From September 7th through the 9th, the Oregon Convention Center in Portland played host to the seventh annual Rose City Comic Con. This is one young, aspiring journalist’s account of those three days.
First of all, comic book conventions are bizarre when you think about it. That’s not to say that the content, invited guests or the audience are strange, but that the actual idea of comic book conventions is strange in and of itself. You see, fan conventions have existed in some form since 1936 (the originals were dedicated almost exclusively to the burgeoning genre of science fiction) and trade conventions have existed in some nebulous form since the late 19th century. But by the modern standards, comic conventions shouldn’t fit neatly into either of those categories. They’re not solely for enthusiasts and they aren’t exclusively business conventions. Even something like the Electronic Entertainment Expo or the Consumer Electronic Show are still classified as trade conventions despite their appeal for enthusiasts, though that division is rapidly closing. Comic Book Conventions like RCCC meet somewhere in the middle between fan con and trade show. Though the trade wasn’t necessarily just comic creators.
The idea of a convention dedicated to comic books can be traced to roughly 1961, when a man by the name of Jerry Bails founded the Academy of Comic Book Fans and Collectors. This organization would found the first dedicated conventions for fans and collectors of the medium a few years later. The point of comic conventions hasn’t been just to celebrate the medium but to engage with other collectors. These collectors were some of the first people to place value on specific comic books and soon merchants were catering to these types of collectors. To this day, comic shops and artists are cornerstone of the convention scene, selling everything from custom sketches to rare collectibles. This scene, which grew largely through the national convention circuit would serve as the basis for the Speculator Boom that occurred in comic books in the late 80s and throughout the 90s. During this period, conventions became big business. San Diego Comic Con was founded in 1970 and over the course of 47 years, it has become the largest pop culture event in the United States on a yearly basis. In this context, it’s sort of amazing that it took until 2012 for a convention bearing the official name of Comic Con to arrive in Portland.
Portland, Oregon is an ideal city for a comic book convention due to its long and storied history in the industry. Portland has long been the home to individual comic book artists and writers but it became a nexus in the industry in 1986. Six years prior in 1980, a man Mike Richardson opened a small comic store in Bend, Oregon. In his capacity as a retail owner, Richardson built up a Rolodex of artists and writers who routinely did signing in his small store. These creators frequently complained to Richardson about their lack of ownership over their work for the big two comic book publishers, Marvel and DC. This creator’s rights issue is as old as the industry itself. To this day, the families of Jerry Siegal and Joe Shuster are in an ongoing battle with DC Comics and their owners Warner Brothers over the ownership of the Superman trademark and copyright. Richardson was sympathetic to these artists and writers when he spoke to them in the mid-80s and put together the resources to found a small publishing company. With a focus on creator’s rights and intending to take on the bigger publishers from the start, Richardson chose the somewhat rebellious name of Dark Horse Comics. Dark Horse Presents #1, the company’s first comic and an anthology of stories in the vein of the medium’s Golden Age, sold over 50,000 copies on release in 1989. 100% of the profits went to the creators that Richardson recruited for the book.
Dark Horse Comics’ rise was meteoric. In its infancy, Dark Horse was eclipsed by the rise of Image Comics in 1992. Image was a company with a similar goals to Dark Horse but it came with bigger star power due to being founded by high profile artists who left Marvel and DC over pay disputes. That said, while Image Comics was taking on Marvel and DC directly with superhero comics that were of largely middling quality, Dark Horse took a different route. While the company would experiment with superhero books, its bread and butter was high quality creator-owned comics that were outside of the norm. In 1993, Mike Nignola created Hellboy, a character inspired by Gothic storytelling and the art of Frank Frazetta. In 1994, Frank Miller created Sin City, a neo-noir comic book full of hyper stylized artwork and melodramatic writing. Books like these actually helped to tie Dark Horse to the Golden Age of Comics by emphasizing pulp genres like crime, noir and horror. Meanwhile, in the early 90s, Dark Horse was also spearheading the future of the industry by being one of the first American publishing houses to get in on the ground floor of importing and translating manga (Japanese comics) for an American audience. To this day, the manga branch of Dark Horse is their most profitable branch.
The success of Dark Horse put Portland on the map in the comic book industry and started a trend. In 1998, another independent publishing company called Oni Press was founded in downtown Portland and in 2017, a newly revamped Image Comics moved its own headquarters to Stumptown. Combined with the high concentration of comic book writers and artists living in the area, it’s easy to see how Portland became the “Indie Comics capital of the world.” In 2012, to capitalize on that reputation, the first Rose City Comic Con was held in the Portland DoubleTree. Organized by LeftField Media, about 4100 people attended that first RCCC. In the next year, LeftField was joined by Reed Exhibitions, an English company and the organizers of Emerald City Comic Con, the largest comic convention in the Pacific Northwest. With Reed Expos’ support, the second RCCC would move into the Oregon Convention Center. Since that second show, RCCC has gone from strength to strength, reaching 42,000 attendees in 2016. In 2017, the event expanded to being a three day convention and this year, RCCC began to host the PDX Play Fair. Play Fair is a family friendly event within the convention that celebrates learning through play for kids of all ages. But what is the actual convention like?
My own experience with fan conventions is limited but varied. In college, I was part of a club dedicated to board gaming and Tabletop RPGs. While in the club, I helped to organize our yearly gaming convention of Simcon. While Simcon has some history (it’s the longest running board game convention in northwestern New York), it’s a small convention, put on by enthusiastic but largely inexperienced college students. In contrast, shortly after graduating, I got lucky enough to get a pass to San Diego Comic Con. I went to SDCC for two days in 2014 and sufficed to say, it was a little too much for my sensibilities. I knew the convention was crowded, but I didn’t realize just what over 130,000 people looked like when crammed into the (admittedly massive) San Diego Convention Center. I became caught in a sea of people, multiple times. I found it almost impossible to move against the crowd and instead simply drifted through the stalls along with the throngs of people. And while it was cool to see some of the big film studio props (2014 was the year that Marvel brought props from Guardians of the Galaxy and DC displayed a collection of Batman memorabilia to celebrate the character’s 75th anniversary), I was left decidedly cold by the atmosphere of the whole ordeal.
So I was overall pleasantly surprised by my visit to RCCC. The size of the convention puts it in the happy medium of my prior experience. Professionally organized, but not overcrowded and over-hyped, RCCC had a relaxed vibe to it, very much fitting with its host city. It wasn’t without its flaws but overall I had a positive experience.
The first day of a convention, of any size, is rough around the edges. The vendors and invited guests are just getting settled and there’s a nervous energy to everyone. Friday is also the shortest day for RCCC, with doors opening at 1:00 in the afternoon. It was also on Friday where I had what might be the quintessential RCCC experience.
Since I’m new to conventions my friend (who was acting as a guide) and I, decided to focus on visiting panels. Convention panels are a great way for con-goers to get meet and listen to celebrities, creators and other invited guests of the convention. The panel I visited on Friday was called A Spotlight on Mike Mignola. As mentioned above, Mignola is a fixture of the Portland comic industry. His creation, Hellboy has been in print since 1996 and has spawned two feature films with a third in production. Mignola was joined only by his editor, and the event had an extremely laid-back style to it. Mignola was personable and happily answered questions from the audience for the 50 minute allotted time. But while the Spotlight panel was going on there was a much bigger panel going on nearby. In the same time slot, was a panel celebrating Star Trek: The Next Generation. A few of the convention’s invited guests were former cast members of the show and apparently the panel was a rousing success. I could tell because sitting in a completely separate room, I could hear the resounding cheers of the audience. It was a pretty striking difference and it illustrated the spirit of Rose City Comic Con. As one group of fans listen to a comic creator tell off the cuff tales from his storied career, others packed into the biggest room available to cheer on TV stars and big name actors as they reminisced about a cult classic from over twenty years ago.
Saturday is without question the busiest day of any given convention. Rose City Comic Con was no exception and the closest I really got to having a “bad time,” at the convention happened on Saturday morning. For whatever reason, getting into the convention center was particularly tricky on Saturday morning and the lines were long and filled with impatient fans. I don’t have the whole story but as I understand it, the biggest guest of the convention, David Tennant (former star of Doctor Who, and Jessica Hones and current voice of Scrooge McDuck for Disney) was set to speak at a hotly anticipated panel in the late morning. Unfortunately, due to the lines a lot of people who ere hoping to get in weren’t. Still, waiting in that line gave me a chance to think though about why exactly I was at the convention. To write about it, was the most logical conclusion but otherwise I was unsure. Given that they are targeted at a very specific demographic of people, it’s hard to argue that conventions don’t pander to their audience. And from personal experience, I don’t like being pandered to, I’m not sure many people do. For the time, I settled on people watching, being as good an excuse as any.
So sitting in that line, full of grumbling and impatient enthusiasts, I was left wondering about the point of massive conventions like RCCC. Luckily, the line moved pretty briskly and I was only left pondering the nature of the con for about 40 minutes before getting let in. From there, the day progressively got better. I sat in on two panels on Saturday, both for comic book publishers and both very fun though for different reasons. Oni Press, one of the local comic book publishing houses is celebrating its twentieth anniversary in 2018. The (sparsely attended) panel was presented as a game show where the guests, all writers and artists for Oni, were asked trivia questions about the company and pop culture from the last two decades. Given that the panel members were playing for audience members, there was a ton of interaction with the audience and the atmosphere was airy and casual. Moreover, it introduced me to a publisher whose work I was mostly missing out on, something I corrected immediately after the panel.
In contrast, the Image Comics panel was something of a spectacle for the titan of Indie Comics. The panel included comic book luminaries like Greg Rucka (one of the most popular Superman writers for DC Comics) and the triumphant return to comics of Chelsea Cain. Cain has been absent from the industry ever since writing a firebrand of a series for Marvel Comics in 2016. The highly opinionated and vocal Cain (who is also an accomplished prose novelist) was a centerpiece of the Image Panel, which was mostly dedicated to hyping up the company’s slate of upcoming books. Of course, despite the more meticulously managed nature of the panel, the character of the creators was on full display. Their banter and the tangents they went on elicited belly laughs from the audience frequently. It was probably a more “professional,” panel than what Oni Press had but it was no less enjoyable.
To borrow a phrase, Sunday is the day in which con-goers can “sift the ruins of empire.” Things are winding down, vendors are starting to sell their wares for lower and lower prices and the Saturday crowds have dispersed. I only attended one panel on Sunday, a panel called Level Up Your Writing: 12 Tips To Improve Your Storytelling Skills. In many ways, this panel served two purposes. The first and most obvious purpose of such a panel is educational. Being able to listen to four accomplished authors outline the tips and tricks of the trade that they’ve learned over the course of their careers in an intimate setting is part of the reason why so many people come to conventions. In a similar vein, panels like this one are aspirational. Level Up Your Writing was the only panel I attended (including the ones that I sat in on while waiting for the panels I planned to attend) with an all female cast of panelists and that clearly counted for something. A member of the audience even brought it up as the reason why they were there. As she made the observation, a cheer rose from the (mostly female) audience. She clearly wasn’t alone.
This more than anything actually managed to help me coalesce an answer to the question I’d first posited on Saturday, while waiting in line with grumbling, impatient fans. On Saturday, I was worried about being pandered to throughout the show, and really why wouldn’t I? Both of the panels I attended were essentially exercises in marketing. But by Sunday my tune had changed. Leaving the show on Saturday, my friend and I were abuzz, talking about new books and creators whose work we wanted to check out. I’d bought several volumes of new comic books (I had won 40 dollars of credit at the Oni Panel trivia show – much obliged Yehudi Mercado) and I was eager to read through them. And on Sunday, I’d sat through what was essentially a creative writing seminar and learned about some tools to improve my writings. That I also came away from that panel with a few more books to find sort of goes without saying. If I had to summarize why I think people go to conventions like RCCC in one word it might be: Discovery. People go to conventions to discover something and that could mean a lot of things. Maybe you’ll discover a new cosplay outfit and become inspired to recreate or match it yourself. Maybe you’ll discover a author or artists whose work you want to follow. Even walking around the show floor, browsing the seemingly endless rows of overpriced merchandise the most common refrain seems to be “oh, that looks cool.”
I’m not used to writing this sort of article. I don’t think I’ve quite earned the clout to be the sort of reporter who puts himself into the story. But I honestly couldn’t think of a way to do this piece. As I’ve said elsewhere, the job of the journalist is to provide that ever illusive context. A somewhat distant and objective report on Rose City Comic Con just didn’t feel like it would do the event justice. My own experience with the convention is far from quintessential for many reasons. I didn’t dress up in costume, and I didn’t go out of my way to see the really big panels or meet the high profile guests. But I certainly felt the spirit of the convention and I hope I conveyed that effectively.
If I can summarize my con experience in one single, thing it would be the small souvenir picture of Clark Kent that I bought from the extremely talented K. Lynn Smith. I’d never followed Smith’s work before the convention, so her artwork is one more personal discovery from a weekend full of them. I’d be lying if I said the Big Blue Boy Scout didn’t have at least a little influence on my wanting to pursue this profession and as such, the piece already has tremendous sentimental value to me. It’s just a piece of paper with a picture on it (though the picture is really quite nice) but it means a lot to me. And that summarizes the spirit of comic conventions. They’re a niche event for a highly specialized audience but to that audience they mean the world. If you have the inclination, I highly recommend that you check one such convention out for yourself. You never know what you’ll discover.
Thank you for reading.