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Monday, June 12, 2000

The All Time Classic New York Comic Book Convention -- I'm told White Plains, New York is about a half-hour from New York City, generally recognized as the capital of the world. You would have thought more people would have turned out, then, for this convention, held June 9th through the 11th.

The talent was certainly there. Some of the biggest names in comics history turned out: Julie Schwartz, John Buscema, Barry Windsor-Smith, Roy Thomas, Walt Simonson, even today's young guns such as Sean Chen, Mike Oeming and Buzz were on hand.

I should point out, I was only there on the final day of the event, a Sunday. Still, in the first few minutes I was there, I met some true legends, including Joe Sinnott, legendary for being a nice guy (true), and Jim Shooter, among other things legendary for being tall (also true).

The first thing that anyone walking into the convention hall noticed was "The World's Largest Comic Book Painting." This extraordinary effort by artist Russell Rainbolt took up the entire length and height of the stage, 60 feet by 20 feet. It included nearly 100 comics characters dating from the Yellow Kid (1896) right up to the 1970s.

Attendance on Sunday was not spectacular; I asked organizer Joe Petrilak if he considered the convention a success, and he said he felt that it was, but that attendance could have been better. Other than Barry Windsor-Smith, who was the guest of honour, I never saw more than four or five people in line to talk to any of the dozens of creators on hand. For BWS, on the other hand, within moments of his arrival there were dozens of people in line to meet him. It was quite funny watching him set up and suddenly turn around and see the crowd waiting.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should point out I came to the convention with BWS; we were planning on attending separately, and he suggested I go with him and his studio manager Alex Bialy. Needless to say, I jumped at the chance. It was a true education, seeing a comics convention from the point of view of an artist who's been doing this for 30 years.

At one point, while I watched Barry doing a sketch of a certain barbarian for a charity auction, he turned to me and asked "Are you learning anything?" I told him I was, and it was the truth. I learned that, despite the increasing apathy about comics on the part of the reading public, the people who work to create comics really love the artform, and in many cases, they love each other. Many times over, I saw the scene reenacted: Legendary comics pro on the way to his or her booth spots a fellow pro, lights up and stops for a brief chat before moving on to face a day full of signings and momentary encounters with fans.

Some of the most moving moments involved creators no longer working steadily in comics. Everyone seemed delighted to have a chance to catch up with Joe Sinnott and Marie Severin. I was dubious about a panel discussion between Golden Age creators Harry Lampert, Alvin Schwartz, Martin Nodell and others that also included young JSA artist Buzz. But when he introduced himself, he did so by paying tribute to the works of the older creators on the panel, who created the only comics Buzz had to read while growing up in Burma. He treated their work, and them, with respect verging on reverence. He explained that the decidedly modern appearance of the characters in JSA isn't his choice; he'd do the book in a style more reminiscent of the original creators if he could, but the editors think, say, the Golden Age Flash, should be "A naked guy coloured red."

At a time when most comics creators seem to be trying to get gigs in TV or movies, it was a revelation to hear GA Flash artist Harry Lampert tell the audience how 90 percent of the animators at the Fleischer Studios (where he worked for a time) wanted nothing more than to break into comics. It is quite literally impossible to imagine such a scenario today.

The most extraordinary event I witnessed Sunday came at the very end of the day, after most of the retailers had packed out their booths and begun to leave. An amateur artist came up to Barry Windsor-Smith's table and said hi to Barry and Alex. Alex told me this was someone they had met before, and they were friendly with him. He took out a painting he'd been working on literally for years, and asked Barry to have a look at it.

Barry went on to engage the artist and anyone within earshot (this display drew quite a crowd, including a few working pros) on the subject of what did and did not work in the painting. One thing I've noticed about Barry is that he absolutely will not let go of the truth, and pulls no punches when asked for his opinion.

He discovered the central flaw in the painting, and went on at length to explain it in detail to its creator. The artist had, simply, faked it. Despite the fact that he has a girlfriend, he instead chose to fake a drawing of a woman in a fantasy environment. Barry wasn't at all mean-spirited in his appraisal; in fact, I think the education he offered to the artist was an act of extraordinary kindness. What he was pointing out seems obvious only in retrospect. Most would-be comics artists look to comics to see how to draw. Barry, instead, told him to draw from life. To find models for his work from the people and things in his own life.

I was amazed, truly, when the artist started trying to justify his shortcuts in the painting. Barry Windsor-Smith was giving this guy a free art lecture that, really, was invaluable to anyone who wants to learn how to draw. And the guy was arguing! Defending the fakery he had indulged in, likely because he had sunk six years of his life and effort in producing this piece. By the time he and Barry were done discussing it, I had gained new insight not only into drawing, but into any artistic effort.

At dinner after the convention, we discussed these things further. Barry and Alex and this artist fellow (proving there were no hurt feelings) and I discussed the very definition of art. I came to realize the artist had started this piece, which he so badly wanted to be art, without any essential truth to tell.

I believe the thing that drives any true artist is the desire to express a truth (any truth) about the world as they see it. Look at any work by your favourite artist; it becomes clear that they have a consistent point of view about the world, and their art becomes a continuing effort to express that truth. I think where this artist I met Sunday fails is that, instead of having something to say, he simply wants to say something. Anything. He is making an effort to express himself, but he doesn't yet know what it is he wants to say.

A few months ago, in an e-mail exchange with a comic book writer, I expressed why I've chosen to write about comics. As a child, I had no greater joy or companion than a stack of books from the 7-11 down the street, and the fact that most kids today have never even seen a comic book saddens me deeply. This and a couple of other issues have really fueled my desire to be a part of the comics community and have my say. The writer in question wrote back to tell me how impressed he was that I actually had a point of view and chose to express it.

I've enjoyed the time I've spent writing about comics, and I hope I continue to have the opportunity to do so for years to come. But the turnout Sunday for this convention, so close to the capital of the world, does not make me optimistic for the health of the artform. There clearly are lots of people who still have something to say within the medium of comics, but I wonder how soon it will be before there simply is no one left to listen.

Written prior to the launch of the ADD Blog.






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