It's Nerdi Gras, it's Cannes for geeks, and somewhere amidst the toys and the games, it's a comic convention. Andrew Wheeler reports on this year's San Diego con, home to fat books, gay heroes, new manga... but not much buzz.
25 July 2005


So, did you hear any good buzz from San Diego? Only, I was there, and I don't remember hearing it, so I'm wondering what I missed.

It's a curious thing, to attend a Nerdi Gras where even the two biggest noisemakers in the industry have so little to shout about. Usually at least one or other of them is being liberal with the thunder.

Marvel's biggest announcements appear to be a new MOON KNIGHT series and the return of Peter David's X-FACTOR (in its MADROX private eye guise), plus there was a rumour that they'll be bringing Stephen King in to their stable. DC revealed that Will Eisner is now officially considered cold enough for them to announce their Darwyn Cooke SPIRIT series, launching with a Batman crossover. DC's most unlikely signing was OZ creator Tom Fontana, on another Batman project.

The last couple of years have seen Marvel opting to make much of its noise at Chicago, conceding the floor at San Diego to DC, but this year neither house wanted to use San Diego as its summer pulpit, perhaps fearing that Hollywood hype would overshadow them - though there was precious little of even that. Perhaps both publishers are so entangled in their big makeover events that neither is ready to reveal its hand?


DC is not only shaking things up with Infinite Crisis, but also jumping its books forward by a year, allowing it so much leeway for change that I suppose they don't want to spoil the surprises. Or perhaps it gives them so much leeway for change that they haven't yet decided what the surprises are going to be.

Marvel is in similar straits. The House of M crossover event allows the publisher to completely redefine the 'reality' of the Marvel universe, but with so many options, they'll want to be very sure they pursue the right ones. Have they got their game plan in place, or is there a reason they're being coy?

'Even the biggest noisemakers had little to shout about.' Publishers - and creators - at both companies surely believe they're producing great stories for all the right reasons with these events. They don't go in to a crossover thinking, 'boy, I hope this is a terrible story that haemorrhages readers like a Chuck Austen run'. The guys at DC believe they're doing the right thing. The guys at Marvel think the same. Even if they're both sneering down their noses at each other.

The crossovers alienate critics and freeze out casual readers - I've certainly abandoned my nascent interest in the DC universe, and I'm dropping Marvel books left and right - but when the dust settles, both universes have an opportunity for a fresh start of sorts, and that might be the payoff, allowing the publishers to keep old readers and go after new ones. That could be the secret that both publishers were sitting on at San Diego.

Or it may just be that they really have given up on everyone but the hardcore fanboys. That would be less of a revelation. But those of us frozen out by the crossovers can always go read manga, like everyone else.


Even the Eisner awards, post-Eisner, betrayed a lack of conviction in the industry's ability to deliver innovation and brilliance, with some very safe choices emerging from some very tame nominees. FABLES, THE ORIGINALS and THE NEW FRONTIER may all be worthy of praise, but are they really the highlights of the past year?

Case in point: Kyle Baker won his fourth and fifth Eisners, and Scott Morse won his long overdue first, and I was delighted to hear the news... but for both of them to win for PLASTIC MAN seems an absurd way to recognise their talents. It's like those sympathy Oscars that the Academy likes to give out to its perpetual bridesmaids.

And consider that, in the Younger Audience category, PLASTIC MAN was up against Andy Runton's OWLY, Ted Naifeh's COURTNEY CRUMRIN, Jimmy Gownley's AMELIA RULES and Doug TenNapel's TOMMYSAURUS REX. When a book like PLASTIC MAN wins in a category like that, it's a disservice to all of those creators, especially Baker and Morse - though they probably aren't complaining too much.

At least the Hall of Fame finally earned its dignity this year, when the voters selected Hugo Pratt for inclusion, while the judges brought in Goscinny and Uderzo. It seems Europe does exist, after all. But then, the list of unrecognised former Kurtzmann employees is running noticeably dry these days.


There was no big buzz, but that doesn't mean I walked away without a laden suitcase, and it wasn't all action figures and t-shirts.

Alex Robinson's TRICKED was the closest Top Shelf came to its annual brick-of-a-book this year, and I'm holding Rich Koslowski's THE KING aside for my next quiet evening, but it was SPIRAL BOUND by Aaron Renier that really caught my eye at Top Shelf's table. A charming story about kid reporters, sculpture class and lake monsters, set in a Richard Scarry-esque world, I enjoyed it once, but I think my nephews will enjoy it over and over again. (While comics are not just for kids, some comics are for kids, and we really should let them have them, rather than clinging to them for fear that the drought of good adult comics will never end.)

My favourite read of the con was CAPOTE IN KANSAS from Oni Press, recounting Truman Capote's work on the true crime novel IN COLD BLOOD. More proficiently written than Ande Parks' previous book, UNION STATION, it features striking shadow-rich illustration from newcomer Chris Samnee. The Oni booth also brought me my first glimpse of my favourite artistic discovery of the con, Sean Murphy. I missed out on his work on BATMAN/SCARECROW: YEAR ONE, but his clean, sharp, dynamic line will hopefully make his road/buddy comedy OFF ROAD a big hit later this year.

As for new publishers, the one that caught my eye was Seven Seas, an American publisher of original manga, which launched its first titles back in February. It kept coming up in conversation with creators I spoke to, so I dropped by the table to talk to publisher Jason DeAngelis.

DeAngelis explained that he wanted to make original English language manga strictly in the Japanese style, rather than the hybridised 'Amerimanga' that American publishers have been trying to foist on the market. Seven Seas' books read 'back-to-front', and only come out about three times a year (the way other manga publishers used to do it, before they decided they could bankrupt more kids with the sort of saturation scheduling that has never done Marvel or DC any favours). The creators come from all over the world, but the art and storytelling stays faithful to the Japanese look.

As a new publisher in a still-emerging field ('OEL', or 'original English language' manga), I wish them luck. I'm intrigued to see how they fare.


Away from the con floor, I ran into YOUNG AVENGERS author Allan Heinberg at the hotel bar one evening. Given my preoccupation with the theme of gay characters in comics, I took the opportunity to thank him for including a gay couple - Asgardian and Hulking - in his teen superhero book.

Heinberg had explained during this year's Gays In Comics panel (now in its remarkable eighteenth year - remarkable because it has persevered in the face of so little progress) that he had called editor Tom Brevoort to ask if this was something he could do, and Brevoort had immediately said yes.

This surprises me. Marvel has seemed increasingly conservative of late, both in its initiatives and in its politics, especially since President Bush reminded us that homosexuality is wrong, mmkay. It's rumoured that at least one character's 'coming out' was shelved, and the publisher's other gay characters mainly get attention when they're being mocked or murdered. Yet here the company endorsed not just the creation of a new gay character, but two gay teens in a relationship, who are based on major established characters.

While I tried to explain my surprise to Heinberg, YOUNG AVENGERS associate editor Andy Schmidt came over and assured me of Marvel's support, and I was convinced of it, but I wondered if they'd be as supportive of less well-connected creators. Marvel is all about that 'other media' dollar right now, and Heinberg is a successful television writer and producer whose credits include SEX & THE CITY, GILMORE GIRLS and THE OC. Cynics might say that's why they're keeping him sweet. Being a cynic, I tried to put this to Heinberg and Schmidt, but Joe Quesada appeared and swept Heinberg away, so I never got the chance.

At points during the convention, representatives from both Marvel and DC were heard congratulating themselves on their diversity, each pointing out that they had one solo Latina superhero apiece (the 'innovative' AraƱa and Batgirl, respectively). At this stage in either company's lifespan, such under-representation is a disgrace, but they seem quite proud of it.

It doubtless takes the right profit motive to get major publishers to explore the sort of diversity that hasn't been bold in other media since the daytime soap operas of the 80s. I think these publishers are afraid of negative publicity from loud right wing pressure groups. But balance that against the chance to build up contacts in Burbank, and it becomes a risk worth taking. There will be progress. But only when it coincides with other interests.


There were no new stories out of San Diego this year. Only the old ones revisited, about how Hollywood is taking over, and how manga is on the rise while the Western comic continues to struggle. It's peculiar to note that the 'traditional' comics nerd seems to welcome the former trend, but all too often balks at the latter. The coming of Hollywood is seen as a sign of respect. The fans know they're being listened to, and it doesn't matter that they're also being patronised, so long as no one dares make another CATWOMAN.

'There were no new stories, only old ones revisited.' Manga is seen as more of a threat, as if it were stealing a nascent bookstore market that the old school fans believe their books were destined to claim. Yet manga is leading to a creative renaissance, with many of the creators I spoke to over the weekend finding an outlet for their ideas at manga publishers like TokyoPop and Seven Seas that their usual publishers would never have afforded them. Long-form action comics, girls' adventure comics, science fiction comics; the manga audience doesn't think twice about these things. Comic readers who don't adjust to including a little manga in their diet will go without their recommended daily intake of monsters, robots and pre-teen secret agents.

So should we old school readers be more upset that SDCC has become, as the Washington Post puts it, "Cannes for Geeks"? Should it bother us that the movie, television, game and toy industries now dominate the floor, and 'our' comics are being sidelined?

The internet has outed the inner geek in every accountant, biker and housewife in the world, creating a defined audience for the salesmen to court, and the San Diego Comic-Con has become the biggest physical manifestation of this marketplace. But this hasn't made the small comics market a big comics market. It's just redefined its relationship to the mainstream. Comics aren't an isolated fringe interest any more. They're a cog in a thriving geek industry. Is that better, or worse?

Your answer may depend entirely on how you feel about being a geek. Comics are an artform, a great narrative medium that can produce extraordinary works like PERSEPOLIS and BLANKETS.

But they're also a niche, sitting between the Sci Fi pavilion and the Ugly Dolls. How long before San Diego stops feigning to be a comic convention at all? How long before a big manga-led convention sets up stall in North America and knocks Comic-Con into a cocked hat? There's no buzz at Comic-Con anymore. Maybe that's because it's not really a comic con anymore?

This article is Ideological Freeware. The author grants permission for its reproduction and redistribution by private individuals on condition that the author and source of the article are clearly shown, no charge is made, and the whole article is reproduced intact, including this notice.

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