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Monday, September 10, 2007

Baltimore Comic Con: The Face Of Mainstream Comics

the Jim Lee line at the Baltimore Comic Con

As much as I was dazzled by the sheer pageantry of the San Diego Comic-Con, Baltimore's show this weekend was the one I enjoyed more. It was a chance to catch up with a bunch of old friends and make some new ones. But it was also a place where I could see more clearly the face of mainstream superhero comic book fandom, those who visit regularly the hundreds of smaller comic stores across the country.

Though they purchased some key Vertigo titles like "Fables" and "Preacher," this was largely not a crowd into "indie" comics. The biggest draws for them were the handful of ultra big-name guests who attended, such as Mike Mignola, David Finch, and Jim Lee (whose long line of autograph seekers cut through the convention hall).

These and other such artists were treated like celebrities, people whose signature on a copy of their favorite comic meant so much to fans. It was likely that some convention attendees, once their quest for a Mignola or Lee sig was completed, did a little bit of comic shopping and went home, their convention experience complete.

Where does that leave the independent exhibitors and comic creators who attended -- or the webcomics people, for that matter?

The truth was that the sense of willingness to try new things on the part of the attendees -- seek out new books and talent -- was relatively small. At least much smaller than San Diego or New York.

Some webcomics creators expressed frustration about the con, noting this lack of attendees who were even receptive enough to take their flyers.

"In a few cases they actually gave my flyer back and refused to look at it" one webcomics exhibitor reported. "In all the many conventions I've been to, that has NEVER happened."

The same exhibitor noted that their success in anime conventions has been far greater, even though their webcomic is not related to manga. "Anime fans just have much more of an adventuresome energy, and want to try new things."

Who was the average Baltimore Comic Con attendee? While making unscientific generalizations is hardly enough to replace solid marketing data, I'll take a shot anyway:

About two-thirds of the attendees were white, and more than two-thirds were male. Many of the women attending did not look like comic book fans but seemed to be the girlfriends & wives of comic book fans. The biggest age group seemed to be mid-20s-40s. They often had their children with them (of either gender). There were teenagers, but not a tremendous amount.

Few dressed up in costume, and of the ones I saw most were characters from Star Wars.

This is in sharp contrast to the attendees in San Diego, of which there were far more females & far more young people.

Also, I have to note that this was the first convention I have attended in a long time when I had that old "squicky" feeling about being the only woman at the comic boxes. I did not feel 100% comfortable. That largely comes from, in most cases, being the only woman at the boxes, the toy shelves, the spinner racks, etc. I felt self-conscious.

I think what I saw at Baltimore was the "face" of the mainstream superhero comic book reader -- the demographic that major comic book publishers have depended on for decades.

But that face is getting older. And there did not seem to be enough young people to replace them, at least at this show.

Now, the "alternative" comics expo SPX will be held in Bethesda on October 12th & 13th -- not that far away from Baltimore. If the show is anything like MoCCA in New York City, there will be far more diversity of race & gender. Will the type of people who attend SPX tend not to check out the Baltimore Comic Con (and vice-versa)?

Has comics truly become a place of two distinct houses -- mainstream (superheroes) & "indie" (everything else)? Can you bring those two houses under the same roof? How much outreach to the other house should be done? Is such outreach worth it?

And is it worth it for the major comic publishers to try to reach out past their traditional base, when that base comes out in such strong numbers in conventions such as Baltimore?

The only answer I have for that is, again -- there are not enough younger members of that fanbase to replace the older ones. So if a company invests 75% of their product into giving exactly what that fanbase wants -- and not exploring & nuturing & growing new fanbases -- they are setting themselves up for obsolescence.

But I do not see that as what is happening. I think DC and Marvel finally "get" the broader base that they need to appeal to (though their results may vary).

And what will probably happen in 10-15 years is that the traditional superhero comic book as we know it will be a specialized "niche" of the comic book industry in total -- just another genre to choose from in a graphic format.

And the traditional mainstream capes & tights comic convention will be as "niche" as the anime conventions.