Friday, July 20, 2012

The Thing About Famous People

In 1993, Scott McCloud published what would become one of the most important, if not THE most important, book in American comic criticism.  Understanding Comics laid the ground work for critical discussion regarding comics.  In the years since, McCloud has become a bit of a celebrity as probably the most cited critic in comic studies.  He's written two other books, toured the country discussing comics, and now makes his living as one of the most trusted and knowledgeable figures in the world of comic criticism (though, he does have a new comic coming out soon, which is very exciting and reconnects him to his Zot! roots).

20 years ago, he presented Understanding Comics at one of the first Comic Arts Conferences, which is held in conjunction with the San Diego Comic Con.  To celebrate the 20th anniversary, the CAC organizers asked him to respond to some papers that have carried out what he started with Understanding Comics, one of which was my own paper on words and comics.

I was incredibly nervous to be on a panel with McCloud, especially because my paper sort of looked to alter some of the claims McCloud made in Understanding Comics (or, more baldly put, I took issue with how McCloud and others defined comics).  More so, though, McCloud is a legend in my field.  Arguably, the most popular and well known name in comic criticism (though, John Lent, Joseph Witek and David Kunzle, all legends in their own right, were also there).  This guy...this guy who made what I do possible...was going to talk about my paper.  I worried he would look at me like a disappointing child, making noises and trying to draw undeserved attention to himself.  

On Saturday, I arrived early, set up my Prezi (which is quite sexy), and waited for the other panelist (most notably, McCloud himself).  McCloud showed up quite early, and luckily I got the chance to sit and talk with him.  I was really nervous about saying something stupid, and a bit nervous that he might see this whole exercise as beneath him.  But really, McCloud was nothing but a genuinely nice person.  We chatted for a while before I became the star-eyed fanboy that I am capable of becoming, and asked him to sign one of my copies of Understanding Comics, which he did without complaint.  

After my paper, and during his remarks, McCloud has a lot of nice things to say about my paper (amid some critical questions, as wasn't all softballs), and afterwards, he thanked me, genuinely, for being a part of the panel.  Really, the honor was all mine.  Having someone like that respond directly to my work is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and I was really pleased with how McCloud handled the situation. 

Later, on the floor of Comic Con, there are hundreds of booths in which lots of published authors and artists sign their work, do individual sketches and chat with fans.  This is my favorite part of Comic Con: getting to meet the professionals that do the work I spend so much time analyzing.  Some professionals can be a little standoffish, and I was not immediately impressed with Jaimie Hernandez, who practically ignored me while signing a copy of Love and Rockets #2.  Alex Ross, another legend in the field for his painted pages tends to sell his art work (for THOUSANDS of dollars) from a massive booth with leather sofas and curators in suits.  

And then there was Eddie Campbell.  The tall Scottish artist and author had a hand in the very excellent From Hell, which he illustrated for Alan Moore.  Campbell's frantic artwork, in contrast to the strict, regimented frame count, was as essential to creating the contained chaotic feel of the book.  As I was browsing his section of the Top Shelf booth, he asked me if I liked his work.  I said I did, and we got to talking about how I appreciated his art work, and thought that he, more than any of the other artists Moore has worked with, greatly affected the feel - the mood - of the narrative.  He was genuinely interested and asked if he could read my paper I've kicked around about this topic anywhere (which, as of right now, he can't).  We talked for a while, and I got him to sign a copy of Alec: The Years Have Pants.  Most of the other artists for Top Shelf, Drawn & Quarterly, and :01Second Books were similarly quite easy to talk to and appreciative of anyone who wanted to talk.  Brecht Evens, who I signed my copy of The Wrong Place at the Drawn & Quarterly booth, took time to illustrate a childhood memory I had in water colors on the title page (also check out Night Animals, which was quite excellent).  

Now, granted, these are people of limited fame.  Had they not been wearing name tags, I would not have recognized any of them but McCloud.  This might account for their more human nature than most other famous people.  Lou Ferrigno, for example, was rarely at his booth and charge $40 to take a photo with him, even if you had your own camera.  I've heard equally unflattering stories about other big name TV and movie stars that make appearances and sign memoribilia.  [In contrast, though, Matt Groening (who was walking through the Drawn & Quarterly booth when I was waiting for Brecht Evens to sign my book) seemed to have an ease with the crowd.  I didn't approach him, though I think I might have made a suggest for Moomin, so I can't speak much more to his dealings with people.]

The people I met above, though, are similarly people who have known some relative success.  Certainly more than I have known.  These are people who have created critically acclaimed art and stories, who have had some critical and financial success in what they do.  I am, by comparison, a nobody.  Just a fan, interested in their work.  Still, they took the time to interact with me.  Again, it is a large part of what I love about Comic Con. 

Maybe what Eddie Campbell and Brecht Evens realize is that it is the fans that make these conventions, and the relative popularity of these artists, authors, actors and personalities famous.  It's my money and interest, like the money and interest of hundreds of thousands of similar fans, that keeps comics and other popular culture ventures afloat today.  This is what I think Lou Farrigno has lost sight of: it's not anything inherent in his person that makes people want to take picture with him - it's the one moment in our collective consciousness in which he played the Hulk.  Had he not done that, he would be just another big bodied actor that no one knew about.

Maybe I am super jaded so when these creators show appreciation and a bit of humanity I find it surprising.  There are so many people of dubious talent that cast unflattering lights on genuinely talented people that makes me tentative to talk to someone famous (I'm looking at you, Lindsey Lohan).  It was nice to see and talk with genuinely interesting, talented people who were not above talking to the people that made them famous.  It was a nice experience and I was really happy to get the opportunity to talk with these people and look forward to what I bought from them. 

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