Culture 2021

The Golden Age, the COVID Years, and Everything in Between at New York Comic Con

The City That Never Sleeps is the perfect locale to celebrate an industrial dream factory

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Remember the good old days, way back in 2006, when the first iteration of New York Comic Con was so crowded the fire marshals temporarily barred fans from entering the Javits Center, over on the West side of Manhattan? The organizers’ acute underestimation of the public’s hunger for comics, sci-fi epics, Hello Kitty plushies, and other avatars of pop culture was the first sign that Comic Con was going to become an annual behemoth.

Since that inaugural year, the Hudson Yards subway stop near the convention venue has opened, so you no longer get the parade of superheroes, psycho-villains, furry animals, satin vixens, and all manner of unleashed ids streaming from Eighth Avenue — though nowadays the cosplayers in billowing capes and unfurling tails do make for a classic only-in-New York spectacle when they’re riding the 7 train’s steeply pitched escalators. It’s fitting to hold this yearly celebration in the burg that birthed pulp magazines in the 1890s and comic books in the 1930s — and don’t forget Thomas Edison cranking out those early movies just across the Hudson River in New Jersey as the 1800s ticked over into the 20th century. The City That Never Sleeps is the perfect locale to celebrate an industrial dream factory purveying superhuman triumphs, world-ending apocalypses, salacious fantasies, and cartoon violence — first on the printed page, then on celluloid, and now through pixels.

Alongside the gaming, anime, and sci-fi fantasias on display, one booth is hosted by that true facilitator of space travel, NASA. The agency is giving away the first issue of an interactive comic book, featuring young Callie Rodriguez, whose math and science skills, along with her science-project robot that spouts movie-trailer bombast (“There was SOMETHING in the basement … In Antarctica!”), eventually earns her a spot on a lunar mission. This premiere issue, “Dream To Reality,” ends with a cliffhanger in a deep Moon crater.

This year, as always, panel discussions bring the stars down to earth — including William Shatner, who at age 90 is older than the Golden Age of comics but younger than the fantasy pulps that laid the groundwork for Captain Kirk. Jurnee Smollett (Lovecraft Country), Kip Sabian (All Elite Wrestling), and Alexandra Leigh Young (Idol Gossip) are part of a large contingent of younger-generation stars and creators hobnobbing with fans.

Like all of us, NYCC has been through some changes during the COVID year(s). After 2019’s shoulder-to-shoulder crush on the main exhibit floor, 2020’s was all online. Yesterday’s opening-day crowd was more spread out than the usual frenzy in a sardine can — we accidentally collided with only two overflowing bags of phantasmagoric merch, which was a change from the bumper-car bruising of past years. Along with green vax-verification wristbands, everyone wore masks, some adorned with blood-dripping lips, others with sparkling smiles, and at least one with a cigar permanently clenched in its teeth under a printed mustache that recalled Spider-Man’s boss at New York City’s Daily Bugle, J. Jonah Jameson.

The mellower, pandemic-induced atmosphere allowed ample time to meet some past masters and a few up-and-comers in the field that really started it all, comic books. Early on, we chatted with Denis Kitchen, one of the original cadre of underground cartoonists, and a visionary publisher who helped get their outrageous and highly entertaining wares before a wider public, beginning in the late 1960s.

In the mid-70s, Kitchen brought the provocations of the counterculture to mainstream comics by partnering with Stan Lee at Marvel to publish Comix Book. Kitchen related to us that, since the underground cartoonists were accustomed to owning their characters and artwork, Lee had to jettison the industry’s usual practice of outright ownership of all of the art they published. “That pissed off the old-timers in Marvel’s bullpen,” Kitchen continued, “who said to Stan, ‘Why are you making exceptions for these hippies?’” Going by the stacks of original comic art for sale every year at NYCC, Kitchen’s foray into the mainstream (along with demands for creators’ rights from such virtuoso artists as Neal Adams and Jerry Robinson, among others) helped break the bonds of servitude that old-school publishers held over the intellectual property of the field’s artists and writers.

One of the pleasures of the con is the chance to chat with creatives in Artists Alley, whether longtime stars such as Klaus Janson or younger up-and-comers. For instance, we were quite struck by the wares of Sasha Yosselani and Nooligan, both self-taught artists happy to discuss their work.

Later, we talked with Jim Mahfood, who told us that in his youth he’d developed his skills by studying existing comics but then he attended the Kansas City Art Institute, where he developed some time-honored chops. “Drawing from a live model was a game-changer,” he recalled. No doubt the verve of his rough-hewn figures and lithe compositions owes no small debt to such classical training.

Writers are also always on hand at NYCC. Mark Sable told us that his gritty tale of relentless killer zombies in Afghanistan, Graveyard of Empires (art by Paul Azaceta), “has unfortunately turned out more prescient than I’d like.”

Even so, those looking to escape 2021 for the nonce could do worse than to revisit the hardy, vibrant medium that gives Comic Con its name, here for the weekend in all its slab-boarded, mylar-wrapped glory. Whether from the Golden, Silver, Bronze, or whichever era, comic books are one of America’s great contributions to world culture — even if we can’t help feeling there’s something askew with an economic system that, over the decades, transmutes a 10¢ clutch of newsprint into six- and seven-figure collectibles.

But then again, if we ever hit the lottery….   ❖

New York Comic Con continues through Sunday, October 10

Highlights