On the Scene: Independent Creators at Asbury Park Comic Con

By Hannah Means-Shannon

Asbury Park Comic Con wowed fans last May at it’s inaugural event with its atmospheric venue and bevy of guests who had one particular trait in common: a penchant for creator-owned projects. The founder of the con, comics creator Cliff Galbraith set out to interpret comic cons in a new light, away from the glitz and crowds of the media-tie in frenzy of the Big Two. And second only to that goal was an adamant desire to see comics flourish in New Jersey. Asbury Park was a natural choice for the con because of its music history and pop culture quirkiness, as evinced by the con’s venue, Asbury Lanes, a 1960’s bowling alley turned punk music venue, still a hub for alternative arts events.

On September 29th, the result of Galbraith’s efforts was immediately obvious: the number of tables in the venue had gone up by another 50 percent, the number of comics guests was at least a third larger with a substantial core of repeat guests, and the number of con attendees was perceptibly higher. The main thing that APCC did right the first time, aside from having a remarkably good spread of collectibles among vendors, and continued to raise the bar on this time was bringing in comics creators who were both willing and able to have real conversations with fans. The artists and writers who have gotten involved at APCC have a particular commitment to renewing that kind of first-hand experience of comics, and proved it by giving their time and attention at the con to fans.

Cliff Galbraith (RAT BASTARD) joined me on the stone stoop of the Lanes venue for a few minutes to look at the changing cloudscape and the many areas under renovation and construction in Asbury in the distance. Galbraith himself lives in Red Bank, famously the home of Kevin Smith, the recent AMC series Comic Book Men, and The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart. Cliff’s motivations in founding the con and seeing it through its tumultuous early days stem from his experience in independent comics and a certain tendency of his to buck the mainstream trend. Many of his guests at the con share a similar background, like Steve Mannion (FEARLESS DAWN), who used to perform in a Punk Rock band in the area. Galbraith wanted to bring in indie artists “who are going to surprise people”, but Galbraith, and the con, also have that unique ability to draw comics fans into conversations that engage with real life experience. Evan Dorkin (MILK AND CHEESE) joined us for a minute to talk about his Staten Island background, peppered with club and bar scene anecdotes, proving Galbraith’s point. Comics can benefit from a grounding in the places that shape their creators, whether gritty, glamorous, or both.

A first-time contingent of New Yorkers flanked the sound stage at the Lanes, including Dean Haspiel (BILLY DOGMA, CUBA MY REVOLUTION), Seth Kushner (THE SCHMUCK DIARIES), George O’Connor (HADES), and Reilly Brown (POWER PLAY). The group came out to Asbury on the basis of its creator-focused vibe and the good things they had heard about the first Asbury Con. Haspiel and Kushner, who co-curate the online literary arts salon TRIP CITY brought mini comics with and like many of the writers and artists at APCC represented only one degree of removal from production to sales. O’Connor and Brown, like Haspiel, have worked in mainstream comics as well as on their own, and have carved out reputations based on an impressive work ethic and high-quality art. O’Connor has a range of successes as a picture-book artist, but has also completed three of a planned twelve book series from First Second on each of the Olympian gods from Greek Mythology.

When I asked O’Connor what, in particular, made him interested in APCC, he said that word of mouth made a big difference in persuading him. The grassroots buzz for APCC prompted him to make a move in his wider push to increase his own presence at cons so that people get to know his face rather than just his remarkable output on the shelves. O’Connor has also recently launched a bold project that’s catching online attention: a short web-based TV series with Natalie Kim called InkedTV. Reviews and discussions focus on independent comics creators and their works. Before I left him to sketch Cyclopses for fans, he confided his deepest geek-secret. One of the things he found most inspiring about APCC was the presence of his hero Larry Hama. O’Connor had brought a G.I. Joe figure with him, the only Joe character to hail from Asbury Park, and cajoled Hama into posing with him and the figure. Photos proved the alarming tale. This illustrated pretty well that APCC brought the best of both worlds to fans: the talent of bold current comics creators and the ongoing mythology that drives them.

Artist Sean Pryor epitomized the influence and insistence on locale in comic cons. A New Jersey native, the arrival of APCC has been a dream come true for him. Growing up in Freehold, he had one local comic shop, but had hardly even heard of comic cons or shows. The shop became his community, and as a teen he got a job there that heavily influenced his later decisions, first to study art at a community college and then at the School of Visual Arts in New York despite prejudice against comics as an art form that he experienced along the way. Pryor, who remains close to his roots in New Jersey, started working successfully for magazines after graduation from SVA, and also became involved in The Pekar Project. Standing in what for Pryor is a local venue, he seemed elated, as if comics had finally come home for him. He continues to support local projects, and has an art show opening in Asbury Park the first week of October called Gutter Gallery, but he also looks toward the future of comics in an upcoming creator-owned web-based project with collaborator Adam Roth called THE PACK.  Pryor feels that success in comics is largely a matter of hard work, consistency, and confidence, with an emphasis on the “hard work”. Looking around, he felt the con showed that drive, too, as well as room to “grow”.

There were still a few adventures left for guests and helpers at the con after the high-energy show wound down. Under a nearly full moon and dramatic clouds, the group headed to a local restaurant only to find it a little too crowded and raucous for conversation. Votes were cast and they took to the Asbury Park boardwalk instead where there was only a slight chill in the air, and an astonishing moonlit view over the Atlantic. Over Korean Tacos, Cliff Galbraith, Larry Hama, Evan Dorkin, and Dean Haspiel discussed the past and future of APCC while breaking out nearly mythological stories of comics history past. It had been a day that outshone expectations for everyone, but the impromptu meal under the stars was a final high-note to APCC. As Dean Haspiel reflected, it was a day of “lots of good people making comix and keeping the medium alive”. Comics, and the con, were certainly alive and kicking.

[photo by Seth Kushner]

 

Hannah Means-Shannon writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress.

 

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