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I Belong with You, You Belong with Me: New York Comic Con 2012

Michael D. Stewart
Splash art sourced at Geeks Are Sexy, interior art sourced at Brooklyn Vegan.

The soul-crushing, heartrending exuberance of a voyage through "everyone's happy place"…

“Do you make playlists?”, PopMatters Comic’s Editor Shathley Q asked me during our chat prior to the 2012 New York Comic Con. He was concerned about how I would decompress over the four days I would be covering the Con. And to be honest, it hadn’t occurred to me to make a specific playlist for it. I usually listen to my MP3 player on shuffle, letting the randomness of my music collection surprise me with a favorite or long forgotten track. Q's words encouraged me to seriously consider how a music playlist could frame my coverage. What’s more popculture, after all, than giving some event a soundtrack?

To prepare for how to observe the proceedings of NYCC, one book I read was Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture by Rob Salkowitz. It's a well written dissection of San Diego Comic Con and the comicbook industry from the perspective of a business author and futurist. The Business of Pop Culture is written as somewhat in the vein of a travel diary--various business and futurist insights intercut to enlighten just how comic subculture effects entertainment and business. That method is appealing. It brings the personal to the mundane, it makes some of the dense material much easier to digest. Salkowitz offers a kind of molecular gastronomy, having plated something very flavorful for a variety of palettes.

Regarding comics, Salkowitz writes, “Comics as a medium solve a vexing problem of the information age. At a time when so many shiny things are competing for our attention and demanding our time, comics hit fast and hard”. A two-punch attack of words and visuals driving stories which illumine our struggles and foster our imaginations, this was my beginning. But how to frame it in a way that shows the experience is as important as the content? And to show also the central question of the business of Comic Cons?

We should remember that Comic Cons are a business. From San Diego to New York, Emerald City to C2E2, the conventions are a means to celebrate the industry but also for a select few to prosper financially. To that end, the struggling comic industry has seemingly taken a backseat to the proceedings, being joined by videogames, movies, TV and other media and industries, all in an attempt to capture the hard earned dollars of the nerd-geek fan. So naturally Cons are an exercise in commerce and publicity. From the main show floor to the panel rooms, the vast majority of exhibit booths and programming, Cons are developed to promote content and capture dollars.

Then there's geek culture. Something of an undefined subculture prior to this century, geek culture has become a billion dollar industry unto itself. The notion of geek begins with comicbooks, but to say that comics and graphic literature are the cornerstones of geek culture feels like an unnatural limitation put on the medium. Comics are not the exclusive property of geeks, but rather the misunderstood offshoot of literature that can appeal to anyone. Geek culture is more a mass market concept commoditized by marketers looking to cash in on cultural trends and exploit the last bastion of cultural purity. Like trying to get that very last drop from a bottle already sucked dry.

Comic Cons are, by that thinking, a celebration of the exploitation, subjugation and ultimately dismissal of comics. Yet, they are also a crossroads of economics and unadulterated fandom, and so much more.

I was trying to do this right. But I was also over-thinking.

I made my playlist and filled it with recently downloaded songs. What happened was that by either luck or universal harmony, each track captured a story point I wanted to expand upon. This was good fortune. This was inspiration. This was a thematic framework for covering a very vexing event. Here then, is a shortened version of that playlist.

Track One – Man on Fire by Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros

“Had Hellboy in here last year,” said Barry the Bartender at the Hudson Yard Café. “He came in, horns and all, and insisted on really hot wings.” I had gone to the Hudson Yard Café, a block away from the Jacob Javits Center on 10th Avenue at 35th Street, to grab lunch prior to press and pro day at NYCC. Barry the Bartender had seen my press badge newly minted around my neck and started talking to me about what he had witnessed in prior years.

I could have stayed at the convention center and waited in the press room for the Con to open, but I was hungry and discouraged by the room set-up. There were tables and a water fountain, but very few outlets to plug-in laptops or charge phones. There were also an abundance of fellow journalists who had staked their table claims like it was the lunch room at a high school. I didn’t need a clique. I needed the conversation I had with Barry.

Over the course of the convention, the Hudson Yard Café would become my unofficial press office, the place where I would check-in daily to get the gossip and find out who had been in and out. The Marvel crew ate there, Robert Kirkman stopped in, and fellow attendees weary of the overpriced pretzels and hot dogs found refuge, just like Hellboy the year before. On any given day of the Con, the bar was a microcosm of the comics industry and the convention itself.

Even on Thursday, the anticipation was for a hot and large crowd. NYCC has been growing in size since its debut in 2006, despite limitations and issues with the Javits Center. The convention center is in a very assessable location, but the design of the building and the near constant renovations of the convention center, combined with an absurd amount of construction in the neighborhood, can make even a small crowd seem like an overflow.

My first NYCC was the 2009 version, when the show had to share the center with the New York Times Travel Writers Convention. It was perhaps the only time you could confuse a reporter for an Indiana Jones cosplayer.

That 2009 show was a glimpse of what was to come, as the Con would add 20,000 guests each year following, as well as add floor space. This 2012 Con had 116,000 attendees and was able to use 90 percent of the Javits Center.

What it tells us is that, if only by size, the east coast has an event to compete with the mega show in San Diego.

“I want the whole damn world to come and dance with me,” sings Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros’ lead singer Alex Ebert in “Man on Fire,” the first single off the band’s sophomore album Here. The allusion to the Hellboy story mentioned aside, the lyrics for “Man on Fire” make an interesting point about the evolution of Comic Cons-- whereas instead of a small core crowd the events have expanded to get the “whole damn world” to come enjoy their gathering of vast entertainment properties. With that comes a dilution of the core concept as different content takes up even more space of these ever expanding (now) popculture events.

Track Two – Hey Ho by The Lumineers

What content is presented is a major concern for conventions like NYCC. As videogames, movies, TV shows and digital content continue to take larger audience shares; comics find itself the name only reason to go to a Con. It doesn’t help that the comicbook industry has been in a slow nosedive since the speculator-driven extremes of the 1990s.

“Comic books in the 2010s are like the run-down ‘historic district’ of a city whose growth is all at the edges,” writes Salkowitz in The Business of Pop Culture. “The whole apparatus for the creation, publication, and distribution of comic books these days seem little more than an expense required to keep intellectual property (IP) assets current and the trademarks up to date.”

All the more reason for Cons to be looking at other media aside from comics as potential growth areas. If the major conventions are slowly divorcing themselves from comics, then the location of Artist’s Alley at this year’s New York Comic Con was part of the trial separation. At least that was my initial impression.

Located in the Javits Center Annex, the hall that held Artists Alley was like an airplane hangar. The only benefit, possibly a make-up for placing this aspect of the show separate from the rest of the convention, was that it was bigger (and brighter) than any other year.

I first thought that this situation would deter fans from engaging with the folks behind comics, but to my surprise Artist Alley was crowded every day of the Con.

Perhaps there is still room for comics at Comic Con?

Yet there was a seemingly odd lack of independent and self-published comics. If you looked hard enough, you could find them. I found some choice books, but found more independent artists pushing sketches and prints of DC and Marvel characters rather than original creations. Have to make back that $500 table fee somehow.

Maybe I wasn’t looking hard enough? Maybe I was asking for too much? Or maybe something was disrupting even this level of comics?

At the very front of Artist Alley was an oversized booth for Kickstarter, the crowd-source funding website that has taken the creative world by storm over the last couple of years. In many ways the site is a disruptive innovation of a disruptive technology (digital, which we’ll get to later on).

Got a creative project but no money to produce it? Seek funding from the vast array of pockets surfing the Internet. Seems simple enough, yet Kickstarter, since its inception, has made me uneasy.

“You basically have to be a shameless huckster, and there is nothing more shameless and hucksterish than asking people, outright, for money,” wrote Paul Constant for The Stranger last year, basically capturing my concern about crowd-sourcing creative projects. “So maybe the modern state of the arts has finally reached its logical apex (or nadir) in Kickstarter?”

He went on to write another major concern of mine. “I'm worried that major labels and publishers--powerful people--are going to transform Kickstarter into a little money farm, turning consumers into producers and milking them on both ends of the process.”

However, a property like Eric Powel’s The Goon can find itself painted on the side of a Chevy Sonic at the Con, but without Kickstarter has trouble finding funding for a feature animated movie.

It’s a conundrum. It’s an evolution of the entertainment industry. It’s a shift in power and influence.

And while Kickstarter isn’t the precise reason I couldn’t find as many independent comics as I would like, the site’s growing power was certainly on display. As well as symbolically and literally demonstrating where comics can go should the printing of them remain to be “an expense required to keep IP assets current.” (Salkowitz)

But with them goes the industry. “I belong with you, you belong with me,” goes the refrain of “Hey Ho” by The Lumineers. Comics belong at Comic Con, just as independent comics belong in Artist Alley, which by way of direct connection, also belongs at Comic Con…no matter where it ends up.

Track Three – I Will Wait by Mumford & Sons

One of the more interesting, enticing and ultimately disappointing aspects of Comic Cons are panels. While some have major announcements and other are chance to swoon over your favorite creator or celebrity, most are unapologetic PR events designed to preach to the already converted. Then audience questions.

Writer Brian Azzarello at the Before Watchmen panel summed it up best when he said, “We’re giving you what you want.” That quote is completely out of context. It’s actually a reaction to a question about the disturbing violence in the Before Watchmen: Rorschach miniseries, but somehow it also sums up the disconnection between industry, fans and journalists. Is this really what we want? Is this it at all?

The major announcements at certain panels were rather impressive. Scott Snyder and Jeff Lemire are publishing more creator-owned work at Vertigo; Secret Avengers is becoming a S.H.I.E.L.D. themed book to better connect Marvel’s vast media properties; Image is launching numerous new series with current Marvel creators; and Scott Snyder and Jim Lee are working on an untitled Superman book (possibly the worst kept secret in comics).

I could have learned about all of these news items via press release (and did). I was looking for something more, something thought provoking and inspiring, and something substantial. What I found was I shouldn’t expect too much.

There was the occasional bit of insight. “Comics are really love letters from you to your artist,” Brian K. Vaughn said at The Writer’s Room panel when discussing his rise to comic writing immortality.

But the most substantive discussion of comics and graphic literature came from the Comic Studies Conference series of panels--that is if the panelists showed up.

One of the three panels, Constructing and Reconstructing The Superhero, was missing two of its three panelists. Moderated by Dr. Travis Langley (Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight), the panel was supposed to range from the modern superhero’s connection with transcendental and gothic protagonists to the superhero afterlife subgenre. Could have been a good discussion. Langley and the lone panelist did their best, and the small crowd was engaged, but it meandered and ultimately ended.

“But I'll kneel down wait for now, and I'll kneel down, know my ground,” sings Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons in the song “I Will Wait” off their second full length effort. “And I will wait I will wait for you.” I’ll continue to wait. The cultural understanding and impact of comics and graphic novels is only beginning to garner substantive attention. It won’t be long before their prominence at Comic Con guarantees panelist attendance.

Track Four – Ghosts by The Head and The Heart

The biggest takeaway from NYCC is the type of fandom that permeates these types of conventions and gatherings now. “It’s a Millennial, we-all-get-trophies kind of fandom, 180 degrees removed from the activist engagement of the Boomer generation or the snarky exclusivity of Generation Xers, where the high entry costs are what make the subcultures special,” writes Salkowitz in The Business of Pop Culture.

There’s something for everyone. And for everyone there is a place. Cosplayers. Casual fans. Collectors. They all have sufficient access to mainline a vein of popculture enthusiasm.

“One day we'll all be found. No longer lost, we're just hangin' around. One day we'll all be found, found, found,” go the lyrics to “Ghosts” by The Head and The Heart. At NYCC and the other Cons, fans have found a place where the place where they can go. As I overheard one cosplayer say to a few friends, “This is my happy place.” The truth of that statement reflects an idea that inside the Con, the harsh reality of the outside world disappears if only for a few hours.

No matter how journalists and culture critics, myself included, view the economic calamities of the comic industry and the evolution of Comic Cons away from comicbooks, they are still a gathering point for fans and artists alike. They are a merging of various groups, genres, subgenres, cultures and subcultures. They are peoples’ happy places, where they can immerse themselves in the entertainment that fills countless hours of their lives. Where they can live out their fantasies and get ever closer to the people who inspire those fantasies.

I was trying to do this right, but there is no right way to enjoy New York Comic Con. You just enjoy it.

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