Racket

In the ongoing high art/low art debate, comic books have gained increasing respect over the years, but are still held at a distance by many people. It's not the art form itself that's unpalatable -- rather, it's the stereotype of the comic-book fan that's keeping the stigma alive. The cliche of the Comic Book Guy -- and it is usually a guy -- involves a bad haircut, questionable social skills, and a bedroom full of science-fiction paperbacks, pictures of Agent Scully, and wads of Kleenex. Still, rabid comic fans are probably no more or less frenzied than rabid fans of any given band or TV show. It's just that those mediums rarely provide their audience with a forum as interactive as the comic book convention.

So one could naturally assume that WonderCon 11, "The Convention of Comic Book Arts," which set up shop in a downtown Oakland hotel April 25-27, might be something of a -- how shall I say this nicely? -- geek magnet. For three days, artists, fans, publishers, dealers, and past-their-prime actors meet and mingle in one of the more overwhelming marriages of obsession and commerce offered in our culture and, not surprisingly, Comic Book Guys are milling around in abundance, looking like they've waited their whole lives for this. Since many of them seem look like they're barely into high school, maybe they actually have.

The "Artist's Alley" at one end of the massive room provides a window into the world of Comic Book Guys, one that's populated with futuristic superheroes, goth avengers, alien vampires, and pneumatic superbabes. Lines snake around the tables where artists for titles like Hawkman and Shadowlords do quick superhero sketches and autograph them for their fans, who collect signatures from each table in orderly, herdlike fashion. The tables where the creators of the occasional non-superhero books sit are markedly less popular. Greg Beda, the creator of Postmodern Anxst comics, presides over one of these. Along with his comics, which are based on his work at a care facility for the mentally impaired, Beda is selling copies of his master's thesis, which is titled "Comic Art as Medicine: Calvin and Hobbes and the Subjective Nature of Reality." A few booths away, blase-looking Berkeley artists Adrian Tomine and Richard Sala sell original panels from their respective graphic portfolios of relationship drama and tongue-in-cheek mystery. Dressed almost identically, and with minimalist tables that contrast sharply with the merch-heavy, multimedia displays surrounding them, the men look like they've accidentally wandered into the wrong convention and are too polite to leave.

Outside the artists' area, the rest of the massive auditorium is devoted to booths housing comic book stores, vendors, and dealers like Mr. Bechara, who has traveled from Boston to hawk his probably rare and definitely overpriced superhero and detective comics. He boasts that he gave up a law career to open his shop, and is now making a much better living. "I've got comics valued at fifteen hundred dollars here," he points out. "All I have to do is sell just one of them, and I've made this convention worthwhile." Which suggests that there must be a lot more people than you'd think willing to drop $1,500 on a yellowed issue of The Fantastic Four.

Others are less thrilled with the moneymaking opportunities available at WonderCon. "I was supposed to be here for five minutes while the guy went to have a cigarette," gripes the disgruntled Last Gasp employee temporarily manning the booth. "It's been an hour!" He looks out at the crowd. "I know fuck-all about comics. All the guys who come to the booth just want to thumb through the pornography." Indeed, this seems to be the predilection of the older Comic Book Guy; I overhear one of them making audible yummy-yummy noises over a videotape of X-rated Japanese anime.

Tucked into the very edge of the room is a table for the comic book-advocacy group Friends of Lulu, a nonprofit organization devoted to encouraging the participation of women in the comics industry. Since the historically male-dominated medium is more inclusive of women than ever before, I'm curious to see whether the presence of Comic Book Guys at WonderCon is matched by that of Comic Book Girls. Looking around the convention, it's clear that although there's a significant presence of female exhibitors and patrons here, much of the "participation" is probably not what Friends of Lulu have in mind. At one of the artists' tables, an exotic woman dressed in a bikini of simulated leaves stands awkwardly next to the creator of a comic called Lava. A throng of graying Comic Book Guys surrounds the table, and one of them shakes his head sadly as he says, "You know, if you were a Spice Girl, you'd be worth eighteen million." She smiles blankly and looks past him toward the next customer.

By Andi Zeisler

 
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