By Matt Maxwell
I’m not even going to try to catch you up on things since October. No reason. We’ll just say that they’re different since then. Survived the changes but maybe not changed for them, you know?
I’d like to announce the thing that brought me up to Wizard World Portland a couple weeks back, but I’m still not clear to, for a variety of reasons. This isn’t a “ho ho ho, I’ve got a secret project and you can’t know” thing, as I’d like to have broken the news a long time back so I could start talking it up like the Howling Pit requires of us now. Suffice it to say that it’ll be news when it’s news (and I’ll have been working for it long enough to be totally tired of it.)
So, yeah, Portland. Mostly I went as an excuse to see friends, since it was a Wizard World show. I’ll be honest. Wizard shows basically suck. They’re not interested in any of the things that I’m into at this point. In fact, they’re depressing because the things that seem to do the best there are often really, well, just bad. Entertaining to their audiences, but otherwise bad. That’s great. Those folks can dig on those things in any way they like, but you’ll never get me to say a kind word about THE WALKING DEAD after the first 40 minutes of the first episode. Though I will admit that I’ve paid for an autograph at a Wizard show. I mean, how often do you get a chance to talk to Malcolm McDowell and chat with him? (And yes, buy a copy of O LUCKY MAN for him to sign as well).
But Wizard shows live and die on twenty foot high t-shirt towers and walls of unauthorized prints, energy drinks, beef jerky, soda, professional cosplayers, metal signs, necropoli built of Funko Pop boxes, SUPERNATURAL car replicas (and I’m a guy who likes muscle cars just fine, thanks), and all manner of popcult debris. Like I said, I’m not wired for it. Don’t know that I ever was, but I’m happy to rifle through boxes of old STARLOG and MEDIASCENE/PREVUE magazines if you got ’em.
However, Wizard Portland gave me a chance to hang out with some friends, particularly Steve Lieber who I’ve known for an astonishingly long time now that I stop and think about it. I’m glad he has found a place in comics that works, and even though I think for his skills, he should be able to live in a solid gold house. But we’re back to me valuing things that just aren’t valued much by the vast swath of audiences. And sturdy storytelling often takes a distant back seat to highly-rendered draftsmanship. Pity.
Met some new folks, talked Spanish and South American comics, had some good meals on Friday. This after hanging out at the Helioscope Studio and looking through so many art prints (Mucha’s SLAVIC EPIC and McGuinness’ paperback covers collection, if you want a convenient alpha and omega here.) Spent a little time wandering the artist’s alley and show floor. Honestly, pretty quiet on Friday, though there were long lines for ticket-holders to get in (this being a thing that I don’t miss at all since my semi-pro status lets me sidestep a lot of this most of the time.)
I did get to stop by and hang out at the Broken Eye Books booth, this since I’m one of their authors (“Chunked” in the TOMORROW’S CTHULHU collection, naturally – hit the link for more). Watched publisher Scott Gable sell a bunch of books, which was an impressive enough feat, but made double since a lot of the folks at this show were there for television and movie stuff and not really for any kind of reading materials (even comics) at all. I know, some folks’ mileage will vary on this one, but I’m jaded and burned-out, you know. Anyways, hats off to Scott for not only his salesmanship, but his editorial choices (in particular for the upcoming novella from Desirina Boskovich, NEVER NOW ALWAYS. Her story in TOMORROW’S CTHULHU was the real stand-out for me and I’m looking forward to her new work.
Was also hanging out at Broken Eye to talk about my debut novella, entitled THE QUEEN OF NO TOMORROWS. Yeah, that’s right. Writing something that I’m not publishing myself. It’s a weird feeling. With any luck, there’ll be a series of them, but first things first. If you’re looking for a quick pitch, they’ll be crime stories set in a world that’s slowly going Lovecraft. A friend suggested that it’s a lot like if Lovecraft had instead been a reader of Chandler and listened to X’s LOS ANGELES a lot. I won’t fight the comparison. More focus on the street-level characters, less on the cosmic indifference and cthulhoid kaiju. Anyways, look for it later in the year, probably after summer. I’ll talk it up more on Twitter and my home blog, which I might actually get around to updating. But folks, you read it here first!
The big attraction on Saturday ended up being the racks of half-price silver/bronze age comics. Lots of STRANGE TALES and Kirby FANTASTIC FOUR issues for three to five bucks apiece. Biggest score was the TOWER OF SHADOWS with stories featuring Steranko and John Buscema art. Sure, it was burned all the way around the edges like someone wanted to rid themselves of it and then chickened out at the last moment, but the art was intact and it was a buck, so who cares? Some Kubert and Frank Thorne war comics, including a great issue of ARMY AT WAR with art by Russ Heath that I passed along to Steve, mostly because of the cover, which made me think of THE FIX. I spent…well probably too much there, but justified it by buying hardly anything else.
Sunday was quiet, quiet enough that I was glad I wasn’t trying to sell much of anything. Instead I could just float around the floor or hang out and flip through old comics. Sunday’s big highlight was heading over to a retro arcade in Portland called QuarterWorld with Parker and Lieber. Played some pinball and stand-up arcade games, took lots of pictures, which is one of my favorite things to do ’cause I’m just apparently wired funny. Liked the place a lot. Hell, they were even playing Perturbator and other synthwave acts. Which made for a weird pause, y’know? Here they were trying to maybe not replicate 1982 (both in presentation and music) but evoking a strange echo of it. Also, since the three of us were among the oldest folks in there, I wondered how many patrons actually remembered arcades as a thing or were simply experiencing a re-creation. Yeah, this is something I think about a lot since THE FUTURE AMERICA gleefully works this ground.
Foodwise? Portland did not disappoint. Mostly because I got to eat at Pine State Biscuits twice and you really can’t go wrong there. Also the fried chicken at the Southern bistro we ate at on Friday night was sublime (I can’t recall the name, but I bet Steve can.) Okay, so dinner on Sunday was a bit of a letdown, but even airport food in Portland is better than regular food most other places.
Now I can say that Wizard shows are dull until the cows come home. Doesn’t change the fact that someone finds them economically viable. Enough so that they’ve got a fleet of semi-trucks to cart vendors around from show to show and they’re done all over the US on how many weekends a year? These shows are just not concerned with things that interest me (but again, enough other people are that they flock to them.) But you know, you can probably get a pass to a Wizard show on any given weekend just by walking up to the door and buying one (which you absolutely can not, for say Wonder-con or SDCC or ECCC, unless you want to go with the scalpers – of which there were plenty.) That’s a real concern for folks who want to expand the reader base in comics and not just reward people who had fast internet connections six months ago to buy their passes then. No, I don’t know a solution to this issue, either. I just like to bring it up.
Now, let’s contrast the personally lackluster (but well-attended) Wizard show with Emerald City Comic Con. (Hint: it’s not fair and totally one-sided. Though there are some parallels, which I’ll get to, eventually.)
ECCC is a show that’s been going on for fifteen years now, and has mostly made good decisions when it came to growing up. The first one I came up to was probably in 2004, maybe 2005, back when it was in a big room at Safeco Field. It’s blown up since then, perhaps even to a point where it might be called “daunting” but has never lost sight of its central focus, that being comics. Sure, there’s a lot of toys and games and art prints and movie/TV stars, but never overwhelming the comics that set the groundwork for much of these things’ success and audiences. ECCC management made the transition from small venues to a larger convention center pretty seamlessly, taking their time to go from half of a floor to full floor, to both main floors and pushing out to the adjacent halls (with some related functions/events moving to nearby hotels.) I can think of some shows that had a rocky transition period, but ECCC wasn’t one of them.
Early morning flight necessitated me leaving the house at 5:00 am to make a 7:00 am flight. This was not my smartest move, but I didn’t want to enjoy a two-hour layover in Vegas or Boise or where the hell ever else they would want to shuttle me, so sure, I’ll go do a day of travel and convention on four hours of sleep and cold medicine. Why not? You only live once, right?
So once I got to the show (thankfully I was headquartered at the Roosevelt just half a block away from the convention center), I heard that artist’s alley was all upstairs this year. This gave me some pause. Now while ECCC had made a smooth transition to the larger convention center in Seattle, there were some hiccups. One of those was in earlier years when the book-themed vendors and authors (the so-called “writer’s block”) was in its own area upstairs, away from the main floor, and traffic suffered as a result. Granted, that may have been my perception of things two years ago (skipped last year due to a broken wrist) but I don’t think I was too far off.
So having artist’s alley off the main show floor was worrying, mostly because I’ve seen alleys pushed off the main traffic areas and those getting lackluster sales results/interest. I went in expecting the worst. And instead, I was pleasantly surprised. First off, the artist’s alley area was positively huge. I think three of the large upstairs areas (I hesitate to call them ‘rooms’ given their size) went into making up this section of the show, this in addition to the writer’s block having its own adjacent room, made for a lot of artists and books to look through. Bigger than some indie shows I’ve been to (hell, much bigger than some regional shows now.) This was good.
Secondly, everyone who went to the artist’s alley knew exactly the kind of thing they were looking for. This made for pretty heavy traffic all three days I was there (the show itself was open on Thursday as well, but I had a tough time justifying that much time away for a show that I wasn’t actively working.) Within the first half-hour there, I was convinced that this was completely the right move to make. Most all of the artists (and small publishers up there) I talked with felt the same way, or at least did not dissuade me of this opinion.
So, what was on the main floor spaces to take up all that space? Large publishers: Oni, Image, Dark Horse; a bunch of game publishers and board game folks, lots and lots of merchandise and cottage industry branded art/T-shirts/whatever, and a whole lot of stuff that I had precisely zero interest in (c.f. the Wizard show from Portland two weeks before.) I should mention that Boom! and a bunch of other indie artists/publishers took over one of the passages (as they have for several years) as well. Trouble is, with Amazon and the like, lots of these vendors were kind of superfluous to me. I can get any of these books basically on-demand, so aside from signings, not much for me to do here. And since nearly all of the merchandise, aside from old comics, was of no interest to me, I just stayed out. It was crowded and folks there were there for ancillary merchandise. Not my thing.
Granted, there were some small press tables there, but it seemed to me like they’d have been better served being upstairs with all the other creators. I can’t speak to their results/sales, only to my perception of the con-goers on the different floors. Perhaps everyone on the main floor did smashing business. All I know is I spent less than 10% of my time downstairs due to lack of interest (aside from digging through stacks of old comics, but more on that later.)
I’ll be honest. Friday was not my finest hour, due to lack of sleep and NyQuil’s seeping brand of liquid jet-lag. That stuff’s got a very long brain-fog half-life. Too bad it was not as effective in keeping me from coughing like a lunger when I was shambling around. Lingered at friend’s tables and hid out at Broken Eye Books (them again) as time allowed. I probably should have just gone back to my room to sleep, but I’m often un-wise when it comes to conventions. I don’t get out much given my dad-type duties.
Turned a corner and saw that José Luis Garcia-Lopez was at the show and just about died. I suppose if you’ve read this far, you know who he is. If not, suffice it to say that he’s one of the great living comics artists. Though he really doesn’t do that much comics work these days, which is unfortunate, as he’s second to none in terms of storytelling and clarity of art. Anyways, I didn’t really expect him to be there, so I just stood in quiet awe for a moment. (Later, I did end up buying a piece of art from him, a Batman from a DC style guide, inked by Eduardo Barreto.)
Hung out with friends Ken Lowery (LIKE A VIRUS) and Robert Wilson IV (HEART THROB) and chatted for a bit. Ran into more friends there, Dylan Todd (who’s an excellent comics designer even if he has some questionable taste in movies) and Matt Digges (movie taste not questionable, also worked on the BOO anthology). Oh, an aside. If you go to a convention like ECCC and think “Gee, I’ll just text my friends when I’m there and we can do friend things together” think again. I couldn’t get any kind of cell on the show floor, but when I walked outside, I’d get spammed with all the missed messages, texts, tweets, whatevers. I don’t know that there’s any way around this short of carrying around a cell tower in my satchel, so whatever. Anyways, find a safe place to meet outside and meet there because inside may as well be a cell-free zone.
Before long, it was time for sitting down and drinks and figuring out dinner plans. Mostly the sitting down part, which sounded really good after twelve hours of travel plus convention. Finally got things together and out to dinner, a fine Vietnamese restaurant called [REDACTED]. I won’t mention the name because I don’t want it to be taken over by folks seeking a respite from the show. Sorry, not sorry. Just know that the grilled squid was (surprisingly) excellent and the pho was almost enough to make me feel human again. After that, it was adjournment to Shorty’s (a place I have no trouble in naming because they can’t fit any more people in there.) Shorty’s is a clown-themed bar with a pinball room in the back, making it an easy sale (even if the games were a buck a shot.) Neon, pinball, clowns and a metal soundtrack made it pretty okay, though I was ready to sleep standing up. At least until the walk back, where the spitting rain and wind right off Puget sound cut through any outer layers you might care to wear. Made well awake on the trek back. Stared at the ceiling and waited for the NyQuil to kick in so I could get me some of that sweet oblivion.
Saturday morning was bright and beautiful. Also cold right down to the bone. Made my way down to Ludi’s (Philippine-American – ask for the longsilog with garlic rice) for breakfast. Took a lot of photos along the way. Maybe some end up on my tumblr, maybe not (I gave up on Flickr a long time ago). Sipped coffee until I could feel my fingers again. Then it was down to the Pike Place Market to watch the vendors and flying fish and get the vibe of the place setting up for the day, as it was still on the early side. Yeah, having kids has destroyed my ability to sleep in, since they’ve got to be out the door by 7:15 every day and I have to be the guy to make it happen. Anyways, lots of great, sharp light for shooting in downtown, and lots of great organic subjects to shoot in the marketplace. Plenty of people if that’s your thing (but I tend to shoot around them, by and large.)
Saturday at the show was, well, busy. Not quite can’t-hear-yourself-think busy, but lots of traffic on the floor. Bought copies of Corinna Bechko’s chapbook and her collaboration with Gabriel Hardman, TURN KEYS. Both are self-published, so don’t look for ’em in stores, but I think they’re available on-line. Turns out they are. And if you’re not reading INVISIBLE REPUBLIC, then for heaven’s sake why aren’t you? It’s some of the best science fiction in comics happening today, which is, granted, a small slice of things, but quality is where you find it.
I really meant to make it to the Parker/Brothers panel, but it just didn’t happen this year. Probably for the best, as I heard it was standing room only. That said, if you have the chance to attend one, then you really ought to, particularly if you’re just starting out in comics and want to get some of the inside dirt on storytelling (which is the reason you’re in comics, right?) Instead, I went and met a friend for lunch, walking Seattle under steel-grey skies, cranes from omnipresent construction looming like Martian tripods. Walked past a doggy day-care and looked into the window. Almost went in saying “I’ll pay you ten bucks to let me pat the good dogs for half an hour.” I think there’s a market there.
This year’s programming looked pretty solid overall. Just that I didn’t make it to a lot of panels this time around. This is a place where ECCC usually does pretty well, particularly on the side of getting new voices out there. I’ll note especially that Image is doing a good job of mixing process and talk from artists into their panels (which otherwise could be hour-long advertisements for their lines, but instead end up being a lot more than that.) The internet and its (sometimes) proximity to creators is one of the things that has kinda taken away from the specialness of these panels. Doubly true when you’re not going to panels for breaking comics news (can’t believe I typed that phrase.) But I’m showing my age here, and that age is considerable. Anyways, given this, I always attended oddball panels (like the Michael Zulli spotlight panel at SDCC maybe ten years ago where there five of us in the audience and we just pulled up a ring of chairs and talked for an hour, which was great.)
Mostly spent the day going through tables and books, trying to cover as much ground as I could. Of course, I’m keeping an eye out for artists to work with as well, given that I’m putting irons back into the comics fire. Really looking for something intriguing and unique to read. There’s so many stories that’ve been told, even with near-infinite variation in flavor, that I’m just looking for new ways to tell them, unique voices. It’s not necessarily about originality (this includes my own work, which is vastly not) but about the manner of telling. If even you want to tell a story. Lots of people not doing that (but seeming to do just fine in the business.)
Did run into an old friend from my days in animation, which was great. Of course, those times only feel like two lifetimes ago, since they were all before 2001. Still nice to swap stories about hellish deadlines on MAX STEEL (the original series, another phrase I can’t believe I’m typing) and watching the studio burn down around us.
Sometime around Saturday it struc
k me that ECCC wasn’t really one show anymore. I alluded to this earlier, but it was made explicit once I spent some time on the main floor again. The bottom floor was a separate show just held in the same building. Totally different vibe, down to the crowd behaviors. The top floor was about moving from table to table and stopping frequently. The bottom was clusters of people around big booths then moving as quickly as possible to the next destination. Kinda jangly. So yeah, maybe this whole two-floor thing was genius after all.
Out for dinner with friends on Saturday night, which, oddly turned out to happen at [REDACTED] again (mostly because it was really good the first night, also because it had plenty of vegetarian options for those in the party of that persuasion.) No grilled squid and pho the second time around, but the lemongrass-chili beef and hot tea were enough to get me feeling almost human again. Also oddly enough, we ended up back at Shorty’s (though this was a totally different group and this time the bar choice was totally not my idea.) Leaned more on punk and less on metal (but Helmet chased by Guns and Roses and Filter?). Really, bars aren’t my scene, but you could do worse. At least Shorty’s has personality, but a thirteen-dollar old fashioned seems a bit stiff, just with Knob Creek even. Used to be you could get a shot of the good Blanton’s for that.
Walk back in more spitting rain, admiring the flounders on the awnings outside the Nordstrom store along the way. I can’t make this up, folks. It’s real. Some really neat deco touches on a lot of the buildings downtown, quickly being overshadowed by the new construction, a lot of it Amazon-driven, by my understanding. Marched down to the market again for breakfast, this time for a biscuit sandwich at Honest Biscuits (though folks swore by Biscuit Bitch closer to the convention center, but without seating and in the cold, really not an appealing choice.) I might’ve eaten a buttermilk bar and sipped hot cider while browsing through a used bookstore while Portishead’s first album blasted from the store’s speakers. That might’ve happened.
Spent Sunday making actual purchases, though perhaps not as many as I’d thought. Did get to go diving for comics for about an hour with Gabriel Hardman, mostly through non-superhero offerings from Gold Key/Dell/Charlton. It’s easier when they’re all half-price under ten bucks. Then the purchases are just about no-brainers. At full price? Yeah, crazy. I can’t even understand why there’s much of a market for these comics, but I’m glad someone thinks there is, enough so to drag them to shows. Did end up with a copy of the DEMON WITH A GLASS HAND graphic novel adaptation (by Marshall Rogers) and a great copy of EERIE with a Steranko cover (and sublime Gene Colan story inside). Signed a few books at Broken Eye. Bought a copy of MUNCHIES by Katie Longua, got caught up on SHUTTER, grabbed some other odds and ends. Grabbed the BY CROM! collection after having had a chuckle at some of the original cartoons on tumblr. Got an Electrogor sketch from Zander Cannon (KAIJUMAX was one of the great surprises of last year for me.) Said a lot of “see you next time” and went to grab my luggage to get to the airport.
Of course my flight was delayed. Spent a pleasant couple of hours with Ramon Villalobos, talking comics, eating pizza and poking around the Sub Pop store in Sea-Tac (surprisingly, spent money on music there, some old: SUB POP 200, some new: the debut from Heron Oblivion.) Talked more comics on the flight back. Landed in a Sacramento almost as cold as the Seattle I’d left that night. Of course, it was past 1am. Which meant I got home around 2 or just after.
Still, comics. So it’s all worthwhile.
Though I wish shows weren’t such an epic undertaking. I mean, it’s great that there’s huge demand for things like ECCC, but it seems that unless we make it easier for new people to come into the fold, it’s going to be serving the hardcore fans who know about these things months in advance. But I suppose it’s one of those wrinkles of the marketplace, like the creation of Omnibus Editions and Artist’s Editions, which are primarily for the devoted fans and not really a way to break in new readers. Not that I know any ways around that, other than to set aside tickets for folks to walk up and buy (and they’d only be snapped up by scalpers anyways.)
Matt Maxwell created the weird western STRANGEWAYS graphic novel series when comics blogging proved not to be enough of a distraction. His current comics project is THE FUTURE AMERICA, about the adventures of criminal folk-hero Toné Akron in a USA transformed by World War Short. In a past life, he blogged about comics at his own website and wrote columns for both Broken Frontier and Comics Waiting Room. Additionally, he’s written stories for Blizzard Entertainment, Broken Eye Books and his own imprint, Highway 62. He’s currently working on a series of crime/horror novellas, the first of which is entitled THE QUEEN OF NO TOMORROWS. He was born in California, sometime between the assassination of JFK and the first Apollo landing. You can read more at his website, highway-62.com or follow him on Twitter at @highway_62.
I was at ECCC. Such a marvelous break after NYCC, which has become a packed nightmare. I loved Artist Alley on the 6th floor and every artist I spoke to up there said they were having a great weekend. I nuked my art budget. Fantastic layout, lots of space to move around. Hotel was a couple of blocks away and cheap.
Honestly, I wasn’t planning on coming back to US anytime in the near future, but ECCC makes it pretty tempting. I would just beg Reed Pop not to make this like NYCC and jam it full off people. There was space to move around at the Convention Centre. Resist the urge to cram more stuff in there. Keep giving people places to move around, eat (I got food in less than 5 minutes at lunch hour!) and sit (I found leather couches with no one around!).
I bailed on Wizard World Chicago many years ago because the programming sucked. I went back four years ago because Stan Lee was there and I thought “How much longer is he going to be around?” The programming has slightly improved but the guests have been incredible the last three years. 2016 had a “Back to the Future” reunion, an “X Files” reunion AND Carrie Fisher. Damn glad I got to see her.
What’s really made it worthwhile has been the “Bruce Campbell Horror Film Festival” that’s run as part of WW Chicago the last three years. Tremendous fun and probably the sort of thing they need to do with their other shows. Wizard hasn’t been about comics for a long time and last year it was clear that actual comic books were outnumbered in the vendor area by sundry geek products. The guest list for the shows to start the season has also been underwhelming, whether due to corporate turmoil or just the exhaustion of the nostalgia market. But I’ll be going back as long as the BCHFF is there.
Wizard shows don’t have to be about comics but they need to be about something and giving them each a unique secondary event might be how they stay connected to the lifeblood of the true geeks, without which the casual audience eventually dries up and blows away.
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