It’s Hip to Be Square

by Jamie Pierson

11/06/2014

The term “comic con” is misleading. When Wizard World brings its version of a comic con to Tulsa for the first time this November,[1] there will be an array of spandexed, sworded, zombified, and leather-clad heroes, but the franchises represented will not be limited to those found in comic books.

Some have suggested the term “media con” be used instead to describe events like this. Wizard World itself uses the phrase “pop culture” whenever possible. But, for the most part, when you say “comic con,” people know what you mean: a vast hall packed with self-identified nerds devouring the latest developments of their favorite franchise, buying swag, and meeting their idols.

Whatever you call them, cons are big business. The “fandom-event industry” generated between $524 million and $644 million in 2013. These numbers include only ticket sales, not money spent on the convention floor with vendors, or out in the community on food, lodging, etc. Industry-watcher Rob Salkowitz believes the entire industry could be worth nearly $3 billion in North America alone. Wizard World, the industry leader, has generated $1.5 million per show in 2014, with 14 shows so far this year.

The cash cow element of cons is relatively new. For most of their history, they have been a labor of love. San Diego Comic-Con, that famous behemoth, did not actually sell out (during pre-sale) until 2008, which was a banner year for nerds. Iron Man, The Dark Knight, and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull were the three highest-grossing opening weekends of the year.[2] It was on the success of Iron Manthat the subsequent $4 billion deal between Marvel and Disney was built.

That year happens to be the only time I attended San Diego Comic-Con. I was living in Los Angeles and had only been into comics for a couple of years. I had very little idea of what to expect. I knew cosplay[3] was encouraged, so I donned a headband modeled after the one worn by Molly Hayes, the young mutant member of the Runaways, and drove down.

The convention center was cavernous and crowded. But not nearly as crowded as it’s been in the years since. You could move through the crowd easily and no one sneezed on me.[4] I attended two panels, one on comics and literacy and one on women in comics. These choices are both indicative of my interests (I had not actually seen many genre television shows or movies at the time), and what was easy to get into. The latter factor is also indicative of the priorities of other attendees.

The vendor floor went on and on, longer than I could hope to walk in one day. There were independent creators of things other than comics—games (both tabletop and video), podcasts, and web series—and they were all hawking their products and associated tchotchkes. There were booths selling every manifestation of wares capable of being stamped with icons of the Empire or Rebel Alliance, as well as limited-edition items only available at SDCC. Some booths looked like mini-Hot Topics or Etsy stores come to life, though those were fewer and farther between than they are these days. There was an entire section of the convention center devoted to networking between creators: Artists’ Alley.

I bought a signed first-edition of Joe Sacco’s Palestine and a Blue Sun shirt from the original California Browncoats. I’ll remember and treasure forever meeting Lynda Barry (Ernie Pook’s Comeeks, What It Is). I told her that her style inspired my own work and she joyfully responded, “I’m your Art Mom!” She drew me a customized and encouraging sketch of my favorite character[5] from her work, which hangs above my desk as I write this. And Bill Willingham (Fables) made my life by pulling me out of line to hear more on my take of Bigby Wolf as an incarnation of Philip Marlowe (“Everyone always just sees Wolverine!”). The only unpleasant memory I have is of a slight kerfuffle in line to meet the Y: The Last Manartist, Pia Guerra. At events like this, there is often a time limit for getting in line, and I had jumped in line at the very end of the time slot. A con worker told me to step out because the line was capped. The people in line and others nearby immediately bristled at the worker in my defense, and it seemed it might escalate. I demurred, thanking my fellow nerds for protecting my rights, but not wanting to mar my perfect day with drama.

Two years later, I attended Midwest Comic Book Association’s SpringCon. It was held in a room maybe twice the size of the average high school gym. Vendors fell in two categories: comics dealers and comics creators. The dealers laid out their long cardboard boxes filled with periodicals in plastic sleeves. Collectors pawed expertly through them, hoping to find a rare issue in with the dreck. Creators laid out their wares, mostly a mixture of self-published ‘zines and one or two glossy trades[6] or graphic novels. No swords, no t-shirts, no R2-D2 trash cans. I was most excited to meet Georges Jeanty, penciler for Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season Eight. When Jeanty heard I was working for AmeriCorps at the time, he would only take a nominal fee for the signed poster and sketch I bought from him.

The two events are on absolute opposites ends of the comic-con spectrum. SDCC is where studios and publishers announce major news for their franchises; SpringCon is where your mom sells your old comics without telling you. But both held the same meaning for me. I was there to commune with my tribe.

When the first comics conventions were held in the 1960s, they began as a place for readers to find back issues,[7] but they quickly filled a void for attendees. Comics were the farthest-out outsider medium around. They were dinky kid stuff, not something for adults to embrace. In anticipation of press, early organizers gave attendees behavior and dress guidelines. They didn’t want their fandom represented as fanatical, unwashed, half-grown nerds. They aspired to be taken seriously as aficionados of an emerging art form.

The events were electrifying for those early fans. They described them as, “spontaneous,” “organic,” even “sexy.” There was a feeling that anything could happen; it was a bold new frontier. The new cons gave the pros who’d been toiling for years the chance to discover that their work mattered to people. And it gave their fans a chance to see that they weren’t alone.

The “Seuling-cons” first brought comics the respectability their devotees craved. Will Eisner, the man for whom comic-book awards are named, described his first comic con in his keynote address for a 2002 symposium on himself. Eisner had created and produced a comic called The Spirit in the 1940s, a touchstone of the golden age of comics. By 1969, he was out of the game, but his fans remembered him. “At that time,” said Eisner, “I was a suit. I was running a publishing company up in Connecticut, and my secretary came in, and she said, ‘Mr. Eisner, there’s a man on the phone named Phil Seuling who says he’s got a comics convention down here in New York, and he wondered if you’d come down.’ Then she stopped and looked around the room to make sure there was no one else around, and she said ‘Were you ever a comic artist?’ ”

Eisner went to Seuling’s event, and there he encountered “a group of guys with long hair and scraggly beards who had been turning out what spun as literature.” He realized the original fans of his work were no longer 13-year-olds, and that the medium had reached the tipping point for which he’d always hoped. Eisner went back to Connecticut and was soon at work on A Contract With God, a groundbreaking masterpiece of the form.

Many who attend cons today may have only heard Eisner’s name in reference to the awards and are unaware of the broad influence he and Seuling had. Interest in comics at cons has largely fallen by the wayside. Indicative of this opinion, in a season-six episode of the CBS sitcomThe Big Bang Theory, when asked if a smaller and more comics-focused con is better than the gone-Hollywood San Diego Comic-Con, Jim Parson’s character, Sheldon, replies in the negative, and it gets a laugh.[8] The Big Bang Theory (which wrapped its first season in 2007) and Wizard World have a great deal in common: They both brought concepts and behaviors once considered uncool, immature, or escapist into the mainstream. They have done that by removing what they see as the less marketable elements of fandom, like actual comics. Despite having many scenes set in a comic-book store, non-superhero comics seem to be only mentioned when someone (usually a girl) asks for a recommendation. Mostly DC Comics are featured, unsurprisingly given they have a promotional deal wherein the characters wear custom-made shirts promoting Green Lantern and other DC properties.

Wizard World also downplays the importance of comics, making no effort to coax publishers or vendors to their shows. Instead, they recruit celebrities who will appeal to a broad range of customers. “Like Will Shatner,” said Wizard head of PR, Jerry Milani. “That’s a really broad pop-culture spectrum. That’s not just people who are sci-fi fans. People know him from T.J. Hooker. They know him from Boston Legal. They know him from the Priceline commercials. We have Dean Cain. He was Superman, but he has also been in every Lifetime movie, I think, that’s been done the last year. Like, he’s very prolific in that; so he has a really big female audience that comes out to see him.”[9] The Big Bang Theory takes a once scorned sub-culture, puts it on stage, and makes it dance for an audience’s amusement. Wizard World is cultural tourism. It’s a safe setting to indulge one’s nerdy tendencies, but if a peer begins to scoff, one can claim they’re just there because they really liked Dean Cain’s performance in The Dog Who Saved Christmas. 

Many people within the convention industry agree with Micah Taylor, one of the organizers of South Carolina Comic-Con, who said, “I seriously can’t tell you how many emails I received or how many people I heard in passing at our 2014 con say they first heard of the idea of a comic-con from The Big Bang Theory and, out of curiosity, decided to check ours out. So many of those people came out to our show, supported local artists, and bought their first comic at our show, and we think that’s amazing.”

Alan Moore, however, creator of Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and countless other stories, does not care for the mainstreaming of comics. He famously asked for his name to be taken off the film adaptation of Watchmen, giving his share of the proceeds to co-creator Dave Gibbons. Speaking to The Guardian in 2012, Moore said of modern comic-book superheroes: “The central characters are just franchises that can be worked endlessly to no apparent point.” In 2013, he further commented, calling the success of Avengers “alarming” and modern superhero fans “emotionally sub-normal.” It might go without saying, but Alan Moore has attended exactly one comic convention in 25 years, and it was not a Wizard World event.

Most fans fall somewhere between these poles. Yes, it’s great when pros who’ve been slugging it out in the trenches can be successful, but it breaks your heart when something with personal meaning is reduced as a product. Yes, it’s a big tent and everyone’s welcome, but also: Who are you n00bs and how did you get in here?

Wizard World Inc.’s business practices make it hard for fans to keep their balance between these extremes. Wizard, originally a magazine publisher, began running cons back in 1997. Starting in 2005, though, they began to run afoul of fans’ sense of fair play. They began using aggressive scheduling and acquisition tactics; if there was already a fandom event in the market they were looking at, they’d attempt to buy it. If they couldn’t do that, they’d have their event right across the street. Outcry was and continues to be intense, with writers like Matt Fraction calling out Wizard’s “abhorrent Wal-Mart-style business practices.” Many professionals and fans overtly boycott or simply have no interest in attending Wizard cons. No major publisher has had a presence at a one since 2009.

Milani said that the company has “no comment” on this matter.

After shuttering their print operations and going public in early 2011, it was not hard to find the now former Wizard staffers speaking ill of the company. Alejandro Arbona, a former associate editor for the magazine, tweeted that the company was run by “dishonest, disreputable, ethically rudderless businessmen playing a shell game.” Another former editor, Rob Bricken, called out the company’s management as “gutless shitweasels” in an article posted on Topless Robot’s website. Doug Goldstein, former VP of special projects who’d been with the company from the beginning, wrote that it “began as a silly fun-time friend and ended as an adversarial bully.”

Much of the vitriol spewed at Wizard is aimed at its founder and former president and CEO Gareb Shamus, who stepped down in late 2011. Anecdotes about Shamus and his brother, Stephen, circulate as unverifiable and ethereal as most things on the Internet. Shamus had attempted to build a cult of personality around himself, with his publisher’s column in the front of every issue of the magazine and later his blog. He attended every convention. But his ham-handed attempts to be accepted as just-another-nerd-like-you were called out as a marketing ploy by fans and other industry professionals.

Shamus is, of course, in favor of comics’ mainstreaming. In 2010, he spoke to Matthew J. Brady for Indie Pulp on how the characters are more marketable now that they’ve been divorced from the medium. “When you look at how comic books or the characters pervaded the media, they’ve become celebrities themselves,” he said. “They’ve become movie stars; they’ve become television stars; they’ve become video game stars or toy stars. So when you look at people, and how they’ve come to know Spider-Man, or Batman, or Star Wars, 10 years ago, 15 years ago, 20 years ago, they may have only known Spider-Man through a comic book… But today, hundreds of millions of people know Spider-Man through the movies, not by reading a comic book.”

As for the event itself, a Wizard World Comic-Con shares basic DNA with an event like SDCC or a regional, independent con in the same way a McDonald’s and a Ron’s hamburger are both a ground-beef patty on a bun. There are vendor floors, panels, celebrity meet-and-greets. The vendor mix changes from show to show, according to Milani, though Wizard booth-rental prices go down the more shows the vendor signs up for, putting local artists at a disadvantage. According to attendees of shows in other cities, vendors will skew high on cosplay items, low on comics themselves. Panels also vary, though one can expect how-to panels hosted by professionals on things like web-comics or cosplay, and Q&As with guests.[10]

An important wrinkle that first-time con attendees may not be aware of is that fans cannot expect to snap a picture or snag an autograph from their favorite actors without both paying an additional fee and signing up to do so in advance. These opportunity-products range from $20 for an autograph by Ari Lehman (Friday the 13th) to $165 for a picture with Norman Reedus, Michael Rooker, and Jon Bernthal (The Walking Dead).[11] (You can find the many caveats and addendums attached to these opportunity-products listed on Wizard World’s website.) According to Milani, this money goes directly to the performers. Some may be compensated additionally. For many of the guests, attending cons is a major, if not primary, source of income. For many, it is not.[12]

Wizard’s business practices and reputation may show them to be a less than desirable presence in the fandom-event scene, but they do provide an experience that many fans will appreciate—and may not be able to have otherwise. The film adaptation of Watchmen may have been a tragic desecration of a beloved book, but more people are buying comics than ever before. The trajectory of nerd culture is hard to determine—you’ll get different answers depending on what announcements Marvel has made that day.

In the 1940s, Will Eisner and his peers—such as Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, creators of Superman—took the funny pages and turned them into a medium that told engaging and lasting stories. Sure, they featured guys in tights and capes, or other escapist tales, but the stories meant something to the readers. When Eisner came the Comics Art Convention in ‘69, he left with the seed for A Contract With God, the story of an honorable and religious man dealing with personal tragedy and the seeming betrayal of his god. The book is a world away from the derring-do and fisticuffs of his original work on The Spirit. For Eisner, and many others of his era, the con experience elevated their expectations of the medium. The community they encountered inspired them to hold themselves and their work to a higher standard.

In 2008, the industry made another big leap—off the page and onto not only the big screen but the cultural hive mind. It remains to be seen if this will move comics and nerd culture onto their next plane. Anecdotes like the story of Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man are worrisome. Wright, creator of films like Shaun of the Dead and The World’s End, had tossed around an Ant-Man movie since 2003. In 2006, Marvel agreed to produce his loving, funny take on one of the original Avengers. In 2014, with release set for the following year, Wright left the project over creative differences.

Imagine a comics creator from the 1970s attending his first convention, a Wizard World event in 2014. Would he feel that his work had been elevated, appreciated on a higher level than even he’d dared hope for? Or would he feel even more forgotten?


Footnotes:

1. Nov. 7–9 at the Cox Business Center.

2. The Incredible Hulk also came out that year, and would be Marvel Cinematic Universe’s lowest-earning film.

3. “Cosplay” is a portmanteau coined by a Japanese journalist to describe fans dressing up as favorite characters, combining the words “costume” and “play.”

4. Comic-con flu is a known thing among repeat attendees.

5. The Magic Cephalopod. Less of a character, more of a concept.

6. Trade is short for trade paperback, or collection of several consecutive issues of a comic book series.

7. Originally, comics were sold like newspapers or magazines, with back issues being sent back to the publisher at a discount. In the early ‘70s, Seuling introduced a direct market distribution system, which allowed for the complex storylines and wide variety of titles we know today.

8. Leonard also gets a laugh when his girlfriend says they just went to Comic Con, and he replies, “That was San Diego Comic-Con; this is Bakersfield Comic-Con,” implying that there are a) many different fandom events and b) people who attend more than one a year are humorous.

9. Leaving aside assumptions about female audiences and Lifetime movies, Dean Cain has been in quite a few films. According to IMDB’s website, he has starred in seven released this year, seven more not yet released, one currently filming, and four in pre-production. Not all are Lifetime movies, nor can it be determined if he has been in every film produced by Lifetime in the past year.

10. Milani stated that all celebrity guests except Norman Reedus of The Walking Dead will be doing Q&As at Tulsa’s event.

11. The latter is a steal, given that a shot with just Reedus will cost you $100.

12. For reference, Reedus commands $80,000 per episode. William Shatner is worth $100 million. Net worth for guests like Lehman or David Della Rocca is not available, assumingly because the amount is under $1 million.


Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 21, November 1, 2014.