This was, everyone agreed, the make or break year for the third year show. Champ or chump? Read on.
1. Look ma, no allergies!: for the first time at C2E2, I didn’t lose my voice in the maelstrom of spring pollen raging across the Great Plains. I thank Todd Allen for suggesting I start chugging Claritin BEFORE my trip.
2. Retailers won’t give up: Wednesday night kicked off with a retailer reception thrown by Diamond; striking up random conversations with various retailers I had never met before I was struck by a recurring theme: how little money you make running a comic shop. I’ve been to six or seven Diamond Retailer summits, and the retailers keep getting younger and less Android’s Dungeon. And, as we keep noting, comics shops have outlasted other media outlets like record and video stores…and maybe even bookstores. Is that because of the inherent physicality of the comic book? Perhaps. But it’s also because retailers are just as passionate about staying in the game as Shia LaBeouf. I know store owners who take on a second job to keep their store going. They’ll be dragged out boots first. Our merchants are fervid and engaged. This is kind of a weakness and a strength…but for now I’ll take the strength parts.
3. Comicons are the new money spout. Along those lines, it seemed like every other retailer I talked to was starting a local comics show! And every pro we talked to would rattle off a list of upcoming travel engagements that sounded more like the itinerary for an Ozzy cover band. One retailer told me that while margins at the store were low, running a con was a surefire moneymaker. It does seem that the “comicon/comic-con/comic con” however you spell it brand is now a word like “circus,” “auto show” or “Phish concert” that spells fun, adventure…and DREAMS. Dressing up like a pirate/Squirrel Girl/Nick Fury and marching around is now a god-given right. And taking pictures of the marchers is a privilege. Thanks to the comics shop connection, it seems like every town of any size has its own show now. Creators must now be more selective about accepting invitations, and the show organizers, it is to be hoped, will be more mindful of mixing up the lists. Someday the news that Guillem March is coming to your town will be met with shouts and huzzahs.
4. Like most things in life, retailer summits aren’t what they used to be. This was definitely a positive, useful business show, with interesting discussions and
great premiums, an open bar engaged retailers, but man oh man, BACK IN MY DAY the Diamond summit was a news fest! I won’t say this was a snooze fest—although a very long public trivia contest and a fascinating but ill timed power point presentation on the DC retailer survey nearly turned Thursday’s dinner into a Lars von Trier film—but there was only a light scattering of newsy crumbs. DC and Marvel held back on anything too earth shattering and Diamond itself didn’t introduce anything too radical, like Tuesday shipping a few years ago. The 60 minute internet news cycle has strangled the idea of going to one place for a whole quarter’s worth of news.
5. Thursday night people were down on the show. C2E2 has had a rough childhood. (Yes, it is only in its third year.) The first one underperformed severely in a huge agoraphobia-inducing room. The second year, a smaller room seemed more energetic, but the money wasn’t on the floor. This time out, on Thursday night it was universally decided by everyone in the bar that this was the make or break show and most money was on break for a couple of reasons.
• The McCormick Place is just a horrible place for a consumer show. The first year I was dazzled with its Jon Rauch-scaled halls and eaves. This year, I finally listened to what every single local told me: no one in the region likes going to the McCormick Place. It’s in the middle of nowhere, hard to get to, expensive to park and just…not friendly. It’s grand and clean (I saw a custodian cleaning small scuffs from the granite floors with a tennis ball on Sunday) and majestic—perfect for drug shows or bathroom and kitchen shows, but not for cozy comics. Local politics and the economy have botched getting a lot of B-to-B shows to the facility and the surrounding area is undeveloped.
• Exhibitors have a problem because McCormick is mad expensive. Unions, rules, shipping. Everyone—and I mean everyone—had as small a booth as possible. A table in artist alley was nearly $500. That is a lot of samoleans and makes it hard to turn a profit.
Add these two elements and you have a bad mix. Although a show in Chicago can draw from the entire Midwest, which has a huge comics community, getting them to line-up for McCormick requires electric cattle prods—or maybe just Geoff Johns.
I heard a few people complaining about ReedPOP and how much they charge and so on, and while I am not absolving them of mistakes along the way, I have to turn around and point out that we are the ones who asked for this show.
A little history. Although New York Comicon now seems like a longstanding lovable tradition for simulated rioting, it is only in its 7th year. The first time Reed threw the show everyone believed it would tank. Instead it was a packed, crazy madhouse that proved that people around New York liked going to comicons. As a round of triumphant blanket tossing took place, most people in the industry suggested that a “real Chicago show in downtown” should be Reed’s next exploit. This was suggested because industry people were really sick of the Wizard shows in Rosemont that had devolved into a combination swap meet/mud wrestling match—publishers had left long ago. Reed had thrown Book Expo in Chicago for several years and knew the facility. So the plan for the whole comics industry was to “take back Chicago.” But C2E2 Year One was not like NYCC YEar One for the reasons outlined above.
This then, was the mood on Thursday night.
6. Saturday kind of turned it around, and Sunday might have finished the job.I’m not convinced that C2E2 III was a profitable show for everyone, and I’m hearing that some publishers are still skeptical about coming back in 2013, but there was indisputably a big crowd on Saturday and a strong one on Sunday. There was a lively vibe, panels were mostly well attended, artists were busy sketching and signing…as I wrote then, it was con.
So what changed in 2012? Well for one thing, after resisting for a few years, ReedPOP brought in a LOT more celebrities. John Barrowman, Val Kilmer, John Cusack, Walking Dead. Authors Anne Rice and Charlaine Harris. These people bring more people. The comics were a draw and so were the costumes. But “comicon” implies the media spectacle that we’ve come to see at San Diego, and people crave that, especially since going to San Diego is now a pipe dream for many.
I learned that despite consumer antipathy to McCormick, it is the site of a huge auto show that draws a few hundred thousand people. Dangle something bright and shiny and enough and people will endure almost any danger. As I suggested above, I think “comicon” is now an attraction like “auto show.” Not that big yet. But it’s the same sort of branding in the public mind.
7. What could the future hold? Next year’s show has been announced as April 26-28 at McCormick. I heard some very vague bar talk about Rosemont but that was just bar talk. 2012 proved that better marketing and branding and media guests could overcome a lot of consumer reticence, but I sense a lot of publishers still hedging their bets. The 2012 publisher lineup was pretty thin: DC, Marvel, locals Archaia and Avatar, Top Shelf, Valiant, First, Zenescope. C2E2 has never catered to the indie crowd (hopefully CAKE will take care of that.) Chicago is a hard market to crack because of the local quirks, but it deserves a great regional show. No final answers are evident, but I think there is a much more positive vibe coming out of the show than there was going in. The talk is going to continue.
8. I had so much fun! People definitely had a good time, and the mood was upbeat. BarCon was rollicking—well oiled with the Three Floyd’s Zombie Dust beer in the CBR bar. One of my big complaints was that escaping McCormick place was hard, but great things are really only a $10 cab ride away. We had a swell dinner at the Fire House courtesy of ShiftyLook, and fine Cantonese in Chinatown with good friends another night. We topped it off with a trip to The Observatory restaurant at the John Hancock building for Amanda Conner’s birthday dinner. Even the dinner at the Diamond summit was edible. Good times, good friends. That’s truly what it is all about.
9. The Adairs are here. Torsten brought backup with his nephew Parker, who supplied a fine con virgin story.
10. Image is still coming on strong. Most of the retailers I spoke with with said Image titles are doing well and sales are growing, led by SAGA. Publisher Eric Stephenson’s march won’t stop until his troops reach the sea. A really strong #3 publisher—whether it’s Image or IDW or Dark Horse—could mean a lot for the industry.
11. Shia LaBeouf. When a tipster alerted me to the fact that he had shown up, I went and chatted to him and his girlfriend, Karolyn Pho, for a bit. Asked about his favorite comics, he said he loved Dan Clowes and Charles Burns, and had been talking to [well known indie publisher] about possibly putting out his books. What about San Diego? “That place is too much like Sundance,” he said. The guy seems to have a sincere love of comics, and his books are very very odd…definitely outsider art. It’s not like he’s trying to draw the Transformers for IDW. There’s been a ton of talk about his books being bad or his going there being a stupid celebrity stunt, but as this story shows, he knew what he was doing:
As we headed outside so he could take a much needed smoke break (and we could chat), he told me that Chicago was the Con he was told it would actually be “okay” to go to. He had wanted to go to New York Comic-Con, but heard it was too crowded, there would be no chance he wouldn’t be mobbed. Same with San Diego, particularly as it’s “all about the movies.” But Chicago? Just the right size, and just the right crowd to test the waters of being a struggling indie comic book creator, rather than major movie star Shia LaBeouf.
And that’s exactly right. LaBeouf’s cartooning motivations aren’t too far removed from the average person in Artist Alley. So if he wants to be part of our carpetless, under capitalized world, I say, the more the merrier.
12. I walked four miles in these platform shoes. Sunday afternoon I blew off the show to go for a walk, and on a gorgeous balmy day, I hiked from Millennium Park back to McCormick Place. That was a long, amazing walk of discovery, evoking memories of another post show adventure, the epic Quest for Mount Jew in Barcelona. I fortified myself for the trip with a Chicago Dog next to the Bean, but it was still a taxing journey.
Is there a better urban space in the world than Millennium Park? Frank Gehry! Jaume Plensa! While Millennium Park was bustling with toddlers jumping in the Crown Fountain, nearer to the closed-for-the-season Buckingham Fountain, Grant Park was strangely deserted save for a pack of people on Segways, and an enigmatic barefoot man standing by a garbage can, crying.
At one point I came over a hill only to see a vast greensward surrounded by green and purple trees, the Field Museum glimmering in the distance. It was a real life version of the Matty ALN filter on Hipstamatic! But I persevered and was eventually rewarded with the towering plinths and stately columns of Soldier Field.
However, my journey proved more daunting than I expected. I had mapped the trip from Millennium Park to McCormick on my iPhone and it said it was a walk of about 2.6 miles. I walk nearly two miles to work and back so that was very doable. However as the Hyatt remained only a speck on the horizon no matter how long I trudged on, I realized that calculation was only to the outer fiefdom of the McCormick — I swear it was ANOTHER mile to cross the vast parking lot, enter through the old, ominous black Lakeside building, wander around the deserted underguts of the building and finally cross the rainbow bridge to the south hall. “Well, I’m back,” said Sam. “I shall return a new man to Melniboné,” said Elric.
Chicago is a great town. I’d come back to visit any time. But I think this time I got some inkling of one of the characteristics of the Midwest — its enthusiasm for things in a Paul Bunyan-scaled size. Everything is so darned HUGE and WIDE. Rocky roads constricted the Northeast; water constricted the West. In the Midwest it just goes on and on.
So yeah, that was my C2E2. Super props to Rob Pereyda at ShiftyLook, Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett for the great car tour on Sunday, Jimmy Palmiotti, Dan Manser at Diamond, Dirk Wood, Alex Cox and especially Jeremy Atkins who did the unthinkable and let me borrow his phone for 15 minutes. Good times, good people.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.