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The History of Comic Conventions

This edition of "Iconographies" looks at the rise in popularity of the comics convention, and the pop-cultural changes conventions have brought to comics.

It would not take long at all, just four short years, for the first comic convention originally held in New York in 1964 to become the "International Convention". Held in the July heat in a union meeting hall on 14th street and Broadway, "Comicon '64" was nothing more than 100 people, one case of soda cans, and unbeknownst at the time, the seeds of a radical change in the way comics would be bought and sold. Bernie Bubnis, whose idea it had been to hold the convention, had invited Lone Ranger artist Tom Gill for a "chalk talk" on how to draw for comics. In doing so, he would lay the groundwork for generations of continued engagement between fans and creators. But despite the novel idea that in 1964 there would be a loyal cadre of fans prepared to endure wooden floors and folding chairs in the summer heat just to speak about comics, the most thoroughgoing change to the business of comics would come from the man supplying soda to the convention.

Phil Seuling, a Brooklyn schoolteacher and himself a collector of comics, had been asked to provide refreshments for the original "Comicon '64". 'At the time, there were only two types of comics: new and old', he would reminisce with comics-evangelist and legendary creator Will Eisner in one of Eisner's Shop Talk interviews. Even before the convention's re-branding as "International", Seuling would see comics conventions as more than a venue for creator and fan interaction. The buzz around collectors being able to find and trade for, or even purchase "old" comics from the 1930's and '40's would spark something in Seuling's imagination. What if there were some way to sell directly to collectors, exactly the issues they wanted?

For Seuling, as for the original attendees of "Comicon '64", collecting comics meant interacting with print distributors, rather than buying from comics publishers directly or from specialty stores. Comics distribution suffered from a the kind of thinking still dominating its original cultural home of newspapers. 'Why was it done that way? Because you can't sell newspapers any other way, and comic books are an offshoot of newspapers', Seuling recalls to Eisner, 'They never considered anything else. Therefore, the way comic books are sold is the way newspapers are sold. You sell he corner newsstand 100 newspapers even though he can only sell 20. Because the day there is a big event -- a Beirut or a Grenada -- you're going to sell 100 newspapers. On the days that you sell them, you're okay. On the other days, you take the returns and they get pulped. Comic books, same thing, although there wasn't any logical reason for it. I said and repeated it: there is another way of doing this. You could sell them directly and not even take returns'.

For Seuling, direct marketing for comics was not simply a question of seeing a market that presented itself and acting on it, it was about overturning an entrenched and ultimately restrictive form of thinking. If comics collectors could gather together to trade for issues they were missing from their collections, then a direct market was at least viable. Seuling's plan would prove simple but effective in its execution. He would ask collectors to preorder comicbooks that he would buy directly from publishers. The collected monies would then go to publishers, minus Seuling's own commission. 'If I don't make $1,000 a month out of it, well then it is something I can't do, because I can't give up my teaching for it', he confesses to Eisner. 'You had to pay me up front', he continues, 'and, on my word, you would get those comics. on my word alone -- but it was the word of Phil Seuling. And here, very immodestly, I tell you that that's a name people knew from the conventions, from my collecting, from my selling. They knew my name'.

Seuling would change the format of the comics convention, and from it, the way in which comics publishers interacted with their market. Beyond newsstands and candy stores where comicbooks could be bought for a dime, Seuling would help shape a market that would speak directly to collectors' needs. After the advent of direct marketing, conventions themselves would begin to change, reflecting in subtle ways the growing culture of collectors interacting directly with industry principals. Unlike most science fiction conventions like Worldcon (where arguably, comics conventions find their roots), comics conventions would not provide a forum for fans to interact with creators, or to gather among themselves. Comic conventions would distinguish themselves by promoting the cultural needs of the collector. Ultimately comic conventions would be on the forefront of the speculator bubble when it first began in the mid-1980's, and when it finally burst more than a decade later.

In providing comics for a more defined audience, direct marketing would run the risk of specializing its product out of the cultural mainstream. Seuling found that this was not the case. He quickly grew his company, Sea Gate distributors, from a handful of specialty stores to include about 3,000 individual comics shops. Based on Seuling's distribution network, and his projected monthly sales, Marvel particularly could not easily be dismissed when making claims about an adult, college-educated readership. But as the direct market catered increasingly to readers who traditionally formed the core of comics fandom, reading comics became something of a cultural boutique. Fans became entrenched, comics seceded from the cultural mainstream.

This trend of cultural secession would eventually be reversed by two seminal comics of the 1980's. Watchmen written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons would be the first time that a major publisher allowed a single writer carte blanche with an entire fictional universe. Moore would take the entire retinue of Charlton Comics' characters, purchased in a DC buy-out of Charlton, and provide each character as a starkly contrasted view on the meaning of superheroism. The Dark Knight Returns written by Frank Miller and illustrated by Miller and Klaus Janson would depict a Batman well into his seventies, returned from retirement to mete out justice to a new generation of criminals, the result of permissive parenting and a media saturated environment.

Both comics series would garner mainstream media by tapping directly into the generational fears of the 1980's. Both series' critical acclaim and popularity would fuel an interest in comics that would ultimately lead to a market around rare collectibles. Individual issues like Incredible Hulk #181 which marked the first appearance of the popular Wolverine character or Action Comics #1 which marked the first appearance of the original superhero, Superman, would become near-priceless collectibles. Following on from the mainstream success of The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, speculators would begin buying up back catalog issues in the hopes of turning a future profit.

It was amid this bubble of speculation that industry professionals, artists and writers would eventually claim and win greater recognition and share in the profits of their work. DC would mold Vertigo, a publication imprint that would allow creator-owned material access to DC's marketing and publication machine. Image Comics would be formed from artists disillusioned by major publishers mistreatment of their employees, and would be allow for creators to retain ownership of copyright and trademark on their own work.

Although direct marketing bears some responsibility for over-saturating the market and causing the speculation bubble to burst in the late 1990's, Phil Seuling's enduring legacy remains the elevation of comics reader, and the creation of an environment that would ultimately ensure creative rights for comics writers and artists.

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