Sunday, July 29, 2018

One for the Ages: A Report on the 2018 San Diego Comic-Con

Feel free to skip the report and go directly to the photogallery.

This year’s San Diego Comic-Con (SDCC), held July 19–22, 2018, had already promised to be personally special since, a few months prior to the show, much to my great surprise and honor, I was invited by Comic-Con International (CCI) to attend as a Special Guest.

And while being selected for such a distinction was already an amazing honor and went way beyond what I could have ever dreamed, SDCC still managed to top this recognition by surprising me with an Inkpot Award for Contributions to Comic Art—a recognition CCI gives to individuals "for their contributions to the worlds of comics, science fiction/fantasy, film, television, animation, and fandom services." Filmmaker Kevin Smith received one this year the day after me, as did several others, including Star Trek actress Nichelle Nichols, cartoonists Jason Lutes and Shannon Wheeler, comics publisher, editor and critic Eric Reynolds, and comics historian (and friend) R.C. Harvey. Many comics greats like Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, as well my idols, including Milton Caniff and Alex Toth have received it over the years, as well as prominent creative artists like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. So I'm certainly in good company to be included among such a diverse, esteemed list of people! (For a full list of Inkpot recipients over the years, go here.)

This journey—from a fan attendee in 1986, to a zine/small press/indy publisher in the early 1990s, to the honor of being a special guest and Inkpot Award recipient in 2018—goes way beyond what I could ever have imagined what my younger self, as an aspiring cartoonist, could have ever imagined possible.

For these reasons, this year’s Comic-Con was particularly significant, and one, of course, I’ll always remember.

21st Exhibitor Appearance
As I announced before the show, this year marked my 21st appearance at SDCC since 1993 and my 15th consecutive since 2004. I debuted issue 19 of my indy comic-book series, Rob Hanes Adventures, at the show as well as a new trade paperback, Rob Hanes Adventures, Vol. 2, that collects issues 5-8 of the series. I also introduced a new bookmark giveaway and ordered a new bunch of pin buttons for the show which are always popular.

While I’ve had Facebook and Twitter accounts for several years, being the dinosaur I am, it wasn’t really until this year that I started learning to be more proactive and have fun on my social media accounts, by interacting with others and posting live during my appearance at SDCC.

Spotlight Panel and Inkpot Award
As a Special Guest at this year’s SDCC, a spotlight panel was scheduled for me on Thursday, July 19, at 12:30 p.m. in Room 4. I must admit I was a bit nervous by the prospect, primarily because I wondered who would show up! SDCC gives its guests some flexibility on what to plan for the hour--to somewhat broaden interest in the panel, I prefaced the panel title, “Adventures in Self-Publishing: Spotlight on Randy Reynaldo.” I also asked a longtime comics industry friend and colleague—Barry Gregory, CEO of Ka-Blam Digital Printing—who was also exhibiting at the show (under Gallant Press) and knew my work well, to serve as moderator to help share the load with me. Barry turned out to be a great panel partner!

Though there wasn’t much time to promote the panel during the show itself since it was on the first day of Comic-Con, I nevertheless printed up some promotional postcards and shared some with Barry to distribute at his booth (Gallant Press) and with his wife, Jenni Gregory (Dream Walker Press), who had her own booth at SDCC. In retrospect, I’m glad the panel was Thursday so that I got it out of the way quickly, giving me an opportunity to savor the experience for the remainder of the show!

Prior to the show, Barry and I exchanged some messages a few times to talk about plans for the panel and found we were on the same page. (Barry has served on panels before but this was his first time at SDCC.) I also put together a few slides to provide visual interest and samples of my work.

Maggie Thompson spotlight panel with, from left, Mark Evanier,
Thompson, R.C. Harvey, and Scott Brick
I have to admit I had some nerves that morning and, partly to calm myself, attended a panel focusing on fellow Special Guest Maggie Thompson and the Comics Buyer’s Guide (CBG) that was scheduled at 10:30 a.m. in the same room as my own panel. Since I am at Comic-Con to “work,“ I rarely attend panels during SDCC, but this was a spotlight I was interested in attending and had tweeted about prior to the show.

The panel was terrific, a great look back at the CBG, which back in the day before the internet, was the best gathering place for comics fans outside of attending a comics convention like SDCC. Joining Maggie on the panel were comics/tv/animation writer and producer Mark Evanier, cartoonist and comics historian R.C. Harvey (an Inkpot recipient himself this year), and former Wizard Magazine and CBG writer Scott Brick, now a preeminent audiobook narrator and, full disclosure, a longtime personal friend dating back to our college years at UCLA. By the way, Scott is also a bonafide comics fan, his knowledge in many areas far surpassing my own!

During Maggie’s panel, I was surprised by the number of shoutouts, from Maggie (who recognized and waved to me when I entered the room); R.C. (who did too, as well as plugged me and my book during the panel); and Scott, who has always been generous in crediting me for getting his first writing gigs at Wizard and the CBG, as well as into audiobook narration—I am always quick to note, however, that once he got his foot in the door, Scott’s talent carried him the rest of the way. (Scott is also regularly called upon by SDCC to moderate panels.) When it ended, Maggie called out to me, asking if I was up next, but I responded from the audience that it was in another hour.

In any case, being in the room and watching the easy conversation of the panel did the trick in calming my nerves.

An hour later, I made my way up to the room for my panel, joined by my family and several friends. When I walked into the room, I have to admit I was a bit surprised by the turnout!

As we were setting up, a representative from Comic-Con came to the podium and said a few words:
Good afternoon. I’m Adam Neese, Assistant to the Director of Programming for Comic-Con International, and I’m pleased to be here today to celebrate the career of special guest Randy Reynaldo. 
His self-published comic series, Rob Hanes Adventures, has been thrilling readers for two decades, and the upcoming issue #19 is taking its inspiration from our current political environment but maintains the fun and entertaining feel of the series. 
On behalf of Comic-Con International and its Board of Directors, it’s my honor to present our Inkpot Award for Achievement in Comic Arts to Randy Reynaldo.
Applause broke out as I was suddenly presented with the award! (Barry and my family had been given a head's up just before the announcement was made!)

I have to admit I was shell shocked by the announcement and a bit overwhelmed and speechless as I was handed the award and the applause of the room washed over me, as photos were taken. While I do not recall having the presence of mind to give any kind of “acceptance remarks,” I want to say for the record what a great honor it is to have been recognized in this way. (Postscript: My wife assured me that I did give some "acceptance" remarks—I guess I just forgot given how much a blur the experience was!)

I have been half-joking that the recognition is for sheer stubbornness—of course I cannot speak for the selection committee, but I like to believe the award is partly a recognition of my commitment to consistently producing an independent comic-book series year-in and year-out and exhibiting at SDCC for so many years that is rooted in the classic adventure comics tradition. Rob Hanes Adventures has always been a labor of love, and I’ve been happy to toil away on it within my tiny little corner of the field, but having the work honored and recognized in this way by CCI and my peers of course goes way beyond whatever recognition I could have ever dreamed!

Below: Video of the 9-slide slideshow presentation used at my spotlight panel

The panel itself went fairly well and we received enthusiastic feedback and response. Many people who attended the panel—many of whom were not familiar with the series—later stopped by to say hi, tell me how much they enjoyed the panel, ask questions, and make purchases. (My 13-year-old son was surprisingly particularly effusive and proud of his old man!)

And as I mentioned earlier, Barry turned out to be an outstanding moderator and panel partner—though I had no trouble talking about myself or the series once I got started, he always had a question ready to throw out when I had exhausted myself with anecdotes. I was impressed by the depth of his questions, confirming he really is a fan of the series! I can think of no better compliment than the fact that Scott Brick, an old hand at moderating these panels, also said Barry did a terrific job. I was glad when Barry told me he had a lot of fun too.

As one can imagine, I returned to my table on a high and Barry and I had a nice lunch afterwards (on me!). It was a wonderful experience I’ll always remember and it was a thrill to be able to display my Inkpot at my table during the show, which many random people recognized and congratulated me on.

Nichelle Nichols and Phil Lemarr at the Eisner Awards
The Eisners
As a Special Guest, I also was invited to attend Friday evening’s Eisner Awards, often called the “Oscars” of comics, as a VIP guest among the nominees and honorees of the evening. Held at the Hilton San Diego Bayfront, right next to the San Diego Convention Center, it had been many years since I last attended a ceremony, though I am aware it has become a bit of a star-studded event,

While the ceremony ran long, as such awards show invariably do, the evening was nevertheless enjoyable and memorable--keeping up the star-studded nature of the ceremony, presenters included entertainment industry folks like Nichelle Nichols, Phil Lemarr (who served as the de facto MC), Leonard Maltin, Benedict Wong, and Helen Slater alongside comics industry luminaries like Sergio Aragones, Bill Morrison, Scott McCloud, Dave Gibbons, and Mark Evanier. The ceremony was genuinely moving at times—the event turned out to be a great celebration of diversity in comics, with a record number of women honored and recognized during the evening. Ats I mentioned to my tablemates, there were a lot of comics among the nominations I needed to check out!

Eisner Award winner Nick Sousanis
I also joked that we were at a lucky table—two of the winners sat at my table, Shannon Wheeler and Nick Sousanis for “A Life in Comics: The Great Adventures of Karen Green.”

The Show Overall
Many observed that this year’s show seemed a bit mellower than usual—for various reasons, sometimes having to do with production timing, a lot of Hollywood’s big guns did not have panels, with big fan draws like Marvel Studios, Game of Thrones and Westworld absent. And though fan-favorite franchises like DC, Doctor Who and Walking Dead were all in the house, many remarked at how much more accessible many of the panels were, including the infamous Hall H. (I saw several tweets throughout SDCC posting pics of non-existent lines outside the hall to get in.) Every day—including the Wednesday Preview Night—seemed equally crowded; on the other hand, the observation has been made that the new RFID badge system introduced a few years back has greatly reduced the number of pirated badges and played a role in the reduced crowds.

While some have sometimes complained about how the entertainment industry has predominated Comic-Con, as I and others have noted over the years, SDCC is a big umbrella for all things pop culture and it’s easy to make it what you want—as such, there is always plenty of comics programming if that’s your interest and usually those panels have no wait to get into. There were panels—often multiple—from all the major comics companies and most of the independents, as well as panels on individual cartoonists and legends living and past. The fact that there was a panel devoted to little old me—and the panel focusing on Maggie Thompson—is proof that plenty of comics programming can be found at SDCC and remains a core part of the show.

A continuing trend has been the declining number of cosplayers at Comic-Con, which I’ve noticed for several years now. While it’s possible many simply aren’t going by my part of the exhibition floor, others had the same observation. Some say that the difficulty of getting into Comic-Con and cosplayers moving to other venues have contributed to the decline. While there were still plenty to be seen, they have not been as dominant as in years past. As always, my favorite cosplayers are those that are clever or unexpected—this year, I saw a cosplayer from the film A League of their Own (pictured at left) and I’m glad that cosplay from The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou continues to be a thing (see my photogallery).

Of course, it’s always fun to catch up with people—this year, this included cartoonist/inker Andrew Pepoy, Batton Lash and Jackie Estrada, cartoonist and comics historian R.C. Harvey, Sergio Aragones, Scott McCloud, Nat Gertler (celebrating the 20th anniversary of his publishing imprint, About Comics); cartoonist and storyboard artist Tim Burgard; and many others.

As I've mentioned in the past, SDCC has expanded its footprint beyond the convention center. Programming both official and not occur in the hotels surrounding the convention center and in "pop-up" fan experiences around the venue. In fact, it's quite possible to still soak in the atmosphere of SDCC without even having a badge. Outside the convention center there were pop ups for the television shows The Good Place and Jack Ryan, and many others.

The Disney theme parks are well known for having crowd management down to a science and I genuinely believe Comic-Con comes a close second. I’ve often told the story how I once was on a huge line for a shuttle back to my hotel and was convinced it would take about an hour or so to get on to a bus. Instead, I noticed that as soon as alert convention staff noticed this, they re-routed several buses to accommodate the line so my wait dwindled down to only as long as it took to load up the buses. I saw this happen repeatedly. Given the number of attendees and complex logistics, Comic-Con does a great job making things run smooth.

CCI holds a "talk back" panel at the end of every show so that they can hear directly from attendees about what worked and what didn't and often make adjustments in response to this feedback. This year, for the first time, SDCC during the main convention hours completely shut down the main road in front of the convention center, Harbor Boulevard (which is a major thoroughfare) to vehicles and made them primarily pedestrian walkways with access only for the shuttle pick ups and drop offs.

A Comic-Con to Remember
Comic-Con also invariably always results in memorable spontaneous moments:
  • Dinner at a new Russian restaurant in the Gaslamp and being seated nearby another larger party that included Fantagraphics publisher Gary Groth and Love and Rockets cartoonist Gilbert Hernandez
  • Having cartoonist Scott McCloud stop by my table to say hi and, after the conclusion of the convention on Sunday, bumping into him in a restaurant in the Gaslamp where both our families were having an end-of-Comic-Con dinner.
  • A nice, leisurely lunch with my panel moderator, Barry Gregory, to celebrate our successful panel discussion.
  • Stumbling across a booth (picture above) of a Russian comics publisher.
  • Being interviewed by an entertainment show from the Philippines, which asked if they could interview me after asking if I was, in fact, Filipino.
  • Celebrating the Inkpot Award with an enjoyable poolside dinner full of laughs at the Marriott Marquis Hotel Thursday evening with my old Comic-Con buddies, including my wife, my brother, good friend Bob, the above-mentioned Scott Brick, and college buddy Terry, who himself is a comics industry professional.
  • And, of course, making new friends and being visited by longtime supporters of the series (many of whom you'll see in the photogallery.
In any case, as one can imagine, this was of course a Comic-Con to remember. My family and I were well taken care of as guests and it's amazing to look back at this journey, starting as a fan attendee in the mid-1980s, to selling my zines and small press comics in the Small Press Area at SDCC in the '90s and '00s, to the honor of being invited as a special guest and presented with an Inkpot Award in 2018. It's certainly beyond what that attending fan in 1986 could ever have dreamed or imagined.

My profound thanks to CCI for the recognition and memories they gave me.

Below are select photos taken at the 2018 San Diego Comic-Con. Click here to see the full photogallery.

To see a broader range of cosplay photos from Comic-Con, here is a link to IMDB's SDCC photogallery.

I was interviewed by an entertainment show from the Philippines
Actress Helen Slater presenting at the Eisners

Jackie Estrada and Batton Lash

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

A Look at Comic-Cons Past, Part II: Comic-Con Explodes (1991-2000)

1995 Comic-Con (photo by Jackie Estrada*)
Second in a series. See Part I here.

The 1990s was the decade when the San Diego Comic-Con exploded. 1991 was the first year Comic-Con was held at the newly-opened San Diego Comics Convention. The new modern venue gave the show a more professional sheen and more breathing room. Attendance hit a new high of 15,000+ that year—compared to 6,500 the first year I attended in 1986. (The convention first reached capacity and sold out in 2007 with an attendance of 125,000. In 2008, all badges for the first time sold out prior to the event. It's now estimated that, along with Comic-Con-related activities in the area, more than 165,000 visit the area during the show.)

Comic-Con did not take up the entire convention center that first year. If memory serves me right, I recall that there were other shows/conferences going on concurrently, one involving primarily elderly women (I think it was some kind of knitting show) and another that seemed to involve a lot of bikers! Afterwards, however, Comic-Con would take up the entire venue every year, even after the convention center doubled its size in 2001.

That year, 1991, proved to be another whirlwind visit—my brother flew down from his home in Northern California to attend the show on Saturday, but we drove back to L.A. that night so that he could catch his flight home. Though I didn’t plan to, I had so much fun and unfinished business, I drove back down with other friends and my girlfriend (now wife) the following day!

Cover to 1992 souvenir program
That Comic-Con brought me into contact with cartoonist and comics historian and essayist R.C. Harvey; Comic-Con co-founder Shel Dorf; and cartoonist Gil Kane, to whom I handed a copy of my self-published zines (I recall him leafing through it while he sat on a discussion panel!). Thanks to a friend, I also got cartoonist Will Eisner to autograph my edition of his graphic novel, To the Heart of the Storm; scored a Sgt. Rock drawing by cartoonist Joe Kubert, one of my favorite cartoonists growing up; and purchased my first pieces of original art, two pieces by Howard Chaykin from his Blackhawk mini-series. That year’s show also featured a special performance of the play, “American Splendor,” starring Dan Castellaneta (The Simpsons)—highlighted by an appearance by Harvey Pekar, the writer whose comics were the source of the play. (In case you’re wondering, the 2003 American Splendor movie, an outstanding work in its own right, was an original screenplay adaptation and not based on the play.)

The 1992 show was another landmark, with Batman, the Animated Series, and Image Comics exploding on the scene that summer.

Exhibiting at Comic-Con
The series began as a photocopied zine
The real watershed for me, personally, was 1993, the year the San Diego Comic-Con introduced its Small Press Area, which was my debut as an exhibitor. (The cost for a table that year in the Small Press was $75!) Since then, to date, I’ve exhibited at 18 San Diego Comic-Cons, as well as 3 Alternative Press Expos (APE), 3 WonderCons, 1 Chicago Comicon, a show in Toronto, and a Spirit of Independent Tour stop in Seattle.

For some context, let me provide a little bit of my publishing/comics history: it wasn’t until after college, in the mid-’80s, that I became serious about doing comics. Though I had done “home-made comics” and kept sketchbooks, it wasn’t until this time I began to seriously produce full-length stories at a professional, print-ready level. As one can imagine, those earliest efforts were pretty crude (and cartoony). In fact, I ended up not publishing those early stories in the regular series until I released them in a separate “special edition” series for non-canon work just recently (Rob Hanes Adventures Special Edition #2).

Nevertheless, I began showing the work around and, as this was the dawn of the self-publishing/independent movement, got a few bites that never materialized (usually because the company went under just after the first issue was solicited!) It was at this time I discovered the small press zine movement, complete with their own newsletters and reviewzines, which was a DIY route I found very fun and appealing, and gave me an outlet to publish my work in zine/ashcan format (printed at my local Kinko’s/copy shop) while I developed.

I soon gained some recognition and even a few minor awards for my work – I also began sending copies of my zine to publishers and industry professionals and got attention that way as well.

First time exhibitor – 1993
So, yes, I was there for the debut of Comic-Con’s Small Press Area in 1993, with ashcan copies of Adventure Strip Digest on hand. That first year, I got to meet fellow pros like Karl Kesel, Scott McCloud, Kurt Busiek (who discovered my work early on and even re-designed my Adventure Strip Digest logo), and Don McGregor. Jeff Smith was also in the Small Press Area that first year, with his earliest copies of the great Bone.

I even participated in my first panel at that show, along with, among others, Dave Sim (Cerebus) and Shannon Wheeler (Too Much Coffee Man). (At one point during the panel discussion, Sim held up one of my zines and said that although it was “pro-level quality, Randy is willing to take his time and play Triple-A ball for awhile. There’s no rush.”) Boy, in retrospect, he sure wasn’t kidding! (I participated on panels again in 1994 and 1998).

Pro badge 1993
It was also a bit of a cheap thrill to be recognized at events by people who were fans of my work, simply by my name badge when out and about.

The response and sales eventually led me to begin publishing Adventure Strip Digest as a regular comic-book series in 1994, though the first issues did not appear until after that year’s San Diego Comic-Con. Regardless, I made connections with many more fellow pros like Batton Lash (Supernatural Law) and Don Simpson (Megaton Man). (My notes show that I made a little over $400 at the convention, which covered the table, travel and hotel!!)

In 1995, with Adventure Strip Digest now available as a full-sized comic-book, I shared a regular booth with fellow indy publisher B.C. Boyer (Hilly Rose) and had another successful show. At that show, I recall connecting with Jeff Smith, Mike Mignola (Hellboy), and Mike Vosburg (Lori Lovecraft). That year, at that year’s Eisner Awards, I also was in the running for the Russ Manning Award for Most Promising Newcomer, alongside Jason Lutes (Jar of Fools) and Terry Moore (Strangers in Paradise). Good company to be in!

The series debuted as a regular comic-book
in 1994
The year 1996 was another memorable show, held over the July 4 holiday. One of the highlights was meeting fellow pros like Frank Cho, whose booth that year was located across from me (he had just signed the contract to his syndicated strip, Liberty Meadows), and we often chatted during lulls. Mike Vosburg also brought by one of my idols, Howard Chaykin. Chaykin said kind words about my work and when I told him I was a big fan, he replied, “Why not, we steal from the same people!”

That year, I actually also had a bit of a memorable adventure that fortunately turned out well. At the time, I was using a very small printer who had a rather bad reputation for meeting deadlines and not even fulfilling orders, though he had always come through for me, though with some prodding—I have to admit, I think it's because he liked my stuff. As many printers do, he promised to ship issue 4 of my latest issue, Adventure Strip Digest, to me at San Diego, but on the second day (Friday) of the 4-day show, I still hadn’t received the shipment!

During the Eisner Awards show (and remember, this was in the days before cell phones), I happened to check my messages at the hotel and learned that I had received a message from Northwest Airlines saying my books had arrived at the San Diego airport and were waiting pickup. When I called Northwest’s warehouse, I learned the facility was closed weekends and would close at 10 p.m. at night – I kid you not, it was nearly 9:45 p.m. I was resigned to not getting them, but my girlfriend (now-wife) suggested hopping into a taxi right away. We ran outside, hopped into a taxi, and told the driver I would pay him double the fare if he could make it in 10 minutes – I made it with 5 minutes to spare and got the books!! (When we returned, the driver actually did not want to take the entire tip I had promised, but I told him he deserved it – he was great and I think somewhat enjoyed the adventure as well. It helped that the airport is not far from the convention center and traffic wasn’t like it is today!)

In many ways, this was the heyday of the Comic-Con, when comics were still a central part of the show before it became a broader pop culture phenomenon that became a big umbrella for all kinds of fandom.

It was also a heady time because, as the new kid on the block, in those years I connected with retailers, distributors, editors and publishers, people in the entertainment industry, and others interested in carrying my comics, licensing it for other media, or working with me. These included many of the top studios in Hollywood and numerous production companies.

Though I don't think they're necessarily related, the explosion of Comic-Con in the 1990s coincided with the rise of the small press/indie comics movement of the same period—a trend recognized by Comic-Con when it introduced the small press area.

The small press continues to be a great engine of activity and creativity—new technologies like print on demand and the web (and social media) have vastly democratized the comics industry and lowered the barrier of entry to producing a comic-book. By the same token, as a result, there has been an explosion of product, making it very difficult to be noticed and break through, even for quality comics.

Comic-Con Traditions/After Hours
Although Comic-Con really exploded at that time, it was not yet quite as wide-ranging and fragmented as it is today. As proof of these, there were several years where there was often one big off-site party (at least one of which, if not more, was hosted by Fantagraphics). These technically needed an invitation to enter, but it was fairly easy to get a "ticket"/flyer. They were really nothing more than large kegger parties where people could hang out, relax, mingle, drink and smoke. It was in later years that Comic-Con would expand and fragment, including more exclusive Hollywood parties that were as much a press junket as a party.

One of the great traditions of my buddies and I after the end of the convention back then was to meet up at Anderson's Split Pea Soup, a full-service family restaurant famous, of course, for its famous split pea soup as well as its distinctive windmill that could be seen from quite a distance. Located in Carlsbad, about 35 miles north of San Diego, it was a nice meeting point on the drive home where we'd meet for a late dinner and celebrate the end of another show.

I got married in the year 2000 and, prior to that time, took a hiatus from comics, feeling a little burned out, particularly since several opportunities for the series that I had been pursuing did not pan out. So the combination of having no new product and being on my honeymoon (in Tokyo) led to that year being a natural break for me from both attending and exhibiting at Comic-Con as the '90s came to a close....

Next: The series relaunches and Comic-Con matures.

Comic Book People 2: Photographs from the 1990s by Jackie Estrada (2015)