A Bite Of The Big Apple: Broken Frontier's Big Apple Comic Con Report

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This year’s expanded Big Apple Comic Con was a relaxed affair, with a mix of comics guests such as Joe Quesada and Jim Lee, and celebrities from other media, including William Shatner, Adam West, and Billy Dee Williams. Running for more than 10 years now, the previous incarnation of the con was a much smaller production, privately owned and operated by a small staff of comic fans, and usually held in a hotel across from Penn Station in New York, NY.

But in April of this year, Wizard Entertainment, known for its numerous conventions around the country, purchased the con, moved it to a larger location (Pier 94 on the west side of Manhattan, by the Hudson River), and scheduled it for Friday, October 16th through Sunday, October 18th. Why is this significant? Because there’s already a big convention in town, the New York Comic Con, which held this year’s show February 6th through the 8th and scheduled next year’s show for October 8th through the 10th. The NYCC even takes place at the Javits Center, which is on the same street, just a mile south. You can imagine the potential problems.

Pier 94

But hey, just because this year’s Big Apple Comic Con was in October, doesn’t mean next year’s would be; and even if it was, it’s not like they’d be on the same weekend. Right? Guess again. Attendees of the con learned through a blurb on the cover page of their convention program that next year’s con would indeed be on the same weekend as the NYCC. This has caused quite a controversy, with some pundits decrying Wizard, and allegations being hurled of high pressure tactics to try to get guests to switch conventions.

It should be noted that this is not the first shot fired in the so-called convention wars; Reed Exhibitions, the company that owns the NYCC, also a launched a Chicago convention in direct competition with Wizard’s own established Chicago convention. But New York is shaping up to be the biggest battleground for the convention market.

This is ironic, given that just a few years ago, before the NYCC launched, I asked a comics writer why there weren’t any major conventions in the city, and he responded that it would be too expensive and too logistically difficult to put on a major comic convention in New York. But the overwhelming success of the NYCC showed that there was plenty of demand, perhaps even too much; the first year of the convention saw the fire marshal called in for overcrowding concerns, and it is still not uncommon to find oneself in the midst of a traffic jam on foot while browsing the convention floor. So surely NY can support another big convention; but on the same weekend? We shall see.

RobinIn any event, the set-up of this year’s con was interesting. The con actually took place in two buildings; the aforementioned Pier 94 was where the convention floor, with the exhibitor booths, vendors, and Artist’s Alley was located, while a block away, Pier 92 held registration for the convention and the panel rooms. Neither building, of course, can compare to the Javits Center; the Javits Center is one of the world’s foremost convention centers where many major events take place, while the Piers are just that; piers. They’re designed for the loading of cargo and passengers. Wizard did a nice job of dressing up the convention hall, but it still had the effect essentially of a large warehouse.

Even the elevators to the upper floors of Pier 92 were almost comically over-sized, being originally used for transporting large cargo containers; you might have two people on the elevator, and they could stand at opposite ends and feel like they were completely alone; the opposite of the traditional elevator effect where you try awkwardly to stare straight ahead and pretend you’re not shoulder to shoulder with other people. In some ways though, this over-sized atmosphere, which permeated the whole con, was nice; I can’t tell you how many times at the NYCC I had to resist the urge to shove people to get them out of my personal space. The downside is that so much space can make the con feel sparsely attended, but I think if you take that into account, the attendance was actually pretty decent. The other nice thing was that there were places to sit and put your stuff down, which, if you know the trauma of trying to haul your purchases around the convention floor all day long, is really good. The people I met at the con generally seemed happy to be there and having fun; there’s something to be said for a con that doesn’t have an insanely frenetic pace, and allows you to slow down, enjoy things, and talk to other con-goers.

As for the programming; as I mentioned, the panels took place at Pier 92. Again, reflective of the re-orienting of the Pier’s original purpose, the panel set-up was slightly odd. There were technically two panel rooms, but in reality, it was essentially one huge hall, with one section curtained off to create a separate “room”. The main problem with this was that guests were frequently drowned out by booming loudspeakers from the other room; several of the guests paused during their panels to complain about this.

Star Trek

First up, on Saturday was a Jim Lee solo panel. Jim talked about his career and background, and had some amusing and interesting comments. Asked about the lack of kids comics, Jim Lee playfully suggested Garth Ennis’ notoriously raunchy series The Boys. He said that licensed books are Wildstorm’s best sellers now, including one based on the Gears of War videogame, explaining that they reach non-traditional comic buyers. Asked about the writers he enjoys working with, he explained he always wants to work with writers he’s a fan of, citing his All-Star Batman collaborator Frank Miller as the creator who got him into comics. Several fans asked about whether he might like to work on various properties, and although he expressed interest in some, he pointed out that his schedule is packed with both creative and executive responsibilities, and he currently has a 5-year list of projects he’d like to do. Another fan asked him about the possibility of doing an art workshop, where he could demonstrate his techniques to the fans. Jim said that he’d done one on his recent trip to a convention in Barcelona, Spain, but that such panels didn’t seem to garner as much interest in America.

Asked about his responsibilities as a vice-president within the DC Comics structure, he explained that when Paul Levitz first brought him on as part of the deal that acquired Jim’s Wildstorm Studios, he deliberately designed Jim’s position so that it would have a minimum of typical executive duties, and a maximum of creative involvement. To this end, Jim has someone to handle most of the paperwork for him, and gets to participate in such things as videogame development and producing artwork for DC’s licensing and media tie-ins, such as the recent DC-themed logo on Google’s front page, DC-themed Converse sneakers, and the DC postage stamps. He mentioned that one tedious portion of his job involves writing long emails summarizing points that he discusses with other DC executives. A question then came up about what he thinks of what Image has being doing, and Jim confessed that he hasn’t followed them since he left. Asked by a young convention-goer what his favorite superhero was, Jim named Batman and Wolverine, and said Iron Man closely followed. He also said that Stan Lee was his hero and role model, for the energy and enthusiasm he has shown into his 80s.

Jim then talked a bit about his educational and family background. He explained that he was initially pre-med in college; that is, he was planning to go to medical school after graduating. But like many pre-med students, he did not major in a subject directly related to medicine; instead he was a psychology, and he joked with the audience that he wouldn’t be able to help them if they got sick. An audience member then asked him if he’d gotten any pressure from his parents to go to medical school, to which Jim responded “What? Pressure from Korean immigrant parents who came to this country and gave up everything so I could be successful? What do you mean?” Becoming more serious, Jim confirmed that there was indeed a lot of pressure, and that at one point it came to a head when he told his father he didn’t want to be a doctor; there was a huge family argument that almost resulted in Jim leaving home, but fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and his parents relented. Jim closed the panel with some advice to aspiring artists; go with your dream, draw all the time, and travel. This last bit, he explained, was essential, saying that travel develops your brain and helps you think in different ways.

Joe QuesadaFollowing the Jim Lee panel, Marvel editor-in-chief Joe Quesada took the spotlight. Right at the beginning of the panel, Joe made his by now familiar statement regarding the recent news of Disney acquiring Marvel; he can’t talk about it, because he is an officer of the company, and statements by officers of the company in the midst of acquisitions like this can have legal ramifications. That didn’t stop several fans from asking about it anyway, to which Joe patiently repeated his opening statement.

Several questions were asked about upcoming Marvel movies; to the ones regarding properties licensed to other studios (such as Sony’s Spider-Man and Fox’s X-Men), Joe confessed he knew almost as little about them as the fans did. The Marvel Studios films, including Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, The Hulk, and The Avengers Joe is more deeply involved, but paradoxically wasn’t able to say much about them either, other than that he is very excited, since he is sworn to secrecy.

He talked about about kids reading comics, and cited the Marvel Adventures line as an example of Marvel’s outreach to kids. He mentioned the experience of his 8-year old daughter who is a huge fan of Marvel’s animated series particularly “The Spectacular Spider-Man”. She has also gotten into the comics, and frequently asks him why the continuities of different lines of comics (such as the Marvel Adventures line and the regular Marvel Universe) don’t match up. He confesses that he’s never really able to answer her questions, and joked that she says “What the f--- is wrong with you? Aren’t you the editor-in-chief?”

Asked why several characters including Dr. Strange and Nick Fury don’t have their own solo series, Joe explained that they are among a small handful of characters who seem to be beloved by the audience, and are always hugely popular guest-stars, but when they produce a solo series with them, they never seem to sell. Blade was another example of this, as he has had success in film, but not in comics in recent years. He said it’s a matter of figuring out what makes the character appealing, and boiling them down to that. He mentioned the new Doctor Voodoo series, in which the former Brother Voodoo has taken over Doctor Strange’s mantle as Sorcerer Supreme.

Along these lines, he was asked about low-selling series such as Agents of Atlas, and he mentioned that they will now be doing Agents of Atlas back-up stories in Incredible Hercules. He said that they are always striving to find ways to increase sales on critically acclaimed series, citing Runaways and Spider-Girl as examples.

Marvel vs. DC

A convention-goer who was not too familiar with comics (the convention, with its selection of guests from other media, seemed to attract a fair share of them) asked Joe who Marvel’s biggest competitor was, and how Marvel was different from them. Naturally, Joe named DC, and joked that they differentiated themselves by “not sucking.” More seriously, he related his feeling that Marvel has traditionally been more open with the fans, citing the anecdote of reading about Jack Kirby’s departure from Marvel in Stan’s Bullpen Bulletins column. He explained how startling this was, since usually a company would want to keep such a high-profile departure as quiet as possible. He said that being open with the fans in that way enabled Marvel to develop a relationship with them.

Joe Quesada and Jim Lee

The next topic that came up was a recent column by Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko in which he criticized some of Joe’s comments at another convention. Specifically, in response to a question about why Marvel was undertaking some of the more radical changes to its characters and universe (such as Civil War), Joe had explained that the status quo needed to be shaken up occasionally, and characters put through some degree of change, in order to keep them fresh. To describe this process, he said “Sometimes you have to break the toys.” Ditko took issue with this comment in particular, and wrote a long essay in which he described the “breaking the toys” mentality as fundamentally compromising the heroes to the point where they weren’t heroes anymore. Asked about these comments from Ditko, Joe confessed that while the column had been pointed out to him, he simply couldn’t get through it, or make sense of it, since it was very long, and took a wordy and circuitous path to make its points. Asked then what he thought about the central thesis of the essay, regarding at what point a hero stops being a hero, and is “broken” as a character, Joe said it differed for each hero, explaining that something that might be the breaking point for Spider-Man might not be the same for Wolverine.

Asked about how they go about seeking out new art talent, Joe said they are looking for people with both incredible draftsmanship and the ability to tell a story. He also emphasized the importance of being able to work with others, including writers and editors, since comics are collaborative medium. He said they find 90% of their talent online, citing Marko Djurdjevic as one example. He also mentioned Marvel’s Liaison Department, headed up by CB Cebulski and David Bogart, which is in charge of recruiting and developing new talent.

On the writing side, Joe admitted it is much tougher to break in, saying that while editors can take a look at an artist’s portfolio and tell immediately if they’re ready, it takes a lot longer to read through a script. He suggested that aspiring writers pair up with artists to produce their own comics, because it is much easier for an editor to read through a comic. Finally, asked about variant covers, Joe confessed that he personally does not like them. But explaining why they are so prevalent, he said “Our marketing guys love them.”

Bad Art

The last panel of the day had Jim Lee and Joe Quesada together. Jim revealed that he had known Joe since Joe’s days working at Jim Shooter’s Valiant. Many of the possible topics of conversation had already been exhausted at their earlier panels, but one interesting tidbit came when Joe was asked if he ever talked to Jim about coming back to Marvel. Quesada responded tongue-in-cheek “Sure, we talk all the time. I say ‘Jim, please come back. The X-Men miss you!’” The two were also asked about their opinion on the differences between the Marvel and DC universes, and both essentially agreed that the DC characters were more iconic, while the Marvel characters were more relatable.

Princess LeiaOther highlights of the convention included the after parties; on Friday night Naughty By Nature performed; on Saturday night they had the rock band Bad Art performing, a Star Trek improvisational troupe, and Taylor Dane, but your correspondent was quite honestly too tired to stay till the 11PM starting time for the main festivities. 

There were of course the many and varied costumed fans, including one dressed in Princess Leia’s infamous costume from Return of The Jedi, and performing an elaborate dance with a glowing hula-hoop.

Actor/Director Thomas Jane screened his new film “Dark Country” for the convention-goers, and asked for reaction afterwards. The film received a generally positive response, although visibility was a problem due to not having a darkened theater to play it in.

Thomas Jane

Billy Dee WilliamsActor Billy Dee Williams held an entertaining panel Sunday where fans asked him a variety of questions about his career, including one he seemed to strongly object to, when the questioner called his Star Wars character Lando Calrissian “a Judas figure.” He also demonstrated the skills that have made him popular with women around the world, flirting with several female members of the audience as well as the female panel moderator, and professed his admiration for Duke Ellington, whom he had seen when he was young, and whom he described as being able to get any woman he wanted. Another interesting moment came when he was asked about Richard Pryor, whom he had worked with; he declined to answer, saying he didn’t have anything good to say about him, and when the fan responded that Pryor was a complicated person, Williams added “I’m complicated too, but I’m not a bad person.”

Overall, it was a fun experience, and if there’s one thing I hope for, it’s that the Big Apple Comic Con and the New York Comic Con find a way to co-exist, and allow fans and creators to attend both. That would be to the benefit of everyone.

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