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Optimus Prime

Optimus Prime.

On the road to the San Diego Convention Center, a middle-aged woman informs me that Comic-Con is a city twice the size of Galveston, Texas that pops into existence for a single weekend once a year and then disappears. A mother of two from Turkey tells me she promised her boys she'd take them anywhere in the world once they made it to high school, and they ended up dragging her to Comic-Con. A staffer relates the story of how she's assisted with the convention for the last 34 years as it's continued to grow, and how she even met her husband through the convention. A young woman studying in England remarks that she's been to every Comic-Con since the sixth grade, and she wasn't about to miss one now, even when it meant flying overseas for a single weekend.

Comic-Con showcases the latest and greatest of every form of entertainment in the public eye. At the convention you can find previews of upcoming video games, LEGO sets available for play or purchase, pilots for upcoming TV shows, the first trailers put out for movies a year down the pipe, fantasy and sci-fi authors hanging around to talk to their fans, and retailers peddling everything from fantasy fetish wear to replica weapons based on Lord of the Rings.

Despite all the mixed media which dwarf their numbers for panel attendance and space in the exhibit hall, the beating heart of the convention is still comics, which serve as the source material and inspiration for most of the projects being pushed at the convention. Hundreds of fans camp out overnight in front of the convention center's Hall H to ensure a seat at the showing of the first footage of the new Green Lantern movie with Ryan Reynolds. The promise of the spectacle inspires me personally to take the first trolley to Comic-Con, line up for Hall H immediately, and wait four hours to be one of the last people let inside, with a crowd of hopefuls left behind me in a line wrapping around the building. Later in the day, Comic-Con fans are the first audience in the world to see the pilot for No Ordinary Family, a sci-fi drama about a family that acquires a set of typical comic-book superpowers. While the convention center has no shortage of pirates, Jedi, and Starfleet officers, you can still find any given comic book character among the cosplayers if you look long enough. The comics subculture feeds into all the others; it's a fertile ground for experimentation and originality that gradually filters into the mainstream.

Comics and Digital Sales


The Future of Digital Comics panel.

The future of that subculture was a topic of intense discussion at a panel tucked away in the innards of the convention center, where big shots from Marvel, DC, and BOOM! Studios met with comic book retailers to "talk them down from the ledge," as one panelist wryly put it. David Steinberger's company, ComiXology, has managed to unite Marvel and DC on a digital platform and open up a new market for comics on the iPad, providing for the first time a convenient digital way to read comics. All the publishers represented are frank about the fact that they cannot survive without the retail market, their industry's backbone, and neither are they trying to move away from that, nor is retail going anywhere. "For now," one retailer mutters.

David Steinberger does his best to assure the backbone of the comics industry that comics are not like newspapers, music, or books, which have all suffered from the transition to digital formats in their real-world retail incarnations. As he sees it, comic books are already a vinyl boutique market, and comic book shops are cultural centers for the community and places where people go to find expertise. (No one bothers to ask if the same could be said for local music shops and bookstores.) He's also convinced that the digital market will bring in a different audience from the retail one: he rattles off a list of the most purchased digital comics and contrasts it with the retail market—his point being that digital purchases are much more in step with what's currently popular in movies and the broader culture, with titles like Wanted topping the charts. He's convinced it serves a different kind of customer.


A Gathering of Heroes and Villians.

Jim Lee, the co-publisher of DC Comics, says that for them digital comics are more about marketing than sales. Chip Mosher from BOOM! Studios states that their goal with digital comics is to attract new customers, and cites a survey that says that 40% of buyers of digital comics are outside the U.S., 18% had never bought a comic before, and 9% bought a comic in print as a result of their experience. Jim Sokolowski, the COO of Marvel, says that the entire digital market right now is comparable to a decent-sized comic book store, and that they're still in the process of exploring which promotions work. They repeatedly stress the fact that they are doing everything they can to drive people to existing comic book stores, such as telling their digital customers where they can find a nearby comics store. Their strategy leaves the impression that they want to avoid direct competition between the digital and real-world market, their digital presence is focused on making more of their back catalog available and releasing only the first few issues of a comic digitally, in order to make people go to a comics store to pick up the latest.

Comics and Digital Piracy

David Steinberger makes an appearance in a later panel to address an opposite set of concerns: those of comic fans, in discussing the impact of piracy on the comics community. David is there to play the role of apologist for the industry, while Douglas Wolk of TechLand goes on the offensive and warns that comics are in danger of repeating the failures of the music industry. Douglas talks about how he's seen the music industry destroy itself over the last decade, spending $64 million to fight piracy, recovering $1.4 million from lawsuits, and failing almost completely at deterring piracy. There is a new generation of consumers, he tells the audience, who want their content on the day of release, free of DRM, and their needs are not being served through legitimate channels.


Comics and Piracy Panel.

Surprisingly, the current leading provider of comics sold with DRM and subject to delayed releases agrees. David Steinberger states his preference for open formats, but says that he has to be a realist as well as an idealist. He explains that it's been a long process getting publishers to come on board to any digital solution. No one ever thought they'd get both Marvel and DC on board. In his opinion, there's an irrational fear of killing the direct market which is hurting availability. It comes down to a simple fact for him: technology moves faster than licensing, and much faster than corporations; he cites an example of a publisher that locked itself into a five-year distribution deal that simply doesn't make sense anymore.

Steinberger thinks people buy comics for two different reasons: to collect them, and to have immediate access to them. The market is largely driven by collectors right now, people who want to own every issue, and purchase large numbers of comics as a kind of investment. The people who pirate or buy digital comics are people who want early access—they want to start reading their comic right away in a convenient format, even though they may not have access to those formats in two years depending upon how the market goes. Ultimately he'd like to make buying comics easier than stealing them, but that remains a challenge when piracy websites are often better organized and easier to find than legitimate channels, particularly in the case of manga.

One of the biggest motivators for piracy is crossing the red tape of international availability. Jake Forbes of Tokyopop explains that only a tiny percentage of all the manga released in Japan ever makes it to the U.S., and the manga that does reach the United States often takes two years to do so. The cartoonist Deb Aoki talks about how she's seen people at US conventions dressing up as characters from Hetalia for the past two years, when the manga won't see an official release until October of 2010. All the people she's seen dressing up know about the series because they pirated it, and read scanlations (scans+translations). For the hardcore manga audience, there is simply no way to keep up with the material without resorting to illegal methods.

Arguments are brought up by the audience about the benefits of piracy, its ability to promote material that might not otherwise find an audience, how it serves as market research to show what material is popular, and its ability to preserve material that might simply disappear otherwise. Deb Aoki counters by citing a study that showed that manga sales rose after some large piracy websites were shut down. She complains that while some manga fans who assist with piracy are well-intentioned, they generally don't restrict themselves to providing material that hasn't seen official release yet, but simply allow people to pirate anything. Jake Forbes argues that it's arrogant for a fan to try to overrule the creators and publishers in deciding they know what's best for the property when they don't have the legal right to do so.


Mario Villians.

The audience responds with further gripes: a female manga fan complains about excessive localization done by American publishers compared to the quality of scanlations, and a male comic book fan is exacerbated by the fact that he has to become a criminal to obtain a convenient digital copy of a comic book that he bought legitimately. The panelists try to emphasize how things are getting better, but they admit that it's taking many publishers a long time to adjust to the digital world.

One comics creator I spoke with (who asked to remain anonymous) said that he would love to see his entire comic available online for free as a webcomic, but his publisher is very wary of the idea of giving away their content for free. Phil Foglio, creator of the Hugo-Award winning Girl Genius, has the advantage of being his own publisher. He told me about how his comic was struggling to have enough money for its next print batch, so he took the novel step of giving his entire comic away for free online as a webcomic, which caused his sales to triple and let him keep going.

Girl Genius is a tale of mad scientists called Sparks who possess an almost supernatural talent with technology. The heroine-led story has been classified as Steampunk thanks to its gadgetry-fueled style and Victorian themes, although the Foglios prefer to characterize it as "gaslamp fantasy." It's gone through nine years and as many volumes, and Phil estimates he's only about half-done. Early on in the series, the story offered a very precise glimpse into the future that still hasn't occurred yet. I asked Phil how he's able to plot that far in advance. He tells me that they worked on the idea for the comic for six years before the first book came out, and that even with all the twists and turns the story has taken he's stayed on track with his master plan for the series. I ask him if he worries about the audience guessing what he's up to and figuring it all out if he scripts it that far in advance. He tells me that there's always one person who figures out part of the story before it happens or sees the things he's setting up, but it's never been the same person twice, and no one ever believes them at the time.

For contrast, Mark Waid, the writer of the Irredeemable and Incorruptible series—stories of superheroes gone bad and supervillains gone good—prefers to fly by the seat of his pants. He tells a gathering of his fans that he prefers not to know what happens next. His theory is that if he doesn't know, his readers won't know either, and they'll be surprised along with him. He talks about how he's managed to avoid writing himself into a corner in his career so far, tossing out examples of plot points where he knew the general idea but filled in the details later: he explains that he knew one character had a plan in place to defeat the main character of Irredeemable, but as a writer he didn't know what that was going to be until he reached that point in the story. The characters always surprise him. He tries to know his characters really well before he begins, but he leaves the details of the plot in their hands. Some details end up working so perfectly he thinks his fans would assume he had plotted it from the start if he didn't let them in on the secret. He talks about how the coming revelation of the origins of the feud between his fallen hero and his arch-nemesis was something that surprised him with how well it fit with the story, even when he didn't know it in advance himself.

I comment to him that his comic's look at the personal failings of superheroes suggests to me it's a good thing that no individual has that much power in real life. He tells me he agrees, but he doesn't want his world to be completely realistic. He doesn't like the idea of demystifying the fantasy so far it no longer works. He likes living in the pretend world of superheroes. For him his series is more about exploring the idea of a superhero celebrity-style meltdown. He references Lindsey Lohan, and talks about people who are constantly followed by the press, criticized, and have to deal with a tremendous amount of pressure and negativity from the media. He compares Irredeemable to every bad message board experience you've ever had, and says he wanted to explore a character who is forced to hear every bad thing anyone ever says about him, and doesn't have the emotional strength to deal with it.

Comics and Legality

Charles Brownstein from the Comic Books Legal Defense Fund is in the business of defending comics and free expression in art, both when it falls under good taste and bad. Their group tries to educate libraries on what comics are safe for children and which are not, and they've had to defend everything from characters smoking and drinking in taverns in the Bone comics, to accusations of satanism in Wonder Woman. At the moment their group is coming to the defense of a man jailed for his collection of manga, which included artistic depictions of underage sex, known as lolicon.


Futurama Cosplayers.

The legal context is that child pornography is illegal, as it's evidence of a crime, and the demand for it contributes to abuse of children. The question currently under debate is whether artistic depictions of something that would be horribly offensive in real life should be legal. Both the legality and social value of the material is a topic of debate, as to whether the material provides an outlet for something that shouldn't exist in real life or whether it encourages it. One of the volunteers I chat with talks about how she's uncomfortable with a lot of material herself, but she believes people have a right to express anything they want to in art. She thinks it's a slippery slope to censor artistic depictions of anything.

Charles tells me it's important to distinguish between a couple issues: a website owner can decide they don't want to host any lolicon images because they consider it offensive and they're absolutely within their rights to do so, but they can't force everyone else to do the same. While lolicon is repugnant to many tastes, he doesn't consider it in the same class as child pornography because no one is harmed in the making of it, and while a lot of the legal questions are still up in the air, the fund is committed to staying on the side of free expression.

Despite their niche present in the world at large, comics are fiercely fought over and revered by the faithful. Out of all the things I experienced at the convention, the most impressive spectacles were two spontaneous recitations of the Green Lantern oath that demonstrated the power of comics in people's lives. The first was Ryan Reynolds being cajoled into reciting the Green Lantern oath from memory by a little kid in a Green Lantern T-shirt, which served to swear him into the role for a crowd of cheering fans. The second was an entire room full of people at a Green Lantern panel later in the day closing out the festivities by sounding out the oath in unison. It had the feel of a church service. No one stopped to question it or felt awkward about doing it; it's simply what you do when you're that passionate about something.

In brightest day, in blackest night,

No evil shall escape my sight.

Let those who worship evil's might

Beware my power . . . Green Lantern's light.


Mark Newheiser is a graduate of UCSD with a master's degree in Computer Science. When he's not designing or dissecting complex systems, he enjoys giving the other half of his brain a workout in the worlds of sci-fi, fantasy, and gaming, as seen in his Strange Horizons dispatch of Comic-Con 2009. You can find out more about Mark by visiting his website or dropping him a line.
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