Its become the greatest show on Earth. The Comic-Con International drew more than 70,000 participants at the San Diego convergence July 17-20, 2003, which has become the preeminent sci-fi, fantasy, animation, gaming and comic book gathering. Conventioneers waited upwards of three hours just to get inside as the hot San Diego sun beat down on them, particularly causing discomfort for those in makeup and costumes. Some finally gave up.
Its become an increasingly important venue for motion picture companies such as Warner Bros., Universal, Sony and DreamWorks to build interest in upcoming theatricals. The WB and Cartoon Network have been particularly aggressive in the past five years, offering screenings and panels about new and returning series. The fire marshals were busy monitoring the huge halls and meetings rooms that often overflowed capacity. This editor could not attend the CN presentation on Teen Titans and Duck Dodgers. Nearby was an informative panel on the migration of videogames to movies and back. SCI FI Channel hyped its Battlestar Galactica remake while a concerted band of diehards at SaveFarscape.com worked up support for a fifth season of the canceled show. The UPN sneak peak at its first-ever CGI animated series, Game Over, drew lots of laughs.
The show offers many informational panels for the animation-minded, including how-tos on design, writing, pitching and voice acting. Ditto for gamers and people who want to do comics. Plus theres lots of information to be gleaned from the studio and the professionals presentations, including access to talent, agents and development execs plus prizes, autographs and photo-ops.
Schools are making a bigger presence at this show with booths. The DAVE School, a computer animation training center in Orlando, screened its film, Chimera, based upon the GrossGen comic, during a panel and at the comic publishers booth.
AWN asked some Comic-Con veterans for their perspective and observations on the show. These regulars include Jerry Beck, animation author/historian; Kellie-Bea Cooper, industry ambassador (animation and games), Art Institute of California Orange County; Mark Evanier, writer/producer; Fred Patten, anime/animation journalist; Sander Schwartz, president of Warner Bros. Animation; David Silverman, producer on The Simpsons; and Linda Simensky, svp original programming, Cartoon Network.
(First row, left to right) Fred Patten, Mark Evanier and Sander Schwartz. (Second row) Jerry Beck, Kellie-Bea Cooper and Linda Simensky. (Third row) David Silverman. Patten photo courtesy of Stan Burns. Schwartz photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Animation. Beck photo courtesy of ASIFA-Hollywood. Simensky photo courtesy of Cartoon Network. Silverman photo courtesy of AWN.
AWN: How many Comic-Cons have you attended?
Patten: I have attended all of the Comic-Cons since the first.
Evanier: I attended the first Comic-Con in 1970, back when it was called The San Diego Golden State Comic Con and everyone was thrilled that 500 people showed up. This year, I waited in a mens room line with that many people in it. Anyway, Ive been there for every one since, marveling at the urban sprawl that is the exhibit hall, watching prices escalate and the percentage of the con thats about comic books grow smaller and smaller.
Schwartz: I would say if I had to guess, over the last 15 years, Ive been to 10.
Beck: Ive gone to comic book conventions every year since I was 13 years old since 1968, in New York. The San Diego Comic-Con Ive been attending since 1977.
Cooper: Ive been attending Comic-Con since I was in high school, so about 10 (off and on over the years).
Silverman: Hard to say, but Ill take a guess and put it at six. I havent been keeping a log...
AWN: What features, events, booths draw you? What parts of Comic-Con do you most enjoy? And what did you get out of them this time?
Evanier: The best part of the San Diego conventions (and all conventions, actually) has always been the people meeting the greats of the field and others of like passion. I never cared about infomercial panels, never cared about previews of upcoming movies, stopped buying old comics when I completed my collections of certain books. I like spending four days surrounded by interesting, creative people and seeing friends and meeting new ones. I moderate panels so that the folks Im interested in me will come to me, and I can ask them questions for an hour or so.
I moderated 11 panels, including spotlight interviews of several veteran comic book creators, the annual Jack Kirby Panel, the annual Golden Age Artists Panel, a panel on my work with Sergio Aragones, and panels on the history of Gold Key/Dell Comics and the book, Seduction of the Innocent. We had a Cartoon Voice Panel with a dozen top actors who, between them, had about 11,000 voices and, for the second straight year, the convention let me interview Ray Bradbury. Because Mr. Bradbury was in a wheelchair and we couldnt get him onto the platform, a lot of those in the packed audience couldnt see him as he spoke. But they heard his passion as he spoke about being true to your creative instincts and not listening to the many idiots (his term) out there who try to tell writers what to write. If you couldnt learn something in any of those panels, you werent paying attention.
Schwartz: I like all the people dressed up in those funny costumes. Im particularly fond of the hundreds of people in Star Trek costumes and I like the whole group of Klingons. Thats my primary purpose.
Its a great opportunity. Besides looking at some very interesting scenery and seeing all the people who have everything except mirrors. There are people I get to see once a year and its there, from other parts of the country, other parts of the worlds, other planets Its a great attraction as far as bringing people together not only in my business, but in ancillary and related businesses.
I went back a week later for SIGGRAPH. For the most part its as interesting a group as the Comic-Con group, but quirky in the kind of computer geek way, not in the colorful entertainment way. So the people watching isnt nearly as good. Lots of pocket protectors. The contrast is amazing.
Comic-Con is the best show on Earth between the people you see and the properties and the all the stuff there. Its just great eye-candy.
Beck: I go to see old friends, buy old comic books and memorabilia and attend the panels, which are becoming the true highlight. I get to meet people I admire and find out how they do their work.
Cooper: I enjoy that one price covers it all (the screenings, the panel discussions, the conference floor). The amount of what you can do, see and buy could fill more that a week of enjoyment.
Simensky: I like the independent comics booths, from Drawn & Quarterly and Top Shelf to the people who have a stack of Xeroxed comics they stapled themselves. Every year, I find at least one amazing comic book from one of those little tables. I met a couple of interesting comic book artists this year, and bought some pretty funny stuff. I saw some great new Chris Ware books at D&Q.
Silverman: I usually first check out booths like Bud Plant and other booksellers. Im on the lookout for out-of-print books of Walt Kelly and Ronald Searle. Then, Ill go to Kitchen Sink, Dark Horse, Fantagraphics. Ill also check out booths that sell original art, particularly comic strip stuff.
Mainly, I go to hang out with friends from Simpsons and Pixar, crack wise about the costumed customers, and have a lot of laughs and more than a few drinks. And, I try to meet or reacquaint myself with artists I admire. Sergio Aragones is an old friend, I always seek him out. It was great to hang with Bill Plympton. Rich Moore and I got a chance to catch up, and laugh at ... um, this is being published, right? And Dan Piraro, of Bizzaro fame, did a terrifically funny one-man show as a presentation.
Mainly, I was there for the Futurama and Simpsons presentations. Both insanely well attended, both great fun. And, for once, no one asked if Smithers is gay.
Patten: What draws me has evolved over the years. I was a comic book collector and an active fan since the early 1960s, so what drew me to the first Comic-Cons was the opportunity to look for missing issues of the comics that I collected, and to meet in person some of the fans who were friends by correspondence. In the mid-1970s, I discovered and became very enthusiastic about Japanese animation. In 1978, I and some of the other members of the first anime fan club helped representatives of Toei Animation conduct test marketing by running the first anime video programs at the Comic-Con, and selling anime merchandise in the dealers room to see how American fans would react to anime and manga. (The boys adventure sci-fi anime like Space Pirate Captain Harlock was very popular; there was no interest in the girls anime.) At the 1980 Comic-Con, I served as the U.S. liaison for a group tour of about 30 Japanese animators and manga artists to the Comic-Con (Osamu Tezuka, Monkey Punch, Go Nagai, etc.), and I was awarded the Comic-Cons Inkpot Award for services to fandom (helping to create anime fandom). I continued to help run the anime video programs into the mid-1980s.
As the Comic-Con has grown in importance and attracted more professional comic-book writers and artists, it has been an opportunity to see them in person. Even if I am no longer as enthusiastic about the costumed superheroes as I used to be, it has been a thrill to see their creators in person. Also famous animators; Bob Clampett used to attend regularly until his death.
Patten cont'd: One of my interests, which overlaps science-fiction and fantasy, comic books and animation, is stories featuring intelligent animals aimed at young adults and adults (beyond just funny animals for children), ranging from novels like Adams Watership Down and Orwells Animal Farm to animation like Kimba the White Lion and Cats Dont Dance and comics like Crumbs Fritz the Cat. This year I was a panelist on 20 Years of Furry Comics, and my first book premiered at the Comic-Con: Best in Show: Fifteen Years of Outstanding Furry Fiction, an anthology of 26 short stories which I edited. (It actually co-premiered at the Comic-Con and at a Furry specialty convention, the Anthrocon in Philadelphia, on the same weekend.)
I met a number of old friends at the Comic-Con, including Monkey Punch (Kazuhiko Kato), the manga artist-creator of Lupin III. He often comes to America for the Comic-Con, so this was no surprise. Another was Dwight Decker. We were both comics fans in the 1960s; he has been working for over a decade now for the major European publisher of the Walt Disney-character comic books.
AWN: Did you see anything or anyone surprising?
Cooper: There was soo much to see, that it was hard to be in two to three places at once. There were so many professionals and stars, it was awesome!
Simensky: I met Robert Williams, who signed a book for my brother, who is a huge fan of his work. I found some hilarious unlicensed, off-model Powerpuff Girls toys from China. The packages said, 3D Girls Bicycle.
Silverman: The gigantic display of Yoda with a really fierce, angry expression. Guess the Dark Side has finally pissed him off. Oh, and Lara Croft talking to some Ghostbusters, I didnt know they hung out.
Patten: There were two big surprises to me, one pleasant and the other rather depressing. The pleasant surprise was the size of the manga and anime displays in the Exhibit Hall. Less than five years ago the anime/manga specialty companies were only beginning to appear. This year their professional trade-show booths were among the biggest in the Hall. As an anime enthusiast, this was very gratifying.
Patten cont'd: Less so was the accelerating evolution of the Comic-Con away from a friendly gathering of comics and animation hobbyists to a massive promotional showcase of popular culture merchandisers. The whole convention is expanding so explosively that I suppose the volume devoted to comics has not actually diminished much (although Marvel Comics, usually one of the biggest exhibitors, was not at the Comic-Con this year), but proportionately the traditional comic books are occupying a shrinking percentage of the overall convention. There seemed to be less interest in the creative end of comics and animation the writing and drawing; the inspirations for new stories and new characters than in the merchandise spinning off what already exists: the new movies, action figures, computer games, toys, posters, etc. featuring the most popular classic characters or the closest possible imitations of them.
Evanier: Maybe my eyes were deceiving me but I could have sworn I saw someone there selling comic books.
With comics going to the big screen, Hollywood has invaded the Con. (Left to right) Cyclops from X-Men 2, Spider-man, Hulk, Daredevil and Blade. X2 & © 2003 Twentieth Century Fox. Spider-man © 2002 Columbia Pictures. All rights reserved. Hulk © 2003 Universal Studios. All rights reserved. Daredevil and © 2003 Twentieth Century Fox and Regency Enterprises. All rights reserved. Blade © 1998 New Line Cinema. All rights reserved.
Beck: Im still amazed how Hollywood has invaded the scene. I remember the old days when the only time we saw celebrities was when they were competing with you, digging through boxes of old comics. Ive met musician Rueben Blades and actor Mark Hamill like that.
AWN: How did this one compare to previous ones?
Beck: Its finally gotten too big for me. They should expand the Comic-Con by one day (at least). There is no way for anyone to see everything then again, theres never a dull moment.
Patten: Attendance has grown so large that estimates of this years total ranged all the way from 60,000 to well over 100,000; a variable of over 40,000. The lines waiting to enter the Convention Center each morning were literally over a mile long; and attendants had to herd them in with constant shouts of Keep in line, dont push, keep moving, dont dawdle, please dont chat and create a bottleneck, there are people waiting behind you. The Comic-Con used to feature an Artists Alley where anyone, pro or fan, who wanted to draw could do so.
This year there were so many amateurs that only professional artists working for a comic-book publisher were allowed to sit at a table; security guards actually ordered the mere fan artists away. It is also getting harder and harder to get a hotel room within walking or even free shuttle bus distance of the convention center without paying $140 or more per night. More and more attendees are being forced to distant hotels along San Diegos trolley line to the convention center. I suppose the huge population density has made this necessary, but it creates an unpleasant atmosphere that goes beyond just being buffeted by the crowds in the exhibit hall.
Evanier: Every San Diego gathering tops the one before, not only in turnout but memories. I cant recall ever saying, I had a better time last year. Theyve evolved to the point where you really have about a dozen conventions going on in the same edifice a gaming convention in this section, an animation fest in this part, a con devoted to upcoming fantasy films over there. Theres even areas devoted to comics. If you dont have a good time, its because you didnt go to the right part of the building. This year, I wandered down to Artists Alley for an hour and you know what? Down there, surrounded by artists with a passion for the form, it even felt like the old, smaller San Diego Cons.
Schwartz: The penetration of manga and anime continues to make inroads into this marketplace and, of course, to bleed over into stimulating American-grown product that apes anime or is influenced by anime.
Cooper: This was the best one, I think.
Simensky: Its getting really big and crowded. I didnt even get to see the entire floor this year. It was a lot like last years con, and much, much larger than previous years.
Silverman: This was huge. And yet, the comics part seems to be getting overshadowed by the film/TV/video game part. And its a damn shame! And... uh... well, I am part of that film/TV/video game part. Hmm. Well, then, Ill just shut up.
AWN: Did you find any good buys?
Schwartz: I bought a beautiful maquette, a sculpture of Muttley and Dick Dastardly thats sitting right here in my office. Those characters are particularly endearing to me because they are within our library of characters and something ultimately Id like to bring back in one way, shape, form or another. This year, this was my big purchase.
Beck: I always find bargains on things Im interested in... One hint: Stuart Ng has the coolest old books for sale. Wise men (and women) fish there.
Cooper: Tons! There were a lot of gothic cartoon properties that caught my eye.
Simensky: I always find interesting old books on animation at Stuart Ng. This year I found a book on Norman McLaren that was a decent price. I collect old issues of Funnyworld, and found a couple.
Silverman: I found this storyboard panel from the Pogo special, and it looks a lot like ol Walt K. drew it himself. And it was a deal, either way!
AWN: Any additional observations?
Silverman: How do all those people stand being Klingons all day long? A friend of mine played a Klingon on a Voyager episode, and said the make-up experience was just miserable.
Evanier: The convention can be scary crowded, noisy, intimidating. And I think they ought to issue an Overstreet Price Guide for Parking Spaces. But I wouldnt miss it for anything.
Schwartz: The show continues to expand in both floor space and in the people who come, both in the businesses related to comic books and animation and fantasy, but also in the public. The great deal of interest in everything there continues to amaze me. Additionally, all the major studios use Comic-Con as a platform to launch a slate of films. They bring in their stars as Warner Bros. did with Halle Berry and the cast of Gothika. The year before, for T3, Warner Bros. had Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jonathan Mostow, the director of T3. I know Sony had a big presentation.
The fact that the major studios pay so much attention, bring in their stars and show sneak peeks of the pictures, really demonstrates to me that the industry regards it as an important venue for marketing of their films and their products. The fact that its become such a mainstream event is quite astounding.
A lot of material you only get to see there or get to see for the first time there. We premiered our Batman: Mystery Of The Batwoman.
Ive noticed its become an important showcase in the last two to three years. Id never seen these kinds of lines for the presentations and its getting more and more popular.
Cooper: This event blew away SIGGRAPH 2003 this year, to my surprise. I look forward to attending Comic-Con next year, where I may pass on SIGGRAPH entirely next year (even if it is in L.A.).
Simensky: Its really not a comic convention any more; its a popular culture convention. Maybe they should rename it. Also, for those of us in the animation industry, its become our U.S.-based animation festival.
Its not too early to make your travel plans for the next-best show on Earth when the 35th annual Comic-Con International takes place July 22-25, 2004 in San Diego. Hopefully the Con organizers can streamline registration to contend with the hordes of people who flock at an ever-increasing rate to the show.
Sarah Baisley is editor of Animation World Network.