And I Survived…New York Comic Con 2012

Yes, it’s been awhile since NYCC 2012. It actually feels like far longer than it actually has been due to the massive disruptions to life as usual created by Hurricane Sandy. NYCC 2012 marked the end of a frenetic block of con-going before the more leisurely exploration of BCGF 2012. But time for reflection is not all bad. Looking back at NYCC 2012 I can see more clearly just how unusual an event it was, and how different the con became for me once I attended not just as a speaker, as in previous years, but as a reporter. A big thanks to Heidi MacDonald at the Comics Beat for giving me the opportunity to be part of a writing team at such a massive and exciting event. You’ll find no fewer than 8 links below to articles about NYCC 2012, a challenge that really tested my writing moxie.

I picked what I considered to be a reasonable schedule of panels to attend, but as those who attended NYCC 2012 know, numbers were astonishingly high and the new layout created some interesting challenges. Big thanks to friend Anica Archip who gave me safe harbor in Brooklyn to make all my coverage a little easier rather than commuting a distance. During the con, I had high and low moments, and the low moments were mostly due to sense that there was SO MUCH to do and so little time. The high moments were seeing some of the legends of the industry speak for the first time and continuously bumping into friends who made me feel part of the comics community at large.

On the day before NYCC officially opened, I attended the ICv2 conference on Digital Media held at the Javitz center. This was a very new experience for me. It started with the state of the publishing industry, and moved through various astonishing sneak-peeks and up and coming digital comics projects in various genres. There was plenty that went over my head, but what I did grasp opened up whole new worlds of thought for me. I didn’t try to cover those panels, but I did try to capture the hilarious and energetic “Fireside Chat” that concluded the event, featuring Talking Dead’s Chris Hardwick and seasoned Producer Fred Siebert. Who knew YouTube ruled the world? Find that article here for the Beat.

On the first day of NYCC 2012, I had the pleasure of chairing a panel with the creators of the photo-visual comics history and profile book Leaping Tall Buildings: Seth Kushner, Christopher Irving, and Eric Skillman, but then I put my reporter hat on and literally ran to some other panels to cover them. The first was the logistically triumphant appearance of legendary Irwin Hasen with a panel of friends including Al Jaffee, hosted by Danny Fingeroth. Hasen’s hilarious antics and the remarkable “Irwin Stories” from his friends made this a really celebratory event about the enduring charm of cartooning and storytelling. Following this panel, I managed to catch part of the launch of Sequart documentary The Image Revolution, directed by Patrick Meaney. An impressive array of Image personalities paneled the screening of segments from the upcoming film, and plenty of surprises came out even in those clips, including Robert Kirkman’s admission that he tricked Image into accepting his pitch for WALKING DEAD. Find both panels covered here for the Beat.

I spent the evening meeting some more Sequart people, including fellow Beat contributor Henry Barajas, Sequart editor Mike Phillips, documentary director Patrick Meaney and filmmaker Jordan Rennert. A few others too! It was a great time to actually meet people who I’d been conversant with online as a contributor blogging for Sequart myself and working on books for the comics scholarship press.

The morning arrived too early, but I was right back into the thick of it as the larger crowds started arriving. My first “crowded” day I wouldn’t say that I did a very good job of navigating the strange topography of the packed Javitz Center, with Artist Alley given its own brightly-lit wing. I met up with friends and attempted to actually storm the already crowded floor on one of my brief ventures into the retail zone. Then it was off to an Editing Panel featuring Dark Horse’s Scott Allie. Reading Dark Horse letter columns for several years had made me curious to hear him speak in person and it was a phenomenal, energy-charged panel with plenty of humor. Perhaps most surprising was the reaction from the audience to the generous Q and A opportunities. The majority of the audience raised their hands when asked if they were interested in editing comics personally or professionally. This really indicated a shift toward interest in professional comics careers and also the growth of indie-produced comics. Find that panel covered here for the Beat.

In the afternoon I waited in an enthusiastic crowd to hear Batman producer Michael Uslan talk about his life work making Batman dark again, tying into his recent book The Boy Who Loved Batman. Uslan was tremendously inspiring, and many a costumed groupie packing the room sat rapt with attention. It’s easy for a generation who grew up with Batman cartoons to take for granted the changes Uslan’s Batman film, directed by Tim Burton, brought to comics culture and its relationship to mainstream society. Uslan’s story was a reality check and he received a well deserved standing ovation for his work. This kind of panel made me very grateful for the NYCC despite its crowds and logistical problems. Find Uslan’s talk covered here for the Beat.

I was three days in and losing steam, but I knew that there was still a long way to go to capture the great moments of the con through articles and pictures. Saturday promised to be the most crowded and challenging day, and my expectations were close to reality. I had two goals that day, which I wasn’t entirely sure I’d meet, to hear Grant Morrison talk in some capacity and hopefully, just hopefully, to finally get a glimpse of Mike Mignola. Part of the reason that I’ve never heard either of them speak before is because I’ve only been attending NYCC for two years previously, and also because I have a general antipathy to joining long lines and thereby wasting time I could be taking in other aspects of the con. But this was a serious mission and I was prepared to adapt. In the end, neither line was unbearably long, and both panels were a high-point of my experience of the comics industry thus far. In fact, the large meeting rooms used this year at NYCC rarely found it necessary to turn fans away, though those desiring front row seats were well advised to arrive very early. I’ll add that standing in lines for panels enriched my con experience in unexpected ways: I got to talk to cosplayers. I got to discuss comics we all loved. I got to hear from con-goers why exactly they were there. Without that, would I have experienced the “real” con or just been too goal-oriented to take in the full scope of the cultural impact NYCC already has on fans?

Grant Morrison, Brian K. Vaughn, and Jonathan Hickman had some pretty deep and honest wisdom to spread to aspiring comics writers in their “Writer’s Room” panel. These were all pros for whom comics were still their passion and their greatest struggle, and that may have informed their sympathy for those starting out. Despite their vast successes, their advice featured elements of characterization, project management, and self-promotion that everyone could identify with. Again, almost all hands went up when the audience was asked who attending actually currently attempted to write comics. This makes me wonder what percentage of fans at cons are simply passive, enjoying the con, and how many are there with a dual purpose of genuinely pursuing professional opportunities. It was a very informative and worth-while panel with the extra bonus of seeing and hearing directly from nearly mythological comics creators in the flesh. Find that panel covered here for the Beat.

At this point I should say that many of the staff members at the NYCC were very helpful to me, particularly about panels, and this came in handy when running to the Mike Mignola Hellboy in Hell panel. They scooted me in at the last minute and I decided to stand up at the back, which afforded good views and pictures, and I also came away with plenty of notes. Maybe I’ll go for this more mobile position in the future. This was personally enthralling for me as a longtime Hellboy reader, since Mignola promised to give some preview information about the late 2012 return of Hellboy’s adventures in Hell. The atmosphere was electric as Mignola talked about his enthusiasm for tales that take place in the netherworld and explained that this is all part of Hellboy’s story, not an afterword following his “death” in a previous arc. You can find what he had to say here.

In the evening, I got a chance to catch up with some of the great people who run the Comics Studies Conference portion of NYCC, associated with the Institute for Comics Studies (ICS) who bring great panel presentations every year for the more informed enthusiast, paving the way for comics scholarship in the popular sphere.

Sunday was bound to be a wind-down for me, limping toward a fifth day at the Javitz center, but the energy was just as high for crowds and participants once I arrived. I made a second venture onto the show floor and discovered, as always, aisles I had never explored, picking up a con exclusive of MARS ATTACKS THE HOLIDAYS from the Topps booth, featuring the work of Dean Haspiel, and chatting with Jim Salicrup at his all-ages comics Papercutz booth before trying to get my act together. I decided to attend Spider-Man’s 50th Birthday Party, a multi-media event in the bowels of Javitz. The cast, director, and choreographer of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark put on a mezmerizing show which had hordes of costumed tots dancing up on stage to the Spidey-moves from the musical. Reeve Carney performed an energetic rendition of “Boy Falls from the Sky” from the show, written by Bono and the Edge of U2 fame. It was a suitably celebratory atmosphere, and a fun family event to mark the big 5-0 for Spider-Man, recorded for the Beat here.

I let myself off the hook for panel going at that point and spent the rest of the afternoon hanging out in Artist Alley pursuing a lead on all the indie talent who had decided to set up shop that year. I chatted with Jamal Igle about MOLLY DANGER, Neil Dvorak about EASY PIECES, Frank Barbiere and Chris Mooneyham about the upcoming 5 GHOSTS, Matt Rosenberg about various projects including MENU, and artist and colorist Tim Yates about various upcoming projects. Spending some time at former Marvel editor, writer, and educator Danny Fingeroth’s table led to some of the most lively fannish conversations of the con, particularly about Spider-Man, with the constant flow of friends and colleagues stopping by. I wrote up my exploration of the “indie invasion” of Artist Alley here for the Beat.

I stayed right until the end of the con as the atmosphere finally wound down into the Artist Alley break-down of booths and the loading of trucks in mellow evening light. I had definitely seen things in “close up” compared to previous cons I’d attended, as well as getting a sense of the breadth and height of the 110, 000 people reported to have attended the con over several days. There were frustrations- particularly getting around, getting food, and trying to arrange meet-ups in such massive crowds, but with a flexible attitude it was navigable and more than that, essentially the biggest comics celebration of the year for the NY area. Sure, it was as much about Pop Culture, too, with its video-games, cosplay, and retail, but comics held their ground and made their mark even in such a throng of mass media elements clamoring for attention. Looking back, I realize that not only surviving the con, but engaging directly with some of the giants of the industry right now as well as having the opportunity to see friends who operate professionally in the world of comics worked to change my perspective yet again. It was a tremendous thing to be part of NYCC 2012. And to live to write about it.

Reasoning and Rationing Post-Sandy

Once the initial “I survived” phase of Hurricane Sandy is past, the real work sets in. Watching the posts of friends and family as they announce power restoration is like watching the bulbs on a string of Christmas lights finally wink on one at a time when you’re outside in the cold with dusk setting in. But then there are the bulbs that don’t come on and you tweak and you fiddle, but things aren’t going to be quite right until enough of them come on to make a satisfying glow. Otherwise you feel like you ought to go back to the drawing board.

If you’ve been following New Jersey’s progress in the news or on the radio, you’ve heard some disturbing things that aren’t going away very quickly. Hand guns wielded at gas stations, hours of car stop and go waiting for gas that terminates in the announcement “we’re out”. I heard a CNN report yesterday from a vehicle that waited two hours in the falling dark to fill up, and spoke to others waiting in line who had spent hours in various gas stations trying to get even half a tank to no avail. While we feel a surge of relief to hear about friends getting their power back on, there’s the danger that people assume life has returned to normal.

For 1.5 million people in New Jersey alone, this is not the case. Driving around the area where I’m staying since my coastal evacuation on Sunday night, there’s the illusory sense that things are back to normal. Shops are open, restaurants are packed, and some gas stations, at least, seem to have supplies. But it is an illusion for many. There are plenty of people who have returned to life as normal, and even to work as usual, but scratch the surface, and you find the immense difficulty of keeping up this facade. Clerks and waiting staff in shops and restaurants are more than willing to confess that they don’t have power or clean clothes, but are expected to turn up, bright and cheerful, to serve the consumers filing in. I can understand the need for this, but I also think it’s an immense stress to put on people who may be sleeping on cots and barely getting phone signal to check on their loved ones.

Why is there this dichotomy that we can’t admit that things aren’t better yet? It’s an American thing to put on a brave face and celebrate our victories, but if it’s at the cost of honesty, I can’t jump on board. Walking through a deserted mall yesterday, just trying to stay away from where I’ve been living to combat intense cabin fever, the high end shops were selling their wares to no one. Meanwhile, the more general public were scrambling at Walmart and Target to get sheets, towels, and groceries. And all of them, without fail, were expected to be back at work very soon as if nothing had happened, or was still happening. I’m aware that for some people, this helps keeps spirits up. It gives them something to do, maybe even a place to go that has heat and power versus where they’re spending their nights, but I’m not seeing a lot of outreach where I am to help them deal with this transition.

Then there’s the recent announcement in New Jersey that gas will be rationed, starting today. This will cut back on the disheartening lines, the let downs of waiting and then being denied, but it also raises huge logistical problems for people trying to meet their responsibilities to be at work on time. If you haven’t heard, the rationing involves even and odd number plates being allowed to fill up their vehicles on alternate days. What if your tank is nearly empty, you’re over an hour from your home due to evacuation, and you’re expected to be at work at 8 AM on the day you’re not allowed to fill up? Perhaps employers will be understanding,  but I’m not getting that sense from the people I talk to. After a week off work, employers are expecting a prompt return to life as usual, and the slack has to be taken up by people already pressured to look after their families and their properties. I may be beating a dead horse here, but to clarify, there’s a vast difference between areas that had power a couple of days ago and those that still don’t.

I passed out of the illusion zone last night, having to take some country roads to smaller towns to get to my erstwhile home where generators and chainsaws are a constant litany. I went from the well-lit strips where stores and restaurants were open into a sudden deadzone where for 12 miles, not a light could be seen. It was eerie and dangerous, especially at large intersections where the occasional ghostly car paused hesitantly. In those areas, where giant tree carcasses are still littering the roads or hauled partially off of them, people are having to drive miles for food and maybe water (many of the homes here have wells that need electricity to function). I wonder how they’ll do during gas rationing? This post’s a bummer, but I’ll lay one more straw on the camel’s back: the expense to individuals of the hurricane’s impact. Daily costs are high and way out of the budget of the normal middle class family. Eating out and getting take out because you can’t cook at home is racking up the dough. Two people eating out at Panera, for instance, if it’s open, is at least 25 bucks. Spread that over two meals (to be conservative) a day and times that by six or more, and things are going to be a real burden on couples or families in the days to come.

I could talk about all the team work and positive energy I’ve seen, the ways that people are helping each other, and maybe I should. Seeing and hearing about those things helped me get through the initial shock and fear of the mega-storm and blunted the edge of the terrifying photographs I saw of devastation. You know those stories are out there, and heartwarming, but what we’re going to need in the days ahead is ongoing compassion and understanding. People want to move on quickly because it’s all been very upsetting. That’s human nature. But if the community is asking people to cover up the ongoing burden these events have caused, that’s dishonest and unhelpful. Keep looking out for your neighbors, please. Keep asking how they are doing. Speak up when unrealistic goals are being set and grant people the time to deal with things they may never have expected to deal with. There are going to be insurance deductibles people don’t know how to finance, homes that get power but no cable, internet, or phone, and plenty of people with bed-head (no hairdryers) and rumpled clothes (no laundry). A few days ago, that wouldn’t have mattered since food and heat were the main priority, but as we move onward, expecting those people to shift from refugee status into the mainstream is going to be all too easy and all too unfair.

Rant over. I hope you aren’t dealing with these issues from the refugee side of things, but even if you aren’t, your understanding is going to go a long, long way for those who are.

Hell and High Water

I didn’t have the worst experience I could have had by any means- that’s reserved for lots of truly suffering people in the wake of hurricane Sandy, but such as it is, it’s been a week that exceeded my expectations in nutsiness. I tend to underestimate weather because I generally criticize overblown media hype. I didn’t think my coastal town in New Jersey would be evacuated and I truly did not expect the horrendous images of devastation that I’ve seen from New York, Hoboken, and points south in New Jersey. It’s still dawning on me that I’ll never see the Seaside Heights boardwalk, where I tend to go when there’s nothing else to do to play some skeeball and eat pizza, again. Or the Atlantic City boardwalk which I’m now glad I explored and went on the rickety and fairly dangerous rides there, coming pretty close to being hurled into the sea. Things are changing. When they are all rebuilt, there will be fewer traces of the roaring twenties in Jersey’s coastal scene and many people will remember Sandy with very real shudders and grief.

I made my way out from the coast by car the night before things got bad, and was surprised by the lull, but glad for a quick trip. I optimistically blogged about the books and comics I had brought with me for The Beat, which you can find here: “Frankenstorm Reading: Weathering the Evacuation Blues”. 

Before too long, the lights went out. When I stepped outside to look at the woods where I was staying on the night of the hurricane, a herd of deer fled by me, startling me and them. They had a look of fear. A flock of birds almost collided with me in the dark, too, getting out of the way for what was coming.  Despite this momentary awe, I slept fairly soundly, having had a rough couple of days, but when I woke, I was in the middle of a battle ground.

Hundred year old trees were thrown around everywhere, roots dangling. The narrow lanes of the near-countryside neighborhood were totally blocked by the giants, many of them teetering against flimsy power and phone lines. But the rain had stopped and the world seemed to be breathing again.

The general mundane annoyance of aftermath set in. No power. Stumbling around in the dark. No internet. No cell-phone signal. I don’t think I’ve ever been totally without phone access. That probably panicked me more than the devastation. It was hard to focus on anything to pass the time. Everything felt unhinged. That was Day 2.

Day 3 the sun peeked out, but not for long. A cold front had moved in. Took the car out under the leaning trees and past men working with chainsaws. A couple of restaurants were open. No word about the house I left by the shore except the power was out. We managed to rig up internet and the cell phone reception improved. My panic subsided a little.  Here we are in limbo, but it won’t be for that long. People are hauling New Jersey and New York back onto their feet.

I think what I’m going to remember the most are the images that have been trickling in of unbelievable scenes, havoc in human habitations, but also the stories I’m hearing of how people are helping each other, putting up multiple guests and looking after one another. I’ve never been close enough to an event like this to see the microcosm of what people do in times of stress and how it brings out the good deep down in an often jaded and distrustful world. I won’t forget these things easily and I doubt anyone close to these events will either.

photos by Russ Shannon