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What I Did Last Summer, umm, at Comic-Con 2004

Kelly J Cooper's Most Excellent Comic-Con Adventures
Part 1: Wednesday to Friday

When the people say "Comic-Con is big" it is much as if they are saying "Alaska is beautiful" or "paper-cuts hurt." The concept is easily grasped on an intellectual level, but until someone WHIPS a piece of paper along your skin and you really EXPERIENCE the sting, you just don't get it.

You don't get the full sensory load of 100,000 people all walking, stumbling, browsing, microphone-abusing, shuffling, eating, stinking, sitting, lying on the floor asleep, stopping abruptly in front of you, looking, staring, drooling, talking, intercom-announcing, and bouncing off you at every turn. You don't get to SEE all the wares, every sort of science fiction and fantasy comics, TV show, movie, book, and magazine-related bit of paraphernalia you can imagine. We're talking full-scale Alien sculptures. We're talking a freakin' X-Wing fighter that I didn't even NOTICE 'til the last day!

According to the San Diego Convention Center's web site, the exhibit hall was about 1623 feet by 340 feet (rooms A through G). I'd say it's around 500,000 square feet but can't be sure because the damn thing BENDS. A football field, complete with end zones, is 360 feet long and 160 feet wide. That means the exhibit hall was around 10 football fields, side by side. (Plus that much space again upstairs for presentations, panels, and give-aways.)

And this exhibit hall was jam-packed with consumer goodness.

Fortunately, it was also stuffed full of talented and interesting people... 'cuz if it hadn't been, my bank account would now be empty.

Advanced warning – this report is mighty detailed, mainly so that I can remember all that happened. As I write more of it down, bits and pieces that I'd forgotten come to me. I do NOT have a fabulous memory – I took notes and have all the comics I bought. Anyway, you have been forewarned that there may be some pretty trivial stuff in here, depending on your tastes.

Also, I have no pictures… except the beautiful pictures I have painted with WORDS! Yeah.

Wednesday, 20 July 2004
I flew from Massachusetts to San Diego on Wednesday night, too late for Preview Night (or so I thought – apparently it was a fair bit of a fiasco in terms of getting around to letting the hordes in the door). I actually met two MA-based Comic-Con bound guys while en route: JohnnyA of Studio Kaiju I met in the American Airlines check-in line (I noticed a comics-related pin on his bag and started up a chat) and Steve of the fractured ankle sat next to me on the plane. Steve pegged me as a comics-person as soon as he noticed me finishing one book (James Swain's Funny Money which was quite a good mystery) and whipping out Amy Kiste Nyberg's Seal of Approval: The History of the Comics Code.

Arriving in San Diego, I grabbed a seat in a van and headed to my hotel. I checked into the Comfort Inn Gaslamp on G Street (between 6th & 7th Aves in the historical Gaslamp area). The toilet was acting weird (I later determined that the toilet only flushed successfully every other time) and the sink was in the main room next to the bed (instead of in the bathroom). But on the plus side, I got a fridge and microwave.

After checking in and dropping my stuff, I went exploring. I ended up eating some really good sushi at the RA Sushi Bar & Restaurant on Broadway. Then I wandered down to the Convention Center (got yelled at by a bicycle cop for crossing against the light when the street was completely empty) and back to my hotel, missing last call at the Ghirardelli's dessert shop by a few minutes.

Dammit.

Thursday, 22 July 2004
The con started officially at 11am, but I'm sure people were lining up around dawn. I didn't make it there until much later in the day; flying really drains me, so I was moving slow. On the plus side, no lines for lazy old me!

By the time I got to the convention center, registered, and perused the freebie table it was 2pm. I dashed over to CAC [that's Comics Art Conference – kjc] Session 1: Defining Comics Again? with Neil Cohn, David Stoddard, Randy Duncan and Charles Hatfield who was substituting for Gene Kannenberg. Neil is one of my writers and it was a pretty fun discussion about language, definitions, and formats.

The participants came from a wide variety of backgrounds – linguists and teachers and artists – and they spoke on a variety of topics like philosophy and art. Honestly, a fair bit of it went over my head, as when Stoddard mentioned he came from a Duchamp-ian perspective where if the artist creates something and calls it "art" then it's art. Hanging out with art nerds, I figured he was probably talking about Marcel Duchamp, but that's as far as my understanding went. The sentiment makes sense, though. By this thinking, if you create something and call it comics, then it's comics.

They also discussed comics as "sequential art" and panels as "attention units" and debated comics as a medium versus comics as a channel. The panel was in one of the smaller rooms, but reasonably well-attended. And I'd say by their questions that some of the other audience members were more clued in than I am.

Afterwards, I walked up and briefly introduced myself to Neil before leaving him to his fellow panelists. It's so nice when people are pleased to meet their editor!

From there, I headed down to the exhibit hall. I started at the beginning of the numbering system (row 100) in hall A and went up and down the rows. This was a great system until they started adding sections along the outside edges and the rows stopped matching up. At least one of these sections was labeled "small press", and was where many of the webcomickers could be found. (Others were closer to the "Image pavilion" which was a huge Image booth surrounded by satellite booths of Image-related stuff.)

I thought the crowds were a bit thick, but they were NOTHING compared to Friday or especially compared to Saturday. People moved slowly, but you could still get around them and move at your own pace. Not many knots of people or crowds sitting/lying around on the floor, although you had to keep an eye out for the occasional napping attendee.

Probably a third of the vendors were selling back issues of comics with a few posters or toys on shelves or hanging from cleverly constructed walls to make their space look less bare. (Lines of white boxes filled with plastic-bagged comics are not very visual exciting to anyone but the most hard-core collector). Different vendors used different organizational schemes: straight-up alphabetical by title, sectioned by publishing company (Marvel and DC mostly, but a few boxes of more recently established companies), or separated into Golden Age, Silver Age, etc. Although there are some old comics that I like (especially Doom Patrol from the 1960's forward), I don't know enough about comics history to figure out what era they fall into. But more than likely the crowd they are catering to too know their stuff better than I.

It was obvious that lots of these folks do the vendor-booth thing a lot as they were nicely put together, cramming a lot into a small space and still leaving enough room for consumers to move around.

There were a couple booths dedicated to nothing but posters. Some specialized in weapons – European and Japanese swords, plus wooden practice swords and staffs. Lots of booths were just for Manga, some for Manga plus related toys and Anime. Some handled just toys from all different genres and countries while others specialized in subsets like only Nightmare Before Christmas toys. Or, wait, am I supposed to call them "action figures" or something? There were a couple of general bookstores and one or two book publishing companies, showing off their science fiction, fantasy and comics-related wares.

In the Small Press area, the booths consisted more of tables with skirts around them, covered with comics. Everyone stashed their extra stock and personal belongings under the table (hidden by the skirt) or against the back wall, giving them very little maneuvering space for their chairs. Hanging from the "walls" provided by the Con were banners proclaiming the identity of the booth-runners. Some were complex, professionally-created works of art. Some were hand-rendered and taped up. Comics ranged from hand-stapled mini-comics to super-slick publications. A few had hand-stitched toys for display (a few had them for sale), but mostly it was just comics for sale.

The first folks I actually introduced myself to were at the Modern Tales booth. They had the standard table-and-banner set-up, with books from various Modern Tales creators (including some who had their own tables) crammed together in piles on the table. The booth was kind of quiet, but I suspected that was partly because it was early in the convention and partly because they were on the far outer-edge of the small press area.

I talked to Jason Thompson (creator of The Stiff and Yeperenye), Spike (who creates Lucas and Odessa and Sparkneedle), and Dirk Tiede (creator of Paradigm Shift, which I bought in trade paperback).

They were each nice, friendly and charming, and surprisingly gracious given how hungry they were. Jason Thompson and I discussed The Stiff – he's back from a hiatus and re-working the comic. I talked about how well he'd managed to work horror into the comic without it becoming a horror comic. Then I startled him by asking to buy books (I bought a copy of RPG, Yeperenye and the first chapter of The Stiff). Next I talked to Spike, in between her hollering at passers-by to come look at their wonderful comics. It was cool, and she had nice things to say about Comixpedia. Her description of A Naturalist's Guide to Art School was funny, so I picked up a copy of that and Decorative Exuberance II, one of her sketchbooks.

I handed out business cards as I bought books from each of them. Dirk's Paradigm Shift was on my list of stuff to seek out and I was surprised and happy to find all the other interesting stuff from other creators on the table. While Dirk was drawing a sketch for me (I asked for "the monster"), Shaenon Garrity and her husband showed up as well. More business cards exchanged! Shaenon brought some book stands and immediately got busy saying hello to her fellow MT-ers and putting Narbonic books up on stands and working with the other folks at the table to re-arrange their wares onto the extra stands. I left them to their greetings and food plans.

Moving on from there, I continued my up-and-down-the-aisles pattern until I found the Dumbrella booth. I suspect it was a double-booth as I think it was two tables side by side with a big DUMBRELLA banner hanging up behind them (and their various t-shirts hanging around that). They were at the end of a row, facing one of the middle aisles so there was a lot of foot traffic. And they had a steady stream of fans as well as catching randoms with their interesting wares. Stacks of books sat on the tables, some with a copy on a bookstand on top of the pile.

I was wearing my Evil Bean t-shirt, one of the last offered by John Allison for Bobbins. I introduced myself to Jon & Phillip of Goats (and bought a "You rock my small self-centered universe" t-shirt), Rich Stevens of Diesel Sweeties, John Allison of Scary Go Round (and bought the latest collection), and Jeff Rowland of Wigu (bought both volumes of his books). I meant to introduce myself to Andrew Bell, but never quite managed it. He was continually surrounded by people who wanted to buy a Groob figure, his toy critter with a removable face and multiple replacement options. I did buy a copy of his teeny-tiny comic You've Gone Too Far from Phillip, though and it's really funny.

The Dumbrella guys are funny. Like scary funny. Phillip did a fantastic job of handling this friendly but twitchy fella wearing a helmet and many MANY pins who was absolutely convinced that Phillip was Jeffrey Rowland. Phillip even pulled Jeff over to compare and contrast. Rich Stevens is the Lord and Master of Deadpan humor. John Allison is as charming as everyone says he is and seems to have developed some sort of odd affection for cardboard as his new base medium.

Phillip was doing the majority of cash-handling as the various creators were regularly grabbed by fans who wanted sketches in their sketchbooks or in books that they bought. There was a lot of friendly jabs floating back and forth but mostly their customers were keeping them running around and working. With Andrew's Groob figure on one corner and Jon handing out high-quality flyers with Goats samples on them at the other corner, they were doing a good job of grabbing people going in either direction.

More wandering, until I found Stephen Notley of Bob the Angry Flower. Introductions, gave him my card, bit of a chat (Grr! Angry!) And a flower head-piece! If you've seen pictures, you know Stephen has a flower with a hole cut out of the middle so that when he wears it only his face sticks out. He put it on while we were talking to growl at the crowd (or maybe someone was trying to take a picture of him from behind me somewhere). He had all four books in stock on his table. My local comic shop does a good job of keeping his books in stock, so I have most of them, so we talked briefly about how it's nice to put faces to names and then I moved along.

Passing by the very simple table of Dave Kupczyk, I noticed he had a beautiful book of insane rabbits and stopped to ask whether he'd heard of "Suicidal Bunnies" and he had! But he wasn't the creator and couldn't remember who was… but he was charming and as he paged through the book showing me freaky rabbit after twisted bunny, so convincing that I spent a LOT of money for his book. It's gorgeous. It's actually called Disturbingly Distorted & Deliriously Demented Rabbits. He also gave me a couple of high-quality flyers for the book as a thank you for buying it.

(I later found Michael Gagne and his book Insanely Twisted Rabbit and, while reading the introduction, found out that Gagne and Kupczyk had worked together at Don Bluth studios in the early 1990s and both their books had come from the same event – the two of them kind of competing with each other over progressively weirder looking rabbits. Bought that book too. And even later I found the very messed up Bunnywith: My Book of a Thousand Bunnies by Alex Pardee. It was a very weird-rabbit-themed weekend. Finding The Book of Suicidal Bunnies would have made it perfect. *sigh*)

Next row over, I found Chuck Whelon at a table by himself, and bought Pewfell volumes 1 and 2. (Also check out his his illustration site.) He was both quite nice AND had a spiffy accent. He had a slow but steady trickle of visitors. At his table, I ran into Dr. Powell, a fellow whose professional life overlaps mine a lot, although we hadn't met before, and we had a long conversation about Internet Security that would probably make most people's eyes glaze.

Excusing myself from Dr. Powell, I continued and found the Keenspot booth with the giant KEENSPOT name inside a talk-bubble on their banner (surrounded by t-shirts). There I met Gav (AKA Darren Bluel) and picked up the first comic collection of Chopping Block – Always remember to bring the scythe. And I got the Keenspot Free Comic Book Day offerings free with my purchase! Lee Herold, creator of Chopping Block was not on hand and I didn't know any of the other creators, so after introducing myself the conversation kinda wilted. As people stopped by, glanced at their books and moved on, I waited until Gav got off the phone, introduced myself, then moved along myself.

Next door at Tranquility Base, I met Patrick Farley. So nice! He thanked me for my review of Apocamon!. Nothing like being remembered AND getting thanked for your work.

Although not in evidence when I stopped by, other Tranquility Base members also included Scott McCloud, Jenn Manley-Lee, Daniel Merlin Goodbrey and Tracy White. They had a nice setup at their booth, with a couple of inflatable chairs for lounging, a large container of healthy green grass and multiple computers flashing images of their comics. Alongside the computer were copies of Scott McCloud's books (including his latest), and a few mini-comic offerings. They also had a really nifty pile of flyers (in a spiffy flyer container) with a brief description of each Tranquility Base member. Their wall banner was a gorgeous blue sky with puffy white clouds, adorned with their collective's "symbology set" (each of them has a really nice, simple icon, like a sheep with a plug in its side for Patrick's e-sheep and Scott's classic representation of himself from Understanding Comics). They also had a banner for the front of the table that was just blue with the symbols and their names above their symbols. Certainly, this was one of the more memorable and eye-catching booths of the small press folks.

From there I was inexorably drawn to the Flight booth by that gorgeous, unmistakable banner art they use in their promotional material. Very busy space! Lots and lots of people wanted copies and they wanted them signed and sketched in. I bought a copy of the book (volume one! I'm really looking forward to volume two!) and briefly met a couple of contributors. Rad Sechrist and Neil Babra both signed it for me. They were too tired and too swamped for much conversation. I regret that I didn't get to meet Kazu Kibuishi. He's the editor and art director of the book, as well a contributor. He's also the creator of Daisy Cutter (I picked up volume one, Daisy Cutter: The Last Train elsewhere).

I wandered some more and bought my very first Superman T-shirt, which I've been wanting forever, along with an Invader Zim shirt, from a giant booth created entirely out of black-painted metal mesh. It was probably ten to fifteen feet high. Every T-shirt imaginable in every size hung from hooks and hangers linked into the mesh. I also saw a booth filled with the most beautiful wooden sculptures I think I've ever seen called Enchanted Wood. I couldn't afford the work, but I grabbed a card for future reference.

I was surprised to see that the crowd walking around ranged wildly in appearance. Plenty of pasty white guys, but also a huge number of people of other races and lots of women (although I don't think I had to stand in line in the Women's Room all weekend). Lots of families with kids of different ages, interested in different stuff. The little kids wanted toys, the middle kids wanted comics and weapons, and the grown-ups seemed to veer toward nostalgia although plenty of them shared their kids' interests. I saw many heterosexual couples hauling around bags full of their treasures, with both the men and women engaged in what they saw. And I saw a lot of exhausted people sitting at the chairs and tables that surrounded the periodic cafes and food carts. Seems like I wasn't the only tired and overwhelmed person there.

Eventually it was time to meet up with my dinner companion, the talented comics journalist Bill Baker. It was good to get outside where it was cool and clear, whereas it had gotten pretty humid and stale in the exhibit hall.

My shoulder was killing me with the weight of all the books in my bag, but we soldiered on and managed to get some decent grub at the Westin Hotel sports bar and talk about the day.

Stopped by Ralph's 24-hour supermarket (down G Street) on my way back to my hotel to buy pens (I'd lost mine), tape (to tape the vertical blinds to the window so they'd stop bouncing and clacking in the breeze created by the window air conditioner), cardboard (to block out the light in case taping the blinds didn't work), and lunch for the next couple days. Nice place, Ralph's. I'd say a number of people in the store were comics types – at least one laughed at my T-shirt – and I was amused to find that the junk food aisle was absolutely decimated. I creaked back to the hotel and taped up the blinds, scattered the pens through my belongings so I could always find at least one, and wrote myself notes to remember the day before I crashed

Friday, 23 July 2004
I generally don't wake up well and even with Comic-Con to look forward to, it was tough to get out of bed when I didn't HAVE to be someplace for any specific thing. But I'd put Chopping Block by my bedside and used it to help me wake up. Twisted funny stuff.

The tape held up through the night, and I pulled it off so as not to scare the cleaning people. I also ate the lunch I'd bought at Ralph's the night before – they make a tasty turkey sandwich!

Whenever I took the elevator up, I rode with at least one con-goer. But heading out I always took the stairs, pretty much by myself. Don't know if that's a comment on con-goers in general or tired people.

Getting across the trolley tracks and into the convention center was a lot harder – there were HUGE crowds of people and traffic cops at every corner yelling at pedestrians who even looked like they MIGHT cross against a light. The police people of San Diego take their jaywalking VERY seriously. One or two of the officers were joking with the crowd, though. And then there was the slow climb up the steps and the crossing of the drop-off/pick-up lane, surrounded by throngs all forced to move as slowly as the slowest person. This did not bode well for the rest of my day.

I checked the freebie table again, then walked around the panel rooms, trying to decide which panel to attend. Finally decided to get in for the Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean panel early. Which meant I came in part-way through the Disney/Pixar panel on their movie The Incredibles. Director Brad Bird, producer John Walker and moderator Mark Vaz were at the table. Bird is really very funny, a big fan of science fiction and all the nerdy things that go along with that, and a big fan of Pixar. We got to watch a very funny clip from the movie (NO CAPES!). Capelessness aside, I'm really looking forward to seeing this movie! They took a lot of questions from the crowd, who were all already fans of Bird's work, especially of work on The Iron Giant. It was a surprisingly honest and open discussion for someone from Hollywood. It sounds like he thoroughly enjoyed the experience with Pixar and the Pixar guys liked him back.
I also got a ticket for a give-away in another room.

Stayed in the room for Dave McKean & Neil Gaiman panel on their movie Mirrormask. They make a funny contrasting pair for such good friends. Neil had dark shaggy hair and an easy speaking style while Dave is balding and portly and it sometimes seemed that talking pained him. Neil believes in writing in warm dark space and writing the story from start to finish. Dave thinks that's utterly wrong-headed and is a fan of bright light, cool open spaces, and writing your plot and characters out on cards that can be laid out and re-arranged before completing the work. Neil told us his favorite descriptive quote from a slightly stunned exec at the end of a nearly complete screening they did the night before: "That was like Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast... on acid... for kids..." And from the clip-that-was-not-a-trailer-honest that they showed us, that's a pretty good call. So beautiful it hurt.

Stood in line for The Incredibles give-away and got a poster and a CD and a Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy towel. It doesn't say DON'T PANIC, though. I'm very disappointed.

Back down to the exhibit hall, I started by hanging out with Neil Cohn and taking his psych test about visual imagery. I also picked up a copy of his Early Writings on Visual Language.

Met Derek Kirk Kim on one side of the Top Shelf booth (from whom I bought a copy of same difference and other stories as well as Andy Runton's Owly) and Eddie Campbell on the other (from whom I bought a copy of The Bacchus/Eyeball Kid Double Bill and Egomania number 1). Derek was really sweet and seemed happy to be visited by an emissary of Comixpedia. There were a couple other people working his side of the booth as well, so he was able to take a moment and talk about putting names to faces and enjoying the convention. All the folks on that side were able to sell anything at the table and they had a steady stream of customers. On the other side, Eddie and I had a great conversation about making money from creativity and raising your kids to be happy. That side of the booth was mainly Eddie's work (which is voluminous).

Met Carla Speed McNeil and bought the latest Finder book, Mystery Date. We talked about computers as tools versus computers as a way of life. I think people shouldn't be afraid of them, just think of them as complicated tools. Swinging around the table, I noticed Killing Demons by Peter Siegel and Brent White. When I confessed I have a soft spot for supernatural detectives, they told me the book was perfect for me if I could handle graphic violence. They also advised me not to read it in the dark, whereupon I explained that the first time I read The Crow it was midnight and I was listening to a Nine Inch Nails album I'd just bought. Perfect! Bought them both, along with Chuck Rowles' The Gods of Arr-Kelaan (cuz I'd heard of it and it looked cool and it was sitting next the register and I'm an addict).

Met the artist for The Nice Guy, Tim Watts. He mentioned that people had actually stopped by because they'd heard of the comic through the Comixpedia forums. Excellent!

That night at dinner I met writer/editor Joel Meadows, creative manager Aaron Hubrich, and artist/illustrator David Michael Beck along with a couple other folks whose names I missed. Friendly, funny, talented and knowledgeable buncha guys. We each described what we do for a living (or don't do in anymore, in my case). Joel writes about comics, Aaron manages projects for Devils Due (procuring and organizing artists for various things), and Beck makes beautiful art. The other folks were letterers and long-time comics readers.

I left them pretty late to head back to my hotel. I was even more tired than the night before, but I'd done a better job of distributing the weight of what I was carrying. Good thing too, 'cuz my shoulders were really sore from the previous day's burdens. I'd had a vague thought of attending the Eisner awards but I just wasn't up to dealing with the crowds. It's amazing how weary you can get from walking around and talking to people and picking out comics to buy. My human-interaction quota was definitely full for the day.

And before going to bed, I read Andy Runton's Owly and it is as absolutely adorable as reported.

Oh and I wore my "i am the media" t-shirt complete with bullhorn picture all day, but no one got it. Or at least told me that they got it. Possibly my badge interfered with reading it.

So much for trying to be clever.

(p.s. Feel free to post links to other Comic-Con reports here for easy finding.)

READ PART TWO OF OUR 2004 COMICON REPORT HERE.