Comicon’s People Of The Year: 2017

by Hannah Means Shannon

Welcome to Comicon.com’s inaugural Best of the Year Awards, gathering the best comics and comics talent of 2017. This year we will be awarding in the following categories: Best Original Graphic Novels, Best Comic Series, Best Single Comic Issues, Best Writers, Best Artists, Best Cover Artists, Best Colorists, Best Letterers, Best Webcomics, Most Progressive Comics, and lastly, Comicon’s People of The Year: 2017.

The following are Comicon’s People of the Year: 2017.

People of the Year are chosen for their impact on comics over the course of the previous year through various avenues affecting community and publishing. The designation is not necessarily purely positive, but highlights people who have been the focus of important conversations, set significant examples, and are likely to continue to be part of the discussion surrounding comics in the coming year.

5. Shelly Bond, Editor at Black Crown, an imprint of IDW

Shelly Bond, self-styled “imprimatur” of the new Black Crown imprint at IDW, which launched its first three titles in 2017, was former Editor of Vertigo at DC Comics. Bond, whether intentionally or as a by-product of her recent work, has made a number of observable points about the comics industry and the comics medium for those who may have observed her in action.

Firstly, she has personally illustrated the idea that there is a life in comics beyond the Big Two, if one chooses to pursue one. Though her career has been built upon her successes at Vertigo, her life in comics has always extended well beyond that through pioneering creator-owned comics and garnering the appreciation and support of many comic creators. That is the life she is pursuing now, professionally, with Black Crown.

But other than showing there is a “life after”, Bond has also introduced big ideas about how to present and market creator-owned comics in a new and systematic vein. By setting up Black Crown as an imprint that intentionally combines the skills and talents of known, established “superstar” creators like Peter Milligan and Gilbert Hernandez with younger, up-and-coming creators like Tess Fowler and Tini Howard, Bond has taken a big idea and applied it to comics in a practical and effective way.

Lastly, Bond has set up an imprint with the seed of a shared universe that’s going to continue to unfold, creating an architecture for mutual support among the books being published, reinforced by publishing a Black Crown Quarterly, bringing those threads together. One of the biggest marketing challenges facing publishers right now, “discoverability”. How to make sure a reader who likes one of your titles, or titles similar to your own, is brought in as an “insider” to read multiple titles. Black Crown self-advertizes to its own readership and, in turn, readers can discover new works that align with their tastes and interests.

In these ways, Bond moves from being someone who has interesting ideas about comics to someone who is actually applying those ideas in demonstrable ways, all with a great deal of energy and enthusiasm toward fan outreach that could potentially set the tone in comics in the coming months.

4. CB Cebulski, new EIC at Marvel Comics

There are two reasons, of course, why CB Cebulski is one of 2017’s People of the Year. Firstly, he has been named EIC of Marvel, following on from Axel Alonso’s 6 year tenure, which is bound to produces changes in the tone and direction of comics being produced by the publisher. To all accounts, Cebulski has been a friendly face to many comic creators of varied backgrounds and perspectives, and has been looked up to as a more progressive personality at Marvel. The initial news of his promotion was greeted with a flurry of good wishes, and dare we even say, great expectations.

This was soon followed by the drumming up of an unresolved rumor surrounding Cebulski, which had surfaced from time to time on Bleeding Cool, that he might have operated under a pen name as a writer in the past during a time when he was also operating as a Marvel Editor. Before long, Cebulski issued a statement confirming that he had indeed written under the pen name Akira Yoshida when considering leaving Marvel and attempting to establish a career as comic writer. He did so because both editing and writing at the same time, while profiting from it, was prohibited by the publisher. When he decided not to leave a staff job at Marvel, the pen name, and the mysterious writer the world knew as Yoshida, gradually faded from view.

The first issue that this admission highlighted was the fact that he had been duplicitous with his employer, the same employer who now named him EIC. But the bigger tide of reaction from the comics community stemmed from the fact that Cebulski had been posing as a Japanese national during this time, and benefiting from that assumption in receiving work appropriate to an expert in Japanese culture. By doing so, he had taken work away from people of Japanese ethnicity who might otherwise have contributed to comics. This revelation spread rapidly and widely through not only comics media, but mainstream media, as one of the strangest stories of the year.

This last point is also the one that looms over Cebulski’s new role at EIC at Marvel. Which will be most characteristic of his work in the coming year, the progressive and forward-looking hire, or the hire who had no particular qualms in posing as a minority figure in comics in order to pose as someone with greater authority? While the statement that Cebulski issued expressed regret for his past decision making, it also showed commitment to this new role. 2018 will be a year that determines Cebulski’s new persona as EIC, and whether he can shake off the legacy of the decisions he made in the past.

3. Jessica Testa (BuzzFeed News Reporter) Tyler Kingkade (BuzzFeed News Reporter), and Jay Edidin (BuzzFeed Contributor)

While the misconduct of former DC Editor Eddie Berganza has been a subject of discussion far longer than the span of 2017, and multiple accounts have been posted on various comics news websites over the years, allegations failed to produce the desired result from DC Comics—the firing of a known predator from a senior and influential position within the company. While there was previously speculation that this lack of action was due to the fact that comics news sites were not taken seriously enough by the publisher, that seems to have been confirmed by what finally resulted in change, the moment when the story “broke through” into mainstream media and quickly spread far beyond the world of comics publishing.

The article that started this landslide was titled “The Dark Side of DC Comics” and was composed by Jessica Testa, Tyler Kingkade, and Jay Edidin, and appeared on Buzzfeed, a website that is highly pop-culture friendly, but not comics-focused. The title of the article also spoke to the wider importance of the story to the major publisher’s public identity. The article was long, carefully crafted, and laid out specific testimony from several witnesses, but also suggested, by its very existence, that public shaming of the publisher by mainstream readers should be not only acceptable, but encouraged.

Why hadn’t that suggestion worked before? Though we may never know why the story went viral as a mainstream subject of discussion, the ground prepared by the outing of sexual predators in Hollywood this year made the climate more receptive to this discussion. Mainstream news outlets had shaken off any reticence to publish stories about misconduct in the months leading up to the Buzzfeed piece. It landed at the right time, and spoke in the right terms to stir up a movement in news coverage. Berganza was included in articles about Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey. This became a national, and even international discussion.

And so, the seemingly impossible finally happened: Berganza was first suspended, and then removed from office by DC Comics. Testa, Kingkade, and Edidin took a story that was already well known, but had failed to gain traction, reframed it, and placed it on a platform where it had the potential to be more effective, as well as releasing it at the right time. No one is likely to forget that lesson any time soon, whether news organizations or publishers alike.

2. Lance Fensterman, Senior Global Vice President, ReedPOP

Comic Convention company ReedPOP became one of the largest convention companies in the world in 2017 with the acquisition of conventions in the UK and several more in Europe. Lance Fensterman is the company’s Senior Global Vice President, though many will know him as the person who has shepherded New York Comic Con through its massive growth in recent years and someone who does a fair amount of press outreach as a known face of the company.

Fensterman is a dyed in the wool geek, which has made him someone whom publishers, press, and other media companies find relatable. His genuine enthusiasm is what helped created the ReedPOP brand and has led to the continuing expansion of shows like C2E2, the acquisition of Emerald City Comic Con, and much more. He also travels relentlessly and stays involved with the management of the shows, and while it’s hard to pin down what decisions Fensterman has made that might actually affect your life as a fan at a convention, there’s good reason to believe that the level of organization, the generally humane floor layouts and availability of food and facilities, are down to an overall obsession with running ReedPOP conventions like an actual business, with internal standards that must be maintained throughout the company’s various events and locations.

The fact that this approach has resulted in success—entirely due to fan support in the long run—is testimony to the need that ReedPOP has filled. The convention world needs organization, safety, and some elements of predictability and planning. Bringing a sense of surprise to that planning remains in the hands of the celebrity guests and creative professionals who are showcased at the conventions, making those memorable experiences for fans to take home. Though such a dramatic success in a company is never due to the work of a single person, and Fensterman would probably be the first to point out a wide swath of team members who have been integral, it does take singularity of vision to become one of the biggest convention companies in the world.

But, what now? When you have become the biggest fish in the sea, there’s bound to be a great deal of quality control and regularizing to do, especially when you have acquired other already long-running shows with their own fan bases. It will be very interesting to see what 2018 brings in terms of expansion, and what the evolving brand of ReedPOP comes to mean for fans. Fensterman will be a key player in bringing new shows into alignment with ReedPOP standards and goals. As he has been in the past, Fensterman may continue to be the one who keeps in perspective the fact that financial success for the company depends on the level of satisfaction delivered in the ticket-buying fan’s experience.

1. Katie Proctor, Retailer and Owner, Books with Pictures, Portland, OR

While there’s little doubt that the bookstore market will continue to play a major role in the future of comics publishing, one of the purchasers of those books will always be specialty comic shops retailers. As the face of the comics community to readers in a way that more general book stores cannot be, they are the best hope for the future of the medium in recruiting new readers, improving “discoverability” and engaging current readers to remain active in the community. The difficulties of the direct market are sizable, pressurizing, and financially draining, and 2017 has not been an easy year by any means. Any individual opening a comic shop in recent years has faced massive challenges and is clearly driven by a love for the medium rather than a desire for a reliable source of income.

Katie Proctor opened Books with Pictures on Division Street in Portland, Oregon, in 2016, in a very “comics” town that already had several comic retailers. Her decision to open a shop spoke to a degree of optimism and determination about the needs of readers, and in the name of the shop itself, you get a clear idea of her unique vision. “Books with Pictures” bypasses the old divide of single issue comics versus hard or paperback graphic novels or collections. By using the word “books”, the shop seeks to draw in non-traditional comic readers who might not have tried the medium before, but are inspired by the idea of reading. By also including “pictures” in the name, Proctor opens up the visual element of comics to include illustrative aspects, flowing or more restrictive page layouts, and the simple joy of looking at pictures as part of a reading experience.

As the shop was laid out and designed in its first few months, Proctor incorporated a white, bright schema that draws the customer toward the books themselves, and in the context of comic shops is highly non-traditional. Entering the shop, you might be forgiven for thinking you had wandered into an art gallery designed by a comic reader. And well, you would have done so, in fact. That’s not to say that finding comics at Books with Pictures is a limited, boutique experience. Proctor crams the place with stock in an artful manner, creating new groupings and displays constantly to present new themes and materials. Key words seem to be “respect” and “equality”. Self-published ‘zines stand alongside major publishers’ graphic novels, and the constant tide of weekly comics being released.

One of the most astonishing things that Proctor has done with the space of her shop, and the biggest contributing factor in naming her Comicon’s Person of the Year, is the transformative features that were built into the place. Shelves move and roll, furniture slides, and folding chairs and tables come out to host significant community-based events on a regular basis. In truth, it’s unlikely many of our readers have ever seen anything like this as part of a local comic shop experience. This is not a commentary on lack among local comic shops, but a testament to selfless hard work that Proctor puts in to try to give back to comics and encourage growth in the comics and geek community. Geek music events, comic signings, launches, and topical discussion events are a regular feature of this shop. A weekly workshop for comic creators even meets in the venue free of charge.

All of this comes at a cost for retailers. This level of engagement derives from their personal time, energy, and lives, as well as the continuous financial support they provide out of their own pockets for events that they could easily avoid taking on. Proctor’s example is shining, but also a little frightening, because of what it says about comics. It takes a massive effort like this to break away from traditions that may be limiting the reach and longevity of the medium.

While it would be unjust to tar retailers with a brush that’s very aging out of the market, the old assumption about comic shops has been that they are poorly lit, overstocked, dusty havens for anti-social people, and are particularly male-dominated. At the risk of stating the obvious, Books with Pictures rigorously combats these stereotypes in virtually every way. In fact, it more or less burns them down, and starts over. And the person who has shown us how to burn them down and start over is Katie Proctor.

Like every comic retail shop, Books with Pictures faces difficulties and an uncertain future, but Proctor has shown that big efforts may be needed to create a better and more expansive future for comics. Are we willing to make such efforts ourselves? Her example leaves us with that significant question.

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