The Other Big Convention

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Proving the continued explosion of interest in comics, graphic novels and related pop-culture media, The Comic Con International wrapped up last weekend with the biggest attendance in its 35 year history. Breaking last year's record numbers, the San Diego con, as it is better known, had an official count of 87,000 attendees over four days, with an exhibit hall that stretched a half mile with 7,500 people registered as exhibitors. TIME.comix wore comfortable shoes and scoped out the action.

Andrew D. Arnold
The Comic Con International

While the vast majority of attendees spent their time pursuing the mainstream interests of superheroes, manga properties and movies like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, fans of alternative comix had plenty to choose from. Proof of a rising tide lifting all boats, the indy publishers I spoke to were enjoying brisk and often record-breaking sales. Montreal's Drawn & Quarterly declared it the best year they ever had at San Diego, with Adrian Tomine's just-released "Scrapbook," a collection of ephemera by the former wunderkind, selling the best. The Seattle-based Fantagraphics reduced its table by half this year but have tentatively announced a bigger profit than ever with Dan Clowes' latest issue of "Eightball" #23, their top-seller. Georgia's Top Shelf had a remarkable eight new releases debuting at the con, including "Blankets" author Craig Thompson's book of travel sketches, "Carnet de Voyage," which sold out. Another debut sell-out was James Kochalka's "American Elf," collecting all four volumes of his diaries (see TIME.comix review).

Sam Hiti's "End Times - Tiempos Finales"

One of the great pleasures of conventioneering is finding books you would otherwise never see. This year San Diego yielded two surprises. Sam Hiti's self-published "End Times — Tiempos Finales," is the first of a projected nine-volume series of graphic novels. Thanks to a Xeric grant, the fund that assists new comix creators, the professional-looking 116-page, square bound, three-color book was priced to move at a mere $10. The quick-paced story involves a Spanish-speaking demon-hunter named Mario Roman, who, summoned by the prayers of a plagued town, battles a giant monster. Well above average for such genre material, Hiti's strong graphic style and Catholic themes make for an impressive debut. The other surprising discovery was also an oddly Catholic book. John Bagnall's "Don't Tread On My Rosaries," published by Kingly Books of Glasgow, Scotland, collects a group of short stories, the best of which, "The Chemist and the Capuchin," tells the slightly nutty but heartfelt story of a scientist who suffers a chronic injury and rediscovers his lost faith. Another tale imagines David Bowie's diary from his Berlin days. Created with no apparent pretense, Bagnall's work has a warm and funny eccentricity.

John Bagnall's "Don't Tread On My Rosaries"

Friday night was the annual Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards ceremony. As with any awards the recipients ranged from well deserving to downright baffling. Michael Chabon, author of the comic-themed novel "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay," delivered the keynote speech lamenting the lack of comics for kids. Accusing the industry of abandoning children, he laid out some suggestions for re-capturing what used to be the medium's core audience, including putting actual kid characters into kids comics. In spite of its critical nature, the speech was met with strong applause. Highlights of the awards included Derek Kirk Kim's Talent Deserving Wider Recognition (see TIME.comix review), Vertical Inc.'s "Buddha" for Best U.S. Edition of Foreign Material (see TIME.comix review), and Craig Thompson's "Blankets" for Best Graphic Album — New (see TIME.comix review). The jaw-dropping lowlight had to have been the award for Best Graphic Album — Reprint, which industry voters passed over Jim Woodring, Chester Brown, Chris Ware and Gilbert Hernandez to give to an utterly outclassed collection of "Batman Adventures" stories.

As always, cons are also great sources of news and gossip. While wandering among the rubber-suited goths and picking through the Japanese toys your intrepid reporter unearthed a few interesting items of note:

  • Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller appeared together to provide a glimpse of the up-coming "Sin City" movie starring Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke and Jessica Alba. The filmmakers stressed how closely they stuck to Miller's original comic series, resulting in some impressive super-high contrast black and white art direction and some wincingly cornball "hardboiled" dialogue — the hallmarks of Miller's late work.
  • Monsters of manga TOKYOPOP have plans to start a more adult-oriented imprint sometime in the near future. They have also begun soliciting gay comics creators for a series of shonen-ai books — the gay-themed soapers that traditionally appeal to girls.
  • Pantheon will be publishing Dan Clowes' "Eightball" #22, the "Leopold and Loeb" issue, with all new material, fleshing it out to a full graphic novel.
  • The artist known only as Rebecca, author of the porno series "Housewives at Play," is actually Fantagraphics' highest-paid author, with sales at least equaling that of FG's top-selling "legit" cartoonist Dan Clowes. Who knew?
Though some hard-core comixcenti object to its crassness, I find the San Diego con's big-tent mixture of graphic literature with its more commercial relations, video games, movies and toys to be a refreshing re-contextualization of indy artist's work. While smaller, alty-friendly cons like the Small Press Expo and the MOCCA Art Festival are important places for like-minded artists and fans to gather, an event like San Diego allows the temporary collapse of borders between the balkanized factions of pop-culture fandom. In this sense, the Comic Con International may be a far more democratic convention than either of this election-year's events.