“Maximum rock’n’roll, chaos magic, mind-bending esoterica, sharp suits, surprise guests, and once-in-a-lifetime performances, all wrapped up in the glory that is comics, comics, and more comics.” –Grant Morrison
That’s a lot to promise. When mold-breaking comics retailers James Sime and Kirsten Baldock united with iFanboy podcast host Ron Richards to put together a show—“all magick, no science” as Sime repeated over the weekend—their goal was to dismantle the current model of comic book conventions and build something new in its place. They hooked up with comics auteur Grant Morrison, who put his name to and his imprint upon the whole thing, and lo, there came MorrisonCon, which Morrison hyped in the press as a genuine “life-changing event.” Then there’s the above manifesto, first glimpsed on the Con’s website, and later transferred to badges, programs, and giant video screens. The MorrisonCon Life Equation: rock + roll + chaos magic + esoterica ÷ sharp suits ÷ surprise guests × once-in-a-lifetime performances n=y where n=comics and y=comics…
Your correspondent is a victim of fandom culture, or at least claims to be when he wants to play the martyr card. The truth is more along the Updike-Roth ley line: the correspondent is suspicious of unbridled enthusiasm, like a phantom pain of misanthropy, manifested in a mistrust of anything anyone Tumblrs about. This is not a consistent illness; he paid $800 to attend MorrisonCon, after all. The correspondent didn’t know what to expect, but strongly doubted his life would be changed. Diverted a bit, maybe.
The correspondent took off from pale, wet New England and landed in Las Vegas, the city where “REPENT” stenciled on an electrical transformer box constitutes the fine print of a social contract. Others came from even further away: Scotland, Australia, Brazil, China. Enduring the city’s sick heat that made his skin tingle under his clothes, the correspondent checked in at the Hard Rock Hotel, where his room overlooked the pool, whose weekend parties seemed to dwarf MorrisonCon in scale, attendance, security, and volume—the correspondent’s window vibrated relentlessly. In the next room, a couple escalated into a heated screaming match; as far as the correspondent could tell, over french fries. He was driven to drink a few glasses of vodka in his room before the event even began, which was consciousness-altering but not transcendentally so.
Mid-afternoon on Friday the line began queueing to register for MorrisonCon proper. Herded into something resembling order, the cast of the weekend awkwardly reached out to one another in clumsy conversational gropes. Your correspondent was no exception, feeling out the vibe of the place, unsure how receptive to be, for fear of the worst possible outcome of comic-con line-wait chatter, which is being stuck next to someone who wants to tell you all about how everyone gets it wrong nowadays and nothing’s been good since Mike Barr did Outsiders and let him explain what’s so great about Geo-Force in detail…
The correspondent’s fears were unfounded. In line, and later in multiple Twitter-engineered impromptu get-togethers, no one he met seemed to want to talk much about comic books on the first day. Jobs, hometowns, music, technology, standards of living, fashion, travel—it became easy for the correspondent to forget that he was at a comic book convention, even a wildly unconventional con like this one. The entire process reminded him of the first few days in his dorm at art school, when no one was sure anyone else shared their idiosyncratic passions, so they made sure to connect along other pathways first. Tellingly, the correspondent’s first comics discussion came in the room of another pair of guests, where all parties involved were stinking drunk in preparation for MorrisonCon’s opening concert, jabbering about Matt Fraction and The Invisibles and sketch collecting.
With lax security on that opening night, the only thing that stood a chance of keeping people out of the Body English nightclub was the grotesque casino drink prices. That barrier was as flimsy as expected, and hundreds of con-goers, from the sharp-suited types promised in the con manifesto, to the casual baseball-cap schlubs like your correspondent, crammed onto the dance floor. When Grant Morrison hit the stage, delivering a fevered, sometimes unintelligible invocation over beats by members of My Chemical Romance, the correspondent noted that Morrison had truly become an indie cult rock god—like all such modestly-revered figures, his stage presence was given tribute in the form of a densely packed crowd of white people, arms folded, not dancing.
Akira the Don performed a jabber of a set before the club emptied out around one, leaving the guests to filter into their own parties and adventures—energized, Morrison’s rant/spell/short-story having convinced the room that it was some kind of orgone box for a while. Your correspondent’s hangover was so bad that he woke up already crying. Similar reports of overindulgence made him feel less alone in the crowd.
Photo ©Pat Loika — check out his Flickr set for all the MorrisonCon photos you need.
MorrisonCon occupied one hallway and two large conference rooms, roughly equidistant between the jangle of the casino and the bass of the pool party. One conference room, the main stage, was just that: a dais with a big screen and two couches, surrounded by hundreds of just-comfortable-enough chairs, the lights dimmed. This is where the panels happened, and where everyone piled up for Saturday’s succession of events. Across the hall was the lounge, which had tables and mini-bars, along with smaller rooms used for autograph signings, a modest original-art gallery, and a movie theater playing a Morrison-curated mini-festival. Between the two lurked DC executive Dan DiDio, who often appeared to be strolling aimlessly, as if method-writing Phantom Stranger stories.
The panels at MorrisonCon will be recapped everywhere and anywhere, bones scraped dry of news bits and then licked up and down just to make sure there’s not even a taste left. What interested your correspondent more than the product news was the tone of the whole enterprise.
When Chris Burnham’s art for future issues of Batman Incorporated was put up on the screen, Burnham, Frank Quitely and Morrison spent their time picking over things like the way in which Burnham had drawn objects in motion, rather than hard-sell plot-tease hype-jobs. Without corporate minders, creators marveled at the craft and process of creation, and their enthusiasm was infectious. MorrisonCon panels were fun. The world of comics learned nothing of strategic import from Darick Robertson and Jim Lee having a laughing argument about the merits of Superman vs. Muhammad Ali, and yet those in attendance got something a little weird and special: a glimpse at how these guys behaved when removed from the creator/fan dynamic of the typical con. Many Tweeting con-goers came away raving about how they now felt empowered to make their own comics and tell their own stories, and that wave of excitement grew from being able to see the exalted ones step out from the marketing-oriented news-site interviews and Artist’s Alley tables and just be themselves. The correspondent’s life remained as yet unchanged, but he could sense many others around him ascending.
It helped that there seemed to be one of every animal, so to speak—no matter what sort of fan attended, he or she could probably find a creator to relate to. There was the mischievous and slightly camp Morrison himself, holding court until his voice hit the rocks. There was Quitely, often sitting and watching Morrison go while contributing only a cheshire-cat grin, but charming, funny, and humble when he felt he had something to say. J.H. Williams III dressed like a mafia don and spoke like a hip professor. Jonathan Hickman cut right to the heart of whatever topic was at hand, using his laconic, acerbic humor to discard any pompous mystery about making comics. And so on, from the shy but honest way Jason Aaron handled himself, all the way through to Robertson’s boundless excitement and non-stop patter. Every nerd, geek, fan, and poor normal soul could look at the stage and see a personality they could relate to, one they wanted to achieve, or both. The correspondent meditated on this for a while and slowly felt himself coming around, which he kept in check by thinking about how, if shorn of his beard, Robert Kirkman would look like the world’s toughest twelve-year-old.
Around mid-day the correspondent took a break from the panels to wander the other half of the show and talk to people. (He apparently missed screenwriter Max Landis having a manic episode, and did not feel too broken up about it.) Even at three in the afternoon, the lounge was nearly empty, and resembled the saddest high school prom in human memory. The cinema room, which James Sime had touted in his opening address, was populated by one man, standing—not even sitting—and staring very intently at The Exorcist III. More engaging was the art gallery room, where there was a permanent crowd around a table where Wendy Williams, charming wife of J.H., had book after book of stunning original pages on display, some not even published. As the day wore on, more people spread around, clutching hardcover MorrisonCon program books so that they could thrust them at whatever Sharpie-bearing guest they stumbled upon.
Your correspondent drifted back into thinking about the advertised life-changes of the con when he shared an elevator with another attendee who seemed totally uninterested in casual conversation or eye contact. “Well,” the correspondent thought, “at least some things are the same as at normal comic shows.” Feeling as if he’d gotten one-up on the promises of MorrisonCon, the correspondent returned to his room to grab a few things he’d brought for Frank Quitely to sign at some designated hour. In the elevator down, Eurythmics’ “Missionary Man” played, a title shared with one of Quitely’s Judge Dredd Megazine strips. The correspondent struggled not to make something of it. He got in line, had a few minutes’ pleasant conversation, asked Quitely what the show was like from a special-guest perspective, versus Baltimore or whatever. “Eh, it’s great,” Quitely said with a shrug and a grin. The correspondent shook Quitely’s hand and milled out into the hallway, where just past the threshold of MorrisonCon turf, a woman in a bikini cartwheeled down the corridor. Your correspondent was no longer certain of his victory.
By Sunday, everyone was comfortable with each other and the overall enterprise. Conversations flowed more freely and candor reigned. Burnham spent an hour doing speed sketches in front of a crowd—after having spent all day sketching on Saturday—and it was only when he responded with a terse “no” to someone’s request for a stripping Wonder Woman that your correspondent realized just how absent sleaze was. Despite taking place in a hotel whose lobby features live dancing girls, MorrisonCon may have been the most female-friendly con the correspondent had ever seen. The correspondent has seen firsthand the alienating effect comic shows have on some women: artists reeling in attention with splashy tit banners, fans collecting sketches of She-Hulk in the green, dirty old men using their cameraphones to snap zoomed-in ass shots of oblivious Poison Ivy cosplayers. Hormones still coursed through the collective blood, but in a shared, healthy way, inasmuch as dirty jokes are healthier than sexploitation.
The correspondent talked to people who said they were very socially awkward but had found it easier and easier to come out of their shells at MorrisonCon. He spoke to aspiring superhero comic writers, independent creators with their foot in the door, and fans just there for a good time. He was amazed by the lack of negativity—when he and another attendee had a drunken back-and-forth about the silliness of Power Girl’s peekaboo bust-hole, both parties came away willing to see the other’s point of view, in stark contrast to every single discussion about comics that has ever taken place on any part of the Internet, ever. He sat between two people as one leaned over him to explain to the other exactly why Wonder Woman and Batwoman would make a good couple. The worst complaint he could find—and for a time, he actively looked, trying to bait people into bitching—was that Akira the Don drew a mustache and glasses on the image of Morrison in the middle of someone’s poster.
That mistrust of untempered enthusiasm that your correspondent had clung to was ebbing away, section by section. There was no great snap lightning moment of revelation. It happened over time, as his concept of fandom—something myopic and obsessive and uncritical, and as such both boring and grating—was turned over by the willingness of these fans to accept so much, and give out so much of themselves in turn. The correspondent thought back to other conventions he’d gone to, where he’d rolled his eyes and sighed with annoyance at people taking too long to get to their panel questions. Very few people rolled their eyes here. When people got into their life stories to contextualize their questions for Grant Morrison or Jason Aaron or whoever, it wasn’t disconnected rambling, it was women and men wanting to share parts of themselves with creators who were willing to accept them.
On Sunday, one panel acted as a giant workshop, where the attendees attempted to, between themselves and guided by pros, fashion a pitch for a revised, modern Little Nemo story. Your correspondent didn’t stay for the whole thing, as he was starting to get a little freaked out by the sheer amount of ideas for making Little Nemo soul-crushingly depressing (comas, autism, an elderly Nemo clinging to his childhood dreams), but early on, one woman who worked in education pitched the idea of Nemo’s school life being involved, in a voice that quivered and made it obvious she was near to the point of tears, and that this wasn’t just a tossed-off what-if but a concept that was integral to her life. During another question and answer session, one retailer asking a question could barely contain his anger at his own customers for not taking chances on intelligent, offbeat books. Even the man himself, Grant Morrison, couldn’t keep himself composed as he ranted about his disdain for Simon Cowell and the all-consuming “Meh.”
Usually, when departing a show, your correspondent is selfish. He’ll come away gleeful that he got a certain sketch, that he saw a certain panel and heard certain news thirty seconds before it hit Twitter, that he shook certain hands. The swag at MorrisonCon was nice—a thirty-second Williams Batwoman sketch for a friend, and a hand-written “THE FACT IS” card by Quitely, both on Hard Rock Hotel notepaper—and the news was exciting. Still, they felt less important than the process of reflecting on how, in a weekend, a community had formed. Other attendees took to social media raving about how it had been the greatest time of their lives, a leap forward in this or that, blah blah. Your correspondent found himself dredging up abandoned projects from years ago, suddenly motivated by that shared (and previously taboo) enthusiasm to take another whack at them. His life had changed by a measure of butterfly wingflaps. He had not become a chaos magician, or gained superpowers, or immanentized the Eschaton, but he came away from MorrisonCon with a lot to think about as he stared out of the window of the cab, at the Luxor, that great robot’s tit.
LTZ resides in Boston, and regularly makes a fool of himself at nowherenoformats.com and @less_than_zero.
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.