Category Archive: Comics

Planning a Comic Uncon

This is expanding a bit on some earlier thoughts about comic cons, found right here. Or you could just scroll down, since it’s the last thing I posted. I’m sure you understand how “weblogs” work. It’s been ten years now. The basic premise is about rethinking the structure of gatherings for comics fans, professionals, etc…and reimagining how they could look within the context of the world of Unconferences.

I recently spent the better part of a week training in designing and facilitating gatherings for people thanks to a micro-grant from the ROI Community, so it felt like an opportunity to apply some of that thinking towards planning my dream comic con. This is a first draft.

If it ever becomes a real thing, you’re all invited!

(No, you’re not.)

The setting: A hotel/conference center with multiple break-out spaces, ballroom-type rooms for large gatherings, solid rooms for panels, perhaps at least one room with circular seating. Also: good spots for screenings. Oh, and a bar.

Timing: At least 2.5-3 days, preferably over a weekend.

Target Population: 150-200 participants, representing a diverse range of people within the comics world/community/whatever. Ideally, this would involve equal numbers of fans, creators (indie, corporate and otherwise), editors, publishers, retailers, journalists/bloggers, and anyone else that I might have missed.

Read on for the schedule. I recommend clicking the links to methodologies, otherwise much of what I’m proposing here won’t make much sense. Assume that breaks, meals, and the ability to move freely at any time are built into the program.

Day One: Starts Mid to Late Afternoon

Opening Keynote – I’m not particularly fond of frontal speeches, but in this case I think it’s necessary in order to set the stage for the gathering. Nothing too long or boring, but rather to get the group on board with what will be taking place in the coming days.

Icebreaker (for lack of a better term) – What is needed is one big wall and whole mess of Post-It Notes in three different colors, let’s say red, yellow, and green. Each participant receives one red, three yellow, and five green. Instructions are as follows:

  • Everyone writes their all-time favorite comic on the red note
  • Everyone writes their three all-time favorite comics on the yellow notes
  • Everyone writes their five all-time favorite comics on the green notes
When the whole group is done, they place their Post-Its on the big wall by color. Once the wall is filled, everyone can simply take a look around to get a sense of the many interests in the room. These will stay on the wall for the duration of the gathering. Variation: do the same, but with favorite creators.
Evening – two options:
  • Pecha Kucha Comics Style: A night of presenting ideas for the comics world. This can be anything from ideas for books, new publishing models, ideas for digital formats, etc…The standard is that each presenter gets 20 slides for 20 seconds each, moving forward in content when slides are changed, for a total of 6 minutes, 40 seconds. The timing and slide stuff is flexible.
  • Film Fest: Comics people tend to also be pretty solid film people. Set up a night of screenings based on film titles pre-submitted and voted upon by participants.

Day Two

Morning: Panels & Skill Sessions – I have nothing against panels, I think they’re pretty great. I just don’t want it to be the only programming around. The only rule for the panels is that they’re talking about craft and relevant issues; promotional panels are forbidden. The other piece is “Skill Sessions”: if participants have particular skills that they want to share and teach, whether it’s scripting/writing/inking/marketing/managing/what have you, then they can propose and lead sessions of their own. I’m thinking 2-3 slots of 75-90 minute sessions.

Midday: Marketplace and Art Jam – I like those spontaneous events where artists just be all drawing crazy things upon prompting from the audience. Good times for everyone. It’s also a good time for classic vendor stuff, but in a limited capacity. Open up a ballroom space for sellers for like 2-3 hours. People have every right to want to get their buy on, it just shouldn’t be the focal point of the gathering.

Afternoon: Open Space – This is what I wrote about in my original post. At this point, the agenda is put into the hands of the participants, to host conversations about comics that they generate themselves. Throughout the experience, people are free to move in between conversations when they want. The best timing for this is at least three hours, containing two slots lasting 45 minutes long. Depending on the number of participants (150-200), there can be between 15-25 conversations taking place at any given time.

Evening: Storytelling – People in the comics world, they got stories about the comics world. I’d just like a night of people performing them for the whole crowd, that’s all. I think it would be a lot of fun.

Day Three

Morning: Samoan Circle/Fishbowl – Let’s do one panel discussion for the whole group, but in a way that anyone can participate if they like. It starts with four people sitting in an inner circle, with the rest of the participants silently sitting in a circle watching them. The facilitator starts by offering a question to the inner circle for discussion, and can bring in new questions whenever he/she likes. At any point in the conversation, if someone from the outer circle wants to join the conversation, all they need to do is “tap out” one of the people from the inner circle and take that spot. The questions for discussion could be anything about comics, the culture, and the industry. They can either be solicited from participants in advance of the gathering, or be generated during the first two days.

Alternative: World Cafe - The variation here is that it engages all participants in continuous conversation about a set of relevant questions, but it also gives everyone the ability to be jotting down notes on the tables throughout. The potential here is that if you have a lot of artists in the room, then you might end up with some really interesting stuff on the tables.

Midday/Closing: Vision Circle: This is a piece where there would need to be smaller groups, but it would essentially be a rotating series of conversations in which participants imagine what the next year will look like for comics and articulate that to their partners. So they would start by saying “It’s 2014 and it’s been an amazing year for comics…” As the event draws to a close, it’s an opportunity for participants to think positively about what they hope to see from comics in the future and to hear the different ideas that emerge from that.

The closing would simply be a debrief on the final exercise and the entire experience as a whole (gotta sharpen this final piece some more). A couple more things I’d add are little tweaks to the whole space to engage people in-between sessions. I’d ask everyone to bring a bunch of comics that they’d like to get rid of, and create a temporary Lending Library/Reading Room that is housed within the gathering. At the end of the event, people take what they want. I’d also make sure to give artists the ability to draw on the walls all over the place.

That’s what I’ve got for now. More at some point in the future. Always curious to hear people’s thoughts if anyone still reads this thing.

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
And so on from there. The possibilities would be unlimited. If folks are drawn to a discussion, then it continues. If nobody is feeling another conversation, then it doesn’t take place. There’s no committee deciding which discussions are held and which aren’t; it’s completely organic, because that’s the nature of Open Space.

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.

A Year End Thing

I am aware that it’s already 2011. Fully aware.

More than anything else, I’ll probably remember 2010 as the year when I sort of almost actually didn’t become a writer for the New York Times:

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I Love the 90′s: Ghost Rider 2099 #1-3

There’s a lot that you can say about Marvel Comics in the 90′s that I’m not going to bother saying right now. What I do want to talk about is a tiny, tiny piece of the not-so-great line known as Marvel 2099. Quite simply, the first three issues of Ghost Rider made my damn head explode when I was 14 years old and it still holds up for me more than 15 years later.

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Wolkin/CounterWolkin

Many people aren’t willing to admit it, but we all have that Frosted Mini Wheat aspect to our identities, the yin and the yang, Jekyll and Hyde and so forth. I’m actually pretty in touch with this part of myself.  I have a sort of David vs. Wolkin thing going on. I think of my David side as the thoughtful, intelligent, critical thinker, and Wolkin? Well, he’s the guy who thinks Steven Seagal is really awesome, without a hint of irony.

The only thing they agree on is Keith David, which is the only thing that everyone agrees on.

Now that you have the context, it is with great excitement that I present to you a new feature entitled “Wolkin/CounterWolkin,”  in which David and Wolkin will engage in dialogue with one another about the latest comics!!!

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