Missing Out on the Party

So you meet this girl at the library. Or maybe the coffee shop. She's cute, but not super-model attractive. She's a little introverted, but you find out that you share a lot of the same interests -- comics, for one. You get to be friends, and then maybe a little more than friends. You start to think you've got a real shot with her. For a while, it's great.

But then she starts to notice other people. She spends a little less time with you, and then a lot less. She gets glammed up and starts hanging out with a different crowd, people you're not as comfortable around. You drift apart. You feel like she's forgotten you. And you wonder if what you had together meant anything to her. Or was she just looking for somebody to help her come out of her shell?

There's really no right or wrong to it. Sometimes people just grow apart. But you can't help feeling kind of wistful for when it was just the two of you.

For a few different reasons, I'm not at Comic-Con International in San Diego this year. I think it's only the third time I've missed the show in two decades of going to it. There's a certain sense of relief at not descending into the abject madness that the con has become. I certainly won't miss the cross-country flights, the exhaustion, the huge hole blown out of my work schedule. My liver is already thanking me. I'll be able to get a lot of work done while the con grinds on without me, since the interruptions of emails, phone calls and IMs should be severely curtailed. And, ironically, with all the coverage, I'll actually have a better idea of what's going on at the con from my office at home. When you're actually in the belly of the beast, you have virtually no idea what the news is.

And yet -- there's still a sense that I'm missing out on something, like there's a party all your friends are going to, but you're stuck at home. I've already written about what it's like being on the pro side of the table at a con. It's especially true of SDCC, when creators have a laundry list of signings, panels, meetings and interviews. You don't get much chance to experience the con that attendees experience.

I'm not sure of the year I first went to I went to SDCC. I suspect it was 1992, but it might have been a year later. I crashed at the apartment of a friend, painter Joe Chiodo, who also colored some of the original Image titles. Joe's place at that time was actually a bedroom in an apartment that was serving as the studio for Jim Lee, Whilce Portacio and Scott Williams. Pretty sure that was the first time I met Jim, late one night as he stopped by to catch up on some pages.

It was very much a comic convention, then. The big attractions were the Marvel and DC Comics booths, the packed panels were about comics. It attracted a healthy crowd, but I don't think I ever heard the words "sold out."

The convention center itself was less than half of what it is now, in terms of floor space, and there wasn't much around it. A few hotels, some restaurants. The Gaslamp District didn't exist, except for maybe a block or two of restaurants. The rest of it was seedy hotels, tattoo parlors and liquor stores. San Diego is, you'll remember, a Navy town. The other side of the tracks from the convention center was, for the most part, the other side of the tracks. A good deal of what is now the Gaslamp was an area you didn't necessarily want to walk through after dark, stocked with the homeless and hustlers, tired whores and drunks throwing up in alleys. Not exactly "the good old days."

As the convention has grown, so has the area. Visiting the city once a year gives you a mental time-lapse as the con center itself grew, the Gaslamp expanded another few blocks each year, Petco Park rose from an area of dilapidated warehouses. I've watched the seedy hotels and liquor stores replaced by restaurants and shops; those initial restaurants and shops replaced by more upscale restaurants; and those upscale restaurants and shops replaced by things like the Hard Rock Hotel. And, of course, the convention center itself has continued to expand, reaching the present gargantuan proportions (but still not quite sufficient for the con).

I'm not sure when the con, at least for me, stopped being fun and started being an ordeal to be survived. Six years ago? Seven? It certainly coincided with Hollywood, and the media, "discovering" SDCC and descending upon it. Some might say "like locusts," but I'm not quite that uncharitable. Now it's a media event worthy of live television and magazine covers. Obviously, a lot of that can be traced to the increasingly symbiotic relationship between comics, film and television. There was a time, not that long ago, when there were no post-con parties at SDCC, no guest lists. It was more egalitarian. Everybody ended up the same few bars or poker games. Now it's a scene where everybody wants to be seen.

People complain that SDCC isn't about comics anymore, and that's true. It's about everything now -- comics, movies, television, toys, video games, anime, pretty much anything that can be pimped to an eager, captive audience. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. The nerdstream has become mainstream, with all the positives and negatives that go with it.

I get it. There's more money to be made from other media, toys and video games than from comics. I don't begrudge SDCC its success, and I don't really blame the con for embracing huge studio booths and Hall H extravaganzas at the expense of small press publishers and art dealers. Artist's Alley has dwindled as more and more artists are forced to band together to buy booth space in order to avoid the just-this-side-of-Tijuana location of Artist's Alley. It's simple economics. I'm not going to be one of those guys whining that "different" or "not like it was" automatically equates to "bad."

To great extent, SDCC is what you make of it. It's now a smorgasbord so large you couldn't possibly experience all of it. You have to pick and choose, and take from it what you will. If you attend and have a lousy time, it's probably more your fault than that of the con itself.

But -- I wouldn't be honest if I didn't admit to being wistful about the focus on comics. So I'm thrilled to see that this year, somebody did something about it. Tr!ckster set up shop at the San Diego Wine and Culinary Center, across the street the monolithic con center, presenting a sort of combo gallery show, book store, wine bar and workshop. Tr!ckster's sole focus is creator-owned comics, with people like Mike Mignola, Scott Morse, Steve Niles, Skottie Young, Tommy Lee Edwards, Greg Rucka, Mike Allred and a great many more participating.

If there's one thing I'll miss about not attending this year -- besides catching up with friends and eating at El Vitral, damn near my favorite restaurant in the world -- it's not being able to check out Tr!ckster. I think it's an important step in reclaiming some of what's been lost for comics as SDCC has evolved, celebrating the alchemy of words and pictures on the page. What first brought people to the con is again a reason to attend.

So maybe what's old is new again. Fifteen years ago, people actually stood in line to eat at the Old Spaghetti Factory, because it was one of a few restaurants in the Gaslamp with any kind of seating capacity. Eventually, the Old Spaghetti Factory closed, replaced by a chic, upscale Italian place (that had amazing lobster mac and cheese and Raspberry Mojitos). But things have a way of coming full circle. A few years ago, that upscale restaurant went out of business and was replaced by -- the Old Spaghetti Factory.

Ron Marz has been writing comics for two decades, and thinks it's pretty much the best job ever. His current work includes "Artifacts," "Witchblade" and "Magdalena" for Top Cow, and his upcoming creator-owned title, "Shinku," for Image, set to debut in June, 2011. Follow him on Twitter (@ronmarz) and his website, ronmarz.com

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