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July 23, 2011

Feature Story: San Diego Comic-Con 2011 News and Updates

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Sunday, July 24

The major panel of the day, for me, was What Comes After the Graphic Novel?, moderated by The Beat’s Heidi Macdonald and featuring literary agent Judy Hansen; Portlyn Freeman, coowner of Brave New World Comics; Jeff Webber, e-books director for IDW; and Terry Nantier, publisher of NBM. The question, much like the day before’s panel on whether the comic book was dead, is troubling in just about every sense to a fan of the format. But there’s no denying the question needs to be asked. With graphic novels, however, the picture is a little brighter: Sales are up a little, which is a good sign. How to build on that, however, is the million dollar question. And of course the ever-present question of digital impact reared its head. The short answer: No one knows. Yes, there was a lot of talk about digital and how great or how evil it is. But everyone who spoke on it was quick to point out how little they truly knew about where things were headed. If you find that frustrating, join the club, but I think we’re all in the same boat: waiting to see just how much good or bad is really going to come out of this in the end.
 
After that panel, it was time for a few quick meetings with various industry professionals before heading out. The haul of books I took home was impressive: Terry Moore’s The Complete Echo (amazing), Nate Powell’s Any Empire (ditto), Jiro Taniguchi’s A Zoo in Winter (I can’t wait to read it), and many, many more—especially a ton of individual comics from the ’70s and ’80s. All in all, another amazing Comic-Con.
 
Or was it? The question came up more than once about whether this con was better, worse, or the same as in previous years. There’s an air of doubt over how big the con is and how removed the focus is from actual comic books. The point was driven home to me when I heard from several friends about the ordeal of trying to buy their tickets for next year--$175 for an event 12 months away that they worry about not being able to attend. It’s a scary prospect for them, but for me it’s more than a little annoying—they’re not battling other comic book fans for the chance to attend. They’re battling the new crowd. Is that better? Worse? It’s definitely harder for the average fan, but unlike digital books, I don’t think we have to wait to see what kind of impact is coming. It’s already here, and that is not always great news for those who just love comic books—or those selling them.

Saturday, July 23

Is the comic book doomed? That was the question asked at a rather interesting panel discussion today moderated by Doug Wolk. The bulk of the conversation took place between ComicsPRO’s Amanda Emmert and comics pro Mark Waid, who is about to embark on his own digital publishing venture in the fall (and who also has worked extensively on print comics for many years). Also on the panel were Comics Alliance’s Laura Hudson and Jeff Smith’s wife (who aided with the production and promotion of Bone), Vijaya Iyer.
 
So what is the answer? As many were quick to point out, people have been predicting the death of the monthly comic book for years, decades even, and it still hasn’t happened. Yet there’s no denying that monthly sales are down significantly, so much so that even the top-selling issues can often attain only sales of about 70,000–100,000 copies. But that’s a number only a select few series can reach. And outside of mainstream titles from the big publishers, most comics are lucky to sell 4,000 copies a month. And that leaves the format somewhat in trouble. As “transmedia” continues to be the word of the con, it was interesting that digital comics—the white elephant in the room—were not mentioned till more than halfway through it. Obviously, even though digital sales now account for a mere 1 to 2% of sales, the numbers are growing. And that could signal significant changes for just about everything related to comics. Gigantic two-page splash illustrations, which obviously don’t fit on a tablet, would be a thing of the past. So would rigid page counts that adhere to paper printing—why should a digital comic be forced into that model? A myriad of issues, no pun intended, arise when this direction is discussed, and the spirited debate between Emmert, who championed the print side, and Waid, who sees things quite differently, was fascinating. Crucial insights from Hudson and Iyer added to the flavor. So did one comment from an audience member, who asked how much blame could be ascribed to publishers who cared more about gimmicks and crossover events while publishing substandard stories.
 
For me, what was most troubling was that the panel, while well-attended, wasn’t standing-room-only. It should have been. The fact that a Comic-Con panel is asking—and legitimately asking, without overhyping—whether the comic book can survive and it doesn’t draw a packed house is disturbing to me.
 
Which leads to something else: the energy and attendance of the con this year. It’s sold out, which you might think would be all there is to say about the matter. And certainly the crowds are huge and there are throngs of people both inside and outside the convention center. But the repeated feeling I’ve heard from several exhibitors is that the energy, enthusiasm, and crowds don’t match previous years. That’s a bizarre thing to say for a show that holds so many tens of thousands of attendees who have paid very good money to be here. And yet it holds true for many.

Friday, July 22

Jeff Smith is one of the most interesting guys in comics. He spent years creating, marketing, and selling his own comic series Bone. Twenty years later, that epic story is rightly being honored here at the con, and it’s looked at with keen reverence. Smith held his own panel at the show, and it was a mild but informative look at how this awesome series came to life, the people Smith and his wife met along the way and through the years, and all those who helped make the story possible. To that end, it was wonderful to hear him thank the librarians he met years ago at the ALA annual meeting. He had already seen Bone named as one of the 100 best comics by Time magazine, but, “The library thing really worked out,” he said, because it was librarians who told Scholastic about his series. And they in turn came around to publishing the colorized version of the tale, which brought the book to an entirely new audience.
 
It became more about older audiences for me after Smith’s panel. I went to the Comics in the 1970s panel, which featured an interesting assortment of people I had grown up reading: moderator Mark Evanier, Len Wein, Walt and Louise Simonson, Mike Royer, Joe Staton, and Roy Thomas, whose work on the Justice Society and All-Star Squadron were integral to my comics enjoyment as a child. I love panels like this, because I always fantasize that working in comics back in the 1970s must have been a type of Golden Age. Not the Golden Age most usually associate with comics, but one of a different type. I think this because that was the decade I started reading comics, but also because the culture was changing so rapidly at the time and comics, behind the scenes at least, should have in some way been reflecting that. To hear those who lived through it talk about it is always fascinating to me. What stands out, though, is one of Evanier’s opening comments about how he can’t fill a real Golden Age panel at Comic-Con anymore (most of the people who would be on the panel are no longer with us, or too ill to travel to San Diego for it). “There is no Golden Age panel at this year’s con,” he noted. “And there probably never will be again.” He added that he also can’t fill a Silver Age panel anymore, not for the same reason, but because most of the panelists aren’t able to make the trip or else don’t have anything to promote at the con. Sad news… The 1970s panel was his way of getting close to that, and the panelists did not disappoint, especially in their multitude of stories about Warren Publishing’s Jim Warren, whom most of them had worked for, and Stan Lee, whom Thomas had been an assistant to.
 
Our librarian readers will be interested in hearing about the Graphic Novels for Non-Teens panel. I’ve known many of these panelists for a few years now: Merideth Jenson-Benjamin (who writes for GNR), Kearsten LaBrozzi, Jill Patterson, and Hillary Chang. I’m fond of them all, because each is so enthusiastic about promoting the comics format within the library system and helping other librarians figure out how to do it as well. It’s always heartening to see how many librarians attend comics conventions and related events. Two big challenges are faced by many, it seems: 1) Getting funding for purchasing books and convincing other library officials that they’re needed; and 2) dealing with the challenges and day-to-day issues that come with having a graphics section. If you are a librarian trying to figure out these issues for yourself, panels such as this can help you get started. This one in particular was especially helpful because it focused outside of the teen marketplace, which is large and extensive but gets most of the attention. Seeing the focus on kid and adult titles was a nice change.
 
The next librarian panel was even more lively and helpful. Hosted by First Second’s Gina Gagliano, it featured librarians Candice Mack, Mike Pawuk, and Eva Volin discussing the immediate concerns and issues libraries face to today. The panel before dealt with more introductory issues while this focused on the pitfalls and triumphs that librarians in the comics trenches can face.

Thursday, July 21

My day began with an overview of Abrams ComicArts, a publisher whose works I really enjoy. They’re the ones behind such books as Hereville (probably my favorite book of the past year), Empire State, Classic Children’s Comics, Shazam!, Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow, and a slew of others. In short, they get the industry and they do it very well, even though they’ve only been around for a relatively short time. The panel consisted of editor Sheila Keenan, editorial director Charles Kochman, graphic designer Chip Kidd, and book designer Neil Egan, who is the mastermind behind the wonderful book-design elements that make Abrams’ books really stand out—such as the changing paper and look of Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? and the diecut cover for Shazam!
 
The big buzz word surrounding this entire convention—it seems to crop up somehow in every panel—is transmedia. How the world of comics will branch out into other media is at the forefront of most people’s minds, it seems. That question came up here as well, and according to Kochman, Abrams is preparing ebooks for some of its older titles first (such as Mom’s Cancer), but we should also expect a big announcement regarding Diary of a Wimpy Kid before the release of the sixth book in the series (which is coming soon).
 
Next up was the Books vs. Graphic Novels and Comics panel, a raucous discussion about the crossover between both, featuring Christopher Moore, Ian Corson, Jim Butcher, Tom Sniegoski, Amber Benson, and Matthew Holm. The good-humored panel ranged in discussion from how to adapt to comics to the ups and downs of a novelist working with an artist who has his/her own direction in mind. Once again, the ebook/transmedia question was raise, and Butcher supplied one of my favorite quotes regarding it: “I know a lot of people think information has to be tangible and smelly [meaning the smell of fresh ink on paper],” he said. But it doesn’t. I happen to agree with this, even though I don’t, as of yet, have an ereader. As things move in that direction, though, I find my resistance to the format wearing down. The arguments I stuck with for so long seem to be less and less valid even in my own head. But that’s a discussion for another time.
 
Joyce Farmer created the very moving book Special Exits, about taking care of her aging father and stepmother and watching them deal with the many hardships of getting older and dying. It’s a powerful book, yet also a simple one—one of its many graces is that it’s not overwrought or overdone. I was anxious to hear Farmer speak about it on her panel, and I was pleasantly surprised when I found that the panel had evolved into something different. What was originally scheduled to be a panel only on Special Exits instead was a lively discussion between Farmer and three longtime comics creators: Trina Robbins, Frank Stack, and Mary Fleener. The discussion took an interesting turn, delving into how creators can challenge the dimensions of graphic novels as art, not cartoons. Since all of these creators have been in the industry for decades, and since they’ve worked extensively in the indie and underground scenes, they all had a unique take on what is right and wrong with the industry today. Robbins had a rather interesting quote: “If you’re looking for good stories, you’re not going to find them in a comics shop. You’re going to find them in bookstores and libraries in the graphic novel section.”
 
That probably sums up the feeling for a lot of people. As Comic-Con, once a small, lowkey affair held 40 years ago at a hotel in downtown San Diego, has now grown into a massive, overblown affair, one has to wonder where the flash and sizzle meet up with the great storytelling that presumably drives our love for the industry. I don’t take the harsh view that these panelists did about comics today—I think they were overly critical of many aspects of it—but I can see their point, especially considering how works like Special Exits can be ignored too often in favor of crossovers, event comics, and the like.
 
From there, I moved on to the True Stories panel, a look at graphic novels that aren’t novels. This was a fun look at telling the truth—and sometimes being brutally honest, as in the case of Chester Brown’s Paying for It. Also on the panel were Tom Devlin (Drawn & Quarterly’s art director), Peter Kuper (Stop Forgetting to Remember), Leland Myrick (Feynman), Scott McCloud (Understanding Comics), and Thomas LeBien, publisher of Hill & Wang’s Novel Graphics line. Again, this is a segment of the comics industry that doesn’t draw the same kind of attention as most of the bells and whistles going on down on the main floor of the show. But it’s also the area where you’ll find some of the most fascinating things in graphics going on: Brown’s work, for example, which challenges popular notions of love and sexuality, or Feynman, which uses graphics to present complicated themes and ideas in a surprisingly accessible way. While the books presented range wildly in target age groups, all of them well exemplified the power of comics to teach and explain.
 
After that, it was time to head to the Comics for Teens panel, which featured Scott Westerfeld as moderator, Cecil Castelluci (whose Plain Janes and Janes in Love remain some of my favorites), Nate Powell (the excellent Swallow Me Whole and Any Empire), Gene Luen Yang (American Born Chinese), and Hope Larson (Mercury). In both comics and prose publishing, I often find the most interesting risks and storytelling taking place. Perhaps it’s because they aren’t as rigidly defined, and therefore don’t hew so rigidly to preconceived idea. Perhaps it’s just because my maturity remains at that level. Whatever the case, I’m a fan of those graphic novels. So it was interesting to hear Castelluci point out, “Adults don’t always admit reading YA [prose] books. With graphic novels, they don’t do that as much.” Still, she said, she will get comments like, “The 15-year-old inside of me really enjoyed your book.” Her reply: “Why couldn’t you just enjoy it?”
 
And finally, after a long day of panels, we came to Comics Mobile, a very interesting panel featuring Archie Comics co-CEO Nancy Silberkleit being interviewed by Comics Academy’s David Rojas. Silberkleit’s story is fascinating to me, because she was forced into her current position after the untimely death of her husband. She freely admits that she knew very little about the industry or what made it tick, and she wasn’t sure how to be up to the task. But she had some core beliefs in mind, and they held fast as she prepared for her new role. And so Archie’s world expanded, while still remaining true to its past. Silberkleit embraced a philosophy of gender equality (meaning Betty and Veronica never had to rely on a man to solve their problems), brought a gay character to Archie Comics for the first time, and updated and modernized the line in a respectful way. Silberkleit has also been instrumental in forming a comics program for schools that allows them to sell Archie comics to raise funds for schools—it sounds like a remarkable program and I’m looking forward to speaking with her further about it in the future, as I know a lot of our readers who are educators and librarians will be interested. More to come on that one!
 
After that came the parties: First up, the 20th anniversary party for Jeff Smith’s Bone. All the Scholastic superstars were out in force, including Dan Santat (Sidekicks), Kazu Kibuishi (Amulet), Jeff Parker (Missile Mouse), and many more. Also there were a multitude of industry folks. Really, is there anyone who reads comics who doesn’t love Bone? It’s brilliant stuff, and its success is well-deserved. Smith was gracious as he accepted the accolades and we all toasted two decades of the little indie epic that could.
 
From there, we moved on to the Boom! party, which is always a fun time. Chip Mosher and his staff through a bash every year, and it’s a good chance to relax and catch up with friends after a long day…before collapsing into sleep.
 
More to come…

Wednesday, July 20

San Diego Comic-Con has kicked off in a big way! Beginning Wednesday, July 20, the show launched its annual Preview Night, which was as packed with people and crazy as ever. The excitement around the show seems larger than ever—and certainly bolder than even last year.
 
All of the major publishers are here in a big way. Marvel’s booth is decked out with an Avengers theme (guarded by SHIELD agents, natch). It’s cool and big and impressive, much like last year’s Thor theme, but this does it even better. And the cool SHIELD actors are a really nice touch. They were also giving away free comics, and it would be remiss to forget about the excitement surrounding the new Amazing Spider-Man film (whose first trailer has just come out; see our video page to watch it).
 
Over at DC, the impression is all about the new relaunch coming next month. The normal DC booth looks similar to past years, but look again and you’ll see it’s all been redesigned with the new character looks and costumes. Also present is a big multimedia push for the new Green Lantern animated series, Young Justice, and more. If nothing else, the buzz around the Marvel film franchises and the DC reboot are helping the Big Two create a powerfully exciting atmosphere at the show.
 
Dark Horse had three major announcements, and I was excited about each and every one. First, I’m an absolute addict for Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s (no relation) vampire series The Strain, which I find horrifying and brilliant. It’s compulsive reading for me, so Dark Horse’s plan to release it as a graphic novel (adapted by writer David Lapham and artist Mike Huddleston) is a wonderful one. Rocker Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave was also there at the booth to announce his new graphic series, Orchid, about a dystopian future and a young girl who finds a new role in it. He’ll be doing the book with artist Scott Hepburn and will release songs along with each new issue to serve as a soundtrack. (Morello is an amazing musician. In addition to loving Rage, I was lucky enough to see him guest solo during a Bruce Springsteen concert in L.A. a couple years ago. To say Morello blew the audience away is a massive understatement.) Finally, Dark Horse announced a new series with bestselling author P.C. Cast: an adaptation of her House of Night prose works. It’ll come out in November, cowritten by Kent Dallan and illustrated by the always incredible Joelle Jones.
 

 
Over at IDW, Walt Simonson was signing the gorgeous Thor retrospective that fans had preordered. The booth was crazy with excited fans—and truly, that massive collection is one beautiful book. The Image booth was popping, too—especially the section of it devoted entirely to Robert Kirkman, who graciously chatted and signed copies for Walking Dead and Invincible fans.
 
Also great was getting a chance to catch up with old friend Jim Zubkavich, who is selling copies of his awesome Skull-Kickers series at the Image booth. Check it out if you get a chance. It’s a fun, action-packed, thoroughly enjoyable book featuring amazing art by Edwin Chuang, who’s also there at the show.
 
Before the doors of Comic-Con even opened, Milton Griepp’s incredibly informative annual ICv2 conference once again relayed the state of the industry to professionals. As will probably come as little surprise to anyone, the market is down, but there is some good news to be found within. In 2010, the comics market dropped 8%, and the graphic novel market dropped 5%. Overall, everything was down 7%. In the first half of 2011, comics were down the same, 8%, but graphic novels were up 3%. There was an overall decline of 2%. Much of the decline was attributed to drops in manga sales—a 15% drop in 2010 and a 10% drop in this first half of 2011. This is always an interesting aspect, because sales drops in this category do not necessarily mean that fewer people are reading them. In fact, I would argue the opposite, with sales taking a hit but readership actually growing. For graphic novels, Scott Pilgrim and Walking Dead are the two biggest hits of the industry.
 
Interestingly, graphic novel sales were down 6% at comic book stores, but they were up 7% at bookstores. Kids and YA titles remain the biggest section, and Amazon continues to gain more market share. And while their overall market share is small, digital comics will double their sales this year. In the next two years, for example, 20% of U.S. households will have a tablet—so obviously the market for digital sales is growing. Still, though, comics are lagging behind the book industry when it comes to making the digital transition.
 
The buzz word at ICv2 was resoundingly “transmedia.” A few years ago, that might have been called “cross-platforming” or something else. Basically, original intellectual property needs to be spread across multiple aspects of media, and it’s happening more and more.
 
Speaking of more and more, I’m off to experience more of Comic-Con and will continue to report back. I will especially be bringing you more news about digital comics and graphic novels and transmedia in the weeks and months ahead—especially considering how they both will continue to transform this industry we all love so much.