When I stepped into the Ramada Inn conference room in 1991 for the scrappy comics convention being held in the small Northeast Texas town where I grew up, I was 12-years-old and had never heard of a ‘comic-con’. Popular culture was usually slow making it to our semi-rural township. You had to drive forty-five minutes to the next city to see newly released films, and there was only one bookstore, though it soon closed. After that, I was left to pillage the local library. Reading every racist 1930’s Hardy Boys book in their collection, I eventually moved on to Nancy Drew and the Bobbsey Twins. Like most boys my age, I liked the idea of children showing traditional authority to be inept, and serving out humiliating justice. In a sense, I was conditioned to become part of the early 90’s comics’ reader demographic.
In 1990, during the week that the first Todd McFarlane Spiderman came out, a local accountant opened a comic book store on the town square. My mother, a long-time sci-fi enthusiast, took me to the grand opening, where she bought me a copy of that recommended issue. Those Spiderman #1 covers with the variant grey and gold webbing that hung beneath the words “1st All-New Collectors Item Issue” told me as a young tween that not only was I holding a cutting-edge work, but also that I was making a wise investment. In ten years, I thought, it would probably be worth enough to pay for my college.
Pretty soon, the town was on fire with comic books. So much so that sometimes town kids would use them as currency for craps games. It was an activity some churches frowned on. But our thought was that 1st editions were as good as currency. When we heard that a local comic convention was to be held, our excitement mostly stemmed from our idea that we might unearth an issue we thought was rare and put one over on an adult, ‘Hardy Boys’ style.
Walking through the Spartan surrounds, browsing the nearly-bare tables, it became embarrassingly obvious to us that we had no idea what we were doing. I pulled together ten bucks and purchased an autographed copy of Sergio Aragones’ Groo #7, which can today be procured on eBay for no more than $14.99. The convention was basically a specialty flea market for comics readers and collectors who were for the most part as much in the dark as I was about the growing collector bubble of the time.
Fan conventions were nothing new by the time I attended the one in my town. Where there is a desire for escapism built into a cultural artifact, the most alienated of fans have good reason to want to have their own gatherings and discuss the finer points of their favorite pastimes.
Science fiction fans have long had conventions, well before the first comics convention was held in 1964. The setting was a small Manhattan room full of metal folding chairs, a cooler of sodas, and fans sitting around talking about comics. Tom Gill, well-known for his twenty year run as illustrator on The Lone Ranger, did a talk on how to draw comics, and the fundamentals of the convention were born: fans and industry people creating a shared space to discuss mutual interests. The austerity of this first comics convention was not that different from my experience. But by 1991, social interaction had in the main shifted from a gathering of fans to vendors selling their collectables.
The New York Comic Art conventions started small, but grew from those 300 attendees in 1964 to over 76,000 at New York Comic-con 2009. Meanwhile, several other major cities started their own comic-cons, notably San Diego, which grew to include over 120,000 by 2008. As the industry went through booms and busts, fans continued to find value in meeting and having any sort of interaction with creators. As writer and artist legacies were solidified, the sheer volume of people in attendance at larger conventions altered the kinds of exchanges possible between fans and creators. The spectacle of the panel and brief signings are all that remain.
What became of the hope that collecting comics would some day pay for future college debts?
Like any inflated economic bubble, filled with speculation and hot air, the collectibles market was fueled by its own hype. Exaggerated by the appearance of creative ‘superstars’, the convention scene only garnered more attention. The same month I bought McFarlane’s Spiderman #1, so did 2.5 million other people. While I remember enjoying the $1.75 in reading it, we would have to burn a lot of them to make it collectable.
The earliest conventions seemed more about meeting up with like-minded individuals and possibly filling in gaps in one’s collection. Early on, these collection gaps were hard to fill, because comics were distributed in the same way as magazines and newspapers. Stores signed up with a distributor and basically took what was sent to them and returned what did not sell for a full refund. Before direct market distribution, a candy store may or may not get the next issue in the series you were following. Specialty stores however, could pre-order whatever you wanted. What’s more they were stuck with the back-issues; filling in a collection was easier.
The advent of the internet drove down exchange value even more. Buyers now had access to privately-owned collections up for sale. One Saturday morning, I visited a garage sale in Washington, D.C. After going through the boxes of comics, all protected with sleeves and boards, I was informed that issues would not be sold individually. I would need to purchase the entire collection if I was interested. The collector admitted that he really did not want to sell them. He bought these books because he liked the stories, and even though he thought their value would increase he now wanted his son to read them and learn the mythologies he himself had spent so many years with. But with his new family, his priorities had changed.
In a way, I am glad comics culture has somewhat moved away from traditional collecting. Going to the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art festival last weekend made me think about how old school conventions might have been. I ran around finding some of my favorite artists, who I had met at other conventions like Bethesda, Maryland’s Small Press Expo. Last year, I went to New York Comic-con alone and felt pretty lost in the masses until I navigated my way to an artist and editor friend. Though I enjoyed going, it at times felt more like a mall than a community of fans. After a panel, one writer for Vertigo said something to me about fans wanting to make a connection with him, but the limits of the convention form and scale prevented him from making a connection. Is a signing really all readers want? Is anything more possible at the scale of today’s conventions? As I gear up for San Diego Comic-con this year, I don’t expect to get to know all 120,000 convention goers, but I do hope to find another signed copy of Groo.