OR: THE CROMLECH'S SECRET
BY HEIDI MACDONALD
In the first part of this essay
, I attempted an overview of this year's Comicon, as futile as such an enterprise could be. Now, a more personal analysis. In addition to people's constant bewilderment over sheer immensity and what not, there was another frequent comment: "Next year I'm going to the zoo on Saturday!" Given how many times people have looked around the dealer's room and exclaimed "This place is a zoo!" the irony here is off the charts. And yet, going to a place where the animals were behind bars rather than bumping into you in the corridors seemed the only sane choice in an insane world.
Although Josh Sullivan
, the last man in Artist's Alley, bravely exclaimed "This is Comicon, not Moviecon!" the genie is out of the bottle. Comicon is now Entertainment FanFest. In case you didn't know, there are several kinds of FanFests. I'm not sure what or where the first FanFest was, but I think it might have started with the Super Bowl back in the golden era of sports cards. Someone got the bright idea that throwing a con of sorts during a major sporting event would be a great way to connect the locals – even the ones who didn't have tickets – to the big show and make even more people spend money.
Tim Sale reads the COMICON PULSE Daily!
The first Super Bowl FanFast I attended back in the early 90s was held outside the Pasadena Rose Bowl and featured various sorts of interactive displays – you could see what a locker room looked like or get your picture on a football card or see how far your could throw a football. There were also signings by players who weren’t in the big game. The player would sign for a couple of hours, and you would have to stand in line for a couple of hours. (I vividly recall that Jim Lee
and Rob Liefeld
were also signing and had lines just as long as the players. Ah yes, those were the days…)
As I said, I'm not sure how the idea grew, but there are now FanFests held in conjunction with the various All-Star games and Wrestlemania. They're a big part of the media hoopla around these events, and provide by far the most organized chance for regular folks to meet their sporting heroes and get an autograph. (I'll never forget the thrill of meeting Rollie Fingers
at the All-Star Fanfest in San Diego!)
Even more germane to the comics world is FanFair
, a Country music wallow. FanFair started out back in the '70s as, well, a country music fan convention. It's now a very big deal with as many as 200 country music stars showing up to put on concerts and, yes, sign autographs. According to the site, "Fan Fair 2000 included participation from more than 200 artists, including more than 40 platinum and multi-platinum acts such as Brooks & Dunn, Clint Black, Faith Hill, Alan Jackson, Lonestar, Tim McGraw, LeAnn Rimes and SHeDAISY."
I'm not a big country music fan, but it seems some big names show up, and once again, it's a rare chance for fans to meet their idols.
Obviously, Comicon has evolved into Pop Culture FanFair. San Diego is the only place where you are guaranteed to see movie stars live and in person. Not just any movie stars but Oscar winners and hobbits! In addition, lots of movie stars and musicians are also nerds, and they have been attending the show as fans for years. Glenn Danzig
is just One Of Us, who happened to be a rock star, too.
Meanwhile, over yonder…
What is really astonishing about San Diego is just how all encompassing the geek connection has become. It started with action figures, and posters and art books…and now it's movies and cartoons and Gentle Giant and cable channels and studios and video games…and even more importantly, the people who make these movies, cartoons, video games and so on. Many times, these folks turn out to have been cartoonists at some point (like Geof Darrow and Mike Mignola
, for instance.) Almost all the top animators are cartoonists at heart, so up until the recent explosion, it was a mutual geekfest, as everybody got to meet their idols in the other field. It was cross-fertilization of the best kind.
And then, suddenly, Hollywood caught on. It started quietly a few years ago. There was always one big Hollywood star on Saturday. One year it was Arnold
. The next it was Jean Claude Van Damme
. Then it was Ian McKellan
. I guess they had such a good time they told all their friends. Last year, as the hall expanded, so did the invasion from up north. Suddenly it was Arnold AND Elijah, AND Smallville, AND Buffy AND God only knows who all…
How did it happen? To be honest, I'm not quite sure but I can think of two things.
First, as comic books have become the farm team for Hollywood, studios decided it was cool to go. The D-girl and -boy invasion got huge about 5 or 6 years ago. Hey, who wouldn't want to pop down the freeway to San Diego for a day out of the office on the company expense report while making fun of weird guys in Spider-man outfits?
Second, and inevitably, the internet has given a powerful voice to the geeks. It started with you-know-who, who I shan't name. According to countless newspaper and magazine stories. a certain red-headed über-nerd has Hollywood in the palm of his chubby hand. So dense is the traffic of potential moviegoers to his site that a bad review can kill a movie before it even comes out (cf. PLUTO NASH
.) Internet buzz will swat down a bad movie in no time. Back in the days when we communicated with smoke signals and semaphore, a bad action movie could be quietly released in theaters without any screenings and people would just figure out for themselves that it was a total bow-wow, but only after a few million dollars at the box office. Not any more. You can only keep secrets with the collusion of the nerd patrol.
San Diego has become the place where buzz begins. All of the internet news sites (including this one) send folks to cover the panels, and a few good minutes of footage can get everyone smiling and ready for the eventual happy meal.
The internet has proven that there's a little bit of geek in all of us. Even my 85-year-old grandmother enjoyed THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING
(and even more bafflingly, 28 DAYS LATER
– what can I say, she's a pistol!) Boba Fatass can now be safely be quarantined from the Maxim-reading regular guy who likes the X-men in San Diego's pecking order. Geek culture has morphed into pop culture.
Those of you who have read my writing over the years (both of you) know that most of my observations are based on sociology and psychology. Biology may not be destiny, but what happened in the high school locker room is. What struck me the most about this convention was that it was really like Ancient Troy. The old con, from the El Cortez and Golden Hall, was still there – you just had to do a little archeological digging. This was brought home to me vividly on Saturday night.
I should digress here for a moment to report on this convention's social scene. In a word, it sucked. There are always too many parties to hit them all, but this year, the fetes of yore have given way to small industry cocktail parties. Of course, you can't fit 5000 people into one party, so the idea of one big gathering is utterly passé to begin with.
It was just like Book Expo or E3. Unless you had a specific invite from someone, you probably wouldn't even hear about the parties. The alt-comix scene was particularly underserved. Jim Mahfood and Scott Morse
threw an artsy bash one night that I heard was pretty good, and the Highwater/Fantagraphics beach party drew the usual crowd of skinny dippers, but gone were the days when all the undergrounders would get together in the basement of San Diego to smoke weed and sketch in each others books.
My personal socializing was shot to hell by deadlines, so I'm probably not the best person to judge it by, but aside from my own party – the Friends of Lulu Awards on Thursday – I only got to go to the excellent IDW cocktail party on Saturday, and that was just because it was on my way from the convention center to my hotel. Dark Horse threw a lovely soiree (from what I heard) way back in downtown, but that might as well have been up in La Jolla as far as I was concerned, and there was a swanky Cartoon Network/Teen Titans bash, too.
Steppin' Out: Hyatt schmooze on Saturday night
The Hyatt bar, usually the Nexus of networking, was stymied by construction this year, but DC's heroic Fletcher Chu-Fong
arranged for an outside bar to be set up. The outdoor venue, close to the water, was as pleasant as could be, especially the first night before it caught on, and a sudden rainstorm on Friday provided a welcome incursion of reality and as well as a conversation starter. It was actually too dark to see who was there, but this was probably a blessing – you could slink away unnoticed if someone you really didn't want to talk to was around. However, the early closing bars (1 am! Good god!) meant that you barely had time to get back from dinner before it was all over. Nerts! By then, all the cool people had already scattered to some other place anyway, so it was ultimately an exercise in pointlessness.
The Gaslamp District's thriving bar scene (which wasn't even there when Comicon began) became the cool place to hang out, but only for small, selected groups. There just wasn't any mingling of the tribes. I know everyone thinks I'm obsessed by parties, but this is the most vital part of the show, where chance encounters lead to new projects and unexpected alliances. It's just never going to be the same again, at least in San Diego.
Convention Center lit up like a Christmas tree!
Anyway, back to my Saturday night revelation. I was walking back from a late dinner with the Harris Comics crew, and we passed the convention center. The Masquerade seemed to be letting out, and there were a lot of people hanging around.
"What are all those people doing at the Convention Center?" someone asked. I should point out that the Harris crew are hardly newbies, but they have only been to the con in the "modern" era.
"That's the Masquerade," I explained. "It's one of the oldest parts of the convention, and it's still a big deal for a lot of people."
At that moment, I had a bit of a vision, you might say. The entire day at the con, with the fanboys, and the Klingons, and the collectors and the centerfolds, and the producers and the movie stars and even the comic book publishers, flashed into my head. And I thought about the Picts.
The Picts, you see, were the original inhabitants of Ireland and Scotland. A dark, savage, tattooed people who have come down in legend as various mythological figures.
One of the oldest Irish texts is called THE BOOK OF INVASIONS and it recounts, in mythological terms, the various tribes and leaders who attempted to invade Ireland in the period from about 1000 B.C. to 100 A.D. Beyond that, the various invaders of England, from the Angles and the Saxons to the Vikings to the Normans, had been made legend in everything from King Arthur to Shakespeare.
I had finally identified the tribes. Let's call it the Tribal Invasion Theory.
According to the BOOK OF INVASIONS, it started out with the Fomorians
, who were kind of like the Titans of Greek myth. A misshapen, savage folk, the Formorians were the original founders of Comicon (if you can imagine a Fomorian with a pocket protector, I suppose.) Their primitive rituals – masquerades, art shows and trivia contests -- have survived even to this day and Fomorians still enjoy many of these fannish, clannish activities.
After the Fomorians, came the Partholonians
, THE BOOK OF INVASIONS continues, of whom little is known. These would be the underground cartoonists who soon enlivened the con with illicit substances and longer hair. The mythological Partholonians died from a plague, but the real world tribe can still be seen, albeit in diminished numbers.
Then along came the Nemedians
, another rather obscure tribe who also succumbed to health problems. (Robert E. Howard would be really into the Tribal Invasion Theory, I think.) This might be analogous to the earliest self-publishers, such as Jack Katz, Dave Sim and the Pinis, and possibly Phil Seuling and Bud Plant
San Diego historians are still mystified by these structures found at the Pickwick Hotel.
Next came the Tuatha de Dannan
and the FirBolgs
. The Tuatha were culture gods, heroic warrior poets. The FirBolgs were another savage race who married the remaining Fomorians and in general played the heavies. The Tuatha and the FirBolg engaged in a series of epic battles (The First and Second Battles of Moytura) for control of Ireland.
The Tuatha de Dannan are the "Alternative Comics" crowd of the early 80s, from publishers like Fantagraphics and First to individuals such as Scott McCloud
and Larry Marder
. We (yes, I'm a Tuatha – I always wanted to be a fairy queen, godammit) had a different agenda. We wanted the Comicon to become an arts festival like the legendary shows of Europe. We believed comics were an artform, and we wanted the Fomorians to follow us to the promised land. But of course, the two tribes could only uneasily intermingle.
After the epic battles of the Tuatha and the FirBolg came the Milesians
, from whom the regular Gaelic folk are descended. The Milesians would be the earliest "civilian geeks," seemingly normal folks who liked STAR WARS
and NEXT GENERATION
, and might buy an action figure because it was cool, but filking would never enter their mind. The Milesians are the regular convention stock, whose number grows year after year.
That's where the Book of Invasions ends. But history doesn't. Image was the Vikings
, a band of crazy berserkers out to pillage. You might not have liked how the village looked after they left, but you had to admire their sheer audacity. Meanwhile, the Romans
(DC and Diamond) were busily building infrastructure – trade shows and exhibits halls. They didn't really create anything, but they brought along indoor plumbing.
Finally there are the Normans
, the tall, fair-haired, "civilized" people. If the Masquerade was the domain of the dark, cave dwelling Picts, Ballroom 20 was normally the realm of the Normans, like Angelina Jolie and Halle Berry.
That brings us up to the present day. We don't write myths anymore, so I'm lacking a historical or legendary analog for the Japanese Manga Invasion. Someone think of a name, quick!
So there you have it. Comicon is an archaeological dig. You can still see the cromlechs, henges and monoliths of the oldest inhabitants, along with the ruins of the Roman Baths, and the Medieval cathedrals popping up here and there amongst the new superhighways and housing developments.
Whereas in olden days, the "Gathering of the Tribes" might refer to, say, an artist from Comico hanging out with an artist from Last Gasp, as my Tribal Invasion Theory shows, these groups were actually much more closely related then we once supposed – I'm sure DNA testing would prove this. But when the hordes of movie fans, toy collectors and general culture vultures descended on San Diego, it became clear that THESE tribes weren't out to mingle with the old ways. For one thing there are too darned many of them!
Comicon is now a department store. If you're there to buy a rug, you probably aren't going to check out the lingerie section. Again, I don't want to suggest that exhibiting at Comicon is a waste of time – I haven't heard from anyone who didn't sell stuff and make money.
But the oft-expressed theory that just plunking down civilians in the Small Press Pavilion is going to result in lot of sales is just so much hooey. This was brought home to me by the experience of Jason Brightman
, the creator of FRAYED ENDS
, a charming indie comic about relationships and real life. Brightman also works for Harris Comics and was selling his books from a small area of the Harris Booth. After a few days, however, he ruefully observed, "The crossover audience between FRAYED ENDS
isn’t as large as I thought." People just didn't expect to find a charming indie comic in the middle of books about sexy vampires. Although he sold a few copies, it was nowhere near what he did at dedicated indie shows like MoCCA. And I'm sure he would have sold more had he had a booth anywhere else at the show. Location, location, location. MOCCA, SPX and APE are now their own thing, as separate (but connected) from Comicon and Wizard World as Toy Fair is. The tribes are getting even further apart.
So expecting the "civilians" to convert isn't always practical. But what about the opposite paradigm? Us Old Tribes are always expecting the New Tribes to somehow groove on what we're doing. Isn't there something we can learn from the newcomers? Comicon is a huge success and comics are cooler than ever before. And yet the problem is that everyone seems to want to spend time talking about
comics instead of reading them.
The looming threat.
To return to the theme I've been hammering away on for 20 years, isn't it about the relative satisfaction the reader/viewer gets from any given work of art? I was on one of the very last panels of the convention, on Sunday afternoon, on putting together comic book websites. Newsarama's Matt Brady
put into words something that I had been noticing too – while everyone and his pseudonym is putting together their own comic book news/review site, there are very few new sites devoted to characters
-- exploring their worlds and so on. Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore and Grant Morrison
remain just about the only creators whose current work rewards such inquiry, and that's very troubling. For instance, as well as it has sold, how many websites are there analyzing the content and context of the Jeph Loeb/Jim Lee BATMAN
Ah, but remember the Manga invasion? There are LOTS of websites devoted to LOVE HINA and CHOBITS and GUNDAM WING
and so on. Some are devoted to the anime or fanfic or hentai, or whatever, but clearly the audience – often those pesky girl readers – are entranced by the contents
, not the creators. There's a lesson to be learned here.
So what's next? Literally the very last person I ran into in San Diego, as I was leaving on Monday morning, was Fae Desmond, Executive Director of the con. I had seen her and Con President John Rogers running around at the show, but I pitied their harried state and hoped to catch them for follow-up afterwards. Neither Fae for I had time for a long conversation, but she indicated that there would be a lot of thinking about how to run the show next year. Chances are it's going to be just as big and probably bigger, given the massive mainstream media attention. The last frontier – Hall H
– will be commandeered for yet more panels. Can movie star signings still be held? Will they be held the same way? Will Hollywood turn fickle and toss us aside like an empty cappuccino cup?
Nothing more to see here, folks.
While I feel secure in my Comicon = Fanfest analogy, I'm not forgetting about those cromlechs. They lasted this long, and there is something powerful and eternal about those primitive beginnings. How mysterious is it that out of all the things in the world, this sprawling, chaotic Ginza meets Woodstock meets Disneyland psychotropic adventure emerged from the Big Bang at the El Cortez that was comics and comics only? Yes, it was humble words and pictures, their enthusiasts and creators, who somehow came together and enabled this atmosphere where all fantasies are valid and exploited. Why? Why comics
and not science fiction or action figures or country music or movies or anything else?
Is it just something in the sea air of San Diego? Is it John Rogers' secret agenda? Or is there something inherently nurturing and creative about our business, as much as we complain constantly?
There is something universal about words and pictures. There's a reason why every country has comics. There's a reason that the characters cut across every medium and find a spot in our hearts and on our lunchboxes.
It's our job to stay true to that inner core. Finding that universality, recognizing the key…that is the cromlech's secret. Upon unlocking that secret, all depends.I am indebted to Jim Valentino, Larry Marder, Charles Brownstein and David Seidman for giving me some ideas and information which I used in this essay.
For more on THE BOOK OF INVASIONS, and the historical identities of the Irish tribes, check out this site.)
The closing shot of THE ENGLISH PATIENT