So This Is A Comics Convention: A Day At The NJ Comics Expo

My only experience with comic conventions has been at New York Comic Con, which had probably skewed the experience for me somewhat. Next to San Diego, NYCC is the biggest comics convention in the United States and like San Diego, that means all the comics publishers are there competing for attention and space with not only each other, but also the film & television industry, book publishers, toy companies, video games and just about anything else that is tangentially related to “geek culture” Because this was my only experience at a comic convention, it was how I viewed them even though I know that most conventions aren’t necessary like that to varying degrees. So when I had the opportunity to attend the NJ Comics Expo I was curious enough to give it a shot and in hindsight, I feel that my experience was better then I could have ever expected.One thing about the NJ Comics Expo was that while it wasn’t as big as New York Comic Con by any means, there was a sizable amount of comics talent on hand for the event. Jim Lee, Garth Ennis, Ethan Van Sciver, John Cassady, Ivan Reis, Chris Claremont, Walt & Louise Simonson, Marc Bagley, Frank Tieri, Toby Cypress, Fabian Nicieza, Peter Tomasi, Cary Nord, Joe Harris, Justin Gray and more were all in attendance. The other thing about the convention was that the bigger publishers mostly sat this one out with only Valiant, Jersey based Dynamite & Action Lab having booths for the show. This actually ended up working in the conventions favor. So much of NYCC panel’s are made up of the major publishers competing together to try and win the weekend news cycle with varying announcements and presentations. While that’s fun and you can often get some level of insight from attending them, they are still panels being put on by publishers and as such, are promotional in nature. At the NJ Comics Expo, I was able to attend a panel with Chris Claremont, Walt & Louise Simonson as a retrospective about their careers and I gotta say, it was the coolest panel I’ve ever attended.

Let me preface that by saying, I’ve been to some cool panels in my day. I’ve been at an Avatar panel with just Kieron Gillen going off the cuff about any number of things in regards to his career and the books he was working on. I was at the Vertigo panel where I saw the first images from Sandman Overture. I was at the panel where Neil Gaiman announced he was coming back to finish off his Miracle Man comics and at another where Jeff Lemire was announced as the new writer on Hawkeye. I’ve watched an Image Comics panel that featured Brian K. Vaughan, Frank Quitely, Matt Fraction & Chip Zdarsky and all of the aforementioned panels were exciting in their own way but the Claremont/Simonson’s one was different. Partially because unlike the others, it wasn’t being backed by a major publisher, partially because Chris Claremont, Walt & Louse Simonson are legit legends and partially because it was so free flowing. Hosted by the great Heidi MacDonald of ComicsBeat,  the event was equal parts casual and illuminating. As I waited in the hallway for the doors to open reading an issue of Marvel Team Up featuring Spiderman & the cast of Saturday Night Live written by Chris Claremont; Louise Simonson & Chris Claremont literally walked right past me and stood outside the conference room with the rest of the fans. These were the writers of X-Men #1 & Death Of Superman, two of the most important single issues in terms of bringing me into comics as a child and two single issues that I had read cover to cover more then a hundred times as a child and here they are standing in a hallway right next to me. The panel literally started with Walt Simonson telling Chris Claremont on stage about his & Louise Alien Halloween costumes which then segued into a quick back and forth about how terrible Exodus Gods & Knights was. But MacDonald was able to get the parties on track and as soon as she did, the experience was sublime.

Almost immediately, Walt Simonson went into a story as to why the X-Men/New Teen Titans crossover featured two DC Comics villains and only one from Marvel. Per his account, Chris, Louise & Walt wanted to use Darksied but DC editor Len Wein forbid it since he wasn’t a Teen Titans villain. By adding Titans villain Deathstroke (at the time called The Terminator which Simonson still refers to him by) Wein then let them include Darksied with the Dark Phoenix as the third villain in the inter-company crossover. Claremont & the Simonson’s went into great detail about their years spent at Marvel doing iconic work on the X-Men & Thor. Claremont relayed a funny story about the night that Ann Noccenti told him they were bringing back Jean Grey and he ran out of the restaurant they were eating at to the Marvel offices trying in vain to get back into the building after it was closed. The writer also explained that the reason he was always interested in female characters was because of his upbringing with a mother that was a part of the British armed forces and several other women that were at the top of their industries and professions. Louise noted that at the time of his writing the X-Men, the books had a thirty percent female readership, something that was unheard of at the time. Walt Simonson said that when he got into the comics industry in the early 1970’s, the prevailing wisdom was that the medium would be over within ten years but because of that, he decided to go all out and tell the craziest stories he could. Claremont and the Simonson’s talked about how they all worked together to do the original Mutant Massacre crossover with one another and how it was driven creative collaboration as opposed to editorial mandates. This led to a great insight from Walt Simonson on how as he put it, back when they were creating comics at Marvel & DC, stories started from the “bottom

up” meaning that they were driven by the creative talents working on the books as opposed to editorial. This went into further insights from all three creators on how, because the nature of comics at the time were so disposable, it allowed for them to have a high level of creative freedom. They had no idea that they would still be talking about these stories thirty years later but were incredibly grateful that they had the opportunity. One final insight came from Claremont who went back to his time with Simonson on the X-Men/Teen Titans crossover where how he was able to write in a scene with the teams flying on a dragon over Manhattan and then get back this beautiful illustration from Simonson that exceeded anything he could’ve imagined. For Claremont, that’s the magic of comics, to do that in a film would cost million of dollars, for comics all it took was the trio on that panel.

I think about that quote in going back again in comparison to my NYCC experience. In 2014, I remember Cosmo & I standing for an hour in line to enter Marvel’s annual Cup Of Joe panel on the main stage. While we waited, a panel for the FX TV show The League was proceeding Cup Of Joe. I’ve watch The League before, it’s funny enough and I understand it’s appeal. I watch the NFL every Sunday and play in multiple fantasy football leagues. I have nothing against the show and in a lot of ways, I’m probably their target demographic. But I was at a fucking comics convention and The League has nothing to do with comics. I’ve accepted this as a reality of my comic con experience, I’ve even told myself that at least it wasn’t as bad as San Diego. But that was the wonderful thing about the NJ Comic’s Expo, it was about comics first and foremost. No I didn’t get to see a Marvel panel with new announcements and preview art but I didn’t have to stand in line waiting for a panel about a fantasy football comedy series to finish either. Instead, I got to see three legends of the medium that have created some of the most important art for me personally talk about their craft candidly and what I’ve realized after the NJ Comic’s Expo is, that’s all I’ve ever really wanted.