Datebook: Emerald City 2010 – Con Report

Posted by on March 16th, 2010 at 11:57 AM

In the shadow of Southern California

March 13th and 14th saw the eighth annual Emerald City Comicon take place in Seattle.  Since moving to the Washington State Convention Center in 2007, it has rapidly gained critical mass with the hall feeling almost overcrowded this year — the legions of attendees had to be let in 15 minutes early on Saturday due to the fire risk they presented —and most exhibitors hosting more guests than previous years.  The list of creators in attendance was impressive with several top drawer names from the mainstream and independent scenes, many making their first trips to Emerald City.  The difference from previous years was palpable from the start, so much so that two words were on a lot of lips: San Diego.

“You can’t compare — this is a comic book convention,” said Jill Thompson, “San Diego is no longer a comic book convention, it’s a media convention.  Without knowing it, San Diego is going to revitalize a lot of smaller, regional conventions.”  Making her debut at ECCC, she delighted in the more intimate atmosphere and seeing fans carrying around stacks of comics.  Her sentiments were echoed by many of her peers, some of whom — like Tim Sale and Steven T. Seagle — refuse to go to San Diego now because of its focus on film and video game promotion.  “You feel like a second-class citizen,” Matt Fraction told us, even though he’s someone who, in the comics world, is seen as fairly high-profile and media-friendly with his work on the Iron Man franchise.

At Emerald City, it feels very much like a level playing field with indie and mainstream creators side-by-side, enjoying much the same foot traffic at their tables.  For popular creators, this is a welcome break from swarms of conventioneers, allowing them more time for fan interaction, without the pressures of promotion — given its place at the start of convention season, ECCC is relatively announcement-free — and for indie artists it exposes their work to a wider audience.  Jeff Lemire expressed surprise at how diverse the crowd was, seeing as much interest in Essex County as there was for his Vertigo project, Sweet Tooth.  The pervading feeling of the weekend was very that, big or small, it was a good time for comics.

…or most comics.  In light of a recent interview, it’s no secret that Image’s Phonogram series was hard-hit by poor sales.  Its writer, Kieron Gillen was jokingly modest about the fallout: “People have been very sweet. They’ve just come over to hold me and stroke me — but not in a sexual way.”  He was in attendance with one of the few new product launches of the weekend, the trade collection of The Singles Club, which had arrived from the printers just in time, “We’re used to a high-level disaster, that’s the way Phonogram operates.  What’ll happen now is they won’t sell…”

Northwest All Stars

“You can really stub your toe on people around here who are working in comics.”  That was Joelle Jones’ impression of the embarrassment of riches that the Northwest has in terms of comics talent.  One of the nice things about Emerald City is that it acts as a hub for these creators, bringing them together in an impressive way.  Almost every other artist or writer at the convention was based in Washington or Oregon, which certainly helps to give Emerald City its local identity.  “Once Dark Horse started, people began to gravitate toward the company they work for,” Jamie S. Rich explained, “and with Fantagraphics being based in Seattle, too, people just moved in that direction.  I think there’s also something in the fact that the weather is the way it is and it’s conducive to just having to stay indoors and draw.”  Greg Rucka, a fellow Portlander, was eager to concur: “It’s wet – we stay inside! And then the beer’s good and the coffee’s liberal and the cost of living’s not bad.  You’ve got a perfect storm for creators here – cheapskates who can get drunk and caffeinated and don’t have to go out and be social.”

In spite of Rucka’s fairly tongue-in-cheek remarks, there is a healthy sense of community between the writers and artists and even the fans, who seems to delight in the success of local creators.  Seattle’s Matthew Southworth spoke of the reaction to Stumptown, on which he is collaborating with Rucka: “My local comic shop have done a lot to promote the book, so I know a lot of people are aware of it because those guys like me.  In a way [Stumptown] feels like a local book about a local phenomenon by local people that just so happens to be nationally distributed. So I think there’s a feeling like, ‘Yay, one of our boys is doing something and people like it!’”  Buoyed by his success on the Oni-published title — the first issue sold out, as did his print for the convention — he’s keen to now work his way into the mainstream: “If you meet Jimmy Palmiotti at a show, tell him I wanna do Jonah Hex. I also really wanna draw Lobster Johnson for some reason…”

As well as the creators, the publishers were out in force, too: Top Shelf, Oni, as well as the aforementioned Dark Horse and Fantagraphics. The latter brought one of the biggest guests of the weekend, Gilbert Hernandez, who was launching his new Love and Rockets collection, The High Soft Lisp. He entertained a steady stream of fans with signing and sketching, ably assisted by daughter Natalia who showed signs of continuing the Hernandez legacy with her own mini-comic that she was selling.  Another Fantagraphics stalwart and Seattleite, Peter Bagge, was also there albeit as a guest as Vertigo who are set to publish his Other Lives graphic novel in April.

And the winner is…

For all the triumphs of Emerald City, the one that really seemed significant was that of the web cartoonists.  Alongside regulars like PvP and Girl Genius, e-commerce store Topatoco had an impressive presence with no less than 13 creators housed in its cardboard castle booth.  While it’s nothing new for web cartoonists to attend conventions, what was surprising was the line forming in front of Kate Beaton, creator of Hark! A Vagrant, which even rivaled the likes of Ed Brubaker and Mike Allred.  How did a small strip about history and literature manage to garner such a following? “Word of mouth is all.  Online it’s so easy to read someone’s comic – all it is is, ‘Check this out!’ in an email to your friend.  You don’t have to go anywhere – it just spreads that way.” Beaton’s humbleness belies the intelligence that permeates her work, an uncanny ability to draw the inherent humor out of historical figures, whether it be Poe and Verne’s bromance or Queen Elizabeth’s excessive ruffs: “I think almost everyone is interested in history, even if they read other types of comics, everybody likes a certain story or has a favorite character.  When people like something, it gets infectious.  I really like history so maybe that’s why it shines through.  I make comics about what I want to make comics about and I’m glad that everyone else likes them.”  The future looks bright for her, as The New Yorker are preparing to run a series of her cartoons, but whether she’ll ever make the move from the web to more traditional comics seems doubtful, “The problem with longform is that I don’t like putting up things that aren’t finished.  I like putting up comics that are self contained.”

Next year, Emerald City will expand to a three-day event, given the unprecedented success of this weekend’s event. Attendance was up nearly 50% on last year and several retailers were noting record sales for the event, a healthy sign of the endurance of printed matter in the comics medium — how would you sign an iPad anyway? — and economic recovery in general.

Oh yeah, and Stan Lee was there, too…

Top image: ©2010 Mike Allred
Middle image: ©2010 Greg Rucka and Matthew Southworth
Bottom image: ©2010 Kate Beaton

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