OMNIUM GATHERUM 67
Welcome once again to the Omnium Gatherum.
And on the second day of Comic-Con, I wished I could rest. But there was too much to do, from checking in at The Antidote Trust booth to taking time and walking the floor to talking with old friends. And finding the time to go to at least one panel.
I only went to one panel on the second day because, while speaking with friends, I completely forgot about the Grant Morrison panel and missed it. That happens some times at CCI; the show is so big with so many people that one gets caught up in one activity to the detriment of another.
No matter, though. I did make the one panel I really did want to attend. Which was the Nappy Hour, moderated by Keith Knight.
Knight--an award winning cartoonist whose work crosses between mainstream and alternative worlds with ease--had, for many years, hosted a gathering of black creators after hours at a local bar in San Diego. These gatherings, informal to the point where the invitation would often be photocopies of hand drawn notes done by Knight, were a meeting place for a group of people who might have thought they were the only ones but truly weren’t.
This year, with his status as a special guest of Comic-Con International, Knight was given the opportunity to bring the gathering into the light of day.
I entered room 3 at the San Diego Convention Center to see a nice size crowd for a brand new panel. The crowd itself was lively and mixed of race and gender. A buzz of conversation filled the room while folks waited for the arrival of the panelists.
The first to arrive was Spike Troutman, creator of Templar, AZ, followed by Dwayne McDuffie, one of the founders of Milestone Media, co-creator of Static, and writer and story editor on Ben 10, Justice League, and other shows.
Spike, in the time before the panel began, entertained the early arrivers with humor and conversation. That early banter would reflect the way in which she dealt with the questions to come.
Dwayne added into the flow of conversation but mostly watched.
As the time for the panel to formally begin rapidly approached, Keith Knight prepped a large tablet for what the audience and I would learn to be the series of questions he wanted the panel to answer.
While I sat taking notes on my laptop, I had an odd feeling. I wasn’t too far off-base as Michael Davis, another of the founders of Milestone and moderator/mastermind behind that annual Comic-Con event The Black Panel sat behind me and greeted me. Now, I tend to be so focused on what I’m doing sometimes I can be oblivious to other stimuli in my presence. This was one of those times. I was so intent upon taking notes for this column, I simply took Mr. Davis’ outstretched hand and shook it. It was shortly after that it occurred to me how weird it was for him to sit behind me. Perhaps it was my critique of The Black Panel 2009, which I entitled Niggapalooza (for those who didn’t read that piece you can find it here, that drew him to sit where he did. I also wondered why he was there anyway. Was it to check out the competition? Was he afraid of anyone criticizing him openly? Who knows? And really who cares? I, like everyone else in the room, was there to listen to and enjoy the Nappy Hour.
Which was dangerously close to starting late.
There was an unquiet rustle in the room as the time to begin approached. Or had it nearly passed? I wasn’t completely sure myself. But does anything involving us black folk always have to start late? I hoped not at the same time I worried it would.
To kill time and take my mind off of the impending disastrous start for the Nappy Hour, I looked around the room once again. For a first time with this panel, I noticed the room had filled up pretty quickly. There was high energy in the room.
Finishing his preparations at the easel, Keith Knight took the stage as the din of the casual conversations continued.
I turned to look at the room again. Now it was close to standing room only. A very nice turn out it was looking like.
I wondered if the late beginning more indicative of Knight’s style than of an attack of Colored People’s Time in public. A throwback to the laid back manner of the original bar oriented Nappy Hour, perhaps? I wasn’t sure but desperately wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt this time.
Knight finally took the podium and announced that this was the first Nappy Hour officially sponsored by Comic-Con International. Following the applause, he introduced himself and his work and gave a brief history of the Nappy Hour. Knight particularly focused on his original intent for creating the Nappy Hour, namely a chance to meet with other black creators at a bar to talk shop. He wanted to bring the Nappy Hour to a larger audience, especially to show this gathering wasn’t exclusive to black folk and that anyone could attend and enjoy. Knight delivered his opening monologue in a relaxed and joking style.
Knight then looked at his panelists and noticed he was two short. One, David Walker, couldn’t attend CCI due to other matters. The other, Ned Cato, Jr., an official with CCI and operator of geekroundtable.com, hadn’t arrived at start time and possibly wouldn’t due to his schedule and/or any bizarre happenings on the convention floor.
So, Knight seemed to feel the best way to handle this situation was to have the two present panelists introduce each other. Spike, coming from the independent side of the comics industry, admitted she didn’t know who Dwayne McDuffie was but that upon hearing she would be on a panel with her, her husband informed her of McDuffie’s ties to Milestone and to the TV show Static Shock. None of this impressed her. But when she learned he was black, Spike looked him up on Facebook and friended him. It was somewhat interesting to hear Dwayne’s resume from Spike’s perspective.
As Spike finished, Ned arrived late due to business with CCI.
Dwayne basically said he saw and friended Spike on Facebook and that was all he knew, quick and to the point.
Keith took his turn and talked about Spike in a casual manner. He mentioned his Facebook connection with her. In turn, Spike retorted something I didn’t remember but it killed the audience. Leading to applause for her.
Knight then introduced Ned who spoke of his involvement as CCI floor manager, of his website geekroundtable.com, and his relationship with Knight.
Knight referred to Ned as the Negro Whisperer for his strength/impossible task of dealing with “difficult” black creators on the floor. Particularly Knight himself. He then mentioned an incident earlier at this show when Ned approached Knight with a scolding look up his face and spoke to Knight in Swahili. The audience laughed.
Knight returned to his description of the Nappy Hour, only to be interrupted by Spike’s sarcastic commentary.
Knight started to explain his approach to this panel, was interrupted again by Spike (if it seems as if I don’t like her, that isn’t the case; however, she did offer comments and commentary at times that were almost off-putting to me), and then continued to describe the approach of having a list of subjects to cover by the panel.
Which brought us to the easel that held Knight’s attention just before the panel began.
Written upon the white tablet were the following subjects: That Black Thing: Do’s and Don’ts; A Character You’d Love To Write For; Awkward Moments; Kickstarter; and SDCCI, Where Is It Going?
First up was That Black Thing. Knight asked the panel how does being black affect their comics and other work?
To get the ball rolling, Knight mentioned only getting work or consideration for work during February.
Spike then, with humor and some veiled anger, tackled the topic by saying it had lost her interviews with newspapers, jobs, et cetera by being constantly assaulted with a variation on the topic question: how does being a black female affect your comics work or your ability to sell your comics? One could tell by the time her answer was complete this was a very touchy subject with her.
Dwayne initially deferred to Ned, who said the black thing was something he tries to interject into his work, into events at CCI. It was why he created the Geek Round Table. That black thing is what he pushes out onto the world everyday.
Dwayne went into the struggles of dealing with mainstream comics (mentioning there were 2 black writers in mainstream superhero comics 20 years ago and now there’s 3). Spike interjected from her worldview about that number. Dwayne wrapped up his answer quickly after that.
Knight mentioned The Comics Journal’s black artist issue, issue #160, as an early inspiration to him to pursue cartooning. Even though he couldn’t draw, he wanted to do this comics thing so badly he found a way to make what drawing he could do work for him. As Knight spoke about this to Dwayne, McDuffie talked about the reaction to that issue in the Journal’s letters pages. And how Fantagraphics ended up apologizing to its angry readers for covering black cartoonists. Dwayne’s still mad about that reaction, albeit in a joking manner. Knight mentioned the problems and the hypocrisy about that issue and the comics industry’s reaction to black creators.
I thought to myself, and now the white folks bashing begins. Does it always come down to this for people of color? Ending up complaining about how we are treated by whites?
As I wondered about that, Keith Knight revealed he had brought a timer of some kind to the panel to control how long the group would speak on a particular topic. He struggled with timer briefly before it went off on time.
Assured it was working properly, Knight moved on to the next topic: Do’’s and Don’ts. He elaborated upon the topic by asking more general questions: how to do comics; what to do; any advice for the audience on getting into comics, coping with cons, etc.
Spike’s basic advice was don’t trash anybody in the industry because the comics world is small. Dwayne interjected his opinion about that point and Spike countered. She then mentioned her minor participation in the Spurlock documentary being filmed at Comic-Con, pointing out how she didn’t fit the casting profile but tried anyway. She also said one should always practice. And be prepared to sacrifice some aspect of one’s life: dating, etc.
Ned pointed to social media as a way of creating and growing an audience. Along with the old yet new advice of writing daily (blogs are good for that kind of writing), anything to keep audiences coming to your web presence. Blogging ain’t hard, according to Mr. Cato; start with two words a day, then move to three, etc. Ned added the always good to hear advice not to give up and to develop a hard skin. He suggested one could grow their audience through momentum. Finally repeating himself to say continue, continue, don’t give up.
Dwayne’s advice was don’t tell your friends about your ideas, but make the work, make the comics. Also to take advantage of comics convention to speak with creators, that most creators will share their experiences. But please don’t send Dwayne your trilogy; he suggested sending it to Michael Davis instead.
Knight’s words of wisdom were don’t eat the food downstairs at the San Diego Convention Center. That there was nothing worse than the public restrooms on the Saturday at Comic-Con. In a more serious tone, he said to persevere, to keep working at it. That all creativity and producing art is a muscle. With that answer, Knight beat the buzzer.
Knight moved to the next topic, A Character You’d Love To Write For.
Dwayne tackled this one first, saying he has been lucky in his career to write most of the characters he was most interested in writing. Perhaps he would like to write Little Lulu. Or maybe even The Doctor from the BBC’s Doctor Who.
Spike was next, admitting she was behind on mainstream characters. Although, because of her introduction to the X-Men characters via the Fox films, she would be interested in writing Angel and Beak from Grant Morrison’s New X-Men run. Spike said she hated the ways angel was drawn, reflecting that the character would change looks depending on the artist but were usually not representative of how black women look in reality. She found the relationship between the two characters interesting and would want to develop them more.
Ned admitted he has never written for comics. But that his ideal character to attempt would be Storm of the X-Men and Black Panther fame. Ned would want to make her more regal, more African in personality and manner, to give Storm more negritude. Spike at this point added Storm should divorce the Black Panther, an idea that was met mostly with a few boos from the audience and some laughs.
Keith said he would like to try writing for Daffy Duck, saying to any Warners executives who might have been in the room he has some big ideas for a cartoon or two. Keith felt Daffy is the most versatile of the classic Warners cartoon characters, in the sense that one could do anything with him. He mentioned Daffy as crazed miser and as Robin Hood as examples of the character’s versatility. And, just as he said that, Knight beat the buzzer again.
A time was coming when the buzzer would win the day, though.
Shifting gears, Keith asked the panel to share with the audience any Awkward Moments they dealt with in the past. What Knight was looking for wasn’t simply embarrassing moments, but those odd times some but hopefully not all black people face when interacting with whites who are clueless to the nuances and minutiae of being African American. He added that a lot of awkward moments happen at cons, those awkward race moments.
Spike quickly spoke up with don’t touch her hair, which is done in the so-called dreadlocks. Please don’t pet her hair. It took 14 years to get it that way but it isn’t something out of a freak show or anything like that. The audience found both laughter and agreement with Spike’s somewhat heated response.
Dwayne, after playfully admitting he didn’t like answering after Spike, talked about the Static Shock television show experience. That the show, and therefore he, never had any toys, posters, shirts, or stickers made to promote the program. McDuffie recounted how, in a meeting with a large toy company about trying to get some Static toys on the market, had an executive say to him that black folks don’t buy their children toys, so why do static toys (Michael Davis, not one to let a moment pass that couldn’t reflect back upon himself, added his two cents into this recollection from behind me). Dwayne tried to deflect the still with him pain of this statement by saying that of course black people don’t buy toys for their children since they have all those dirty syringes to play with and the like. A knowing laugh came from the audience and the panel alike. Then he pointed out that Static Shock as a cartoon had an 80% white demographic, but wasn’t thought worthy of having a toy line unlike many other shows.
Spike added that she hated this attitude from the mainstream. This pattern of whitewashing aspects of culture, of discarding and disregarding peoples of color in the great pop cultural melting pot.
Ned interjected not completely under his breath, naming names such as The Last Airbender, Starship Troopers, and others.
Then Ned admitted to having so many awkward moments that it would be hard to narrow them down. But he confessed to being very sarcastic and that he has to tone it down when dealing with Comic-Con attendees. He recalls a situation where, after organizing a disjointed autograph line, those in line with tickets to receive autographs kept asking him if they would actually receive the very autographs for which they were in line and had tickets. Ned said he got in trouble for correcting one slow lady by making her repeat several times that she would get an autograph because she had a ticket. He also confessed that his sarcasm rises during Comic-Con. But, really can anyone fault him for this?
Keith Knight started to answer, got buzzed but went ahead anyway. He recounted a time when he received a call from old college friend, wondering if Knight was interested in doing some art for this person’s company. Being a working artist Keith was interested. Until he found out the work was for a malt liquor company. Knight tried to defer and deflect some by mentioning the political tone of work, as a way of kindly backing out of the project, but his friend still wanted Keith because, well, malt liquor is aimed at black folk. And surely, how could Keith resist?
With that bit still lingering in the air, Knight pushed on to the next topic, and hot current one it was: Kickstarter.com
Knight preambled by saying it is easier to self publish nowadays versus the immediate past, and now it is becoming easier to self fund projects. Via Kickstarter.
Spike took up this topic, as she had the most experience with Kickstarter. She was onto Kickstarter before it became cool. Spike described the website and idea, for those who didn’t know, as a place where one can ask for donations from ordinary folks to help fund worthwhile creative projects. She pointed out that if you are already going ahead with work on their project, then Kickstarter will work for you; but if you have nothing, basically no Kickstarter for you. Spike continued to describe her experience. When she first started out doing comics, Spike, like many basically starved and struggled. She wanted to share her experiences in learning how to survive on less with other up and coming cartoonist via a comics project. But, with her own webcomic to do, she would need another artist to work on the project. And she wanted to be able to pay that artist for his or her work. Unfortunately, she wasn’t getting rich on the webcomic. So what to do? Well, here was Kickstarter. Spike put together a proposal and submitted the project. Her goal was $6000. By the time the funding deadline was reached, people had donated upwards of $13000. Spike then shifted into some self promotion, holding up copies of the Templar AZ trades, saying the new book would be similar in design. Poorcraft is the name of the Kickstarter project. Spike concluded by suggesting for some of the audience members interested in creating comics to go to Kickstarter.com before searching out a publisher. That they should be independent.
Dwayne took up the topic, saying he was looking to buy a house and got buzzed by the timer. But I think the universe was having its moment of commentary as well.
Running over the time, Spike added that the creator of Rocco’s Modern Life has funded a new project via Kickstarter.
Knight wondered if the other panelists were interested in going this route.
Dwayne said he wants to finish Road To Hell, a 20 year old graphic novel project. But his real problem is he can’t keep artist on the book past the first 100 pages.
Ned shifted away from using Kickstarter to talk about a return of community and community funding. He asked if the audience remembered days of rent parties. Ned told the audience to talk with local folks, their churches, neighbors, and others. He was very interested and even passionate about restoring a sense of community in America. And that any creators out in the crowd should become mentors.
Keith, aware of the rapidly evaporating time, broached the final topic and the most controversial. That of where would the Comic-Con be in 2012 and beyond.
Michael Davis, after having been behaved for so long, just had to blurt out that the show would not be leaving San Diego. Trying to recover the panel’s focus Knight tried again to receive answers from the panelists, but Mr. Davis just had to interrupt loudly again.
This breach of decorum (okay, I know this is Comic-Con, so I may be asking an awful lot from attendees, but still, where was the courtesy?) continued as an audience member mentioned that Disney now owns the show, implying it would be moving, perhaps to Anaheim.
At that point, Ned had no other choice but to correct this lady and put it out to the crowd that the show, that Comic-Con International is ours, that it belongs to the fans. He continued to say that no one working for CCI is paid. That he always has been a volunteer with the organization, that he isn’t being paid for his time and efforts during the show. I could tell this was and is a very sensitive topic for those who give of themselves to Comic-Con.
Spike seemed amused by the feeling from some but not all independent creators who attend the show that growing Comic-Con will help them. She felt that CCI being bigger isn’t designed or done for the small creators, but for Hollywood.
Knight added that when Comic-Con and the hotel housing attendees sell out early, it simply does not allow any new folks to attend the show.
Spike related the story of a colorist she knows who couldn’t get a room at this year’s show and who was sleeping on her hotel room floor. Not an uncommon occurrence even going back to the pre-Hollywood days of Comic-Con, but still demonstrates both the need for a place with more affordable hotel rooms and the desire by many to attend this show. Spike concluded by picking up on Keith’s point that Comic-Con should be more accessible to more people.
Dwayne, trying to lighten the mood of the panel and the audience but also speaking perhaps to another aspect of the problems facing the show, said Comic-Con International needs to keep comping him his hotel stay.
Feeling the growing tension in the room, Ned spoke up to say that Comic-Con has no plans of leaving San Diego. However, before the crowd could react to this statement, he continued by adding that the San Diego Convention Center, as it exists today, is just too small for the show. Ned said that outside of moving to somewhere else, the show can’t grow. Simply put, Ned continued, the city needs to expand the convention center. Which is an approved project with a projected cost of nearly $769 million. The question then is where will San Diego find the money?
Spike exclaimed Kickstarter as a way to raise the capital needed.
Dwayne asked when the proposed expansion of the center could be done by.
Ned answered, saying if the plan were to go into effect this year, the expansion would be done by late 2014, so he felt that 2015 would be the date by which Comic-Con would have use of the added space.
The audience, trying to help, asked about sending more Comic-Con programming to the neighboring hotels.
Ned replied, saying CCI is already doing that. But that the hotels balk at added expense of food and drink of those people wandering through their facilities. He continued by reminding us all that Comic-Con International is a non profit organization. It is very difficult to deal with businesses that worry about the bottom line. Comic-Con doesn’t want to leave San Diego. But, as Ned wrapped up, reality may force a change of venue. And then the buzzer sounded.
Knight started to open up the floor for any final questions.
Which is when Michael Davis spoke up again, saying the show would never leave San Diego. Keith tried to cope with this interruption by telling the audience this was the mayor of the city speaking. Davis countered by making a joke, saying we wouldn’t be here after the Comic-Con of 2012 anyway. There was some strained laughter at that.
Someone in the audience asked Dwayne to talk about the Milestone Media deal.
Dwayne said the founders of the company simply created the comics they wanted to see. And that the company took advantage of early 1990s comics and speculator boom. The existing publishers of the day wanted more properties, hot properties to capitalize upon the boom audience. And so Milestone and its characters were wanted. Dwayne said the company used that desire to their advantage to leverage the best possible deal at the time. He added that most people are shy about negotiating when they shouldn’t be. Dwayne concluded by advising those creators out in the audience to be willing to ask for what they want.
With that and the time coming to an end, Keith Knight put out a last call for promotion by any of the panelists.
Ned (geekroundtable.com), Dwayne (Ben 10 and other fine animated and comics entertainment), and Spike (Templar AZ) all did so. With Knight wrapping up, pointing the audience to his space in the small press area.
Knight ended by thanking everyone for coming to the first Nappy Hour panel. Hopefully of many more to come.
The audience applauded and, with that, the panel came to an end.
Until next time, folks.