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Only the Nerds Survive: How New York's Comic Con Beat the Recession

From the outside of New York's 4th Annual Comic Con, you'd never have known our country was going through a recession. Hundreds of orcs, superheroes and guys with giant katanas waited in line for the sold out, three-day event at the Jacob K. Javits Convention center, right on the edge of the West Side Highway. Indoors, the giant convention hall was packed full of lectures, special screenings and a maze of autograph signings and memorabilia tables. But even with all the huge attractions – an advance showing of Pixar's Up, a panel with Watchmen illustrator Dave Gibbons – the main question on this geek's mind was, "Is anybody buying more than tickets?"

Buy, Buy Buy!
Sitting down at the last panel on Saturday evening in a packed auditorium, waiting for the creators of Adult Swim's Venture Brothers to take the stage, an older woman next to me turned and smiled. "How old are you?" she asked conspiratorially out of the side of her mouth. I told her, and she nudged the younger boy sitting next to her, "See! She is only a couple years older than you, Martin! You should ask her out!"

It turns out that this mother had trekked all the way from Jersey with the specific intention of finding her 20-year-old son a boyfriend. Because as a general rule, comic nerds must conform to every stereotype created about them, including their moms. Alas, that interaction was only the beginning of the desperation that wafted through the conference room that evening. As soon as Doc Hammer, Jackson Publick and Michael Sinterniklaas took the stage, there wasn't a sentence that went by without one of three men plugging the DVD/Blu-Ray disk for the third season of the show. And though there was a lot of mention of a fourth season, the details were vague and I got the sense that the future of the cult hit's run on Cartoon Network was murky. This despite all the hundreds of fans in the audience, some dressed up as their favorite VB characters, including some bearing gifts for the people the creators. Perhaps a large audience isn't enough to save a beloved series, these days.

Now, the reason events like Comic Con exists is vendors, so it's no surprise that people push as hard as they do to sell their merchandise. But upstairs in the Exhibition Hall — a massive labyrinth seemingly designed to keep you wandering around for hours — many of the tables were sporting slashed prices and "Buy two, get one free" deals. By the time I found my way out of the maze, I had concluded even the die-hard trekkies couldn't save the comic industry from the recession.

Marvel Digital's Spider-Woman

The Marvelous Economy

Marvel is one of the two leading giants of the comic world, rivaled only by DC. And with rights to characters such as Iron Man, the X-Men and Spider-Man, I attended the Digital Seminar hoping to get some insight into the future of superhero comic branding. It's always interesting to hear graphics industry folks talk about the Internet boom as some great salvation, when in fact the medium has all but put many retailers and brands out of business. Surprisingly, the Marvel comic guys were all very smug about their triumph over "old media" with Marvel Digital Unlimited, a subscription-based site where fans can pore over their favorite comics in scrutinizing detail on their computer screen. They unveiled the first glimpse of an Astonishing X-Men "motion comic," a Joss Whedon collaboration that is half comic/half cartoon that you could read/watch on your browser, as well as Spider-Women, the first series that was developed simultaneously as both a motion comic and a printed one.

And while that was an interesting idea, I couldn't help myself in the Q & A. "I understand what you're saying about print media and the digital revolution," I began, "but let's face it, right now just having a presence on the web isn't enough to make money. How is Marvel Digital going to be any different than newspapers that put content online?" And what I didn't get to ask but wish I had, "And how do you plan to seduce new fans, who might like the X-Men movies but not enough to buy an actual comic, to pay for your site?"

Marvel's Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada graciously fielded part of my question by talking about multimillion dollar branding. He spoke about Barack Obama and Spider-Man's recent team-up, and while the word "synergy" wasn't used, you could feel it on the tip of everyone's tongue. He talked about generating PR and excitement through marketing tie-ins for upcoming movies, and how Iron Man the film revitalized Iron Man as a comic. But my main question went unanswered: How do digital comics recoup the losses from sales of actual comics?

The Dark Night

Superheroes and graphic novels are huge right now, and the fan base for this once fringe franchise has grown exponentially with the fervor surrounding films like Sin City, Dark Knight, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Watchmen. But the nature of a movie-goer is fickle. A couple years back, it was all about the Splat Pack and gory horror films like Saw, Hostel and The Hills Have Eyes. Is there a fear that comic book movies and superheroes will likewise be passed over as audiences find a new attraction?

I think not. As ironic and tongue-in-cheek as some of these panels seemed to be (there was almost a riot outside the Robot Chicken forum when enough fans weren't allowed in to see Seth Green), the history of comics has proven that even during an economic crisis, a war, or plain cultural disdain, the paneled art forms will find a way to survive and adapt. We make fun of the Manga nerds and the stereotypical, overweight goons in tights, but it's them who will save the entire comic industry. There will always be a market for the outsider who dreams of being able to save the world.

Comments (1)
No. 1 · Django

This is all very good to know for up and comers looking to break into the field.

One might even say that the ups and downs of comics' standards in art and writing correspond with economic shifts and the desire for "cheap" easy entertainment.

I think you nailed it on the head with your last statement. Well played.

Posted: Feb 9, 2009 at 9:15 pm · @Reply · [Flag?]
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