This article originally appeared in Strangehaven issue issue #15, May 2003.
San Diego Comic-Con 2002
Shopping around on the Internet for a flight for my first trip to San Diego in five years, I decided to pay the extra sixty quid for a direct route after my previous attempts at bargain hunting for the long haul journey had resulted in missed connections and exhausting detours of airports in mid-America. And I would heartily recommend the no-stopover wherever possible for anyone.
That’s not to say that the entire journey was stress-free, as torrential thunderstorms, ubiquitous road improvements-in-progress and the inevitable subsequent multi-vehicle pile-ups meant that I arrived at the Gatwick check-in half an hour before my plane was due to leave. And so had several thousand other people. But despite the check-in clerk almost putting my luggage on the plane to Arizona and airport security checking my bags for nail scissors, I still made my seat with minutes to spare.
And within ten hours or so, I was walking through the familiar customs hall at San Diego Lindbergh and into the Californian sunshine.
Of course, five minutes after being away for so long, it soon felt like I had never left. Maybe time isn’t chronological, after all. I bumped into Top Shelf booth buddy Wayne Beamer on my short walk down to the convention hall from the luxurious surroundings of the Hyatt hotel (having a second tower constructed in the shadow of the first). It took me longer to walk down the newly expanded convention hall than it did from the hotel, but I eventually found Chris Staros at the Top Shelf booth already preparing for the Wednesday night “preview” which was news to me.
It was a fabulous convention. Six years earlier, on my first trip to the Comicon International, I met Chris (at that time, my new US agent) for the first time seated behind a four-foot wide table in the “Small Press” area. A handful of titles were spread over the tabletop; a small assortment of Eddie Campbell’s Bacchus back issues, Strangehaven #4 (issues 1 to 3 were between printings) and an issue or two of Chris’ own Staros Report. His future partner Brett had a similarly sparse table a little further down the small press bit, although his Primal Groove Press products were more of the minicomic variety, all handmade and proud of it.
How times change. This year, Top Shelf occupied a 200 square foot, three-booth “end cap” in the main thrust of the hall, with literally hundreds of books, graphic novels and comics, all either published or sub-distributed by Top Shelf. Behind the bespoke Top Shelf “bar,” there was always at least half-a-dozen creators signing, sketching and chatting with the punters.
Some I had previously met, like James Kochalka Superstar, happily signing his hot-of-the-press Pinky and Stinky book. Others I knew only through their work – Alex Robinson [Box Office Poison] and his partner, Kristen Siebecker (who organised the 2002 New York MOCCA show), Earthworm Jim creator Doug TenNapel, Scott Mills [Big Clay Pot, Trenches], Rick Kolowski promoting his fabulous new book Three Fingers, Jason Hall [co-creator of Pistolwhip and writer of Beware the Creeper for DC], Fear of a Black Marker cartoonist Keith Knight and Happy creator Josh Simmons with his amazing sketchbook.
And then of course, there was Eddie and me. Eddie wasn’t there six years ago, but our books have been constant fixtures of Top Shelf’s displays ever since.
Visitors to the stand included colourist and photo-manipulator José Villarrubia and his sometime Promethea collaborator, artist extraordinaire J H Williams III, both claiming to be Strangehaven fans. Good to see fellow Brit, Woods Phoenix promoting his Pants Ant and Sugar Buzz among other things and Dean Haspiel of Billy Dogma fame.
On the Fantagraphics booth opposite, I said hi to the sweetest guy in comics, Steven Weissman, master cartoonist of Yikes! fame, gave Dave Cooper a copy of Strangehaven #14 which contained a review of his wonderful Weasel and introduced myself to rising Norwegian star Jason, signing his Hey, Wait and Shhh… books.
On walkabout, I got reacquainted with Monkeybone creator Kaja Blackley promoting his new book, immensely loveable Shannon Wheeler [Too Much Coffee Man], Batton Lash of Supernatural Law fame and his wife, Eisner emcee Jackie Estrada.
Introduced myself to the incredibly youthful-looking Eric Shanower [Age of Bronze], painter extraordinaire George Pratt, and fantastically successful self-publisher of Finder, Carla Speed McNeill. Seated next to her was convention junkie Donna Barr [Stinz], who seems to be a fixture at these things. I also bumped into my old chums retailer Greg Bennett from the Big Planet chain, distributor Wayne Markley from FM International and internet journalist Heidi MacDonald.
On the Thursday night, despite the debilitating effects of jetlag, I attended a pre-arranged get-together of an e-mail discussion group of which I’m a member in order to try and nail down some vague plans for a comics anthology. Due to tiredness, a noisy bar and short attention span, it was a rather shambolic meeting, but fun to meet some of the guys and the gals from the group regardless. Particularly those creators who had shaped my comic sensibilities back in the 1970s like Marv Wolfman, Len Wein, Steve Leialoha his partner Trina Robbins, plus Kurt Busiek, Andrew Pepoy, fellow Brit Bryan Talbot, Steven Grant, Trish Mulvihill and Lee Nordling.
The party was briefly gatecrashed by the self-publishing trio Terry Moore [Strangers In Paradise], Jeff Smith [Bone] and fantasy illustrator extraordinaire Charles Vess, but they soon left after realising how dull it all was.
The Eisner Awards were housed for the first time in a new part of the convention hall itself, but although the venue was very grand and more than large enough for all those who wanted to attend, it was only a mixed success. Partly due to everyone arriving late as nobody could actually find a route to the hall and partly due to a “dry bar” which closed up before everyone had a chance to get a drink.
With most of the Top Shelf crew nominated for awards and seated at the rather crowded reserved tables, Wayne Beamer and I were banished to heckle from the peanut gallery as Top Shelf came out empty handed once again.
Looking for beer, we found some still flowing at the Marriott Hotel’s DW Bar, where I met iComics website reviewer Greg McElhatton who was propping up the bar and refusing all offers to to exchange good reviews for pints of Guinness.
On Saturday I stood next to Doug TenNapel and watched as he sold out of his new graphic novel Creature Tech by 4pm, with over a day of the con left to go! The movie rights have already been sold, so watch for it at a cinema near you next summer.
The food I enjoyed this year was a definite improvement. I even had a rather tasty vegetarian meal at a sushi restaurant, of all places, when our print rep Patrick Jodoin treated Chris, Brett and I. I also shared a fantastic Thai meal with Hollywood impresario Jason Grode, James Kochalka and his nothing-like-in-the-comics girlfriend Amy. Best of all was the new Starbucks café in the convention hall itself, which served up a range of genuine teas infused in water as near to boiling as dammit, even if we had to devise a relay system for queuing over the busy weekend period.
Probably the most amazing event of the entire trip was when a guy called out my name outside the convention hall as it was closing for the evening. He recognised me among the amorphic mass of people and identified himself as an ex-customer of my comics retail shop back in England during the mid 1980s. Even more surprisingly, I remembered his name, Steven, and his predilection for Hulk comics. He even came over to the booth the following day and picked up a set of Strangehaven trade paperbacks.
I checked out of the hotel on Monday morning and walked up to the Horton Plaza shopping mall to kill the last couple of hours before the long (but direct) journey home, spending what profit I hade made after flight, food and accommodation on gifts and souvenirs.
After checking in at the airport after an $8.00 limo ride from the hotel, I bumped into Richard Davies of UK Distributors Red Route, Whiteout artist Charlie Adlard (who despite us both appearing on the same episode of Comicana cable TV show some years ago, had never spoken to each other) and Marvel Mangaverse guy Kevin Gunstone. The four of us whiled away the wait for boarding while Richard caused havoc at the airport taco counter.
Fortunately, I was seated some distance away from the troublemakers on the plane and enjoyed the delights of Monsters, Inc and Panic Room on the flight home. The in-flight meal was crap, though.