Thursday, February 19, 2009

New York Comic Con '09: Three days, $7 sandwiches and several thousand costumes

Posted By on Thu, Feb 19, 2009 at 10:32 PM

The Jacob Javits Center was the epicenter of the American comic book industry last weekend, as editors, creators, and business types from almost every major publisher congregated at the fourth annual New York Comic Convention. They were surrounded by an at times impenetrable wall of fans, as several thousands of comic book and pop culture obsessives clogged the convention center hallways. It was as if the economy wasn’t halfway through a Triple Lindy.

One thing overshadows all else at a comic convention, though, stealing the spotlight from the panels, the creator signings, the video game demos, the dealer tables, even the 50-minute previews of unreleased Pixar films. I'm talking about costumes, and the fully grown individuals that spend exorbitant amounts of time, money, and effort on them. They call it cosplay, and it was inescapable at the NYCC.

Not every comic fan appreciates cosplay. It’s often the fount of endless embarrassment, the greatest ammunition for those who would dismiss comics as being exclusively for the immature or unintelligent. I've been a pure comic book fan since primordial days, but I've never understood why anybody would get his yuks like this. Costumes are only appropriate on Halloween, and even that’s pushing it. I guess disguises are fine, too, if you’re on the lam, and if you can consider those costumes. Otherwise there’s just something kind of depressing about them.

Costumes abounded at the NYCC, from the inspired, to the lazy, to the downright disturbing. They clung too tightly to the young, old, black, white, renters, homeowners, and everyone in-between, as representatives of all demographics felt the urge to dress up like a Batman villain and/or spiky-haired anime protagonist, at least for one golden weekend.

On one hand I was impressed by the ingenuity and skill it took to make the things; on another I was upset to see my chosen form of entertainment demeaned by immature and socially stillborn nonsense. And on yet a third, physically improbable hand, I hated myself for being so cynical, for getting bummed out by a harmless activity that obviously brought other people joy. Why should I care what people do for fun? Am I so insecure that a chubby girl in an undersized Supergirl suit could make me think less of an art form I genuinely love? The only recourse was to relax and try hard to ignore those reflexive gurgles of disgust. Oh, and to take photos for the website of a free weekly newspaper based in a town hundreds of miles away.

There was much more to behold at the New York Comic Con than mere costumed antics, thankfully. Attendees could net autographs and impersonal face time with top superhero writers such as Brian Michael Bendis and Geoff Johns, and sit in on free-ranging panels where Marvel and DC editors and creators hype upcoming storylines. The two major superhero publishers maintained massive booths that were like twin poles of obsessive fandom. Lines for signings constantly snaked around both booths, and at times almost joined together, Hands Across America-like, in one massive, inseparable chain of sweaty humanity. Those were the moments when all walking was done elbows first.

Fans could also get sketches from up-and-coming independent artists such as Atlanta's own Chris Schweizer. Schweizer's young adult adventure comic, Crogan's Vengeance, arrived to wide acclaim in late 2008, and this was his first trip to the NYCC. "I do mostly the small press conventions," Schweizer said, including Fluke in Athens, Ga. It’s easy for smaller artists and companies to go overlooked at a massive, all-purpose pop culture extravaganza like the NYCC, but Schweizer’s publisher, Oni Press, had no problem garnering attention this year. It'd just released the fifth volume of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s popular Scott Pilgrim series, Scott Pilgrim Vs. the Universe (soon to be a major motion picture starring Michael Cera), and its booth attracted a consistent crowd. O’Malley’s latest book seemed to be the runaway hit of the convention. Between endless press interviews and signing and sketching sessions, O’Malley himself basically didn’t have a free moment all weekend. There was even a dedicated Scott Pilgrim panel on Sunday morning, moderated by prominent comic critic (and label honcho to Atlanta band DQE) Douglas Wolk.

Contemporary creators might have had the loudest buzz, but for those interested in comics history, the NYCC provided a chance to meet true legends of the art form. Golden and Silver Age greats such as Ramona Fradon, Gene Colan, Joe Sinnott, Al Plastino, Carmine Infantino and more signed at various locations throughout and were feted at the Living Legends panel on Sunday afternoon. Where else could you meet 95-year-old Joe Simon, co-creator of Captain America and the entire genre of romance comics? Roy Lichtenstein owes his fame to Simon and his late partner Jack Kirby. For an industry that profits greatly from readers' fetishistic obsession with fictional characters' pasts, the major comic publishers traditionally have done a horrible job acknowledging their own history, refusing artists’ rights to their creations and rarely crediting them for their work. Well-wishes and commission fees from fans can’t even begin to make up for that, but any recognition has to feel good.

Events like the New York Comic Convention used to offer relief and acceptance to those with an inordinate fondness for pastimes that have generally been considered socially unacceptable for adults. They fostered a sense of camaraderie and belonging that comic fans often couldn’t find in daily life. The internet and the increasing popularity of comic-based movies have lessened the stigma and solitude considerably, but I imagine conventions are still a refreshing release for many passionate comic fans. Conventions unite fans and creators, comic readers of all ages, and the industry’s past and present, for three long days overstuffed with activity and opportunity. Even if you were just there to mock the costumed weirdos, you probably would’ve found something of interest at the NYCC.

For more photographs and extensive coverage of various NYCC panels, go check out Paul DeBenedetto's blog Wednesday's Child. Paul and his friends Chelsea Bahr and Jen Drake did a far better job of paying attention to this stuff than I did.

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