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The Con Artists
At six in the morning, central time, on a Friday, my alarm went off. I shook the sleep out of my eyes and remembered I was in an uncomfortable hotel bed; my wife sleeping soundly next to me. Instantly my brain launched into a mode of excitement, pumping dopamine and adrenaline into my bloodstream. With a skip in my step, I hurried to the shower.
Only two hours before wristbands became available to make their recipients eligible to get a signature from Jim Lee.
For the uninitiated, Jim Lee is currently Co-Publisher of DC Entertainment (DCE). The company that publishes comics including characters such as Superman and Batman. But when I was first getting into comics in the early ‘90s, he was part of the collaborative team, including super star Chris Claremont, that produced X-Men #1. It is still listed by the Guiness Book of World Records as the best selling single comic book in history. After reaching a level of success unseen since Jack Kirby, Lee and several other artists in the industry broke away to do something else unheard of: they formed their own independent company, Image Comics, in 1992.
Since then, Mr. Lee has been a legend in the comic book industry. His art, to any fan, is instantly recognizable. Now in his fifties, Lee is busy as a corporate head, and almost never makes public appearances. That is why I decided to start my weekend attending the Chicago Comics and Entertainment Expo (C2E2) with a near futile attempt to obtain a coveted wristband, in hopes of meeting one of my favorite comic creators.
After a quick hotel breakfast, I kissed my wife goodbye, hoisted on my backpack of supplies and headed to the convention. Needless to say, I was naive in my attempt. I showed up to McCormick Place by 7:30 a.m. to find a few hundred people in line ahead of me. The wristbands were all gone, despite the advertised 8 a.m. distribution time. The doors to the convention itself did not open until 10 a.m. Disappointed, frustrated, and already coming off an adrenaline high, I did the only thing a comic fan could do. I waited in line.
I assume that when most people envision a comic book convention, they picture people dressed up in strange outfits; probably short, stocky individuals who have just recently crawled out from their parents’ basements without showering. I wish I could tell you that was not true at all. What I can tell you, is that stereotype accounts for only a few of the individuals who go to these types of events. And, let’s be honest, those people can be found in any major gathering of people.
Most are actually like me. We’re the generation that grew up with Super Mario Bros., television cartoons such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and comics. Even my high school peers who solidified their reputations on typical teenage shenanigans, whether they knew it or not, were influenced by all of this culture.
Also, like me, a large portion of the fan base has grown out of the rock ‘em sock ‘em approach to comics and turned to look at the part of the industry that is growing to address relevant issues. Topics like addiction to technology, the struggle to fit in as a transgender teenager, and politics. Comics no longer equal capes.
As I changed positions between sitting and standing for two hours, I took in my surroundings. Friday was the first of the three day event, and is usually the lowest attendance. Still, I was impressed that so many had shown up so early. Exclusive art, comic covers, toys and the like were the prizes waiting to be won by these eager attendees. My only goal was to meet some of the people responsible for making my favorite stories and characters come to life. Out of my backpack I pulled a protein bar, my water bottle and a map of the show floor to begin planning my day.
Before we move on let me set the stage for you. C2E2 has grown in the last several years. In its early days it only drew hundreds, and it had more to do with the “entertainment” side of things. That is to say, offering opportunities for photos or autographs from celebrities more associated with TV and movies. Now it includes a section where a con-goer can sit in the “game lending library,” check out a board game, and sit with friends to try it out before buying it. This has become a hot spot for creators trying to sell their game, or crowdfund a startup.
The con (that’s short for convention) also hosts workshops for those who enjoy making costumes to look like their favorite characters from all forms of entertainment. It’s called cosplay. This trend has grown so big that Singer Co., of Singer sewing machines, has found a niche and is one of the lead sponsors for the entire convention. Makeup artists set up booths to demonstrate techniques for applying prosthetics and wigs. There is a certain beauty in the way a character is literally brought to life. It’s mesmerizing to watch.
There are vendors with all sorts of wares to sell that relate to comics in some way. Most sell comics themselves, a treat for anyone looking to complete a series of an elusive story long forgotten, or, perhaps the first appearance of an obscure character such as Pip the Troll. On this particular weekend I was able to catch a glimpse of a near mint copy of Action Comics #1, the first appearance of Superman. For a cool $3 million it too could be yours. But the vendors have more, including ways to preserve or display comics, and also original artwork.
My favorite part of the con, hands down, is Artist Alley. This is where over 300 artists and writers set up tables to promote their latest works, talk to fans and sign autographs. Which brings me back to my earlier comment about waiting in line. Like a Dr. Suess book, fans of all shapes, sizes, colors and ear pointiness, venture into the Alley for a chance to meet those who created their favorite works. For the more popular creators, some of these lines can take two hours. But meeting other, up and coming names in the trade, you can walk right up to them and shake their hands.
The historian in me strikes first. Among the cluster of collaboration this year was Tim Sale. Responsible for drawing some of the most celebrated stories in comics, Tim has been in the industry for decades. He is most famous for partnering with writer Jeph Loeb on projects like Batman: The Long Halloween, which tells the story of Batman searching for a new serial killer and is told over the course of a year’s worth of holidays. Together, the pair have amassed a portfolio that has defined the way we look at the most popular characters from comics. Bringing them down to a ground level that is relatable; more human, if you will. Usually I am confident and easy going when it comes to meeting high profile individuals but when I met Tim, my hands shook and words stumbled over themselves on their way out of my mouth.
At the table directly behind Tim sat Chris Claremont. A man who redefined the way some of pop-culture’s most beloved figures are perceived. He took a story about people with laser beams for eyes, and telepathic abilities beyond belief, and used it to comment on cultural issues like segregation, racism, military spending and freedom of the press. Remember that sexy blue character, Mystique, played in the movies by both Jennifer Lawrence and Rebecca Romijn? Chris created her, and dozens more. His list of works goes beyond The X-Men, but it is by far what he is best known for.
Posted throughout the Alley are other people who for years have created, influenced, modified, and repackaged pop-culture. Some of them could even be described as its inventors. Almost all of them are completely unknown outside the world of comics. But all of them have in some way impacted the way modern art and literature is used to describe the world we live in. Quite a few of them have worked on Hollywood projects, producing storyboards or designing costumes for movies. Like so many others, I was happy to wait in line for an hour or so, just to have the chance to shake their hands and let them know that I count myself among those who credit them for their thankless influence on beloved characters.
Here is a line I waited in to see Jock, whose real name is Mark Simpson.
But it was worth it, because I came away with this:
Also peppered into the mix of creators were the current big names in the industry. Tom King, Clay Mann, Joelle Jones, Jason Latour, Sean Murphy, Ryan Stegman, Skottie Young and Jason Aaron, just to name a few. These artists come from all kinds of backgrounds. Tom King, for example, worked for the CIA as a counterterrorism officer and wrote a story called Sheriff of Babylon for Vertigo Comics. It was such a politically charged book that the CIA had to vet it to be sure he didn’t reveal any secrets from the Iraq War. But it is also a story told about the brutality of war, the impact warring countries have on civilian populations, and the effects religion can have on a government and its people.
Other stories are not quite so heavy. Skottie Young, for instance, illustrated and adapted The Wizard of Oz. Providing children and families a corner of the medium to enjoy together, in a new way. He also created I Hate Fairyland, a commentary on pop culture itself, and his own art style. The same goes for Ryan Stegman, who can illustrate Spider-Man swinging through New York skyscrapers as well as, if not better than, Steve Ditko, in my humble opinion. The point being there are people taking ownership of characters that have existed for nearly eighty years, and pushing them further than they’ve ever gone before. And still, after the biggest fans have reached a point where they believe there are no more stories left to tell, writers like Tini Howard, Zack Kaplan, Jeremy Haun and James Maddox dream up worlds that seem to come out of left field.
What do you get when you cross Dungeons & Dragons, The Road Warrior, and The Dark Tower novels? You get The Realm, a series created by Jeremy Haun and Seth Peck. It follows a shotgun toting drifter through a world where he has to fight off angry creatures that jump straight out of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. On the surface it sounds like a fanboy’s dream come true, and you’d be right. If you’re looking to be entertained, this series reads like its already set up to be the next big HBO production.
The Dead, a series written by James Maddox and drawn by Jen Hickman, investigates what happens after we die. If we really do move on to somewhere else, how do we interact and engage our new surroundings? The opening line of the first issue goes like this:
“We call it the house. The way it works is that you die and where you wake up is a black pit of a room. The first room. Your room. You can create that room in any fashion you want just by imagining the components. Unless of course, the creation process gets interrupted…”
Magdalena, by Tini Howard, is an outpouring of emotion born from the writer’s own struggle with sexuality, religion, and the search for the “goddamned meaning of life.” Rick Remender, one of my personal favorite writers, is currently in the process of turning one of his titles, Deadly Class, into a TV show. That series is an honest retelling of his own life on the streets of San Francisco where he saw friends shot in drug deals, homeless people preyed on and raped, and the ultimate impact that teenage life of violence had on his own depression.
Tee Franklin wrote a story called Bingo Love. It follows two women, in their mid 60’s, who reunite after living “normal” lives to discover they’re really in love with each other. It’s funny, heartwarming, but also eye-opening. Because what other medium could explore the tangled up world of geriatric lesbians?!
Each of these rising stars in comics is bringing something new and fresh to a medium that in the past used superheroes to teach lessons about life through metaphor. I suppose the metaphors are still there, but this creative force is evolving out of capes and super strength, and into an industry that is becoming a mirror for society to look into and see its scars, not as obstacles, but opportunities.
At a panel titled “We Believe in Drama” for Image Comics on Sunday morning, I listened
to writers talk about their personal struggles and was honestly moved to tears. Not only were they happy to talk about how creators put themselves into their stories, they shared the sense of freedom of expression that comics gave them, which they could not have found anywhere else.
“You can do things in comics you can’t do in TV or novels,” said Kyle Higgins, movie director and author of comic series Hadrian’s Wall. “You might be able to get a shot of a facial reaction on screen, but you can’t describe a silent panel of a comic page in a novel. It’s one of the most powerful things a comic can do. Anyone can fill a book with meaningless dialogue, but it takes a real artist to interpret a writer’s vision and bring it to life on a page.”
As if hearing stories about relatable writers and characters wasn’t enough, I had to ask the panel about their own backgrounds, when they were trying to find their creative voices. It was a selfish question, because there is a part of me that wants to be at that table too.
“We don’t all have Master’s Degrees in Literature,” I said.
“I don’t even have a Bachelor’s, dude!” Tini Howard shouted back at me.
“That’s exactly my point!” I countered. “What made you keep going?”
Gerry Duggan, whom I will forever hold in high esteem, took the microphone.
“All it took was for someone to give me a chance.” He wanted to write and create and he
kept asking and kept getting rejected. But all it took was for one person to give him a chance.
“And if that’s your goal,” he said. “Good luck, and don’t ever stop.”
It’s difficult for me to describe how important it was for me to hear that.
This brings me closer to my overall point, which I promise to make soon. Our society is strange. People on the whole want to find their tribe. They want a sense of belonging. It starts when we’re young, as we seek to find our identity as individuals and as members of society. It gets infinitely worse in middle school and the saints be with you in high school. Our planet is an organism all of its own, and we’re all a part of this living, breathing, connected habitat. So to find some relief or sense of purpose we clutch onto things that help us manage that overwhelming realization that our tiny little rock circling around a giant ball of fire is just a speck of dust in an infinite void.
Comic cons sound like giant gatherings of nerds, and they are. But while I was waiting in the line on Friday morning, I had a thirty minute conversation with two guys next to me about the Dakota Access Pipeline. We talked about how that political struggle was addressed in comics by writers that want to tackle serious issues. We talked about how, of all things, the current issues of Batman hit us right in the heart because we’re at an age where we understand what it’s like to feel as though we put on a mask every day just to make it through. Just because that message comes packaged in a sequential art form, does that make it “less than” say, an article in The Atlantic?
I thought long and hard over this weekend about what makes it socially acceptable to buy a license plate that supports a professional sports team, but unacceptable to want to dress like an elf for a few days and have a good time. Why is it okay to yell at a television when some poor sap misses a field goal, but not okay to gather around the TV to have a Mario Kart competition? How can a multi-color variant of a Campbell’s Soup can be considered art, but pages like the one below be brushed off as some nerd’s fantasy garbage?
In three days time I made friends with a lot of different people, from all walks of life, coming together to meet in a community that wants to explore life through a medium that doesn’t register for a lot of people. I saw men dressed as women, women dressed as men, kids dressed as adults and vice versa. But I was also in a sea of individuals who never once passed judgement on anyone else. We were all in it together.
Comic cons are no different than film festivals where independent artists are trying to share their vision of an expression of life. They’re no different than throwing on a jersey, heading to downtown Indy to day drink, and then spending four hours watching men run at each other as hard as they can. No better or worse than dancing in a mass of sweaty people at a music festival. Cons give a different segment of humanity a voice, that has as much right to be heard as any other.
Whether you want to admit it or not, whether you actually know it or not, this is an industry that has defined American culture for the better part of a century. It has morphed and evolved over time, and it will continue to do so in the coming years.
I’m not suggesting you go to a con, especially if you’re not a fan, it’s exhausting. I do, however, suggest the next time someone tells you they were able to garner some meaning from any art form, that you pause. Take a second and consider what inspires you to find meaning. Hold it up to the light, see through it, and take a moment to think about why you think that makes you better?
But I could be wrong. What do I know? I signed a petition to bring Superman’s red underwear back to his costume.
Christian Shuck is a Greencastle native and Hope College alumnus who works in higher education as a major gift officer. Besides his contributions here, he also writes for his own blog cmshuckstories.com. He currently lives in Terre Haute.