200910090224By Matt Maxwell

So this wasn’t the first comic show in Long Beach. Not so long ago, Wizard used to have their LA-based show in Long Beach. And back then, it was pretty good. Decently-sized, good crowds, some programming, a collection of bars and restaurants nearby that you could sneak out to instead of paying eight dollars for a slice of pizza. Had great conversations with both Grant Morrison and Darwyn Cooke at those shows, and had a good time (since it was only a little over an hour away from where I lived at the time and was pretty cheap as these things went.)

Then Wizard moved their show to the LA Convention Center and it promptly became a ghost town. LA-based people no longer treated it as a vacation (Long Beach is about a half hour south of downtown and a pleasant enough destination), but as work. That and, though it’s being rebuilt and gentrified aggressively, downtown LA by the convention center isn’t that great a place to hang out (though leaps and bounds better than it used to be in the nineties). Marvel sent a delegation and DC stopped sending theirs. The LA show never really recovered. I exhibited there once and attended once, neither time was all that interesting (but the light crowds made for a good set of convention training wheels as it were.)

I was pretty interested to see that the same crew was bringing the show back, no longer under the aegis of Wizard (how often do you see that phrase typed out?) and with a very comics-centric focus (though Nintendo easily had the largest booth there). Sure, sign me up. If nothing else, it gives me a good chance to see my friends in Orange County. Maybe sell some books. Granted, it’s no longer a trivial task to get down there, but it’s not all that much of a trip either. As Sean T. Collins writes, “I’ll eat that.”

Just don’t eat at the concessions. They’re really expensive. Nearly four dollars for a bottle of Coke? Really guys? I pay less than that at SDCC, which is more or less my metric for convention costs. I suppose they’re more expensive in NY, which I may get to find out for myself next year. That’s really my big complaint, so if you’re here to listen to me whine about how terrible things were, don’t read any further. Next year, I’ll bring my own water in or something. Four dollars. Really.

And that’s not something that the organizers really have a lot of control over, at least to the best of my knowledge. The concessions come along with the facility, so really, not worth grousing about. The things that were under the control of the organizers, however, seemed pretty well in hand. Minimal fuss getting my exhibitor badge, efficient but not obtrusive security, receptive staff. There had been a slight mixup with a potential panel appearance, but easily solved.

The space itself was set up well enough, though I might’ve wanted it a tad more well-lit. It was weird: the floor itself was illuminated but when you looked up into the ceilings, the light fell off fast, leaving a kind of inky blackness and hints of rafters above. Granted, most people aren’t going to notice weird stuff like that, but I do. Can’t help it. Bare concrete floors and walls made for a pretty major echo, a constant thrumming of noise (and when the bargain trades barker fired up her FIVE DOLLARS FOR ALL TRADE PAPERBACKS chant towards the end of the day on Sunday, well, there was no escaping. Just as there was no escaping from the full size wrestling ring that had full-impact, full-volume exercises going intermittently on Friday and Saturday. These exercises, I’ll add, threatened to drive some artists from their homes in artist’s alley. I’d have considered it, but I’d flown all the way down and wasn’t to be scared off so easily.

That didn’t make it fun. Maybe if I were a big wrestling fan I’d feel differently. Thankfully, they weren’t active all day on Saturday and had pretty much knocked it off by Sunday.

As for my home in artist’s alley, it was pretty nice. Had a corner booth, between David Gallaher (writer and co-creator of HIGH NOON on Zuda, whose book was just out in stores last week) and Stuart Sayger (creator of SHIVER IN THE DARK, artist on the recent BIONICLES series and pinup artist extraordinaire.) After being on the corner, I don’t really want to go back to hanging out in the middle of the aisles. Like ever. But that’s usually not up for me to control, so I try not to worry about it.

The crowds on Friday gave me a pretty good feeling about the eventual size of the show. The last Wizard show I did, I came in towards the end of the day on Friday and found open aisles and only light clustering around the Marvel booth and some of the premium retailers. There was a solid stream of folks circulating all around the show floor this time around. Now, not everyone was freely spending, at least not at the Alley, but there was money changing hands.

I’ve noticed that having a big piece of original art does get more people to linger at my table now. I recently acquired the original Guy Davis art to one of the pin-up pieces that appeared in MURDER MOON and have left that as an eyecatcher on the table (along with some unrelated pieces that happen to fit in the big portfolio I lug around with me now). Lots of lingering, and sometimes people even conversing (and more than a few people recognizing the artist’s work and taking a closer look.) Maybe some sales as a result of that, but tough to gauge (and I’m really lazy about that.) The only problem with this is that people flip through the rest of the portfolio, even though there’s no other related art there, but I did get a lot of comments on the Cameron Stewart INVISIBLES page, so, yay? Even had someone mistake that for Milton Caniff’s work, so, go Cameron.

Made some sales in the afternoon, ran into editors (I’m not stalking, I swear to god!) and had a pretty good time. The dollars from these sales alone weren’t enough to justify coming down, though. Good thing that I’m not measuring success strictly by those. Gotta keep showing up, gotta keep turning over cards, coffee is only for closers and I’m suffering the caffeine shakes. Chatted awhile with Gabe ( and AGENTS OF ATLAS) and Corinna (Bechko, also of HEATHENTOWN), even bought some art that never got published but really should have. Talked with the guys from RED MOON, which I’d seen at SDCC, and think I even plugged on “What Are You Reading?” over at Robot 6. It’s good, worth a close look once the whole thing hits. Also talked with Emonic and the guys from BRAINS, who I see a lot on the local circuit. Oh, and the crew from Hightower Comics who were having a pretty good time, at least signs pointed that way.

Though the question was brought up to me more than once, regarding the attractiveness/usefulness of a half-day at the start of shows like this one. SDCC’s preview night on Wednesday (which is really a misnomer, since the show floor is fully-functional on Wednesday) serves a purpose, in response to clearly insane demand. You heard that “Preview Night” itself for SDCC 2010 sold out already, right? Granted, there’s questions about what constitutes those tickets, but the headline prompted the reply from at least one comics wonk (okay, me) “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.” If I was cool, I’d embed the YouTube of Roy Scheider here. Not cool.

It’s an honest question. Even lingering, the show floor isn’t going to take much more than a couple hours, unless you happen to strike up a conversation with Pepe Moreno (I did, and I bought the remastered REBEL from him, even though I acquired the original US release of it some months back), you’re going to exhaust the floor pretty quickly. My gut feeling is that Preview Night is for the well-heeled collector/fan who can take the time off and hit the floor hard, looking for that one thing. In my case, I was looking for a miniature Space Godzilla for my son and a unique My Little Pony (has the Junko Mizuno pony hit yet?) for my daughter. But then I’m a man of simple tastes. The Friday crowds were good, but nothing compared to Saturday’s. I suppose it may come down to how the facilities are rented and it just made sense to take the Friday date and add some extra programming on it. But when there’s a perception of Sunday being dead, maybe less really is more. I’ll continue on that thread later.

Sold a few books, chatted with David Gallaher and bought that HIGH MOON page I forgot to pick up at SDCC (didn’t really have anything to carry it in, anyways). Looked over the printing of HIGH MOON and saw that the paper stock and color reproduction was a marked step above the first edition of BAYOU, the only other Zuda book I have currently. My understanding is that later pressings of BAYOU will benefit from the new stock and color as well, which obviates one of my largest criticisms of the book as presented.

Sneaked out a few minutes early, not sure what kind of hell traffic would be offered up to me. Accidentally stayed on Ocean Avenue until it became Second Street and ended up driving through Belmont Shores, which is like a more suburbanized version of Long Beach, more money, smaller buildings, more walkers on the sidewalks. Finally caught PCH and cruised along just after dark had settled in, breathing in the salt marsh and listening to Savage Republic in the moonlight. Parts of it were like rolling back the calendar decades, to an industrial seventies mangle of pipework to the east of me, oblique concrete outbuildings on the public beach to the west, all lit by sodium lamps, making things dingier than they perhaps really were.

Mexican-style chicken soup with the avocado fished out for dinner, that and too many chips and a too-watery margarita. Good company and the plasticine embrace of an air mattress, interrupted only by waking up just before dawn and panicking that I couldn’t find my alarm clock and wondering where the hell I was. It was like I was operating my own body by pulleys and levers. Underwater. Calmed down and slid back into sleep.

Saturday morning revealed to me that there are nineteen hundred and forty calories in an IHOP chicken fried steak breakfast. I loves me some batter-coated cubesteak, but man, that’s a day’s worth of food energy there. Pass. Of course, that breakfast would have been cheaper than the lunch I ended up buying, so calories or dollars? Saturday also yielded healthy attendance and contented milling about the show floor. Not enough people lingering, but again, maybe I need to get me a gold Elvis suit and some sequins. I mean, who couldn’t use some Bedazzling? Something to consider for next year.

But really, and I probably shouldn’t have to admit this, I hate selling books. Don’t get me wrong, giving people something to read? That’s awesome. That’s why I’m here. But having to sell people on the books themselves? Actually promote them? Summon forth my inner carny (who’s malnourished on a lifetime of candy apples and non-USDA approved frankfurters) and bark like a seal to get people to come over? Painful. But this is part of the game we get to play. So I do my best to honor that, but it does drag along. I imagine it’s easier for artists who can sit down and start with a blank page and black ink and whip up something you can immediately appreciate. Granted, it’s not always fun to watch (though I’ve seen some artists put on a real show when sketching, breaking pens and spattering whiteout-Bill Sienkiewicz comes to mind here) but you have an artifact that you can apprehend the second you get it.

Writers? Yeah, well. Did I mention that according to experts (and me) that it’s harder to break into comics as a writer than it is as an artist? It is. I used to have a sign that archly stated “I can’t draw. My art is invisible.” Mostly in response to people asking for sketches of characters I couldn’t draw even if a gun was held to my head. Of course, being a contrarian, I figured that there was a way I could do something that would keep people around, and thus was born the five minute story.

The rules are simple, and we have to have rules, else we’d be little better than our lizard brains. Bring me a piece of paper and three words. I write you a story over the next five minutes or so. Compound words will get ignored. No bonus for stumping the dealer. I get to look up anything I want and if I choose a different meaning, too bad.

Usually people look at the sign and sort of lock up, like they just can’t figure out what I could possibly do that would be of interest in five minutes. I generally do two or three over a weekend. Pretty sure I’d done five by Saturday. Did nearly that many that day and some more on Sunday. I’m not sure it’s a hit (still losing money on every one…) but I guess it’s beginning to stick. I’d love it if an editor came up to me and asked me to pitch stuff based on that. Still holding my breath on that one.

So yeah, I do those for free. I have yet to see someone unhappy with the results. So maybe my art is at least somewhat visible. Kinda. Or I’ve fooled people into thinking so. Actually, I was told on Sunday that someone who’d gotten a story from me had put it up on their facebook page and gotten a lot of response. I wish I’d get a lot of response whenever I posted a Strangeways page. Perhaps the idea that it all happened in realtime makes is more compelling, don’t know. I do know that I should start charging for them. But I probably won’t, out of habit.

Talked briefly with , whom I’d seen on Friday. Turned out that he was going to get me (as well as David Gallaher) on the digital comics distribution panel on Sunday. Which was great. Even if I get stage fright. But that’s for Sunday.

People around me seemed to be doing a good business, though not offering specific benchmarks as to how well things were rolling. Most folks, when asked, figured they’d be back next year (though some wondered about the timing, as Reed’s NYC show will be in October, as well as Baltimore traditionally happening then.) My read on Saturday was that it was easily as busy as the Wizard shows had been in this venue. Almost like the intervening three or four years hadn’t happened.

An interesting difference between then and now was a lack of floor presence from either of the Big Two. As I mentioned earlier, when Wizard was in Long Beach, DC had a big cluster of tables. I know that Bob Wayne and perhaps a few other DC folks were there this year, but I didn’t see a table, no flying of the flag (to which I add that Geoff Johns was there, as was Jim Lee, but not specifically as a DC rep). There were some people from Marvel there as well, but no big table. The largest publishers with tables were IDW, Boom!, Top Cow and Archaia. Does make you wonder how important regional shows are to these companies. My understanding is that at least two of the above are more or less local to Long Beach, unsure on Archaia and Top Cow). And then again, maybe traveling across the country doesn’t seem so appealing when you’ve got an east-coast regional show coming up in a week.

I’d talk about the diversity of the crowd, but not much struck me this time around. Seemed a little light on the cosplay, really. Maybe I’m just inured to it now. I guess it’s not a highlight any longer. I’ve been coming to shows longer than a lot of the cosplayers have been alive, which makes me old. That and after having seen the spectacle of SDCC, it might just take a lot for me to be impressed.

One thing that was impressive, however, was being able to meet Berkeley Breathed, creator of BLOOM COUNTY, which was one of the first comic strips that I felt like an active participant in. I’d read my parent’s collections of DOONESBURY when I was a kid, but a lot of the history and politics sailed over my head (I liked the earlier, less sardonic and more cartoon-strippy material a lot more as a kid-that would be flipped around these days.) But I hold a lot of fondness for BLOOM COUNTY. As I told him “I only ever followed three strips to their conclusion, and yours was one of them.” He, of course, guessed the other two with no difficulty whatsoever. I’m predictable like that. So yeah, I had a big heavy book to cart home with me. But it was a big heavy book that I really wanted to read, with a signature and sketch of Opus on the front page, so I’m not going to complain.

Then “Home” for more Mexican food, a bootleg Cure video (1984, Edinburgh, and a surprisingly good set) chased with the Soft Cell videography. And if you haven’t seen the original version of the video for “Tainted Love”(hint: it’s not on YouTube), well…just…wow. You’ll never listen to the song the same way again. And if there’s a more perfect video for the song than “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye, I don’t want to know about it. Kind of a disservice to the band that they’re only known for their most popular singles over here in the states when they released a whole raft of singles that were often quite ahead of their time. Was offered the trailer for F IS FOR FAKE, but didn’t have the presence of mind to watch the whole damn thing. Con is exhausting.

Sunday was, well, Sunday. I’m pretty sure that I’ve used that line before, but it’s almost always true. Yes, I sold a couple more copies on Sunday than on Saturday, but there was a Sunday vibe to the whole room that was, I don’t know, enervating maybe. Plenty of people at tables actively talking to their neighbors because the crowds had thinned off towards the afternoon. Hard to get a deal at the artist’s alley, but the fabled “last show day” deals may have been found elsewhere.

Oh, my debut on a panel, right. I, along with Steve from Archaia, Rantz from Longbox, Joshua from TUMOR and ELK’S RUN, and David from HIGH NOON did a panel on digital distribution of comics and why it’s a good thing. For anyone who’s been on the comics internet, it’s nothing that you haven’t heard before. There were some teases of specific things (including what was hailed as the near-certainty of an Apple tablet-I’m dubious of the pie in the sky wishes of some folks with regard to that) that may hold great promise. Did you know that TUMOR (the Kindle-only digital comic that Josh Fialkov, and maybe Noel Tuazon, are doing with Archaia) was in the top 500 items sold at Amazon that weekend? Not in the top 500 books, top 500 items. Pretty impressive.

The panel went over why digital distribution is perceived as a crucial change of delivery method for comics in particular, and let’s be clear: nobody on the panel said “BURN DIRECT MARKET, BURN.” There was a lot of love up there for comics, and acknowledgment that were it not for Diamond and the direct market, there wouldn’t be a comics market now. However, like any media, there’s big changes afoot in comics. The real question is figuring out how to make the changes non-fatal and perhaps even thrive in the face of them. Putting comics on portable electronic devices (particularly on ones that are now mere vaporware) is a big deal. Getting more readers for comics is a big deal (and if you’ve been reading any of my commentary, it’s perhaps The Biggest Deal), so I regard these changes as scary but exciting.

I’d love to say that people stormed down after my bravura performance at the panel and asked for, nay, True Believer, demanded copies of STRANGEWAYS. But that demand never materialized. I did field a few questions about how to start out in comics (don’t do what I did with an OGN right out the gate-start smaller and make it a complete story, not a fragment; find an artist that you can work with and can afford, nobody will work for free; strongly consider webcomics first and don’t worry about print at this point, unless you’re looking at very small runs that you can afford to lose money on, or roll the dice and have cheap ottomans made out of remainder product.) Did a couple more five minute stories. Mostly said goodbye to folks and got my stuff headed the heck out of Dodge.

Pork ramen with broth that was knife-thick for dinner. Wait and wait and wait around in the Wi-Fi free wasteland of the terminal at Orange County airport. Sleep on the flight back. Curse loudly as I fear I’ve forgotten the parking ticket to get out of hock. All of these things waiting for me on the way back home.

And what? APE is in two weeks? See you there, pilgrims!

[Matt Maxwell has a blog and is the author of the webcomic Strangeways, currently being serialized at Robot 6]


  1. “Just as there was no escaping from the full size wrestling ring that had full-impact, full-volume exercises going intermittently on Friday and Saturday.”

    Oh. So it WAS a Wizard con?