DR. BLASPHEMY'S WILD RIDE
The first convention I ever went to -- I must have been about 17 -- was in Albany, NY. It was a little Holiday Inn show, and next to the longboxes and Super Powers action figures packed into the single, relatively small room, there sat a single professional creator: Mr. Rick Veitch, who had just left DC after the infamous "Swamp Thing" Jesus blowout.
As my brother (the future Television's Ryan Callahan, but a mere child of 12 at the time) scored a sweet deal on a VG copy of "Captain America" #100, Veitch drew me a sketch.
"Who do you want?" asked Veitch.
Though I had been a "Swamp Thing" reader since the end of the Alan Moore run (weirdly enough, I started with his final issue, and then went back to fill in the rest after a few years of back-issue hunting), and I even had a letter printed in Veitch's final issue (I don't remember the details of the letter, but I'm sure it was something along the lines of "why are you so awesome, Rick Veitch?" and "Tatjana Wood colors real good, don't she?"), I didn't particularly want a Swamp Thing sketch. It seemed too obvious, and maybe I was a little afraid to ask Veitch to draw the character he just left behind in protest.
So I had him draw whatever he wanted, and what he wanted to draw was a new character from his upcoming "Bratpack" series, a villain by the name of Dr. Blasphemy. Blasphemy, with his zipper-and-leather mask fetish gear, was a striking image, though Veitch accidentally misspelled the name of the character as "Dr. BlaSHphemy" when he signed it at the bottom. He noticed his own mistake right away, but as he told me, "it will just make it more collectible." (Though I might as well point out that I later received another sketch from Veitch a few years ago, and he spelled Chameleon Boy's name wrong on that one. So I'm two-for-two in the Veitch misspelling collectible jackpot market.)
I don't really remember what I bought at my first convention other than that sketch -- I think I picked up some cheap issues of the not-very-good Bronze Age "Joker" series, and I can't shake the feeling that I bought a copy of First Comics' "Squalor" #1 there as well -- but I certainly had a great time meeting Veitch and getting my very own, ultra-rare error variant of the Blasphemy sketch. I loved that little Albany convention.
So much so that I didn't go to another comic book convention for 14 years.
Okay, that's not exactly true. It is true that I didn't go to another convention until fourteen years later, but my long convention drought had more to do with…Life Getting In The Way. There was college, with nary a convention around, not that I had money to go to one anyway, then marriage, a career, a detour in the best-forgotten realm in competitive Magic: the Gathering, the birth of my son. Plus, the bulk of that conventionless span was during the 1990s, and other than a few Tundra comics, some Dark Horse titles, Vertigo stuff, and anything written by Alan Moore or Grant Morrison, I wasn't reading all that many comics anyway. It's not like I was clamoring to meet Steve Kurth or Tom Grummett or anything (no offense to Steve Kurth or Tom Grummett, but would I have gotten anything on the level of a misspelled Dr. Blasphemy sketch from either of them?).
So it's only been the past five years since I've been going to conventions regularly. And the one I attended fourteen years after that fateful Albany show, the one that was my second convention ever? San Diego Comic Con. Yeah, that was a little different. And at least there I got a Matt Wagner Grendel sketch and Corey Lewis's magic marker Ninjawolf.
Since then, the New York Comic Con has exploded into an east coast San Diego but with something called weather, and San Diego has exploded into Woodstock for geek Hollywood but with more slave Leias and less hippies.
In such a convention landscape, is there any place for an old-fashioned Albany Comic Con at the Holiday Inn? How can Albany compete with Dan DiDio's slideshows or Zack Snyder's widescreen previews of the awesome? Does Albany even have room for an Owlship? Where would it land?
ALBANY COMIC CON REDUX
It turns out that Albany didn't even have a comic book convention for many of the intervening years between my Rick Veitch encounter and my return to the land of the con-goers. Not even a small, single-room motel show. The relatively strong fan community in the Albany area let the convention tradition slip away over the years, and it just stopped being an annual event.
Until 2008, when John Belskis brought the Albany Comic Con back to life. I went to the first new show, back in the spring of last year, and it was a nice little event. It was small, like that Rick Veitch convention all those years ago, and I didn't find anything in the longboxes that I didn't already own or wanted to pay that much money for, but I got to see Todd DeZago again and meet Ron Marz for the first time. And it was a show that I thought I'd return to in the future.
So I was pleasantly surprised when, out of the internet blue, I received a letter from that very same John Belskis, who I'd never met, asking me if I'd like to moderate the first-ever New Albany Comic Con panel on… well, he didn't really know. He just wanted to know if I was interested. Indeed, I was, especially when he started to throw around possible participants like Fred Hembeck and Herb Trimpe and Ron Marz. He wanted to do something that brought in a few webcomics creators too. I proposed "Comics and the New Media," which would allow us to talk old-school comics with the Hembecks and Trimpes of the world, and discuss the onslaught of comic book superhero movies with everyone, and then find out about this whole newfangled webcomics thing that the kids are all into these days.
Except, after a few back-and-forth e-mails, I was told that the potential panel guests didn't like the topic and wanted something more general. More general than talking about comics and movies and the internet? "Okay," I told them, "I'll just show up, we'll see who wants to do the panel, and then we'll wing it from there." No matter who showed up, no matter what we talked about, it had to be better than those big convention promotional panels in which some editor mentions comics that are sure to hit the stores someday and then calls upon the writers and artists to say something witty without actually giving away anything about the content of the stories. "And M.O.D.O.K. may make an appearance," someone says, and the fans go crazy, except for one guy in the M.O.D.O.K. costume who gets up and yells, "yeah, but will it be the real M.O.D.O.K.?!?" And then some other writer on the panel shouts out, "no, this time it's the Mental Organism Designed Only for Knitting." Cue wild roars of approval. Etc.
No, our panel wouldn't be like that, although now that I think about it, an all-M.O.D.O.K. panel would have a certain appeal. Maybe next year.
This year, though, as I made my way to Albany on Sunday morning to moderate the still-undecided Panel on Comics, I invited along a non-M.O.D.O.K.-related guest: Mr. Lawrence Klein, famous to you and me as the founder of the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, aka MoCCA (or, for the sake of running a joke into the ground, a Mental Organism Capable of Comic Awesomeness).
Klein curated a Joe Staton exhibit in my hometown last summer, and he has a Scott Hanna show planned for this August, so we talked a bit about that on the drive over to the Capital District. Really, though, we were just excited to get out of our respective houses. Two dads on a road trip. Bring on the Albany Comic Con!
When we arrived at the Holiday Inn on Wolf Road, only thirty minutes after the convention doors opened, the place was already bustling. It seems every convention this year seems to come with the same report: the tough economic times doesn't seem to be keeping THESE people away. And that was certainly true here as well. It was a tiny venue, sure, and I have no idea how much money people were spending (for the record, I ended up buying not a single thing, but I found plenty of great deals -- and I was tempted to assemble a "Master of Kung-Fu" set from the plentiful cheap-o bins -- it's just that I have no place to put the comics I already own, and until I figure that out, I have vowed to stick with just the ten kazillion new comics I buy on a weekly basis), but the place was hopping with all kind of fans. Young. Old. Jango Fett.
It was about three times more crowded than last year, based on my unofficial and wildly inaccurate visual survey.
Since we had a couple of hours to kill before the supposed-distinctly-non-M.O.D.O.K. panel, Klein went off to get a stack of comics signed, and I looked for Ron Marz. Clearly, he would know what was going on with the panel, since he is a man of the world and was instrumental in dragging me into this whole thing to begin with by mentioning my name to John Belskis. And by "dragging me into this," I, of course, mean "honoring me with the privilege of doing free work on behalf of the greater comic book good."
But Marz didn't know anything either. Eh, we'd figure it out.
I did ask him about Virgin Comics, though, since he was a writer and editor for that company before they shut the doors on the operation last summer. As everyone remembers, their timing of the "hey, we're going out of business" announcement was pretty strange, coming right after a series of big-time promotional panels at San Diego with Grant Morrison and Stan Lee. But Marz told me something which I haven't heard elsewhere (though it was probably reported, and I just wasn't paying attention). He said that Virgin's Richard Branson was to help finance a start-up for three years, and if it wasn't making a profit by that point, he was going to pull the plug, and last summer was the end of the three year free ride. Marz said that Virgin made the same mistakes plenty of other companies had -- and since he'd been part of the CrossGen debacle, he "knew how this story was going to end" with the rapid overexpansion of the line.
Marz, by the way, had a table at the convention that was either prime real estate or the worst placement ever, depending on how you look at it. Set up at a right-angle to Joe Sinnott's table, Marz had an endless line of fans blocking anyone from seeing him (Sinnott had the longest lines at the show, though Herb Trimpe and Fred Hembeck had a constant stream of visitors lining up all day as well). It was impossible for anyone to stand in line to wait to talk to Marz. You had to wait in Sinnott's line to get near the Marz table, or squeeze between the line and the table, or punch your way through the legions of Sinnot fans. Or all of the above. Maybe it was great for Marz, though. Maybe those guys lining up for signatures on their old "Fantastic Four" issues were bigtime "Witchblade" fans, or at least Kyle Rayner aficionados. Did Marz ever write a M.O.D.O.K. story? I'll have to ask him that at next year's panel.
Other sights and sounds before the 2009 Albany Comic Con "Comics and the New Media" panel that really didn't have a definite guest list and/or topic, really: Poison Ivy and Black Canary, looking for other costumed characters to hang out with so they didn't feel as ridiculous; a full-size R2-D2 radio controlled robot bopping around; Vader, Darth; a discussion with comic book pro wrangler Rocco Nigro and blogger/radio man Alan David Doane about John Byrne, Rob Liefeld, and Jeff Jones; comic books -- lots and lots of comic books.
So, the Panel!
It ended up being the perfect-sized room, with just enough chairs for everyone (basically). Obviously, once word gets out about the focus for next year, we'll have to quadruple the size of the venue, but for a makeshift, first-time-ever-at-Albany-Comic-Con improvised panel, it was perfect. And I was smart enough to bring a voice recorder, so I could faithfully capture the wit and wisdom of our now-confirmed guests: Webcomics creator Eric Kimball! Top Cow exclusive Ron Marz! Brother Voodoo enthusiast Fred Hembeck! The Legendary First Guy to Ever Draw a Wolverine Story plus a Million other Silver Age Comics Herb Trimpe!
Oh, but my voice recorder was loaded with dead batteries, apparently. Good to find that out during the opening moments of the panel.
The panel did end up covering comics and the new media, for whatever that's worth, but it was mostly just a chance for all of us assembled in that room to hang out with four very different comic book creators and talk about stuff. And these were four guys you would have wanted to hang out with. They all had opinions, they all had stories. We ended up talking about the early days of Marvel comics and the newest trends in online distribution (I'd say that's pretty wide-ranging) and tying it all together sometimes.
Trimpe talked about how much he loved working in the Marvel Method, and said the best part -- by far -- of drawing comics was taking that plot outline and turning it into a full story. His take on whether or not he "created" Wolverine, since the "Hulk" story in which the character first appeared was written by Len Wein and the costume was first drawn by John Romita, Sr: "Wolverine is like Frankenstein. The monster was constructed and I got to bring it to life." And he also mentioned that Romita never liked to take any credit for the creation of Wolverine at all, but whenever Romita would say that he just came up with the costume, Trimpe would reply, "but, John, the costume is the character."
The whole opening section of the panel was basically a Q&A between Hembeck and Trimpe, and they played off each other nicely.
I won't go into a blow-by-blow account of everything we talked about during that hour of Albany Comic Con glory -- you should have been there to see it for yourself! -- but we got a bit from Trimpe about how he felt about the recent Phantom Eagle Marvel Max series (loves Howard Chaykin, but thinks he got most of the airplane stuff wrong), how everyone on the panel felt about superhero movies (love them, mostly, because they help raise awareness of the characters and allow the publishers to keep making more comics), and some comments on editorial influence -- Hembeck was never affected by editorial interference at all with his work, and Trimpe never was, either, back in the Stan Lee days. He says everything changed when Marvel was sold in 1968, and I think it would be pretty interesting to overlay Marvel's corporate history with the history of its creations. By 1968, almost every major Marvel character had been created -- the ones that are still popular today, with a few exceptions.
And the panel ended with Marz and Kimball debating the relationship between a writer and his audience. Kimball, who gets immediate feedback from fans as the creator of various webcomics, says that he can tell which characters are popular based on the number of hits and comments, and so if he kills off a character and the hits go way down, he knows that he should think about bringing that character back. Marz took offense to that position, saying that, as a writer, he doesn't particularly care what the audience thinks in the short term. He's working in service of the story he's telling, not working to satisfy the whims of a fickle audience. Hembeck and Trimpe chimed in at times, but it was really the Marz and Kimball show at the end, and the discussion could have gone on for long after I called the panel to a close. And, it kind of did, with Marz staying in the panel room for another twenty minutes, talking to fans.
It was a success all around, even if we didn't know what we were going to talk about when we started. Even with nary a M.O.D.O.K. -- or a Dr. Blasphemy, for that matter -- to be found.
As MoCCA's Lawrence Klein and I headed back to Massachussetts, we agreed that indeed there is a place for a show like the Albany Comic Con in the 21st century convention landscape. With the small press shows and art festivals on one end, and the enormous media events like New York and San Diego on the other, Albany Comic Con sits off to the side, comfortable with what it is: a gaggle of longboxes and a handful of pros, ready and willing to celebrate comics.
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.
You can also follow Tim on Twitter: @gbfiremelon
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