We are hip deep in convention season. And with the granddaddy of them all, San Diego Comic Con looming large on the horizon like a hungry Unicron, I've been thinking a bit about my own experiences as a frequent attendee and sometimes exhibitor of various comic conventions.
I remember reading about SDCC in Wizard Magazine in the early 90s and thinking that it sounded like the most amazing experience of geekdom (not that we called it that back then). Wizard's coverage of it was first of I'd seen in the days before the internet and the thought of being immersed in that level of comic book nerdiness with that many like minded people seemed too good to be true for an old school nerd like myself. I first attended SDCC in the 1998. I drove down to San Diego with friends on Saturday morning, found easy parking in a dusty vacant lot within 10 minutes of the convention center, in what is probably now Petco Park, home of the Padres. I waited in line for about an hour to buy my one day ticket for the event. I talked to some favorite artists, caught a glimpse of Stan Lee and Frank Miller while people waited for signatures and saw all the new products and comics set to release that year. There was nearly no Hollywood presence except for the actual Time Machine prop from the upcoming Guy Pearce movie, and the only cosplay I saw were a handful of Klingons and some Jedi.
Things have changed.
Now it's a nuthouse, sold out in seconds and only someone with a connection gets to go. I'm lucky enough to attend due to my status as a professional art fuck. But I now have to park miles away, can't find lodging and have to crowd into the light trolley with 16 year olds dressed as either obscure anime characters or characters for video games I haven't played. At least that's what I tell myself when I can't identify the characters because fuck you, I'm not old!
Most cons are like this now. Nuthouses. Filled to the rafters with freshly born geeks free to express themselves in any way they want, loving any fandom they want. Some people bitch about this, citing that the true fans can't get in anymore (of which I know a few) and that comic cons are no longer about comics. Both are true. As I said, things have changed. But one very import part of SDCC hasn't changed, and this is true of every convention, large or small. Artist Alley is the heart and soul of every convention.
I'll elaborate. The stuff at the booths will be mass produced and shuffled out to the public in toy stores and malls and specialty shops throughout the world. Even the exclusives can be found online on Etsy and Ebay. Trailers for the most anticipated movies will be available online within hours of their initial showing. And the pros that populate the booths and signing spaces are just going to work.
But the artists in Artist Alley are there because they fucking love it. It is where the truly unique and special things can be found. The variety of work found there is always greater than the stuff at the big two's booths because the artists there are taking the risks the mainstream companies won't. They're not mired by profit margins and shareholder's expectations. And many of the artists there rival the work of the pros. Some of the artists there are old pros whose style has influence generations. Want a Bob Layton original Iron Man drawing? I saw him at an Artist Alley in Long Beach a couple of years ago. Want to meet Sergio Aragonés? He's been at most of the conventions I've attended.
As was published at observer.com last year:
"If you attended New York Comic Con to cosplay, wait in line for celebrity panels, play video games, buy toys, or for any of the other seemingly infinite reasons a fellow nerd may find themself making the annual pilgrimage to the Javits Center, I’m sure you had a fantastic time.
But unless you made it down to Artist Alley, in the far North corner of the convention center, you missed the real reason why NYCC exists in the first place."
It can be overwhelming. There's A LOT of artists in artist alley. How do you choose who to talk to, or what to flip through? As an attendee, I don't take it all in one gulp. I go back throughout the day and check out new aisles and talk to the people who's art I like, or the ones who want to talk about their stuff.
As an exhibitor, I'll talk to anyone who wants to chat. Traditionally we artist are a lonely lot who spend long hours by ourselves inhaling paint fumes. Sometimes that breeds introverts. Sometimes it creates attention whores like me! And it's always easy to tell one from the other. So I'll talk your ear clean OFF, and while I'm always hoping for a sale, I'm never expecting it. Nor am I disappointed when someone doesn't buy anything. Often times people come back at the end of the show and get a print or something because they liked my work and because I was nice. This has been a constant at all the cons where I've exhibited, LBCC & LA Comic Con. I'm hoping to have a table at WonderCon next year, fingers crossed. Perhaps some day I'll exhibit at SDCC (although it's my understanding you need to blow the president of geekdom to get a table there), but not this year.
It's also a perfect spot to find something special for the geek in your life who has EVERYTHING. What do you wanna get them for their birthday this year? More crap with a Star Wars logo on it that's sold in every Target from here to the moon? Or something unique that you can't get everywhere and you get to say, "I met the artist. He was devastatingly handsome. I had him sign it."