ALL ROADS LEAD TO BALTIMORE
Back in February, I was meeting with a literary agent who wanted to represent my "Teaching Comics" book proposal. She liked my relatively lengthy pitch, and she thought that we could land a publisher between my teaching credentials, my utter geek knowledge, and her extensive list of editorial contacts. Fine, I thought.
"But another thing I'd really love to write," I said, "would be a kind of Chuck Klosterman-esque new journalism thing. About comic book conventions."
She stared, expecting me to say something more interesting.
"I think 2008 is going to be a huge year of change for the industry -- with the dramatic rise of comics in popular culture, and in libraries and classrooms as well." After all, I had presented a comics workshop for a group of teachers at the Norman Rockwell Museum only a few months earlier, and over forty local educators showed up, many of whom hadn't read a comic outside of "Beetle Bailey" and "Cathy." "And some major shifts in distribution are taking place," I added. "Will serialized comics continue now that graphic novels have taken a firm hold? Will more and more comics be delivered in an online format first? These are the things I can explore. Through the lens of the comic book convention."
"Well, that's always a fascinating concept -- a study of an unusual group during a time of change," she said. "But for that type of thing, you'd have to write a big chunk of it first. It's all about how the story is told. You have to sell them on your style. Um, let's just focus on this other book idea for now."
The "um" sent a message. She didn't have time for my convention tomfoolery. And she saw right through my ruse: no way was she going to give me an excuse to go to every convention of the year. I didn't really want to write that book. I just wanted to find a way to get paid to go hang out with comic creators and talk about the Legion of Super-Pets.
By the time I got home after the meeting, I realized that I didn't really need to write a book just to have an excuse to go to a convention or eight. Talking about the Legion of Super-Pets was reason enough. Sure, the old, "I have to go, honey, because of the book" excuse might have worked its magic at least once or twice on my wife, but I didn't really need an excuse. How many weekends would I be gone, anyway? And I'm sure she and the kids would have plenty of fun without me around, holding them back from the park and the beach with my incessant whining about the inconsistent art on Grant Morrison's "Batman" comics. Plus, I'm sure, in the near future, all family interaction will consist of watching each other's video blogs on YouTube, so why not stay a few years ahead of the curve? At seven and four, the kids are old enough to hold a camera and use iMovie. They'll figure it out. I don't need to be around when there are so many conventions to attend. And after I get back, I will absolutely watch the highlights of their YouTube adventures, or at least fast-forward through them with a keen eye. Or at least read the comments.
Thus began my descent into con season.
And even though my agent wasn't even interested, I still had the notion that a book would come out of all this, as I surfed convention websites, making a master list of dates. Planning my year of con-going. Planning my adventures into the fantastic.
My first stop, back in those innocent, late-winter days: The East Hartford Comic Book Spectacular.
I'll admit it. I knew the show wasn't going to live up to the last word in its name. I went with irony in my heart, and I wasted my time. It was seven guys with their longboxes stacked on white tables in the smallest Holiday Inn room imaginable. I tried to maintain the facade of journalism as I spoke to the dealers about the changing medium, most of whom had never even heard of torrents or digital downloads or even those Marvel DVD comic collections from a few years back. When I said you could get basically every "Amazing Spider-Man" issue legally, in digital form, for about forty bucks, one dealer looked at his longboxes, shrugged, and said, "huh. Well, I have about a hundred more boxes still in my attic. I'll never sell through all my stuff before I die anyway. I wonder what will happen to all of it after that?" I didn't have much of a follow-up question.
The sadness was palpable, and the con-goers weren't immune. One guy, only a few years younger than my father, talked to me about why he went to conventions. "I just like to get out of the house," he said. "I go to these whenever I can, because what else am I going to do? There's nothing on TV."
So much for the East Hartford Comic Book Spectacular. So much for any enthusiasm I had about my book idea.
But even the East Hartford despair didn't stop me from hitting all the hot spots on my comic-con itinerary. And with feeble notions of writing a book about my experiences behind me, I could actually relax and have fun. I didn't need to talk about the medium or the future or any of that important stuff. I could talk Krypto and Beppo and Comet all day, every day. At the conventions, of course.
I hit the Kid's Comic-Con with my son. I hit New York, where I joined the internet's Mike Phillips behind a table, shilling books for a few days. I hit MoCCA, the Albany Comic-Con, San Diego -- where CBR actually did put me to work, but that didn't stop me from having fun -- and I thought that would be it. I thought my 2008 convention-going would be over as summer turned to fall and we all went back to school.
Baltimore loomed, though.
I'd heard good things about the Baltimore Comic-Con from more than one pro. It might be a long drive from Massachusetts, but at least I could shack up with the internet's Mike Phillips for the weekend. But would the convention be more San Diego, or more East Hartford Comic Book Spectacular? Would it be worth the gas? Would it be worth the lost weekend, which might cause me to fall even farther behind on some self-imposed deadlines?
I knew my wife and kids would be fine without me. I'd read all about it beneath their YouTube videos.
So, without a whole lot of planning, I packed up for the weekend, and headed south.
Joined by the internet's Mike Phillips for two days of Baltimore con action, I was ready to put an exclamation point on my Year of Conventions! (See, the exclamation point's already in place. And there's more where that came from!)
Unlike other conventions of 2008, when I had some ulterior motives -- first, to gather research for a possible book, then later to sell my actual books, and then even later to do whatever CBR's Jonah Weiland told me to do -- in Baltimore I had no plans whatsoever. If spontaneous references to Proty II happened to arise, I'd be ready for them, but I had no agenda, no schedule, and I didn't bring my laptop to the show.
Here's the thing about the Baltimore Comic-Con: everything you've heard about the show is true. It's small, but with an impressive guest list. It's all about the comics, with movies and video games making only the smallest, peripheral appearance. And it captures, in its relatively small floor space, a cross-section of comics today. Sure, Manga is under-represented, but you could find it somewhere at the show. Along with bootleg DVDs, minicomics, Howard Chaykin, back issues, the Baroness, Brian Michael Bendis, several guys who look like Dan DiDio, actual Dan Didio, toys, original art, Mike Mignola, a giant Hulk statue, incognito Barry Lyga, old black and white magazines, Top Shelf, Geoff Johns, and plaid Superman.
This was the type of show where you saw more luggage and pull-carts than backpacks. Hardcore collectors had comic boxes strapped to their little trolleys, navigating the spacious aisles looking to snag signatures and great deals. Kids showed up with sketchbooks. Hundreds of people waited in line to kiss Bendis's ring. It was a lot of fun.
The internet's Mike Phillips even picked up a copy of the unaired "Power Pack" television pilot, for an upcoming Sequart project, and the DVD came with the added bonus of the "Lobo Paramilitary Christmas Special." You can re-enact our Saturday evening by having some microwaved scallops from an overpriced restaurant, then hanging out in a hotel room watching the guy from the recent "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" remake play Lobo in a deranged student film version of the Giffen and Bisley epic. We were waiting for the Harvey Awards to end so we could meet up with some people at the bar, but that was just an excuse to make time for the Lobo. I'm sure everyone at the Harveys wished they could have been watching Lobo instead.
The best part of Baltimore, though, was the infectious enthusiasm of Dean Trippe. Coming off the high of "All-Star Superman" #12, I have been feeling a lot of Superman love myself, but Dean takes it to a whole other level. A level of pure bliss. And though I've been internet pals with him for a little while, I hadn't met him until the Baltimore show. And if he wasn't naturally enthusiastic enough, I met him just as Geoff Johns was talking to him about a possible upcoming collaboration. Dean wears a Superman ring on his right hand, and he inhales and exhales Superman, so every discussion he and Johns had was filled with radiant joy. A mutual joy for the character and his infinite possibilities.
Dean told me what he's working on, and although he didn't swear me to secrecy or anything, it's something that he's going to want to announce himself, after all the contracts are signed. But the man feels the power of Superman, deeply -- an overwhelming sense of hope and goodness that only a fictional character can truly embody. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't aspire to it.
Quite a contrast from the despair of the East Hartford Comic Book Spectacular.
If I had bothered to write a book about the con season of 2008, I would have been glad that it ended in Baltimore. It was a hopeful convention, pointing optimistically toward tomorrow with guys like Geoff Johns and Dean Trippe leading the way. The other concerns -- online distribution, the institutional acceptance of the medium -- they will play out as they will.
The stories will continue to inspire no matter how they are delivered.
Now I just have to figure out how to inspire Sterling Gates to change the title of his comic to "Supergirl and Comet, the Super-Horse."
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the writer of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of the recently-released "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes." More of his thoughts on comics can be seen every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.
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