Hannah Means-Shannon writes for Bleeding Cool;
Tracing the historical antecedents of the New York Comic Book Marketplace is like trying to decide how many times removed you are from a bizarre cousin who still turns up at weddings and may or may not have been invited. Formerly, I am told, it was known as the Big Apple Con, and before that it has had more names than can be counted on both hands. Founded in 1996 by Michael Carbonaro, it claims to be the longest running comics convention in the USA, and in convention time, that’s pretty much a millennia, give or take. The show has a longtime connection to the venerable and slightly crumbling Hotel Pennsylvania opposite Madison Square Garden, and from the hotel’s loftiest floor, the 18th, comics fandom looked down on the city this April 14th.
By reputation, the show is freaky, with an old con feel and plenty of the detritus and treasures of cons gone by, and following a snaking trajectory down narrow hallways via taped arrows on the carpet upon arrival only added to the low budget mystique. Occasionally surly staff kept you moving in the right direction until you reached a crowded, aisled chamber packed with comics and memorabilia, much of it vintage, but it was another narrow hallway’s length before you reached the ironically termed “artists alley”, since it was the most spacious area of the show. There artists, wrestlers, former child stars, and the occasional vendor vied for attention, but they didn’t have to try too hard, since everyone seemed to receive a fair amount of adoration as the crowds moved through. It was evident that there was something for everyone, however offbeat their tastes, at the New York Comic Book Marketplace.
Dutifully following the carpet-taped arrows back to the vendor room proved the same point. Some of the fare included a vintage Mr. T Chia head (apply water for your Mr. T plant-hair to grow), the coveted Zelda videogame watch from the mid-eighties, “The Official John Travolta Picture Postcard Book” alongside comics like LADY DEATH and ARCHIE as if this were its natural habitat, eerie puppets of a couple of the seven dwarves, pricey Migo dolls under glass, and bins full of toys and figurines still locked in superheroic combats. The paper-based contingent were the comics, lots of comics, original comic artwork, and plenty of pulp miscellany from film magazines to Marvel novelizations. Depending on your collecting predilections, this room could’ve held your attention all day, not for a museum-like eye toward pop culture history, but for its disorderly sprawl which effectively made you feel like you might find just about anything, including that one elusive thing you’ve never stopped keeping an eye out for.
But if you let the allure of the weird keep you all day in the somewhat cramped quarters of the sci-fi/pulp/comics/bootleg dvd room, you would’ve missed out on the greater personality of the show in artists alley where GI Joe’s own Sgt. Slaughter looking remarkably buff for his age (and coming from a recent wrestling match) signed just about any surface requested, and horror makeup artists turned cosplayers into zombie versions of their previously assumed identities. Scattered through this anarchic culture jungle were fabled comics creatures who didn’t look the least surprised by all this spectacle. Many of them natives of New York, they wouldn’t miss a Carbonaro show for the world.
Sean Chen, Valiant prodigy and legend, now drawing covers, creating Marvel video games, and storyboarding for advertising, explained his ongoing history with this intrinsically New York con. “This is THE comic show”, he said, “THE mom and pop event”, which he’s been observing for twenty years. Carbonaro’s show is “how he broke in” initially, and how he “stays in touch with all the readers and fans”. The show, Chen sagely observed is “a lot of different things to a lot of different people”, from gamers, to artists, dealers, and collectors. It’s the “hub that brings all that together”, he added. His personal goals for the day were to “line up work for the year with editors, see friends, make money, and get feedback from readers”. He noted that conventions often “start with comics”, like Carbonaro’s show, but “go into bigger things” in terms of media outlets, but that the NYCBM retains that small media feels across its diverse spectrum. It’s a proto con, essentially, displaying many of the early characteristics that have enabled big cons to develop over time.
Hanging around Chris Claremont’s table, who’s likely to reflect in a considered fashion about the personalities of all the X-MEN characters he created and expanded over the years as if they might be your next door neighbors, you could pick up on his ear
ly critiques of the upcoming Wolverine film, which he already noticed was shifting original comics content around in an eccentric order. Looking through a portfolio for an artist in very kindly fashion, he came across an inked page featuring Gambit, and remarked “Oh, get a haircut and a shave!” He’s unhappy with the way in which the X-MEN have failed to adapt in terms of costume and appearance to the twenty-first century. Gambit, he explained, is “a dresser”, never one to be behind the times, unlike the frozen-in-time costumes he routinely sees the Cajun wear. He continued to entertain fans with his favorite moments from Rogue’s tortured relationships, enthusing, “These circumstances are so much fun to write”. If you wanted insight into the psychology behind the psychology of characters, this was the place to be.
Former Marvel editor of SPIDER-MAN and current editor-in-chief at all ages comics publisher Papercutz, Jim Salicrup was right at home in this random pop culture playground. “It’s like being in the center of a storm”, he said. “While staying in one spot, you meet so many people so quickly”. “THESE ARE MY PEOPLE!”, he declared, glancing around, and whipped out his iPhone to proudly display a picture of himself with nearby tablemate Sgt. Slaughter. They looked like comrades in arms. I asked him if he fancied having some zombie face-paint applied, and he reminded fans that he once played a roller-skating clown in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and that zombie paint would not go amiss. He also ruminated on his thrilling day as stand-in at the Marvel offices while they built a Dr. Doom costume around him (Salicrup’s stature is suited to the role), and his disappointment when he was not chosen to wear the costume to frighten kiddies at the White House Easter Egg Hunt that year. But his reflection on comics conventions past were particularly enlightening as to why he values the strangeness of pop culture festivals. As a kid, he had to mail-order back issues, which were pricey, and often arrived taped and re-stapled, but were accepted and treasured nonetheless. He’s seen the days of comics famine and to Salicrup, sharing a table with his colleague and former Marvel editor, now author, Danny Fingeroth, is a feast.
“While NYCBM is small compared to New York Comic Con or San Diego”, he said, “it’s still an amazing show where you can see people like Chris Claremont, George Perez, Neal Adams, Mark Texeira in one place, and have a chance to buy some cool art and comics”. So, for Fingeroth, it has a lot to do with the cross-section of comics culture densely packed into one space for a few hours. When I asked him what folks like he and Salicrup get out of the show itself, he said, “It’s a chance to sell art and books, to meet fans, and to network with each other. The wrestlers, comedians, and Playboy models all add a surreal aura to the proceedings, as does the con’s locale, the historic Hotel Pennsylvania, inspiration for the Glenn Miller Orchestra’s hit song, ‘Pennsylvania-6 5000.’” It’s all one continuum for Fingeroth, from the melting pot of New York culture, through the early days of comics, to the present day, with less lost along the way at NYCBM than at many other cons. For Fingeroth and Salicrup, these encrusting elements from other forms of media, once part of the same primordial pool, are still part of the comics identity.
Not too far from the exit, which might have felt welcoming to quell the inertia of the jostling goblin-market of the show, someone who seems to define the current zeitgeist of comics sat quietly brush-stroking his way through commissions and chatting with fans with his fedora neatly set aside. Ben Templesmith generated a kind of reverent, soft-spoken zone around his table though his displayed prints and portfolio generated their own kind of attention-grabbing magnitude. His presence made an interesting statement about the travelling-show feel of the Comic Book Marketplace and the shape-shifting luminous grotesques of his work might have just as easily been an interpretation of the freakish energy of the cultural miasma at the Hotel Penn. It’s all still there, seen out of the corner of your eye when it com
es to comics culture, the uncanny fusion of the brash and seedy with mainstream expectations. The crazy energy of comics comes from somewhere in the not too distant past, and Templesmith is still checking the pulse.
At the close of the show, with the rapid tumbling of long boxes onto gurneys and waiting trucks clogging the already choked traffic outside the Hotel Pennsylvania, a little of the strangeness spilled out onto the streets as cosplayers made their way to one or more of the nearby comic shops where things would no doubt seem rather pristine and orderly by comparison. In evolutionary terms, they were moving from the explosion of strange features typical of a new species, with all its seemingly inexplicable flamboyance, into the lair of a more recognizable creature, adapted to the demands of a less steamy environment. But the New York Comic Book Marketplace’s enduring existence suggests that some of those discarded, vestigial organs in comics may not be quite vestigial yet and the crazy cousin has been on the guest list all along.