I went to New York Comic Con on Saturday, to sign copies of Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life of Alan Moore. I’ve been to one comics convention before, Bristol in 2003. I have never been to one as large as New York. In part, this is because very few people have – it’s probably the second largest in the
world US (after San Diego – see Greg’s comment below), with an estimated 160,000 attending at some point over the four days. Let’s just get this into perspective: if every person at NYCC bought one issue of a particular comic and no one else did, it would be the bestselling comic most months. It’s more people than live in York. It’s more people than voted for John Boehner in 2010.
The overall impression, then, is one of size. You wander the crowded hall for an hour, think you’ve completed your circuit, and then realise that’s only half the exhibition space. Later, you discover that there’s a downstairs, too. And another downstairs below that. Every part of this space is packed with attendees. The aisles are wide as a motorway lane (as evidence, here’s a photo taken ten minutes before the doors opened. This isn’t some main aisle, this is just one of the rows),
but you have to jostle to get anywhere. People move around in currents and tides. And it quickly becomes clear that this covers the entire menkosphere. Comics, video games, board games, trading cards, books, movies, magazines, TV, websites, toys … and, I’m sure, plenty more.
The impression I got wasn’t that this was one big convention, it felt more like half a dozen big conventions, all piled on top of each other, and not always having very much to say to each other. The one thing I really didn’t think I’d have to explain at a comic convention was who Alan Moore is, but a significant chunk of people didn’t know, and a few hadn’t even heard of Watchmen. At the same time, someone would walk past in an elaborate costume, and I’d have no idea which series, or even medium, it was from. But individual fans mix and match some weird interests. That these four things are on the same shelf shouldn’t make sense, and none of them are really my bag, baby, but it could have been precision-targeted at dozens of people I know:
It’s all a little too busy and jostling to have much of a conversation, or to make friends, it’s a little too loud and hurried to chat with people you already know. It’s not quite like anything I’ve been to before. The closest experience I’ve had to it, the thing I realised it reminded me of, was going to IKEA the first day of the sales.
So, what was it like, apart from big, noisy and all-encompassing?
I went into Manhattan by train, and knew I was on the right platform when I spotted two people dressed as the TARDIS. The Doctor Who panel was at 11pm. They were planning to arrive about nine and start queuing for it straight away. This was the pattern – if you want to get into a panel, you had to plan on queuing for at least an hour. I arrived at the Doctor Who panel with about a quarter of an hour to go. People in Doctor Who costumes were wandering away from it. The doors were already closed. Not many people seemed particularly upset by this – they’d concluded it was their own fault for just not showing up early enough. It was a huge room, but clearly nowhere near huge enough. Was this a bug or a feature? Did the organisers want to make sure every panel was standing room only to add to the sense of energy and importance? If they didn’t, they’d ended up there by accident.
As for the attendees, a couple of things struck me. The first was to do with diversity. My rough guess is that there was almost gender equality there, it was extremely ethnically diverse. Some of that is that it’s taking place in New York, of course, but even so the people there were not quite as pasty as I was expecting. A large Asian contingent, due in part I’m sure – and judging by their cosplay – to the presence of so many anime and manga exhibitors. There were a huge number of African-Americans, too, and again judging by the cosplay, they tended to be fans of the mainstream superhero comics. I’m 42 – yikes – and I didn’t feel uncomfortably old, but I’d guess most people there were under thirty. There is a massive new generation of fans.
I’ll talk about the cosplay in my next post. In the meantime … is there a word for someone that’s probably not cosplaying, they just look like that because they have appalling dress sense? It’s a word we need, if one hasn’t already been coined.
We come to what I think, is the elephant in the room. Ironically, I think just about the only thing that wasn’t in the room was an elephant. I say that, but I’m only about 90% sure there wasn’t an elephant. There could have been, or at least someone dressed as one.
Comics are clearly being read by all sorts of people, but a trudge down Artists’ Alley demonstrates they’re equally clearly mainly made by balding white men. And the problem is not so much the white, male thing. Comics used to be created by the young. Siegel and Shuster were teenagers when they created Superman. Alan Moore was 33 when he wrote Watchmen. How many of the creators in Artists’ Alley were younger than that? Now, OK, the creators of a story don’t have to look like their audience. Before this weekend, I’d have moaned that the problem with comics is that the readership were all middleaged white manchildren like myself. This is clearly not the case, at least judging by Comic Con attendees. And, clearly, comic book creators who draw a crowd are going to be the ones with long and successful careers.
That’s not the elephant in the room. It’s not the age, maleness or whiteness. The elephant is the disconnect between creators and audience.
NYCC formalises the division between creators and attendees – Anthony Daniels wandered past at one point, someone who looked like Brian Bendis did and I assume he looked like Brian Bendis because he was Brian Bendis. Apparently Whoopi Goldberg had been spotted the previous day. On the whole, though, the guests stayed in green rooms and Artist’s Alley, a cavernous space below the main hall, safe behind tables.
It comes down to the central fact of NYCC: it is not a community gathering, it’s a trade fair. Attendees pay money to walk around for opportunities to pay money for things. Beautiful shiny things we’ve yearned for and were promised and which you can’t get anywhere else except fever dreams:
And that’s great, I guess. I mean … look, action figures that actually look like the characters. I’d have loved that Christopher Reeve Superman figure as a kid.
But it’s not just the lovely, shiny stuff. Everything is so … transactional. You pay to get a photograph with an actor. Hell, you pay to get a photograph in front of a backdrop. Many autographs cost money … OK, again, there might be people there looking to flip things on eBay, and believe me I understand that freelancers aren’t going to turn down cash, but … it’s not friendly. It’s not just money. Cosplay seemed quite transactional, too – you can take my photo, I will be paid in attention (as I say, I’ll talk about this more next time). There’s no real communal space, there’s no place – or at least I didn’t find it – where you see actors and creative types just hang out with the muggles. Creators don’t mingle with the attendees, attendees line up to meet creators. It’s a relationship I found a little uncomfortable, to be honest, a little unhealthy for both parties.
Why would creators wander the halls? What’s in it for them? Well, for no other reason than that they might find some nice material. I saw one group of people in their early twenties all clearly there together dressed as the X-Men. They trooped past about four in the afternoon, clearly a little footsore, being led on by – appropriately enough – Cyclops. One of them moaned ‘the restrooms are right there’, and Cyclops turned round and glared at them as best he could through his visor. Lots of meaningful looks passed around the group when he had his back to them again. There was a whole day’s story there, perhaps many years’ worth, and I wish I knew it. It struck me that those kids were about the same age as the characters, and I’d just seen a clip from the X-Men as directed by Wes Anderson for free. Just an informal, human moment in a day that, I’m going to be honest, was pretty light on those. And I didn’t have to pay $20 to queue in line for an hour to see it.