Permanent Damage: Issue #304

Wed, August 1st, 2007 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

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San Diego left me dragged out, but what a rush. More packed than ever, but more action and enthusiasm, too. As mentioned elsewhere, Friday-Sunday were all sold out, but I also heard convention capacity was 160,000 so total draw all those days should be in that range. Sunday used to be a dead day, so that's a real plus for the con. Preview night on Wednesday, where sales and giveaways moved at a rapid pace, had attendance the equivalent of a Saturday afternoon two years ago, and Saturday has always been the hottest day. Unconfirmed rumor: Amtrak from Los Angeles to San Diego was also sold out much of last week.

It's clear that the nature of the comics convention in America is changing.

I heard it said somewhere along the line, I think it was on a TV news broadcast, that Comic-Con International is now as important to Hollywood as Cannes is, and I had various producers confirm that. It's a good analogy. With all the media present, the previews and special screenings, and San Diego's status as a semi-tropical resort town, the convention did have the feel of a big film festival. (An independent film festival took place under the convention's auspices, but I wouldn't be surprised to see a more Cannes-like film festival, with major releases vying for judges' awards, develop parallel to the convention in the future.) Cannes, less publicly, also functions as a marketplace to bring together films and distributors. Similarly Comic-Con, particularly this year, brought together media producers and comics properties, as producers were sniffing around virtually everything between two covers, especially at smaller companies that might have more unusual series or have not yet nailed down connections. The competition was so intense and interest so high that I wouldn't be surprised if new small companies arise that exist only to show their wares at San Diego, market the properties to Hollywood, then go to distribution only with the properties sold. Of course, that would take an extraordinary amount of intelligence and focus; I imagine most people trying it would lose their shirts. Hollywood's increased scrutiny of the material possibilities found in comics also makes things dodgy for the entrepreneur with dreams of creating comics designed to sell to movies or TV: an approach like that will inevitably leave them half a step behind the media industry, and what the media industry seems to be looking for are those properties that put them half a step ahead of everyone else in the media industry. The only real option for anyone out to profitably put comics and media together as a business plan is to create really interesting, well-drawn comics that are original enough to attract much attention without being so original they scare Hollywood away.

Which is pretty much as saying it's the same crapshoot it is now, so you may as well just do the comics you like and keep your fingers crossed. It's about the same odds either way.

Population density in the dealer's room looked like a big bowl: media collected toward the south end of the hall, toys toward the north, and comics in the middle. North and south were consistent mob scenes, while concentrations in the comics areas were smaller. But not that much smaller. As in recent years, complaints abounded that it was no longer a "comics" show, which isn't quite true; clearly comics still drive the whole thing. So the interest is there, in some form, and the trick is to convert that interest into comics sales. It will probably require abandoning long held but shaky convictions about the nature of the market, especially those involving obsessive continuity. (It's probably no coincidence that DC's sales, predicated on convolutedly intertwined and encyclopedic continuity are starting to lag badly behind Marvel, the premise of whose latest Big Event is no more complicated than "Hulk Smash!" It may not be Chaucer but you can't fault it for lack of accessibility.)

Obviously a sizable portion of the monstrous crowd - for at least three days, the San Diego Convention Center had a greater population than most towns in California - had only passing interest in comics. But they were at least exposed to a lot of comics, to the breadth and variety of them, and there's no telling how many went and dipped their toes in the pool. The fact is that when people can see comics they buy more of them, something a lot of direct market retailers have either forgotten or don't have the resources to accommodate, and San Diego presents an unparalleled possibility for getting people to see comics, as well as interact directly with creators or others motivated to sell those specific comics. Even if only 10% of the general San Diego audience could be convinced to buy your book, that's, rule of thumb, 16,000 new sales - which would almost double the sales of many low end major comics and triple to quintuple the sales of most independent comics.

The big winners at this year's San Diego, though, were the panel discussions. In years past, the second floor auditoriums were often close to ghost towns; attending panels was often treated as an unwelcome diversion from the real business of haunting the dealers room. The autograph area in the upstairs commons was likewise a deadly affair, where faded stars from obscure cult series and movies sat in isolation praying under their breaths that someone would come get their autograph. Not this year. Lines for panel discussions of all stripes wound up and down hallways for hours on end, with lots ultimately turned away. They were worst for Hollywood-related panels, but even relatively esoteric comics panels were well-attended. I never went into the autograph area, because it was consistently a mob scene.

If I heard any recurring complaint, it was that comics companies didn't seem to be making many big announcements, aside from things like Mark Waid becoming editor-in-chief at Boom! Studios. But when you think about it that makes sense. San Diego used to be the optimal moment for Big Comics Announcements. Now it's an optimal moment for Big Media Announcements. Hollywood uses San Diego to generate excitement for forthcoming projects (clearly Paramount is hoping BEOWULF will get the same boost from Comic-Con that 300 did), since it's easy to generate a mood of excitement when you can stream actual footage of a huge crowd going nuts. (Of course, the movie still has to be good, e.g. SNAKES ON A PLANE, which got a huge Comic-Con reception then tanked.)

If San Diego is now Cannes-On-The-Pacific, the New York Comic-Con is now our version of the ABA Convention, and already the second most important convention of the comics year. It's where Real New York Book Publishers, opening new vistas in the graphic novel market, mingle with the regular comics publishers, emphasizing our other, bookstore future. That's now the natural place for companies to make big announcements.

Then there's the list of regional and boutique conventions: MOCCA, Wondercon, Heroes Con, MegaCon, APE, WizardWorld Chicago, and I apologize for those I'm not mentioning. Those like MOCCA and APE have carved out focal niches and made themselves indispensable that way. Others like WizardWorld Chicago and MegaCon, while broader and more traditional in scope, have locked down their particular region by steady build and by recognizing and playing to the special conditions of their markets. Regional anime conventions feed the anime/manga markets.

Which may be why Wizard has had so much trouble expanding their convention business. A couple years ago, it seemed they were geared to do what Creation Con did in the '80s: franchise essentially identical conventions to various markets in a one-size fits all mentality that gets off to a good start but peters out through repetition and redundancy. You can see it in the WizardWorld conventions already. Whereas Creation Cons ended up centered around Star Trek, Wizard has always sold their cons more or less on the strength of Marvel's name. But the con they bought in Chicago was already established as the region's "trademark" convention, and the same might be said about the one they run in Texas. Conversely, the novelty of WizardWorld Los Angeles already seems to have worn off (it's an odd thing about Hollywood, but moving the convention to the Los Angeles Convention Center makes it less appealing to them, not more). It's no coincidence that Southern California is San Diego Con territory. Likewise, WizardWorld's attempt to open Philadelphia is probably hampered by the New York Comic Con having already established itself as the preeminent comics convention of the Northeast, the same way Heroes Con cripple their expansion plans into that region. Despite Marvel still monopolizing direct market sales, if you don't factor manga in, the comics market has grown too broad and diverse for Marvelcentric conventions to get much of a foothold anymore. It may still be the dominant American comics company, but it no longer dominates. Things have just gotten too weird for that.

Not that Marvel needs to dominate. You can view them as a niche publisher, like all other comics publishers, but it's a pretty big niche and it's solidly theirs. All they have to do is continue to dominate their niche. (WizardWorld Chicago is arguably the preeminent superhero comics convention in the country, but is there room or need for another one?)

At any rate, the real lesson from this year's San Diego isn't that we've been assimilated, it's that we can easily assimilate without losing the qualities that make comics great because what they want from comics is what makes comics great, because that's what they're now hoping will rub off on them, and that assimilation can be fun. For the first time in a long time, San Diego this year was less of a chore and more of a celebration.

I'm still too burned out to write much else today, but a couple more notes:

Passing Mike Baron & Scott Beiser (my artist and publisher on ODYSSEUS THE REBEL, Warren Ellis, Lee Nordling and Frank Miller (not at the same time) like ships in the night. But San Diego is no longer a place to have impromptu chats under most circumstances, unless it's at the quiet time of evening when there are no pressing commitments. (I did have a long, entertaining chat with Steve Rude under those conditions.)

There are still parties - much better ones, really - at San Diego, but the guest lists are now tightly enforced almost everywhere. I only ended up going to a couple. The BEOWULF party after the screening was at a terrific venue, a classy open air rooftop restaurant with plenty of bars and a very pleasant atmosphere (as well as teeny hamburgers for snacks). The Avatar/Atomic Comics party for Warren Ellis was in an Italian place, which followed the obnoxious but widespread practice of playing the music louder the louder people were talking. (Other than that, and bartenders who preferred to ignore customers, it was a very nice place and a good party.) Many people were driven outside, where Warren himself sat (the better to smoke to his heart's content, since smoking is verboten in California bars), but I finally figured out why they do that. People screaming at the top of their lungs to be heard over music order more drinks, to soothe their throats. I skipped the couple other parties I'd been invited to, because if you wanted to see people, they almost always congregated at the Hyatt Bar(s) after 11:30 PM. But that turned out to no longer be the case this year; the main lobby Hyatt bar was almost always packed well before 11, and the volume level got intense very early on. Again many people were driven out front, and even there it got loud. But that's the nature of convention hotel bars.

Each year at San Diego is either a hero or pariah year for me, and I can never tell which until I get there. This year was a hero year; I don't think I've ever had so many people rush to shake my hand and tell me how influential my work was. Which is always an interesting experience, since most of my work isn't well known (or, I'd argue, well done) enough to be influential. (One guy told me he greatly admired my work, and I had to restrain the impulse to say, "That's funny, I don't.") But it was great meeting and reacquainting with all sorts of people, especially people like Mike Ploog, Charlie Adlard, Brian Stelfreeze, Jason Pearson, Cully Hamner and Rafael Albuquerque; I even seem to have gotten a couple deals out of it all, for a change. But that's for another story. Lots of interesting giveaways this year, like the thumb drive IFC was giving out if you watched a show at their booth. I thought it was a decorative fake as a keychain but, no, it's real.

I'd especially like to thank the hard-creating guys at The Antidote Trust, who generously let me sit in one of the plush chairs at their booth to my heart's content, despite me bringing nothing to the table. Pay them back for me by checking out their site.

Lots going on now, but I'm out of time and energy for the week. Back to business, as well as a new Comics Cover Challenge and the solution to last week's next week, and sorry there's none this week. I know I'm forgotten a lot of things from the convention, so we'll get around to those next week too, but in the meantime here's a great old western strip by the great John Severin and Will Elder, in honor of the western I just signed on to do. But more on that later.

Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it's not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They're no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don't really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read.

IMPORTANT PUBLIC NOTICE OF COLUMN POLICY: any email received in response to a piece run in this column is considered a letter of comment available for printing in the column unless the author specifically indicates it is not intended for public consumption. Unless I check with you or the contents of your e-mail make your identity unavoidably obvious, all letters are run anonymously.

Please don't ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.

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I'm reviewing comics sent to me - I may not like them but certainly I'll mention them - at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send 'em if you want 'em mentioned, since I can't review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can't do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.

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