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The Indisputable Matt Maxwell Presents:





Four AM: the hour when you confront your darkest innermost self, perched on the precipice of your own personal Gehenna. You are alone, unable to hold another’s hand or depend on a kind word. You are your own engine, your own nerve the fuel.

Yeah, I’ve got a problem with getting up before the sun rises. Just toss it on the pile of my own personal shortcomings that I’ve collected over the years and have left to rust in my front yard, in willful, insouciant defiance of the homeowner’s association and their growing, steaming resentment. Let it rust there like that faded green ’66 Chevy Nova that wouldn’t move short of an act of God, benevolent or otherwise.

But I have nobody to blame aside from myself. I planned the trip to Los Angeles to Book Expo America without someone holding a gun to my head. Quit griping, Maxwell, get a shower and some coffee and pray those whimsical elemental spirits that the closure of I-5 won’t actually prevent me from reaching the airport in time. O poltergeists of asphalt, O fairies of the freeway, those concrete rivers of civilization’s lifeblood, don’t put any more obstacles in my way than I already have.

Sometimes, even, those muttered prayers are answered. Takeoff and blissful sleep for an hour at least as I headed towards Smogtown, towards Ellay, towards the sprawl in which you can stack a thousand Manhattans. In the gray of early morning, the blooming Jacaranda trees were zigzags of regal purple, gashes of color in the middling pools of gray brown mixed to grown. I remember living in a place that had a Jacaranda season (in between Spring and Summer), but that was a long time ago.

And the Flyaway bus from LAX to Union Station for all of four dollars is the best deal you’re going to find in all the city. Truly it is. The meandering cabbie who spoke in a language I couldn’t identify (and happily carrying on a conversation with a fellow unidentified-language speaking cabbie driving the car that nervous-makingly paced us as we passed the Gehry-designed whorls of the Disney Concert Hall on Bunker Hill) meandered me to the Stillwell Hotel on Grand. I seem to find all the places with character. The elevator was no bigger than a broom closet; Kitty Pryde herself would have been hard-pressed for elbow room in it, so hulking myself was positively claustrophobic.

Despite the cool of the Jacaranda-season morning, I was breaking a sweat by the time I walked the eight-tenths of a mile to the Convention Center. I might have put too many copies of STRANGEWAYS in my satchel after all, but like the Boy Scout I never was, I was prepared. I would come to regret that.

Let’s talk a moment about Book Expo America. Unlike San Diego Comic Con, which is probably its closest equivalent in the comics world, BEA is about these big heavy things called “books,” perhaps you’ve heard of them. Now, at SDCC, you can get heavy things like bronze casts of the Hulk’s foot or a full-size replica of Captain America’s shield, or a Galactus HeroClix model which is apparently made to a 1:1 scale. But mostly I don’t do that. The dustcatchers aren’t my thing. But I’m a sucker for books.

And at BEA, in an effort to hook you on their books, some publishers give away highly-colored catalogs printed on a wide variety of papers selected for their seductively sensual qualities. You grab enough art publisher catalogs and you’re talking about some real weight there. When someone offers me a catalog with titles that talk about “Interconnected Infrastructural Ecologies in Los Angeles,” I simply can’t say no. Maybe you’re stronger than me. Good for you. Me? I embrace my weakness. I follow my bliss. And my bliss led me straight into the jaws of hell. Go, bliss. Go.

Lots of art publishers, lots of pretty catalogs that I’ll circle a title or two out of and put on my Amazon wishlist. ‘Cause in a week, I’m probably going to forget that I even had ‘em. Then of course, there’s the actual reading of those books. Who has time to read?

Still, though, my bliss demanded that I linger at the Taschen booth and lovingly gaze at the Werner Werkstatte collection. Rationally, there was no way for me to carry it, but still, the bold graphic design called to me, siren-like, urging me to dash myself upon the jagged rocks of my bibliophilic lust. I was strong, marshalling the last of my resources and just putting the book down. I was here on other business, was I not? Weakness is for lesser men, not for Doom. Er, Maxwell.

But still, those catalogs, and in some cases (thank you DC) free books begin to weigh you down after a time. Granted, BEA was probably not quite as big as SDCC in terms of sheer surface area and number of halls to pace, but the heavier swag makes for a greater test of raw strength and endurance. “Death by tote” as Heidi, noted. I can’t argue with that assessment, even if the floors were cushy carpeted and nearly everyone had put on cologne that day. Oh yes, the air was fresh, and surprisingly un-miasma like.

After making as quick a reconnoiter of the main hall as I could, I trudged over to the gustatory gem that is hidden from all but the most seasoned of LA Convention Center explorers. I speak not of the overpriced food court with its plasticine sandwiches and chlorophyll-free lettuce-based salads. I speak not of the Pantry, as it’s further up Figueroa and generally better (and less crowded) for breakfast than for lunch. I speak not of the host of fast food placed scattered along the blocks north of 9th street between Flower and Grand.

I speak, friend, of Bernardo’s taco stand in the giant car wash on Olympic at Figueroa. Carnitas is the yardstick by which I measure quality. It used to be carne asada (aka marinated skirt steak for you non-natives out there), but me and guacamole have come to an understanding. I don’t eat it and it doesn’t kill me. Simple. For less than the cost of a rubber chicken sandwich that’s as dry as the Atacama plains, you can have moist, delicious shredded pork, tortillas galore and all the fixings. The drinks are all-you-can-consume-safely-or-otherwise and it’s a great way to escape the convention center for a little while. I may start leading expeditions there for a small, strictly nominal fee. Well worth the trip.

Interestingly, for a show that’s played up having a Graphic Novel section, a lot of the comics action was on the main floor. DC, Tokyopop, Viz, Fantagraphics, First Second, Boom! and a couple others I’m forgetting offhand (probably Scholastic) were all interspersed on the main floor. That’s not where the differences end. Let’s take a bit of a closer look.

DC focused almost exclusively on their trade content, emphasizing Vertigo, Minx and CMX-related output. The DCU was represented, to be sure. But not as monthlies. It was literally all about the trades, both backlist and frontlist material. And if you played your cards right, you could walk away with copies of INCONEGRO, FABLES, the second PLAIN JANES graphic novel, a JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED collection for the kids, and a copy of TIME MASTERS (signed by Bob Wayne—watch this guy: he could really go places.) Shelves were lined with thick collections of hardcover and softcover trades, as well as the titanic Absolute edition books. Interestingly, Vertigo wasn’t leaning as heavily on SANDMAN as they had in the past: focusing equally on newer titles like CAIRO and ARMY@LOVE as well as the more familiar titles that built the brand.

Marvel, who was based at the Graphic Novel Pavilion (read: aisle) had a very different set up. Now, given that there’s a movie about one of their franchise characters burning up the box office, what’s the one title that you’d figure you could BET THE FARM would be there? You’d say “IRON MAN, baby. Put it all on gold!”

You’d also be out one farm. The only place Shellhead appeared was in the SECRET INVASION crossover. No name brand Iron Man material. No monthlies, no trades. No. Trades. The only big, lasting name they had out was THE ULTIMATES (in a pencil art variant that’s more likely to end up on Ebay than to convince any booksellers of the book’s quality). There was some AVENGERS/INVADERS crossover material, and some Classics Illustrated material. But there were no books. There was nothing to indicate that Marvel was going to be capitalizing on their media tie-ins.

IDW had a bigger and more professional booth than Marvel did. They featured trades prominently, though had some singles out for consideration. In short, they looked a lot more like a book company than a comics company (though to be fair, they were touting a lot of Transformers stuff with sticky window decals and signage all over the convention center). If I was one of those “Now what’s all this about comics not being for kids?” folks, I’d as sure as shooting have gravitated towards IDW and blown Marvel off. Oh, and I’ll add that it was pretty cool to get a chance to chat with Cory Doctorow (he of LITTLE BROTHER and BOING BOING fame) and to read over an issue of his recent IDW comic, which, believe it or not, was a great single comic that didn’t read like an isolated chapter. That’s how you get me to read singles.

If you’re wanting to take scores, DC came out smelling like a winner. Marvel, not so much so. Which makes me reconsider some of the gossip circulating about DC versus Marvel in the long run. Marvel’s intellectual properties may be getting wider circulation at the moment, and they may have more plans for keeping them in play. DC looks better positioned to make a transition to books, however. Does this really mean one is stronger than the other? I’ll let other pundits fight that one out. In this arena, however, there was a clear frontrunner.

Dark Horse was also well represented, with a mixture of materials that also have some forthcoming popular exposure, as well as fine art books like the Tara McPherson collection. They looked as if they had some depth to their line above and beyond Hellboy (and even Hellboy himself probably has some pull, at least for the summer).

Diamond was there in its capacity as a distributor, though not as impressively as I felt they could have been. They did have a couple dedicated bookstore reps there, but I wasn’t able to get much of a chance to discuss the vicissitudes of bookstore versus DM distribution as Diamond sees it.

The front of the catalog was also represented by Image, who were showing a strong variety of materials, but perhaps not as much as they could have given the limited space. Image really does have a strong range of books and genre offerings that I just feel haven’t quite made the jump that it can to readers outside the DM. I’m not sure there’s blame to be assigned in this regard, either, as evolution can be a slow process when you’re in the middle of it (but often look pretty abrupt and speedy when viewed in retrospect.) That said, the fact that they were there and offering material that would appeal to a wide swath of readers is encouraging in and of itself. While there, I had a chance to talk briefly with Rantz Hosley (of the upcoming COMIC BOOK TATTOO anthology, as well as the worthy PANEL AND PIXEL discussion board) and Eric Shanower (of AGE OF BRONZE which everyone ought to be reading).

There were a few other publishers who I breezed through: Udon, Anarchia, Kids Love Comics, Devil’s Due and Platinum. I must confess fatigue was beginning to catch up with me, and I probably didn’t give them the attention that they were due. After all, there was a second hall to finish off.

I, however, didn’t see a lot of graphic novel material presented in the West Hall outside that single aisle. Lots of children’s book publishers, but not a lot of comic material there. Picture books, yes; pictures with words, no.

One booth that did catch my eye was the Horror Writers of America gathering place. Hard to miss, actually. The raven-encrusted tree sort of gave it away. I spoke with their representatives about graphic novel consideration in HWA, which is apparently an item of contention at the moment. Comics (and gaming material and teleplays) had been allowed under one administration, but that’s changed recently and everything other than prose/poetry has been shut out of consideration. There’s an active group that’s working to overturn that. One can only hope that they gain some headway. Writing is writing, no matter what the final form ends up being.

Headed back to the main floor to bat cleanup and see if there was anything else I’d missed. Long lines, that’s what I missed. Vincent Bugliosi (you know, the guy who put Manson behind bars), William Shatner, Alec Baldwin, and Ty Pennington (I hear he’s got a TV show) were the biggest offenders in this regard. I guess people at both shows are fundamentally the same and will wait in line to rub shoulders with celebrities. Just don’t rub so hard that you chafe.

Ran into friend Ian (once blogger, now editor at Boom!) and caught up with him while wandering the floor on the way to the Fantagraphics booth, where I got a good look at the new Steve Ditko overview volume. It was the only galley at the show that was tied down, and with good reason. This is a great looking book, and every bit the equal of the Jack Kirby volume that came out earlier this year. I can’t wait to get my hands on the real thing. Oh, I should mention that we both ran into Dorian while on the floor and had a nice chat with him on Many Things Comics before he had to return to the wilds of Ventura.

Finally made our way back to the graphic novel pavilion to mooch some free drinks off of Diamond and chat with folks in the business. Met Heidi (of Das Beat) there and afterwards trekked across town to the wilds of the Valley for Sushi of the Gods. We earthbound mortals are not worthy of such ambrosial delights, and yet, there we were, partaking in the Best. Sushi. Ever. And mere feet away from a real, live Olsen twin.

Of course, I’m so oblivious that I didn’t even notice. Mmmmm…sushi.

There was a second day. It was not of note, other than running into Joshua Fialkov before beating a hasty retreat and wondering why I’d booked an overnight stay. Ah, experience is a fine teacher.

Matt Maxwell

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