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.

Does It Really Matter What Happened to the Suit?

(Haspiel’s Spider-Man)

It’s a mystery. But it’s only a minor mystery: the evidence for that is how long it took any one to answer the question. On the occasion of Spider-Man’s 50th anniversary, do we get more than a minor footnote, little more than an errata, and the convenience of a short story in a long career? There’s something a little more disturbing than the average dramatic gesture at the inception of this mystery. Any Spider-Man fan should flinch a little seeing the Spider-Man suit draped over a grimy trashcan in issue #50. It’s extreme enough to mean something, to hit home as a resonant image, but to leave it there? Yes, that’s enough to haunt the back of one’s mind. For the same reason we don’t leave flags lying on the ground, someone needed to pick up that suit. Thankfully, that person was Dean Haspiel.

Spider-Man #692, celebrating 50 years of Spidey’s legacy in comics, was released this month with 3 stories, 3 writers (Dan Slott, Dean Haspiel, and Joshua Hale Fialkov), and a number of artists (Humberto Ramos, Dean Haspiel, Nuno Plati et al.) all making a team effort as tribute to the web-slinger. Haspiel’s story, both written and drawn by him, steps back in time to a missing night in the life of Spider-Man’s costume. In Spider-Man #50, an oppressed Peter Parker, worried about Aunt May’s deteriorating health, hounded by society under the influence of J. Jonah Jameson’s Daily Bugle campaign to malign him, and failing at school makes a radical choice: to walk away from his life as Spider-Man. Leaving his suit in a trashcan in the rain, Peter seems to make some headway in his personal life. Aunt May’s health improves, he and Gwen Stacy manage to finally spend some time hanging out, and he settles in for a night of being a good student when his Spidey instincts keep prompting him to leap to the aid of the innocent. He resists, but by the end of night, suit or not, he’s scaling a building on behalf of a threatened security guard. The time away from his suit teaches Peter something, perhaps that being Spider-Man isn’t about the suit. It’s not something he can just strip off and walk away from.

(Amazing Spider-Man #50, 1967)

Haspiel’s story intersects with the themes and ideas of issue #50 in some unpredictable ways. It’s not a rehashing or a retelling from the perspective of the suit in any literal sense. If anything, this is an opposite story told in a kind of bizarro perspective, homing in on the unexpected to illustrate to the reader just how unfamiliar this story can be. It delves a little deeper into the context of that night in Peter Parker’s life even though Peter is only present in the first panel of the story. Firstly, it’s a world where Spider-Man has become a hated figure. In that sense, it is already a world upside down for Peter, a reversal he can’t quite handle. That makes it the most unlucky time in super history for someone to wear the spider-suit. In an upside down world for one upside down night, the upside down version of Peter finds and puts on the suit for his own ends. Who exactly is the opposite of Peter? Not a savage teen with a devil-may-care attitude (we see that guy briefly in Spider-Man’s origin story in Amazing Fantasy #15), but someone who closely resembles in appearance and behavior the very robber who killed Uncle Ben. If the reader is unconvinced that he’s Peter’s opposite act, the story will convince you, and show the even more surprising ways in which the two are connected.

(Haspiel’s Spider-Man)

Our robber, fleeing from a crime in a somber, close fitting body suit and black ski-mask that bears more than a passing resemblance to a dark spidey-suit, comes upon Peter’s discarded hero costume and puts it on to evade capture. He doesn’t realize that he’s doing a rather unlucky thing, taking on a hated role. The persecution the robber faces from a policeman as Spidey hits home despite its comedic value: “Go home, ya freak”. It’s comedic because our robber deserves a little persecution. It’s painful because what we “see” is Spider-Man being rapped on the hand and treated like a lackey by a policeman. There’s something very wrong with that. What’s wrong centers around the suit.

When readers of Spider-Man #50 saw the suit hanging out of a garbage can, they felt the seriousness of that image. Things weren’t made right again until Peter scaled the Daily Bugle building to redeem the suit that a child has brought in to Jameson. In Haspiel’s story, we know we are dealing with an impersonator, but something still happens—for us—when the robber puts on that suit. We see Spider-Man. He’s not Peter, but in some sense, he’s still Spider-Man. And he’s being grossly mistreated by the society he has thus far protected. However hokey it may sound, the suit has magical properties in terms of storytelling and ideas, and, as we see by the end of Haspiel’s story, that’s a force to be reckoned with.

(Haspiel sketch)

So, just how is the robber Peter’s opposite act? The reader gets that sense, firstly, when the robber appears in a dark body-suit, and secondly when, once wearing the Spidey-suit, he picks up a gun. Haspiel gives that moment full visual attention because it should be arresting. The image is familiar—it’s Spider-Man—but  unfamiliar: he’s holding a gun. Not only that, but he also picks up a bag of stolen cash. Violence and personal gain are two things that Peter vanquished early-on in the trials he faced becoming Spider-Man. Could it be that the suit is leading its new inhabitant through the same processes? It’s not a true heroic origin story for our burglar, but a mock version with some points to make.

Let’s note one strange connection between Peter and the burglar, though: motivation. Peter has given up being Spider-Man partly out of concern for the sickly Aunt May, who he can’t really help with his spider-powers, but he can help through simply being her nephew and standing by her. We learn that our burglar is motivated by “Olivia”, later revealed to be his granddaughter, another suffering invalid. He desires the power to help her, and money seems the only way to do that. He may even have been driven to this criminal lifestyle to pay for her “treatments”.

Our burglar attempts to knock over a pawn shop to pay for Olivia’s “treatments”, and again, the reader is faced with the shocking image of Spider-Man leveling a gun at someone. There are no innocent people in this panel, or on the page, for that matter. With real vitriol the shopkeeper and a female customer insult Spidey. Sure, he deserves it as the burglar, but they are not just insulting his current behavior. There’s a strong sense that they had already made up their mind about him. There’s a certain degree of sympathy for the burglar because of their unwarranted bitterness. When the shopkeeper gains the burglar’s gun and, firing it (another alarming image of real violence) finds that it either doesn’t work or isn’t loaded, we’re left with the possibility that the burglar was carrying a dummy gun all along. In some ways, it’s all an act to carefully divide our absent hero from our present criminal in a superficial way that’s then stripped away to reveal similarities.

(Amazing Fantasy #15)

But this breaks down an old dynamic at the heart of the Spider-Man origin story. Couldn’t the shopkeeper have just as easily been Uncle Ben and the robber the very robber who shot Peter’s uncle? It’s a loaded scene in many ways, a retelling, and re-shaping of possibilities. In this case, the robber isn’t evil, just inept, and the potential victim isn’t a saintly mentor, but an easily led hater. Spider-Man’s origin story, however, also contains some of these ambiguities. Isn’t it Peter who has to learn “great responsibility”? He’s hardly heroic in his early decision-making. If Peter’s no saint then the robber who kills Uncle Ben is no super-villain. There will be others to fill that role later on in the Spider-Man narrative.

(Amazing Fantasy #15)

To backtrack, in Haspiel’s story, when the robber puts on the Spider-Man suit, he says, “If I look like a super hero, then I am a super hero”. He’s not commenting on a desire to become a virtuous man. Instead, he means that he expects to be recognized as a hero by society if he puts on the costume. It’s a pre-packaged role that he simply needs to step into to take advantage of. The suit is like an expensive sports car left in an alley, engine running. No wonder he thinks he’s hit the jackpot. But of course his words become a haunting meditation and a question. To what extent do the clothes make the man? In Spider-Man #50, we learn that the clothes do not at all make the man; Peter finds that the heroism is inside of him, and inescapable. His “power” is still with him, and so also therefore is his sense of “responsibility”. But what power does this opportunist have, and to what degree does he have any responsibility to uphold?

Haspiel’s most humorously rendered scene in a comic with quite a few humorous scenes, depicts pseudo-Spidey (whose age and paunchiness by the way may well suggest the hero himself 50 years on), fleeing from a hail of golf clubs. The irony of course is that, the “menace to society” that Jameson has declared Spidey to be has become a fact when a criminal dons the Spidey outfit. Our burglar has proven that he can be a menace to society (though society seems at least equally mendacious), but can he be anything else?

(Haspiel’s Spider-Man)

A strong visual link brings us around to the idea of a “broken” Spider-Man, and it might well remind the reader of Peter’s own psychological struggles walking away from the suit, when our burglar steps on and breaks a Spidey action figure in his granddaughter’s bedroom. If there hasn’t been enough refraction and multiplication of the Spider-Man role in the story from the broken toy and stolen suit, there are also the large Spidey posters, dolls, and memorabilia owned by the adoring Olivia. Spider-Man seems to be everywhere, to the point that the robber externalizes and talks to the ideal of Spidey in doll form, saying, “She loves you”. For her grandfather, that’s enough motivation to try to actually—act—like a hero rather than just look like one.   But Olivia’s reaction to her grandfather’s impersonation of Spider-Man is ambiguous, and leaves the reader with some room for interpretation. She assures him that there are “only so many people a super hero can save in one day”. Does this mean that she doesn’t expect to be saved, and yet loves Spidey anyway? If so, this suggests that she loves him for who he is—a hero—not for what he could do for her. She values his character above his actions. Spider-Man means something to her as an idea.

That obviously has an impact on the robber, who returns the suit to the trashcan where he found it, presumably so that Spider-Man can find it again, but at least in some kind of gesture of reverence for its symbolic value. His words also leave plenty of room for interpretation “It takes more to be a superhero than just dressing like one”. This isn’t a simple gloss on what Olivia said to her grandfather, but a statement about the whole story arc. Even Olivia, who loves Spider-Man, acknowledges a limitation in the super hero role, that Spidey can’t save everyone, and she’s ok with that. It doesn’t diminish her sense of what a super hero is. For her grandfather, this seems to increase his sense of reverence. Spider-Man might just be a guy in some way. It humanizes the hero. Once the robber realizes that, it seems to dawn on him just what Spidey has managed to accomplish. He knows that the suit can’t turn him into a hero. Peter Parker, learning his own lesson that night, learns that taking off the suit can’t “un-turn” him into a hero, either. The suit’s a symbol, of course, for something, a hero, and not the thing in itself.

(Amazing Spider-Man #50)

So, does it really matter what happened to the suit that night? On Spider-Man’s 50th anniversary as a hero, is a minor mystery worth exploring? Why not take on a bigger gap in his long history? Depending on the details and what the story of the suit contained, it could have just been an amusing anecdote, and a particularly satisfying one, especially if it was clever, as this story is. But the story that Haspiel creates opens up the can of worms that Spider-Man #50 opened and carefully resealed about the nature of heroism, and the convoluted and ambiguous relationship between symbols and actions. As a character, part of Spider-Man’s appeal is that he does not always dish out simple paradigms for heroism. In this story, even Olivia’s aware of that. There’s little doubt that, in Spider-Man #50, Peter Parker is actually quantifiably more heroic when he leaps into action out of costume. It’s equally true that, in Haspiel’s story, the robber becomes potentially heroic when he takes that costume off, too. Does that mean that the costume’s unnecessary, something that should be discarded? No. It means that the costume actually does mean something beyond itself. It’s transcendent, and that’s a hard lesson for both Peter and the burglar. It’s a crushing, overpowering thing that can’t be expelled, eliminated, or thrown out, and it’ll change those who get in its path.

One final stroke of genius from Haspiel is the solemn truth that even in absentia, Spider-Man has stopped another criminal from future violent deeds, thereby safeguarding the innocent. Just the idea of Spider-Man converts the burglar toward some higher form of understanding. At a point in Spidey’s story where he is considered little better than a criminal by society, why not let a criminal take the role for a spin? Why does it matter what happened to the suit during the time Peter tried to escape the role? Because Spider-Man #50 may show us that Peter can’t escape the role in costume or not, but Haspiel’s story shows us that no one can escape the role and impact of heroism. Even the burglar acknowledges that is a big, big responsibility.

(Amazing Spider-Man 50th Anniversary cover, issue #692)