I went to SPACE this weekend. For those who don't know, SPACE is the Small Press and Alternative Comics Expo held in Columbus, Ohio. In its 12th year, SPACE is a showcase for self-published comics that fall way out of the mainstream world of comic book production and distribution. The number of small press comics conventions have grown over the years, among them SPX in Bethesda, APE in San Francisco, and Pittsburgh own PIX which just began last fall.
As a celebration of the Do-It-Yourself mentality these are great events. This is a roomful of creators, writers and artists, who make comics purely for the love of the medium, knowing that very few, if any of them, will ever move on into the realm of professional comics creator. My guess is that this isn't even the goal of the majority of people there. They put out money to print their work, travel to the show, pay for food and lodging, pay for the table space at the con, and hope to sell enough comics to break even. Few of them do. This is in many ways the heart of true comics fandom and creativity. Each book is the product of a personal vision with little concern for commercial concerns.
This follows a long tradition in comics. The underground comix of the 1960's spawned an explosion of creativity and gave creators like Robert Crumb a home he would never have found in the mainstream. The independent publishers that grew as a result of the direct market in the early 80's were doing much the same thing. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was a self-published book and spawned the ill-fated black and white comics explosion of 1986 (which led in turn to the black and white comics implosion of 1987).
I was reminded mainly of the mini-comics scene of the late 80's and early 90's. My collaborator Fred Wheaton and I were in the thick of that. There was a huge underground of self-published mini-comics that was, by today's internet standards, hard to learn about or track down. We started doing comic strips for a music/humor 'zine called The Plain Brown Wrapper. This was sold in some local music stores and comic shops, but mostly through mail order. Through this we learned of the existence of a mag call Factsheet Five. FF was a review magazine for 'zines and mini-comics. Anyone could send their book in and get a listing and a review, and hopefully, as a result, some mail order business. We sent copies of the original Grey Legacy, as well as some of our other mini-comics like Buggly the Inbred Bear, Dumpy Geek at the Mall, and Boo Boo Chute and sold a few copies and traded many more (trades were a big part of this scene... everyone had something they wanted to get out there). More importantly we found this great, really supportive underground network of other people who were self-publishing.
I ran into a couple of people I had corresponded with back in the early 90's at SPACE this weekend and I was glad to see they're still out there doing something they obviously love. I met Pam Bliss at a number of shows back then and traded a number of comics with her. I met, for the first time, Michael Neno who I knew only by name. He used to publish a mini-comic review 'zine called Comics FX and in addition to giving positive reviews to our work he once cover-featured Grey Legacy and published a pretty in-depth interview with Fred and I.
Like any scene like this, back then the quality of the work varied. I like to think our stuff was on a much more professional level than many of the books we saw (and based on reviews and the fan letters we received I don't think I'm exaggerating too much). There was a lot of... how do I put this gently? There was a lot of amateurish crap.
And that's still true, I hate to say. I always feel a little schizophrenic when I walk through the Artist's Alley of a Con, especially one that focuses on Indy books. I want to be supportive of the scene. I am fully in favor of anyone who wants to make comics to do so, regardless of skill level. The artistic desire and drive should be rewarded. But at the same time, there's a lot of stuff that just simply doesn't interest me at all, sometimes because it's a subject matter I don't care about (it's not like I'm interested in every professional comic from major publishers either), but truthfully, sometimes I'm not interested because it's amateurish crap. So I've had to develop the skill of walking the aisles, glancing at tables, and trying not to make eye contact with the creators until I've ascertained my level of interest. I admire your enthusiasm, but I'm simply not interested in hearing your spiel.
And trust me, I am sympathetic. I've been on the other side of the table trying to promote my work often enough to know what it feels like when people walk by with barely a glance.
The Pittsburgh Small Press scene was well-represented. A lot of my friends had tables there, and I know I'm a little prejudiced because they are my friends, I do think the overall quality of the work in our corner was among the best books at the show. We put on a great showing and I'm proud of all of them.
I guess I'll end this by reiterating how much I support the DIY comics self-publishing effort. No matter what the quality of the product it takes a lot of time, work and dedication to do it with very little reasonable expectation of any kind of financial reward. Unlike big industry comics cons this entire scene is about the love of comics; reading them, making them, talking about them and sharing them. The big cons could learn a lot from this.
Okay, it seems like this is the only thing I talk about here, but I thought I had to give an update on the customer who has been buying multiple copies of some of our X-Men books.
As of Thursday we are completely out of X-Men #45 with the gatefold cover. We had at least 20 to 30 copies of this in our warehouse last winter. I don't want to say this guy bought all of them, but he certainly has a hefty percentage. He has to have close to 20 copies at four bucks a pop.
Jeff and I are thinking of instituting an "Adopt a specific comic" program, where each of our customers can buy a single copy of their favorite back issue every time they're in the store.
Any takers for Brigade #1?
So last week, the day after I posted a blog about the guy buying multiple copies of the same issues of x-Men he came into the store again. Went straight to the back issue drawer with the X-Men books and pulled some out. I thought, "Here we go." He wandered around the store a little while and then came to the counter. To my surprise he didn't have either X-Men 1-E or #45. He had X-Men 1-D (the Magneto cover, for those keeping score), as well as issues 2 and 3 of the same series. Strange development, but since his habits have jumped outside the box a little, this is a good direction. At this point we probably have more copies of 2 and 3 left than we do of 1-E (thanks to his tireless efforts).
He came back today. Went straight to the X-Men drawer. Came to the counter with #45, #2, #3, 1-E, and (and I am not making this up), 1-A, 1-B, 1-C, and 1-D.
Curiouser and curiouser.
- Tags:comics, ocd
- Music:The Doors (all of it... going through a phase this week).
Okay, after wondering about the strange behavior of one of my customers, I finally have to comment...
Some background info first.
Back in the early 90's Marvel comics started a second X-Men title (called, simply X-Men instead of Uncanny X-Men). Issue #1 sported 5 different covers, four distinct images that could be joined into one giant group shot. For the purpose of filing them at the store we numbered the different covers as 1-A, 1-B, etc. 1-E was a gatefold cover that could be folded out to display all four of the other covers. Okay, so the point of this is that this issue, all variations, sold frippin' wadges of comics (that's a Blackadder reference, and it means a whole lot). Like hundreds of thousands of copies. Our warehouse has had well over a longbox worth of copies since I've worked. We sell them occasionally, not for very much. I'm not an economist, but it seems to me that the law of supply and demand dictates that none of these will ever be worth anything. Really. Quite honestly, if you give us cover price for this thing you're overpaying.
So there's this guy. He's been coming into the store since last December or so. It took awhile for me to put this together, but I've been restocking copies of X-Men 1-E pretty regularly (as well as #45, another gatefold cover we have many, many copies of). This one guy has bought 15 or so copies of both of these books. Maybe more. Like I said, this book will never, I repeat, NEVER, be worth anything.
I want to ask him why, but I'm afraid he'll get embarrassed and never come back (and we still have a dozen or so copies we need to sell). Part of finds the mystery more exciting than any answer he might give.
Way I see it, two options.
He's a time traveller who, someday in the future, owns every copy of 1-E and 45, causing the price to skyrocket.
Or, police in Pittsburgh are going to start finding bodies with 1-E rolled up and jammed in their throat.
I'm just saying...
A creator’s point of view.
There’s something about comics, if you grow up with them, that seems to make us fans want to make comics. I know that’s true of a lot of hobbies. People who like movies want to go into film. People who read want to write books. Sports fans want to play professionally. Maybe as an outsider to some of these other hobbies I don’t really appreciate it in the same way, but with comics it seems almost universal. I think maybe because it seems easy. With film or sports you need a lot of equipment, and eventually, a lot of other people. With comics all you need is pencil, paper, and a modicum of imagination.
I’ve always thought of myself as a creative person. As a child I wrote stories and had sketchbooks full of little drawings of my own characters. Sure, I drew pictures of my favorite heroes, but I was never really content with that. I wanted to make up my own. As far as I knew back then I was the only person who did this. Now I know better.
Back then, getting into comics professionally seemed to be impossible. There were only a couple of major companies, with established talent pools. They would look at submissions, but really, if you didn’t live in New York where you could be under their feet all the time, or already know someone in the business, getting work from Marvel or DC was unlikely. There were exceptions of course (Pittsburgh native Jim Shooter sold a Legion of Superheroes script to DC when he was thirteen, then went on to a lifelong career which included being editor in chief at Marvel for awhile).
Things have changed. In the 80’s there was an explosion of small press publishers, as well as a few very successful self-publishers (Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles specifically), that opened the doors for everyone in a way that had never been possible before. Suddenly, it seemed, everyone who could hold a pencil was publishing a comic. It felt like an unprecedented explosion of comics creativity (whether it was is debatable). Some truly brilliant comics came out of nowhere, from creators who would probably never have gotten a chance at one of the big publishers.
There was also a tremendous amount of crap. Uninspired, derivative, poorly written, badly drawn crap. Not that “professionally” published comics have always been stellar, but man, I mean some of this stuff was simply awful.
And I was almost a part of that awful crap.
More on that as I continue this long entry at another time.
I'm working on the next part of my Comicon Ruminations (I can't seem to be succinct with anything, so it's longer than I had planned). In the meantime I found this quote from one of my favorite authors, Jonathan Carroll, on his blog. Thought it was interesting for anyone who tries to write or create.
"Part of creating is letting go. I remember very vividly when writing The Land of Laughs that I reached the part in the story where the dog speaks for the first time. I wrote the passage and stopped. I thought-- the *dog* just spoke-- that's crazy. But a moment later I said okay, let's just see where that goes. In an essential way it was the turning point of all writing I have done since then. My paradigm moment came about because I simply let go, accepted the nutty for fact, and kept moving. The Germans have a nice phrase about trust in romance-- 'fall back and I'll catch you.' The same could be applied to writing or any art, as far as I can see: If you believe you have it in you, write whatever it is you want and stop thinking about approaches or limitations or or or... Just *write* it. Clear your mind of hesitation and everything other than the sentence you are trying to write and do it. Then write the next one. The more you think about it, the less well you do it. Start with a phrase or a character you like or who intrigues you. Then begin to spin a spider's web out from that center point. But don't *think* about it. Very often when I begin a book or story, I only have a single line or image which I put down and then think--who is this? What are they like? 'Haden was in trouble again' is the beginning of GLASS SOUP only because I liked that line. After writing it I thought-- who's this Haden? He's a handsome asshole. Okay, what does he do? Where is he? Etcetera. Don't think about it-- just be a spider and spin the web only you can design."
The fan’s point of view...
My first comic book convention was PittCon ’81, held at Duquesne University. It was a big deal. It was maybe the second time I had ever driven in Pittsburgh (growing up out in the country the consensus was that Pittsburgh was as far away as, and probably larger than, Tokyo). My only experience with comics was buying them off a spinner rack at a newsstand. I had ordered some specialty magazines and briefly belonged to the Marvel fan club called FOOM. I had one friend in High school who read some comics and drew pictures with me. I had recently met two new friends (one of whom was Fred, my later comics collaborator and still best friend), who were as into it as I was. But up until this point comics were mainly a solitary hobby.
To say PittCon ’81 was a revelation would be a massive understatement. I was in a room surrounded by thousands of back issues. I saw and held in my hands old comics of historical significance I had only read about (the famous “Headlights Cover” of Phantom Lady to be precise… and yes, I know not everyone reading this knows what that is. Every hobby has highlights unknown to outsiders. Trust me, this comic was a big deal). This was in the days before the explosion of comic book stores and the direct market. I saw and purchased books, Elfquest and Cerebus, which were unavailable to me through the newsstand distribution system. For the first time ever I saw original comics art. I watched other people draw. For the first time I met comic book professionals. This was a big deal at the time. These people were in my personal pantheon of heroes. It was like meeting movie stars or rock stars for me. I remember being almost unable to speak due to anxiety when I met Len Wein (creator of Swamp Thing and writer of Giant-sized X-Men #1, among thousands of other things).
Since then I’ve become a grizzled veteran of the convention circuit. I’ve seen some of the rarest and most significant books ever published. I’ve purchased original artwork. The business has changed so that the things that were once hard to find are now commonplace. I’ve met most of the creators I once idolized (along with a small group of others I had drinks with Frank Miller… Sin City, 300… that Frank Miller, back in the mid 80’s) and discovered they are just people like everyone else. I’ve become friends with a few of them. I’ve met movie and television stars. I’ve had drinks with Emperor Gowron of the Klingon Empire, flirted with Chiana of Farscape, and marveled at how short Mr. T is in real life.
As much as I hate to admit it, I’m a little jaded by the whole thing. That’s the problem anytime your hobby becomes your profession. By working in a comics shop and being surrounded by this stuff all the time it’s difficult to maintain the same level of enthusiasm. When I was young comics and the world they created were an escape and being part of the culture that created them was a dream. Now it’s simply my life.
Don’t get me wrong. I still love this hobby. It’s rewarding to see how it has changed since PittCon ’81. Back then very few people I knew admitted to reading comics. Now they sit in major bookstores all over the country. They are subject to literary reviews, they are being taught in colleges. The structure of TV series is being influenced by comics storytelling techniques (the first three seasons of Lost are set up like Watchmen, and the producers acknowledge the influence). Comics characters appear in major Hollywood films (30 years ago very few people could have told you Iron Man was really Tony Stark… this weekend, thanks to the movie, the world knows who James Rhoades and Obadiah Stane are). This little tiny aspect of Pop Culture that formed my early life has become one of the driving forces of all Pop Culture.
On one level I’m very happy about all of this. We won. The geeks have inherited the earth. My hobby and interests have finally been validated by the world, and nowhere is that more evident than at a comics convention.
But part of me misses the days when it was all mine, a place I could go with no one along for the ride except for my imagination. Pittsburgh Comicon 2008 was a part of my real, day-to-day life and in many ways it felt commonplace. PittCon ’81… that was magic.