Written by Shawn Bourdo
Day Two of Comic-Con always looks and smells just a little different. More people have arrived overnight and the real serious costumes start to show up. The weather is still sunny but after a full day of being in the Convention Center it is all just a little bright to the eyes. The plan for the day was much more esoteric.
SPOTLIGHT ON NEAL ADAMS (Room 9)
I love to go listen to the older creators talk about their work. Neal Adams made his name on Batman. His version paved the way for the darker versions of the late ’80s as he helped the transition out of the cornball early ’70s. Neal has gone on to draw about every major character for every publisher and he’s been a vocal proponent of creator’s rights in the industry.
Usually these panels are moderated to keep the story moving and allow the artist to be complimented without seeming conceited. This panel was just Neal and a microphone. He spent the first half telling a rambling story about the start of the comic industry as we know it today as seen through his life in comics.
He started by buying comics at a candy store for 10 cents each. My start was at small-town drug stores. Neither exist as they did back then. He makes a valid point that the readership in these days was huge compared to today but still understated. He would only have a dime to buy one comic. He’d look through all of them and pick just one. But once he had bought one each week, he’d be in the club. The group of seven to eight kids would read their comic and then pass it around the group. So each comic book had many additional readers.
Publishers continued to try to hold the prices at a dime to appeal to kids. The problem was that stores are only making a 50% profit margin on the books. So every comic sold was for a five-cent profit. At the same time, adults would come in the store and buy a Time or Newsweek for $1.00 or $1.50 and the store makes 75 cents. The industry relented and moved to 25 cents per book but it was still not a profitable market.
The market worked on the same as the magazine market still works today. The retailer would strip off the masthead and return just the cover to get credit for unsold copies. Instead of destroying the copies as instructed, young readers were acquiring copies of the stripped covers and starting to sell them to other collectors. This created the first Secondary Market. For the first time, people were able to purchase issues they had missed and buy older comics. This workaround the market led to reportedly 9% sell through on some major titles. That’s putting up to 91% of the titles (by then under affidavit returns meaning not even a stripped cover) back onto the market as cheap back issues.
This all led to the creation of comic book stores as we know it today. The publishers would sell the comics directly to the stores with no returns. This created a smaller market because stores would be possibly be stuck with unsold copies. This limiting of quantities has created an explosion in the prices of more recent comics as there become few outlets to get them.
Neal might not like the way the retail side of the industry has gone and he certainly hasn’t been a fan of the way creators were treated in the past. But he’s excited about the future of the industry. He says, “Comics are just getting started.” The creativity of the younger generation will take comics in a direction that we probably don’t even see right now. He thinks that despite some terrible motion comics like Watchmen that they will soon dominate the industry. And the combination of popular franchises will continue – he asked if we’d be surprised to see a My Little Pony and the Avengers comic book.
Neal finished with a great story about his famous cover to Superman vs. Muhammad Ali comic book. He was paid $125 to do that iconic cover back in 1978. A few years ago he was commissioned to recreate it with Jordan vs Muhammad Ali for an ESPN the Magazine and made $30,000. And you wonder why these artists are drawn to TV and Hollywood.
CBLDF: DR. WERTHAM’S WAR ON COMICS (Room 30CDE)
I always try to hit at least one if not two or three of the CBLDF panels each year. The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund does wonderful work out there in the real world to defend our rights to read the books we want to read. They fight censorship in schools and libraries and come to the aid of normal folks who get in trouble for drawing or reading picture books. The panels at Comic-Con are a valuable educational outreach.
I caught the end of the panel before this one on Graphic Novels and I was enthralled by the discussion of art as therapy for kids who are being bullied at school. The issue is that these schools are so afraid of school violence that there is no logical application of their “zero tolerance” policies. So a child that may draw a violent image as a way of dealing with being bullied gets in more trouble for what they think he might do than the child who actually bullies. I love that I’m at a place where discussions like this can take place in a public forum.
This panel was led by Carol Tilley a professor who has delved deeply into the man Frederic Wertham behind the book Seduction of the Innocent from 1954 that led to Senate hearings about banning comic books. The hearings would eventually put an end to many war and horror comics and start decades of self censorship by the major comic-book companies.
Professor Tilley puts forth an excellent presentation on Dr. Wertham. It’s clear that he falsified some of the evidence he presents in his book. His earlier work with juvenile delinquents certainly colored his “research”. The more he looked into the issue, the more he seems to become obsessed with conspiracy stories regarding the comic-book companies. Our luck today is that he took copious notes on everything he did and everyone he spoke with. As Professor Tilley presents the timeline and quotes from original documents you can see the holes in his logic that should have debunked him at the time.
It’s an interesting topic and Professor Tilley presented it like a master lecture on the subject. And that’s part of the problem. The room does not lend itself to questions and answers or even feedback from the audience. The panel before let people shout out questions which even though awkward let there be more of an exchange of ideas. I thought of many questions during her presentation but never felt an opening to shout out a question. These are important subjects as they relate to current censorship and you can see the same thing happening here with video games. I’d like more time to refocus the subject on how it reflects today’s environment.
SPOTLIGHT ON BRIAN K. VAUGHAN (Room 25ABC)
After the morning success of Neal Adams, I was excited to check in on Brian K. Vaughan. He’s easily one of my top five current writers and appeals to the slightly more literary comic book readers. His current title Saga has a very active group of followers. He’s made a reputation for himself starting with Runaways and moving on to Ex Machina and engendered most of his cult following from the excellent Y: The Last Man. The only other important fact about him going in that most people needed to know is that he loves gin.
The panel was also not moderated. And again I’m not a huge fan of this movement for single creator panels. The creator starts off with a few remarks and we move too quickly to unstructured questions. So the panel moves back and forth across the titles he’s worked on and often with repetitive questions that leave him no room to answer more creatively.
The story behind Saga is probably deeper than he was able to articulate. He’s become a parent in the past few years and he’s at about the age that many artists and directors like to do their “kids project.” He was determined not to be the guy who does what he calls the most boring thing ever – talking about your own kids. So he created a title that allows him to talk about parenthood and children without actually talking directly about either. The series features fantastical creatures that serve as allegories for what he sees in his every day.
Brian has ventured off into writing for TV too. There’s an allure to writers to bring their vision to a larger market. The worst-rated TV show will be watched by more people than ever purchase his comic books. He has worked on episodes of Lost and had a big hand in the adaptation and creation of Under The Dome for the first season. He left the show in May. Brian says he learned so much from the experience. As he struggled to explain different scientific things about the Dome, Stephen King assured him, “You know you can just make shit up.” And ultimately the lesson he took from the experience is that he enjoys writing his own material, not playing with characters created by others. I wish there had been a follow-up question to explore that line of thinking.
ORIGINS OF THE COMIC STRIP: THE UNTOLD STORY OF ARTISTS AND ANARCHY, 1895-1915 (Room 25A)
If you thought the panel on Dr Wertham was specialized and more like a college seminar, then this is a Master’s Class on comic history created to appeal to a very specific niche. It’s held in the smallest room in the Convention Center. There were about four rows of chairs. There are more chairs at an AA meeting than here. Different historians including Peter Maresca, Denis Kitchn, and R.C. Harvey took a look at the creation of what we know today as the comic strip.
The first cartoon appeared in July 1843 in Punch magazine. The term “cartoon” came from the Italian word for cardboard or preliminary drawing. These early cartoons were actually nice pieces of art, it was more a reflection of the medium and their audience that put them in newspapers instead of galleries. Eventually, the newspapers would collect the weekly cartoons into supplements that would eventually become what we know today as the comic book.
I’d always been told that Richard F. Outcault’s Hogan’s Alley featuring the Yellow Kid was the first comic. The strip was about the slums of New York, and the Yellow Kid (bald-headed kid to keep off the lice) reflected on life through his observations in the Alley. You can see the first signs of later comics like Peanuts in here.
The most interesting part of the presentation was the discussion of the pursuit of the first comic. And that the hardest thing is to define what the comic is. If it is just a Pictoral Narrative then do you go back to the Egyptians? There has to be an agreement that a comic is words and pictures and that one does not make sense without the other. The idea of Sequential Art to tell the story was an early development. As the new medium was being invented over a 20-year period at the turn of the century, the vocabulary we use today to read them was also being invented. I left this panel with great awe for the vast differences in panels that happen not just in huge halls but in small corners too.
A CELEBRATION OF WALT KELLY’S 101ST BIRTHDAY (Room 8)
This panel was set up to be a continuation of last year’s 100th Birthday celebration because they still had so many stories to tell. Mark Evanier hosts a great panel including Leonard Maltin, Jeff Smith, and David Silverman. But other than a mock up of the upcoming Pogo collection from Fantagraphics, there wasn’t much covered here that wasn’t in last year’s panel. In fact, I think a couple of the stories were repeated.
THE GREATEST GEEK MOVIES AND TV NEVER MADE (Room 7AB)
I’m a sucker for these “what if” scenarios. I love to read early versions of scripts, see trailers for movies that never made the theaters, and even films that were completed and never saw the light of day. This panel was made up mostly of producers and people who work on creating all the special-edition discs for the movies we love. These folks are great sources because their job is to go back and collect old footage and stories for Anniversary discs.
The movie in most people’s imagination now because of the recent documentary is Jodorowksy’s version of Dune. The casting is incredible with Mick Jagger in the Sting role and Udo Kier and Orson Welles co-starring. The trippy sets and his vision of a more drug-influenced world might have made the most unique science-fiction film ever. He was thrown off by panicky producers who even turned next to Ridley Scott to make it right after he had finished Alien. He would lose interest before it eventually got passed to David Lynch.
I know at one time I was familiar with the project, but I had completely forgotten about Oliver Stone being involved in bringing back Planet of the Apes in the 1990s. The was a script by Terry Hayes who had written The Road Warrior and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome and would later write From Hell. The project stalled and stalled until a safer version was made and failed. Are you seeing a pattern here?
They aren’t all tales of failure though. Night Skies was a film that Steven Spielberg was to direct just after the success of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It was based on a John Sayles screenplay and promised to combine aliens with more of the horror genre. The project has always been rumored to have an incredible script that just never found time to get made. Parts of the script ended up informing other films. The alien relationship with one of the boys ended up being the basis for E.T. and some of the horror elements found their way into Poltergeist.
There were plenty of design shots shown from what was going to be Bryan Singer’s version of Battlestar Galactica on FOX. Quite a bit of preproduction work was done and scripts written before Bryan went on to do X-Men. Many of the twists from the original series would stay intact through to the SciFi Channel reboot.
They finished the fun panel with talk about TV shows that left the viewer hanging. As frustrating as it is to know a film that you find interesting doesn’t get made is being invested in a show that doesn’t get to finish. Certain shows are set up with ongoing quests and if they aren’t finished then the audience is not satisfied. These date back to Lost In Space, which left our characters lost in space. Recent examples include Firefly and Terminator as shows that were cancelled before letting the audience have closure. These panels are the type of fun that tap into conversations I have when out on the town with my friends.
‘TALLICA PARKING LOT (Room 6BCF)
Truthfully, I just walked in to see Metallica up close. The guys are looking a bit older (but so am I) and they sound so much more mainstream too. The video was a fun animation with South Park and Beavis and Butthead characters represented and with some great new music from Metallica. It looked very close to the Gorillaz-style animation and I was quite entertained. I’m not sure what the crowd is for this stuff anymore. It seems too esoteric for MTV or a cable channel and would anyone pay money to see it online? I wish I had heard more background, but if it crosses your screen, I’d say to take a second look.
WORLDS WORST CARTOONS and BATMAN: ASSAULT ON ARKHAM
I spent the rest of the evening with more passive viewing of cartoons without any panels to talk about them. The Worst Cartoons is a Con staple for me. But for the second year in a row this was a “best of” and I had seen all of them previously. I’m worried about the future of what has been one of my favorite ongoing shows at the Con.
The latest from the DCU Animated universe is entertaining, but I feel like they’ve gone beyond me. The main idea of the film is the creation of the Suicide Squad to break into Arkham. I liked having Kevin Conroy back as the voice of Batman but he was really a bit character in the film. There’s way too much awkward forcing in of bad language and even a sex scene. It really seemed outside the realm of the story and unnecessary. I like them trying to have more powerful female characters but forcing Harley Quinn into this role seemed out of place here.
Friday ends in the dark and I wonder where the day went until I look back on everything I did. It’s the most tiring of the days and I pack in more than any other day. I head back to the hotel in need of rest and energy to hit the busiest day on Saturday.