New York Comic Con 2016 Essay #3: The Artist Alley vs. My Expectations

For this year’s New York Comic Con (which is now months ago, whoops!), I’m doing something a bit different with my coverage. Instead of doing a standard con report, with overviews and opinions on panels, artist alley, etc., I’m going to be writing a series of essays based on things I saw at NYCC 2016. Think of it like extended thought exercises and musings inspired by the con.

While manga is closest to my heart, I love comics in general. Even if individual titles aren’t my cup of tea at times, and even if I find myself going back to Japanese comics more often than not (for reasons both rational and irrational), I never want to stop giving different types of comics a chance. This is one of the reasons I’m generally eager to visit the Artist’s Alley at New York Comic Con. Though it’s been years since I looked forward to Wednesdays (the day when new comics in America come out), I still opened myself up to the artists of NYCC 2016 with a simple desire: I wanted to be wowed, to be drawn to them and convinced to read more.

Perhaps I set too unfair a standard for myself and for the artists there.

I want to emphasize that I think the New York Comic Con Artist’s Alley is full of incredible talent. These are hard-working artists, each of whom have their own stories when it comes to how they came to comics. Also, given that NYCC is built on American comics culture, a lot of it would be the things you’d expect: superheroes, graphic novels, and certain approaches to cartooning and anatomy that have grown out of the American tradition. I think all of these things are great and have their own unique strengths worth exploring, but when it came time to find something that, pardon the cliché, spoke to me, I just wasn’t able to.

I feel that the decision-making process I went through as I looked from booth to booth was vague, even to myself. It’s not that I had any specific criteria. For example, I enjoy seeing comics about cool girls doing cool things, but I’d find that the particular arrangements that existed in the Artist’s Alley fell into recurring categories that made them all blend together to a certain extent. If they weren’t female superheroes, they were girls who wanted to show how much they defy gender expectations. These are both very good things, but it’s as if, in the rush to seize these ideas and the momentum they carry (whether for profit, social consciousness, desire to create interesting stories, or something else entirely), they ended up collectively dulling the product in my eyes.

I believe that a lot of the problem lies with me. When you distance yourself from something as I have, you tend to look at it in broader strokes. The opposite is often true if you get too deep into something. For example, when it comes to anime I’m a long-time Gundam fan. I’ve seen nearly every series, and I appreciate the subtle nuances and varying approaches that they bring, for better or worse. To someone outside of Gundam fandom, it just all looks like robots fighting wars and characters giving speeches. Thus, when I looked at Artist’s Alley as this well of potential to bring me back into the fold, I think I was expecting it to have much more of a gravitational pull than it had any right to. After all, if you’re at an Artist’s Alley at New York Comic Con, it’s natural to assume that you should already be into the stuff. It’s not the responsibility of the artists there to “convince me” to give American comics more of a chance, only to convince me to check out their work.

I still plan on taking a similar approach to Artist’s Alley next year with some adjustments. Instead of hoping for something to call out to me and speak directly to my soul, I’ll drift towards anything that catches my fancy. I shouldn’t expect a revolution, but I should at the very least leave the door open for minor reforms.

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My Return: New York Comic Con 2014

New York Comic Con 2014 was my first in five years. I wasn’t around for the dissolution and complete integration of New York Anime Festival. I did not see the claustrophobia-inducing crowds created by people sneaking in that nearly drove some of my friends to never, ever go back. I was not around as the aging Jacob Javits Center itself expanded as best as it could to account for not only this convention but others as well. My experience with NYCC 2014 is almost that of a time traveler, as what I have to mainly compare it to is an old existence, before this convention was being labeled as the San Diego Comic-Con of the east coast.

As much as a convention should be about being a magical and informative experience where fans connect to the media they love as well as to their peers, the first thing worth mentioning about NYCC 2014 is its use of RFID badges. I was informed of their inaugural usage last year, but seeing them in action made me fully aware of the boon they provide to both the convention goers themselves and the staff running the entire thing. Essentially, attendees must use a card to check in and check out of the convention area, which not only cuts down on the number of people who shouldn’t be there but means that there are plenty of opportunities to actually relax and take in the con experience. Just having a space that is outside the convention building itself but still part of NYCC was so beneficial, as it allowed attendees to catch some fresh air if they needed it. Though I didn’t know anyone personally who had difficulty handling large crowds (and the NYCC attendance population is around a staggering 100,000), I suspect having not only the front entrance but other outside spots may have been a life saver for some.

Of course, all of this is not to say that New York Comic Con 2014 was neither magical nor informative, as I found it struck a fine balance as a convention of industries, artists, and fans in terms of activities and opportunities. New York Comic Con is a for-profit venture, designed to make money and to benefit all of those who take part in it on the industry. For one thing this means greater industry presence in both the panels and the showroom floor, and fewer fan panels where enthusiasts can analyze and discuss particular interesting angles of the things they love. However, as much as I’m used to industry panels being fairly by the numbers affairs about shilling products (not that there’s anything wrong with it), at NYCC these panels, although different from fan-run events, still carried with them a lot more meta-discussion of the industry and what it means to be “in” comics. You have to expect the sales pitch to some degree, but it was rarely much of an issue.

For example, I attended a couple of panels about women in comics (be they characters or creators or fans or anything else), and it involved industry professionals of all sorts who didn’t necessarily all agree with each other discussing an important topic in a way that encouraged further conversation instead of necessarily having as their primary agenda the sales of their own products. In the “Women of Color in Comics” panel, for instance, you had both industry veterans and independent creators. One veteran emphasized the idea that if you want to change how the big companies see women, you have to know how to communicate in their language, bring portfolios that old white men would understand, while some of the freelance artists stressed the importance of being able to work for yourself to create the characters you want.

The women in comics panels were illuminating and informative overall, though I do have one criticism for a prevailing sentiment I saw: when asked about how to deal with men who aren’t even aware that there is sexism and discrimination in the industry and its fandom, the answer I saw most often was “who needs those guys, forget them.” I understand that dealing with ignorance getting asked “what sexism?” for the 1000th time is a trying, perhaps soul-draining experience, but I do think that it’s still a group of people who need to be addressed and who might honestly just not know.

It’s actually quite impressive how supportive of female fans and creators New York Comic Con was. In addition to the panels, there were large “Cosplay is Not Consent” signs that were noticeable but not terribly intrusive which aimed to prevent sexual harassment of cosplayers by appealing to the human brain’s ability to think ahead. I hear it was largely effective, though without context I do wonder if some people thought that the signs were saying that cosplaying was not okay.

Maybe this has to do with the number of artists, writers, and creators as guests instead of marketing folks, but in a lot of the panels I attended I felt that the audience was let in on their creative processes at least to some extent. Obviously they’re not taking advice from attendees, but it seemed like the answers reflected the personalities and styles of those who gave them. Notably, when manga artist Obata Takeshi (Death NoteHikaru no Go) spoke, it was clear that he was not a people person, and was unaccustomed to the spotlight. When he explained how he worked, his answers were muddled like so many other artists I’ve met. In contrast, at one of the Image panels, Matt Fraction could talk up a storm and really present the job of comics writer as something not so much glamorous but intense and personal. While obviously I can’t agree with their sentiments, seeing the panelists at the European Comics Artists panel thinly veil their displeasure towards manga was also similarly revealing.

Before going to the con, I received some useful advice for attending panels: always line up an hour beforehand. It doesn’t matter how small a crowd you think a panel is going to get, because more likely than not you’ll be on the wrong end if you don’t play it safe. Bizarrely, the lines felt rather relaxing. They were times to rest one’s feet, to chit-chat with friends and sometimes strangers, and in my case to play against other people in Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS. I matched my Mega Man against others and had an exciting time. More importantly, though, the fact that the lines were able to remain these fairly civil affairs (aside from The Walking Dead panel according to what I heard at con feedback) indicates how effective this year’s organization was. At Otakon one year, I had a friend from England who found it mind-boggling that a place could be so bad at queueing. While I don’t know if NYCC could hold up to his superior English line standards either, I think it would have at least gotten a higher grade.

Overall, what might be the strangest thing about my NYCC 2014 experience is that I expected a rushed, frantic time where I would feel overwhelmed to the point of some bizarre euphoria. At times, coming down the escalator and seeing the absolute mob of people in the main lobby made it seem as if I were about to descend into a pit of madness. However, what I actually got was a relaxed, comfortable experience learning about the things I love and trying my best not to spend all of my money. Now if only I didn’t have to buy four 1-day tickets because all of the 3-day tickets sold out in like two minutes, then it would’ve been a lot better.

To conclude, here are some of my convention highlights.

  • Attending my first Avatar (Legend of Korra) panel only to realize that it might be the last Avatar panel ever.
  • Getting Obata Takeshi’s autograph on Volume 1 of Hikaru no Go.
  • Obata would have liked to draw Otter no.11 as an actual manga.
  • Meeting at last my long-time internet friend David Brothers.
  • Asking Juanjo Guarnido (author of Blacksad) about whether the extremely popular comics that the Franco dictatorship in Spain used as propaganda still had any influence today (his answer was no).
  • Being like, maybe one of two people to cheer for Tribe Cool Crew at the Sunrise Panel. I yelled so loudly one of the panelists immediately looked at me. Also, watch Tribe Cool Crew. My review of it is pending.
  • TURN A GUNDAM LICENSED (also First Gundam). I was actually repeating Turn A Gundam like it was a mantra, as if I were trying to cast a magic spell. I guess it worked?
  • Seeing all of the animators’ demo reels at the Kakehashi Project (The Bridge for Tomorrow) panel. A lot of the work reminded me of the more visceral art that often appeals to me yet is rarely found in anime. I especially liked the work of Shiroki Saori.
  • Watching the US premiere of the Kill la Kill Episode 25 OVA. It was a great revisit of the series, and in one brief moment during one of Mako’s speeches I swear she transforms into Baron Ashura from Mazinger Z.
  • Playing all that Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS with people.

Free Comic Book Day Netherlands 2013

fcbdnl2013-allcomics

May 4, 2013 marked the second anniverary of Free Comic Book Day in the Netherlands. An American institution which I’ve participated in for over a decade now, I was amazed last year to see it brought over to other countries as well.

This year the full selection of free comics was raised from 7 to 10, far less variety than what was offered in the US, but at the same time had many of the charms and stylistic tendencies associated with European comics (even if they may not have been made in Europe!). The comic book store owners I did talk to all seemed to make it a point to tell me that they lose money participating in Free Comic Book Day, and urged me to buy something alongside. In my opinion, this kind of goes against the spirit of Free Comic Book Day in the sense that it isn’t supposed to be a guilt trip, but it might just be a difference in population/costs/other factors which make it not as sustainable as the American FCBD.

Sadly I am mostly illiterate in Dutch so I can’t really talk about the quality of narrative, but I can at least talk about some of the comics which caught my eye, or which most likely would catch yours.

fcbdnl2013-gameofthrones

Probably of greatest interest to people would be the Game of Thrones comic, adapted by Tommy Patterson, and actually available in English. I have not read A Song of Ice and Fire, nor have I seen the HBO Game of Thrones, so in terms of accuracy or spirit I can’t really say anything. At the very least the art is vibrant, and I like it way more than Patterson’s previous work on series like Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

Next is Sienna, by Desberg, Filmore, and Chetville, about a female government agent. “Sexy women of action” as far as I’ve seen is quite a popular genre here, at least in terms of comics made, and this one takes a more mature and dramatic angle. The art is quite nice, and there’s plenty of violence and (I assume) conspiracy. You can see a small preview here.

De Verborgen Geschiedenis (“The Hidden History”) by Pécau, Kordey, and Chuckry stands out immediately just because of the camel on the cover. As far as I can tell (and please correct me if I’m wrong), the comic appears to mainly be about what its title implies: some mix of conspiracy and secrecy spanning decades. Like both Sienna and even Game of Thrones, it goes for a more serious art style. There’s also a prominent English (?) female military officer in this issue whose name I can’t find. With a prominent scar on her face, she  toes the line between sexy and legitimately frightening (more the latter), as her expressions go from cold to menacing throughout the comic. Overall, she comes across as like a female Golgo 13, especially because one scene has her casually waking up surrounded by a pile of naked bodies both male and female.

fcbdnl2013-delegendariers

The last one I want to point is De Legendariërs by Patrick Sobral, due to its overt stylistic influence from anime and manga. Unlike the other three, this one has much more light-hearted feel. Its super-deformed characters and fantasy setting give me the impression of a pre-Playstation Japanese RPG. In fact, the characters look more like a late-80s/90s anime characters instead of current ones anyway, which really harkens back to that era. Anyway, the villain is named “Darkhell.”

So that’s a (very) cursory view of Free Comic Book Day 2013 in the Netherlands. Take my opinions with a grain of salt here, as I can’t give you a true impression of any of them.

And I must ask, for those of you who can read French or Dutch and picked some of these up, which ones impressed you the most?

Gratis! Free Comic Book Day, Netherlands Edition

This past weekend was yet another Free Comic Book Day for the United States, but as it turns out, it was also the first ever Free Comic Book Day for Netherlands and its neighboring country of Belgium (don’t know about Luxembourg). FCBD has been a tradition for my friends and I back in the US for many years now, but sadly I was unable to join in on the fun in 2011 on account of living overseas, so I was glad to see the concept reach all the way over here.

Unlike the complicated Manhattan crawl I’m accustomed to where we’d hit every comic store around, the city I’m living in only has two comic shops so it was a far simpler affair. What I found particularly interesting, though, was the selection of free comics. I typically think of the FCBD giveaways as being a mix of superheroes, some humorous Archie-esque comics, a couple of more experimental works, and then a smattering of manga offerings, and this year appeared to be no exception. In contrast, the comparatively small selection of comics for the Dutch/Belgian FCBD primarily involved European comics, with The Walking Dead being the only American comic as far as I can tell. Of particular note is the Dutch Storm, and the variety of lively artwork in Het beste van Oogachtend FCBD (a compilation of various artists’ work) probably makes it my favorite overall.

Sadly I can’t really read Dutch so I can’t actually tell you how these comics are, but they’re quite pleasant as souvenirs regardless. For those of you familiar with Dutch comics, I currently have as my distant, distant goal for Dutch literacy volumes of Agent 327 and Suske & Wiske, as well as a Dutch-translated issue of Yoko Tsuno. Some day…

Praying Towards Castle Grayskull

When it comes to the international phenomenon that is Pokemon, producer Ishihara Tsunekazu had the following to say:

石原: 北米ではけっこうクラシカルに伝説系のポケモンの人気があるんですけど、リザードンのような見た目か ら強そうなタイプのポケモンが好まれています。それとミュウツーでしょうか。

Ishihara: In North America, classical-style Legendary Pokemon are popular, but Pokemon who look strong like Charizard are also preferred. Mewtwo as well.


Charizard and Mewtwo

While Ishihara then goes on to say that  universally speaking, Pokemon like Pikachu are popular everywhere, I want to to focus mainly on this unique bit of difference North America has.

While I can’t speak for Canada, Mexico, or Central America, I think it’s very well-known that America likes powerful characters. More broadly, America likes the hero who rises above all, the larger-than-life figure. He may have a humble background, but the end result is still strong. It speaks to our culture of individualism, and it is reflected in the popularity of action movies as well as in the existence of iconic heroic figures in cartoons and comics such as Superman, Captain America, He-Man and Flash Gordon. When the US encounters the creative output of another nation such as Japan, it very profoundly reflects this ideal.

This is also partly why I think many of the anime that have been popular in the US are or were popular. Compared to the less popular One Piece, Naruto and Bleach exude seriousness and power in their aesthetics, doubly so for something like Dragon Ball Z. The hyper violence of MD Geist and its contemporaries in the 80s and 90s felt new and fresh to some extent, but that level of violence is I think something comfortably American, animated cousins of action movies.

I think it’s very easy to take one’s own cultural upbringing for granted, to think that the ideals of your own culture are the ideals of everyone else’s. It’s not small-minded or biggoted so much as it is a fairly natural progression if there is nothing to jar you out of it. In an article from 1987, Frederik Schodt, author of Manga! Manga!, points out that American superhero comics do not do well in Japan. Back then, they were considered too plain and too wordy, and today I can tell you that superheroes are better known through their movies than anything else. When I was studying in Japan, I had a conversation with a Japanese classmate, where I tried to explain the Flash to him. I told him he was “red and very fast,” to which he responded, “Daredevil?”

That said, there are a number of manga artists influenced by Americann superhero comics, such as Nightow Yasuhiro (Trigun) and Takahashi Kazuki (Yu-Gi-Oh!). In anime, it goes at least as far back as Gatchaman. Still, you will find that just as we have taken anime and said, “This is what we like in our anime,” they have said, “This is what we like in superheroes” and transformed it into something more in-line with their culture.

Cultural exchange, as they call it.

One last thing to dwell on is the way Europe has approached anime and manga. Taniguchi Jiro, who is influenced by the French comic artist Moebius, is much more popular in Moebius’s home country than he is in the US. His style is very European, incorporating complex and detailed backgrounds and placing a great visual emphasis on environment (not to be confused with “the environment”). But as I said before, I’m no expert on European comics, so I’ll leave someone else to fill in that blank until I catch up.

THERE’S SO MUCH KNOWLEDGE

Back when I reviewed Anne of Green Gables I mentioned that I had never read the books, and had purposely avoided doing so in order to not make constant comparisons to it. Just the same however,  I would not have made a mistake either had I chosen to read it in advance to prepare for the anime. It would have been a way for me to further understand an anime, and even now I fully intend to read the original novels. Thinking along these lines, I sometimes feel overwhelmed by how information leads to other information, and the limited amount of time we have to explore it all. I know we live in the Wikipedia generation and all, but it still feels rather daunting.

As an example, some time ago famous French comic artist Moebius made a statement that manga was like a “disease” in the sense that it spread into the culture of France while French comics were not able to return the favor in kind. I wanted to write an analysis of his statement, but then realized my knowledge of French and European comics is nowhere near extensive. The amount of Tintin I’ve read is sparse, I’ve only barely looked at Sky Doll, and for that matter I’ve never actually read Moebius’ work! “So I’ll read more European comics!” I said to myself, only to realize that time spent reading European comics is time not spent reading manga. That’s okay of course, but I feel like there’s little chance I’d be able to dive into European comics the way I have with manga where my enjoyment extends into every nook and cranny like I’m eating a Japanese English muffin.

Then I remembered how common the idea of “fully understanding something by extending beyond the immediate material can be.” With anime alone, you have a show like Gurren-Lagann where enjoyment of it increases when you realize just how much it’s paying homage to giant robot anime of the past, when you understand what it’s saying in response to the past. Going from there, do you research Japanese cinema because of its obvious connection to Japanese animation? Cinema as a whole? The technology of animation? Japanese woodblock prints for manga? The history of warfare in Asia? Do you look at the history of fine art in relation to commercial art in relation to animation? How about the fact that many famous works are adapted from novels and old literature? That’s not even accounting for series which incorporate elements from other parts of the world.

It’s like there’s this elusive “next level” of knowledge that people like myself try to reach, only to realize there’s millions of other mountains we could have climbed. There’s still time to get down and climb another, there’s still time to just walk at the base of each mountain and look up, but it’s impossible either way to get a full view of it all.

Phew. Maybe I’ll go check out some triptychs.

The Thing Which Makes You Think, “Ah Yes, This is an American Comic”

In the comments section for kransom’s translation of Takekuma Kentaro’s lecture on Miyazaki, a lot of talk is brought up regarding styles and trends according to where the artist is from or where the artist draws their inspiration from. Specifically, the comments center around Miyazaki’s style being similar to that of European artists. Commenter JBR states, “Nausicaa is very similar, in many ways, to the European avant-guard [sic] comics of the 1970’s/80’s, which also emphasize densely-constructed panels and attention to background detail.”

So if the emphasis on European comics is on these “densely-constructed panels and attention to background detail” (something that rings true even for comics that aren’t avantgarde), and the priorities for Japanese story comics is in having the panels be “easy to read” with respect to how panels flow into each other and other aspects, I had to ask myself, “What is the primary feature of American comics, specifically comic books, that makes it stand out?” What, in other words, is the aspect that artists and fans can draw from to make a comic feel very American?

Thinking it over, I’d have to say that I believe that traditionally, the primary feature of American comics is the desire to convey a complete amount of information in a single panel, to really inform the reader that, yes, this is going on right now exactly as you see it. Characters’ poses and actions in relation to text and background all work together to provide a sort of storytelling clarity that some might even regard as overly busy. You know where that foot is going. You know exactly what the characters are doing. You know what is going on in a given scene, as if every panel were an incident in and of itself. Some might say this is the problem with American comics, but I think that wanting to present information in your comic in complete chunks has its merits, in the way radio dramas of yesterday and cd dramas of today do. Of course, I say “traditional” because as comics artists from all over the world interact with each other these differences start to recede, but I think you can still see them in today’s comics.

I’m well aware that there are comics that do not do this, and that even in the comics that do there are plenty of panels which are more for conveying a mood or some other function. I’m also aware that all the visual examples are from superhero comics, and that there’s an entire indie comics scene out there, and famous artists such as Dave Sim, Robert Crumb, Chris Ware, Art Spiegelman, and even Brian Lee O’Malley who do not abide to this “rule” if you can call it one. However, I do feel that this is the aspect of American comics which people remember the most, whether they’re long-time fans or new readers, these panels designed to exist on their own if they have to, but also function as part of a whole.