Bagged & Boarded: Project Comic Con 2012
by Jeff Ritter
Published: June 24, 2012
Project Comic Con, St. Louis' 3-year old convention, continued to progress this year with a new venue and an interesting mix of talented creators. Held for the first time at the Westport Sheraton, the show was roomier, brighter, and much easier to navigate than last time. The Versailles Room offered a bit more elegance than you might expect, with large glass chandeliers overhead and brass wall sconces surrounding the room. The ambiance made the show more inviting than the typical drab convention hall. The vendors were also no longer separated from the creators, which remedied a problem from the previous show and helped bring the whole thing together much better. At a fraction of the size (and a fraction of the admission price) of bigger, more established conventions, this year's Project Comic Con maintained a pretty steady flow of conventioners yet it never felt like you were packed in.
The convention itself was open to the public on Saturday and Sunday, June 9-10, but the festivities actually kicked off on Friday with the Sketch Jam. This event was a limited-seating artist blowout, featuring beautiful models Taffeta Darling, Erin Elizabeth and Melissa Malm posing for amateur and established comic artists. It was fun to wander around behind the artists, watching how they worked. The sketches varied wildly despite the shared focus on the model at hand. It was an intriguing glimpse into the mind of each artist, their sketches ranging from heavy lines and aggressive styles to soft pencils attempting to capture the models' expressions. I think the artists had a good time doing the jam, and the models were excited to see the results. I spared everyone the indignity of showing how bad I am at rendering even a basic stick figure, so I merely took some pictures and tried to stay out of everyone's way. During the breaks between poses, I got to meet a few of the amateurs on hand, including Marvel Index scribe Chris McCarver and local art teacher John Boren. Everyone at the jam was good spirits, and it was a pleasure to make some new friends.
On the way to the Project Comic Con I was wrestling with some difficult decisions. Do I go straight for Kenneth Rocafort, the dynamic artist of DC's Red Hood and The Outlaws
or Mike McKone, who has drawn virtually every character in the Marvel and DC universes at one time or another? And what would I get from them? I could ask for something the artist is famous for, or proceed with my usual modus operandi and ask for a character they typically are not known for. I usually prefer the latter, as I find that many artists are
excited to draw something new rather than fall into auto-pilot while drawing their signature character for the 10,000th time. Matching the character with the artist is the key. So, as usual, I suffered from a case of analysis paralysis. Rocafort draws fantastic women and awesome technology; my Boba Fett sketch from the previous Project Comic Con is a testiment to the latter. How many comic women actually have awesome technology as part of their costume? I couldn't come up with very many, and none that I was particularly wild about. What character could I suggest for a sketch that might get Mr. McKone excited? Between Exiles, Avengers Academy, Justice League
and Teen Titans
, covering a wide range of characters from both of the "Big Two." I wanted to come up with something fresh for Mike. As I pondered these difficult conundrums (for me anyway), I found myself at the table of Robert Atkins. That's when things started falling into place.
Robert Atkins is one solid run on a high-profile book from being a household name in comics. He's had a successful run on G. I. Joe
and has worked on the DC Universe Online
comic as well as various comics from Marvel's Ultimate line. The guy is seriously talented, and I hadn't brought enough money to get a convention sketch the last time he was in town, so I decided I wouldn't miss the chance again. Robert and I discussed a few characters before he put me on the spot and asked, "Who is your favorite Marvel villain?" I have a stock top 5 answer for that question which doesn't vary all that much: Rhino, Taskmaster, Dr. Doom, Thanos, and Mr. Sinister. Since I had just recently received a wonderfully cheeky sketch of Rhino from the excellent Michael Perkins, I took only a second to ponder before answering, "Taskmaster." Robert's eyes lit up as he smiled wide and tried to get the attention of his brother Brian Atkins at the next table. "Taskmaster! I have always wanted to do a Taskmaster sketch and nobody ever asks me for that! Yeah! Taskmaster!" As Stan Lee famously put it: 'Nuff Said! I set up a full-figure sketch with Robert that I don't actually have yet. He was so excited that he didn't want to rush through it at the show. He said he preferred to take his time and work on it at home and that he'd ship it up to me in a couple of weeks. Now it was my turn to be giddy--I have no idea what to expect but I know it's going to be incredible.
Stopping to talk to Robert put me at the end of an already fairly long line for Kenneth Rocafort, who could only accommodate a small number of people this year. Some artists may ask if they can keep a sketchbook with them overnight to work on a commission they couldn't get to or finish during show hours, but as an active artist working on a current title with a tight shipping schedule, Rocafort had to limit is convention sketching to during show hours only so that he could work on Red Hood and the Outlaws
pages at night. That was completely understandable, and as I hadn't settled on a character for him to draw I decided I would try to get a new sketch from him next year and look for a sketch from someone new this year.
Mike McKone was likewise at the top of my list this year and as usual I didn't know what character to commission. He had a couple of sketches ahead of me so I wandered around the vendor tables, flipping through back issues, looking for just the right character. I didn't find him. I was going to be getting a bust so I needed a character with some sort of distinctive head features, such as Thor's helmet, Captain America's winged mask, etc. As I poured through long box after long box nothing seemed to fit the bill. Then it suddenly hit me: Deathlok, the cyborg killing machine with a conscious. He has a distinctive look with asymmetrical cyborg parts and a face that had seen better days. More importantly, I couldn't recall ever seeing a McKone Deathlok in a comic before. When I suggested the character to him he grinned and agreed that Deathlok was someone he had not drawn very often. He always liked the original Luther Manning version, and I am now the proud owner of a rare Mike McKone Deathlok sketch. I asked Mike who is favorite character was and was a little surprised when he answered, "The Hulk." He explained that he's not so easy to draw as you might think, with the exaggerated muscles and an unusual jaw line. I had never really thought about the Hulk from an artist's perspective before. I always thought the absence of any sort of traditional superhero costume would have made Bruce Banner's angry alter-ego one of the simplest characters to render, but I can understand Mr. McKone's perspective.
Joe Dodd might not be a familiar name in comic book circles, but he easily could be. He works in the toy industry, and designed many of the Spider-Man action figures of recent years, including a really cool Rhino. Looking through his prints it was clear to me that Spider-Man wasn't just a job for Joe. You could tell by his art that he really enjoyed making ol' Webhead come alive. He was doing convention sketches, and very reasonably too. I told him I'd come back and set up a commission just as soon as I figured out what I wanted--the story of my convention-going life. I struck up a conversation with writer Jai Nitz, (more on him in a bit) who was seated next to Joe. That discussion made my decision for what to get from Joe Dodd easy: Spider-Man vs. Kraven the Hunter. Joe was excited, and it shows. It's always a neat feeling when you're clear on the other side of the room and you hear another conventioner say, "Did you see that Spidey versus Kraven sketch that Joe Dodd is working on? Man, that's good!" It took a lot of willpower not to peek whenever I walked by. I was pleased to see that final product and know that the chatter about my sketch as it was in progress wasn't meerly hyperbole. I'm already pondering a companion piece should Joe return at the next Project Comic Con. I hope he does, and I hope he has a Rhino figure he could sell too!
Jeremy Haun has collaborated with writer B. Clay Moore with very good results, illustrating the terrific Battle Hymn series and The Leading Man, which is in development as a motion picture.
He's also handled art duties on Batman: Arkham Reborn, The Darkness and the forth-coming Top Cow series The Beauty, which Jeremy is also writing. Jeremy is one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet at a convention, and he does some terrific sketches at very reasonable prices. Before my "What would I like him to draw?" quandary could gain traction in my brain, I noticed a character on the cover of Jeremy's sketchbook. I asked him who it was and he said, "Oh, that's Skulldigger. He's an original character concept I've been working on--a World War II spy-smasher. One of these days I hope to get that project going...one of these days. So what would you like?" I went with Skulldigger, and I think Jeremy was very pleased with my choice. I am the proud owner of the first Skulldigger convention sketch, and when the comic comes out...one day...I'll be first in line to buy it. While watching Jeremy work on a sweet Mr. Freeze sketch for my friend Daron, an excited teen approached Jeremy about getting a sketch of the new Robin, Damien al Ghul-Wayne. I personally can't stand the character, and wish DC would dust off those old 1-900 telephone numbers for a sequel to the "Death In The Family" storyline, where Bat-fans everywhere voted to kill off Jason Todd, the second Boy Wonder. I couldn't keep my big mouth shut and suddenly was engaged in a rather hilarious debate with Damien's #1 fan. I hope the young lady didn't take offense; she certainly didn't back down and staunchly defended the current Robin. Jeremy just smiled, shook his head, and went about drawing an amazingly quick and very slick Damien in all his brooding teen angst. Keep an eye out for The Beauty when it comes out, it looks to be a good one.
Boom! Studios puts out some interesting comics in a wide range of genres. Extermination
, the new series by Simon Spurrier and Jeffrey Edwards, mixes an alien invasion with an interesting look at the superhero-supervillain relationship. I met Jeffrey at C2E2 and was excited to renew our acquaintance in St. Louis. His sketches are phenomenal but so to are the pressures of being a working artist with a deadline. He wasn't going to be doing sketches at the show, but he was happy to sign my copy of Extermination
#1. Before I had a chance to discuss the possibility of setting up a commission with him later this year, a family emergency pulled him away from the convention altogether. I hope the emergency has passed without too much difficulty, and I look forward to more of his book. Watch for big things coming from Jeffrey Edwards in the future.
I also had a great conversation with the comic art chameleon Pop Mhan. He can work in a variety of styles, which would seem to be an advantage. Any editor tasked with finding an artist for something could say, "Pop Mhan can do realistic. He can do exaggerated. He can do anything." But apparently he, like so many other talented creators, has had trouble finding a steady gig, and it might be precisely because he doesn't have a signature art style. Our conversation also included the topic of mixed martial arts, the sport that has overtaken boxing and pro-wrestling in popularity. Pop had tried his hand at it but realized getting punched in the face is not necessarily the best way to make a living. He showed me some pages from a project he had been working on and the art was just terrific. Considering how many books I see every month with really lousy art--in my opinion, of course--it's a shame Pop Mhan's art isn't on the new release wall regularly. One of the coolest things about smaller conventions like Project Comic Con is having the chance to get to know a comic book talent like Pop Mhan beyond just being a name in the bottom corner of the cover art.
Clayton Henry, the artist on Uncanny X-Men, was in attendance, but I never got the chance to talk to him. I had the opportunity to shake hands with Guardians of the Galaxy artist, ShadowHawk creator and Image Comics co-founder Jim Valentino in passing. Eric Basaldua was very popular with his pin-up art and Chris Giarrusso's all-ages comics were a big hit with parents of younger conventioners. My good friend Rob bought at least one of his books for his son Devin. I spotted Angel Medina and Steve Lightle holding court often with happy patrons, and Rick Burchett was constantly at work whenever I was near his table.
Finally, as I transition to the writers, I would like to give a special mention to Scott Quick, the writer and artist of Camden Bottoms, a delightful web comic that in some ways reminds me of Bloom County when it was less politically minded and more centered on the hijinx of young people, an introspective penguin and a drugged-out cat. Mr. Quick's wonderful art alone is worth checking out. The strip follows the misadventures of three oddball characters who appear to be anthropomorphized animals who talk to humans the same way Opus would talk to Steve Dallas. I found out through his site that Mr. Quick is an alumni of the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art. The level of craftsmanship demonstrated in his panels certainly speaks to both innate skill and proper training. Kubert's School doesn't produce bad artists--ever!
One of my top highlights of Project Comic Con this year was getting to meet, in my opinion, one of the most influential men in the history of the business: Dennis O'Neil. He charted the course for Batman as the group editor overseeing the entire line of Bat-comics for several years, and before that wrote both Batman
and the cherished "Hard Traveling Heroes" run of Green Lantern/Green Arrow,
both with artist Neal Adams,
as well as The Shadow
with artist Michael Kaluta. He's also written The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics
, which I've read and re-read as I prepare to undertake my own first foray into the medium. On top of all that, he's originally from St. Louis! We chatted a bit about the old neighborhoods we lived in back in the day, and the differences between living in St. Louis and in New York, where he makes his home today. I've always admired his work, and it was a pleasure to meet him in person.
I was introduced to Joshua Dysart, whose work I've admired for some time. He's the writer of Neil Young's Greendale and an acclaimed run on Vertigo's Unknown Soldier as well as Violent Messiah, one of his early works published at Image. Joshua is now writing Harbinger for Valiant Comics.
Around St. Louis comic shops, Valiant has always been something of a joke. They actually produced some decent material, including Ninjak, which introduced then-artist Joe Quesada to the scene. At one point I believe they were the third biggest publisher behind Marvel and DC, but their coloring and art direction made their books look dated and out-of-place as the more dynamic "Image style" began to become more dominant in the industry. In recent years you could go to a back issue sale at virtually any comic shop and find longbox after longbox of old Harbinger, X-O Manowar, Bloodshot and others. Valiant has recently risen from the ashes again, and despite my better judgment I gave the new X-O Manowar title by Cary Nord a try--and really enjoyed it. But there was no way in all of the nine realms of Asgard that I was going to try Harbinger. I never enjoy stories that revolve around telepaths. I told Joshua as much and then invited him to sell me on it. He said, "Well, it takes place in Pittsburgh..." Damn. I love Pittsburgh. "Fine, I'm sold!" I said, before Joshua even got to the heart of his pitch. Who was I kidding? Joshua was a tremendously friendly and knowledgeable writer who spent time in East Africa doing research for Unknown Soldier. Anyone brave enough to spend over a month in a place where young children with machine guns and live ammo isn't considered particularly unusual deserves at least the benefit of the doubt for the first story arc. The fact that the talented Khari Evans is handling the art didn't hurt either. I picked up a copy that night, read it, and asked him to sign in the next day, which he obliged with a knowing smile.
Jai Nitz, who has worked on a number of interesting and diverse titles such as Season of the Witch at Image, Green Hornet: Parallel Lives and Bring the Thunder for Dynamite, El Diablo and Blue Beetle at DC and Tron: Betrayal for Disney, was seated next to Joe Dodd. I had spoken with him at the last Project Comic Con and he put me on to an incredible graphic novel that many of my readers have probably not heard of called Tales of Colossus by Mark Andrews, who himself has worked on such films as "The Incredibles" and
Pixar's latest, "Brave." Jai and I somehow ended up discussing a couple of older Spider-Man stories, the legendary "Kraven's Last Hunt" by J.M. DeMattis and Mike Zeck, and the "Flowers For Rhino" two-issue story from the excellent but short-lived Spider-Man's Tangled Web series, by Peter Milligan and Duncan Fegredo. As it turns out, those stories were two of our mutual favorites, and it was a blast to discuss them with an enthusiastic creator. Jai is always refreshingly honest, even about his own work. I have Jai to thank, in part, for seeding the idea of having Joe Dodd draw Kraven fighting Spider-Man. Thanks Jai!
B. Clay Moore was also on hand. He's written a number of outstanding books, including Hawaiian Dick, Battle Hymn and The Leading Man, which is in the works as a motion picture, As I've matured as a person (seriously--stop laughing!) I find my taste in comics has expanded well beyond the superhero fare Marvel and DC print. While Moore has done superhero stories, his books are often grounded in realistic stories of people in extraordinary situations without the benefit of superpowers. His 2011 title Deadline, with co-creator Seth Peck and one my favorite artists, Kevin Mellon, falls into this category. It's the story of a covert operative who once fostered "regime change" in the Middle East. His family is kidnapped and he is implanted with an explosive device by terrorists who force him to do their bidding lest his wife and daughter come to harm and his implant explode. The pace never lags, and the action is like something right out of "24." It's a shame there's not more "mainstream" action comics. Marvel could do a S.H.I.E.L.D. title that revolves around a couple of agents infiltrating Hydra, A.I.M., the Secret Empire, the Hand, and all of the other terror groups in the Marvel Universe...all without superheroes, supervillains, or superpowers. I doubt they ever would, though, so I'm happy B. Clay Moore and his collaborators are filling that niche.
The lovely JP Roth and her equally lovely cousin were promoting JP's series, Ancient Dreams. JP has a grand story to tell, centered on the gods of ancient times and their relationship with modern humans. It's a deeply personal story for JP, whose own unusual origin could be a comic book all on its own. The art Ancient Dreams is outstanding, not just for a self-published effort but by any measure. Penciler Mike Krome, inker Dawn McTeigue and colorist Sabine Rich have crafted a first-rate comic. I hope this team of fresh talent can maintain the high level of quality over the long haul and stick to a reasonably consistent shipping schedule. Gorgeous ladies making gorgeous comics--what's not to love about this hobby?
I didn't get a chance to speak with Dennis Hopeless, author of X-Men Season One, Lovestruck and the excellent Gearhead (the latter two both with artist Kevin Mellon) or Cullen Bunn, the local writer of The Sixth Gun (with Brian Hurtt), Captain America and..., plus a slew of others titles, for very long. I had talked with both of them at C2E2 and if they had any big news to share they were probably both under a vow of silence until the San Diego Comicon. It's a shame that the industry thinks they need to be so secretive save for that one show. I hope for a sequel to Gearhead from Dennis and Kevin in the future and much more of The Sixth Gun from Cullen and Brian as well.
Vendors and Publishers
I have to be honest; I found the majority of the vendor stalls sadly lacking. Back issues were the same exceedingly common 25-cent sale leftovers you could find anywhere. One of the biggest, oldest, and well-known comic shops in town, The Fantasy Shop, didn't even bring any comics. They brought a handful of full-priced trades, a sampling of board games and roleplaying supplements and some statuary to raffle off. They shouted sales pitches for the raffle tickets that often made it hard to carry conversations anywhere near their booth. Star Clipper, the Delmar Loop institution famous for their deep stock of graphic novels, didn't bring any. They simply brought their overstock of single issue comics, an odd choice of wares from that store, in my opinion. Comic Relief had a nice assortment of single issues and trades, and by the end of the show they had sold around 70% of what they brought, so they appeared to do pretty well. I'm a huge fan of graphic novels and collected volumes, so it was disappointing to see only two vendors with graphic novels in the whole convention. There was original artwork, toys and collectibles available at many of the vendors, and anime on DVD. The prices for some of the toys and artwork were a bit prohibitive, unless someone was coming to the convention with the sole goal of paying $200 for an Arthur Suydam original.
Speaking of anime, one table that did big business the entire show was the Voltron table. It's a little known fact that the Koplar family, who used to own KLPR-TV 11, owns the rights to Voltron. They had a monitor set up to show footage from both the classic Voltron series and the still relatively new reboot. I was excited to find out that they have brought Sven, the original pilot of the Blue Lion! He was always my favorite character on the original show, so naturally he'd be the one they'd cut out. I reached their table too late to get a "Sven Lives!" t-shirt in my size, but they had several other retro-cool shirt designs, Voltron boxer shorts and a really slick Voltron hockey jersey. I'm going to have to check out the new series to see how they go about bringing Sven back into the fold, and hit their website for a couple of t-shirts!
Marvel and DC tend to skip out on the smaller conventions, which is a real shame. Fortunately, the good people at Zenescope and Avatar sent representatives. Artist and Art Director Anthony Spay was at the Zenescope table offering critiques of artist portfolios. The Zenescope product table seemed to shrink at a nice clip as the show went on, and why not? They make an entertaining product, focused mostly on fairy tale characters with a bit of a horror twist, usually drawn in titillating fashion by such fans of the female form as Eric Basaldua. Avatar Press is the publisher of a truckload of dark, often violent and horror-oriented comics from the minds of Warren Ellis, Garth Ennis and Alan Moore. Their product line skews towards the mature reader, but there's certainly a place for that and I've enjoyed several of their books in recent years. I would have picked up their Caligula story by David Lapham and German Nobile, but alas, I fell victim to the lament of nearly every serious fan of comic conventions--I ran out of money.
See you next year!
I think, strictly as an observer, that the third running of Project Comic Con was a solid success. I hope the show continues to grow as St. Louis residents as well as fellow Missourians and our neighbors from the surrounding states take notice. Perhaps a little more advertising would help raise the awareness. I realize that the convention isn't as big as C2E2 and perhaps doesn't intend to be, and that's fine. But when I was in Chicago there was a fair amount of C2E2 saturation--the "El Trains" had panels advertising the show, the buses were adorned with ads, and banners announcing the show and the venue hung from city streetlights. All of that costs money, of course, but one would hope that a slightly larger ad campaign would result in enough of an increase in admissions to offset that cost. Saturday was very well attended, but Sunday, in typical lazy St. Louis fashion, seemed to only have a brief spike after church/lunch and then petered out rather quickly. The Midwest is home to a rather impressive number of talented comic book creators and there's no shortage of comic book fans out there. I hope the Project Comic Con organizers, Jeff Morris and Steve Falcon, can continue this tradition for many years to come, bringing so many amazing people together to celebrate a hobby--and for some a career--that we are all so passionate about. I hope to see everyone again at next year's Project Comic Con, and bring some friends with you!