How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the ConThe year of no buzz. The year without Eisner. The movies are taking over Comic-Con. Such runs the conventional wisdom on this year’s San Diego Comic-Con International, and one would be hard-pressed to argue with any of those points. They reflect an array of underlying industry-wide anxieties. Times are currently very interesting indeed for comics, and nowhere do you sense that more than at San Diego Comic-Con.
I should note that I’m something of a comics convention novice, which given my chosen avocation here is a little embarrassing to admit, but there it is. I was too young for the heady days of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and too broke through the mid-'90s, to have been there before the film industry discovered the rich mine that is comics fans. So I have nothing to compare to this year’s SDCC.
One morning, I found myself in line for coffee next to a woman who’d worked on the Lord of the Rings fan documentary Ringers. We chatted for quite a while (the coffee line was long, as were all the food and drink lines), and at one point, my husband asked her if she was a comics reader. No, not really; she was there for Ringers. If the costume-players alone are any indication, she wasn’t the only person for whom the draw of SDCC was a noncomics fandom; by the end of the weekend, I was ready to strangle some of the Harry Potter fans with their own House scarves (nothing really against the fandom, mind you; one just gets tired of the sheer volume of the things). Not to mention what you saw if you entered the exhibition floor through one of the central entrances: the giant empire of Lucasfilm, proclaiming that "Star Wars is forever." Bruce (mostly) jokingly asked if we’d wandered into a Star Wars convention by mistake.
I hoped that the Eisners would cheer me up, and indeed some worthy books walked away with awards, although there were no dramatic headliners, no Eisner equivalents of Titanic. I went away somewhat troubled by the nostalgia that dominated the evening. No doubt a large part of that was the loss of Will Eisner, which everyone seemed to feel quite keenly; and to tell you the truth, I was sorry that my first Comic-Con had to be the first one without him. But even as creators of the current generation are working to pull comics kicking and screaming into the 21st century, everyone continues to look back at the golden age, when kids read comics the way they play video games now, and when you grew up buying them from the newsstand and reading them clandestinely under the covers so Mom wouldn’t catch you.
That sense of nostalgia plagued a number of the panels I went to, but none more so than “Bringing Comics Back to Kids,” where everyone seemed to view the introduction of comics to children as no less than a crusade, and where most points of reference seemed to be how one got into comics as a kid oneself -- see the “reading under the covers” example above. The nostalgia was mixed with fear -- fear that if you don’t get children reading comics when they’re young, they won’t read them when they’re older. The implication being, of course, that without children reading comics, the medium will keel over and die.
It’s hard to completely discredit that fear; though there’s still any number of comics publishers on the exhibition floor, though the comics panels are well-attended, though the success of comics-based movies is high, though comics have achieved critical acclaim and respectability beyond what anyone 50 years ago could have imagined—one look around the floor will tell you how much the visual profile of the place is dominated by movies, toys and games. There are crowds 10 deep around the Aeon Flux booth; you can’t even get through the Gentle Giant booth to look at the Corpse Bride set; even though the Narnia video game looks like utter crap, there are still people playing it every time you walk by. And the kids? They’re all lying on beanbags watching SpongeBob SquarePants at the Nickelodeon booth. All of this seems like nothing so much as more stones in the already difficult row that comics publishers and creators have to hoe at Comic-Con -- it’s just that much harder for a static, page-bound medium like comics (Web comics notwithstanding) to compete with the flashy sound and light shows at the other booths.
Here, though, one may raise a potentially heretical question: Should they? I’m not suggesting, mind you, that the convention should jettison the big media; at this point, San Diego Comic-Con can’t exist without the film and game industries. That’s what bankrolls the space, draws in the crowds and perpetuates the existence of the whole mad (and let’s admit, really fun) affair. If it’s going to continue in the current, well-established tradition, it needs the semi-diabolical bargain with the big stars, the big studios and the big exclusives.
Here’s the thing, though: Despite the visual dominance of other entertainment industries at Comic-Con, I’d be hard-pressed to say that comics are in serious danger of disappearing. That may sound like madness in the current marketplace, but I believe it’s true. Though the industry may never see the golden age ever again, the medium has been established now as a vibrant, unique way of telling stories with its own idiom. As long as comics exist, young writers and artists will find their way to them, one way or another. It’s not the best analogy, but take poetry as an example. Poetry hasn’t been a popular medium -- in the sense of best-selling, zeitgeist-setting art -- in decades, but it’s not going away. Nor will comics. (We may hope, of course, that it doesn’t become the province of academics; in this case, comics’ disreputable origins may be an unexpected benefit, keeping the medium from getting too high up the ivory tower.)
At San Diego Comic-Con, I had a sense of the comics industry standing at a crossroads, holding its collective breath, a little frightened by the movies, TV, and computer games on display, and wondering where the best route lay. Back where we came from? Or on one of the many roads ahead? I can’t help feeling that something needs to change. Perhaps the business model of monthly issues? What about the rise of manga -- is it the wave of the future, or is it an adolescents’ fad? Do we try to reclaim the glory we’ve lost -- is that even possible? Or do we move on, accepting an altered place in the entertainment universe, and making the best of it instead?
I love comics. I love their strange and wonderful manifestations, and the tricks and techniques that are impossible in any other media. And of course I’m concerned about the future; I don’t want this lovely medium to be buried in obscurity. But I also want that next step forward, without the fear or nostalgia dragging at the ankles. I want a Comic-Con where the comics publishers aren’t cowed by the movies and games, but stand cheerfully beside them. Where the real concern is not where comics have been, but where they’re going. The future of comics will never be as dazzling as the good old days, but I think it’s bright and exciting nonetheless. We just have to keep our eyes on it.