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The Indisputable Matt Maxwell Presents:









FOR PREVIEW PAGES OF MATT’S GRAPHIC NOVEL STRANGEWAYS, CLICK HERE! 

 

 

FULL BLEED TWENTY-EIGHT: SKY SAW

BALTIMORE COMIC-CON 2008.

To say that I undertook this with some trepidation is a sideways understatement. Sideways because it wasn’t grossly so, but it wasn’t something that I considered lightly. Much like you don’t step in front of Jim Shooter lightly, not that he’s belligerent and aggressive, merely very large and likely to inflict some crippling injury through no fault of his own. Or maybe his reputation just casts a longer shadow than he does.

I don’t have much problem traipsing up and down the Pacific coastline, even to San Diego for five nights (though I will find myself rethinking that unless I can get an exhibitor space in spite of the five-hundred person-long waiting list in front of me.) Portland? No problem. They’re real nice up in Stumptown, love their comic folks unreservedly and unabashedly. Seattle? Jim puts on a hell of a show, all-comics all the time. Besides my folks like to see the grandkids.

But packing up and hauling myself all the way across the United States, nearly crossing the Mason-Dixon line in the process? That’s something that deserves due consideration. It is, as they say, non-trivial. Like, you don’t just decide to do it and roll onto Expedia dot com and make it happen.

In this situation, I ask folks who know the territory better than I do. Which really would be just about anyone, but ideally someone who actually knows, and doesn’t just talk through their hat. Luckily, I have friends who do. It’s good to have friends. And all of them said, to a (wo)man, “It’s a good comics show. You oughta go. ‘Specially if you think you want to try New York,” which despite its smaller size, is regarded as something like the Black Diamond course of comics shows. Not for the tyros. And I make a convincingly passing tyro, since I only did my first bit of exhibiting at a show about a year ago (at the Stumptown show, last year before it moved to an April date.)

So that’s a load off my mind. East-coast-knowing friends said Baltimore was a solid target. And like the Feds, I made ready to burn up a small pile of money to Make Things Happen. Okay, they’re burning up a large one, but the principle is not dissimilar. Plane, hotel, not to mention food and getting around, all that stuff adds up. And there’s the whole question of “How many books do I actually bring?” The answer is “More than you’ll need, ya big dummy.”

Packed stuff, sat in line at the airport, barely made my connector in San Diego (“What time is it, again?”) and parked myself in a center seat for the long flight out. I’d have read comics, but really, the weight-to-time-reading ratio of most comics is woefully small. Lots more bandwidth in a book. And let’s not argue the point, because it’s true. Comics trades in different kinds of currencies than prose does. This doesn’t make it an inferior medium. It just makes it more of a pain in the ass when you’re trying to keep your luggage below the back-breaking threshold.

Though I’ll admit, as I was reading Chandler’s THE LADY IN THE LAKE, I was dissecting scenes in my head and trying to figure out how this story could be done effectively in comics. Certainly not in first-person-perspective as the filmed version was. But just looking at the scenes and the dialogue and how it all meshed together and realizing that no matter how hard you tried, you’d leave something out.

The language. Chandler’s great gift to literature was his voice. Sure, he helped mold the concept of the hard-boiled-detective hero, but that was the work of others like Hammett as much as it was Chandler. His writing voice, however, is totally unique and startling even more than fifty years after the original books were written. You can mock him for all the imitators he’s spawned, but then you may as well mock all of the derivative “deconstructionist superheroes” that came in the wake of Moore and Miller. Go ahead and get it out of your system. It’s easy.

Chandler’s idiosyncratic way of looking at the world and building the world through language, however, is something that’s not only glossed over in comics, but generally mocked. Yeah, there’s dialogue-heavy stuff, in that there’s a surface similarity to Chandler (though entirely without his deftness). It’s almost one of those “why bother” situations. Once you translate a Chandler novel into some other medium, you lose the thing that made it totally unique. Or you risk making some kind of ghastly hybrid that would no doubt combine the worst features of both formats into something nigh-unreadable. I know some really great artists have tried translations, but none of them felt as if they worked.

But then, I started as a novelist, so I’m going side with language. So, to get back on track, I spent the trip to Baltimore walking the sunshine wasteland of wartime Los Angeles, facing down the daily corruptions, more bitter even than the smog that was beginning to choke the skies of forties LA.

Landed in Baltimore, got to play some luggage-dispenser ping-pong (a very FIGHT CLUB moment, to be sure), and then stepped outside to get a taxi.

Now, let’s be clear. I come from what amounts to a desert. If we get measurable humidity, we call 911 and ask “What’s happening?! WHAT IS THIS?!” So to step outside at eight at night, and be greeted by not only rain, but palpable, tangible mugginess was a shock.

Now that’s a gross understatement. My brain says “Hey, dummy, rain. Put on your jacket.” My body says “Hey, dummy, seventy degrees and seventy percent humidity resulting in spontaneous sky sweats! Put the jacket down before you kill us all!” So the jacket goes off and I’m just going to dodge the moisture (makes me terribly pruny.) Taxi’d into the city, watching the sky rip blue-white from time to time with subtropical thunderstorms. I’ve had worse times.

Dropped at the hotel, hungry enough to eat half a bantha (only half—I’m not a barbarian). I’d hoped to get some actual Maryland crab cakes since the last time I’d had any was the weekend that the Congress switched hands in 1994. Instead of being bold and forging across the city at nine pm in pissing rain, I stayed at the hotel grill and paid about ten dollars more than I should’ve for dinner. I mean, salad with mozzarella and grilled chicken. How tough is that to get right? Tougher than I’d though apparently.

Of course, my brain was busy telling me “Dude! It’s only seven o’clock! You got the whole evening ahead of you!” My brain is occasionally very excitable. So I listened and marched across town to the Marriot bar to meet some friends for drinks. And I did, but before long, I was feeling oddly dissociated from everything. Excitable brain, alcohol, reverse-jet-lag all added up to an increasing inability to put more than three words together though I was anything but tired. Ran into Heidi and the Future Mister Beat in the Marriot lobby, exchanged pleasantries with Steve Dillon, caught some secondhand smoke and waited for the other shoe to drop.

Only it was my shoe, pounding the pavement back to my hotel in the skin-warm-clamminess of the Baltimore night.

Now, let’s be fair. The life of a traveling comics writer at a convention is one filled with excitement and intrigue. Oh, wait, I meant to say, it’s filled with a lot of looking chipper and locking onto passers-by with your gaze and reeling them in with a friendly “Hey, there. Come on and take a look” and a beckoning hand, not unlike the hand waved by the clown driving the ice-cream-truck that you avoid every time it goes past.

I can’t even plop down a sketchpad and start drawing something interesting in the hopes of reeling in some potential readers. Sure, they’re customers first, but let’s hope that you can convince them to become readers afterwards. See, as I’ve said, my magic is invisible (and you don’t want to see what I draw because it’s pretty grisly).

On the bright side, when you cross the country, you can sometimes meet with correspondents and folks who you ordinarily only see as swarms of electrons on a screen. Electrons are fine and dandy—they let me live in California but work with people all over. But it’s not the same as actually saying “hello” or “nice to see you again”. One of those was Johanna Draper Carlson, of Comics Worth Reading, as well as one of the few people I remember posting on rec.arts.comics on USEnet back in the day. Or am I thinking of Elayne Riggs? Or am I completely off my rails here? Anyways, I got the line “Oh, you’re Matt Maxwell,” for the first time, which was a little strange, but perhaps it’s something I ought to accustom myself to. Or perhaps I shouldn’t hope to get used to it…

Sizewise, the Baltimore Comic Con seemed roughly equivalent to the Seattle Comic Con that I attended this year. Well, Seattle was probably larger. I’ll let the attendance figures get passed around and once-overed and maybe then we’ll figure it out. Either way, a good-sized local show with some high-powered guests (Bendis, Lee, Adam Hughes), as well as some actual Living Legends (Nick Cardy, Herb Trimpe, Bernie Wrightson, Ramona Fradon) and a healthy representation from the brash young turks you’ve been hearing so much about.

Interestingly, the artist’s alley was more an “artists outer ring of the convention center” which had advantages and disadvantages. One, you couldn’t actively avoid the artists by just bypassing a section of the floor, but then if you wanted to see all the artists, you were in for a rather long walk. I, naturally, was on the end of the ring that was set aside for small press and self-publishers, people who most everyone has never heard of, but are out there doing it for themselves, if nobody else. Now, it’d have been nice to have been placed next to some bigtime talent and maybe get a little attention as folks waited in like for a Tim Sale sketch or something. But that didn’t really happen at this show. You had to generate your own attention.

Did I mention that the stand-up banner I bought at Kinko’s was the best two hundred dollars I ever spent ever (and that includes the diapers on that rainy night in Cleveland AND the gun that I bought on 9th and Hennepin to avenge my father’s grisly murder?) It is. I could watch people pass by and see their eyes rest on the sign, stop and then walk over to look at the book. Now it didn’t work for everyone, but I figure I got the werewolf/western crowd at any given show sewn up.

Things started slowly. Even very slowly. Enough so that I began to wonder what the hell my friends hand been talking about in that the Baltimore show was a good one and worth crossing the country for. Okay, maybe it wasn’t that bad, but it took a while for the place to begin to fill up. Folks waiting in the line outside had the rain to contend with too, so there were a lot of relieved faces in the crowd on the floor.

And there were a lot of folks stopping and buying. Some of them had even heard of the book before, which was amazing considering the promotions budget I’d had to work with. Most folks, however, had no idea the book existed until they saw it there in front of them. So something had surface appeal, whether it was the cover or the high concept or something else. Passed out a lot of post cards too, so folks can at least read the first chapter online and maybe decide that they can’t live without it and rush right over to Amazon, waiting by the mailbox in the rain and snow until the object of their desire arrives, sheathed in cardboard and spirited in by the cherubs of Two-Day-Delivery.

A guy can dream, right?

All in all, I was pleasantly surprised at how many copies I did indeed move. I am, after all, a petty and venal creature, motivated solely by stacks of filthy lucre.

Oh, wait, why am I in comics again?

My apparent audience is all over the place, by the by. I had readers wearing BPRD shirts and people who “dug the oldschool horror vibe” from Luis’ art. There were folks who I had at “cowboy” and just as many who I had at “werewolf.” I even had readers who weren’t yet young enough to shave. And easily a third of the folks who ended up buying the book were women. I note this only because of the overwhelmingly male presence on the floor, something on the order of half of the attendees being unattached males (though often traveling in packs).

Lunch? Let’s not speak of it. It lingers still, and it was but an innocent little chicken wrap. I was beginning to despair of finding anything really good in Baltimore. Luckily, I’d be proven wrong. Carla Speed McNeill told me that the only good crab cakes she’d had in Maryland were ones she made herself; so much for me getting a good one, right?

Phillip’s seafood would be the exception to the rule. Not the Phillips buffet (seafood and buffet are two words that belong far far from one another, unless we’re talking backyard fish fry or clambake or lobster feed), and not the seafood stand, but the Phillip’s where you get to sit down and have food brought to you like you’re some kind of king or god that walks the earth. What can I say, after doing the shake and howdy and selling the book all day, I just wanted a little service and some chow.

The crab cakes were excellent, just enough butter and flour to keep the crabmeat held together, all of it succulent and sweet, moreso than Dungeness (which is odd that you’d even eat something with ‘dung’ in its name). Dithered a bit longer and then headed over to the Marriot to watch the Harvey awards and chat with Carla a bit longer, about subjects ranging from “Why Bryan Talbot is indeed a giant among artists” to the secret life of Mardi Gras to child-rearing and doing the daily work even when you’re your own worst enemy (at least I am.)

Now, I’d never been to a comics award ceremony previously. I’ve heard legends of Frank Miller bifurcating a copy of WIZARD at the podium and the like. Maybe I’ll go to the Eisners some day. Figured I could use the Harveys as kind of a warm-up exercise. It’s a small, non-threatening room.

Brian Bendis was amusing enough, though I think his line about Hollywood wanting comics’ ideas because they’re jealous is off the mark. Hollywood wants ideas because it’s easier to buy someone else’s work than to make your own. Consequently, I don’t think that Hollywood is out to deliberately screw you; just that it’s easier (and cheaper) to try and gobble up as many rights for yourself. This is why you lawyer up. This is why you get an agent. This is why you don’t sell yourself short and just give it all away. On that point, Mr. Bendis is more than right.

Kyle Baker discharged his duties admirably. I know. Not a shocking surprise. He’s a professional (or at least entertaining enough to keep us from thinking otherwise.)

I couldn’t argue with most of the winners. Though I thought it odd that the “best single issue” award went to Issue #8 of ALL-STAR SUPERMAN, which as I recall was part of a two-part story (in a series of otherwise standalone issues). Just seemed funny. Though I have to say that James Jean was robbed of the best cover award. No offense to Mike Mignola. His covers are wonderful and make me want to buy every single issue of anything that his art graces (even though I only buy those in trades now), but James Jean’s covers constantly and consistently astound with their grace and beauty and furtive meaning.

Very few surprises. Though even I was feeling bad for the WIMPY KID books and the DISNEY comics that kept getting nominated and ended up being shut out. Nick Cardy’s speech upon receiving the Special Achievement award was a really great moment, reminding you of the long years of work that these giants put in, and how it’s hard to look at one career without seeing an artist intertwined in others and the work that they’ve influenced. Easy to forget, but it smacks you in the face it needs to be remembered.

I’d love to say that I spun a new legend for myself that night at the Marriot bar, holding court and regaling all around with my tales of putting nine thousand kilometers on a brand new rental car in Australia, or how I once wrestled an alligator near to death in an effort to save a lost puppy, or how I invented the rotary engine. But really, all I had the mental fortitude to do was to go back to my hotel.

In the rain. And this was not merely drizzle as I’d seen earlier. This was hard, hot rain, drenching (as I didn’t need my jacket, right?) I’m sure I left a visible trail of run-off through the hotel lobby and into my room. A blind man could have followed me by way of the river’s flow.

Fired up the pretty new TV and dried off. Then my brain realized that it wasn’t even 9pm at my home time and refused to let me sleep. I should’ve ordered HELLBOY II or IRON MAN on the in-room movie service is what I should’ve done. But I didn’t.

Which brings us to this morning (as I’m writing some thirty-eight-thousand feet above… Colorado at a guess. I don’t know, it’s dark outside.) I’m sure I slept, but it didn’t really feel like it as I fumbled about, getting stuff packed and out the door. Sunday, truthfully, was a blur. This is what jet lag does to you, I guess.

Of course I’m remiss in not putting a shout-out in to the PERHAPANAUTS crew of Todd and Craig, both of whom stopped by the booth to say hello. Nice guys, good book (the two don’t always go together, either.) I did take off some time to patrol the floor in an effort to find some toys with which I might placate the savage childrens I’ll be returning home to. Nobody likes it when Daddy’s away. Luckily I found some cuddly Toho monster plush toys. That should do the trick.

Oh, and I finally got a chance to meet Guy Davis, who I’ve been lucky enough to work with on some STRANGEWAYS art. He’s as cheerful as anyone I’ve ever met, but man is the stuff that comes out of his imagination just creepy and squishy and generally horrible. Though the art he brought along belies a range much more diverse than that, but he really seems to have found a great match in the BRPD books. And did you hear that Dark Horse will be reprinting THE MARQUIS later next year? There’s going to be new books as well. I’m fairly sure I brought this up somewhere before, but since I’m one of the few folks who’d rather talk about Guy Davis than Greg Horn, I figure I’ll bring it up again.

Also, I was lucky enough to buy the original art for the gallery piece that Guy did for MURDER MOON. Swear I’m gonna write a story based around it sometime.

All in all, a good trip. Sold a lot of books, got the word out, put the book people’s hands. Keep putting the ball in play, keep that head down and shoulder out, moving forward.

No rain this afternoon, just hills that were unnaturally green and gray, scraping clouds that hung in a lead-humid afternoon sky.

 

Matt Maxwell

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