When Words Collide

Wed, February 11th, 2009 at 2:28pm PST | Updated: February 11th, 2009 at 3:51pm

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

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NYCC VS. THE UNIVERSE

The Hot Gates of New York Comic Con

After four years, the New York Comic Con has developed into an east coast San Diego, minus the perfect weather and the gigantic Hollywood presence. NYCC is still a comic convention where the comics come first, for whatever that's worth -- and I tend to think that's worth a lot, even if the post-"Final Crisis" void has left me feeling a little less enthusiastic about mainstream superhero comics than I was last year.

I'll read the "Final Crisis: Aftermath" comics, and I'm looking forward to seeing more Marvel work from Jonathan Hickman, Rick Remender, and the usual suspects like Matt Fraction, Ed Brubaker, and Jason Aaron. The Vertigo Crime lineup sounds spiffy. Geoff Johns will surely produce more superhero fun in 2009.

But the talk of the show -- the talk that wasn't mere gossip or complaints -- was Bryan Lee O'Malley's "Scott Pilgrim" Volume 5. I'll probably devote a future column to the splendor of O'Malley's manga/video game/romance/action mash-up, but there's no doubt that "Scott Pilgrim" is one of the great comics of this decade. Like Matt Fraction, Gabriel Ba, and Fabio Moon's "Casanova," "Scott Pilgrim" takes its influences and recombines them to magical effect, pointing the way toward comics of the future.

The new, shiny, sparkly "Scott Pilgrim" book was my first purchase at the Con this year, and it was the only thing I bothered to read over what ended up being a jam-packed weekend.

Signing Scott Pilgrim

I bumped into critic Douglas Wolk on the first day of the show, and as he always does, he asked, "what looks good? What new stuff should I know about?" Now if you've read any of Wolk's writing, you know that he reads pretty much everything, and it's hard to imagine that there's anything he doesn't at least know about in the world of comics. So I didn't even bother trying to pretend that I had a line on some brilliant obscure comic he hadn't yet heard of. I just said, "Scott Pilgrim, Volume 5." That was the only thing that seemed to matter to me during those opening hours of the convention, and after spending a weekend in New York, I certainly didn't find anything that came close to supplanting it as the Book of the Show -- possibly even the very-early-to-say-but-that-won't-stop-me Book of the Year.

But I didn't just walk around like zombie all weekend mumbling "Scott Pilgrim" to the unsuspecting costumed citizens who shambled by. It was a Comic Con. I had adventures, even without my erstwhile companion, Television's Ryan Callahan. (For the record, the first thing Matt Fraction said to me this year was, "are you with Television's Ryan Callahan?" And when I replied, "no, he's off filming 'The Cougar' for TV Land," Fraction scoffed, "sellout.")

Not that I flew entirely solo on this one, since the wife and children who make up Clan Callahan did join me on Sunday for Kid's Day at NYCC. But I did have two days of just wandering around relatively aimlessly before they arrived. Days filled with adventure!

ADVENTURE #1: OSAMU TEZUKA'S DEPRESSION FUNNIES

If you're a regular reader of my blog -- and who isn't?!? -- then you know that I've been dipping into the work of Osamu Tezuka and reading stuff like "Dororo" and "Black Jack" because (a) it's crazy good -- maybe slightly more crazy than good, but I'll take that any day, and (b) my manga ignorance is embarrassing. I've read like twenty manga volumes in my life, compared to, what, 20,000 American comics? Pathetic. So while those scales will never be balanced in my lifetime, at least I'm growing more and more excited by my gradual manga immersion. It gives me something to look forward to reading while Tony Daniel writes "Batman" comics.

So one of the hot spots I looked for in New York was the Vertical booth. When my Grant Morrison book debuted at the 2007 NYCC, the Vertical gang was right beside the Sequart booth. Vertical had a nice display set up back then, with an impressive array of books that looked really cool and I didn't know a whole lot about. I hadn't read much Tezuka at all in those days, and I generally admired the Vertical displays without spending a dime buying any of their stuff.

Tim explains "Tiny Titans" continuity to his son

This year, I brought a big wad of cash to spend on Vertical manga, and…they didn't really have a booth. The did, ostensibly, have a booth. But they didn't really have a booth. They had a table with some display copies on it.

They didn't have piles and piles of stuff for sale. They had almost nothing, and their signs were makeshift, marker-on-white-paper, sub-garage sale versions. I know Vertical has had some financial struggles in the past few months, but though I'm no business expert, I'm pretty sure that the public image of a company is essential to its financial well-being.

Hell, Virgin Comics had a nice-looking booth and a line-up of impressive panels at San Diego last year, just weeks before they closed up shop. Vertical, in New York, had a table with a handful of books and a few hand-lettered "signs." It doesn't look good, and that's too bad, because I've just started to become a huge fan of their books. Too little too late I suppose, but I sincerely hope not. I hope it's just a case of shifting their priorities elsewhere and deciding against wasting time and money on a big NYCC presence when the convention isn't as manga-friendly as it once seemed. TokyoPop was there, and there was a bit of manga was to be had in the nooks and crannies, but NYCC is definitely a mainstream American comic book show. A bit of manga, no Fantagraphics, no AdHouse, no IDW. Just a whole lot of yelling and cheering at the Marvel booth and a lot of people milling around endless Watchmen trailers at the DC booth. Video game booths, with lights and sounds and hucksters. And, of course, endless rows of dealers selling their wares.

Other that the new "Scott Pilgrim," the only books I bought all weekend were Paul Pope's "Heavy Liquid" Hardcover (at 50% off), "Essential Man-Thing" Volume 1 (for five bucks, and because I have a hankering for anything Steve Gerber and I've held out long enough on this book), and the first four volumes of "Path of the Assassin" (five bucks each, too). I've read a bunch of (though not all) "Lone Wolf and Cub" books, and the same creative team's take on the Hattori Hanzo legend was something I couldn't pass up, even though I had no clue that's what "Path of the Assassin" was about until I read the back cover of Volume 1 on Saturday. Manga ignorance is a sad thing, I tell you.

But that's it. That's all I bought all weekend. I didn't even flip through a single long box or discount bin. Depression economics or slim pickings, I don't know. But early reports indicate that attendance was up this year and sales were healthy. I'm more likely to believe the former than the latter.

ADVENTURE #2: THE INVISIBLE LOUNGE

The indignity of waiting in line

I didn't spend a lot of time at the Sequart booth this year -- next time I'll be smarter about the whole thing and post my specific signing schedule, instead of just randomly sitting behind the table and hearing "oh, some guy stopped by wondering when you'd be back" -- but that was mostly because Patrick Meaney, rising star comic book scholar, was manning the table all weekend to promote his new book on "The Invisibles." "Our Sentence is Up" is Patrick's 250-page-plus analysis of Grant Morrison's most ambitious and deeply personal series. It won't be out until the fall, but Patrick was promoting the heck of it all weekend, and I'm looking forward to reading the whole thing.

With Patrick and Sequart editorial/publishing team Mike Phillips and Julian Darius taking care of the booth, I was able to wander almost all day Saturday, and I kept bumping into Jason Aaron who told me top-secret details about his upcoming run on a Marvel ongoing (which means Aaron will be writing four comics a month later this year, not including any one-shots and specials that might come out). I can't reveal anything about the series Aaron will be taking over, but I guarantee that you'll be happy when you find out, and then when you hear what he has planned, the internet will go crazy with excitement. And, no, it's not a Marvel Max version of "NFL Superpro," even though that would be an awesome choice.

I also kept visiting the NYCC "Professional Lounge," mostly to snag some bottled water and sit down for a few minutes, but I brought my lunch in there too, and I had an interesting conversation with a St. John's psychology professor who was at the con to study the behavior of the attendees. She was also there because her daughter was a giant anime and manga freak (and I hope she wasn't disappointed by the lack of that kind of stuff at the show), but the professor spent her time at the con observing the "victimization" behavior of the people walking around. She wasn't just talking about the fans in costumes, by the way. She explained to me that people at a show like NYCC walk around without their usual defense mechanisms up. They aren't aware of their surroundings and they become myopic, fixated on a few isolated details. A kind of tunnel vision. She attributed the behavior to group mentality, to a loss of self, but it sounds to me like the cliché of the comic book reader: the fan who fixates on a few minor story details at the expense of a broader contextual perspective. Maybe fan behavior at conventions is just normal readership behavior, but in public. Or maybe it's just a bunch of people looking for cool stuff and ignoring the people around them.

On my way out of the lounge after one quick water break, I walked to the DC booth with Kevin Colden of IDW's "Fishtown" and Zuda's "I Rule the Night." DC does a nice job featuring the Zuda creators at these conventions, setting up signing schedules and displaying promotional artwork. Zuda feels like it's been around forever, but compared to the rest of the DC line, it's still in its infancy. The quality of the Zuda material is inconsistent, with relatively amateurish comics "competing" against high-quality work like "Bayou" and "High Moon." I've said it before, but I think once the Zuda collected editions start to hit shelves, people will stand up and take notice of some of the really great work that Zuda is helping to produce right now. The online reading experience is still pretty lame, and the interface at the Zuda site is less than ideal, but the act of turning some of these comics into nice bound volumes will help to point out the best of the Zuda work. I'd like to see Colden's "I Rule the Night" end up with that printed treatment, and I think it will, since it's got some calculated mainstream appeal. It's basically Colden's twisted version of a post-Batman crime story, in which the brutally violent sidekick has to patrol the streets alone. It may sound a bit too much like what's planned for the regular Batman line later this year, but I know Colden has been working on this project for a long time, and his unique, edgy slant looks nothing like "Battle for the Cowl."

ADVENTURE #3: THE DOCTOR IS IN

Zuda Action Time with Colden and Haspiel

So in addition to my newly rekindled interest in manga, I've also become obsessed with the newish "Doctor Who." In one of my "When Words Collide" columns from a month or two ago, I mentioned something about not understanding why anyone would find "Doctor Who" interesting -- probably when I was praising the comic book work of Paul Cornell. A reader took me to task for my "Doctor Who" negativity, saying that any self-respecting Grant Morrison reader should find plenty to like in the adventures of the good Doctor. I reevaluated my illogical Doctor Who prejudice, and sampled some of the recent episodes on BBC America. After just two of them, I became intrigued enough to order a Hong Kong import of seasons 1-4. After watching a handful of those, I became completely hooked on the imaginative scenarios and skillful pacing. "Doctor Who" is a wonderful show, and although I didn't expect it, I quickly found that the show had impacted my son as well. He fell in love with it as much as I did.

So when my wife and kids joined me on Sunday for "Kid's Day" at the NYCC, the first thing Andrew wanted to do was get himself a Dalek. Luckily, the Doctor Who booth had more than a few to choose from, and even feared a special guest shopper in the form of Matt Fraction, who chanted "exterminate" while wielding a Dalek of his own. Fraction, a recent "Doctor Who" convert as well, told us that we had a lot of Who greatness to look forward to since we're still only halfway through the second season right now.

And, apparently, the finale of the fourth season shares more than a few conceptual moments with "Final Crisis." I'll be looking forward to that.

My kids also got a chance to pick up some free "Tiny Titans" issues at the DC booth, and we made sure to stop by and see Art Baltazar and Franco so the kids could get their copies signed. Years ago, way before "Tiny Titans," way before I'd even started writing about comics, I met Art and Franco in San Diego, and I loved the look of "Patrick, the Wolf Boy." I picked up some "Patrick" comics for my wife, and mentioned to Art that I had to get her something cute from the show because I was in San Diego and she was back in Massachusetts and it was actually our anniversary that day. Art drew her a great Patrick sketch -- for no charge -- featuring a likeness of me poking out of a doghouse in the background. "You're in the doghouse, man," he said, as he handed it to me all those years ago. It's nice to see him have some success with "Tiny Titans," a book which both of my kids love like crazy.

Aw yeah, Art Baltazar.

Aw, Yeah -- Franco and Art

The rest of Kid's Day was a blur, with a race to the "Kid's Zone" for a Mo Willems reading (and if you don't know Mo Willems, then you're missing out on the #1 best childen's book author on the planet). That reading had a peculiar moment when, right in the middle of Willems performing one of his books on stage, a guy walked up to him, causing Willems to pause, thinking that something was wrong. The guy then asked Willems to sign a copy of a book.

"Right now I'm performing in front of ALL OF THESE PEOPLE," said Willems, about as nicely as he possibly could. "I'll be happy to sign it later."

Then the guy walked away, clueless.

Must be that myopia that they're studying at St. John's.

And, later, my kids got a chance to meet the versatile Dean Trippe -- he can draw, he can color, he can write, he can design the best superhero costumes ever -- the man who will one day take over the entire comic book world. He gave them Batman buttons, and that was all they needed to walk away with a smile on their faces.

The depression may have Vertical on the ropes, and a few other publishers with their backs in the corner, but the era of the "New Awesome," ushered in by the likes of Bryan Lee O'Malley, Art Baltazar, Kevin Colden, and Dean Trippe will get us through in the end. And that's all we really need. Or, that's all I have time for, since I have a whole bunch of "Doctor Who" episodes to watch and an eager kid (holding a Dalek) who wants to see them with me.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

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TAGS:  when words collide, zuda, tiny titans

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