In Heroes' Day, In Comics' Night

The Jacob K. Javits Convention Center sticks out as much as a building can in the architectural mish-mash that is New York City. Stretching across six full city blocks, the sprawling outcropping of buildings stands monolithic on the shore of the Hudson River on the city's west side, its exteriors gleaming in the fall sun. Its space frame design—limiting the amount of visible supports and trusses needed—gives the appearance that the entire space is made of giant sheets of glass on all sides. From 11th Avenue, it seems almost like you can can see straight through the buildings to the river beyond. Akin to something you might find in Metropolis or, for that matter, the proverbial Gotham City, the best way to describe the center is as something that might as well have sprung from the pages of a comic book.

For four days this past October, more than a hundred thousand people inhabited the convention center and Midtown Manhattan for the sixth annual New York Comic Con, which bills itself as "the East Coast's biggest and most exciting popular culture convention," combining video games, movies, television, toys, gaming, anime, manga, and, of course, comic books. $35-a-day ticketholders were promised a full weekend of panels, screenings, and events ranging from Quidditch lessons to speed dating. On the weekend of the convention itself, the twenty or so square blocks between Penn Station and the center became a spectacle unto itself—average citizens gawked at the menagerie of costumed crusaders walking gleefully past on the way to geek Mecca.

The gathering underscored comic culture’s continued progression into the mainstream, supported by an influx of Hollywood films that have brought superheroes to life on the silver screen. Since Hugh Jackman first sprouted claws in X-Men in 2000 and Kirsten Dunst kissed Tobey Maguire while he hung upside down from a building in Spider-Man in 2002, theatergoers have been presented a seemingly limitless run of blockbuster films based on characters from comics. These have included relatively obscure characters like Hellboy and Elektra, but the biggest headline-grabbers have been the usual suspects—two more Maguire Spidey films before the franchise rebooted earlier this year, Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight triptych, and, of course, Thor, Captain America, and two Iron Man films—a veritable altarpiece of panels that saw its powers combine to form The Avengers mega-film this past April.

The Avengers grossed more than $1.5 billion worldwide, with more than $600 million of that coming in the United States alone. It currently stands as the third highest-grossing film of all time, with the first of assuredly many sequels set for 2015. Its cast, which includes a cadre of high-profile stars from Robert Downey, Jr. to Scarlett Johansson, is contractually obligated to Marvel Studios for more than a half-dozen additional follow-ups, making The Avengers—who first appeared in a 1963 comic by Marvel's venerable duo of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby—a virtual lock to become most profitable movie franchise ever.

On the surface, it would be easy to call this comics' moment. The Walt Disney Company paid more than $4 billion to acquire Marvel in 2009; Marvel's chief creative officer Joe Quesada joked that his future plans for the company included "world domination." Roughly a dozen big-budget superhero films are released every year, headlined by franchise titles produced by Marvel's own uber-profitable Marvel Studios. Even NBA superstar LeBron James has found himself on the pages of LeBron: King of Rings, a collaboration between Marvel Comics and ESPN the Magazine. But while the wellspring has been a revelation for nerd culture writ large—with billion-dollar films and characters known globally—the physical comic books from which this whole world draws its origin story have ultimately remained as marginalized as ever.

According to The Comics Chronicles, a web database that details sales figures for comic books in the United States, yearly sales by Diamond Comic Distributors, the country's largest dispenser, have decreased steadily over the last five years. This drop-off is likely due at least in part to the impact of the financial recession on comic book stores, which are typically owned by individuals or small businesses. But in terms of Diamond Comics' 300 most popular titles—the company distributes virtually every major comic book in the nation—the past 15 years have witnessed book sales at least 15 million short of 1997’s water mark of 100 million. In 2010, sales failed to break 70 million. Even this year's sales figures, which through the third quarter are showing marked improvement over last year, are somewhat of a mirage due to an increase in average cover prices in Diamond's top 300 weighted for percentage of sales.

To paint this strictly as a numbers game, however, overlooks the main point, which is that comic culture itself has shifted away from the comic book as a driver of brand identity. Now that the superheroes themselves are established brands with decades of background and places in the cultural lexicon, comic books no longer serve the purpose they once did. Take Marvel, for instance. The company responsible for Spider-Man, X-Men, The Avengers and countless other superhero mainstays has perhaps never been more popular. But its comic books—the foundations for its films, lunchboxes, costumes, action figures, and very brand identity—are only a small part of the culture they themselves begot. More than half of the company's 2007 revenue came from the licensing of its characters for video games, television shows, and merchandise produced by third parties. With the increasing success of Marvel Studios, the brand has moved even more of its eggs into the Hollywood blockbuster basket, comics' role in contemporary culture changing along the way.

"I think that they've been completely subsumed by mainstream culture to the point where the type of storytelling that we consider mainstream storytelling is basically comic book storytelling," Grantland's estimable critic Andy Greenwald explained to me over the phone. "It's not just the types of stories that are being told, but the way that they are being told. I think that the whole idea of re-booting [relaunching franchises with new actors a la Batman or James Bond] is like the idea of retconning [a longtime comic staple in which past facts are altered to "fix" an ongoing story]. In terms of the type of serialized story, even the most mainstream media consumer is now comfortable with it."

"It'd be hard not to tie this to the way Hollywood has gone in general," he added. "With the way that the film industry has gone, where their entire profit comes from giant blockbusters and nothing in between, here they have the perfect resource. It's something they can draw on that does all the hard work for them, basically." The qualities of comic-driven movies—a clear battle between good and evil, large-scale destruction of property, CGI-enhanced melees and monsters—play well to large crowds, and the screenplays themselves have dozens of years of source material to borrow from. "Everything is about content," Greenwald said. "It really is reduced to an almost cynical monetizable thing. To be able to back the truck up to a gushing geyser of all this stuff has been incredibly lucky and profitable."

Greenwald pointed to shows like Lost and The Wire as recent texts in which the serial storytelling and attention to detail seemed derivative of comics. AMC's sci-fi orgy of guts and gore The Walking Dead, itself based on a popular comic book series, saw its third season premiere become the most-watched show in basic cable history. "Losing yourself in the universe and being able to identify even the most obscure secondary characters—that becomes part of the appeal and defines why you like it," he suggested. "And I feel like that's the sort of language that you really would have only used for comic books or other fringe nerdery twenty years ago."

As I wandered the Javits Center throughout the weekend of Comic Con, the foundations of a multi-billion dollar industry were still there—they were just available for 99 cents a pop in discounted rows away from the main avenues of the convention floor. The booths closest to the main entrance of the exhibition floor were mostly taken up by video game companies, whose bells-and-whistles interactive displays, demos of new games, and seemingly endless "Gangnam Style" dance contests were the most highly-trafficked areas of the weekend. Marvel and DC Comics, the twin pillars of the industry, maintained large booths near the center of the floor, but their books themselves were nowhere to be found.

Only after venturing further into the space and reaching the far quieter periphery of the floor did I find the nebbish collectors elbow deep in row upon row of individually bagged and backed books. Even Artists' Alley—a long-standing convention necessity where comic book artists peddle proofs from old issues, sign autographs, and meet fans—was off the main convention floor and in a side area that, while spacious, was far too easy to be missed altogether, as I did on my first day wandering the grounds.

"I do feel like so-called ‘geek culture' has pretty much swallowed what used to be comic book culture," Sean Howe, the author of Marvel Comics: The Untold Story told me a few days after the convention. "You go to something that's called Comic Con, and you're inundated with probably as many video games as comic books."

Howe's book, which was released a few days before Comic Con, tracks the up-and-down history of Marvel since its inception as Timely Comics in 1939. Chuck Klosterman called it "a living illustration of how the weirdest corners of the counterculture can sometimes become the culture at large."

Howe has become a sort of champion of the comic books themselves—a defender of the merits of the fading medium responsible for the mass confabulation of cultures at the heart of the convention. "It's not like there's anything like a sign of the apocalypse that Comic Con has a lot of people that are into other things," Howe told me. "But it does kind of feel like comic books created this subculture and now even within that subculture they're being cordoned off into a small part of that. It's not like they can say, ‘Oh, we'll just go and do something that's just comic books and we'll call it comic conventions,' because even that name has already been taken."

Speaking to fans at the convention, they too seemed acutely aware of the conflation happening around them. "It never really occurred to me recently, but what has happened is that comics got adapted to different media—you have comic-adapted TV, film, novels, video games,” said Josh Garcia, a 21-year-old from northern New Jersey attending his third or fourth Con. "So you have all these segmented pathways that intersect at Comic Con." Garcia conceded that he came to comics through one such adaptation—an animated Batman television show—and suggested that many of his friends and peers at the convention had similar origin stories.

"This has gotten so big that very casual people come here. I'm a fairly casual person despite the cape," Aidan Walsh, a 17-year-old from Tarrytown, NY, in a homemade Dr. Doom costume joked. "It's really cool. It's not something that could have happened twenty years ago. With the Internet, the whole geek culture thing sort of came out of nowhere, and suddenly you didn't hide your comic books in a black sealed bag in a secret compartment in your backpack. It became something that you could enjoy without being seen as a weirdo. I like not getting stuffed in lockers, personally. It's a good experience not getting stuffed in lockers."

"You're in an environment where the people all feel safe because they're surrounded by people who like what they like as well," suggested Ari Cohen, 20, from New York City, who conceded a certain frustration at convention-goers who cited superhero films instead of comics as their points of reference. But regardless, Cohen, like virtually every other fan I spoke with over the weekend, was a picture of optimism. Another NBA-er, Brooklyn Nets center Brook Lopez, spent his Sunday off-day at the convention. Lopez, who has been an avowed comic fan since childhood, brought The Wall Street Journal along as he toured the convention floor. “This is one of the few places where I blend in," he told them.

And really, how could anyone be a skeptic in the one place where communitas was primed to overtake the irony and cynicism outside the walls? For him and many other fans, the convention was a place to meet fellow fans interested in what he called an "escape where other people are escaping," where a Dr. Who costume, collection of Star Trek figures, or shared love of the long-canceled television show Firefly could mean almost-instant friendship, free from the social posturing of a world where playground coolness dictates social status. And while the convention population was still made up mostly of people who would be considered "nerds" in the world outside Jacob Javits's glass castle, those outside are increasingly slower to throw stones in a moment where it's probably never been cooler to be a nerd.

A new type of protagonist has emerged in movies as the stigma of superhero fandom has gone by the wayside, and it takes the form of the endearingly dweeby snark-wielding young man: Jason Schwartzman in Rushmore (1998), Jon Heder in Napoleon Dynamite (2004), and Jesse Eisenberg in Zombieland (2009), Adventureland (2009), and The Social Network (2011), just to name a few. On TV, it was Seth Cohen of FOX's The O.C., a stammering, gangly emo kid who unhesitatingly name-dropped Death Cab for Cutie one week and comic book writer Brian Michael Bendis the next. Much of Season 2, which ran from fall 2004 through spring 2005, was devoted to his work on Atomic County, a comic book meta-satire of the show itself that, all told, received a surprising amount of screen time for a primetime soap opera.

But the undisputed king of the nerds has been Michael Cera, whose 2007 nerd-turns in Superbad and Juno made him the archetype for the so-awkward-it's-cool proto-hero. "You're, like, the coolest person I've ever met, and you don't even have to try," Juno tells him. His response: "I try really hard, actually." Later, Cera starred in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, based on another comic book series, in which he is forced to defeat the seven evil exes of his love interest Ramona Flowers, who was blessed with her fair share of impersonators at the convention.

"I think that there's an argument to be made that we're at a generational moment where the people who grew up speaking comic book-ese, whether they bought comic books or not—the generation that grew up with Star Wars and Indiana Jones and that sort of imaginative genre entertainment—they're the ones making paychecks with money to spend," Greenwald suggested. "They're the ones also having kids now and teaching the same sort of nerdy values to their kids."

Though Stephanie considered herself a comics collector, she was for the most part uninterested in the collectibles culture that is also a major factor of the convention weekend. Passersby gawked at obscure bootleg DVDs, framed photos, vintage posters, and Star Wars figures encased—of course—in their original packaging. Many of the fans I spoke with were taken aback by the sheer expense of their fandom—by Sunday afternoon, many were sitting exhausted and, not coincidentally, broke, on the floor.

Collectibles—and the cache that came with proving one's fandom through a sizable collection—were serious cultural currency on the Comic Con floor, where owning a rare figure, tidbit of insider knowledge, or, even still, an issue #1 granted a certain kind of convention cool. Hoops star Lopez bragged of a thousands-plus collection of comics back home housed in cabinets where each alphabetized drawer would have its own custom frontispiece drawn by a famous comic book artist. "It's going to be awesome,” he told the Journal.

Stephanie, though, lamented the blind commercialism and consumables-focused nature of the convention culture, particularly when it discounted the characters' histories in an attempt to appeal to younger attendees. "A lot of the figures have Chris Hemsworth on them for Thor. That's not Thor. Thor is a God!"

"It's not like the Avengers are these famous characters and now everybody knows about Jack Kirby," Howe explained. "The Avengers are these famous characters and now they are Marvel's The Avengers. Welcome to Comic Con and here are a thousand things that you can buy that are tied in to The Avengers. It's not just this proprietary sense of wanting it to remain one's own. It's also about the industry overtaking the art."

Aware, however, of his potential fogeyism, he joked, "How do I not sound like an idiot to complain about consumer culture at a comic convention?"

At one point during our conversation, I asked Howe if he felt like a fan of The Beatles at the Cavern Club—a London space where the band cut their teeth in the early sixties, making almost three hundred appearances between 1961 and 1963, even as their popularity began to swell. As they held their final concerts there, fans sobbed, knowing that the local foursome was no longer small enough for them to keep to themselves. Was The Avengers, I posited, comics' version of The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show?

"It's like if you made an album and then somebody staged a musical based on the songs from that album and then somebody saw the musical and then made a judgment based on that," Howe countered. "Or made a judgment of records based on going to see this musical—the idea that ‘I went to go see this movie and I'm a comic book fan now, even though I don't read comic books.'"

As the convention's final hours wound down, a group of a dozen or so costumed teens gathered outside of the main exhibition space, hugging, cheering, and making plans for next year's Con. They were clearly still high off a weekend not so much a coming-out party as it had been an acknowledgement of their culture's growing acceptance. These younger fans seemed uncowed by the fact that their fandom was somewhat troubling, a distillation of a universe that is being perhaps once again relegated to an altogether different—but not entirely dissimilar—margin. "It's a big old party," teenager Aidan Walsh told me. "A big old party for people who like…stuff."

On a recent episode of Greenwald's Hollywood Prospectus podcast on Grantland, discussing Howe's book, Greenwald inquired if, at this moment, comic books had "won." I asked him to clarify the sentiment. "Well, they won by losing," he said. “Comic books have won culturally. Marvel has actually found a way to monetize the win in terms of a corporate structure. But comic books themselves are as marginal as they've ever been. In terms of people who read them, it's increasingly just 30-year-olds who have always been reading them. They don't have a way to get kids to read them. They don't have a way to get new readers. They're more and more just the minor leagues to test out stories for the big picture stuff."

"Maybe deep down there's something in me that's like, ‘It took so long for comics to be accepted and now they're still sort of marginalized in a different way,'" Howe conceded. "Maybe there's something of my inner teenager unhappy about this or something." He put the median age of contemporary comic readers at around 30, a concerning reality that the industry will be forced to face sooner or later. At the same time, since its inception in 2006, New York Comic Con's attendance has increased each year the festival has been held. Superheroes and comic culture are both more popular and more mainstream than perhaps ever before, thanks to a cultural moment primed for them to succeed.

By all accounts, we are living in comics' universe, for better or worse. Marvel Studios has around a dozen films in development at the moment, with plans to dig deeper into the comic catalogue for films featuring the Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man, and Doctor Strange. All three made their first appearances in the 1960s, but all will likely appear new to many moviegoers when they debut, a new wave of superhero stars while their origin stories gather dust in a bin somewhere until the next big Con. "The culture at large seems to have just accepted that because now comic books have come to the culture that they pay attention to, they can decide for themselves based on that the value of comic books," Howe said, the unfortunate "comic book guy" being forced to confront the untenability of an endangered medium. "If you go to Thanksgiving dinner with your extended family, there's a good chance that your uncle could be like, ‘I saw The Avengers. Now I understand.'"

 

John Vilanova