Toronto Convention Reportage: A Rising Coffin Ride Lifts All Hopes
by BK Munn
What was Fan Expo?
Fan Expo was a long panicked moment of zombie inertia.
Fan Expo was fun for the whole anesthetized family.
Fan Expo was what happens when we imagine inside boxes.
Fan Expo was a threat to my future happiness.
Fan Expo was the distillation of misplaced appropriated subcultural energy.
Fan Expo was the ravaged fetid stump of comic book culture with 52 different flavours.
Fan Expo was something I could learn to love.
Fan Expo Canada wrapped up in Toronto this past Sunday. I followed the convention online through a series of linkblogging posts here on Sequential all weekend and was able to actually attend the show for a few hours Sunday afternoon. A few notes based on my “experience” of Fan Expo:
The Fan Expo Experience There are as many different Fan Expos as there are Fan Expo attendees, I’m sure, but I feel safe in saying that, barring extreme cases, there are several types or “Varieties of Fan Experiences” that a sociologist could sketch out after minimal study and these varieties would not surprise most of us. It seems like it should go without saying, an yet I still find it fascinating, that Fan Expo attracts a crowd that rivals the entire regular readership of monthly comics in the Direct Market. Last year the Expo claimed in excess of 60,000 ticket buyers, just about the equivalent of the number of people who buy an issue of Batman or X-Men every month. The main achievement of the con in this regard is introducing the world of comics to people who have only the most tangential relationship to what readers of this blog might tend to call “mainstream comics” or comics fan culture in general. But these are the same people showing up in Adam West Batman costumes or buying a drawing of Wolverine from one of the fan artists/crafters in the artists’ alley, and who are equally excited by a Lego sculpture of Harry Potter’s Hagrid and by the opportunity to have their photo taken with the actor who played Freddie in the Nightmare on Elmstreet films. They might not be at Fan Expo specifically for comics, but comics will find them there and get into their undershorts.
I feel that most attendees experienced the whole of the con in this way, with a certain catholic, omnivorous, and largely uncritical appetite for pop culture, celebrity, and fantasy that is the hallmark of our current moment. For these folks, the bestselling Jeff Smith is more of a celebrity than comic book legend Joe Kubert, and the 22-year-old actress Hayden Panettiere is bigger than everyone else, with the possible exception of William Shatner and the guy cosplaying as Darth Vader all weekend. In this environment it is possible to believe they could just as easily buy a pair of coloured contact lenses, or a Twilight pin, or a Michael DeForge minicomic.
Physicality Fan Expo is fantasy made flesh. It is hot, crowded, up-close and, really, not just a little bit personal. People dress up. They get to meet childhood heroes and minor celebrities. They get pressed together in a squirmy mass of enthusiasm that can just as quickly give way to wide-open avenues, boredom and despair. People stare openly and shamelessly. People accost total strangers. People pose and flex. People sweat. People take photos. 40-year-old comic book bloggers surreptitiously ogle steatopygic Amazon princesses. People loudly criticize and loudly voice awe and wonder. Tattooed-and-pierced rockabilly punks, gigantic Klingon Green Lanterns, math nerds with baby carriages, junior high Shojo manga fans, kids who like watching animators trace classic Disney characters, and many more, intermingle and apologize when they are hit by someone else’s giant plastic sword or have their backpacks jostled by an overeager videogame player or boothbabe hawking 3-D movies. People bought underwear (I bought underwear, too). People fondled toys and posters. People hold hands and put their arms around each other for photos. People share mattresses and pillows and overpriced bottles of water. And we all inhale the mildew and stale air of a million polybagged comic books.
Fan Expo: The Organ and the Organized Last year there was a lot of criticism of long lines and of the space and the total shutdown of same midway through Saturday, when the Fire Marshall barred any more people from entering. This was the nadir that Fan Expo had to rise up from and it did so valiantly in 2011, pulling up its superhero tights and venturing out into the dangerous night of fan opinion and instant Facebook feedback. While the reports concur that the show was super-crowded on Saturday, there was no crisis or Twitter reports of “epic fails”. Certainly, when I visited on Sunday things were busy and some aisles (sometimes inexplicably) took a half hour to slowly wade through (others were almost empty), but it wasn’t unbearable and was almost fun in terms of novelty and visual spectacle. Reports say many of the panels were well-attended and even at capacity, although certain celebrity photo ops were cross-scheduled and crazy, affecting other panels and traffic. The thinner but not thin crowds in the main hall could be explained by the extending of the show from 3 to 4 days, giving fans more time to experience the show. As well, several other events, including the heavy traffic and media attention surrounding the Jack Layton funeral on Saturday, may have harmed the show, but I expect the organizers to announce an increase in the numbers this year.
I marveled at the sheer amount of volunteers and security needed to run the show and how nobody seemed angry or lost, powertripping, or event-fatigued to the point of dereliction of duty. The space was big but totally walkable once we got inside, and the approach wasn’t bad either, although I wouldn’t have wanted to trek in and out to multiple panels or in search of food or libation for four whole days. The line-ups and tickets were spread around outside of the show and there was a ton of space to crash or relax once inside the building. Tables of guests were always staffed by a volunteer and I only heard a few tales of late or absent panel participants, with the exception of a few who were genuinely sick or had missed flights.
While I cruised in on a complimentary pass, having missed the Media deadline, I did hear that the Press Pass system was fucked up, limiting access on a daily basis. My only complaint? I didn’t really look, but I’m pretty sure there wasn’t a bar, or even a laid back, sheltered restaurant within the confines of the convention proper where a thirsty senior citizen like myself could buy a drink.
Jack Kirby Sunday was Jack Kirby’s birthday. In retrospect, I’m kind of disappointed there wasn’t a panel about the Kirby Legacy or something similar to pay tribute to the King of Comics on the anniversary of his birth, especially since Fan Expo regularly falls on the same date, year-to-year. In a few of my posts about the show over the weekend I teased about the Marvel Boycott started by Steve Bissette, which I keep track of on my personal blog, probably fruitlessly reminding people to avoid Kirby-derived product at Fan Expo. Marvel was one of the official sponsors of the show and their massive presence at Fan Expo Canada, coupled with parent company Disney’s equally large layout, really brought home to me the discrepancy between the giant media empire, built largely on Kirby’s creations, and the plight of Kirby and his family in seeking recognition and financial compensation for these creations. I feel guilty for not raising the issue of Kirby’s legacy and his family’s treatment at the hands of Disney’s legal team during the Marvel editorial panel that took place at the show while I was there Sunday afternoon. At Fan Expo, Kirby’s ghost walked the halls and his spark was in every Marvel character cosplayer, back-issue buyer, and Matt Fraction panel attendee, but his name was never mentioned.
Comics Culture From my perspective and I suspect that of most people reading this, the comic content of the show was the most interesting, if also the most frustrating, hilarious and overwhelming. The big story of the show was not the DC 52 relaunch, Marvel’s Fear Itself, or even the ongoing death moans and slow-motion disintegration of the superhero-focused Direct Market, but Djurdjegate, so-called because of the statements made by former Marvel cover artist Marko Djurdjevic in counter-conversation with Fantastic Four writer-artist team Jonathan Hickman and Steve Epting at a panel mistakenly titled “Team Spirit.” Djurdjevic’s mock-surly, self-aggrandizing persona and burn-your-bridges comments rocked the internets. Entertaining and educational, the panel and its online aftermath shone a light on Marvel editorial practice, fan entitlement, and the corporate mindset of mainstream comics and its loyal contractors.
Elsewhere, the Expo was still a unique space to discover new comics, experience amazing art, and interact with multiple generations of cartooning greats. I hooked up with Sequential publisher and Dreamlife creator Salgood Sam/Max Douglas, who I hadn’t seen since TCAF in the Spring. We talked about costumes, the show and the piece of art he’s been promising to sell me for six months. Next to Max was Michael Cho, whose wonderful prints are a highlight of any show he exhibits at. Cho straddles the art comics/superhero comics divide with aplomb (he has worked for Marvel and has a book coming out from D+Q) and I was crushed to learn he no longer accepts commissions, killing the dream of a portrait of me as Earth-2 Clark Kent.
A little ways away sat the lonely Joe Kubert, legendary comic book artist, eternal Nazi battler, and the man who can give all of us a comic book schooling. Kubert was at the show as a special guest, promoting his cartooning school and sharing a booth with his two sons, also well-known artists. What a career Joe Kubert has had! Starting out drawing comics while still a teenager in the 1930s and 40s, Kubert went on to be one of the premier visual stylists of the Silver Age of U.S. comics, working on signature characters like Sgt. Rock, Hawkman, Enemy Ace, Tor, Tarzan, and many others. His Kubert School has been going strong since 1976 and he has even written some graphic novels. It was a pleasure to meet Kubert and watch him pore over the entirely-Kubert-illustrated Heroes catalog that the fellow ahead of me had brought to show him.
Directly across from Kubert was the Koyama Press booth. Annie Koyama has rapidly earned a reputation as one of the hardest working and nicest publishers and art patrons in comics and her sizable booth, rivaling in space and impact the big publishers like Marvel and DC, served as an umbrella for not only her own stable of artists but a who’s who of “alternative” cartoonists that she has yet to publish but is nonetheless eager to promote. At the Koyama booth I peeked at the latest Team Society League sketchbook being worked on by John Martz and Aaron Costain and conversed about the latest news and Summertime Blues with “Kickass Annie” herself. While there, I finally picked up issue one of the Thickness porn anthology and also bought the Ginette Lapalme-edited Gang Bang Bong anthology, along with a framed piece of original art, the Island Brat comic by C. Frakes, the Jesse Harris artbook Jesse Wars Here, and the Diego Bergia Lepos book.
I saw longish line-ups for Jeff Smith and Junko Mizuno as well as several currently hot Marvel and DC artists but didn’t really pick anything else up except for the …
Book of the Show. Traditionally, the larger conventions are a place to launch new books and Fan Expo seems to be ideally situated in the calendar as a place for Fall releases to be previewed but we saw very little of that at this year’s show beyond the hype for upcoming comic book series from Marvel, DC, and Image. Smaller publishers like D+Q and Fantagraphics, who debuted some Spring and Fall books at TCAF and San Diego, were entirely absent from Fan Expo, leaving the burden to fall on the earnest shoulders of self-publishers and artists who were repping themselves at the con. Certainly the most impressive of these was Kagan McLeod, whose Infinite Kung Fu has just been published by Top Shelf, and it’s a book that mashes up the themes of Chinese action movies, Yasunaka Hanakuma’s Tokyo Zombie, and 70s American exploitation film in a painterly East-West style. McLeod’s art is quite impressive (I watched him finish colouring a wonderful sketch for a fan using boldly elegant brush strokes just before I took this photo) and I didn’t really see any other new 400+ page graphic novels on offer at Fan Expo, so I am officially declaring IKF the book of the show. The book has its official launch later today in Toronto.
Comics Retail My impression was that almost any variety of comics buying taste could have been at least partially satiated at Fan Expo, with a variety of vendors hawking everything from Golden Age comic books valued in the tens of thousands of dollars, to classic reprints, to old zines, to recent trade paperbacks, to art comics, mini-comics and independents, to manga. In a short amount of time I found some great old Superboy and assorted other comics from the 1950s and 60s priced for $3 each, leading me to wonder why anyone would buy old comics anywhere else but at a large con where competition and choice keeps prices down. I also picked up the 2010 Titan Books Simon and Kirby Superheroes collection, quite steeply discounted, as well as some weathered Canadian fanzines and assorted other weird fetish items.
Original Art. Although there seemed to be a healthy if not overwhelming selection of vintage comics retailers at the show, the original comics art on offer was pretty slim. Besides the work from individual and current industry pros, I came across very little in the way of classic comic book art from previous decades. Still, besides the wares on sale from the likes of modern greats like Bill Sienkiewicz, I was happy to browse through a few portfolios of work at the booths of several smaller comics vendors and was very happy to hold in my hands the original artwork from comics by greats like Jack Kirby and Joe Kubert. I fondled a few pages from Kirby’s 1980s Superpowers work, inked by Greg Theakston, a Joe Kubert Unknown Soldier, a very sexy Gilbert Hernandez Birdland page (priced at $1200), a Gil Kane, and several other fascinating artifacts from near-anonymous artists and a variety of strips that most people would have no interest in. It was a perverse thrill to hold some unsigned 1940s cowboy artwork stamped with the name and address of the Harry “A” Chesler shop, as well as a near complete issue of a Blondie and Dagwood comic, probably published by Dell or Charlton in the 1960s-70s. Fetish. Fetish. Fetish.
What Was My Fan Expo? I was strangely underwhelmed and invigorated by the show. In my brief time there, I alternately felt like I was in a room underneath Lake Ontario but just as easily my mood changed to one of the most fannish euphoria. I also felt that it was just what I deserved and this impression filled me with despair and glee in almost equal measure.