"Pasadena Rock'n Comic Con"
It's two long train rides from my place in LA to the Pasadena Convention Center, which is low-slung, unassuming, and so inoffensive a work of architecture that I would have walked right past if it hadn't been for the line outside. It was a small con, the kind I'd imagine you get in Lansing and Tempe and Scranton too, but it had puffed itself up pretty good on its proximity to a major city. Of course this became a problem....
It wasn't too "rock'n", for one thing -- the promoters doubtless expected the mere fact that Pasadena neighbors LA would turn this into the new "LA Comic Con", like a West Coast twin to NYCC, but that just wasn't the case. You can't launch a new con and have it blow up big on will call orders; in other words, these guys were expecting sold tickets to hype up their show, but they were also expecting to sell all their tickets on the back of said hype. A paradox. The end result was that all the major '80s hair metal bands that had been promised didn't end up showing (not a problem for me), and the con's rock'n-est aspect was a guy outside with his guitar singing, and I quote, "I've got the facebook blues."
So it wasn't a worthy competitor to the glitz and overkill of San Diego. Instead it was a comic show. A half-empty hall, one or two solid creators, the smell of hot dogs, tattered longboxes, a lone Green Arrow cosplayer sweating his ass off, &c., &c., &c. You can delude yourself -- especially when you live in a big city that has a couple of high-end stores, you can delude yourself about what it really is that you do with your free time. You can think of comics as underground artists and book launches and great reprints and glossy cardstock covers on the best superhero pamphlets. But go to a con and you just get hit with comics, man, the fanboys, the lifers, the tradesmen, all the more unsavory and pedestrian aspects.
Comics, loud and smelly. You stand in a line outside for the better part of an hour because there's only one guy at the ticket booth inside, and it's 85 Fahrenheit already, and who are you shoulder to shoulder with? It's CGC collectors. It's ridiculously loud Asian girls. It's old guys with horrendous breath. Most of all: it's the middle-aged guy with a wife and kid who's taking this half of the day off to indulge his hobby. He has a t-shirt that says something, it's pulled over a gut and tucked into sizeless bluejeans. He has an ATM card. And you're here as a post-ironic hipster who's got a passle of Steranko books in his backpack to get signed because that guy changed your life, and you spent the two train rides over reading his SHIELD #2, "The Evolution Island", and listening to the avant-garde composer Edgard Varese because both of them are artists who dealt in climax after climax, who pulled you higher, higher, higher, and never let you back down -- they just stopped when they were done.
But comics are Disneyana to the guy in line with you. They're cereal boxes. They're consumer goods he interacts with, drawing the societally-expected amount of enjoyment from every one he buys. Sometimes he buys Ultimate Comics Spider-Man and sometimes it's Spider-Man Fever. He likes them both. To him they are both baseball cards. But can you imagine if some of the baseball cards were baseball cards and some had pictures by Dorothea Lange, Man Ray, David Lachapelle? What wonders would lay in store for the roving eye, for those who look deeper. Some do. Some don't. Some will one day.
Thank god we can look deep at all: that these depths are even in our hobby, that the seethes of genius have migrated into these collectibles over the past century. Thank god that comics hold more than the biggest cereal box.
And after an hour in line you go in, and a nattily dressed J. David Spurlock is the first person you see, and he tells you Steranko's not coming.
WHAT I GOT AT THE CON
There were very few vendors at the show, maybe six total who actually had more than fifty comics on hand. A lot of costumiers, a lot of bootleg DVD's, and probably the one thing that the closeness to LA did bring the con: a booth full of crisp new L. Ron Hubbard books. When it's like that you can forget about finding that miracle booth with the Morrison Zenith books and the Rory Hayes issues and the Nick Cardy original art. It all splits down the middle into the slapped-up jobs full of last year's overstock pamphlets and the Silver/Bronze Age specialty shoppes, where they've got it all down to fanzines and quarter bins carefully stripped of anything good by eyes more discerning than yours. There's always some finds to be had at a comics show, though; here are mine.
Jim Steranko print
Apparently the Vanguard booth didn't expect Steranko to be a no-show any more than I did: they were so loaded down with Jaunty Jim items that poor Bill Sienkiewicz had to push it out of the way just to sit down. Stan Lee was signing (I saw him, and yes, I can report that that guy does actually exist) so the FOOM issues went fast, but that left a lot of solid '70s material. They had single pages from the Supergirls pin-up calendar (kicking myself now for passing those up), a lot of other random posters, a calendar, trading cards -- anything to disguise the fact that Steranko hasn't drawn a comic in over two decades. Don't get me started. I like the picture I ended up with, though. It was cheap, which is cool enough, but this random picture of a random superhero is neat because there's no Captain America or whoever to distract you from the work of the artist on display. And this is a pretty quintessential Steranko image -- bright colors, screen tone, feathered Raymond/Frazetta linework, and that particular, rather strange mixture of glimmery, feminine grace and over-muscled brawn that only the man could get. I'm glad I found it.
Terry and the Pirates newspaper Sunday from 4/21/46
Pacific Comics Club was represented a the con by a lone, aged Italian gent reading a foreign newspaper in the middle of an absolutely ramshackle booth. There were a great deal of random comic strip reprints scattered across two tables in piles so thick I couldn't get to the bottom of them all (who knew Nostalgia Press reprinted Terry? or that there was a huge series of color Johnny Hazard books? not me...), but the real find was a binder full of pristine Caniff tearsheets, five bucks apiece. There were a few good ones, an aerial battle and a sizzling Dragon Lady scene among them -- but I've always loved this strip for just how cartooned and expressionistic it is, melting Frank Engli's note-perfect lettering right into the body of Caniff's art, which is in the height of its late-Terry Kurtzmanesque phase. This is about as un-illustrative as Caniff got after 1935 or so, blasting the panels with blacks and ersatz jubilation. It really shouts off the page, and considering this is going to end up as framed wall art I definitely think I made the right choice.
Valentina: Ciao Valentina e altre storie HC, by Guido Crepax.
I've gone on at length about Guido Crepax's Valentina before, so I'll keep it brisk this time: the fact that this comic is not in print in English is a travesty. What little reputation it has in the US is that of an intense sex comic, which it certainly was at times, and I'd imagine that's the reason no publisher wants to take it on. But wow, Crepax drew sex better than anyone else, ever, and honestly, how ridiculous is it that this country's comics scene will only allow itself erotic art that goes along the lines of an issue of Hot Moms or Pee Soup? There are beautiful, artistic porno comics out there that put anything being published right now to shame, and the fact that this Golden Age of reprints hasn't even attempted to accommodate their crown jewel must be considered a mark against US graphic novel publishing.
This beautiful Italian-language volume contains the first two Valentina albums (which I've already got in a decades-old Eurotica translation), but the printing here goes all out, reproducing every slash and stipple in even the finest brush work. It's revelatory; this is by far the best I've ever seen Crepax printed. But the real draw for me was the inclusion of a later album, "Valentina intrepida" as a kind of preface. It fills in the titular female photojournalist's life story, starting at childhood in WWII-era Italy and winding anarchically through the growing girl's fantasy worlds. Crepax deftly bends the monochrome chic of the '50s with the young Valentina's favorite comics (Raymond's Flash Gordon and Lee Falk's Phantom), swelling the classic American works into distinctly Continental phantasmagorias and then overlaying them with the heroine's Muriel Spark-esque adolescence. The scene where a deathly anorexic Valentina silently weeps on encountering her first glimpse of Louise Brooks in an old movie is as close to poetry as comics have gotten; and I'll let Crepax's beautiful, abstracted Aubrey Beardsley-meets-Chris Ware sex sequences speak for themselves:
When Fantagraphics is done with Jacques Tardi, I expect this masterwork to be next on the list.
The Hands of Shang-Chi, Master of Kung-Fu #18-24, by Doug Moench, Paul Gulacy, and Steve Englehart.
Though he wasn't there in body, Jim Steranko's spirit sort of hung over Pasadena today. Every tradesman who had any Steranko to his wares put it front and center, no doubt expecting to capitalize on his promised appearance. I would have been in ecstasy had I not spent the past few years hunting down every last item offered online. Oh well. But one thing the Steranko fever did bring to the surface was a great deal of comics by Paul Gulacy, including some Shang-Chis I didn't have.
Gulacy is an interesting artist, basically forgotten nowadays (apparently the fate of any artist who gets a career retrospective published by Vanguard), but probably the guy who took up Steranko's torch and carried more than anyone else once he was gone. There's definite chops he shares with Jim Starlin and Marshall Rogers, but where those two had concerns that overrode the Steranko (Kirby for Starlin; Krigstein for Rogers) and were generally more incorporators of Zap Art, Gulacy dove right in, deep as he could go. I talked just yesterday about how cool it can be when an artist devotes his entire aesthetic energy to the stylistic quirks of another -- see Tom Scioli on Jack Kirby, Frank Miller on Will Eisner. Gulacy is as much a member of that fraternity as anyone else; he goes so far into Steranko's poster art-style hyperboles and deft, '70s-ad-art inking that it becomes its own thing, independent of anything Steranko actually did because it's not (at least as of these issues) incorporating anything outside of his style. These are fascinating-looking comics, but equally strange is the subject matter's mixing with it, the exploitation-y grime of Marvel kung fu comics turning the Steranko pastiches into something very like the comic book version of those ads for strip-mall dojos you can find in the backs of said comics. Bizarre, tacky, almost painfully past-its-time stuff that nonetheless transcends with its pure energy and enthusiasm. That's Pasadena con for you.
(Tomorrow brings part 2 with Dan Nadel, Jaime Hernandez, Johnny Ryan, and lots more hipster-comics stuff! GET READY!!)