecting cosplayers.
  • However, I didn’t take as many photos as I have in the past because, having attended so many shows, I thought it was getting a bit repetitive. (It also felt like there were fewer cosplayers.) In writing about this year’s Comic-Con, writer Mark Evanier wrote, “It always amazes me each year the first time I enter the exhibit hall that everything is exactly where it was when I left here a year ago.” A lot of the exhibitors (even in the small press, including myself) maintain their same location year to year, creating a comforting familiarity for those who attend every year (in fact, my kids, who have become old enough to walk the floor now on their own know how to navigate the floor because of the familiarity of the booths).
  • Nevertheless, there were a few photos I wished I had taken: a trio of female Ghostbusters; a gentleman cosplaying as the old man from the Pixar film, Up; and, one night in the Gaslamp, a group of guys I’m pretty sure were cosplaying as the crew from the film, the Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Obscure cosplaying references are the most fun!
  • I heard various, conflicting reports that the floor felt less or more crowded this year. Personally, overall, this show felt fairly mellow and the walk across the street from the convention center into the Gaslamp District on Friday and Saturday evenings were way less crowded than I've experienced in past years. There had to be at least the same number of attendees as in past years (if not more), so I suspect this is primarily due to good programming that spread out the crowds and skillful crowd control by the Comic-Con staff. (Starting years ago, the organizers snaked many of the lines of attendees in the mornings to the upper levels, which helps greatly reduce the congestion at the front of the convention center. Nevertheless, there seemed to be more lines than ever for signings and exclusives—even lines for the privilege to stand in a line later. Just in front of my own booth every morning, people lined up past my table at the Peanuts booth.
  • Being tied to my table during show hours—and too tired to party after hours—makes it difficult to catch up with colleagues and friends. Nevertheless, people who stopped by included the maestro himself, Sergio Aragones, syndicated Funky Winkerbean cartoonist Tom Batuik, Andrew Pepoy, cartoonist and historian R.C. Harvey, writer Bill Shelly, Diamond Distribution’s Steve Leaf, and others. The sole celebrity I saw was Cameron Diaz. She seemed so relaxed, I decided not to intrude by asking for a photo when she walked by.
  •  When I do get a chance to walk around, one of my favorite pastimes is to visit the various boutique comic-book/graphic novel publishers like Fantagraphics Books, Bud Plant, First Second Books, and the original art areas.
    • As usual, the weather was great in San Diego. It had been unseasonably humid in Los Angeles leading up to the convention, but San Diego was cool and pleasant. The immense convention center, of course, maintains its own weather patterns—even with the crowds, it is kept fairly well air conditioned, so I always keep a hoodie at my booth.
    Being held earlier than usual, just after the July 4 weekend, was a bit disorienting for folks, but for 2016 the show will return to its more traditional spot on the calendar later in the month, July 21-24, 2016.

    See you there!

    Below is a sampling of photos from the show, but to see the full gallery, click here.

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