LIKE THE HAMPTONS, the San Diego Comic-Con is a summer destination marked by wild parties, hidden celebrities, sexual excess, lunch-time deals among the 1 percent, and above all else, the necessity of each attendee explaining how he was actually going there long before the rest of us knew about it. The difference is of course that San Diego is a long-simmering source of revenge for kids whose mothers threw out their comic books — oh, the popular rich kids want to play with our stuff, eh? — and now that revenge has gone off the rails a bit, as the latecomers have (somewhat) displaced the early adopters, which makes it like the Hamptons all over again.
I went to the San Diego Comic Convention once in 1975, age 11, then started going regularly in 1992. I collect original comic book artwork, and San Diego used to be a good source for that. But over the last decade, popular culture auction houses started achieving massive, somewhat insane results ($448,000 for a Frank Miller Dark Knight splash; $657,250 for a Todd McFarlane Amazing Spider-Man cover), encouraging collectors to throw their pickings on that roulette wheel instead of doing deals in person. There are many critical things to say about the business of selling old comics, which now means the process of slabbing and grading and auctioning — or trading and pretending to auction — but suffice to say, fewer profits are made on the floors of San Diego. Also, San Diego now sells out a year in advance — I was just offered a four-day badge for a staggering scalper's price of $1275. Purchasing tickets is such a difficult operation that no one ever wanders into the hall on the spur of the moment with stuff to sell. Comic books are simply not so important in San Diego anymore. Most of the exhibit hall is devoted to movies and toys and pop culture, much of which has no real connection to comics other than a sense of fandom.
But just as this celebration of comics has borrowed more and more from other media, other media has become more and more like comic books. And I don't just mean that every third movie is now a superhero film. It's that corporations have learned to appeal to fannish-ness. When, a couple of years ago, I noticed that the lanyard for my Comic-Con badge advertised neither DC nor Dark Horse but Showtime's Dexter, I understood it as a physical representation of some weird feedback loop. The same borrowing from Flash Gordon and the Fourth World of Jack Kirby that made George Lucas so successful has spread so that things that aren't comic books (Game of Thrones, True Blood, BioShock, Tour of Duty, Drunk History, Mondo film posters) now kinda sorta feel like they all belong in the same continuum. There are no letters pages or fanzines anymore, but there are comments sections and tweets and io9.com Morning Spoilers, and boy howdy does that stuff make you feel like part of a dynamic.
Last year, I did an experiment and went to the few dealers' booths that remained and asked if they had this month's Spider-Man. No. Superman? No. Batman? No. Single issues at cover price aren't worth the cost of bringing to the convention. People read those on their iPads or wait for the collections to come out. So that whole buying-new-superhero-comics thing is over and done here.
That's evolution, not tragedy. People are buying a lot of interesting stuff beyond what Marvel and DC sell. I'm happy to report that the average Comic-Con attendee today is about 400 times more attractive than in the 1990s. On a typical Friday afternoon, the place no longer smells like stale farts and desperation. Further, the foundation of the con — the artist — is still celebrated officially, and the program notes give shout-outs to creators from the Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Modern ages. But there is a faint hint in the proceedings that the salutes are a way of looking back at the platforms from which mighty empires have been launched, comic books as acorns for billion-dollar tentpoles, The Walking Dead as phenomenon rather than as graphic serial.
I do love the movies and whatnot, but I don't think of them as the cerebellum to comic books' medulla oblongata, if you know what I mean. When I go to San Diego these days it's to find new comics I'll like. Consider this a skim across the top, reviews of a few titles I've found that have come out this year.
Much of the work I dig comes courtesy of Alvin Buenaventura. Alvin is, among other things, a publisher of contemporary artists, having engineered in 2008 one of the more legendary anthologies of the decade, Kramer's Ergot 7. This is a massive (16 by 21 inches) hardcover edited by Sammy Harkham, containing a breathtaking variety of work by artists both established and upcoming, working just about every conceivable mode of narrative art from naïve and William-Blake-like to Chris Ware monomaniacal precision. It's hard to find, but I recommend it if: a) you want a great coffee table book that will cause conversation to erupt, and b) you happen to have about $200 burning a hole in your pocket.
Whenever Alvin is in San Diego, I ask him what new artists I should be looking out for. A few years ago he turned me onto Tom Gauld and Lisa Hanawalt, both of whom have books out this summer courtesy of Drawn & Quarterly.
Tom Gauld has a style somewhere between Edward Gorey and Venn diagrams, using the former's intense crosshatching and gloom to almost scientifically illustrate absurd points about the uneasy relationship between good and bad art. His new collection You're All Just Jealous of My Jetpack is blessed by beginning with the funniest cartoon in the history of the world and I will fight anyone who disagrees.
This is a collection of Gauld's illustrations for the UK paper The Guardian. The subject matter is literary. Gauld, I should point out, is British, which means he comes from a culture that doesn't need to prove it knows how to read. There's an easy, relaxed assumption that the reader knows her Brontës and her Beowulf, and that such education is not the sole provenance of a fancy lad school kid. He indicts snobbery while displaying a wonderful compassion for snobs themselves.
Gauld beautifully illustrates the inherent weirdness in artistic ambitions, as well as the heartbreak and terror of declaring yourself a reader of — say — vampire novels when a loved one is devoted to Evelyn Waugh. Respectable literature sneers at science fiction while secretly thrilled about its inventiveness; science fiction in return longs for acceptance while refusing to lend out its jetpack. And what is the lot of lyricists? Well . . .
This is an excellent gift for a writer or an Anglophile, but if the extent of your interest in the UK is Downton Abbey, or if you need to turn on subtitles when watching Peep Show, then some of the Richard and Judy references might be obscure.
It's hard to imagine an artist more different from Gauld than Lisa Hanawalt. She is, among other things, the Thelonious Monk of dick jokes. Just as Monk seems to have improvised on certain runs until he had a melody to grab onto with both hands, I'm fairly sure Hanawalt just starts drawing a dick, counting on finding a joke to go with it.
Happily, her imagination is filthy and depraved and charming. She has also occasionally drawn things other than dicks. In her previous works (Sell Your Boobs is the title of one booklet, to give you an idea) she riffs in three general directions: the repulsive nature of bodily processes; semiautobiographical glimpses of living with someone; high-fashion 1970s people-horses in clashing sweaters and trousers parading in hyper-graphic landscapes.
If that sounds like a lot of ideas with no hope of a unifying vision: a) you're being pretentious and Tom Gauld would like a word with you and b) in My Dirty Dumb Eyes, Hanawalt makes it all work. The same brain that draws lizards in lingerie flanking a subway station (Hanawalt will be doing New Yorker covers in five years) also gives us rumors about Anna Wintour ("If Anna lets you rest your head in her lap, your brand will be featured in Vogue's September issue"), sex fantasies inspired by movies ("The Hulk is trapped in a room containing nothing except my butt"), and some very satisfying film reviews. Also, a pictorial revealing how to know Martha Stewart is drunk.
Her magnum opus, a description of her visit to a toy fair, combines her disappointment in corporate self-importance with her glee in how weird it all is. Her illustrations of the crumbling decay of a teddy bear filled with live goldfish are worth the price of admission.
One of the stranger parts of My Dirty Dumb Eyes is a slice-of-life in which a woman with a horse's head keeps making fingers out of clay despite how weird and arbitrary it feels. Her boyfriend (he has a cat head) comforts her: “It doesn't matter if you feel good or bad while you make stuff,” he says. “Stop crying and move your hands.” The ending is neither a dick joke nor a traditional punchline: instead, it's the only photograph in the book, of a bunch of well-crafted finger sculptures — made by Hanawalt.
Seems like a pretty good description of the habit of art when it's set in motion. As I advise my writing students: follow your weirdness. So if the question she is asking is should she keep making stuff even if it feels stupid, the answer is yes.
Speaking of following your weirdness, here's a Los Angeles story. Two screenwriters get their friends to read aloud their unproduced works, the unproduced works sound pretty good aloud, they turn them into serials, eventually doing so in front of an audience at a bar, then at a theater, and that is the backstory of old time radio/new time podcast The Thrilling Adventure Hour, found monthly at Largo. Ben Acker and Ben Blacker, the authors, have wrangled a dozen artists to illustrate the continuing adventures of Amelia Earhart (she faked her death so she could fight Nazis), Sparks Nevada (Marshal on Mars) and Beyond Belief, the last concerning a Nick and Nora Charles-like pair whose drinking is consistently interrupted by the need to put down supernatural menaces.
Crossing over from one media, where one's talents are proven, into a new one is always tricky (see my testimony here), but Acker and Blacker have managed quite well — not only is much of this just as funny on the page, they've matched artists and subjects with great success. Joanna Estep's art for Moonshine Holler, the adventures of a millionaire masquerading as a hobo, is suitably scratchy and 1930s-like, and Jeff Stokley's Phillip Fathom (think of an underwater Batman) has a crazy Arkham Asylum vibe to it. The humor here is well mannered, sometimes parodic, sometimes satirical, but always loving of the characters and their ridiculous situations. I haven't yet seen Acker and Blacker's recent take on Wolverine, but I suspect their love of superhero comics should carry over into that playpen of continuity and drama.
Though I dip my toes shallowly into superheroes lately, there are a couple of current storylines that are worth seeking out. Superheroes with backstories older than your average orange roughie are rejuvenated every several years by the blood of new creative teams who grew up on the stuff. For reasons I'm unclear about, in some eras the new artists were the sparkplugs (Neal Adams or Jim Steranko in the 1960s, for instance), while in other eras, like the 1970s, it was new writers like Steve Gerber and Steve Englehart. Right now, though there are some brilliant artists at work, it seems that writers are again the hands on the tiller.
It's hard to review the current adventures of Spider-Man without spoilers, so I'll try to keep them vague. If you're a fan of the character, the short version is that you will likely enjoy where Marvel is taking him — or you will feel like someone has hit you in the stomach with the butt end of a baseball bat. Me, I felt both, but not in a bad way. Writer Dan Slott has created a very good storyline with a premise that, astonishingly, no one has previously exploited in the first 50 years of Spidey's adventures.
Well, perhaps not so astonishingly. It might have taken 50 years for this story to work. Slott is obviously a scholar of how the last few generations of intelligent readers have had their patience tested with "big event" issues in which, say, the hero dies, only to be resurrected as soon as sales tip downward. (Captain America, Superman, Batman, various Robins — I'm looking at you.) Slott's story seems to go down that particular route, only to subvert reader expectations multiple times.
I don't think it's too much to reveal to say that at one point deep into his multi-issue saga, Doctor Octopus, one of the most persistent of the rogue's gallery, has transplanted his consciousness into Spider-Man's body. Big deal — that stuff happens to heroes every day before breakfast. What's satisfying is that Slott doesn't stop there — every window you think is open is actually boarded up and every door has razor wire across it. Sometimes that's excellent planning on the villain's part; sometimes it's justified by Spidey making a shitty decision. All the things you might not have thought about — like how Doc Ock is sexually attracted to Aunt May — are things Slott has a lot of fun with, if twisting a knife can be considered fun. The reason that this isn't simply cruelty inflicted upon a reader is that Slott never forgets the big picture — to be Spider-Man is to know that with great power comes great responsibility. His story turns out to prove that the lesson is fungible. Highly recommended.
True story: when I was 13, I submitted a story to Marvel comics and an editor there called me to critique it. For a year or so I thought that would be my calling. It wasn't. Thank God, because then I would be someone writing comics who wasn't Matt Fraction. And I would hate Matt Fraction.
You know the way the Tasmanian Devil is more or less a cloud of dust with stars and lightning bolts coming out of it, pausing occasionally to wag his tongue before spinning maniacally again? That's Matt Fraction. If you want the graduate-level sample of his work, pick up the almost impossible-to-describe Casanova trade paperback, which is about sex and time travel and twins and family betrayals. It's illustrated by the twin brothers Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon, whose work wouldn't be out of place in an alternate reality in which Saul Bass and Alex Toth lived in Milan in 1970 among lesbian vampires and were fed hallucinogenic mushrooms. Casanova is so good that Fraction has some guy named Michael Chabon writing back-up stories for it.
But if you aren't prepared to have a narrative thread floss your teeth until they feel like they're going to be pulled out of your head, start instead with Fraction's book Hawkeye, which might just be the best superhero comic on the market this moment. It's quite reader friendly, with minimal continuity to explain, a lovable screw-up protagonist, and crime fighting storylines that are thrilling and cleverly explicated. Illustrated by David Aja in a Law and Order, no-nonsense style not unlike David Mazzuccelli’s Daredevil or Michael Lark’s Gotham PD, Hawkeye is the continuing adventures of the powerless Avenger Clint Barton, who fires arrows and gets beaten up by druglords and old girlfriends. Fraction's signature style is to be elliptical, though not in a maddening way. He omits most ways of locating you in time and space (i.e., those old-fashioned hand-holds that say "meanwhile, at Avengers mansion"), trusting instead that even if you need to read a comic three times to make sense of it, you'll appreciate the extra work you put in.
Which seems to be the overwhelming reaction. Nominated for multiple Eisners (San Diego's equivalent of the Oscars), Fraction has a great feel for the character, his woman troubles, his shortcomings and, yes, his dog. Lucky (aka Pizza Dog) gradually becomes an important character, elevated in fact to narrating issue #11. Blogger Rachel Edidin texted me to announce that Hawkeye #11 was the best thing in the history of the universe, which may or may not be true, but it does feature this: the dog thinks in Chris Ware Building Story-style ideograms, while going through Hawkeye's apartment building. It's like a missing page from Ware's notebooks.
Another Eisner nominee this year is Saga, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. Author Vaughan honed his world-building chops on series like Y the Last Man, Runaways, Ex Machina, and a strange little puzzle on television called Lost. (Before you ask — he left after Season Five, so don't blame him.) This storyline plunks you down in medias res and does a little narrative backscratching to catch you up — it's a bumpy touchdown, but then it relaunches excitingly. In brief, lovers from two hostile races meet, have a kid, and need to go on the lam. They're pursued by royalty, ghosts, bounty hunters, and god knows what else. It's a thrill ride, and Vaughan knows just how to end most issues on a cliffhanger without it seeming like a cheap effect.
It's hard to say how much of the complex universe that he's created will pay off. It's mostly compelling, except for some obvious stabs at U.S. foreign policy that feel like something he needs to get out of his system so his story can be free of them. On his Wikipedia page, Vaughan says something very smart about working on his own characters — that unlike all myths and legends, Marvel and DC won't let their characters have third acts, which is where all the meaning lives. He sounds right, but ironically I've yet to fully embrace one of Vaughan's third acts. For instance, Y the Last Man, though it had a great last issue, kinda blew it on the dismount when explaining how its central conceit, a plague that wiped out all the men, came to pass. So I'm not sure if the weirdness we run into in Saga will pan out, but I'm happy to keep looking for now.
Artist Fiona Staples's work looks like little else being produced today — clear and direct and usually focused on the emotion of a scene. She's quite good with action and comedy (her depictions of vice at a brothel are alternately hilarious and depressing). Her work, especially the dynamics of fabric folds, looks to my eye like a successor to Gil Kane, Howard Chaykin or maybe a 1986-era Frank Miller, minus the hate.
Though I've mentioned some mainstream work by Image and Marvel, I'm leaving DC out of the mix for now. No doubt they have interesting books, but they're hard to locate against the sheer white noise of catastrophic face-planting. Marvel has had its bad days, and will no doubt have them again, but right now, DC is the company in the habit of doing, almost on a daily basis, something incredibly stupid. What critical basis do I have for saying that? People are keeping track — see hasdcdonesomethingstupidtoday.com. I'm sure they'll get back in the saddle again — comic companies are harder to kill off permanently than teen sidekicks — and that's part of the beauty of comics. The pull to make good adventure stories is so strong that very little, even the ingenuity of corporate thinking, can keep them wandering in the desert for long.
And that's the beauty of San Diego, too. Movies and television and whatever Variety lumps into the "digital" entertainment category are interesting, but no matter how much money they bring, they aren't the heart of the convention. Soon after Entourage had its ersatz "San Diego" episode, the real San Diego Artists Alley, where comic book creators sit behind tables to sell their art, sign comic books, and chat and sketch for fans, was increasingly marginalized and pushed to the sides. There was talk of relocating it outside of the great hall.
Three years ago, a few artists got a brilliant idea of opening a venue for counter programming. They called it 'Trickster.' When I saw it, they'd taken over a bar across the street from the convention center. You could buy art there, drink with the artists, take seminars, and also sketch live models if you were so inclined. There was a happy moment around midnight where I was sipping a vodka martini and attempting to sketch some woman in a Red Sonja style outfit. All around me were professionals and amateurs and people who weren't drawing but talking to artists or to each other.
And here was a moment of pure fandom that comics can sometimes provide — the feeling of being in on something you can actually contribute to, that the place is a little better because you're there, even if what you're doing is a little lame, even if you're only doing it because you love it. I'll be back in San Diego this year for the 22nd time, and at some point, like every trip, I'll feel like a part of the scenery, the best kind of feeling I can hope for.