A Season at the Con

Study for 'Surely I Must Be a Bride in Blood', 2015 Ink on paper.
Study for 'Surely I Must Be a Bride in Blood', 2015
Ink on paper.

I am at Comic-Con 2015 under the ruse of being a journalist. My 15-year-old daughter has a couple of friends whose dads attend as a professional and an exhibitor, respectively, and when they told her of the myriad opportunities to commune with the stars of her favorite shows and movies she demanded I take her. It’s been at least 20 years since I attended the Con and a lot has changed, like no longer being able to get a ticket. It was once a slight hassle, but you could at least walk up the day-of and buy entry. My friend Dan came to my rescue with press credentials for The Comics Journal (and I also received invaluable help with the virtually impassable registration process from the staff), but now I realize I don’t have the instincts or personality of a journalist, to badger witnesses, to go right up to folks thrusting my microphone in their face. Shyness runs in my family. Besides, all the getting up at the crack of dawn to wait in lines to get the chance to get into a signing line, all the waiting and charging with crowds, has me worn out anyway. So some sort of essay will have to do…

The story I was interested in was the transition of what had been an extremely male-nerd-dominated world to one teeming equally with female nerds. I’ve followed my daughter's interests over the years; she began with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, flowed into Twilight, then The Hunger Games, then Insurgent -- all filled with kick-ass women. This seems, to some extent, a fulfillment of William Moulton Marston's hopes of helping to usher in a matriarchal society through the introduction of a powerful comic heroine. Of course, as a 15-year-old, my daughter's loyalties have shifted often. Past favorites like Hunger Games and Supernatural no longer quicken her pulse (plus she’s rational enough to know the lines for some stuff at the show are just beyond her non-camper capabilities). This moment in time, she maintains a laser focus on Teen Wolf, Orphan Black, The Maze Runner, The 100, and Game of Thrones. She manages to meet up with an Instagram pal from San Diego for the Teen Wolf panel, and Thursday night we catch a screening of The Maze Runner with a sneak peak of the opening quarter of The Scorch Trials, with the star, director and author in attendance. Before the screening, she steps out to use the restroom and happens to pass within five feet of the star and her heart is aflutter as she returns to her seat. This is the closest she will get to a Teen Wolf actor for the entire convention.

Study for 'Hall of Remembrance', 2015
Study for 'Hall of Remembrance', 2015

I began receiving press releases for a large number of events and publications due to my new status as a journalist, the vast majority of which held no interest for her. One finally arrived for a Teen Wolf press conference, to which we quickly applied, but found out a week later that our kind of press didn’t really matter to MTV, though they at least announced it-- most film and TV events never made it to us, since they no doubt figured only TV press mattered to them. As the days passed, we tried repeatedly to garner a golden ticket to one of three Teen Wolf  signings, always to have her hopes cruelly dashed in all manner of ways. The Fox group signing seemed like a reasonable bet as the line was about a quarter the length of the concurrent Warner Brothers line, and perhaps a tenth of the Lego line (were I a good journalist, I would have had the nerve to ask those in the Lego line what the hell they were queuing up for, but I contented myself with making up answers. There were no stars to meet, but I’d heard that people line up for exclusive Comic-Con toy releases that they can then resell on eBay. Or maybe they’re just crazier than I am). As we moved closer to the point at the head of the line where you got to draw the possibility of being in the line to actually meet the stars, it was announced that all Teen Wolf passes were gone. Our disappointment was moderated by the notion that even if we’d gotten there at midnight or whenever the line formed, we still might not have gotten a ticket. Then we tried for further chances at the MTV booth, which was an entirely different form of hell. Their method of dispersing tickets was perverse in a manner Stalin might have enjoyed. One was told to form a line at 5:15. At 4:45 a line would begin to form, which would be dispersed by bouncers at 5:00. The same early arrivers would then again form a line ten minutes later, which would again be dismissed. Then at 5:15, when attempting to reform the line at the appointed time, a huge mass of new fans would emerge, choking all possibility of sense or order and a random number of fans would somehow get allowed to draw a chance at a signing, all at the whim of the bouncers. If a particularly popular show, like Game Of Thrones, were to show up at a booth in the main exhibition hall, it became like the movie premier in The Day of The Locusts, in a place guaranteed to bring out the claustrophobic in anyone. I worried for the fate of an agoraphobic fan.

I am trying to figure out the ways to approach the one Silver Age artist scheduled, Ramona Fradon, who is a new idol of mine and won’t appear until Friday. As I wander the periphery dedicated to the art that inspired the Comic-Con originally, I realize that the things I once bargain hunted through, old comic books and original art, had inflated faster than the real estate in my gentrifying neighborhood. Silver age comics that were seven dollars twenty years ago are now priced at $700. I feel lucky to have collected a bit in the old days, and realize that the seemingly expensive reprints I now hunger for are a bargain. This inflation is probably tied to the appearance of auction houses that, as far as I know, are as rigged as those in the art world I normally inhabit. The real reason may be tied into the new world of post-reality economics, in which inflation has nothing to do with rising wages and stock prices have no relation to the productivity of the companies whose stock is being traded. It mostly seems to relate to a world of excess wealth searching endlessly for an investment that pays higher than interest rates, usually that forgetting most such investments are risky anomalies followed by crashes. Some of that excess cash seems to be ending up in the old comics market.

Back on the convention floor, though, the inflation is  attached to obscenely budgeted, tent pole movie franchises made out of the humbly drawn fantasies of underpaid comic professionals whose pens and typewriters were responsible for the Gold and Silver Age comics. The difference between the mediums, and the inflation of their budgets, decried with good reason by Alan Moore, is also the difference that explains the hysteria and scale of the present Comic-Con. The “fuckability” of the comic book Captain America versus that of Chris Evans and the (McCluhan-defined) cool desirability of the written word Game of Thrones versus the fully hot desirability of the HBO “adult” TV version engender a much larger fandom, no longer a nerdy male preserve. While more democratic, this big tent dweebish kingdom begs the question, is this a good thing?

When comic books were in their infancy, America was struggling from a poor farm and industrial economy, which was thrown from the depths of the depression into the struggles of WWII. Comic books were an affordable, throw away entertainment the very poor could enjoy. After the war, the U.S. was suddenly the preeminent power in the world and dominated it for most of my lifetime. I was born in the middle of the baby-boom and experienced a world still haunted by the recent past. Though they are often seen as times of excessive consumption, for most of us the times were dominated by thrift learned from the depression. I presume that a lot of the hippie lifestyle ethos was gleaned from our parents who were forced to scrimp and save and recycle and darn socks (before they were all made in China), but with sex and drugs added in. Dropping out was a way of decolonizing ourselves from the puritan work ethic, but this soon wore thin as our old jeans, and in the '70s the yuppie world became the dominant cultural force, weirdly bringing new post-modern forms of conspicuous consumption into a country that was rapidly de-industrializing itself in an ongoing act of auto-cannibalizing. At present, we are on the precipice of the highest standard of living for the most people in the history of the world, (if you are willing to overlook the deteriorating quality of our food and environment--that planned obsolescence is part and parcel to that standard, that there is no more security, and that all our files, or bank accounts could be wiped clean with the click of a mouse). We in the haves column can now surround ourselves in useless but cool stuff our puritan forebears would regard as loathsome self indulgence. The collecting of stuff used to be the realm of peculiar rich inheritors and dandies -- pitiable sorts of persons. Now it’s a legit lifestyle choice for those of us adrift in a meaningless world. But, like the beautifully designed Japanese gum packs covered in layers of bright pop culture symbols that I encountered when moving to Los Angeles in the late '70s, there sure is a lot of cool shit out there.

Amidst the stalls of booksellers, I came across a publisher, McFarland and Company, whose specialty is academic titles devoted to analysis of pop culture forces like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and superhero comics. I imagine many of them are textbooks for classes the authors teach (for those comic academics and scholars reading this, I apologize if my flippant unproven ideas are wrong). In some ways this could be a prime example of how decadent our culture has become, and a good example of why educational policy experts are gutting humanities courses for STEM stuff. Unfortunately  I am also guilty of overanalyzing the pop culture detritus that helps form the ground our identities spring from, that frame our society, that my artwork revels in. And some of it is very cool.

The movie studios continue to churn out spectacles for us to invest a few of our increasingly meaningless dollars into every summer. Even if the ending can be foretold by the third minute of the film, even though every work of Hollywood film “art” is made to turn a profit (and so, no matter the intelligence and creativity of the writer and director, the stories are all the same), the craftspeople are doing incredible work regardless of the crap it’s grafted onto. I marveled at the climactic battle sequence in the Avengers; Age of Ultron, as bodies flew through the air in carefully designed chaos. Last year's Sons of Anarchy poster featured a complex fight scene worthy of a renaissance painting. Perhaps the lack of meaning doesn’t matter at all. Or maybe kids go in search of meaning in other ways.

My daughter likes to get incensed at injustices she reads about on social media, and has many firmly held or forming beliefs which are expressed by words rather than action. My general inaction on the behalf of my own beliefs is usually blamed (by me) on the never ending series of deadlines my (modest) success in the art world has brought on, along with the suspicion that any change brought about by the clicks of a computer keyboard is fairly illusory. Her inaction is enhanced by the ease by which the computer screen enables her entry into the realms of entertainment, along with the discomfort real world problems bring to her world.

Brain as an Organ, c. 1973-74. Ink on paper
Brain as an Organ, c. 1973-74. Ink on paper.

My own nerd era began to die as I segued into teenagehood. Born in ‘52, the Kennedy assassination, the Beatles and James Bond came along right in time for my pubescence, and comic book superheroes sort of got shoved aside. I was aware that Kirby and Ditko were doing some pretty psychedelic stuff and I’d occasionally pick up a comic that made a stab at “hip” stuff, but mostly I focused on the music from England and the West Coast. You never really leave behind the stuff that haunted your youth, and when. R Crumb’s Head Comics came out I bought it, along with some San Francisco concert posters and underground newspapers, on one of my trips to Ann Arbor. So comics remained a chunk of my life. All of my interest in superhero comics is capped in 1965, in a sense insulating me from the endless soap opera aspect that inevitably cloaks an ongoing storyline that goes on too long. Alan Moore aside, I’ve missed out on most of what happened in the superhero realm for the past 50 years, happy to rethink the peculiarities that bound DC comics in the comic code years, blissfully unaware of the attempts to inject realism or “adult” elements into the genre. It always comes as a bit of a shock when a bad mutant casually kills a human in an X-Men film. My superhero world is trapped in a sort of amber.

Outside the convention center lies the Gaslight district, once the best place for thrift stores, pawnshops and dive bars in San Diego. Now it’s home to swank hotels and indoor-outdoor bar and grills that swarm with conventioneers. My daughter seeks out further panels at venues with names like Nerdist and nerd.com. Here the real world and the fantasy worlds collide in unpredictable ways. There are organized parades to promote a variety of TV shows that snake around the bars and exo-convention displays: men with nose putty, tuxedos and umbrellas publicizing “Gotham”; people in shark masks for “Sharknado 3: Hell No!; a smaller group of mostly undressed women with elaborate temporary tattoos for some show about an amnesiac who wakes up naked in a public square covered in the same elaborate tattoos. There are actual Christians with protest signs hanging around the crosswalk that bears the throngs of fans, entreating them to repent or end up in eternal damnation. They are suddenly beset by a crowd of Satanists–for-hire holding signs and chanting about the Anti-Christ, publicity for an Omen based show called Damien. They hand out leaflets that are a good approximation of Jack Chick tracts, which impresses me. A block away we spy a guy cos-playing as Jesus carrying a large cross.

Study for 'The Cavern', 2015  Pencil on paper
Study for 'The Cavern', 2015
Pencil on paper

On Saturday I deliver my daughter to an Orphan Black meet and greet several blocks from the convention, which has a line that wraps around the block and doubles back on itself, but it’s not so long that she won’t get the little pin that assures entry. I then head over to the line that surrounds the off-site Game of Thrones exhibition to hold her place for a couple of hours. This is a strategic move to avoid her having to get in line at 6 a.m. Sunday for the same exhibit, a tougher day to get into since it’s only open for 3 final hours. That Sunday line would be a sort of church for fanatics I suppose. After my daughter takes my place in line, my wife arrives from our distant hotel (all those near the con were sold out as soon as the dates were announced) by Uber and we sit in the lobby bar of hotel across the street. A group of kilt-wearing hunks and lady bagpipers arrive and most take elevators upstairs to what I assume is a suite rented for their costuming, and rest between parades meant to publicize Outlander. Two pseudo-Scotsmen linger in the lobby, one chats with a woman dressed as Princess Jasmine. They kiss and he heads upstairs. When I ask him how he ended up in this get up, he said he had answered an ad in an actors magazine in LA looking for guys who fit the shirtless Scot profile--one more gig for a struggling actor. It seems like a lot of work for such a relatively small number of fans to witness, but it must be expected to work a social media peer endorsement miracle, true advertising gold for the producers.

My daughter, between long stints waiting in line, looks carefully through the merch section. Rather than the t-shirts I figured she’d take home with her, she’s perusing the giclee prints fan artisans have lovingly created and now display on the convention floor. After much thought, she purchases three GoT oriented artful, nicely designed unlimited edition prints at reasonable prices, and another of Princess Mononoke rendered in an old Japanese print style. I am reminded of my early days trying to display my rather odd wares at the local art fair, when art was grounded in a simple form of capitalism, instead of being caught up in the vortex of postmodern excess value investment vehicle portfolio diversions. Of course I could never earn a living doing that now.

I manage to meet Ramona Fradon at her table and intermittently engage her in talk about her history and some of our more esoteric interests (alchemy, gnostic symbolism, tantric practices), though I feel uneasy trying to engage in an interview while she is hoping to sell her wares. After sussing out that at 92, she has no interest in working with me on a collaborative piece, I make a deal to commission a piece that will be part of a show at my London gallery entitled “Faux Amis” in which gallery artists are paired with artists they feel a kinship with or are inspired by. I can’t imagine being as lucid and vibrant at 92 as she is today. I also attend a panel in which she is a guest, about a new book on golden age women comic artists, and the general sexism of the industry. The publisher of the book takes out a chunk of time to decry a brand new discounting policy of Amazon’s that he says will cripple the industry, since the market is so small and dependent on presales. The previous panel in that room, about a obscure (to me) contemporary comic publisher's titles featured some hot babe models dressed as (I assume) some of their hot babe characters had twice as many attendees. I am just a shadow of a dying breed.

Study for 'The Whore of Babylon Riding the Beast of Seven Heads and Ten Horns', 2015 Digital rendering of original pencil on paper study
Study for 'The Whore of Babylon Riding the Beast of Seven Heads and Ten Horns', 2015
Digital rendering of original pencil on paper study

I tried to get some good shots of the non-professionals walking around in character on the convention grounds but the slight delay on the iPhone meant those unposed moments were usually blocked by an unexpected fan crossing. I was always amused by the peripheral presence of costumes in past cons, but now it is a normal occurrence, not simply something put on for the masquerade ball. As I sat collapsed next to a girl in the most pathetic costume attempt at some obscure character with long Pluto-like ears, I was surprised by how many people came up and complemented her on the outfit, I suppose because just recognizing such an obscure figure makes them both members of an exclusive club. While I waited in the Game of Thrones line, two of my neighbors are dressed in much more lovingly made costumes of obscure (to me) robots from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Every couple of minutes, they pose for photos with appreciative fans. I come to see this as a sort of transvestitism that demands the same respect we slowly have given cross-dressers after initially giggling at them. What is actually weird is when you see a guy dressed as Thor who actually has a heroic physique. I saw no Vampirellas, but plenty of Black Widows, the blondes from GoT, Supergirls, etc. I don’t know what my daughter thinks as she sees the young women all tarted up, if the kick ass empowerment out-balanced the tits and ass aspect of it for her.

I wonder if this new kind of community is all the natural result of the machine age, where work has mostly lost it’s meaning, unions are powerless, ethnic groupings have less importance, subsistence living no longer dominates our lives, goods are meant to be thrown away shortly after purchase, and religion only gives meaning to a minority. Consumers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chain stores.

Jim Shaw is an artist based in Los Angeles. He currently has an exhibition, Entertaining Doubts, at MASS MoCA and is opening a retrospective entitled The End is Here in October at the New Museum in New York.