A TALE OF TWO (COMIC BOOK) CITIES
I know you've all been inundated with news from the big C2E2 convention over the weekend, but what you might not realize is that the real comic book convention action happened one week earlier, as the MoCCA Art Festival, and the Boston Comic-Con happened simultaneously, causing a rift in spacetime just big enough for me to hit New York and Boston in the same weekend, and giving me a chance to experience the range of the current comic book industry.
Sure, C2E2 may have had announcements aplenty - and, hell yeah, more "Casanova"! It's about time - and the Grant Morrison documentary in which I make a brief appearance may have made its preview debut there, but did C2E2 have Kevin Church and Ming Doyle talking about the virtues of the Jeff Matsuda-designed "The Batman" series from 2004? Did C2E2 have Dash Shaw and Jaime Hernandez signing their new books for you? Did C2E2 have Benjamin Marra giving away prints of Zombie Traci Lords with the purchase of his American Tradition Comics? Did you find "Pood" #1 there?
Maybe so, but I doubt it.
MoCCA and the Boston Comic-Con was where the action was this month. Let's be honest. Also, I couldn't afford to fly out to Chicago. That may have affected my perspective on this a bit.
So what was the MoCCA show like this year? Cooler, definitely. Less sweaty. And seemingly less crowded. I didn't make it downstairs for any of the panels - which is nothing new for me, since in all my years attending that show, I have never actually sat down for a panel, not even for a minute - but the line for the Frank Miller and Paul Pope and Jaime Hernandez and Kyle Baker and company panel was pretty damn long, and even if I thought about seeing what that one was about (which I did), I decided that waiting in a line wasn't what I had time to do if I wanted to wring the zest from MoCCA and Boston all in a single weekend.
So I stuck to the hallowed hall of the Lexington Armory and circled the tables repeatedly, looking for comic book joy.
Here's the thing about the MoCCA Art Festival, for those of you who've never been there: it's half craft fair, half book fair, and half people selling cheap little reprints of their webcomics. The Lexington Armory's big enough - it can handle all 150%. The MoCCA show has always had that kind of distribution, but it feels different now than it did a few years ago, when it was still at the Puck Building and it was still a weird and wonderful maze of surprising comics and bizarre attempts to make a buck on merchandise. Laid out in a single enormous room, it has lost much of its charm, but at least it continues on. The Puck Building became too pricey - the rates skyrocketed once the post-9/11 reluctance to rent in lower Manhattan calmed down - and if a bit of the charm is missing from the MoCCA festival, at least it's still a place to meet up and look at what's going on in the more artistic corners of the industry. It's still a place I'll revisit every single year.
And what of MoCCA Fest 2010? What did I see? What did I buy? Well, I honestly spent much of my time talking with fellow comic pundits, like Tucker Stone and Sean Witzke. I met Jog for the first time, along with Chris Mautner, and made a really obvious Tolstoy joke about the reason for their late arrival, and it was nice to feel that a Tolstoy joke was appropriate. How many Tolstoy jokes did you overhear at C2E2? Exactly.
I bought all the comics of Benjamin Marra - those were my first big purchases. You may know Marra from his unforgettable video promo for Traditional Comics (actually called "American Tradition Comics" according to the covers of his books), or maybe you've never heard of him at all, but know this: I spent plenty of money on comics over the weekend, and "Gangsta Rap Posse" #1 was the issue I enjoyed the most. And "Night Business" was a delight as well. Hilariously garish and excessively exploitative, Marra's comics are the kind of things Mark Millar aspires to be.
And in "Mammal" #1 and #2, anthologies/art books compiled by Ben and his brothers-in-derangement, I could see a primal love for early Dungeons & Dragons iconography. Anytime I see a Beholder sketch in an art book, I take notice. Apparently, though I only heard about it later, there was a guy going around MoCCA with an old copy of an early "Monster Manual" and getting all the indie artists to draw monster sketches inside the covers. That's what the "Monster Manual" and MoCCA were made for. It was destined that the two should eventually meet.
I didn't buy many mini comics or little objects d'art at MoCCA this year. Honestly, very little of that stuff felt original. The best looking little craft projects were hand painted wooden versions of the ghosts from Pac-Man. But, you know, how much of that kind of thing do I really need in my house? (I don't need any of it, and it was too expensive to even buy as cute little present for my kids.)
I did get a few Fantagraphics new releases though, like "Tales Designed to Thrizzle" #6 which features probably my favorite Michael Kupperman strip to date: "Jungle Princess." And Joe Daly's "Dungeon Quest" Volume One, which takes the tropes of a role-playing game adventure and sets them against a modern west coast landscape.
Without a doubt, there was kind of a sword and sorcery theme to the stuff I ended up buying over the weekend, at MoCCA and at the Boston Comic-Con, but that certainly wasn't intentional. It seems like there's something in the air with a renewed fascination for these kind of pseudo D&D comics drawn by indie creators. I say "renewed fascination," because one of the first "graphic novels" was a dudes-with-swords epic called "First Kingdom" by Jack Katz, serialized in the 1970s and 1980s. Katz had worked in the mainstream, but the "First Kingdom" comics were done outside the system - they were personal and densely-paced and not at all like their Marvel and DC counterparts.
Over the past few years, I've seen a larger interest in, not Katz specifically, but in the kinds of D&D-style, guys on quests vs. monsters in strange worlds, from the kinds of creators who, a decade ago, would have been much more likely to draw autobiographical comics about broken relationships and a rough summer in a Seattle grunge band. Daly's "Dungeon Quest" has more of a video game influence than most of these nu-slayer comics - I'm thinking even of C. F.'s brilliant "Powr Mastrs" when I think of these kinds of stories - and the first volume of Daly's tale methodically records the upgrades in armor and weapons, and provides the defense and damage stats for each. It's a fun book, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. Not as much as "Gangsta Rap Posse," of course.
Besides some of the new Fantagraphics stuff and a few books from Sweden that Top Shelf was hawking (and I'll have to dedicate an entire column to my thoughts on those volumes), the most interesting release - the most "buzzworthy" release of the entire show, really, was "Pood" #1, from Big If Comics. "Pood" is an oversized newsprint anthology, with plenty of great-looking artists featured inside. The best story, by far, is Connor Willumsen's "Fiddle Song," which you can also find at Willumsen's website right now. I met Willumsen last summer at the MoCCA Art Festival, and he was showing off the best-looking artwork of the entire show, and this year he didn't have a booth, but his single-page contribution to "Pood," made quite an impact. Willumsen's going to be a pretty big deal, if he isn't already. His style is accessible to mainstream readers, but he doesn't seem interested in exploring mainstream storytelling conventions. I'm curious to see what he'll do next.
I picked up a few more things (the Hernandez art book, the new Dash Shaw, the new Megan Kelso) at MoCCA before picking up my wife - who spent the day at the much more high-class MoMA - and driving up to Boston for the night, preparing for what would surely be a distinct counterpoint to the flavor of the MoCCA show and the Lexington Armory. My wife considered visiting the Boston Comic-Con with me the next day, until we scouted out the Westin Waterfront that night and she saw that it was just a hotel show, with a bunch of long box tables and set-ups for guys signing autographs. It was exactly what I expected, but since her only real convention experiences have been in San Diego and New York, she has been kind of spoiled. She chose to walk around Boston instead.
The Boston show was good, though. I spent most of my time diving into the 50-cent boxes and looking through the discounted trade paperbacks, but I did chat with comic creator powerhouses like Ming Doyle, Kevin Church, and T. J. Kirsch for quite a while. And I spoke with Skottie Young (whose work on the Oz books has been phenomenal), Mike Norton (who has brought a fresh style to the "Billy Batson" comic he's working on with Art Baltazar and Franco) and J. H. Williams (who is the absolute best comic book artist. Period). It was a casual show, less desperate than MoCCA, somehow, probably because the artists and self-publishers had to pay a lot less for a table here than at the Lexington Armory, and though it wasn't the type of place where you'd look for the cutting edge of comics, it was the type of place where you might talk about "Master of Kung-Fu" with some old friends, or complain about all the terrible "Green Arrow" scripts in comfort.
Those 50-cent bins were stocked with greatness. I picked up plenty of issues I was missing of the aforementioned "Master of Kung-Fu," some Michael Golden "Micronauts," a complete run of the short-lived DC "Beowulf" series, and about 35 issues of Jack Kirby's "Kamandi." I had a bunch of Kirby "Kamandi" issues at home already, and I didn't bring a list or anything, so I just bought whatever "Kamandi" issues I could find. For $.50 each, I figured I couldn't go wrong, even if I ended up with doubles. I could always give them away as presents. Who wouldn't want to open Bronze Age Kirby comics on Christmas next year?
I also got a super-cheap "Sword of the Atom" trade, even though I already own all the issues. But with Jeff Lemire writing the upcoming "Atom" serial, and my constant reminders to him on Twitter about how much Ray Palmer needs to use a sword in every issue, well, it was just on my mind. And I wanted some easy-to-find reference when e-mailing Lemire to sell him on the idea.
And if the weekend wasn't sword-and-sorcery-based enough as it was (and I was recognizing the pattern even as I was living through it), I found the first two issues of DC's "Sword of Sorcery" series, featuring some of Howard Chaykin's first professional work on a couple of Fritz Leiber Lankhmar stories. For 50 cents, of course. The comics, I mean. I assume Chaykin was paid more than that, even in 1973 money.
All-in-all, it was a good weekend with some good people and some good comics, even if my wife ditched me to do things with actual cultural value, and even if I have more piles of books and comics that I'll probably never getting around to reading. Not anytime soon, at least. But, I'm telling you, there's something in the air with these comics about guys with edged weapons fighting ugly monsters. It's not just the 50-cent bins loaded with that sort of thing anymore. When Fantagraphics publishes something like "Dragon Quest," you know the zeitgeist has reached a critical point.
Not that you'd know any of that if you skipped MoCCA and the Boston Comic-Con to prepare for C2E2 this past weekend. I'm sure a show as big as C2E2 didn't have time to give you the subtle pulse of the industry. No sense of the growing importance of D&D comics for you.
What's that? IDW announced an actual "Dungeons & Dragons" comic this weekend? Oh.
Consider me not at all surprised.
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" (which explores "Zenith" in great detail) 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.
Follow Tim on Twitter: TimCallahan