A Designers’ Guide to Comic-Con’s Hidden Pleasures

We’re now at the peak of comic book convention season. San Diego’s wrapped last month, Chicago’s just ended, and New York’s is currently gearing up. And these are just the biggies. This onslaught can be nirvana for pop culture nerds. But hordes of designers also flock to these events. This can appear puzzling, considering how media reports mostly emphasize the Hollywood hype, endless queues, cos-play nonsense and such. So let’s take a closer look in this comic-con guide.

Toth_DarknessI’ve written about how graphic designers such as Seymour Chwast and Chip Kidd have been significantly influenced by comics, which you can read here. I’ve also interviewed comics artists about how they utilize design aesthetics in their work, which is here. But why should designers also spend their time at what looks like a ten-ring circus of crass commercialism?

Personally, I hate hobbits, dragons, and the walking dead. And video and Thrones games. As for any interest in Superman v. Batman, I’m Affleck-less. It’s also against my religion to stand in line for anything for more than a couple of minutes. And I view all “collectibles” as needless clutter. Nevertheless, I’m a Con-aholic.

I had my first taste at the appropriately titled “EC Fan Addicts Convention” way back in 1972. Kurtzman, Elder, Wood, and the rest of the 1950s comics giants were guests. I’ve now been hooked for more than four decades. Occasionally I go as a speaker, but mostly for pure pleasure.

So after SDCC, the world’s largest, I gathered personal perspectives from other professional visual communicators from various fields. They each have reservations, but they also continue to make reservations.

Exclusive Imprint illustration by Scott Gandell.

Exclusive Imprint illustration by Scott Gandell.

Peter Kuper is a political, social, and Mad magazine cartoonist. He regularly occupies a premium location in Artists’ Alley, where he sells his art and books. As co-editor of the new World War 3 Illustrated anthology he not only chose the most visually stunning examples from the past 35 years but he also devoted at least as much effort into the book’s subtly refined design.

Peter Kuper: In recent years it’s hard to see much difference from one Comic Con to the next. A change took place many years ago that moved conventions from small gatherings of 99% guys to mega-events with more than a few women. Reading comics once equaled a level of nerd-dom we wore like a badge of honor even when it came along with a literal or figurative ass-kicking. But beginning with the introduction of Star Wars in 1977, festivals moved beyond an inner circle of fans who loved comic books.

Now there is nothing more mainstream than comics, at least as they appear on the screen. Slowly over the years, other non-genre based work broke into the mainstream too, which thankfully included masterpieces like Maus. There was also a wave of alternative comics that demonstrated the potential of the form beyond tights and capes and helped bring graphic novels into bookstores and libraries.

For WW3 Illustrated Peter’s chosen the most visually stunning examples from the past 35 years and devoted at least as much effort into the book’s subtly refined design. While he and I were talking, a fan walked up and stripped off his shirt to show off his tattoo, which he had made on top of a "Spy vs. Spy" cartoon that Peter had drawn on his back a few Cons ago. Absurdist incidents such as this are part of SDCC's normal spontaneous entertainments.

While Peter and I were chatting, a fan walked up and stripped off his shirt to show us that he’d converted a “Spy vs. Spy” cartoon that Peter had drawn on his back at a past convention into a permanent tattoo. Absurdist incidents like this are all part of SDCC’s typical random acts of spontaneous entertainments.

Illustrator and printmaker Scott Gandell’s artwork, which ranges from pleasantly soothing to viscerally kinetic, has been featured in a variety of publications, including right here on Imprint. For the past seven years he’s commandeered the Society of Illustrators of Los Angeles booth, where he promotes the organization and provides a convenient congregation point and oasis of tranquility for attending SI-LA members.

Scott Gandell: My history with “The Con” stretches back nearly two decades. But that’s nothing compared to the two attendees I met on different days—unrelated to one another—that were each carrying their original early 1970s badges.

This year SI-LA initiated live podcast interviews conducted by Santosh Oommen, Marketing & Communications Chair, and myself, VP Development Chair. We were able to cover the fields of comics/graphic novels, animation, children’s books, video games, gallery, film/television, and the US Air Force Art Program with short, insightful interviews of top talents.

Illustration by Scott Gandell, who says, “Zombies, after years at the forefront of pop culture, remain a star of the the show, taking serious bites out of attendees’ time and money.  Men, women, and kids are totally into it. I don't get it personally, but I understand the lure of gore: it's fun to draw. The militarization of commercialism or a playground of pop culture. You decide.”

Exclusive illustration by Scott Gandell, who says, “Zombies, after years at the forefront of pop culture, remain a star of the the show, taking serious bites out of attendees’ time and money. Men, women, and kids are totally into it. I don’t get it personally, but I understand the lure of gore: It’s fun to draw. The militarization of commercialism or a playground of pop culture. You decide.”

You’ve laughed with J.J. Sedelmaier’s animations for MTV, Saturday Night Live, Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, and the Colbert Report. You’ve also enjoyed his visually delightful feature pieces for Imprint. And for his take on SDCC, he’s included a series of recommendations and advice.

J.J. Sedelmaier: This was my third time attending San Diego Comic-Con and I think it’s time for me to finally acknowledge that as much as I hate the crowds—it’s not unlike Christmas shopping at Macy’s on December 24th—and even though the endless costumed fans lose their entertainment value pretty quickly, it still remains an awesome adventure!

I was only there for Friday to do an Ambiguously Gay Duo merchandise signing, and much to my surprise I ended up wishing I could have stayed longer!

Schuiten_CitesObscures-1Schuiten_CitesObscures-2

Artist François Schuiten and author Benoît Peeters, two of many international guests, were on hand to autograph the latest American version of their “Cités Obscures” graphic novel series.

Here’s one of the reasons San Diego Comic-Con “International” has earned its official title: Artist François Schuiten and author Benoît Peeters, special guests and SDCC Inkpot Award winners, were on hand to autograph The Leaning Girl, the latest American version of their “Cités Obscures” graphic novel series.

Trina Robbins and Don Rosa; where else would a “Tits & Clits” comix contributor cozy up to a devoted Disney duck man?

Trina Robbins and Don Rosa; where else would a former “Tits & Clits” underground comix contributor cuddle up with a devoted Disney duck man?

Trina Robbins' biography of Lily Renée is titled "Escape Artist: From Holocaust Survivor to Comic Book Pioneer.” Of all the SDCC celebrity guests, I was most honored to meet Lily, even though she was added just days before the event. Trina gave me the inside skinny: “I decided to go myself at the last minute. Made my flight arrangements on Monday. Then on Tuesday I get an email from Lily's son, who lives near San Diego, saying Lily's visiting them and would like to come to the Con; can she and the family get in free? Lily get in free? Well, duh. I emailed [administrator] Jackie Estrada who basically said the same thing: "Well, duh." And then I arranged with Fantagraphics for us to do a signing together and they went out of their way and moved stuff around to make it work. It was magic!"

Trina Robbins’ biography of Lily Renée is titled “Escape Artist: From Holocaust Survivor to Comic Book Pioneer.” Of all the SDCC celebrity guests, I was most honored to meet Lily, even though she was added just days before the event. Trina gave me the inside skinny: “I decided to go myself at the last minute. Made my flight arrangements on Monday. Then on Tuesday I get an email from Lily’s son, who lives near San Diego, saying Lily’s visiting them and would like to come to the Con; can she and the family get in free? Lily get in free? Well, duh. I emailed [administrator] Jackie Estrada who basically said the same thing: ‘Well, duh.’ And then I arranged with Fantagraphics for us to do a signing together, and they went out of their way and moved stuff around to make it work. It was magic!”

Sedelmaier tip #1: You can chat with the folks who do the work you admire! Here’s your chance to walk up to a creator, artist or writer and hit ’em with the questions you’ve always wanted to ask.

I was thrilled to see Bruce Timm sitting all by himself and grabbed the chance to say how much I loved his work and the spin on the classic superheroes he’s done.

Artists' Alley isn't entirely monopolized by slick, standardized superhero illustrators; comics-maker Eliza Frye and pin-up painter Michelle Delecki are a couple of several that set their own agendas.

Artists’ Alley isn’t entirely monopolized by slick, boring superhero illustrators; comics maker Eliza Frye and pin-up painter Michelle Delecki are a couple of the individual talents who’ve set their own agendas.

Here’s Gilbert Hernandez two days before he – and brother Jaime – were surprised to finally score their long-overdue Eisner Awards. Daughter Natalia still has a couple of years before her big win.

Here’s Gilbert Hernandez two days before he—and brother Jaime—were surprised to finally score their long-overdue Will Eisner Comic Industry Award recognition. Daughter Natalia’s big win is expected sometime in the future.

Geof&Mimi

Geoff Darrow and Mimi Pond are two of the many guest artists all around the Convention Center who were more than happy to sign their latest books for their fans.

Sedelmaier tip #2: You’re guaranteed to cross paths with so many folks that you don’t get to see otherwise, or frequently enough! I end up seeing more people from my home turf in New York when I’m there than I do when I’m home! It was great to see fellow New Yorkers Neal Adams, Robert Smigel, Bill Plympton, and Arlen Schumer. I also was able to reconnect with fellow “Imprintor” Michael Dooley, as well as Batton Lash, Geof Darrow, Sal Abbinanti, and Dean Yeagle.

The biggest thrill for me was to finally meet legendary designer and art director Michael Gross! He was was Executive Producer on Ghostbusters and designed the “No Ghosts” logo. We’ve been corresponding for a couple of years now, but we’d never met and I wasn’t sure it was ever going to happen. I was sitting on the convention hallway floor hanging with the raconteur Michael Dooley when Gross wandered by—with two characters dressed in Ghostbusters garb—and shouted “Michael!” We cracked up at the randomness of the chance meeting!

With 130,000-plus visitors, chance encounters like this one with Michael Gross are frequent.

With 130,000-plus visitors constantly on the move for five days, random encounters of the strange kind that J.J. described above are fairly frequent. Here we are with National Lampoon art director Michael Gross. Photo courtesy of Mr. Gross.

Some people would give their right arm for Chip Kidd's autograph. Unlike movie people, comics guests are usually delighted to stick around and socialize after their talk sessions. Walt Kelly's daughter Carolyn obliges a fan with a Pogo sketch.

Some people would give their right arm for Chip Kidd’s autograph; he was previewing his design of a Peanuts 65th anniversary book. Guests are just about always happy to stick around and socialize post-presentation. After a panel about an upcoming Pogo edition that included movie critic Leonard Maltin, Walt Kelly’s daughter Carolyn obliges a fan with a sketch of the possum.

In the words of Charlie Brown, "What a beautiful gory layout!" What hath Craig Yoe's book publishing wrought upon an unsuspecting public?

In the words of Charlie Brown, “What a beautiful gory layout!” What hath Craig Yoe’s book publishing empire wrought upon the delicate, susceptible minds of an unsuspecting public?

Sedelmaier tip #3: Where else will you have the opportunity to sit in on some really sick panels and presentations consisting of legendary talents?! I only had time to go to Who Created Batman?, but just the roster of ten panelists was enough to make you drool—including relatives of Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson!

One word of advice. It’s a good idea to plan your day with a schedule and acquaint yourself with the convention center. Work around the panels and presentations you want to see, but also be aware that many of the halls fill up and you might get turned away. This means that the time you may need to wait in line for one panel might necessitate you missing another. You just have to juggle you priorities.

SchumerSchumer1_Kirby

Even though you may need to camp out overnight to see B-actors promote genre flicks in the big halls, you can easily manage to slip into most all SDCC comics talks, even in packed rooms. Arlen Schumer's full-house VisuaLecture, which might have been – but wasn't – called "Battle of the Masters: Renaissance and Modernist Painters v. Silver Age Comic Book Illustrators," included works by Marvel's Jack Kirby and The Flash's Carmine Infantino. That's Arlen in the upper left corner, dressed for the occasion of participating in the "Who Created Batman?" panel discussion.

Even though you may need to camp out overnight to see B-actors promote genre flicks in the big halls, you can easily manage to slip into most all SDCC comics talks, even in packed rooms. Arlen Schumer’s full-house VisuaLecture, which might have been – but wasn’t – called “Battle of the Masters: Renaissance and Modernist Painters v. Silver Age Comic Book Illustrators,” included works by Marvel’s Jack Kirby and The Flash’s Carmine Infantino. That’s Arlen in the upper left corner, dressed for the occasion of participating in the “Who Created Batman?” panel discussion.

 

Heidi MacDonald, Gilbert Hernandez, Mimi Pond, and David Lasky after they discussed drawing upon facts and memories when creating graphic novels.

Here’s Heidi MacDonald, Gilbert Hernandez, Mimi Pond, and David Lasky – whose event promo flyer is on the left – after their “Fictionalized Non-Fiction” panel about how writer-artists transform their experiences and memories when creating their graphic novels.

The Comics Arts Conference’s “Poster Session” is designed specifically for attendees to interact directly with presenters; here, a large room of two dozen comics scholars. I spent an enjoyable half-hour with Andre Molotiu, discussing Alex Toth’s sophisticated treatment of visual narrative and page design.

The Comics Arts Conference’s “Poster Session,” held in a large, informal with about two dozen comics scholars, is designed  to allow maximum interaction between presenters and attendees. I spent an enjoyable half-hour with Andre Molotiu, discussing Alex Toth’s sophisticated treatment of visual narrative and page design.

Sedelmaier tip #4: Personally, I get burned out very quickly by the huge corporate booth extravaganzas. Seek out the small boutique companies. Happily, I located the booth of Sunday Press Books! They do absolutely beautiful compilations of vintage newspaper comic strips in all their glorious large Sunday Funnies format sizes. Check out their Winsor McCay and Gasoline Alley collections!

These are the types of companies I love to see present their wares!

Zap-Fanta_a

At SDCC, practically all the major comics publishers have one-hour panels in which they show exclusive previews of upcoming releases as well as booths on the exhibition floor where you can learn more details. Fantagraphics’ big announcements was for its long-awaited “Complete Zap Comics,” a five-volume, 22-pound boxed set with bonus features such as an all-new issue – cover above – and an oral history.

At SDCC, practically all the major comics publishers conduct panels that showcase exclusive previews of upcoming releases, and you can also visit their booths on the exhibition floor for more details. Fantagraphics’ big announcements was for its long-awaited “Complete Zap Comics,” a five-volume, 22-pound boxed set with extra features such as an all-new “Zap” – cover shown above – and an oral history from the title’s primary participants.

IDW’s Artist’s Editions are going strong with a number of current and upcoming deluxe large format volumes, including Jim Steranko’s “Nick Fury” series, with nearly all pages scanned from the original art.

IDW’s Artist’s Editions are still going strong with a number of deluxe, large format volumes, including Jim Steranko’s “Nick Fury” series, meticulously printing pages scanned from the original art.

Marvel’s “Women of Comic-Con” panel kicked off with an alternate Spider-Woman cover by the European erotic comics artist Milo Manara, which caused an uproar, for obvious reasons. On the right is a typical example of Manara’s artwork.

Marvel’s “Women of Comic-Con” panel kicked off by showing an alternate Spider-Woman comics cover by the European erotic comics artist Milo Manara, which caused an uproar, for what should be obvious reasons. On the right is a typical example of Manara’s work.

A fifth tip is to always be on the lookout for worthwhile work from independents. One of my discoveries was Stephan Franck's soon-to-be-released series, "Silver," a supernatural 1930s noir pulp adventure from Dark Planet Comics that Batman artist Tim Sale described as "a fast-moving, thrill-filled story... a really, really fun ride."

A fifth tip is to always be on the lookout for worthwhile work from independents. One of my discoveries was Stephan Franck’s soon-to-be-released series, “Silver,” a supernatural 1930s noir pulp adventure from Dark Planet Comics that Batman artist Tim Sale described as “a fast-moving, thrill-filled story… a really, really fun ride.”

Sedelmaier: As much as I may bitch about the crowds, costumes and bad skin, I have to say it’s totally worth the journey and the experience!

Gandell: I begin preparing for the next con on the last day of the current one. That’s what it takes. And I still manage to forget something. The convention experience is and has always been a positive one peppered with minor mishaps and challenges along the way. The Con is expensive. The Con is exhausting. That being said, it’s worth it.

Kuper: The kind of work I create and enjoy—outside of Spy vs Spy—still remains pretty alternative and often gets buried by the flashing lights, explosions and muscles on display at Comic Con. Nonetheless, there are other kindred souls that show up. And regardless of my annual mantra “This is the last time I’m attending,” I do find pockets of joy and quality work that keeps me coming back.

And oh, yes: the Con's costumes. These particularly memorable outfits were created from actual vintage comic books by the Captured Aural Phantasy Theater troupe as part of their SDCC performance, based on the 1954 Senate hearings on comics and delinquency, in which EC's Bill Gaines testified while wired on Dexedrine.

Oh, yes: people show up in costumes. These particularly memorable outfits were created from actual vintage comic books by the Captured Aural Phantasy Theater troupe as part of their SDCC performance, which was based on the 1954 Senate hearings on comics and delinquency in which EC’s Bill Gaines testified while he was wired on Dexedrine.


Unless otherwise noted, all above Comic-Con pics are by M. Dooley.

Here’s a list of more SDCC-related Imprint features for your reading pleasure …

Graphic novelist Mimi Pond on inspiration, education, and digitization

Trina Robbins on comics heroines, feminism, and lacy underthings

• Craig Yoe Talks ICON, Krazy Kat, and Whether Today’s Cartoonists Ever Get Laid and From Classroom Doodler to Funny-Picture Publisher: Craig Yoe’s Cartoon Evolution

• The Comics of Eliza Frye: A Gateway to the Sequential Arts and Eliza Frye: How to Succeed in Comics, Online and Off

The Comics Arts Conference: taking comics seriously

Those evil comic books that caused rampant juvenile delinquency

The graphic horrors of 1950s comic books

• A fanzine editor’s 60-year love affair with EC Comics

SDCC 2012

SDCC 2011

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3 thoughts on “A Designers’ Guide to Comic-Con’s Hidden Pleasures

  1. Sachmo

    Great article Michael! You make comic books high art. Thanks for sharing your experiences of SDCC. If you can get past all the hoopla then you can find the deeper meaning of the Con.

  2. kimMunson

    This is a great roundup. I think that one of the attractions of large cons like San Diego is that you can find any community you want there. There are whole universes of things going on that I am not part of, yet I see glimpses of them and are glad they are there (ok, I could do without the Bible thumpers screaming into megaphones at the Hall H line). You do see people you would never see anywhere else, and I love all the design panels too. We discussed Temple of Art, and I think that was an interesting project with an all star panel.

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