San Diego Comic-Con '99: More Than Fat, Sweaty Guys

Amid Amidi reports on Comic-Con, a festival of popular culture that is not to be missed.

Comic conventions -- the first image that generally comes to mind is a bunch of fat, sweaty guys sitting on the floor with their butt cracks exposed poring over boxes and boxes of dusty comics looking for that treasured comic which nobody but them seems to give a hoot about. While you'll find your fair share of this scenario in San Diego, the San Diego Comic-Con International is a far greater event than the title implies. From movies and animation, to television, books and yes, even comics; a much more apt description of the Comic-Con comes from the press packet which bills it as the "largest popular arts convention in the world." This year's Con took place from August 12-15, with over 45,000 people descending into downtown San Diego, California for four days of non-stop adrenaline-filled fun.

A Long Relationship

With the 30th anniversary of the Comic-Con being celebrated this year, it's amazing to think how the event has grown from a mere 300 dedicated comic fans in 1970 to its current incarnation that uses the whole San Diego Convention Center and the meeting rooms of numerous nearby hotels. During these past thirty years, the Comic-Con has developed a rich tradition of honoring and recognizing people in the animation industry. Honoring animation artists has come into vogue in recent years, but the Con was doing this back in the '70s, at a time when animation artists were as obscure and ignored as that homeless guy who sits in front of your neighborhood McDonalds. Throughout the years, such cartoon legends as Bob Clampett, Chuck Jones, Frank Thomas, Grim Natwick and Ollie Johnston have been regulars at the Con, and have taken the time to mingle with fans and recount their amazing careers. In fact, it was during his numerous Comic-Con appearances in the 1970s that famed Warner director Bob Clampett discovered just how many devoted fans he had. This revelation eventually prompted him to start his fondly-remembered nationwide speaking tours that lasted until his death in 1984. Other well-known people from the animation world that have appeared at the Con over the years include Clarence "Ducky" Nash, Mel Blanc, Grim Natwick, Willie Ito, Hank Ketcham, Ray Harryhausen, Matt Groening, Carl Barks, Osamu Tezuka, Ward Kimball, Bill Melendez, Floyd Norman, Gene Hazelton, and countless others. Cool Highlights Galore To recount all of this year's happenings would be darn near impossible so I'll try to stick with interesting animation-related events. But where to begin? Anime fans were treated to a sneak peek of the English version of Princess Mononoke, the hit Japanese animated feature from Hayao Miyazaki that will be released stateside in October. Ren & Stimpy fans got a sneak peek at John Kricfalusi's highly anticipated Ranger Smith shorts that will air on Cartoon Network in September. Paul Dini and Bruce Timm were on hand to discuss the animated Batman and Superman series, while Genndy Tartakovsky and Craig McCracken showed up to talk about their respective popular creations, Dexter's Laboratory and The Powerpuff Girls. The illustrious animation director Don Bluth, who's helmed films such as Secret of NIMH, An American Tail, and Anastasia, visited for an exclusive preview of Titan AE, his next animated feature at Fox. The film, which combines traditional and CG animation, is a unique departure for Bluth, and marks the first time he has ever done a serious sci-fi animated film. There was also a screening of the upcoming Fox Kids TV series, Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot, a chat with the creators of MTV Downtown, a spotlight on legendary voice actress June Foray (a regular at the Con since the '70s), a making of The Iron Giant panel, screenings of the newest Spike & Mike animation festivals, a Q&A session with the voice cast of Futurama, and a screening of never-before-seen Space Ghost: Coast to Coast episodes. At my count, there were well over 30 animation-related panels that encompassed everything from preparing an animation portfolio and creating computer animation, to writing and licensing for animation. Outside of the animation realm, there were countless other fascinating events including a preview of Tim Burton's creepy new live-action film, Sleepy Hollow, and a particularly good panel on Golden Age comic artists that featured the likes of Jerry Robinson (creator of Batman's The Joker), John Romita, Sr. and Sam Glanzman telling stories of yesteryear.

Don Bluth after the TITAN AE panel. © Amid Amidi.

Don Bluth after the TITAN AE panel. © Amid Amidi.

Observations from the Expo Floor

Out on the convention floor, animation fans could find the usual assortment of anime dealers and animation art galleries but there were also a few interesting surprises this year. While making my way around the booths, a little comic called Herobear and the Kid caught my eye. I was immediately attracted to its great expression-filled drawing, combined with its stylistic choice of leaving the construction lines in the finished comic. These traits also made it obvious that this comic was done by an animation artist. So it was hardly a surprise when I found out the creator was animator Mike Kunkel whose credits include Tarzan, Hercules and Cats Don't Dance. Owing some similarities to the Calvin & Hobbes strip, the first issue of Kunkel's Herobear is extremely entertaining, in addition to being that rare type of comic that has an equal appeal to both kids and adults. Doug TenNapel, another animation artist and the creator of Earthworm Jim, offered his newest comic, Gear, which he hopes to turn into an animated feature at Fox. Which brings up a very interesting point. More than ever, Hollywood is turning to innovative small press titles like Gear for animation ideas and the results were quite noticeable as I strolled the floor. It seems that every artist you met either had an animation production deal with a studio or was in the process of getting one. And that's not really a surprise considering that animation studios like NELVANA send people down to the Comic-Con for the express purpose of finding unique comic properties to turn into animation. Just as a couple examples, Jill Thompson's relatively new comic Scary Godmother has already been optioned by Mainframe for a CG-animated series, and Jeff Smith said that he is cautiously optimistic that Nickelodeon will give a greenlight to his Bone animated feature.

Herobear a comic book by Mike Kunkel. © Mike Kunkel.

Herobear a comic book by Mike Kunkel. © Mike Kunkel.

Another major trend at this year's convention was the arrival of the Internet as a serious force in comics. Two major online comic stores declared their presence with booths and heavy promotions, while nearly every comic artist, as well as many dealers, had an email address or website on their business cards. Some artists, like Kyle Baker, who are completely fed up with the big publishers like Marvel and DC, are making the Web a serious part of their game plan. Baker has opened up his website, KyleBaker.com, to keep fans abreast of his latest endeavors which include a short animated film; and when he fulfills his promise to self-publish his next graphic novel, the site will play an even more important role in selling and promoting the book. The comic industry has been rather slow in realizing the importance of the Internet but this year clearly signified a turning point.

Mike Kunkel, Herobear's creator. © Chris Duarte.

Mike Kunkel, Herobear's creator. © Chris Duarte.

For many people, myself included, the yearly trip to the San Diego Comic-Con is anticipated like a 5-year-old looks forward to a Disneyland trip. And like Disneyland, you're bound to meet crazy costumed characters, end up spending a lot of money, wait in long lines (for autographs though, not rides), and have an unforgettable time that will be remembered for years to come. This is Amid Amidi's sixth consecutive trip to San Diego Comic-Con International. He spent way too much money at the Con this year and must now sell some of his junk on Ebay to recuperate his costs. He was happy to have lunch at the Con with two of his favorite comic creators -- Jeff Smith (Bone) and Patrick McDonnell (Mutts). He is currently working on a coffee table book about animation, and it'll have lots and lots of pictures to make up for all those "scholarly" cartoon books that think pictures make them look less scholarly.

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