Comic-Con International San Diego 2009 gets underway Wednesday, and comicdom’s little corner of the Internet has been abuzz for a couple of weeks with excitement on the part of professionals and fans alike. I wish I could share that kind of energy, but I’m left feeling a little disappointed. I’m unable to attend this year’s festivities/insanities yet again. Travelling to the show all the way from the East Coast of Canada to the Left Coast of the United States is financially daunting enough as it is, but when one factors in efforts to pay off bills amassed after a wedding and Irish honeymoon last fall and to save up for a home sometime in the coming months, committing to the Pilgrimage of the Comic-Book Enthusiast just isn’t feasible.
I have attended the convention on two occasions in the past: once courtesy an employer in 2000 (anyone remember the Fandom.com incarnation of Comics Newsarama?) and once on my own dime in 2003. Both were rewarding (and exhausting) experiences, and while the hectic pace, physical demands and Hollywood incursions temper one’s enthusiasm for Comic-Con, I always find myself feeling some regret in those years when I’m unable to attend or decide against it.
As I took in blog posts, Tweets and flickr pics about gearing up for the con over the past few days, I considered what I’d spend my time doing if I were to pass through the doors at Nerd Prom 2009. I haven’t been paying much attention to the programming schedule for the con. My previous two visits made it clear to me that there were few panels that I really enjoyed. The crowds and gushing at the big panels (be they dedicated to comics, TV or movies) aren’t for me, and any “news” that might emerge therein is easily accessible online within minutes of it being uttered. Sure, I’d hit the Quick Draw! panel and a couple of smaller, niche panels (probably something about online reportage in the industry), but my real interests lie in two areas: the heart of the convention floor and areas far removed from the convention.
Here’s how I’d spend my time at the San Diego con:
Searching for original comic art: Back in the mid-1990s, I purchased a page of original comic art online. It was a cheap one, nothing of any note (a Bart Sears page from Justice League Europe #1), but I was enthralled with it. I loved seeing the process, loved holding the handiwork that was used to create a comic book I enjoyed. I was hooked, but budgets, high shipping rates and the historic weakness of the Canadian dollar kept me from adding much to my collection. When I attended my first convention (the old Chicago Comicon in 1996), I managed to get a few more pages, and thus began my education in comic-art collecting on a budget.
Cons are great places to pick up original art, not only because there are so many art dealers on hand but because the artists themselves are there, many looking to unload pages themselves. Conventions provide opportunities to pick up art at bargain prices, and given how high prices can reach, bargains are all too welcome. In Chicago in ’96, Jeff Moy, the penciller on Legionnaires at the time, was unloading pages from his work on that series for $10-$25. I enjoyed both the series and his work on it, so I was thrilled to get some cheap pages from him. At the same con, I got two sequential Tony Harris Starman pages for $50 apiece (no major characters, obviously), and a Justice Society of America page by the late Mike Parobeck with lots of action for only $60. At past San Diego cons, Mike McKone sold me two fabulous Superman pages for about $50 each; they were so nice that Jeph Loeb, the man who wrote those pages, offered to buy them from me for twice what I paid (I turned him down). I also got a nice George Perez Avengers v.3 page from a dealer for a little more than $100. Judging from how similar Perez pages sell on eBay, it’s definitely worth more than twice that.
Original art can cost hundreds and thousands of dollars, and it might be daunting to someone with an interest in the medium. But at cons, there are deals to be had, both from artists and dealers. If I were at the San Diego con this year, I’d be thumbing through the stacks of pages on artists’ tables in Artists Alley. Many art dealers also put out a bargain bin/stack on their tables. The point is that these artists and dealers often have piles of pages that have been lying around for some time, just taking up space because the pages haven’t generated any interest. But those same pages may be from comics that you treasure. Furthermore, when you buy a page at a con, the chances are much higher that people responsible (artist, writer, inker, letterer, etc.) responsible for the creation of a page are there and more than happy to sign it.
Adding to the sketchbook: At my first con, I brought a stack of comics from my own collection to get signed by various creators. It’s not something I opted to do at later con experiences, because lugging around old comics is a pain in the butt. I’m befuddled by congoers who cart boxes of comics around with them to be signed by creators. Before that 1996, I was advised by a couple of people that backing boards are great for quick sketches from artists, so I brought a few for that purpose. I know now that’s not the way to go, not in this day and age of the unfortunate practice of people putting free sketches up for bid on eBay for a quick profit.
Nope, a sketchbook is the way to go, and even then, collecting sketches poses challenges. There was a time when artists were happy to do quick sketches for free at cons, but the afore-mentioned profit-mongers have spoiled that to an extent. I don’t blame artists for being leery of the practice now and charging for sketches. Still, many artists will still do sketches at cons. If I did San Diego this year, I’d have my sketchbook in hand. A few years back, someone suggested the idea of a themed sketchbook. While one shouldn’t demand an artist contribute something to a themed sketchbook, a unique enough theme will make it clear that this is something for you, not for the highest bidder. My theme is “Ouch, That’s Gotta Hurt.” Many artists enjoy the challenge that a theme can offer. It can take them out of the repetitive routine of the con with the promise for a fleeting moment of creativity.
Buying comics: This is a comic-book convention, after all, so anyone who leaves the con without buying a few actual comic books is a sinner. Obviously, you don’t want to go hog wild. You have to lug those things home with you too, you know. I try to focus on comics I can’t get at home or at least would be less likely to find at home. For example, I bought Small Favors from the Fantagraphics booth at the San Diego con in 2003 because retailers back home in Canada can face some difficulties when it comes to acquiring naughty comics for sale. The con’s a great place to pick up books from indy creators you enjoy, limited editions from publishers and hard-to-find back issues from dealers.
I make a point to leave comics I’ve already ordered from my local retailer on the shelves/in the boxes at cons. I feel as though when I request that my retailer stock something specifically for me, I have an obligation to fulfill my end of the purchase arrangement. That can be difficult, I know. Maybe some congoers will be tempted this week to get Kyle Baker to sign a copy of Wednesday Comics #3 at the con even though there’s a copy waiting in a comic-shop slot back home. In this hypothetical, if you must get Baker to sign it, honor your obligation when you return home as well.
Taking in a live-art show: At the 2003 Comic-Con, comics artists Jim Mahfood and Scott Morse created unique pieces of art live at a special show at a bar just a little bit east of San Diego’s Gaslight District. I can’t remember the name of the place, but I do remember the art. After they crafted pieces (often collaborating), they’d auction them off. These were large multimedia (mostly paint and marker) pieces on thick, plywood-like boards. Prices were reasonable, and I ended up bidding on and winning a piece I still cherish today. It as an untitled Mahfood piece, but I call it “All-American Hip-Hop Girl.” Getting the piece back to New Brunswick from San Diego was an ordeal. Shipping it back was cost-prohibitive, so I actually ended up carrying it with me on the plane, encased in bubble in wrap.
Even if I hadn’t acquired a nice piece of art at this live-art show, it was something to see all the same. Mahfood and Morse turned the whole thing into a genuine visual performance. The club atmosphere, the drinks and the shared awe of the audience made for a fun evening.
Catching up: For those who’ve been active in the online comics uber-conversation and who’ve attended some cons in the past, any comics convention offers the opportunity to see friends in person for the first time or to reunite with friends we’ve made at past events, and this is especially true of the San Diego event. With my history as a comics critic, I’ve been lucky enough to be invited to small and big events put on by publishers, and sharing some drinks with people you admire and people you like is always one of the highlights of the convention. It’s great to share war stories and to learn some news. And then there are those times when you create some new war stories.
My favorite part of my time at Comic-Con International San Diego 2003 was sitting on the balcony of the hotel room I shared with Randy Lander, drinking dirty Newfoundland rum I’d brought with me and just talking with Randy. We were online colleagues and acquaintances before, but we’d become good friends during our time working together in New York in 1999 and 2000 for a comics portal website that fell under within months of its launch. Randy and I chatted about our times there, working with another website afterward and about comics. We talked about comics we loved, ones we didn’t and trends in the industry. And we talked about our own lives outside of comics, our hopes and our frustrations.
It was a relaxing, entertaining evening, and it educated me on how to enjoy a comic-book convention. Trying to squeeze in as many panels as possible, as many sketches as possible, as many autographs as possible or as much shopping as possible. To really enjoy Comic-Con International San Diego, enjoy the people around you. Focusing on what the con offers instead of who you meet at the con will prove to be overwhelming. Trust me. Worrying about what you might miss out on is a distraction from the best part: friends.
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