New York Comic Con 2009: The Cross Hatch Rehash

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The great on-going game for New York Comic Con 2009 was—not surprisingly—playing ‘spot the effects of the recession.’ There plenty of theories on the manner, of course—some swore that the floor size had shrunk from past years. Others noted, thoughtfully, the seemingly increased influence of the so-called “recession-proof” video game industry. I heard a few people point to an observed lack of presence on the part of the roaming bands of storm troopers who have traditionally stalked the floor in hopes of confronting solo Jedis. Surely tough times have fallen on the empire.

From the looks of it, however, such rushed assessments were hardly indicative of an overall trends—faced with the greatest economic crisis since the great depression, the virtual implosion of the publishing industry, and even—god help us—increased admission prices, the prospect of having Whilce Portacio sign their mint condition variant of Wetworks #1 ultimately proved far too appealing for droves of attendees to resist.

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My own take on the manner is purely anecdotal, of course, but after an hour spent shuffling my down an aisle in attempts to get, well, anywhere else, I couldn’t help but wish selfishly for a moment that the economic downturn had, at the very least, been enough of a deterrent for a handful of attendees determined to snap photos of every costumed show-goer halfway down an already jam-packed aisle.

I harbor no ill-will toward the show, of course. I arrived at the realization three years ago that I’m far from being New York Comic Con’s target demographic. Fellow indie comics fans have largely realized this as well, and, despite the fact that, in certain respects the show has continued to grow, many indie cartoonists and publishers have accepted that fact and turned their attention to more small press-friendly shows, either limited their presence or choosing to forgo the show altogether—a majority of those present, it seems, were folks who saved on hotel and travel by residing in the greater New York area for the rest of the year. Heck, were I not already stationed in the city myself, it seems doubtful that I would have made a pilgrimage to Manhattan in order to cover the show.

But while the temptation is certainly ever-present to spend the show lamenting the ways in which it’s unlike a MoCCA, SPX, Stumptown, or APE, there’s little point in waging such complaints. New York Comic Con knows its place in the universe, and, for the most part, it plays the role well. The show was put in place in attempts to bring some semblance of San Diego’s spectacle to east coast residents, and while its organizers insist that the focus is, to some degree, on the book industry—as evidenced by the presence of publishers like Penguin (obligatory, really, in a city like New York)—NYCC has grown pretty comfortably into its current place as a smaller, more tightly-packed version of San Diego, a bubble guarded by the Javits Center’s reality distorting walls, where donning a trenchcoat and draping an sharpie blotted wash rag over your head makes you a bit of a celebrity for one extended weekend. It’s a fantasy land where the actor that the rest of the world knows as ‘that guy who played The Greatest America Hero‘ (well, the part of the population that still remembers that show) can happily relive that brief moment in the pop-culture geological time scale that he was a household name.

As a professional, the one sufficient way to embrace the storm that is New York Comic Con at critical mass, is embracing the spectacle from an outsider’s perspective, pretending, for a moment that the concept of grownups reading comic books is novel. It’s precisely this approach that makes it possible for to justify taking a half hour break after a day’s worth of walking in circles in order to sit cross-legged as graduates from the New York Jedi School swing colored neon tubes at one another. It’s the same spirit, I suppose, that, upon seeing Rob Liefeld facing the Javits Center wall, inking a custom portrait of Batman with a sharpie made me jump at the perversely thrilling opportunity to interview the artist whose name these days inevitably follows the modifier “controversial.” Had you suggested to me a week prior that I would soon be waiting half an hour to chat with the Youngblood creator as he signed copies of X-Force #1, eyes would have no doubt been rolled.

The Image booth, strangely, was fairly small, hidden behind its Top Cow counterpart. The Dark Horse booth was a bit larger and, like last year, the company managed to secure real estate directly adjacent to the front entrance, a location that no doubt had an exponential effect on the company’s sales. Marvel and DC were, once again, the big stars of the show, but where DC devoted most of its perpetually packed booth space to creator signings, Marvel reasserted its true business focus: video games and movies, a microcosm of an industry whose primary purpose seems to be spurring on the creation of other more profitable artistic mediums.

Some of the larger indies were conspicuously absent from the show like Fantagraphics, who conceded ahead of time that there was really no financial benefit to be had in such an appearance (only a slight downgrade from the small booth manned solely by Gary Groth the year before) and Drawn & Quarterly for whom a trip down from Canadian would have no doubt proven equally fruitless. NBM manned a small booth, as did Top Shelf, which seemed to play little role in the Surrogates film festivities helmed by Disney, which included the debut of the film’s trailer in the IGN Theatre downstairs, a big banner in the main hall, and a small army of dressed up hired help handing out promotional materials in the show’s aisles. Top Shelf opted not to use the occasion to launch any new books, however—February, it seems, is not exactly sweeps week in the world of book publishing.

Oni, on the other hand, had the largest presence of the indie comics companies (assuming that one doesn’t bundle Image and Dark Horse into that list). The publisher secured a long booth and used the occasion to launch the latest in book in most popular series, Scott Pilgrim, a title that will no doubt catch even more fire once Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World hits the big screen. In this world, however, the series’ creator, Bryan Lee O’Malley has already managed to establish himself as something of a rock star. First Second also secured a relatively large booth for the show, directly across from Oni’s, and, even without the release of a Scott Pilgrim-sized book, managed to do fairly brisk business, lending some credence, perhaps, to the organizers’ assessment that the show had a certainly literary focus lacking in other big cons.

The presence of self-publishers, on the other hand, was largely confined to the no-man’s land that is Artist Alley, where every other table was a showcase for yet another aspiring mainstream cartoonist’s interpretation of Wolverine. It’s a touch melodramatic, perhaps, to suggest that Artist Alley is where dreams of inking Uncanny X-Men go to die, but there’s something undeniably depressing in watching neglected amateur cartoonists obscured by snaking lines for Chris Claremont signatures. The place also serves as a repository for retired and otherwise cast aside greats of the industry seated between brightly-colored placards displaying their work.

Indie artists dot the area as well. Act-I-Vate, for one, has made Artist Alley something of a home base, with cartoonists like Mike Dawson setting up shop. Peter Kuper had secured a table at the end of a row and was showing off Spy vs. Spy sketches and previous of several new books he had been working on. Comic Foundry, too, had rented a table in the area, selling mini-comic-sized previews of its fifth and final issue. I filled in on the table for a few minutes on Friday, chatting up anyone who would listen—mostly passersby smiling at the “Eisner Award Loser” sign. After a female attendee perused the table for few minutes, an artist turned to me with a jealous smile, proclaiming, “my mutant ability is attract women who weigh more over 200 pounds.” The real magic of Artist Alley, however, is the gems hidden amongst the absurdly tightly packed rows, easily missed on the first several trips through the area. Turning around and momentarily catching a glimpse of the great Peter Laird sketching his ten billionth masked turtle is nearly reason enough to justify three days spent wading through the maddening costumed crowds. Nearly.

Once again, however, the true home base for the manner of self-published artists that often fill our pages wasn’t to be found within the confines of Artist Alley, but rather halfway in to Podcast Alley, where Indie Spinner Rack paraded through a list of familiar names like Alex Robinson, Kevin Colden, Liz Baillie, Miss Lasko Gross, Robin Enrico, and MK Reed. They also, unbeknownst to them, provided a location where I could stash the winter coat I had brought in from the 10 degree weather outside.

It will, of course, be interesting to watch as the show reports begin to trickle in from the exhibitors themselves. After all, while many in the independent comic scene were preemptively turned off by the prospect of the show, I’ve since received a few reports of better than expected sales. As for the future of NYCC as a more indie-friendly show, the prospects do seem fairly grim at the moment. After all, increased presence would likely require lowered booth price (and, perhaps, the removal of the bring-your-own-table policy), which in turn would likely only come about with more floor space—like, say, expanding to the wing of the convention center that was monopolized by The New York Times Travel Show this weekend, but such a large-scale expansion seems unlucky to say the least, in the face of external economic forces. In the meantime, the majority of the indie community has, no doubt, already begun hunkering down in front of drawing boards in hope of finishing that latest mini in time for the Stumptowns and MoCCAs of the world.

–Brian Heater

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7 Comments to “New York Comic Con 2009: The Cross Hatch Rehash”

  1. Tom Spurgeon | February 9th, 2009 at 3:49 pm

    Kim Thompson was at Fantagraphics’ booth last year, too!

  2. Torsten Adair | February 9th, 2009 at 5:32 pm

    And yet the NYCC had a full weekend of workshop panels for those-who-dream. On Sunday, there were additional how-to panels for kids.

    NYCC is a pop culture convention. It programs for everything to attract everyone. While the consensus of comics is mostly superhero comics, there were many “small press” publishers there. Not small as in size, but small as in the spirit of alternative comics. Random House had an amazing selection of alternative titles, including Carol Lay’s “The Big Skinny” and the wonderful Flight anthologies (not to mention the Pantheon imprint). HarperCollins hosted a signing for C.M. Butzer’s “Gettysburg”. First Second, part of Macmillan, has a catalog smaller than Oni or NBM or Top Shelf, but just as amazing. (They just announced that they will publish the next two books of Scott McCloud.) And then, right next to the expansive Artists Alley were numerous small press/self published companies.

    So, if you count the Artists Alley, the micro-press publishers, the alternative presses, I would say the amount of exhibitors rivals or surpasses the number of exhibitors at MoCCA. The big difference? The size of the pond. But that’s good in some ways, as there are a lot more people attending NYCC than MoCCA, and many of those people are not die-hard superhero fans. Many stopped reading comics as teens, but with the explosion of graphic novels in the mass medium, many are rediscovering the medium.

    Of course, what many do not notice is the number of independent/alternative cartoonists which are also working for Marvel or DC, like Brian Michael Bendis or Abby Denson or Kyle Baker.

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