Always Early #7 – Convention Season

By Richard Early

San Diego Comic-Con International is underway as I write this and it’s about the tenth year in a row that I’ve wanted to go and failed. I’ve missed every Lost panel, every Firefly panel, every Grant Morrison panel, and a million more things I’m sure I wanted to see. I always proclaim that I am going the next year and never do. I’m going next year, I swear. 2011 will be the year that Paradox covers San Diego via our limited internet outlets.  No more excuses, no more delays, it’s happening… maybe.

I have been to quite a few functions in the comic industry from retailer conferences to Chicago Comic-Cons. My favorite was my very first. Diamond Comic Distributors held a retailer event in Minneapolis. I was brand new in business and really excited about this sort of thing The conference took place during Marvel’s restructuring and everyone in the industry was worried about the future. I remember talk of stores going all Marvel and thinking I wanted to be one of them. The day opened with a surprise guest – Chris Claremont. Claremont was my favorite writer , my idol. I still had thoughts of writing comics and this was the guy I wanted to be. He’s one of the main architects of the X-Men. He came on board shortly after Giant Size Uncanny X-Men #1, the book that introduced Nightcrawler, Storm, Colossus, and brought Wolverine into the fold. There would be no X-Men movies or video games or cartoons without Chris Claremont. He wrote the book for 17 years but had recently been removed in favor of Jim Lee and other young guns. The meeting featured a luncheon and I was last in line to get food. I sat at a table with one other retailer and several empty chairs. Claremont took one of those seats and started the conversation of by asking “So, what do you guys think of this new X-Men crap?” This was my idol asking my opinion of what was happening to his creation. That’s not all. A while later, someone entered the room and Claremont got up and yelled “Squire!” It was Neil Gaiman who came and sat at our table. I remember not saying a word and just listening to these two guys talking..Gaiman had pictures of a new house he had built nearby and passed them around to us as though we were all friends or in some secret group…

I used to  set up tables at the Thunderbird Hotel for the MCBA FallCon in Minneapolis. I did this for years back in the 1990s. My favorite trip there was a year when I was the only one running the show. I was partnerless and had one employee who stayed in Fargo. I drove down with friends who had other things to do the whole weekend. I needed the money and it was exhilarating to work a show single-handed. Saturday night there was a dinner for vendors and I went. I got to see Mark Waid’s fabled comic cover knowledge in action. Waid is most famous for writing Kingdom Come with Alex Ross. He can identify nearly any comic by it’s cover, recalling the title, issue number, and content. I can tell you his super-power is quite real. But Waid was only one of the guests. I also met Martin Nodell, the man who created Alan Scott, the Golden Age Green Lantern. He also created the Pilsbury Dough Boy. I was not yet a fan of Alan Scott’s so didn’t take advantage of this opportunity the way that I would now, but it was still cool. Alan Scott and the Justice Society of America have become my true passion of comic collecting thanks to the modern efforts of Geoff Johns. It was an honor to meet Mr. Nodell, but being young and stupid I had no idea how much.

I went to my second Diamond retailer event at their distribution hub in Chicago. The building was a typical warehouse and an interesting dose of reality. I think I expected something more high-end and finding a run-down place did not inspire confidence. The only ‘celebrity’ here was Kevin Vanhhok who was writing “Solar, Man of the Atom” for Valiant Comics. I specifically remember the frenzy of retailers going through the sale boxes that were there. I don’t know what the price on books was, but it was low enough to watch people try to beat each other for them. My then business partner and I drove there and back non-stop. I promoted our trip to customers and we came back with a fresh stock of cheap back issues. We ran the stuff as a sale the week we got home.

Next up was my first trip to the Chicago Comic-Con. I went with a group of friends and customers, including a 17 year old kid whose parents made me sign a consent form. I joked the whole way that I was going to sell his organs and it was all legal. The Con was held at the Rosemont Convention Center and it was awesome. I met Jeff Smith, creator of Bone. He was just starting out back then and Bone was a cult hit. I met Mike Mignola, creator of Hellboy. He was hanging out with Art Adams at the Dark Horse booth and I was already a long time Adams fan, going back to his Longshot mini-series. Alex Ross and Kurt Busiek were doing Marvels and I met them in artist’s alley. Alex Ross sketched something on the acetate cover to my copy of Marvels #1. I wish I still had that. He wasn’t a super-star yet and you could get cool stuff like that from him. I stood in line for Frank Miller but he only signed for an hour and I never got there. I wasn’t in line for Jim Lee but the line for him went around the whole convention center. My favorite memory is of meeting Joe Quesada. Quesada had hit the scene with Ninjak at Valiant and was off on his own doing Ash for Event Comics. The announcement came over the speakers that he was open for signings at the Event booth. I happened to be near the booth and wandered over. I was the only person there. I thought it was kind of awkward and funny at the time but it’s even more funny now. Quesada is Editor In Chief of Marvel Comics and has overseen the restructuring and return to glory for the company and nobody even wanted to talk to him in 1993.  We were all poor and decided to drive straight home. We drove through Wisonsin in the middle of the night. Wisconsin is very foggy at night in the middle of July. We dubbed this ‘Wisconsin Sweet Fog’ and were quite certain it was the main ingredient in Mountain Dew. I hate Wisconsin so much.

My next trip to Chicago was a big disaster. This was one of those ‘everything that can go wrong, will go wrong’ things. Paradox bought booth space at the Comic-Con. This was a big risk but without risk, there is no gain. I took a van and a U-Haul trailer, three employees, one friend, and the daughter of my business partner. The problems had already started as we got there, as we’d overheated the engine on the way down (which we were yet to realize). The van got us to the Con and our hotel and sat for the duration. Highlights of that show included selling action figures to Jim Valentino of Image and Shadowhawk fame. I also sold comics to Dan Jurgens who killed Superman and was at the time writing Tomb Raider. I met John Byrne, another major X-Men creator, before the show started and got him to sign my Uncanny X-Men #141. I saw Peter David, then in the middle of his famous Hulk run. I sat at a Babylon 5 panel with JMS and Harlan Ellison.  Paradox made around $7,000 in the three days we were there and everything seemed awesome. We tried to leave Sunday night when we discovered our engine troubles. The van got us on the highway but we quickly found ourselves stuck there. We managed to limp to a hotel and there was nothing we could do until the next morning. It turned out that the engine was shot and not an option to drive home. I tried feverishly to find a U-Haul that could get everything and everyone back. The van was my partner’s and he wanted to get it home and try to fix it. The most efficient and cost-effective solution ended up being him driving round trip from Fargo to pick us up. He met us at our hotel where we’d been camped for about 48 hours and we were ready to get the hell out of town. He scraped the roof of the truck on the hotel’s overhang and later the truck stalled at a toll booth. I was convinced that it was impossible to leave Chicago and started a joke about the town being a black hole. The $7,000 dissapeared quickly with repairs and expenses and the trip was a big failure which cost lots of wear and tear and a lot of merchandise.

I went back one last time in a full size U-Haul truck I split with another retailer, my long-time friend Clyde from Iowa. One of my friends had coffee spilled on him by Rob Liefeld. Liefeld created Youngblood and helped found Image but apparently was kind of a clutz and a bit of a jerk. This was the first year that Wizard Entertainment took over the show and our booth space was poor. A random guy in a Wizard staff shirt asked how the show was and I gave him an earful. I was upset because prior to this, you could establish priority on tables by having attended the show in the past.  Wizard changed that rule without any warning and I’m sure our sales suffered from our location. I found out afterwards that the man was actually Gareb Shamus, the owner of Wizard.

I’ve yet to return to this Con. Things changed in the years we went. Wizard was reorganizing cons around the country and the industry was transforming. San Diego is the signature of that. It’s called Comic-Con, but it’s the home of pop culture overload. TV, movies, comics, and video games all dominate these major events now. I like this recreation to mass market events. Comics are smart to share the stage, to acknowledge that there fans have other interests, and to become the homes for anyone looking to promote their entertainment.. I hope I actually make the trip to San Diego next year but only time will tell. I’ve got free passes for the weekend and can get all kinds of cool stuff from publishers. I might be able to make a profit just by showing up.

I hope this was an interesting read. This is the type of thing I’d like to put in a Paradox memoir so if it’s boring, please let me know now.