ELAYNE RIGGS: The Golden Age of ComicFest
The crazier my responsibilities get (yes, I’ve missed posting here as well) and the more I lurch toward the Big 5-0, which I will now commemorate near year’s end without a father and without a best friend, the more I yearn for simpler times. Of course, "simpler" is as relative and subjective a term as they come. In political parlance, it usually means "a time in the hazy past whose values were clearly espoused on fictional TV shows that we can no longer distinguish from reality because they either filmed before we were born or they encompass the way we wish things were or should have been," which explains a lot about our current administration because it’s never a good idea to consciously try to fit reality to fiction, whether you’re talking about Father Knows Best or 1984 or even Star Trek.
In a personal sense, "simpler" usually means "before my life had as much heartache and difficulty, and when there were supportive pillars that I always thought would be there." And it’s weird, because "always" isn’t always as permanent as we seem to think it is.
Take my Golden Age of Comics. A writer once opined that everyone’s Golden Age of Comics is 12. Not for me. For me it began in my mid-20s when my first husband, Steve Chaput, got me hooked for good on indies and, thanks to Crisis on Infinite Earths, the new streamlined DC Universe. (My best friend in college, the late great Bill-Dale Marcinko, tried mightily to get me interested in late-70s Marvel fare, but it was all too soap-opera’y for me back then. In those days I hated the idea of soaps. Nowadays I can’t wait for the next episode of Ugly Betty. Go figure.) By 1993 Steve and I had discovered online fandom, which still consisted mostly of folks in the CompuServe Comics and Animation Forum (yep, this was pre-Usenet; I wouldn’t make my first tentative posts to those comic groups until 1994), and we were making plans to help out our friend Vinnie Bartilucci (who had actually introduced us to the wonders of email and suchlike) with the running of the Greatest Comic Convention Ever.
Somewhere up in our loft, where all my memories reside just out of my reach (the crawl space isn’t terribly accessible to someone of limited mobility and great girth), is the ComicFest ’93 press kit. This was to be a convention for the ages, at a time when comics were suddenly hot, thanks to what my friend Debbie referred to as the "speculeeches" — folks who bought comics not to read the stories, not even to admire the art, but to turn around for a quick profit or to retain triple-sealed and double-bagged for posterity as an investment in their kids’ college education.
Of course, there was no telling these people (many of whom had moved from stamp- and coin-collecting to comics and were poised to jump on the next big thing when that road to riches was found wanting) that when you print one million copies of a comic it’s going to take a bunch of world-shattering events before it’ll ever be considered rare and valuable. And there was no telling thrilled comics fans — and many pros — that this fad wasn’t destined to last, that all the catering done to these speculeeches by forgoing stories in favor of cover gimmicks designed to make a few people rich in the short-term wasn’t good for the long-term health of the industry. They’d discover this themselves when the leeches left and the bubble burst a short time later, leaving folks who’d counted on royalties to pay their basic living expenses scrambling for a more sensible way of surviving.
But in 1993 that didn’t matter. It was the comic industry’s pre-crash Roaring Twenties, when the sky was the limit. And the sky in this case was the Philadelphia Civic Center by the college, which Vinnie’s boss David Greenhill had booked for a comic book convention which we were hoping would rival the San Diego and Chicago Comic Cons. Image had just gotten going, Wizard magazine was making serious inroads into industry consciousness and ComicFest would, among other things, host the first annual Wizard Awards showcasing the kinds of stuff the next generation was into. But Vinnie wasn’t about to shortchange past and current folks. Tons of industry greats were converging for the festival, Vinnie had arranged a full slate of programming, and running it was to be logistically tricky to put it mildly.
That’s where Steve and I came in, leading the team of volunteer programming staff at ComicFest ’93. We handled the queues at major events (in the age of collectible giveaways, everyone queued up for just about everything), escorted pros to their panels, and made sure everything was set up for what became one of the most talked-about events of the decade — the Peter David/Todd McFarlane debate.
Various accounts of this debate can be found online if you look hard enough. Here’s one I found from Usenet which hits on most of the high points. To tell you the truth, as with so many things which have escaped my memory in the intervening years, I’m a little fuzzy on the details. I remember stuff like asking moderator George Pérez about an hour before the start about the debaters’ podia – should they be close to one another or at different ends of the stage? George reacted with disbelief to my information that, at the time, the podia had been placed right next to one another, so they were moved and made for a much better event. I remember escorting Julius Schwartz to his reserved seat right up front. I remember watching the debate off to the side — oh, for the days when I could stand through an entire event! — and being more than a little surprised at one of McFarlane’s Image cohorts in the audience clearly flipping Peter the bird.
In retrospect, it was similar to the SNL sketch where the actor playing Dukakis turns to the audience and says, "I can’t believe I’m losing to this guy!" as we watched the clear debate winner be further vilified by nasty smear tactics later in the day (yes, I think we confiscated most copies of the offending cartoon; no, I don’t have it so I can’t tell you what it said beyond remembering that it made infantile jokes about Peter’s weight). Along with the way the women presenters were barely dressed for the Image Awards, it sent me an unmistakable signal that, as much as I loved comics and going to conventions, the era of adult inclusion was giving way to the era of male juvenilia, and the industry wouldn’t begin to grow up again for at least another half-dozen years.
So whatever happened to ComicFest and David Greenhill? Well, he tried to make lightning strike twice, this time in New York in 1994, but at the time Fred Greenberg and his Great Eastern Conventions more or less "owned" the city, having driven Phil Seuling’s dream rather into the ground in many opinions, and between scheduling conflicts and lawsuits and lots of bad blood all around, it never materialized. Nor did anything else in Philly. The rise and fall of Greenhill seemed to mirror the comics industry itself in the wake of the speculeech craze, and New York wouldn’t have a truly stable comics convention presence again until the 21st century.
As for Vinnie and his wonderful wife Dorian, they had a kid and eventually moved out of Riverdale, not long after Robin and I moved in. But here’s the thing with creative people — as long as we all travel in these intersecting Venn diagram circles, it’s almost certain we’ll eventually meet again. To bring my own personal Golden Age of Comics circle back around: at the last convention I attended, Alex Simmons’ first-ever Kids’ Comic Con, there were Vinnie and Dorian — having traveled back for the weekend from PA and looking the same as ever, which is to say wonderful. And we hugged and went to lunch and got reacquainted and I cannot believe their daughter Siobhan is now 10! Dori’s a freelance editor and runs First Draft Online ("the writers’ group that meets in your [e]mailbox") and Vinnie is happily ensconced in his software job in PA and they all still read comics.
In fact, Vinnie was so inspired by my memories of ComicFest that he decided to contribute his own reminiscence of the occasion herein. Look for them later today, right here on ComicMix.
Like I said above, my mid-20s is where my Golden Age of Comics began, but it’s not where it ended. It hasn’t ended yet, because I’m still living in that age. My 30s consisted of ComicFest and other cons, of Steve and Vinnie and Dorian, of getting to better know comics pros in my age bracket, of apazines and CompuServe and self-educating Usenet reviews and Friends of Lulu, of a job I loved that became a career and covered expenses. In my 40s I’ve co-written with Leah and collaborated on work and life with Robin, bettered my understanding about art, became acquainted with more British pros, been in a job I’ve not loved but haven’t been able to escape because it’s covered expenses (including two hospitalizations), posted to message boards and blogs, and seen my writing in actual published comics. My 50s seem poised to include ComicMix, more published work and a return, I must tell myself, to a job I will once again love which will cover expenses. Through this entire Golden Age, I’ve written one-to-many essays (as opposed to one too many), read comics, and hung out with friends at conventions. And when V&D and I hugged again a couple weeks ago, we all agreed immediately that this continuity is what it’s all about for many of us. Knowing that the faces may change, but the feeling of community remains the same. That we can pick up where we left off 5 or 10 or 20 years ago and still be in our Golden Age.
Elayne Riggs is news editor of ComicMix but has been swamped with her day job, so she hasn’t been posting much either here or on her blog; thanks for bearing with her!