Monday, July 27, 2009

All Talk and No Pictures

ComicCon: A Time of Pros and Cons
I have been out of circulation recently, and haven't posted anything for a while. I just returned from spending a day and a half at the San Diego ComiCon, helping an old friend set up and tear down his booth. It was the first time I've attended the Con in some fifteen years. The changes were remarkable.

I first attended the San Diego Con back in the 1970s. It was held at a legendary run-down (now demolished) hotel from the 1920s called the El Cortez. The center of interests were the Dealers' Room and the guests' rooms. When the Dealers' Room closed everyone moved into the hotel lobby or up into the rooms; people wheeled and dealed, sang "filk" songs, traded, admired each others' purchases, and talked comics endlessly. Of course many also got drunk and rowdy, though in earlier years there was less of that than later as attendance grew.
The last time I attended the convention everything had changed, with even greater changes in the works. The physical setup was different: the Dealers' Room was now a big hall in San Diego's Convention Center. But the convention hotel was right nearby and there was still plenty of community activity. Attendees complained about the commercialization of the Con, but it was still essentially a fan event.

However the transfer of power was underway. "Mom and pop" dealerships (or rather, "just pop," since there were hardly any female dealers) were being elbowed out by big distributers and publishers, while media corporations were setting up booths to promote their s-f and horror projects. Comics were in the process of becoming big business. More importantly, the once largely separate fandoms of movies, comics and science-fiction were merging (thanks in a large part to Star Wars). Former fans had moved into editorial positions at the major publishers, putting a more fan-oriented spin on content and promotion. Movies were making overtures to the geek audience. In short, "pop culture" was beginning its move into the mainstream.

A decade and a half later the move is complete. Pop culture is the mainstream, and it's big, big business. The dealers of yore, with their rows of bagged comics and handwritten "Last Day! 20% off!" signs, have been relegated to a corner of an immense hall several blocks long. Even so, their numbers are small; most dealers this year sold toys, posters, and other tie-in items. Among them were numerous major dealerships displaying items no fan could have afforded in the El Cortez days: original magazine illustrations at $2000 and up, original comic book pages for $8000 and $10,000 each (what ever happened to the $5 bin?).

Now that anime/manga mania has consumed the entire world, the preponderance of dealers sold every conceivable kind of Japanimation item. Books, DVD's, statuettes, art, Pikachu hats (I almost bought one) name it. One guy sold authentic-looking (and very expensive) samurai sword replicas. Others sold costumes and props--steampunk was really big this year. And of all the independent publishers, of which there were a staggering number, it's fair to say 75 to 80 percent published manga-style comics.

The increased sophistication in marketing was visible in the fact that even the smallest "artist's alley" table was likely to have a flashy corporate-style backdrop with logo and framed art. This includes the guys whose stuff wasn't very good. I must say, however, that the number of "crud" artists was extremely small compared to years ago. This may be due to the fact that even tiny ComiCon booths are now quite expensive and there's often a long wait to get one. Only artists with some money can afford to present themselves. This doesn't mean they're all famous. Though out of touch with current comics, I still know many of the names and titles. At least half the artists in the alley were unknown to me, as were their characters and publications. My guess is that this is an aspect of how easy it is to self-publish these days. More people are "in print." In times gone by many capable artists and writers remained unseen because getting their work printed was prohibitively expensive. Of course, internet comics provide another opportunity to build a fan base, and some of these may have been electronic projects. I just don't know enough about that end of the business.

Tomorrow I'll go into the heart of the convention: the multinational entertainment corporation trade show. For now it's back to cleaning the garage.

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