Comics, Gender, Race And Pop Music At C2E2. You Know, The Usual.

20130427 C2E2-1

Patrick Reed writes;

“After the show, it’s the aftertparty. And after the party, it’s the hotel lobby”  -R. Kelly, ‘Ignition (Remix)’

Though I’m pretty certain Chicago native R. Kelly’s mega-hit wasn’t actually talking about a comic convention, those lines pretty accurately summarize the experience of Friday and Saturday at C2E2 – long days of panels and signings and walking the show floor, dinners and drinks and meetings in the evenings, then ending up in the lobby of the Hilton that’s attached to McCormick Place, getting drinks from the bar, meeting up with friends, and bounce-bouncing between dozens of different conversations.

This was my second time attending C2E2, and while I was there in the same capacities (presenting a panel, and covering the event as press), it felt like a very different show than last year.  For one thing, it was held in a different section of the gargantuan McCormick complex (the West Building instead of the North); for another, it was far busier.  The floor layout was a bit confusing, with dealers spread across the entire showroom based on some indefinable style of chaos theory.  The aisles toward the center seemed to be double or triple-wide, which made for easy motion from one side to the other, but the aisles on the side were pretty narrow and tough to navigate (especially for those in costume, or carrying bags).  Artist Alley was all the way to one side, and used the simple, elegant solution of running aisles at opposite angles to those of the main floor, setting it apart and easing the flow of traffic.

All the programming was held upstairs, in the halls outside and above the main showroom. This could have led to confusion for directionally-challenged attendees, but the combination of adequate signage and incredibly helpful convention staff negated the potential problem beautifully.

There were some notable absences on the floor: DC didn’t have a booth this year, which not only left Marvel with a virtual monopoly on the mainstream superhero audience, it meant the Midwest’s biggest con of the season had a total lack of PR for the upcoming Superman movie.  Image and Archie likewise declined to exhibit this year.  And so far as smaller press goes, it was very odd to be walking the floor of a con and not run into booths for Vanguard Productions, Neal Adams, TwoMorrows, or many of the other usual suspects.

In addition to that, the show had a serious lack of female guests – of the final announced lineup, only 15 of 133 comics guests were women.  This is not a problem that’s in any way specific to this event.  The issue of gender disparity in comics is huge and difficult, and it’s not something that any single convention or creator or superhero has a clear-cut answer for.  As someone who organizes and moderates panels at conventions, I’m aware not only of the incredible diversity of the comics audience, but also how difficult is is to accurately reflect that spectrum.  This is an industry-wide problem, and what each of us must do is acknowledge inequality wherever it arises, and with that recognition, work toward solutions.

The convention opened for business on Friday morning, and thanks to the recent government sequester and resulting automatic cuts to the FAA, many of the people who flew in for the show were a little behind schedule getting themselves situated.  The floor closed at seven, and like many of the other attendees, I went off in search of deep-dish pizza and cocktails afterwards.

Saturday was a whole different (and far more crowded) ballgame.  Costumes as far as the eye could see, huge queues for signings, and some difficult decisions to make so far as which programs to attend.  I moderated the Comics & Pop Music panel at 3:15, which played to a packed room.  Kieron Gillen, Charles Soule, Renee Witterstaetter, Dirk Wood, S. Steven Struble, Vivek Tiwary, and Matthew Rosenberg discussed their love of these two forms, their influences, and the inspiration that music provides in the creative process.  Witterstaetter raised the interesting question of what albums fit well alongside classic comic stories, Rosenberg touched on his work Black Mask’s new 12 Reasons To Die title, Wood hyped the upcoming KISS Kids series, Tiwary discussed his graphic novel The Fifth Beatle (with art by Andrew Robinson and Kyle Baker, due from Dark Horse in the fall), Gillen talked about working on Phonogram and Young Avengers, Struble mentioned how he’s met some of his favorite musicians after writing them into comics, and Soule shared details of the musical ‘easter eggs’ he hides in his stories.  The session ended with each panelist taking a moment to promote their new and upcoming projects, and Tiwary giving an exclusive first look at some of Kyle Baker‘s art from The Fifth Beatle.

From there, Kieron Gillen and Charles Soule ran straight down the hall to appear on the Marvel: From Now To Infinity panel. Much of the panel was standard-issue hype and a few special announcements (Soule writing Thunderbolts! Neil Gaiman co-writing Guardians Of The Galaxy!), but things got interesting once they began the Q&A.

The audience began with some lightweight questions about Deadpool appearing in Thunderbolts, the new role of The Sentry / The Void in the Marvel Universe, and the relationship between The Scarlet Witch and Rogue.  Then, a fan named Andre Cottrell got up and asked about Luke Cage’s role in Age Of Ultron, and for clarification as to whether or not he had been killed off-panel.  Tom Brevoort answered that yes, he was dead.  The exchange intensified when Cottrell inquired why the major black character was cheated out of getting a decent death scene, when every other character got a dramatic exit.  (Cage survives a nuclear strike in Age Of Ultron #4, and then disappears from the action.  His demise is acknowledged by Emma Frost in the closing pages of the issue.)

The panelists’ reactions made it clear that this detail wasn’t something they’d thought about from this perspective (Brevoort commenting that he found it to be an emotionally affecting moment), and the discomfort led from some half-hearted jokes into a brief exchange about diversity and how Brevoort sees the Marvel Universe expanding to be “more representative of the audience”.

(In the days since, I’ve been reading coverage of the panel, and I find it particularly troubling how different news sources have either ignored this part of the Q&A, or mentioned it in a rather disingenuous way: Comic Book Resources describes the exchange as “lively and light-hearted”, Newsarama brushes it off by quoting Brevoort’s joke about doing better “the next time we kill Luke Cage”.  I thought that the Marvel staffers onstage were clearly thrown off-balance by the question, but dealt with it in an up-front and sincere way; quoting only their jokes makes them appear less sensitive than they actually were, and reflects the media’s disinterest in continuing this conversation.)

Programming continued throughout the afternoon and evening, and I stepped into through a few more panels, before taking a few minutes to walk back and check in on Artist Alley one last time.  Everyone I spoke to cited good sales and heavy foot traffic over the day, and those who had also taken part in programming mentioned that it brought extra people to their tables.  I was once again impressed with the layout (even when artists drew long lines, the aisles remained easily negotiable), and ran across a few new-to-me creators that I’m going to be sure to keep tabs on in the future.

Then it was off to dinner at legendary vegetarian spot The Chicago Diner (where I ran into a bunch of my fellow con-goers), and the night wound up back at the convention center, getting drinks from the hotel bar, and standing in the lobby, sipping whiskey talking over the events of the afternoon, and steeling myself for an early morning flight back to New York City.  It was the appropriate end to a brilliant whirlwind of a trip, and the close of another great C2E2 experience.

Now, I just need to get that damn song out of my head.

Patrick A. Reed is the co-editor and head writer for Depth Of Field magazine. Photo © 2013 Marnie Ann Joyce.