Saturday, August 27, 2005

Wizard World Chicago 2005, pt. 3

First, a thought on gimmicks in comics:

When I first started collecting, from about 1990 on, die-cut covers, holographic prints, foil stamping, poly-bagging, and other “special” comic cover editions were all the rage. A number one issue and a limited-edition trading card meant collectors snatching up issues by the dozens. Comics that had no business being “collector’s item” issues were being printed, industrial-style, by the thousands.

After a while, fans like me got sick of it all – wasting $3-4 on comics that were pretty to look at but no fun to read. So the comic industry went through a sort of depression, and rightfully so.

Thankfully, most of that’s changed. For one thing, the switch from artists-as-superstars to respecting the entire creative team has been a welcome transformation. Where once all you needed was Jim Lee or Todd McFarlane on an issue to sell buttloads, now a dynamic writer/penciler team sells issues. Writers are now getting the same respect only artists knew 10 years ago. Sure, comics are a visual medium – but you can only read so many “Look out behind you!” phrases uttered by buff babes and brutes. You need substance.

Plus all the recent movies. Those help, too.

The Ghostbusters stop by for a visit.

Something I noticed by the third day of the Wizard World Chicago convention, however, was the special “variant” edition comics sneaking back on the scene. I saw dozens of “Wizard World Exclusives” on comics ranging from Fathom to Fantastic Four, and it irritated me. These types of so-called “exclusives” spoke only to the “collector” as opposed to the “reader.”

Are you in comics to make money, or appreciate the art and stories?

* * * *

On my third day in Chicago, packing and shuffling by Gugin, Nate, and Jenny woke me up early Sunday morning. It was load-the-Jeep time, and boy what a chore. How do you fit several thousand dollars worth of merchandise and reading material into the back of a Jeep Grand Cherokee?

The segue into metaphor is an easy one here. How does a comic fan ever fill their “back seat?”

It was almost impossible to think of the convention in any other terms than Marx’s. Material possessions, desire, product creating status – a Marxist experiment if there ever was one. I watched as fans spent hundreds and thousands of dollars on figurines and collectibles that would probably just sit on a shelf – or worse, in a box in the closet. But collectors never think of that – they live for The Moment, the point of sale, the event horizon of purchase. I understood it, because I felt it, too. But only $80 worth.

I decided to spend my day filling in gaps in my comic collection, a few left-overs from the previous days, and anything I could find cheap. I had new list – a Sunday list – and I was ready to go.

There were plenty of deals to be had. Dealers were marking down prices on everything, with four-for-$1 instead of three-for-$1 boxes springing up everywhere. I found tons of Savage Dragon, Witchblade, and Spider-Man titles for a quarter or 50 cents a piece. I even cleaned house on Danger Girl, completing the entire run for $1 or 50 cents an issue.

On our way home, I asked everyone to share the best deal they found at the convention. Mine was easy. I found a vendor that sold me issues one-through-four of the new House of M series – for $5. A couple of New Avengers issues for $2 were steals, too.

But there was heartbreak. Josh Middleton’s Psylocke print that I went nuts over yesterday? Gone. All of them. He sold out.

“Oh no,” I said to the girl that was watching his booth. “I just talked to him last night, before I left.”

“Well, he’ll be back at 12:30 if you want to try back then,” she said. “I just sold the last one a few minutes ago.

The Artists Alley - a place for the lesser-knowns to scetch for fans.

Just like my super-hero idols, I knew defeat. Crushing, soul-darkening defeat. Plus I had a killer headache that was literally blurring my vision. This thing wasn’t ending well.

* * * *

To keep myself going, I set up little mini-missions for myself to accomplish before the convention ended. Completing my Danger Girl collection, finding $1 issues of NYX, looking for the X-Men Unlimited #47 (the one with Middleton’s beautiful Psylocke rendering) – like pirates looking for buried treasure, I was looking for any hidden gem I could find.

I looked as crowds of people swarmed the quarter and 50 cent boxes, fingering through thousands of back issues to find what I had already found – a deal. At the Marvel booth, interns were throwing merchandise into a crowd of shouting fans. The noise perked my interest enough to go take a look. Mutants, I thought, looking for the Next Big Fix.

Fans grabbing for swag at the Marvel booth.

One pleasant surprise - I saw Erik Larsen (Savage Dragon, Amazing Spider-Man) and managed to get his autograph. One of my heroes, and man does he hold his pencil weird.

Erik Larsen and his unique drawing style.

Eventually, I ran out of money, and the throbbing in my neck and temples became too much to bear. Like kryptonite, the place was getting to me. I did a quick sweep of the crowds for Gugin, and – finding no one I knew – fled to the hotel at about 4:00. I sat outside Sarah’s Pantry, a little over-priced convenience shop, and paid $2.75 for a Diet Dr. Pepper. I sat and closed my eyes, willing the headache to go away.

When I opened my eyes, I saw several women in workout gear leaving one of the hotel’s conference rooms. Soon, more came. “Sweet She-Hulk,” I thought, “I’ve stumbled into a jazzercise seminar.” More and more came, wiping sweat from their faces, and a few came into the convenience shop for bottles of water and juice. I got here at the right time, it seemed.

There’s no better way to end a convention dedicated to idolizing the ubermensch (and frau) than watching fit chicks in spandex parade past my watering eyes. “You’re in the wrong place,” I told them in my head. “If you want to be worshipped, head across the street.”

Or maybe not. It might not come to a good end, 30-year-old Japanimation fans hyped up on Mt. Dew and Chun-Li look-alikes groping and molesting these lovely ladies. Then again, the geeks would probably get their asses kicked.

* * * *

Gugin and the rest eventually appeared, and we headed home – a four-hour trek across Illinois, Indiana, and southern Michigan along east-bound I-94.

Loading the Jeep took 20 minutes. It became a rolling juggernaut of collectibles and dorkiness. I thought how easy it would be to replace me with a G.I. Joe figurine in the front seat. All you’d have to do is open the door if I fell asleep.

We found our way to a Pilot convenience store, ate Pizza Hut, and screamed “Jesus!” in unison as Gugin nearly killed us on the on-ramp, screeching tires and all.

About halfway I asked Gugin and Nate why they did it – why spend all this money on stuff that will sit in boxes and bags until who-knows-when? Was it for the enjoyment, or for the possible returns on an investment?

Both. That was their answer.

They both truly enjoyed the comics medium, and everything connected to it. They shared the stories, they admired the artwork, the felt for the characters – just as I did.

But they also had plans for the items they were collecting. One day, they said, they might open a comic specialty shop.

“Just with all our long boxes alone, we’d have all the inventory,” Nate said.

eBay, every true collector’s friend, also held the key to making money. Gugin sold lots of his comics and collectibles online, but kept the ones he enjoyed.

“I still break out my lightsaber and turn that bad-boy on,” Gugin said. “It’s just so bad-ass.”

This was the key, I thought, of the whole weekend. Call us nerds, geeks, dorks – but never call us dispassionate. Just as old men tinkered on old cars in their garages, or moms went to yard sales looking for rose-painted dishware, we had a hobby. And we were serious about it.

I won’t make the call on which is better – comic “collector” or “reader,” though I do have an opinion. But maybe it’s better to be both, as Nate and Gugin were. Enjoy the comics, read the comics, and sell the ones you can make a profit on. It made sense.

I knew the $200 I spent on comics was worth it. Knew it, because I know I was going to spend a week reading all of them, thinking of the stories and lessons they taught, and filling in holes in a collection that I had worked on since I was 10 years old.

And that Psylocke print I so desperately wanted? I met up with Josh Middleton later that day, and asked what comic that art had appeared on. I found it, brought it back to Middleton, and got it signed. He was really generous about the whole deal.

Now I have something I can appreciate looking at and reading. And that’s what comic books are all about.

:::: the end ::::

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