Ninth Art - For the Discerning Reader -

Wish You Were There? - A report from the San Diego Comic Con 2002

Missed another chance to stand in a huge room full of sweating comic fans in the California sunshine? Ninth Art's Alistair Kennedy went to the San Diego comic convention, so you wouldn't have to.
09 August 2002

The annual San Diego Comic Con means different things to different people. Some, like Warren Ellis, see it as a Dantean Hell, a huge enclosure filled with hypno-eyed fanboys with threadbare CABLE t-shirts, arms clamped to their sides to stop the hungry hungry sweat goblins from escaping. For others it's the Xanadu of comics, where deals are made and hearts are broken. In reality? It's a little of both.

The panels this year, while many and varied, held few true innovations. Thursday kicked off with Swingin' With Spider-Man, and it piqued the curiosity of many, who were perhaps unclear on whether this meant Lounge Music With Spider-Man or wife-swapping. Holding no real surprises, it was only notable for Paul Jenkins telling the touching and very personal story behind his acclaimed 'baseball' issue of PETER PARKER.

Perhaps the most important panel of the day was the launch of Viz Comics' SHONEN JUMP magazine, dedicated to bringing manga to the newsstand. The preview issue distributed at the con is a mixed bag. A couple of strips designed to appeal to the Saturday Morning crowd will pull in the audience, but smaller kids may not be prepared to get into strips like NARUTO with which they aren't familiar - and the traditional right-to-left, back-to-front format may not ride with these kids either. If the panel showed one thing, though, it's that this magazine has had a lot of thought and effort put into it, and with a bit of luck and a following wind, it could be the most significant comics publication launched this year.

The afternoon saw a discussion of the HELLBOY movie in the amphitheatre set up for multimedia presentations. Guillermo del Toro, Ron Perlman and Mike Mignola swapped friendly insults and left even those of us with reservations looking forward to what looks like a great movie. These guys, particularly del Toro, love HELLBOY. Make no bones about it.

The ol' fanboy-o-meter was buzzing off the scale at the X-MEN discussion, where the stage was so packed with pros that they had to take up much of the back wall of the room. Bill Rosemann proved again that he's a master showman, moving the questions along with skill and good humour.

Only one drooling, scary question ("Uh, ith Wolverine ever going to back to his real mathk?") had the panellists glancing at each other and wondering how this guy got past the door guards. The big announcement, snuck in completely apropos of nothing, was Frank Cho's upcoming SHANNA THE SHE-DEVIL mini-series, but between Peter Milligan, fresh off the 15-hour flight, declaring he was ready to smack someone and Igor Kordey berating journalists for painting the pacifist artist as some kind of super-soldier because he was drafted in his country's war, there were enough highlights to satisfy fanboy and fan alike.

Friday's Steve Ditko panel, focusing on someone whose contribution to the world of comics is frequently shoved aside in favour of his immediate contemporaries, showed that comics has a history beyond Silver Age superheroes. Blake Bell moderated a panel consisting of John Romita Sr, Gary Groth (whose anti-superhero tirades were contained to referring to a particular IRON MAN story as "brainless"), Paul Smith and Batton Lash. Todd McFarlane had begged off to attend a baseball-related event, and his "imminent" arrival didn't occur at any point during the panel's 90-minute tenure. Dealing with everything from Ditko's horror books to his fascination with Ayn Rand, it was a fascinating look at a largely unsung hero of the form.

From the unsung to the over-sung, Gene Simmons' showcase in the amphitheatre was marked mostly by the contrast between the largely taciturn Simmons and the slyly grinning Joe Casey. Simmons seemed annoyed that most of the questions were about KISS's supposed intra-band rift, his clothing line and bizarre requests to touch his thigh, but at a signing later at the Dark Horse booth his mood had apparently lightened. Maybe he just doesn't like being on stage. Go figure.

The same room hosted the Cartoon Improv panel directly afterward - Erik Larsen, Scott Shaw, John Romita Jr. and Sergio Aragon├ęs faced off against each other and a broken projector in a battle of the wits which produced more than a few gut-laughs. (When Aragon├ęs was faced with portraying "loud" in ink, Larsen produced the earlier image of Scott Shaw's Hawaiian shirt... maybe you had to be there.)

Across the convention centre, a panel dear to our hearts was taking place. Not Necessarily The News dealt with non-news-based online journalism and its place in the modern comics discussion. Andi Rosenberger moderated a panel that featured PopImage's Chris Butcher, Sequential Tart's Katherine Keller, Savant's Dave Potter, Slushfactory and Ninth Art's Zack Smith, Comic Book Artist editor Jon B Cooke and iComics' Greg McElhatton. Do sites like this one produce "real" comic book journalism? The panel decided in approximately one minute that the answer was "yes", and the rest of the hour was devoted to exploring exactly how we go about this - and what we still have to do.

Only those who were up early on Saturday morning caught Joe Quesada's Q&A panel, but those who weren't didn't miss much. Sorry, folks, anyone expecting a repeat of Quesada's controversial keynote speech from last year was disappointed, as were those expecting anything more than a "no comment" on rumours of Ultimisation. He did reveal that newly-exclusive Gary Frank will be taking up his pencil case on a second Straczynski ongoing, but besides that it was just an informal and chatty look into the philosophy of New Marvel as it goes into its third year.

The fanboy concentration at the Beat the Geeks panel was possibly even more than that at the X-Men panel, as Comedy Central's Geeks took on the Purple Pros (Len Wein, Mark Waid and Kurt Busiek) in a comic book trivia test. The results were pretty much sewn up as soon as the Legion and JLA/JSA questions started flowing and Mark Waid got hold of the mike, but a little ashamed part of everyone in the room took a guilty pleasure in seeing how many of the characters from SECRET WARS they could name in thirty seconds...

Possibly the panel of the weekend took place in the amphitheatre from 2:30 to 3:30 that day. Ray Bradbury and Julius Schwartz spoke for an hour, captivating the minds and touching the hearts of the audience in turn. When Bradbury met Al Feldstein, who had spent years adapting Bradbury's stories for EC, there wasn't a dry eye in the house. Bradbury's tale of how he phoned up everyone who had doubted him about space travel on that night in 1969 and called them a "stupid son of a bitch" before hanging up saw an entire auditorium of people grow grins that reached from ear to ear.

Sunday was a lighter day, at least in terms of volume of panels - what was to have been a spotlight on Dan DeCarlo, who sadly died this year, turned into a tribute and celebration of the man who created characters such as Josie and the Pussycats, among others. His widow, Josie, shared recollections of her husband for a room full of people of all ages whose only uniting feature was a love for the man and his work.

The rest of Sunday was taken up by floorwalking. And what a floor - CrossGen comics dominated the centre of the room with their colossal, garish booth, where there were never less than a half-dozen creators on hand to sign, sketch and shoot the breeze with fans.

DC and Marvel both had preview copies of this Autumn's books on hand, although Marvel's commendably full signing schedule was marred somewhat by the fact that they didn't have any room for the lines of fans.

Com.x's faux lawn was a bizarre sight amongst bizarre sights - apparently the Jedi Council can't afford a gym on-site - and three of the high profile independent publishers (Cyberosia, Oni Press and AiT/Planet Lar) had creators on-hand for the entire convention too, showing the Big Two how to meet and greet the fans. (On an unrelated note, if Christine Norrie's reading this, drop us a line because we want to know if you got your cat back okay.)

In all, it was a mixed bag. Nothing groundbreaking announced at a panel, no shocking surprise guests. On the other hand, it did have a well-rounded programme, the opportunity to try stuff your local comic shop won't stock (and if you haven't read CINDERALLA yet, then get it now) and an atmosphere in which conversation can slip between industry machinations and which Green Lantern had the stupider weakness in a second. It's not heaven and it's not hell - it's not even the Mecca some people see it as. But you know what? It's fun, fanboys be damned.

Alistair Kennedy is the coordinator of the PunchDrunk Pop blog and a former editor for Robot Fist.

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