New York Comic Con 2012: Bigger, More Commercial, A Lair for the Digitally Aware

It wasn’t too too much of a surprise to see this year’s New York Comic Con transform into a three-ring commercial circus rivaling San Diego’s loud efforts to squeeze every last dollar from geeks. The fans were encouraged to spend money and take photos and stand in long lines and pay for overpriced food. Near the end of Saturday afternoon, it became difficult to walk up and down stairs. For that was the only place in Javits that people could sit outside of the basement food court. But the fans were kind and agreeable and good enough to answer my questions about their obsessions.

“I’m working for the company that’s selling these,” said Alex, an unapologetic fan of My Little Pony and Doctor Who. He pointed to a light blue shirt with the caption HANDS UP IF YOU LOVE STAR WARS. This was one of many shirts that Alex was spending the weekend hawking at a booth. “I got a job with them because I buy a lot of their shirts and they ended up asking me if I wanted to come to events.”

I couldn’t help but fixate on this connection between fandom and commercialism. I enjoyed talking with Alex. He told me he was a “computer nerd” who enjoyed playing video games and didn’t leave the house much, but he had another life working with kids afterschool. Why did his innocuous passion for Equestria have to be commodified?

But there were much bigger companies hoping to hook geeks on the floor. I spent some time on Saturday morning hanging around Chevrolet’s massive patch on the Javits floor. There was a yellow robot behind all the cars, sealing the Hasbro/Michael Bay/Chevrolet trifecta. Apparently, the $1 billion gross that Transformers: Dark of the Moon had raked last year wasn’t enough. Chevy wanted more. And they had adopted a strategy of making some of the new lines less committed to miles per gallon or safe driving. Bluetooth, blasting Pandora, and hands-free calling were the new order of the day. They handed out free T-shirts, as car manufacturers are wont to do.

What surprised me was the the Camaro, which I had remembered as a muscle car. But a bright yellow Camaro had been rolled out for the Comic Con crowd. I had to talk with someone about this.

It took some time before Chevrolet could find a representative who was authorized to talk with me. This turned out to be a guy named Ara Eckel, who is listed as a “lead connected customer specialist” on Linkedin. Eckel told me that Chevrolet had started coming to Comic Con last year. “The biggest goal,” said Eckel, “is to put our technology in our vehicles that allows people to be more connected.” I must confess that this confused me, as there can be no greater connection to others than how you drive on the road.

Eckel said that the typical Comic Con goer could afford a car. He pointed to the Spark, a white, eco-friendly $14,000 automobile with “all the in-car technology that aligns specifically with the demographic of the individuals at Comic Con.” There were also “fully loaded vehicles” under the $20,000 mark surrounding Eckel and me.

This was all part of Chevrolet’s present efforts to change its image “and move towards a younger audience, as well as more technology and into-the-real-world audience.” The key words that Eckel bandied about were “digitally aware.” Eckel was convinced that young people were digitally aware and that Chevy drivers would “make their digital awareness part of their driving experience.” Hands-free calling would make young drivers “safer.” I told Eckel that I was concerned about digitally aware drivers getting into more collisions. “It’s hands free,” replied Eckel.

If “digitally aware” was the new Chevy formula, why then were young people fond of the analog? Shortly before I talked with Eckel, I had watched a shy young woman with bright orange hair etch a message on a graffiti wall adorned with several Chevy logos. Her passions were absorbed into the hard corporate sponge. I wondered if the graffiti wall would be analyzed by marketing experts and discussed in a boardroom. I wondered if its happy scrawlers were aware of this. I asked the young woman I could talk with her. She blushed. She offered a nervous laugh. She said that she didn’t have anything to say.

So why did people come to NYCC? Did they want to meet other people who shared their interests? Or was this show about gaping at spectacle? A video game company had a guy dressed up as Spider-Man performing moves on a dais, which amounted to holding up his shield while another guy hit him. I asked a young man if this was the kind of theater that would persuade him to purchase the game. He told me it wouldn’t.

Families sauntered through corridors dolled up to pimp the newest iteration of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Meet the new half-shell. Same as the old half-shell. Big deal. I remembered when the comic first come out. It was a funny idea, parodying Marvel and independents alike, that captured the collective imagination of schoolkids. We gushed about it as we sipped milk from our long thermos cups and dogged on the inferior Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters which came not long after. You made friends through these nervous introverted whispers. The incessant curiosity led you to talk about other things.

I talked with a little girl wearing a Captain America costume. She told me that Wonder Woman was her favorite superhero and was very eager to speak into the mike. I related to her incongruity. The whole point of warmth for an icon was to turn it on its head and see if anybody noticed. I found the little girl’s excitement and sense of wonder more stirring than the fans who followed some bearded actor from the hit TV series Supernatural, who seemed to relish walking the floor with escorts more than conversation.

There was an area in the back in which the Mystery Machine from Scooby-Doo and the Delorean from Back to the Future and Batman’s 1966 Batcycle were parked behind a barrier. You had to pay if you wanted to get in.

You could walk almost anywhere and find signs informing fans that they had to pay anywhere from $20 to $30 for an autographed photo. I continued my peregrinations until I noticed one photo of a starlet’s ass spilling out of a string bikini. The starlet was a large enough draw to attract a long line of vaguely embarrassed men over thirty, many clutching the capes of their superhero uniforms not unlike men who sink inside their trenchcoats when they are ashamed of buying physical pornography. The time spent in line might be better spent talking with other people. The money spent on the autographed photo might have purchased a modest dinner for two. The peep shows and adult moviehouses at Times Square are gone, but that hasn’t stopped New York Comic Con from making a buck.

New York Comic Con 2009: Where the Fans Come Last


The Jacob Javits Convention Center has become a cold and noisy place. Colder than the wind pushing up goosebumps outside. Noisier than a pleasant gust whisking you into a possibility. Designed no longer for fans to evince their passion, but for passion to transmute into savage and lonely transactions. One emerges out the doors with a sense of fatigue, an exhaustion caused not from the disgraceful sensory overload, but from the sense that the people now running New York Comic Con are working as hard as they can to squeeze out the remaining social opportunities. The few moments left that aren’t dominated by vicious consumerism. In three years, the bleak cacophony of New York Comic Con will come close to rivaling San Diego. A place where the fans and the passionate are squeezed out. This was the first year with a VIP entrance in effect. Perhaps because a few filmmakers had to stand in line like the rest of the apparent rabble and bitched that they weren’t given the diva tribute.

I come to these conventions because I’m on the lookout for the people I don’t know about. The ones who still pencil, write, and create with a giddy thumping heart. The ones who, in turn, galvanize others to get excited about this art poorly regarded by the elitist snobs. While I conducted a few interviews today, this year, I found it more difficult to find those independent artists sitting in booths on the fringe who made crazy and often dangerous comics because they simply couldn’t stop themselves from creating. These endearing stalls of past years have been largely replaced by retailers hoping to hawk their overpriced goods: ponytailed mercenaries selling lightsabers who smile at you not because they love Star Wars, but because they hope you will hand over your hard-earned dollars in this rough economy.

Should you wish to touch the hem of a C-list celebrity in the autograph line, you will have to hand over one mandatory dollar to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. All in the spirit of generosity, you see. But who pays for these celebrities to sit behind the table? And why is poor Lou Ferrigno there for eight hours? Is this really the way for him to connect with fans?

nycc-videogames“New York Comic Con” may be something of a misnomer. Almost a third of the floor is now dominated by noisy and intrusive monitors promoting loud and distracting video games. I’m not against video games. But I am against this needless intrusion on basic communication. I was at the Tor Books booth today talking with a number of nice people, and we all were forced to shout at the top of our lungs just to be heard. What is this? E3? The fans, of course, play alone. And just watch their faces. Caught in the glowing rapture of a next-generation game engine. But can’t they play this stuff at home nine months later when the title gets released? And why aren’t they talking with each other? Who did they come with? Why aren’t they meeting other fans? Is the primordial fire that compelling? Will they sign their names to some mailing list to be bombarded by promotional material?

As someone who has gone to numerous conventions and met up with geeks who want to show me things that mean something to them and crack a few jokes, and use this as a starting point to talk about other topics, why on earth would such a vital social component be extirpated? Well, geeks, as we know, are now the mainstream. Never mind that you happened to be a geek simply because you had geeky interests and that you could care less about whether it was the hip thing. Never mind that you congregate in meeting halls and basements over beer and pizza and pot to get excited about Bryan Lee O’Malley or Battlestar Galactica. Never mind that you even filked every now and then. You are, in the eyes of New York Comic Con, a consumer. So why bother to connect? Why even bother to talk?

There were Stormtroopers and Predators and Darth Vaders and Super Marios, but none of them talked. If they noticed you, it was because they hoped to be photographed. To have their costume captured for ephemeral posterity. But where was the theater in all this? Where were the geeks who got excited and boomed their voices and acted out characters and poked some fun at their obsessions? How indeed do these folks convene?

With their wallets. With their demographic status.

But with the VIP entrance and the autograph lines, they’ll always be second-rate. They’ll always be consumers to be gouged. They’ll always be rabble. This convention is no longer about them. It’s all about the money floating around at the top. And if you ain’t got the money, well, frak you. But for $25, you can walk away with a FRAK ME T-shirt so that you know just precisely where you stand. After all, every getaway requires a souvenir.

Forthcoming Coverage

In addition to a rather enormous roundtable discussion that I have in the works here (author and book to be revealed soon), I should note that I’ll also be reporting on New York Comic Con and Tools of Change. There will be a considerable number of podcasts and written reports. Our Correspondent, who does not require alternating current and is somewhat adventurous, will most certainly not be confined to Podcast Alley, expecting people to come to him. Our Correspondent will be considerably more pro-active, walking the floor, and interviewing numerous figures of interest. But a few sitdown interviews have been scheduled. While most media outlets will be circling like moths around the high-profile lightbulbs, the emphasis at both affairs will be on the people who aren’t getting that kind of attention. If you are attending either event, please tap Our Correspondent on the shoulder and whisper the words, “Tom Spurgeon didn’t return my emails,” if you have something interesting to say. I anticipate being bald and beardless at both conferences, although any number of factors could affect my hair status. So there are no guarantees.

NYCC: The New York Comics Legend Award

Eric Rosenfield reports:

The first annual New York Comics Legend Award was held at the Virgin Megastore in Times Square where a number of die-hards ponied up $350 each to see the award given to Stan Lee, co-creator of Spider Man, The Hulk, The Fantastic Four, The X-Men, etc. etc. He’s something close to the PT Barnum of comics, fond of such catchphrases as “True Believer” and “Excelsior!” I had come with this guy. At first, we milled around and ate the excellent canapés. We were upset because the luminaries—including Stan Lee, Marvel editor-in-chief Joe Quesada, his DC counterpart Paul Levitz, and long-time comics writer Peter David—were all sequestered away in their own area, separate from the people who had paid so much money to be there. Then the show began. Peter David got up and told a number of amusing stories about Stan, including the way that Stan saved his family. (Basically, when Peter was getting a divorce, both he and his wife wanted custody of the children. Peter got a character reference from Stan, which had apparently astonished the court-appointed psychiatrist and made the judge awestruck. His wife said that, during the whole time she was with the psychiatrist, all he wanted to to was talk about was how Peter knew Stan Lee.) Next up was Sharad Devarajan, the CEO of Virgin Comics, who didn’t actually know Stan and seemed to be there only because we were all in the Virgin Megastore. At least he seemed to understand his irrelevance and got off quickly. Then Joe Quesada came up to the dais and talked about how Stan always liked to rip into him. Joe: “Every once in a while I’ll get a call from Stan and he’ll say, [doing Stan Lee impression] ‘This is Stan Lee. I’ve just read the last few months of Marvel Comics. [Dramatic beat] What’s wrong with you?'”

Then there was Stan himself. He apologized for not having a speech prepared. He hadn’t known he was supposed to give one. He made fun of Joe Quesada a little and then talked for a bit about comics and his new book, Election Daze, where he wrote captions, speech bubbles and thought balloons on photographs of political figures. Finally he threw his hands up and said “Excelsior!” The crowd erupted in applause.

Afterward, the comics luminaries did come out and mingle with the crowd. I managed to corner Joe Quesada for an interview, though, being the professional that I am, I didn’t bring an audio recorder. I asked him about whether he thought that the big crossover events that Marvel has been doing (Civil War last year and Secret Invasion this year) might be intimidating to new readers who maybe don’t want to buy all these different books in order to keep up with the storyline. He acknowledged that this had been a problem in the past (I mentioned some cross-overs from the nineties, Captain Universe and The Evolutionary War, which were particularly hard to follow without buying an enormous number of comics), but he said that the way they had built these series was by making them contained within the few issues of their own comic. You only had to read the other comics if you wanted to delve deeper into the story. You could get a complete comics experience just in the seven issues of Civil War, for example. This method has been successful: “I think Civil War has gotten more new readers into comics,” he said, “then anything else in the past ten years.” I asked him if having two Marvel Universes, the original and the “Ultimates” might confuse new readers or dilute the characters, and he said that both the original and Ultimate comics were selling very, very well, and he’s heard of a lot of people getting into comics through the Ultimates. “A lot of people told me that a long time ago the first comics they ever bought were GI Joe, back when they did these TV/comics crossovers. Nowadays people tell me that Ultimate Spider-Man was the first comic they ever bought.”

There’s a scene at the end of the first issue of Secret Invasion in which duplicates of many Marvel characters dressed as they appeared in the seventies show up. I asked Quesada if there was any worry about cognitive dissonance with all the characters in seventies’ clothing. Because in the Marvel Universe continuity, none of them are old enough to have been around in the seventies. The extreme example of this is Luke Cage—Power Man—walking around with a giant afro and a tiara on his head. He said, “Yeah, Power Man had that tiara and it was six years ago [in Marvel continuity], he was just having a real fashion problem then. You know, that’s the least of the problems with the Marvel Universe. Every story practically contradicts other stories because we’re coming out with so many of them all the time. That’s what a lot of people don’t understand. You can’t get caught up in these things.” And then he leaned in conspiratorially, “I’ll tell you something about comics. We just make this shit up. Every day we go in there and just make this shit up.”

I found Quesada’s attitude refreshing when compared against sticklers in the comics world — the type so ably parodied by Comic Book Guy on The Simpsons — who get upset when any little thing seems out of place. Some might not understand why these issues of details and crossovers and parallel universes are so important and why Marvel’s attitude toward them is so interesting. You see, since the eighties, Marvel’s big rival, DC Comics, has been fanatical about updating their characters for new generations, constantly rewriting the histories of Superman, Batman, Wonder-Woman and so on to make them more “relevant.” Like Marvel’s current situation with the Ultimates and the main universe, DC once had two universes, one which took place in the contemporary DC Universe and one which was about the characters from the “Golden Age” of the thirties and forties, a universe where Superman grew old and married Lois Lane and Batman had a child with Catwoman. DC eventually decided that these two universes were too confusing and basically destroyed them both in Crisis on Infinite Earths, creating a new, “Post-Crises” DC, resulting in mixed reactions from the fans. My conversation with Quesada tells you a lot about Marvel Comics’s attitude and why it’s been more successful than DC for decades now; at DC, everyone seems very concerned about making everything just right, where as at Marvel they just seem to be having a good time.

Finally I managed to squeeze into the crowd and get a moment with Stan the Man himself. “Stan!” I said, “I’m Eric Rosenfield!” He looked at me for a moment before quipping, “THE Eric Rosenfield?” “Yes,” I said. Knowing I was only going to have a few more seconds with him before he was whisked away, I shot out the one burning question I had of the old Jewish comics maven, “I wanted to see you on Saturday [at the New York ComicCon] but I can’t because it’s on Passover! Why are you speaking on Passover?” I didn’t mention that it was particularly galling for the ComicCon to be taking place on Passover when New York is the epicenter of Jewish comic creators. “I don’t know what to tell you,” said Stan sweetly. “I may not be getting into Heaven, but at least we got to meet here.”

As Ed and I shuffled out, we were given a gift bag full of Virgin Comics. [ED: I politely declined the bag.] It didn’t matter that these comics are awful. It didn’t matter that we had to muscle out through the crowds in the Virgin Megastore into the crowds in Times Square. I was skipping with joy. After all, I’d just met Stan Lee.

Edward Champion reports:

Thursday night’s event had the feel of a corporate retreat initiated on a casual Friday. Crammed throngs transformed the basement into a semi-sweltering exposition. Caterers, dressed in red Spider-Man shirts and wearing false smiles, were casually ignored. Guests extended their anonymous tendrils onto trays and gulped down the food without thanks. Black plastic spiders were placed delicately in martini glasses. I observed one apparent reporter who wore a prominent button for Stan Lee’s book, Political Daze, and I had to wonder if the reporter was there to cover the event or serve as a Marvel advertisement. As Peter David observed during his remarks, “Ten people came up to me with business cards, wanting to give me more.” Did many misconstrue this brush with the greats as a networking session?

Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but remain somewhat impressed by the madness of it all. Stan Lee had an entourage that, as Eric remarked later, resembled a Latin American potentate. Here was a man whose greatest creation was, as Joe Quesada observed, Stan Lee himself. During the ten minutes he sauntered through the crowd, flashing a politician’s smile. He’d place an arm around a fanboy’s shoulder for a quick camera snap, only to spin around and toss out a quip to another. He never spent more than thirty seconds with any one person. The crowd, of course, ate this up with the same zeal in which they scarfed down the canapés.

“Truth, above all, is his major contribution,” said Peter David. But I wondered what kind of truth was on display here. Being relatively clueless, I had no idea that people had shelled out $350 for this event until Eric pointed this out to me. Lee proudly boasted to the crowd that he was a tightwad. And I had to wonder whether some magical Marvel accountant had figured out a way to pull off this awards ceremony to ensure that Marvel made a sizable profit.

As Eric talked with Joe Quesada, I couldn’t help but observe a short man protectively clutching a plastic bag containing original Marvel artwork. Another comics fan began talking with this man, asking him how much he had paid for it. “Too much,” said the man. When the fan begin to open the top folds of the bag, the man shrieked and waved the fan’s arm away. He told the fan that the artwork was very personal to him because he knew many people. But if he knew many people, why then was he spending much of the party alone?

The comics industry is built on hardcore fans like the man with the plastic bag. And these fans were willing to pay considerable money to spend only a few seconds with the men they considered masters, hoping to feel important by proximity. But what made me feel truly sad was the way they had been casually sequestered away from their heroes, while their heroes saw no ethical conundrum in profiting at their expense.

[UPDATE: Comic Foundry senior editor Laura Hudson reports that because she has written critically about Virgin that she would be banned from future Virgin events. Meanwhile, Lance Fensterman reports that there were many unhappy fans because Stan Lee wasn’t signing anything.]