OK, I’ll admit it. I drove down to San Diego last month to spend some time at Comic-Con.
And I will also admit that it wasn’t my first time.
That having been said, I felt uneasy about it this year. Maybe it’s because I just hit 60 and wondered if I really belong at such an event.
My fears were alleviated, however, when I parked my car in the best spot I could find (ten blocks away) and happened to walk by someone older than me who was dressed up as some sort of superhero villain. (In retrospect, I wonder if she was even aware of Comic-Con.)
The cultural announcements that always come out of Comic-Con – new movies and TV shows, movie trailer premiers, etc. – are always well covered in the national media, so this article won’t rehash what its author won’t pay to see anyway. This article also won’t explore the thoughts one might have as he drives for an hour to find a parking place in the same zip code.
To me, Comic-Con is about the wide range of booths and tables in the jam-packed exhibit hall of the San Diego Convention Center, where you can meet artists who go off on their own creative tangents. You can also peruse the most intriguing collection of T-shirts anywhere on the planet.
As you stroll the exhibit hall aisles, you may see a booth full of charming Disney stuffed toys and figurines next to a booth where a porn star with more make-up than The Joker is signing autographs for a line of attendees who all seem to resemble “Comic Book Guy” from the Simpsons.
Comic book conventions throughout the U.S. include celebrities such as TV and movie actors who have tables where they sign photos for fans. You may see Lee Meriwether or the original TV Lois Lane or even the insurance salesman from “Groundhog Day,” still cashing in on his 15 minutes of fame.
Butch Patrick, a.k.a. Eddie Munster, seemed to enjoy his participation this year. “‘The Munsters’ isn’t a Comic-Con type of show but I’m getting a good response and having a good time,” he said. Since he was pre-occupied with the women who suddenly gathered at his booth, I decided to move on.
One of the biggest changes in recent years is the dramatic increase in the number of booths featuring the work of female writers and cartoonists.
“The culture is more welcoming to women,” explained Conjoined Comics writer Carrie Smith. “But it depends on what kind of woman you are. If you’re a shyer woman, it may not be a culture you feel comfortable in.”
“There’s always been women in comics,” said comic artist Rachel Duke of Mixtape Comics, who had the neighboring booth. “They were ghost writers. They were just not credited as writers.”
The situation is better today than it was, but more progress is needed if you’re a cartoonist whose gender happens to be female.
“I can’t say how much it affects my getting work,” said Duke. “It’s easier now to get a job writing comics, but it’s harder to get a job writing ‘Batman.’ You start to have trouble writing the major titles.”
“They always tell you to turn all the girls into boys, or that there has to be a proportion of boys to girls of 4-1,” said illustrator Mary Bellamy. “The girl cannot upstage the boy. She has to be the rival, crazy or the love interest.”
The most noticeable change in recent years, however, is how much Comic-Con has grown, which inspires a range of strong opinions among those who have been attending the event for years.
“I like it because it’s always successful financially,” said cartoonist Rick Geary, who has created graphic novels about such notables as J. Edgar Hoover, Lizzie Borden and Sacco & Venzetti, and books about 19th century crimes including the Lincoln and Garfield assassinations. “It’s good to meet my fans face-to-face and rub elbows with my idols.”
Geary has been attending this annual event since 1976 and commented on its growth. “Sizewise, it’s just unmanageable,” he said. “It’s huge now. I remember the intimate convention room at the El Cortez (Hotel). I think that when Hollywood discovered comics, that’s what changed it.”
Bob the Angry Flower has been attending Comic-Con since 1997 and keeps coming to maintain his booth location and “sell as many books as I can. There are decades of cartoons I get to see… also pretty girls.” But since he is an angry flower, we will move on.
Phil Yeh, president of Cartoonists Across America, the literacy-promoting group he founded in 1985, has been attending Comic-Con since 1970, and had his first table in 1975. He has created murals about literacy in 49 states and 15 foreign counties. He attends Comic-Con to make contacts that could lead to projects with schools, libraries and book festivals around the world.
Yeh is more than willing to share his opinions about Comic-Con’s evolution from a comic book gathering to a huge pop culture event. “The majority of people at the Comic-Con today don’t read comic books,” he said. “I don’t think they read at all.”
Greg Evans, the creator of the comic strip “Luann,” was in the National Cartoonist Society booth “mostly to meet fans.” He remembers the 1985 Comic-Con “with 12 guys and their card tables. Then Hollywood discovered this thing 10 years ago.”
So is Comic-Con better now or the way it was?
“The purists will say it’s worse,” said Evans. “The San Diego Chamber of Commerce will say it’s better.”