For the first time in over three years, I skipped a When Words Collide column last week. I intended to write it — I was planning to write up a Convention Report based on my experiences at the New York Comic Con this year. But this year’s convention wiped me out, and by the time I got back home and settled in, I had to get caught up on my full-time job as a school administrator. No time to reflect on what happened in New York, just enough time to press on with everything else. Barely.
So this week’s column will be part recap of the highlights of the New York convention and part update on where I am with my comic book reading and how I feel about the state of the industry right now. It’s tough to go to a big convention and not wrestle with those last two points. Usually I don’t write about the latter as much as the former, but with an extra week to process everything, I certainly have some opinions. Some thoughts.
Old Comics are Still More Interesting than New Comics. While my weekly pull list is about twice as big as it was a year ago, and the largest it’s been since I stopped doing regular single-issue reviews for CBR, I’m far more interested in the comics of the past than I am excited about the current crop. Overall, this is a good year for mainstream, direct market comics, with the new DC lineup producing a handful of must-read comics each month, Image Comics coming out with more enticing titles than ever, “PunisherMAX” and “Deadpool MAX” continuing their ridiculous level of violent fun, and new “Casanova” issues for the first time in forever.
But I find myself caught up in looking at Joe Kubert’s work in “The Viking Prince” hardcover, or digging out Joe Casey and Sean Casey “Wildcats” Volume 2 issues out of the bargain bins, or rereading Alan Moore comics from 30 years ago and letting individual issues from my Wednesday haul pile up, unread. Part of that is related to what I’ve decided to focus on as a freelance writer, and it’s literally my job to read old comics and write about them. But part of it is the kind of thing that Julian Darius writes about in a recent essay entitled “Why Comics Have Failed to Achieve Real Respect.” At first glance, or based on the title alone, you might think that Darius’ piece would be another whine for the masses to pay attention to all the greatness the comic book medium has to offer. But what Darius tackles is the more challenging notion about a reality in which comics have been accepted, but they mostly aren’t very good. Darius gets right to the essence of his thesis when he says, “Instead of realizing that comics were sophisticated entertainment for mature adults, the culture has simply made arrested development cool.”
So, yes, comics are accepted. They fuel the entertainment machine now, far more than ever. But they aren’t really respected. We all have just lowered our standards to the point where the most popular stuff — in books, in movies, in comics — is the juvenile stuff that focuses on superficial coolness at the expense of real progress for the art form.
I’m not sure it hasn’t always been this way. I know that when I was growing up, everyone around me liked the most terrible, superficial crap. “The Breakfast Club” is still hailed as some kind of classic film, for example, and it wasn’t any good then, and it’s certainly more laughably thin now. Chris Claremont’s mid-career run on the X-Men franchise is still no better than Brian Michael Bendis’ mid-career work on the Avengers franchise. Unless you’re letting nostalgia get in the way, which is often inevitable.
But, man, read those early “Marvelman” stories, or look at Joe Casey trying to do something with the Wildcats, or look at Kubert’s linework on the (admittedly silly) Viking Prince saga. Those comics were trying to make comics better than they were before. I get the feeling that most of the new comics I’m reading these days — not all, but almost all — are trying just to be the best comics they can be within a pretty narrow set of confines. “The Best Comics That Kind of Follow the Movie Concept.” “The Best Comics That Come Out Basically On Time.” “The Best Comics That Show Spider-Man Swinging Around Without Being Married.” Etc.
And, sure, as I said, it’s probably always been that way. But with decades of comics that tried to push some aspect of the medium in even some small way, compared to a couple of comics like that now, well the Old Stuff wins. There’s just more of it to go back to. And it doesn’t feel like time wasted.
Big Conventions Aren’t Built to Celebrate Old Comics. There may be thousands of square feet devoted to back-issue bins and shelves of collected editions at any convention, but have you ever really tried to hunt down back issues or find some hidden gems from the past at the New York show?
And even though you might get panels where old-timers recollect the greatest hits of the past, even those panels tend to be (a) pretty dull, (b) nothing you can’t read in any interview with those old-timers, probably available online right now, or (c) actually just more promotion for some new release.
A Joe Simon Interlude. I can’t ignore the Joe Simon panel from last week’s New York Comic Con. It was one of only two panels I ended up going to. (The other one was the Adventure Time/Regular Show panel, which I attended with my wife and kids on Sunday, and that was a great panel until they opened it up to Q&A. If you ever get a chance to run a panel, remember to never ever open it up to Q&A unless you want pointless questions repeated at you forever.) CBR provided some coverage of the panel, and correspondent Alex Dueben did a nice job conveying the basic facts conveyed by the 98-year-old Simon. But sitting and watching the panel unfold was a grueling 45 minutes.
Moderated by frequent Simon editor and interviewer Steve Saffel, the panel was a meandering mess, largely because Saffel didn’t give Simon enough direction to focus the conversation into anything that the audience would actually care about. There was the constant return to the story about Simon being told by doctors that he had a “special thing in his head” that would prevent him from “going senile,” and that inspirational story, delivered with conviction the first time, became increasingly unreliable as Simon returned to the same stock phrases again and again.
Then there was Simon’s recollection of a story about his childhood, and his elementary school class, and his constant mentioning that Lincoln had just died. (Lincoln must have died over 50 years before Simon was even going to school.)
Simon did have some vivid memories to recollect, and, near the end of the panel when an audience member asked about the Red Skull (the one exception to my no-one-should-ever-allow-Q&A rule), Simon had a detailed anecdote about the visual inspiration for the character that seemed to capture the whimsy of those early days of superhero comics perfectly.
But mostly Saffel let Simon meander around childhood memories that went nowhere interesting, and the whole visual frame of the panel was bookended by giant standees promoting the new Simon and Kirby hardcover reprints. It’s hard to say it was crass, because both Saffel and Simon where there explicitly to promote their own work and there was no point in pretending anything else, but it was far from a celebration of a pioneer in the industry. Instead, it was more of a sideshow. A look-at-this-old-guy-who-used-to-write-and-sometimes-draw-this-famous-character-you-saw-in-the-movies-this-summer. It didn’t have to be that way. It shouldn’t have been. But it was.
Back to My Point About Digging through Back Issues and the Hidden Gems. I did end up buying some comics — and some collected editions — at this year’s New York Comic Con. Every day, as part of my time on the convention floor, in between buzzing around and meeting up with friends I hadn’t seen since a convention or two ago, I checked out the deals on hardcover collections and whenever a dealer had a dollar box (or cheaper) I dug through back issues.
I ended up buying collections of things I already owned in two other formats (like “We3” or “Swamp Thing” for example), and all I ended up with out of the back issue bins where a near-complete run of the Casey Wildcats comics and a complete run of the most recent, and recently-cancelled, Keith Giffen Doom Patrol run. That’s it. Out of thousands of square feet of long boxes.
Later that week, stopping randomly at a comic shop in Boston, after a work-related meeting, I found, in the fifty-cent bin, the following gems: an almost-complete run of the Quality color reprints of “Rogue Trooper” (inspired by a ten second mention by your friend and mine, Sean Witzke), two issues of Gilbert Hernandez’s “Girl Crazy” from Dark Horse, Estaban Maroto’s “Zero Patrol” #1-5 from Continuity Comics, and, astonishingly, Chris Ware’s “Floyd Farland, Citizen of the Future.” For about $10 total. In a dozen longboxes that took me twenty minutes to look through.
I suppose my point is that a big convention like the New York Comic Con may seem to have a million more opportunities to find what you’re looking for, and a million better deals than you’re likely to find in any local comic shop. But that didn’t seem true at all this year. It seemed like half the booths were selling recent issues of DC’s New 52 at slightly above cover price, and the other half had older back issues that were overpriced (plenty of $10 bronze age comics, if you’re so inclined), or dollar bins that were filled with the same surplus comics that you find everywhere. The kind that Wal-Mart used to sell in three-packs.
So What Was NYCC All About? It was definitely about video games and toys. Those two kinds of booths dominated the convention hall, though my son, who is definitely interested in video games, above all else, never even got a chance to demo a single one on Sunday, because the lines were so deep. It was about watching other people play video games. And a lot of loud, booming bass coming from those booths.
It was about getting a chance to talk with some writers and artists. As busy as the convention floor was, all weekend, the Artist’s Alley section was significantly less crowded. There you could actually talk to Cliff Chiang and Chris Burnham and Rob Liefeld and Jason Aaron and Jason Latour and Scott Snyder. And I did, though not for nearly long enough. Because talking comics and art and movies and TV with those guys is far more interesting than anything else on the convention floor. By far.
Though there were a few surprising announcements at the convention as well. None of them came from DC or Marvel.
The second-best announcement was the return of Geof Darrow’s “Shaolin Cowboy,” coming from Dark Horse in three issues next year.
The best announcement, by a mile, was the news about the relaunch of the Extreme Studios characters, including the final Alan Moore Supreme script finally seeing the light of day, Joe Keatinge and Ross Campbell’s “Glory” making its reimagined debut, and Brandon Graham and Simon Roy doing a space-Conan take on “Prophet.”
Finally, something new! Well, something new, based on a whole bunch of old stuff.
But that’s comics. And maybe it’s always been that way.
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of “Grant Morrison: The Early Years” and editor of “Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes” anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.