New York Comic-Con 2009 is nothing but a lingering sore throat now, but all the forces and dramas that clashed and mingled continue to ricochet around the industry. Coming, as it did, at the crossroads of so many factors–the global economic collapse, plunging profits at bookstores, Borders on the critical list, and belt tightenings of varying degrees of painfulness at many comics companies–it set the tone that will carry us through several quarters
Amazingly, the tone was one of fan mania and not the gloom and doom that is everywhere else. In the week before the show, even the pluckiest of observers told The Beat privately that they feared a spending freeze on the floor, leaving exhibitors in a pool of red ink. When I wrote my preview for PW a month ago, everyone had been legitimately plucky and optimistic, but since then economic conditions had quickly worsened everywhere, and Diamond and DC had been hit with cutbacks. Exxpecting attendees to be tight with their pennies was a no-brainer.
But that didn’t happen. In Bob Chapman’s famous phrase, “Inside these walls the ‘fantasy’ economy is perfect. Outside the doors of the convention the economy sucks.” It was like everyone got to the Javits Center and decided it was really 2005, and ran around doing what people normally do at cons, getting autographs from Torchwood stars and Geoff Johns, watching movie previews and Cup O’ Joe panels, oogling Slave Leais, and marveling at Unemployed Skeletor. It was con, and even if it was fantasy, it was an escape.
Now, we are not here to say that everyone was raking it in like Bernie Madoff in 2008. Big ticket items, as expected, moved sslloowwllyy. Sales were quiet in the original art section and if you are thinking of casting a few expensive resin statues to sell, our advice is DON’T. Back issue sales were brisk because everything was slashed to bargain basement prices. Some artists and publishers did fantastically well, but many had sales that were far below a regular convention. It wasn’t champagne and caviar for everyone — but it was busy. And that in itself was remarkable.
To put this in context, the recession really has taken hold here in New York, a city where an alarming number of people work in real estate, banking, the stock market and the media, all industries decimated by the recession. The result? All those high end stores are empty; it’s easy to get reservations at formerly snooty restaurants; and no one gets a facial any more. And that’s the people with the $2 mil apartments. Regular folks just sit around eating kale and passing around a single, dog-eared copy of a novel by Mary Higgins Clark for fun.
Even our cabbie remarked that the city needed a pick me up like (choke) Comic-Con.
So what does that all mean? Not that comics are the salvation of the economy of course. What it does suggest is that reliable, cheap entertainment holds its own in a down economy. A couple of retailers I talked to said that, thanks to the Obama Spidey comic, January was their best January ever, and you won’t find many retail sectors saying that anywhere.
More specifically, this is affecting publishers, as stated at all the business panels I attended or heard quoted, by making the backlist of perennials more important than ever before. The backlist is life. It’s more important than ever to develop and publish the books that are going to last and nurture the creators who can supply them. And there aren’t many of either.
The ripples and ramifications of my thoughts from NYCC ’09 will spread out over this blog for the next few weeks, but while they’re still a bit fresh in my head, here are some bullet points:
• NOT EVERYTHING WAS ALL PEACHY at the show. I want to stress that. Due to being sick most of the week, I probably roamed around a lot less than usual and missed out on lots of thigns. Harris Comics’s Bon Alimagno has a must read post about why the show sucked, and everything he writes is legit:
Let me begin with this: near one of the main entrances of the Con was an elaborate booth for the new Cinemax show Forbidden Science. It featured four clear plastic chambers shaped like tubes that people would enter. There they’d put goggles on that showed them a video. Around the chambers, models in lab coats (and seemingly little else) gave away promo postcards and encouraged people to wait in line for the chambers. I asked one what would be shown in the goggles and she told me without any reservation, adult content. Later that night I Googled about and discovered the show was unabashed softcore porn. Not even a drama with some nudity. Softcore porn. The show described itself as The X-Files meets Red Show Diaries. You had a situation then where people were watching softcore porn in public and other people could watch them though the chambers while they did so. This spectacle was near the entrance of the largest American comic book convention east of San Diego. Really think about that: imagine if you or anyone you know would be comfortable being watched by thousands of passer-bys as you watched porn.
• Organizationally, the show seemed to work pretty well except that everyone said the panel rooms were too small, and the area outside the panel rooms — if it wasn’t a near riot, like last year — constantly resembled a rush hour subway platform. The panels need to spread out. The floor was jammed Saturday, but it’s always jammed Saturday. If you have a booth to hide in or meetings somewhere, you’ll do fine.
• Although my feelings for the show are overall very positive, I do acknowledge with a wistful smile that NYCC has become a mini movie con in four short years. While the short time between the show and the holidays didn’t leave much planning time for anyone, you can already see movie and TV announcements crowding out the comics, and Marvel and DC dominating the comics message. Hell, the video game presence alone made this E2 1/2.
It wasn’t a shut-out — local NY book publishers had lots of visibility and SCOTT PILGRIM was THE book of the show — but you can feel which way the wind is blowing. I feel sad saying this, because the show did have a great diversity of guests, from America and abroad, and from every facet of the entertainment and cultural business, and made far better use of the local cartooning talent than previous NYCC, at least on programming. With NYCC moving to a fall time slot AFTER San Diego, I don’t see comics getting completely lost in the shuffle, but it is something that one must always be mindful of.
• And the indies were missed. I know they will have their own, highly successful show at MoCCA in a few months, but it’s very clear now that New York Comic-Con is going to be an extremely peripheral show for that crowd, and it isn’t the same without ‘em.
• Speaking of programming, I barely got to see any of it, but from what I’ve read online, it seems to have been varied and thoughtful. I was particularly happy with how my own “Art of Storytelling” panel came out — but then what could go wrong when you’re surrounded by five creative people of the calibre of folks who were on the panel. I was also thrilled to be able to interview Lily Renee Phillips and hear about the early days of the industry. It’s this range of experience and taste that makes Comic-Con so great at the end of the day.
• OTOH, NYCC has joined SDCC as the great minglers of culture. TWO people told me a highlight of the show was meeting former basketball team owner Pat Croce.
• Socially, the party scene was hopping, but either the venues were too small or there were just too many people who were dying to hang out. It was fun, but there was a lot of jostling. There was also a lot of karaoke. All THREE of the Sunday night parties we heard about included karaoke…what the heck? What is it with you millennials and the karaoke?
Also Sunday night’s US/UK bash was thrown at a bar we’re regulars at, and for perhaps the first time in the history of comics in the US, it was impossible to tell the difference between a bunch of comic book people and the usual gang of hipsters. Whether you think that is good or bad depends on your viewpoint, but it was certainly a shocker.
• But who needs a party when you can Twitter! Twitter was the sidekick who wouldn’t shut up at the show, even if it was so of the moment — by San Diego, it will be passé, as everyone gets into the game and the signal to noise ratio goes sky high. When I was home sick, I kept my iPhone by the bed and upon wakening from a nap would sip ginger ale and check out who was where and with whom. I made my own mental movie of the show — there’s Joe Quesada getting out of a cab now, and BenTemplesmith signing some art. Weird.
Speaking of Joe Q., Marvel was so busy Twittering I’m surprised they had any time to do anything else. I’m not entirely convinced that Twitter is as great as all the social networking gurus are telling us all it is, but they are smart and I am not and now I’m addicted to the damned Twitter. Strike that. I know it is addicting, I’m just not sure there is that much material gain to be made from it.
• But then, when is it ever? Wanna know what the show was really about? The death of the pamphlet. Underworld: Rise of the Digital Delivery. It was all random. Randomly running into Marv Wolfman in the food court and sitting down to catch up, Marv mentioned that back in the days before the Internet, fanzines sold 10,000 copies. He also recalled using the term “32 page pamphlet” around the office when we worked together at Disney, and bringing it up at that long ago ProCON where the long march to ubiquity for the term began.
Now even publishers and creators who rely on the form for a living use the term “pamphlet.”
Later on, randomly, I went into the pro lounge (yikes, was that place hopping!) and found Rantz Hoseley demoing his “Longbox Project,” which, without busting anyone’s NDAs, is heavily involved in that whole digital delivery conundrum.
While everyone was dealing with that, there was also much uncertainty among even veteran hands over what will be the new classics to populate backlist and keep the industry afloat. There was also fear — what is this strange new world and where will we fit in?
The entire ball of wax was placed right into my sweaty palm via a series of incidents on Saturday. The PW booth was over in the 1900 aisle, near the booths of some of the webcomics collectives. It was also near Captain Action, the line of toys and comics based on the ’60s toy, run by Beat pal Ed Catto. Ed wondered aloud about the booth next to his, which was always crowded with long lines. He’d never heard of the comic strip and neither (I’m ashamed to admit,) had I. Cyanide and Happiness. Ed was right – there was a line for the booth all weekend.
Now I’m not saying that it’s a shock that people were lined up for a webcomic. Tycho and Gabe were guests of the show, after all, and five hours worth of people showed up for Chris Onstad at Rocketship. No, it was the humiliating feeling that I had no idea who these guys were.
Coupled with the fact that, as evident from their booth, they draw stick figures.
Later on, I stood nearby with two cartoonist friends, whose names shall be obscured to protect them. We’ll call them Otto and Binder. Both are fine writers and artists in their own right, masters of technique and perspective. I pointed out the crowd for the stick figure kids. Otto and Binder were as perplexed and discomfited as I was. “They must have cool giveaways!” Binder theorized.
“We’ve got to find out!” I said. We tentatively moved closer, like that snake guy on Animal Planet, moving closer to the predator. We both didn’t want to disturb the natural activities of the webcomics loving crowd and, of course, we didn’t want to seem like old fuddy duddies who didn’t get what the heck was going on and so were sneaking up to observe what was happening without interacting.
As we closed in, the shocking truth become clear: sitting at the table were three young men in top hats and black jackets, and they were doing free sketches and and selling posters and t-shirts. Stick figure sketches, that the crowd loved. Otto, Binder and I stood slack jawed and amazed. We had just made the connection. It was there all the time — look at Wimpy Kid. Basically, you don’t have to draw like Frazetta — or even Sonny Trinidad — to be popular.
Later that night, I met some of the Cyanide and Happiness cartoonists at a party — they were humble, charming and fresh. Kinda like the Beatles or something. When I got home and had some time I checked out the website, and the mystery was solved.
Is this humor really so different from any comic strip from Hi and Lois on? I confess, I must have spent 20 minutes reading C&H strip archives — the strip was funny, not in a unique and inventive way, but in the reliable and steady way. Some strips were better than others — sharper and more unexpected — but it turns out this new thing is really the same old thing, just put together in a new package for a new audience.
And that was my “Eureka” moment. Everyone is freaking out about how we are going to sell stuff in this new landscape, but you have to figure out what sells FIRST. You have to make a product that people want to buy. According to Wikipedia:
The site has claimed over a million daily visitors (as of November 20, 2006) and is one of the two thousand most viewed pages on the web according to Alexa.com.
As I pondered the gulf between Captain Action and Cyanide and Happiness — one a pulpish, revival of a cult of kitsch, the other a minimalist, streamlined product that lives on cell phones and websites — what were they united by? Hats, I guess. I’m not even being glib. A good marketing idea — a matching appearance — is always a good idea, you just need to adapt it to the current style.
My point, as I circle around it, is that while a bunch of people with existing products are fussing and fretting over how to survive in this wild new landscape, people you never heard of are already doing it for a living. They don’t think, they do.
Here’s one last link, from Gary Tyrell that covers some of this.
Three Random Observations about New York Comic-Con 2009:
* Fist bumping should replace handshakes as the official con greeting to slow spread of Con SARS.
* Starbucks Tazo Chai Berry Tea may very well be the elixir of life.
* Jesus god Emma Vieceli is adorable!
As we put NYCC ’09 to bed, as always special thanks go out: Ben, Trish, Zena, Jimmy, Ben, Lorelei, Jeff, Tom, Marv, Carla, Jim, Terry, Eric, Rantz, Douglas, Laura, Ada, Kate, Calvin, the entire PWCW crew, Frank 3, Christine and Jamie for the rockin’ bash, and MOST OF ALL, Anne B. for showing my how to stretch my hip flexors–that made a huge difference and I did it right on the middle of the con floor and didn’t care who saw it. Special thanks to Inky for not puking on the bed this year.
Next time: FALL CON!