Hard past the harbor, San Diego was once a dreamboat. Its event, San Diego Comic-Con, was still an ingenue, too young and humble to know just how charming it was.
Then worldliness, as it must to all wildly popular conventions, came to San Diego. Comic-Con's schedule began to date A-list actors, make more high-rolling friends, attract all manner of light-saber-rattling riffraff. Soon, Comic-Con -- much like its own long, snaking lines of tens of thousands of daily fans -- had been around the block a time or two. As the trend of all-pop-culture inclusiveness set in, so did middle-age spread.
San Diego's circus is so massive, it's easy to be both dazzled and yet nostalgic for the time when comics -- the art, the craft, the creators -- were still in the center ring. I first stumbled upon Comic-Con in the '80s, both of us lean teenagers, and the event was much like an adolescent: It was joyously unspoiled. it was full of fresh discovery. And often, preoccupied, it had only one thing on its mind. In San Diego's case, that thing was actually comics.
The July behemoth remains special, particularly if you'd rather meet Seth MacFarlane than Todd MacFarlane. But it is possible to close your eyes and picture a convention that is still first and foremost about the art. The craft. The creators. To simply envision --
-- well, to envision the Baltimore Comic-Con.
The Charm City's 11th annual comics gathering, this Saturday and Sunday at the Baltimore Convention Center, is a throwback. The tweenager of an event -- which last year drew 15,000 people over two days, as opposed to San Diego's 125,000-plus over four days -- is still, foremost, about the comics industry. This year, you can see Todd MacFarlane -- and unless they crash the party uninvited, there won't be an Angelina Jolie or Rod Blagojevich or Seth MacFarlane mucking up the sightlines.
This year's Baltimore Comic-Con says it will feature more than 400 artists and publishers and more than 100 exhibitors and retailers.
Marc Nathan, the Baltimore convention's organizer and promoter, tells Comic Riffs that maintaining his event's narrower focus hasn't been difficult because his goal is clear, his aim true. "We just tell folks that are not all about comics and art that this is not the convention for them," says Nathan, who manages the Cards, Comics & Collectibles shop in Reistertown, Md.
And the professionals -- the true comics professionals -- appreciate Nathan's "narrow-mindedness."
"Baltlmore is still first and foremost a comic-book event," Tom Brevoort, the Marvel Comics executive editor, tells Comic Riffs. "San Diego has gotten so huge and has become so media-driven that it's not really a comic-book-focused event. It's a genre-focused event for anything that connects ... to the widest possible range.
"But in Baltimore, there's still a place for comics there," Brevoort continues. "Baltimore is still in high-high -- 80 to 90 percent -- about comics: the books, the art form, the people who make them. ... It's still very much comics-focused. I like that. I like going for that experience."
Dean Haspiel spent last weekend in Los Angeles, rubbing shoulders with Hollywood high-rollers as he picked up his creative-arts Emmy Award for his work on HBO's "Bored to Death." This weekend, the Brooklyn-based cartoonist ("The Quitter," "The Alcoholic," Billy Dogma) welcomes Baltimore's more familiar vibe.
"Baltimore Comic-Con is one of the last big shows that still celebrates comic books and its creators," Haspiel tells 'Riffs. "I stopped going to San Diego Comic-Con when it became too difficult to navigate and too expensive to attend -- and when the majority of the show became less about comic books and more about big entertainment."
"The fact of the matter is, comic books proper -- whether in print or digital -- is still a niche story art form and will never be able to compete with the Hollywood industry," Haspiel continues. "The filet mignon I enjoyed at the Governor's Ball in Los Angeles to celebrate the Emmy win ... doesn't mean I can stop working until midnight six days a week and stop eating peanut butter sandwiches at my art table for dinner. I do what I love and that's almost why the pay is allowed to be so damned lousy but I have no fantasy that my work will get me on Easy Street and that's okay.
"However, let's please keep anything dubbed a 'comic-con' comic book-centric, so that the creators and fans can congregate and toast our beloved comic books."
(Images courtesy of Baltimore Comic-Con)
Comics legend and historian Jerry Robinson (Batman, The Joker) echoes Haspiel's sentiment.
"Baltimore is refreshing because it does focus on the artists and the creators and the genre," Robinson tells 'Riffs. "That is good. It's not hectic or wild or exhausting, so it's a much nicer pace" than San Diego.
"Is San Diego Comic-Con 'energizing'? 'Debilitating' is a better word for it, not energizing," Robinson says. "You can have to gird yourself for months before and months after. San Diego is enjoyable, but on a different level." (Besides, Robinson notes, "I also just like to visit Baltimore. I love the harbor.")
Baltimore Comic-Con also hosts the industry's respected Harvey Awards. Again this year, Saturday night's Harvey Awards ceremony will be emceed by "PVP" creator Scott Kurtz, who acknowledges the necessity for some event growth -- even as he's a bit nostalgic for an even smaller 'Con.
"I've been attending the Baltimore Con for maybe seven, eight years now," Kurtz tells Comic Riffs. "It started out as a smaller show where the promoter [Marc Nathan] really took care of his guests. Marc really showed us a good time: Every year, he would take us to dinner the night before the show started.
"He can't do that now -- it's grown too large -- but the staff still knows and cares for all their guests. They treat us like the talent. It's important."
New York-based cartoonist Cliff Chiang (Human Target), whose most recent book is this summer's "Neil Young's Greendale," says he approaches different conventions with different mindsets.
"I've gone to San Diego the last 10 or 12 years, and it's no longer the show I first went to at all," Chiang tells 'Riffs. "It's fine, but I adjust my expectations. San Diego is the only place to get all that pop culture in one place."
"Smaller regional 'cons have taken the baton in the last five or six years," Chiang continues. "Baltimore is one of the best on the East Coast. It's a great show with a great guest list, and the organziers run it very well."
One of the relatively few cartoonists who's been a guest every year since Baltimore Comic-Con began is Maryland's own, Frank Cho ("Liberty Meadows," Avengers, Spider-Man et al.).
"This is my 11th straight year -- I've been there since Day One," Cho tells Comic Riffs. "Marc Nathan and I have been friends for 12, 13 years now, and when he decided to do the Baltimore show, I jumped right in and helped him -- I've been one of the loyal guests."
Cho attended last month's San Diego Comic-Con, so the contrast is particularly fresh in his mind.
"It has definitely changed since I started to going to San Diego in 1996," he says. "It has literally doubled in size within 14 years. When I first started going, the focus was mostly still on comics, but in the last five years, it has shifted to movies. On one hand, I'm saddened by that -- but then movies are related to comics, so I do get very excited about San Diego's Comic-Con."
"The Baltimore Comic-Con feels more like a friends and family show," Cho continues. "That's how I want to experience it. So many close friends of mine go to the Baltimore show that it's like I'm just hanging with friends."
Even if you're a first-timer at Baltimore's show, though, Cho thinks the event's intimacy helps it feel more personal.
"San Diego is sensory overload, but Baltimore Comic-Con is just the right size, with the right amount of people who still get a kick out of comics.
"It's still a very personal show."
COMING THIS WEEKEND: More interviews with Baltimore Comic-Con cartoonists.
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