I once had an editor—long gone to presumably greener pastures—who was clueless enough to equate TV’s gothic-fantasy series Beauty and the Beast with the teen soap opera 90210. Even if she were unable to appreciate the Jean Cocteau homage in Beauty‘s set designs, she should have noticed the literary quotes and allusions in Beauty‘s scripts, which lent unprecedented depth to an otherwise formulaic, star-crossed romance. This late-’80s series did what the best comic-book titles also try to do: elevate the style and impact of their storytelling. But people either get the power of dramatized myth and fantasy or they don’t. The New York Comic Con—held this year from April 18 to 20 at the Javits Center—was for people who get it.
In 2006, Reed Exhibitions, the company behind NYCC, took the format of the fan-created, nonprofit Comic-Con International in San Diego and launched a smaller, tighter version for Manhattan, birthplace of the comics industry. While it gets bigger every year, our New York comics convention has yet to hit the dizzying six-figure attendance heights of San Diego’s event. But with official attendance this year at 64,000, it’s well on its way.
Let’s face it, even The Simpsons makes fun of comic-book fans, although few of us are as snarky, obese, and unwashed as that show might suggest. Imagine the determination of an adult wedded to the innocent enthusiasm of a pre-adolescent; the money we save by not dressing up, dating, collecting SUVs, or smoking, we spend on the “flat crack” of narrative art. As publishers, toymakers, and filmmakers know, there’s gold in them there geeky hills: When thousands of us converge to indulge our insatiable hunger for books, films, games, animation, funny T-shirts, and plushy Cthulhus, captains of industry pay attention. And unless we trip and impale ourselves on plastic figurines of Ayanami Rei or get immolated in our apartments when unstable stacks of graphic novels spontaneously combust, our addiction does us no harm.
On Saturday the 19th, between prolific parents herding progeny and ambulatory clots of hyper fanfolk, you could hardly move through NYCC’s comics- and merch-packed exhibition halls. Multitiered parallel programming meant that you had to plan your shopping around panel discussions, game playing, movie viewing, and autograph hunting. Thick, snaky lines for movie previews in the 3,000-seat IGN Theater started forming an hour before they began. Once inside, I worked my way down to a seat near the front, for the panel on Mexican director Guillermo del Toro’s new movie, Hellboy II. To my left, two pretty women were speaking French. To my right, two British dudes clutched freshly purchased back issues from the dealers’ hall. Black, Hispanic, and Asian teens abounded, reflecting the increasing diversity of a field in which Cuban artist Joe Quesada heads up Marvel and Deepak Chopra contributes to Virgin Comics’ “India Authentic” line.
Jolly, chubby, and cursing like a stevedore, del Toro introduced the panel for Hellboy II, a group that included collaborator Mike Mignola, creator of the Hellboy character and comic. Geeking out like a fanboy, del Toro invited portfolio-toting audience members to e-mail him for an internship or design creatures for his next film. Then the grinning papa showed a clip of his latest “Take a Hornless Devil to Work Day” brainchild. When the lights came up, he was surrounded by life-size, troll-like creatures as ambulatory and realistic as the faun in his critically acclaimed Pan’s Labyrinth. Eschewing excessive CGI for monsters built by hand, del Toro—like Dr. Frankenstein—gave us all an unsettling peek into his creative process.
By the time director Frank Miller and the producers of Will Eisner’s the Spirit took the stage, expectations were pretty high. The Hellboy, Star Wars, Hulk, and Angelina Jolie fans had already gotten their fix—now the room was jones-ing for a hard-boiled detective tale. Miller’s sexy, chiaroscuro Spirit trailer didn’t disappoint. Part Raymond Chandler, part O. Henry, part Sin City, Miller’s project (due out next January) promises to be the most sophisticated green-screen movie made to date. Not that the line of goofballs wasting Q&A time hitting on actress Eva Mendes cared about that, nor the slightly older gentleman who routinely asked every director to accept a copy of his own novel. But Comic Con is tolerant of all that: The light-saber brats, desperate wannabes, carriage-pushing moms, and legions of female readers in love with Neil Gaiman are all part of our tribe.
Though you might trip over Sailor Moon–costumed mangateers on your way to an erudite presentation on political graphic novels, there’s nothing about this convention that’s just for kids. From top-selling fantasist Gaiman referring to ants eating elephant cum during an anti-censorship fundraiser, to a sensitive male at the “Women in Comics” round-table confessing to writer Gail Simone that the racy covers make him embarrassed to read Catwoman on the subway, encounters here between creative icons and their public were honest and intimate.
During his own panel, British-born animator Gavin Blair told scores of avid twentysomethings how ReBoot—television’s first and hippest computer-generated cartoon—survived near assassination after Disney bought ABC. Then he and Dan Didio (former ABC Kids exec turned ReBoot writer turned DC exec) gleefully revealed their running battles with censors in the Broadcast Standards department—and how they used to model the bodies of their favorite female characters on specific dancers from a Vancouver strip club.
Those who worry about “America’s youth” and the future of American education would admire the models of mentoring and apprenticeship that remain standard in the comics world. Generations of big-name talent have risen under the avuncular guidance of vintage creator/entrepreneurs like Marvel co-founder Stan Lee, DC comics prexy and über-artist Carmine Infantino, and comic-art-school founder Joe Kubert, all available for advice, autographs, and anecdotes at Comic Con. Isamu Fukui, a Stuyvesant High School student whose S-F novel Truancy (Tor) imagines an urban dystopia in which schools are no better than prisons, was a guest star at this con because he has much in common with these kick-ass comics legends, who also published young and had minds of their own.
The industry’s love of its history and artistic innovators doesn’t preclude constructive criticism. Anchoring this year’s NYCC was a fascinating Will Eisner documentary that, while praising his multifaceted genius, still allowed famous peers and former students to bemoan his use of “darkie” caricature for a central character in The Spirit series of the ’30s and ’40s.
Frank Miller, who befriended Eisner in the late ’70s, says Eisner insisted that, unlike film, every comic “frame” must convey information that advances the plot of the story. This subtle narrative density was something Miller took to heart when writing and drawing subsequent projects, and it’s now part of what you see incorporated into the triumphant film versions of comics like 300, Sin City, and (soon) The Spirit. Such emphasis on visual innovation and raising the bar of craft is why, though comics fandom embraces all comers, it reserves true love for those who dare to push the boundaries of their art. Fandom has only one request to make of every hot-shot contender aspiring to that love: “Astonish me.”