Wildcat Days, Baywatch Nights

In which Bill journeys to the heart of Yuengling country to attend a comicon in his old stomping grounds

Last weekend, my friend Matt, who runs a small town library, and I, who writes for this here blog, ventured to Williamsport, Pennsylvania, home of the Little League World Series, and my old college town, to check out the Wildcat Comic Con, a strange parfait of comics academia, library science, small press, and Klingons, held at the Pennsylvania College of Technology, or Penn Tech, as all of us Lycoming kids called it back in the day. The goals were to hang out, soak up some comics culture, and drink all the beer. As far as those goals go, it was a success.

I rolled into town on Friday the 13th, the first day of the two-day con, and a day ahead of Matt, who was too busy being in charge of a library with what I imagine has the finest graphic novel collection in the state, at least for its size. That is, it better have the finest collection, because I keep telling him what to order (note to Matt: Did you order King City? You should have.) Matt and I got our Masters' degrees in library science around the same time, so he knew comics was my true love, and beer was my mistress. I had planned to spend the majority of the day visiting friends in town I hadn't seen in some time, but first I thought I would give the first day of the con a spin.

Firstly, the Penn Tech campus is kind of a labyrinth. I'd never set foot upon it before, not even for that time Snooki showed up. There was a bloomin' roundabout to deal with, and every pathway ended up in a dead end and a dumpster. It did not help that attendees had to trek to the complete opposite side of the campus from where everything was happening to sign in and pick up a badge. Note for the future, #1: Put as much as possible in one spot.

Attendance was not as full on Friday as it would be on Saturday, but I suppose I should have been struck by how young everybody seemed. From what I could tell, they were all voracious manga readers and I was the only one there under 30 who owned every issue of Sleepwalker, but youth still exists in comics. I did see a kid of about 10 in an Iron Man costume. He was awesome.

After getting my bearings, I sat in on a panel, this one presented by Mark McKenna, longtime comics inker, discussing his history with comics from starting in the art corrections department to riding the wave of the speculation boom and then into his current creator-owned work. I enjoy hearing about how the sausage is made and could probably have listened to him talk about pen nibs and brush technique for another couple hours. Being all journalistic and bloggy I asked a question about how the digital world is encroaching on the world of pen and ink. These days, inking seems like the most overlooked aspect of comics production, and one still reliant on physical art and materials-- paper, ink, brushes, pens, markers, white-out. The inker is beholden to the pace of the penciller and always the one who needs to make up for lost time.

I also pulled a Burgas and chatted to the affable Mr. McKenna after his panel about long-term pencil-and-ink collaborations (he works a lot with Mike McKone and Jim Calafiore) and inking metholodogy; he doesn’t seek to impose too much of himself onto the pencils, being of one of what I guess are two schools of inking—he likes to bring the style and strengths of the penciller to the fore. We talked about his more recent creator-owned work. His appearance at this convention was due to his series geared towards kids, Banana Tail. I picked up some nice money-riffic prints of that series including one by Walter Simonson, and also walked away with the a print of the following by McKenna himself:

I am slowly building my own ROM Spaceknight art gallery.

Of more interest to our readership here, however, is probably the next creator-owned project he's looking to launch, Combat Jacks, about space marines fighting evil pumpkinhead monsters. Currently he's looking to raise funds for the book over at Indie GoGo, so click on this link right here to throw some dollars in that direction. If everybody reading this tossed in a couple bucks we could soon by holding this baby in our hands:

The next day I met up with Matt and we wandered around for a bit. Here’s where my Note for Future Cons #2 comes in: always have stuff on the floor, don’t rely just on programming. The Wildcat Comic Con did have a lot of programming geared toward multiple demographics in the comics community— panels on comics in the classroom or in the library (unfortunately I missed that collection development one, whoops), activities for kids, lectures, and the requisite panels on how to create comics and get published. These panels were in auditoriums and classrooms, settings which automatically gave the con the academic atmosphere it was shooting for.

The non-panel content lacked somewhat. There was an Artist’s Alley, mostly populated by panel presenters when they had some free time. I also saw a Storm Trooper and a freaky Terrorklownz dude. Signing session were on a rotating schedule at the beautiful campus library, though despite following Klingons in the wild like Jane Gooddall I never did encounter Walter Koenig.

Only a couple comic and graphic novel vendors were around, including Joe Figured, the guy who runs my old local shop, America’s Most Wanted Collectibles. We spent a few minutes catching up and talking about how awesome Jim Aparo is (consensus: the awesomest) and I left there with a few weird and obscure gems, including Milligan and Fegredo’s Face, a random issue of Team America, and what might be the single greatest comic book of all time, Rip Hunter: Time Master #20, an issue in which Napoleon Bonaparte socks Adolf Hitler in the jaw. Luckily, everything in the world is already on the internet, and this gentleman has already reviewed the issue for me. What fascinates me is that Rip Hunter’s four-man team of “smart guy, tough guy, lady, kid” pre-dates both the Fantastic Four and the original TARDIS team on Doctor Who (and also the story model of those original Who episodes). Does anyone—I’m looking at you, Greg Hatcher—know where that team dynamic originated?

After that, it was panel time. We sat in on a panel about self-publishing featuring Jimmy Gownley (creator of Amelia Rules), Mark McKenna, my cousin MK Reed (not really), and Jerry Craft (Mama's Boyz), moderated by John Gallagher of Buzzboy and Roboy. It could have benefited from a longer running time, but by the end we were all eating out of Gownleys hand, and learned about the strengths and weaknesses of independence and creative control, woes of distributing through Amazon or going with print-on-demand versus hiring your own printer. Reed bemoaned a closet full of books; Craft discussed piling a van with books and driving them home from the printer versus paying shipping. Everyone shared their personal success stories, and horror stories of self-publishing gone off the rails.

Next came a presentation on comic book storytelling from Dean Haspiel, the world’s manliest cartoonist, using examples from the comics he’s illustrated over his career. We bloggers and critics always discuss things from the story’s point of view, but we tend to give more credit to the words rather than the pictures. Comparing a page of script to a page of comics, Haspiel demonstrated how the artist shapes the experience. In one particular example of a page from Cuba: My Revolution, written by Inverna Lockpez, he discussed a specific captioned passage he found so hauntingly beautiful that he chose not to illustrate it, letting the words themselves carry the day, and rearranging the panel presentation from the initial script. He also displayed a page of a script from Harvey Pekar, which was amazing; Pekar wrote the scripts out by hand panel by panel, including tiny stick figure placement.  (My pal Matt actually has a fun story about how he once ended up hanging out with Harvey Pekar for a day. It would make a pretty good picaresque Pekaresque short comics tale in its own right, so if you’re reading this, Dean…)

Haspiel finished by reading two comic stories aloud; one, an autobiographical love letter to New York, entitled “Beef with Tomato,” and the other a Billy Dogma tale, “The Last Romantic Antihero." Both were great, but I found the Billy Dogma story particularly fantastic, a tone poem synthesis of bigger-than-life Jack Kirby elements with the subversive verve of underground cartooning, radiating off the page (or screen in this case) with electric yellow and strawberry shake colors. Are these stories in print? I would buy the heck out of a Billy Dogma Omnibus.

After that, it was time to drink all the beer. I do love that Williamsport is that part of the country where you can simply ask for a “lager” and know you’ll be handed a Yuengling, or as some of us call it, “mother’s milk.”

TL;DR DEPT: I had a nice little time at the Wildcat Comic Con. Each panel came with its own survey to complete, and each one checked my boxes and tickled my fancy. However, if future cons are a going concern, my advice would be: 1. Make it more navigable for outsiders; 2. Have more stuff to wander around, look at, and spend money on; 3. There is no 3.

New York in the autumn, hopefully.

P.S.: For those of you who clicked through just because of the post title.

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