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Issue #304

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Issue #304

So: San Diego next week.

Watched the pre-show coverage of Comic-Con International 2007 on G4TV, hosted by FILM THREAT‘s Chris Gore and Helen (SUPERGIRL) Slater-lookalike Blair Butler (kind of unnerving, but appropriate, I guess; she’s a comics fan who does a regular review segment, Fresh Ink, on G4’s core show, ATTACK OF THE BLOG), the other night. It’s an hour long special running periodically on the channel for the next week, a film-and-cosplay-heavy recap of last year’s events and brief teaser for this year’s that’s really more of a teaser for the network’s coverage of the San Diego Con starting 7P Thursday week (but, if your cable company gets the channel, check your listings, though G4 regularly reruns programs like this). The show has a few amusing moments, like interviews with Tim Kring and Frank Miller about the upcoming HEROES season and 300/THE SPIRIT, respectively. (I’m not sure Frank meant to say Hollywood and comics are now having a turgid affair, but you never know.) Much of the hour is filler, but pleasant filler – despite the painfully Emmy Awards-quality patter clearly pre-scripted for the hosts, if there’s one thing Chris Gore can do it’s talk entertainingly, while the segment of Butler dressing as an Imperial Stormtrooper and joining a squadron at Comic-Con was a laugh riot – but watching the show brought something home.

The San Diego convention has tried to massage its image a few times. I wasn’t around at its beginnings in the ’60s – I’m sure Mark Evanier has everything you’d want to know about that somewhere on his site – and in the early days of comics conventions, when most of them were really a handful of teenagers or kids sitting in a circle in some V.A. hall somewhere, there was only one “the” comic-con: the Phil Seuling Con, which happened every year in New York City over the 4th of July. Phil, long gone now, is generally considered the father of the comics convention (as well as, later on, the father of the direct market), and his shows, set in the epicenter of the comics world at that time if you weren’t European or Japanese, were where you went if you wanted to see professionals and get serious about comics. Other sizable regional conventions like BerkeleyCon and the Windy City Convention in Chicago, sprang up, but the show to beat was Phil’s.

Then there was San Diego.

No matter what San Diego was called – and at various times it has been the San Diego Comic Convention, the San Diego Comic-Con, and Comic-Con International – in the pro circles in New York, it was just San Diego. Still is. If you’re in comics and someone asks if you’re going to San Diego, it’s a pretty good bet they’re not wondering if you’re planning to winter at the Del Coronado. Pros greatly enjoyed going to the San Diego Comic-Con because, for New Yorkers, it was a relatively exotic locale, the weather was much more pleasant than Manhattan in the summertime, unlike the increasingly jaded New York fans San Diego fans were thrilled by the novelty of comics pros in their midst, and it was a great rendezvous with west coast comics talent that you didn’t normally see. It was the “mellow” con to hit, a nice little vacation you could legitimately write off as a business expense.

A lot of things changed San Diego. Partly it was natural growth, partly it was fueled by a clique of hard workers dedicated to keeping the show going. Well into the ’80s, downtown San Diego was decrepit with a basically collapsed economy (the crappy ’70s comedy film AMERICATHON posed a scenario of the broke USA selling San Diego back to Mexico that wasn’t much of a stretch); Broadway in San Diego was an expanse of hookers, drug dealers, muggers, sailors and bail bondsmen, what’s now the Gaslamp was a slum. The first time I went to San Diego, in a “real” convention center that was basically a couple a few concrete bunkers spread around a courtyard, the two closest hotels, the Westgate and the Executive, were in big demand because walking anywhere else at night was taking your life in your hands. (The Westgate’s still there, now more of a posh boutique hotel than the pinnacle of elegance and service in San Diego that it once was.) A cocktail party for pros – an event now sadly gone by the wayside, but then it was maybe 150 pros and now it’s thousands, so I can’t blame them – gave me one glimpse of the previous con digs at the San Diego Hotel, where the window gutters in the ballroom were lined with cockroach carcasses. At some point the city, by then trying desperately to draw tourists back to a town widely renowned as a hellhole, figured out that every year for a few days, a large group of people dropped into the city to fill the hotels and spend money at the restaurants, when nobody else did. Maybe they weren’t the high rollers, or even the cool kids, that the city might prefer – but they were there, a few more of them every year.

I’ve got no idea what behind-the-scenes negotiations went on, but San Diego basically adopted the San Diego Comic-Con, maybe the first place in America to officially announce they were okay with comics. Whether they thought comics were cool or not, they thought enough of the capital influx to start lining city streets with banners announcing the show. Taxi drivers started raving it up to passengers. (I know because when I took a taxi in from the airport one year I didn’t want to talk about Comic-Con so I said no when the driver asked if that’s what I was in town for, and so he spent the ride raving it up and telling me why I ought to go.) The city built a gigantic new convention center, and the con moved over there, taking up a tiny fraction of the space. And things started to snowball.

Officially the name was changed to Comic-Con International in acknowledgement of people coming to it from all over the world, and while European comics haven’t fared all that well as a result, it was certainly an entry point of manga, and started drawing manga fans who had few other places to get their fix. Rumor has it that the name was changed in anticipation of trouble with the city and the possibility of moving it to some other town like Anaheim, so they did some pre-emptive branding – no idea whether that’s true; I’ve heard differing versions – but the name change was little more than an affectation for the business, where it remained, simply, San Diego.

Somewhere along the line, someone in Hollywood figured out that San Diego presented a rare marketing opportunity for fantasy, horror and science fiction films that studios otherwise had a hard time marketing: a large, concentrated target audience almost exactly tailored to those films, who could spread word of mouth buzz on a film long before its release. And Hollywood started paying attention to San Diego. It was just marketing, but the new Hollywood presence brought in a new crop of conventioneers, and things got a little bigger, and the media started paying more attention too.

Which almost brings us here. But that wasn’t the Hollywood connection that put San Diego over the top. That only happened in the last six or seven years, when people who grew up reading and loving comics became players in Hollywood: actors, writers, directors, producers, first readers, junior executives… all through Hollywood now there’s a “comics mafia” that’s largely responsible for getting films based on comics properties off the ground. (It wasn’t that long ago when Stan Lee was known in Hollywood mainly as that guy in the waiting room we have to humor with a meeting, and if anyone thinks I’m going out of my way to be derogatory toward Stan, I’m not; that was exactly how a pretty highly placed producer I met in the late ’80s described him, with the pretty clear implication that it wasn’t only his view. If nothing else, I really admire Stan’s tenacity in a town mostly geared toward breaking that sort of spirit.) The people who wanted to come to San Diego, who were eager to be part of it, and the fans they brought in, they were the ones who really transformed San Diego into a major media event. And that sense that comics can be the core of a regular major media event has gone a long, long way toward generating the popular idea that comics as a medium are worth paying attention to.

Because, plain and simple, that’s where we are today. We’re mainstream culture now, which doesn’t necessarily mean that Joe and Jane Average on the street are buying or reading them but they’re far less likely to bat an eye or think badly of you if you are.

The San Diego convention, Comic-Con International, now covered during its run on network news broadcasts – and, sure, there are always those snide asides and snickering puns, always the shot of some 350 lb unkempt lump dressed up as Han Solo, so that the narrators can mainly a pose of being above it all, but in recent years most reports have also made it look like a hell of a lot of unusual fun – is no longer either of those things, except officially.

It’s just Comic-Con.

When G4 says “Comic-Con,” it’s automatically known they mean San Diego. When ENTOURAGE characters talk about going to “Comic-Con,” the audience doesn’t need to be told they mean San Diego. When Universal Pictures announces they’re running a panel on some upcoming movie with the director and actors at “Comic-Con,” everyone knows where they’re going to be.

A vast number of people who know virtually nothing about comics, have never read them and don’t care about them in the slightest, know that “Comic-Con” is synonymous with San Diego. And it’s a pretty good bet that a decent number of them would like to go. Because, whatever you think of comics, it looks like fun.

There are many comics conventions out there that bristle at the absorption of the term “Comic-Con,” but they might as well get used to the idea. Even on the G4 report, in a segment cribbed from this spring’s coverage of the New York Comic-Con, New York was strongly emphasized. As in: it’s not San Diego. Upshot: other cities have comic-cons. Only San Diego has Comic-Con!

Not the San Diego comic-con. Not Comic-Con International.

Comic-Con!

We’re into a whole new branded world here, and that particular brand war San Diego has unquestionably won. If it means we’ve lost a few things, if media and gaming have increasingly taken over floorspace with comics themselves having to try harder to vie for attention at their own show, if the pro cocktail parties are long gone, and back issue comics aren’t the obsession they once were, and hotel rooms are much harder to come by and getting in is sometimes worse than waiting in the Space Mountain lines at Disneyland, bemoaning all that is meaningless. The one thing the American comics business has never quite gotten its collective head around is the idea that things change. How the con used to be is irrelevant. The big question is: where do we go from here?

In the long run, where we go is up to us, so it’s time to start seriously thinking about it, because Comic-Con has opened up a cultural opportunity that the business hasn’t seen since World War II put comics in the hands of millions of G.I.s. In the short run, next week we’re going to San Diego.

On the downside of San Diego, a fellow pro sent me this the other day:

“I feel the need to vent… It concerns the upcoming San Diego.

My studio partner asks me on Thursday night about our hotel arrangements. I remind him that my wife made those back in February but I forwarded his specific info to him, so I had no clue as to what nights he and his family were staying at the Holiday Inn in Hotel Circle.

I figured that was the end of it.

It was only the beginning of a nightmare that hasn’t ended quite yet. Friday afternoon I received a call from him. His voice was quiet and concerned. It seems his hotel reservations had been canceled without anyone’s knowledge. He had called Travel Planners and they confirmed that his reservations were still active and even upgraded his room. Then he called the Holiday Inn to pass along this info, whereupon the Holiday Inn informed him that his reservations were still canceled and the hotel was fully booked. I quickly got off the phone and sent my wife in search of our paperwork. A quick call to Travel Planners confirmed that our reservations were confirmed and everything was green on their end. But a call to the Holiday Inn told another tale, one of cancellation matching Joe’s.

That began a mad scramble to try to find a room, a scramble that appears to have ended today.

My wife called the Holiday Inn again and was able to find a person who was willing to reinstate our reservations, except at the normal room rate and not the con rate, costing us an additional $200 for our stay.

I called my studio partner to tell him the news and give him the lady’s name. Then I went out. By the time I got home, he had called to tell me that basically his situation hadn’t changed and that the lady who helped us shouldn’t have been able to do that. So now we don’t again know if we have a room. On top of that he told me the HI representative he spoke with said that it looked like either Travel Planners overbooked the hotel or that someone on HI’s end canceled the reservations without going through proper channels.

So here I sit. Unsure if my wife and I have rooms. Uncertain if my studio partner will be able to make it to the show where we had planned on passing out our sampler comic. And feeling frustrated enough by the whole thing to skip this year and just go next year where I will make my own reservations well in advance. It all depends on what I hear from both Holiday Inn and Travel Planners come Monday morning.”

I don’t want to start a panic, but, particularly if you went through Travel Planners for your room, you might want to check with your hotel about the status of your reservations.

My own experience over the years has been that, whatever travel agency Comic-Con has used to handle hotel reservations, the work involved overwhelms them. San Diego hotels haven’t always been cooperative either; the Marriott next to the convention center used to have an apparent standing policy of severely overbooking the hotel, then casually shipping the spillover to whatever hotel or motel of any quality within 50 miles had an open room. Don’t think they do that anymore, though. I never liked using a travel agent anyway, and always make my own reservations; the only thing Travel Planners really has going for it is budget rates, and what good are those if you don’t end up with a room? The argument can probably be made that, given the number of reservations that pass through them for Comic-Con, a high percentage of Travel Planners’ customers come away from the experience with high satisfaction, and if that’s true (as far as I know, no one has ever done a legit study) that’s great as far as it goes but that isn’t much comfort for those who got screwed over by the process, and if it’s a statistics game all that says is that by going that route you’re just hoping for the luck of the draw. I’m sure Travel Planners isn’t a malicious or uncaring agency, and I’m sure they do their best to help customers where they can, but this is a situation where a single task – matching people with hotel rooms – is the task and there’s just no room for screw-ups. It might also have nothing to do with Travel Planners and everything to do with Holiday Inn but the fact remains that in this situation all the fingerpointing or excuses or apologies or make-ups at a later date in the world mean absolutely squat because the entire objective is already defeated.

If you want to be sure about your reservation, any reservations, you have to deal with the hotel yourself, directly, and get a valid confirmation number directly from the hotel or chain. You probably won’t get a rate as good as through the con’s booking service, but most hotels offer decent Internet or AAA rates, and you won’t have to fight your way through the February booking frenzy or wonder if your reservation is really on record. Which still doesn’t guarantee a room when you get there, but it’s as close to a guarantee as you’re likely to get.

So I guess the White House is going into full distraction mode now, as more and more Republican congressmen “defect” toward getting out of Iraq, the Iraqi president flat out said American troops can leave anytime the American government wants them to, the House of Representatives has declared global warming an acknowledged fact, and every day more Administration illegalities or blunders come to light. (Today’s great story: after Katrina, an ice company donated a virtual mountain of ice for use by New Orleans residents. Two years later, FEMA, whose rep was demolished enough by Katrina already that you’d think they wouldn’t want any more embarrassment, still hasn’t distributed the ice. But they did store it for two years to the tune of twelve million dollars. Now, though, they figure it’s beyond its usage date and distributing it would constitute a health hazard, so they’re just dumping all of it. At least they’re not going to spend another six million keeping it around another year so they can analyze the situation.)

So the intended distractions have been mounting up. On the predictable side, Homeland Security honcho Michael Chertoff has been widely talking – to the press, at cocktail parties, possibly in his sleep – about his “gut feeling” that al-Qaeda will stage an attack on America this summer. That twinge in his shinbone tells him it’s going to rain heavily across the West this summer too. “Official sources” report no special intelligence feeding Chertoff’s suspicions, though the ever prevalent “increased chatter” (ever notice how they never say what that means?) has supposedly, well, increased. Those with an attention span may recall many such “feelings” in the past few years, and, as I’ve mentioned before, it’s a sucker bet. “Terror warnings” (they don’t even bother elevating the threat color index anymore, or, apparently, even mentioning it) are an easy con, since in the wake of 9-11 they’re much more difficult to pull off anyway, and either (as in, oh, the last close to six years) no additional terror strike comes, in which case the government can suggest their diligence and readiness on your behalf scared them off, so stop bitching about trivia like no more right of habeus corpus, or they get… well, lucky isn’t exactly the right word, though looking back over history 9/11 turned out to be a great big valentine to what has turned out to be the Ghost/Dick/neo-con agenda… and get to say “See, we were right all along!” While it’s a reasonably good bet the Ghost isn’t hoping for a terror strike, it surely hasn’t escaped his strategists that having one to boldly respond to, especially if the Democrats can be painted as the weaklings whose partisan blindness allowed it to happen, would be one of the few ways his reputation could be salvaged by history. But someone asked the other day if these continuous “warnings” of impending terrorism without any known facts to back them up isn’t itself terrorism, a blatant and cynical attempt to manipulate public sympathy and cooperation via fear. Remember when FDR proclaimed we had nothing to fear but fear itself? These days the message is more along the lines of we have everything to fear, but your government can save you if you just don’t argue with them. And maybe someday you’ll even get ice.

The resuscitation of the Ghost’s reputation is obviously on some administration minds, especially shadow president Dick Cheney, whose declarations that his office is a separate unanswerable branch of government has been the scary fodder of much ridicule over the past few weeks. Dick’s stock certainly hasn’t risen with revelations that even more of the no-bid contract companies he sicced on Iraq have been screwing us to the tune of hundreds of millions. (One company alone, KBR Inc, billed the US government $110 mil for supposed support services to military bases that had been closed.) His company Halliburton, themselves routinely overbilling by millions for the services in Iraq, are building their new corporate HQ in Dubai, seemingly in anticipation of legal action against them; when his term ends by election or impeachment, will the Dick take up his own apartments there and declare himself America’s first government in exile? It’s an almost laughable situation, except that he’s really the one running the country, since the Ghost does virtually everything the Dick tells him to and reportedly often the Dick is the only source he’ll pay attention to, but what’s less laughable is that the Dick is now urging the Ghost to attack Iran, over the objections of pretty much everyone else in the administration, including Secretary Of State Condaleeza Rice and Defense Secretary/former head of the CIA Robert Gates. Because, obviously, we’ve done so well in Iraq.

But the most laughable administration distraction of the week comes from drug czar John Walters, who has declared all Americans who grow their own pot are terrorists. (On a side note, cops found an expanse of marijuana growing this week on a northern California estate of frothing right wing media mogul Rupert Murdoch and destroyed it, but responsibility for the devil weed has been placed on the shoulders of a mysterious hippie drifter illegally using the land. Not sure if he’s been seen since.) Walters is busy spreading the myth – they tried this same story a few years ago with LSD – that the mild, mellow pot smoked back in the Haight heyday has been replaced by a far more concentrated and potent Super Devil Weed From Hell, which, smoked, will cause serious brain damage. Oh, and pot growers would actively be willing to help America’s enemies get into the country so they could cause more chaos and disruption – the term “mass casualties” was bandied – because that’s the kind of America-hating, life-hating vicious monsters they are. The government’s developing an “educational” film called THE PURPLE BRAIN (named, I guess, for a brand of pot called “Purple”) to spread the fear, but given that plenty of tests have demonstrated it’s non-toxicity and recent studies indicate it may be an effective retardant or even cure for lung cancer, fear is about all they have to fall back on. Given the sheer heights of paranoia and disinformation in Walters’ broadside, they should study what he’s smoking to find out what causes brain damage.

Notes from under the floorboards:

Speaking of drugs, finally got around to watching Richard Linklater’s adaptation of my favorite Philip K. Dick novel, A SCANNER DARKLY, the other day. Not bad – Keanu Reeves and future Iron Man Robert Downey Jr. were particularly good in their respective roles as an undercover future cop having his life and identity shredded by a mix of his job and a super-addictive drug called Substance-D, and the cop’s paranoid, violent semi-intellectual weasel of a roommate – but Linklater’s cool style, amplified by the semi-animation technique he first used in WAKING LIFE that’s an interesting approximation of viewing the world through drugged eyes but unfortunately also distances the viewer from the action, loses most of the impact of Dick’s most emotional book. Still worth a look… but read the book too.

If you haven’t been watching, ABC’s TRAVELER wraps up tonight at 10P. A couple college students have been framed for a terrorist bombing by a rogue group working out of the Office Of Homeland Security, but intercession by their roommate, an agent supposed to kill them, has allowed them to go on the run to find evidence of the conspiracy, while the FBI tracks them down. It’s been entertaining enough for a summer throwaway, though I get the sense ABC will set up a 24-esque TRAVELER series if ratings are decent, and supposedly the wrap-up will answer all questions. We’ll see… but ABC was smart to cap it before they had to start trawling for burst storylines to keep it going. I wouldn’t mind seeing more TV thillers with a workable, finite vision.

Finite vision also applies to this week’s episode of HBO’s JOHN FROM CINCINNATI, which abruptly shifted from quirky dramedy with religious overtones – was there anyone who didn’t get that the idiot savant John was some kind of visiting angel? – to really crappy sermonette. It’s like creator/producer David Milch got the early reviews and was so pissed off that they didn’t get what the series was about that he decided to tell them exactly what it was about. Where before he floated at the edges of other characters’ lives to be a catalyst for changes in their perceptions of the world, now he miraculously appears in three places at once – a Holy Trinity directly interceding to force them to a “spiritual awareness.” What’s more, the sermon he gives during a dreamtime picnic leaves no doubt as to “John’s” true identity: if he’s not the returned Jesus Christ himself, he’s quite aware he’s the stand-in. It’s a moment that’s intended to be uplifting, revelatory – but all it did was turn the show idiotically mundane. With JOHN FROM CINCINNATI wiping out, BIG LOVE collapsing under its own weight (Bill Paxton’s clan leader always came across as a rationalizing jerk, but this season they’ve apparently decided to play him as a total idiot), and the half-assed, meandering pseudo-humor of FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS, HBO’s once-storied original programming lineup is looking all used up.

Next week: reviews. I promise. Starting with mini-comics. Right now I have to get back to scripting ODYSSEUS THE REBEL for Big Head Press. While you’re waiting for that to show up, head over there and read LA MUSE. You won’t regret it.

Congratulations to Kyle Rogers, the first to notice that all the comics in last week’s Comics Cover Challenge had October dates on them. Kyle would like you to visit Irish Comic Challenge – wait, isn’t that some sort of trademark infringement? Should I call my lawyer? No, it’s an online “open mike” for amateur Irish comedians. (My inclination is to ask wouldn’t that make it an open mickey, but that’s why I’m not an Irish comic, though I’m part Irish.)

For those who came in late: you may notice several comics covers posted in the column. This is what I call the Comics Cover Challenge. The covers are connected by a single secret theme – it could be a concept, a creator, a character, a historical element, pretty much anything – and the first reader who emails me the correct solution may choose a website of their choice (keep it clean!) for promotion in next’s week’s column. If you need any clues beyond what’s here, you can search for them at the online source of our covers, The Grand Comic Book Database. There’s also a secret clue cleverly hidden somewhere in this column, but if you can’t find it don’t let it weigh on you.

As usual, you can find ebooks and other books by me and recommended by me available at The Paper Movies Store. Go buy something; I need the money. Then again, who doesn’t?

Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it’s not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They’re no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don’t really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read.

IMPORTANT PUBLIC NOTICE OF COLUMN POLICY: any email received in response to a piece run in this column is considered a letter of comment available for printing in the column unless the author specifically indicates it is not intended for public consumption. Unless I check with you or the contents of your e-mail make your identity unavoidably obvious, all letters are run anonymously.

Please don’t ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.

The WHISPER NEWSLETTER is now up and running via the Yahoo groups. If you want to subscribe, click here.

I’m reviewing comics sent to me – I may not like them but certainly I’ll mention them – at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send ’em if you want ’em mentioned, since I can’t review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can’t do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.

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