AISLE SEAT 2.0.53
By Marc Mason
You’d think that having a good-size comicon in my backyard would make it easier to spent a couple of days at the show and absorb a large chunk of the programming at the very least. However, it’s just the opposite; when at San Diego, there’s nothing else to focus on but the con. When the show is a 20-minute train ride away, you still have to focus on dealing with daily life. Thus, as it was for the 2009 edition, I was only going to have one day at the con. Friday.
That said, I feel like I got plenty out of that day, and I had fun. And the show, with its new changes, continues to improve and build its profile and reputation.
I arrived on Friday afternoon with no real agenda in mind. The only thing I knew for sure that I would be doing that day wasn’t taking place until after the show was over- dinner with Steven Grant, friend and comics veteran, a man who knows where the bodies are buried and who dug the holes. But until then, as Grant was signing his latest graphic novel, ODYSSEUS THE REBEL at Big Head Press’ table right up until the show closed at 8pm, I was free to roam.
Of course, I stepped off the train, and as I went to cross the street to go into the Phoenix Convention Center (the new home for the show, and the best improvement the organizers made), the first thing I did was run into Steven who was on a break from signing. After a brief catchup, I went inside, got directions from a helpful volunteer, and picked up my press badge. Enter: writer boy.
But I want to digress for a moment on the subject of badges, because this is still where the show falls down the most. I will say that the Phoenix con badges are always attractive, which is great. But they still lack any sort of name or identification of affiliation, which is a larger issue for a smaller con. Two, in order to pick up my badge, I actually had to read a list of rules for the press and sign an agreement to abide by their rules. This is, frankly, fucking stupid. If the show has had issues with press misbehaving before, they need to be more judicious about who they give badges to. If they haven’t the show needs to back up and trust in professionals to do their job. Anyone that takes the job seriously knows how to conduct themselves at a convention and around potential subjects. If organizers have had issues with entry-level bloggers, then don’t give them credentials.
Guys: San Diego puts their rules on their website. That’s all you need to do. Really.
I walked into the show and began strolling through the floor. This year’s setup had a lot more room than years last, and the number of vendors was solid. Wisely, the Wildstorm and Top Cow setups were right inside the front doors, giving an instant eye-draw for attendees as they walked in. But just past them began some retail, then some smaller press folks. There was care taken in blending various types of booths on the rows, which I liked very much. That keeps attendees from skipping rows entirely and draws more eyes to booths that might need a bit more help. That was design high point number one; as I reached the far side of the show, I discovered the celebrity autograph tables, which was high point number two. Unlike a show run by Wizard, the Phoenix organizers made you work a bit to get over to see James Marsters, Levar Burton, Felicia Day and friends. The design pushed people past some dinner before getting to dessert. I can’t say enough about how much I appreciated this level of thinking. Unlike San Diego, which buries artists’ alley and pushes the Hollywood up front, the comics folk were more towards the center of the show… where they belong.
The first person I chatted with as I walked the floor was Eric Mengel, a local AZ artist who had recently sent me the guts of the second volume of his OCHO series, asking me for a pull quote for the back. The books were in, and he happily handed one over, which was kind of him. I was amused to see that I am actually two of the quotes on the back, the first coming from when I reviewed volume one back when I was at Kevin Smith’s MoviePoopShoot. Eric’s a good guy, and he’s been busting his hump on his book for a long time. I’m happy for him that he’s now two volumes in on what I hope will be a long run for him on his book.
As I rounded the corner, I saw the smiling face of Rob Osborne, one of the coolest cats in comics. Rob used to be a full-time Zonie, but now that he lives in Texas, he just pops over for visits and cons. What always cracks me up about the guy is that he doesn’t even remotely look like a comicbook artist; he has the firmest handshake of any dude I know, and with his bald head he looks like an MMA fighter. Rob had a new printing of his 1000 STEPS TO WORLD DOMINATION graphic novel on hand, along with two new efforts- OLD MAN, and GO FORTH AND CONQUER. I picked up all three- my copy of STEPS had disappeared a long time ago, and I won’t miss new stuff from his pen. Rob was also debuting a new book on Saturday (which I would miss) that he wrote and Tony Parker (Boom’s DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP?) drew, and I’m pretty jealous of those that will be going home with it this weekend. I’m going to have to order mine once Rob gets back to “yee haw!” land.
Did some more walking across the floor, and bumped into another face I know well: Jason Martin, creator of SUPER REAL and publisher of Super Real Graphics. Jason recently finished the first volume of SR, and his trade paperback came out quite nicely. He was selling that, some sketchbooks, his PULP GIRLS art book, some prints… the variety of material he had available was pretty impressive. He’s branched out as a publisher and been producing works from others over the past eighteen months or so, and one of those books is the ludicrously named (and covered) ZOMBIE TRAMP. With a title like that, you know it’s either going to be 1) hilarious or 2) godawful to the extreme, which means issues one and two made their way home with me. Jason was down here for his first Phoenix show, and I think he’s a convert. The scene here really seems angled towards appreciating his work, so I’m guessing he had a strong weekend.
Not far down from Jason was Paul Horn, one of my fave folks in the business, and creator of my favorite webcomic, COOL JERK. I met Paul back in 2004, when the strip was solely online and in a yearly minicomic he put together to sell at cons, and I’ve watched his empire slowly build up as the years have passed. He has two CJ collections out in stores (with a third on the way this summer), another separate cartoon strip collection, a good selection of merchandise, and more. Paul is a testament to the fact that you can be ridiculously talented and still be a really nice guy. If there were more people like Horn making comics, the field would be much richer, and I’d be much poorer from having to buy all their work. He was having a pretty amusing time of it, as his booth was next to a goth and alt-oriented jewelry maker, and teenaged girls were piling up and blocking the sightlines to his area. Thus, the perils of a convention- you never quite know what sort of neighbors you’re going to have, and even if they’re friendly, they might still wind up being difficult. But cons being cons, I suspect it all equaled out before the weekend was over.
After more walking, I bumped into one of the best retailers I’ve ever known, Randy Tusha. He’s a good guy, honest, and trades fairly- qualities that can be in short supply in comics. I hadn’t seen him in a while- he’s been sticking to online sales for the past couple of years- but it was great to catch up and to get his good news: he’s opening a brick-and-mortar store over in Mesa. The area where he’s setting up shop has no store even remotely close to it, and I think the locals will respond to him and his impressive stock. That also means I have a trading partner again and I can get some of these comics out of my house, so it’s a win for me, too!
Just down the row from Randy I spotted John Layman, good pal and writer-extraordinaire. The past year has seen John finally getting the kudos he deserves from comics, as his book CHEW has been lighting up the sales charts. He’s also seen volume one of the trade paperback soar up the NEW YORK TIMES best-seller list. If you haven’t read CHEW (from Image Comics), shame on you- it’s brilliant, and I’d say that whether I knew John or not. If you’re sick of the “norm” in comics, the book’s humor and wild unpredictability make sure that you get your three bucks worth every issue. I chatted with John for a while, caught up on stuff with his family, and made plans to attend a panel he was doing later in the day, then headed off on my way.
I finally hit the last aisle (whereupon I discovered the celebrity tables) and found myself at an impasse. I had about 45minutes until John’s panel, and I didn’t want to make another trip through the floor yet. Thus I took a break, walking over to Brooklyn Pizza and getting an ice-cold root beer.
Folks, that’s the key to successfully navigating any comicon. Don’t spend every waking moment in the building. Take the time to walk away. Get some fresh air. Have a tasty beverage that you don’t pay convention center prices for. Relax.
The con will still be there when you walk back inside.
After I finished my drink, I headed back to the con for John’s panel. He was paired with Raven Gregory for a session on “Getting Signed in Comics”, which John opened up the talk by admitting he didn’t understand, as he had never signed anything. Instead, he and Gregory shifted over into talking a bit about breaking in, sending samples, and meeting editors. Mostly, though, it was a way for the duo to spend an hour telling stories… what writers do best. This was the first time I had listened to Gregory, but I’ve always known John to be a brilliant raconteur, so the hour was a fun one. I also gave my card to a young artist who had asked some questions of the guys; hey- nothing wrong with doing a little talent scouting when you’ve got the time, right? I wandered back onto the floor for a bit after that, chatting a bit more with John and then deciding to make a concerted effort to check out some of the smaller press comics to see what was available. The one that stuck out most to me came from a local woman named Jean Arrow. Her stuff looked a little closer to primetime than most of the rest on the floor, so I took a flyer on her first comic, EXTRAORDINARY TALES OF LAZER WOMAN & STRONG GIRL, which she described to me as “short”. I got a laugh out of that, and with that I pulled the trigger on the two $1 art prints she had on her table as well. I liked her humility. From there, I popped back over to catch Randy again and take him to meet John. I figured that a new shop could use a good signing, and Randy excitedly agreed. Intros were made, Randy bought a set of CHEWs from John, and hopefully they’ll be able to put something together.
After a bit more browsing, I decided to hi another panel. This time it was the “Southwest Sketch-Off”, which saw a number of the artist guests gathered together and whipping up art for the Art Auction. Participants included Peter Gross, Jamal Igle, and Philip Tan, and there was a lot of fun going on. The moderator was coming up with sketch themes, and the audience was throwing out suggestions for the (I believe there were as many as nine) artists to whip up. One round had characters with the word “doctor” in their names. Another was “Fantastic Four villains”. My favorite round was “80s references”. As the artists drew, the moderators asked trivia questions and entertained the crowd. In short, it was a lot of fun. I spent almost 90minutes at this lengthy panel, enjoying appreciating the spirit and humor of the goings on and being impressed by what the guys were turning out. It was a great capper to my day at the con.
The clock approached 8pm, and I went back inside the hall to meet Steven and head off to dinner. The day had been long, but nice. The con’s organizers made the most out of the change of venue, their design was strong, and the crowds were enthusiastic. The amount of cosplayers easily broke 50% of the attendees, showing off the hunger that the Phoenix area has for its show. Volunteers were educated, security was reasonably polite, the crowds were behaving themselves… You can’t say enough good things about the level of execution. I tip my cap to the show, and I can only believe that it will get better now that it has settled into the Phoenix Convention Center.
As for dinner? It was good. But as I said, Steven knows where all the bodies are buried, and if I told you any of the stories that he shared with me, then my body would join them. Some things, as always, are better left a mystery.