Some Thoughts on the Nature of Comic Cons
Not sure if I’m going to NYCC this year due to some work travel conflicts, though I’m sincerely hoping to see any pals who are in town for it. Nobody should care about this declaration, but the Internet is a place where we make declarations that we think people will care to hear. I still hope to have a beer with the aforementioned pals, though.
I’ve been going to NYCC since it started back in 2006. It’s been pretty fun for the most part. Last year, I met up with my friends and I’m pretty sure we collectively lasted an hour before heading for the door. One huge highlight was getting a signed print from Geof Darrow. Meeting him was legitimately the only time I’ve ever geeked out at meeting a comics artist, and he was a such a sweet and humble guy.
Other than that, I barely went to the con, and I didn’t have a very good time in 2010 either, especially after I nearly went insane back at SDCC that same year. Thinking back on SDCC, I barely remember feeling anything other than stressed on the con floor with a few exceptions. What I do remember is sitting at dinner the night the con ended with some new friends and each of us talked about the comics that changed our lives. That conversation was powerful and unforgettable; it felt like the kind of interaction that turned people into friends.
I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few days thinking about what it is about cons that doesn’t work for me anymore, and considering what could look different about these gatherings. And what you should probably understand about me is that my career is based on creating engaging, large-scale gatherings for people with shared interests. And when I’m not doing that, I’m focused on facilitating meaningful conversations between people on various topics.
So I decided to apply my work brain to this question and I started thinking about the primary vehicles by which comics readers/fans are bought together to share and connect around their mutual interest: The Con (an apt double meaning, if unintentional). Comic Cons are primarily promotional and sales events. They’re less about bringing people together around shared love of comics (though it does happen, and PR probably pays lip service to it somewhere) than they are a platform for people to make money, be they comic retailers, sellers of creepy misogynistic calendars, various figurines, stickers or what have you. For 5+ years, I’ve had to spend a lot of time wading through all of that with the hopes of tracking down a friend so we can actually talk in person about liking comics.
Comic Cons are also a great way for major publishers to manipulate and promote the interests of their respective fanbases. It’s about selling, nothing more, nothing less. It seems like many or most of the panels (with obvious exceptions) are there for the goal of major publishers to justify future purchases of comics that have yet to be released. And let’s be honest: most of those comics tend not to be so good anymore.
I also want to give respect to joints like Trickster and The Projects (thanks to Sloane Leong for the note on this one) that are attempting new paradigms for showcasing art and and artists, and what appears to be creating a certain kind of space for networking (at least in the case of Trickster). At the same time, I cannot claim to be an expert on either one of these. But they do appear to have the intention of putting people and the medium before the almighty dollar, so I can support that. I dig that Trickster is creating an alternative within the mainstream gathering, and a lot of what they’re about overlaps with my thinking. What they’re doing represents a lot of what I’d hope to see in the future. (Fake Editor’s note: this paragraph was added. I’m too lazy to edit subsequent paragraphs around it).
But what if gatherings for lovers of comics were inherently different? What if they were grassroots, and driven by the fans themselves? I say this because I run a conference that is based on those principles, and it proves to be an incredibly powerful experience every time. I joke with a lot of people when I’m trying to explain my work that “Limmud is like Comic Con, but for Jewish things”. But then I started wondering…what if it went the other way around?
Here’s one simple example: check out Open Space Technology (there’s also a pretty good description on Wikipedia – mind you, there’s no actual technology involved). Anyone who has ever participated in an effectively-facilitated Open Space experience knows how positive it can be. There are entire conferences that come together without pre-set agendas and allow people to connect for days at a time using this technology. Now imagine if you gathered x number people with whom you’d like to discuss comics: friends, bloggers, creators who were not bound to a party line by their employers, cool retailers, etc…And what if you just had an afternoon (or a weekend, for that matter) of Open Space comics talk. There wouldn’t be agendas or selling (though everyone loves a good dollar bin to be sure), just an effectively facilitated means of people who love comics talking about exactly that instead of sitting on a panel while Dan Didio explains that Green Arrow is such an effective lover that he doesn’t need a vibrating arrow in his quiver in the New 52.
It’s pretty easy to imagine:
- One person wants to host a conversation about representations of race and gender in comics
- Someone else wants to talk about the best Jimmy Olsen stories
- I want to talk about Guy Gardner: Warrior because I always want to talk about that
- Someone else wants to talk best practices in inking and which tools to use
- Chris Sims wants to hold a discussion about that time that Batman threw a car battery at a guy
That particular technique is just one aspect of what I’m referring to, but I keep imagining the possibilities of what it would really mean to inspire comics lovers to consider their appreciation for the medium and engage on that instead of continuously getting embroiled in the pointless conflicts that are engendered by the internet. Look, I love twitter. I’ve unexpectedly made real friends through it, and I enjoy the ongoing dialogue and conversation that takes place around shared interests there. But it only goes so far. And as someone who works on building and growing communities, I always raise an eyebrow when I hear the term “comics community,” because I suppose I’m still not sure what it means.
I’m also not just talking about Open Space. I know that there are models out there for the creation of truly engaging gatherings, and I’d love to see them applied to comics. It wouldn’t be about worshipping creators (who are as human as the rest of us), or being manipulated by publishers who couldn’t care less about us. It’s about this art form, this medium, that we love, once loved, want to love, and sometimes struggle to continue doing so, while surrounded by people who feel the same way, even if they don’t share the same preferences.
This is all very quick and dirty, and the Open Space is just one example of a whole range of techniques that I collect through my work to get people engaged with each other. But it’s the beginnings of what I feel could be a worthwhile vision for a gathering of comics lovers that empowers and energizes its participants rather than exhausting them, emptying their wallets and making them more cynical.
And hey: If you love cons, if you leave them feeling great and excited, then more power to you. And I also care about Artist’s Alley in that it provides revenue stream for those creators. But in terms of programming and design, I think there’s a lot more potential out there for us than waiting in lines for panels. And I suppose I’m not writing this for you, am I? I’m writing this for the people who would legitimately appreciate an alternative to what currently exists.
All of this said, if anyone would be interested in considering the possibilities for an Open Space Comic Con, I’d love to have a real conversation about it someday.