Those two things didn’t happen at the same time but they were two of the most memorable moments of Comic-Con for me this year.
As the comic fates would have it, I was only able to attend one day of Comic-Con this year. Dreading the annual 3-hour drive down to San Diego, I decided instead to ride Amtrak’s Surfliner train down to San Diego from LA’s Union Station to spend the day, and then head back that same night. It ended up being a great way to get around the inevitably terrible traffic and parking headaches. I got to relax, enjoy the spectacular view of the California coast, check out Comic-Con’s app (much improved over last year) to mark panels I might want to see, waste time on Facebook without feeling guilty, take a nap or two, and on the way back I got to read some of the awesome graphic novels I bought. It was dreamy. I will almost surely be doing this from now on (until Comic-Con finally moves up to LA to make it more convenient for me).
Because I only had one day, I wasn’t able to do everything (impossible even if you’re every minute of the day). There were a few people I couldn’t connect with (sorry, Kristian and Brandon!), some publisher tables I never got to (sorry, Boom!, Archaia and IDW!), and some panels I missed (ThunderCats nooo…). Another day probably would’ve done it for what I wanted to do. But I bought a (very heavy!) ton of graphic novels, got to hang out with Scott Shaw! and share a laugh with Sergio Aragonés, and got to experience two things that really stood out as unique and made me absolutely happy that the world of comics exists.
The first was artist Eric Drooker‘s panel. Here’s how Comic-Con’s program described it:
Visual artist and Comic-Con special guest Eric Drooker will project hundreds of his magical images and explore how his early years as a street artist in New York City inspired his award-winning graphic novels Flood! and Blood Song. He’ll discuss the process of designing the animation for the recent hit film Howl, starring James Franco, and how he adapted it for the new book, Howl: A Graphic Novel. Best known for his numerous cover paintings for The New Yorker, Drooker will tell hilarious-but-true stories of how he wound up getting published.
A pretty straightforward description. Drooker is a fantastic artist and storyteller, so hearing him talk about his process and history sounded great. It turned out to be so much more than that. He did talk quite a bit about his work and his background, but Eric Drooker also happens to be a talented musician. Over the projected slideshow of his artwork, which has a haunted quality evocative of woodcuts from the 1910s and ’20s, Drooker played his banjo or harmonica and occasionally sang. Like his art, the music he created seemed to harken back a century. There was something incredibly powerful, moving and intimate about seeing and hearing two different forms of art that he had created and was creating live right before us. It seemed like such a personal expression. Here he was expressing himself to us on multiple levels, visually and sonically, and with such immediacy. I guess the easy description is that he created a soundtrack for his own art, but it felt deeper yet more transcendent than simple accompaniment. It was beautiful.
The second event was a tad sillier but a great example of how comics can take back some of the main spotlight from Hollywood at Comic-Con. I was standing near the Fantagraphics booth when this growling voice bellowed out over the conversations and white noise of the convention floor. In stalked a large hairy man covered in fake blood and wearing nothing but a speedo. He immediately started yelling at people around him, threatening them, cursing at them, mocking them. Now this is Comic-Con, so while there was some confusion, it didn’t take long to figure it out. The bloody man started pacing like a caged tiger behind Johnny Ryan, who was quietly signing copies of his new graphic novel Prison Pit 3. Johnny Ryan is a hilarious cartoonist but he is most definitely not for children. Crass and abrasive, his punchlines are more like blunt objects of comedy that shock and delight at their willful disregard for… everything. He released the third in his Prison Pit series of graphic novels at this year’s Comic-Con. It’s basically a trilogy of absolute violence and gore done on such a deliriously excessive level far beyond the parodying done on The Itchy & Scratchy Show from Matt Groening’s The Simpsons. As a promotional stunt, Johnny Ryan and his publisher Fantagraphics had performance artist Ajax Wood (aka Ardent Vein) done up to look like the main character in Prison Pit, Cannibal F***face. Everything Wood yelled was dialogue from Prison Pit 3. Some of the other exhibitors were mildly annoyed at the disruption, but I think it was a great promotional bit. Now maybe this example scared off more people than it drew in, but it certainly fit into the spirit of Johnny Ryan’s work, which itself isn’t exactly mainstream (although he regularly contributes to Vice Magazine). So it’s actually a pretty accurate marketing stunt. If that kind of spectacle is something that amuses you or draws you in, you’ll probably like Johnny Ryan’s Prison Pit 3. Personally, I would’ve given him a few assistants (maybe with fliers) and had him skulk around the convention floor a little bit before sticking him behind the Fantagraphics booth. But it was great. It got people’s attention. Usually at Comic-Con, all of the really flashy stuff is from Hollywood. Publishers and artists would do well to remember that comics are worth some creative pomp and circumstance too. Comics should be the main spectacle of Comic-Con.
The common thread between these two events is that the artists found a way to add performance art to their work. The two had different goals and purposes (one was a panel, one was a book signing) but people in comics are creative enough to come up with more ways to add a level of performance to their art for public appearances like conventions. When they meld so perfectly with the artist and their work, like these two did, it adds a new level of experience and awareness for fans. And it brings back some of that unorthodox spirit that comics have had in the past that make them so memorable.