Comic cons serve a variety of functions. They can be press junkets, costume parties, swap meets, social retreats, even museums. Comics writer Warren Ellis has a habit of referring to San Diego’s huge Comic Con as “nerd prom,” which perfectly captures the glow of excitement for mass socialization in funny costumes. By contrast, this year’s Image Comic Expo was more like a nerd Sadie Hawkins dance – a deliberate reversal of the standard hierarchy, where creator-owned books are championed over the widely beloved DC and Marvel franchises that sometimes seem to oversaturate the comics market. It was also a little less garish and hectic than some larger cons, but the sense of community and pride was still richly evident.
The event coincided with two historic peculiarities – the twentieth anniversary of Berkeley-based Image Comics and the migration of San Francisco’s WonderCon to Anaheim this year. And, fittingly, there was no shortage of Image worship over the con’s three days. In the center of the convention floor like a hub was the main Image vendor, which sold books, distributed tickets to panels and workshops, and hosted signings, all in the shadow of a massive edifice with Image book covers on one side and images from Robert Kirkman’s Skybound imprint on the other.
Local vendors were well-represented on the con floor, with Berkeley’s Fantastic Comics (shout-out to my hometown comic book guys and gals) and Escapist Comic Bookstore, and San Francisco’s Two Cats Comic Book Store, among others. The “artist alley” was rife with independent artists and creators selling their wares and producing sketches, while several Image creators, including Jonathan Hickman (Red Wing), Nick Spencer (Morning Glories), and the MAN OF ACTION gents, got their own booths around the con.
As for the sort of crowd the Image Expo attracted, based entirely on my casual observations, there was a notable diversity of age, gender, and ethnicity. There were strikingly few cosplayers, though I spotted one full-blown Aang from Avatar: The Last Airbender, a group of ladies in anime-inspired dress (I made out one Sailor suit), and two young’uns dressed as Batgirl (or a female Batman) and Captain America. Among con guests, the Skybound booth featured an Atom Eve cosplayer, and the comedians of Dipstick Swagger sported a variety of disguises including their own mascot, Luchacat.
By virtue of the con’s Image-centric organization, the panels which ran through Saturday and Sunday were occasionally redundant, with guests like Kirkman, Joe Casey, and Brian K. Vaughan each appearing in multiple places. But breaking announcements and a sense of fan enthusiasm for these beloved creators’ upcoming work kept it all going. Among the exciting announcements at Friday night’s keynote speech by Image publisher Eric Stephenson: the long-awaited sequel to Howard Chaykin’s Black Kiss, a third volume of Phonogram from Gillen/McKelvie, a collaboration between Grant Morrison and Darick Robertson called Happy, and several other new titles.
The most enjoyable panels were the ones that featured folks with a less-established fanbase, who were in a position to introduce new readers to their ideas. The inaugural Saturday panel, moderated by G4’s Blair Butler, focused on the forthcoming Kickstarter-funded collection Womanthology, a showcase for comics by female creators. The panel featured Trina Robbins, Mariah Huehner, Nicole Sixx, Fiona Staples, and Bonnie Burton, all of who contributed in various capacities. The audience, though smallish, was enthusiastic about both the cause and the content, and discussions of such exasperating issues as the “brokeback pose” (slightly NSFW tumblr here) drew applause and thoughtful questions.
Also engrossing was Sunday’s “Image Introduces…” panel, with a slate of recently recognized creators whose series are still in their early issues, including Joe Keatinge (Glory, Hell Yeah), S. Steven Struble and Sina Grace (Li’l Depressed Boy), Daniel Corey (Moriarty), Jim Zub (Skullkickers), Brandon Seifert (Witch Doctor), and Kurtis J. Wiebe (Peter Panzerfaust). It was a joy to see their pride in their creations and their genuine pleasure at getting to share their work with potential new fans.
But let us not forget the old guard: at the “Twenty Years of Independence” panel, the founders of Image told their story and the audience got a chance to witness controversial icons like Todd McFarlane and Rob Liefeld; the “Stories and Scripts: Writing Comics” panel featured Image’s hottest properties, including Jonathan Hickman, Ed Brubaker, Nick Spencer, John Layman, Joe Casey, Steven T. Seagle, and Brian K. Vaughan, who basically all teased each other and had a grand old time.
Since it was an Image-minded convention, creators came first, which is always refreshing, especially for less iconic newcomers with a lot to offer, but the apotheosis of one publisher might wear thin if the convention continues in subsequent years. With a bit of expansion, though, an East Bay comics event might differ enough from WonderCon to hold an audience.
All photos by Taryn Erhardt