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Thoughts on the San Diego Comic-Con 2000+

As I wrote in Indian Comics Irregular #36, the outlook for minority comics, and the industry as a whole, seemed grim. I didn't see many publishers making a splash with new or innovative ideas. It seemed people were retrenching, digging in, wringing the last few drops out of tired old properties.

To give a couple of examples, Neal Adams—one of the biggest superstars two decades ago—seemed to be pushing a hero called Knighthawk. It looked as derivative as it sounds—a ripoff of at least three or four earlier characters. Nicola Cuti of E-Man fame was pushing his Captain Cosmos, a space hero who ray-guns big monsters with tentacles. Cosmos even dreams of 1950s radio characters like Tom Corbett, making the linkage explicit.

Sure, a few people displayed online comics over Internet hookups, but nothing that looked better than your average video game. There were no signs of Stan Lee or his www.stanlee.net—the type of media mogul who might make the Internet work. And few signs (e.g., Fandom.com, Toonscape.com) of the industry players needed to build and sustain an online infrastructure.

Among the minority properties I saw were:

None of these made a deep impression; none looked to rejuvenate the medium or even last beyond a handful of books. As Ash Ketchum might say, gotta catch 'em now—before they're gone.

Sandman, Star Wars, Spawn
I was glad to see that several panel speakers echoed my themes. Speaking on whether comics are literature, A. David Lewis examined WATCHMEN and SANDMAN and came to the obvious conclusion that they are. Why? Because they have several levels of meaning, Lewis's chief criterion for quality literature.

Another speaker, Thomas Schilz, compared Star Wars to the novel Last of the Mohicans and found many parallels. In particular, he claimed the Sand People, Chewbacca, the Ewoks, and Jar Jar Binks were all variations on the Indian as "noble savage." From this he concluded Star Wars qualifies as a literary work.

I'm not sure I'd agree with him there. So what if Chewbacca and the others were "faithful companions" a la Tonto? A positive stereotype is still a stereotype. You can try passing off a centuries-old stereotype as an archetype, but that alone doesn't elevate a work above a crude radio serial or dime novel.

Anita McDaniel, a professor who spoke on my panel, overshadowed my talk with her controversial take on Spawn. She claimed Spawn is a positive black character because he can choose whether to indulge in violence or not. He isn't forced into the role by white society.

The audience quickly raised objections. As someone noted, Spawn is a soldier—a stereotype of the black man as warrior. Like Steel, he hides his blackness beneath a costume that reveals no skin. When Spawn briefly had the power to transform his appearance, he could change only into a white man.

McDaniel pointed to Todd McFarlane's use of his friend Al Simmons as the model for Spawn. When asked why make Spawn black, noted McDaniel, McFarlane answered "Why not?" She found McFarlane's answer fraught with hidden meaning. Others thought it an example of McFarlane's industry power.

Later I talked with Don McGregor, creator of SABRE and DETECTIVES INC. McGregor said the real Al Simmons regretted being Spawn's source and ought to sue McFarlane. McGregor didn't elaborate on why Simmons was upset, but it's not hard to imagine reasons.

Overall, publishers at the Con were struggling to find a way to make comics work. Most were talking about taking their comics to a trade paperback, magazine, or online format. Even Mark Waid, stalwart defender of traditional comics, suggested DC should go to an all-Elseworlds format. He felt it would permit more creative takes on established characters.

But a panel on self-publishing was filled to overflowing with kids (and adults) wanting to do comics. Hope springs eternal, I guess. We'll see whether comics survive and in what form.

Thoughts on 2001's Con
Upward or downward trends as I perceived them at the 2001 Comic-Con, July 19-20:

Perhaps business was down and activity was muted because of Bush's near-recession. Or perhaps the comics industry is once again imploding—permanently? Impossible to say.

One upward trend deserves special mention. I don't recall seeing anything like them before, but there were five or so weapons dealers on hand. They were peddling either real swords and knives or realistic-looking guns. (I presume they fired only BBs or blanks, not real bullets.)

What next...do-it-yourself bomb kits so you can be like your favorite terrorist? Just when the ultra-violent heroes who carry guns start disappearing, we have the actual guns for sale. Wonderful.

Thoughts on 2002's Con
A report from Chuck Rozanski of Mile High Comics on the San Diego Comic-Con, August 1-4. I'd say his take on the Con is basically accurate:

Yesterday, I alluded to one problem [expansion] has caused, which is the dissipation of the pure comics atmosphere of the convention. I spent a bit more time searching for comics booths this afternoon, and I found an entire area buried to one side filled with the dealers who used to be the core of the convention. These people were all moved this year from their traditional locations into an area reserved strictly for back issue comics and comics art dealers. While this did make it easier for fans to shop for old comics or comics art, I heard many complaints from the dealers about having been moved to the far side of the convention hall, where the overall foot traffic is far less than in the middle. The general feeling I heard expressed from the dealers was that the convention staff has abandoned its traditional constituency in favor of the deeper pockets of the media, game, and toy companies. This does not bode well for the future of the San Diego Comic-Con International. While there is a larger compliment of comics dealers exhibiting this year than I represented in yesterday's newsletter, I think the number of old-line comics dealers exhibiting at the show will shrink even further next year. I believe this would be a very sad development, as meeting with those old friends has been much of the rationale for Mile High Comics to exhibit at the San Diego convention.

Moving on from the distress I feel at how the convention is changing, I have to admit that this social and cultural phenomenon that has evolved from what began as a simple gathering point for fans of comics is simply amazing. While comics are no longer in the forefront, what exists today is an astoundingly vibrant and exciting exhibition of all manners of popular culture. The broad appeal of the current exhibitors is reflected in the remarkable diversity of the crowd at this show. Last year, I made a big deal about how young women were starting to flock to the show without the impetus of following a boyfriend or mate. This trend grew even more this year, with women now constituting at least 40% of the overall attendees of the convention. Taking this trend even further, the racial and social makeup of the crowd now reflects the most extreme diversity that the polyglot nature of the American democracy can provide. During my traditional 30 minutes that I spent standing still at the middle of the hall on Saturday afternoon, I was struck by how every creed and nationality was represented at the convention. Even older women, the last remaining group that was underrepresented at the convention, are starting to come into the show from the San Diego community. I was watching some of these 50+ ladies as they browsed the hall, and I was surprised at how much they seemed to be enjoying the color and dynamic imagery of the convention. This simply would not have been the case 10 years ago. San Diego Comic-Con International has, quite literally, become an event that has elements which can please anyone.

More on the San Diego Comic-Con
Black Ghost at Comic-Con 2008
Pix of Comic-Con 2008
Report on Comic-Con 2008
Arigon Starr at Comic-Con
Culture at the 2007 Comic-Con
Pix of the 2007 Comic-Con
Rabbit and Bear Paws at Comic-Con
War at Home report
Indians at the 2006 Comic-Con
Pix of the 2006 Comic-Con

Related links
The future of comics

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Original text and pictures © copyright 2007 by Robert Schmidt.

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