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Watching Changing Tides

Column by Paul Levitz

Published: 07/08/2014 03:02am
Photo by Seth Kushner
This is the first of what's planned as an occasional column by Paul Levitz for ICv2.  In this first installment, Levitz recalls a critical convention missed.

One of the good things about our comics world and the intersecting provinces of geek culture is that they’re pretty transparent.  Our readers/fans/customers are expressive about their likes, dislikes and even the subtler aspects of their behaviors.  But the Internet is a somewhat warped listening post, and at least for publishers and professionals, so is your closest local comic shop.  Just as the Internet is twisted by its anonymity into disproportionately nasty commentary, when you’re a known professional in a shop you frequent regularly, the feedback you get is likely to be unconsciously shifted to be something you’d like to hear.  But there’s a cure for biased information: get up, away from your desk or board or sales counter, and as anonymously as you can, drop by shops you don’t usually visit, or wander the aisles of conventions.  Listening (okay, eavesdropping) and observing how people are shopping and what makes them enthusiastic can provide valuable information.
 
If you’re involved enough in comics to be diving this deep into ICv2, the odds are you have your own mental list of my mistakes; it’s one of those occupational burdens that publishers (or managers/coaches of sports teams) accrue.  People care about the calls we make, and with the number of decisions inherent in those jobs, some of them are certain to look wrong or genuinely turn out to have been wrong.  The brickbats from the sidelines aren’t a fun part of the job, but it’s one more sign of how important the work we do is to people.
 
One mistake that isn’t on your list, however, goes to the theme of this column.  After twenty straight years of attending comic conventions, I decided I should take a year’s sabbatical from that part of the job.  My co-workers would be attending, and I’d get feedback through them.  It wasn’t me the fans were coming to see, anyway; by that time I’d put aside my writing to spend more time with my kids and my profile was declining.  Turned out to be an expensive mistake.
 
A favorite information-gathering moment for me at conventions was standing under the arch of the big DC booth, particularly as the floor opened at the beginning of the show.  When things were going well creatively, it was a perfect spot to watch the tide of humanity coming pouring in, straight at us.  Listening to them, and watching their interactions in the booth, provided valuable first-hand grounding in what was working and why... or the reverse.
 
The year I took my sabbatical was 1991 (yes, mathematicians, that means I was at the 1971 Seuling Con selling fanzines published by folks like Gary Groth and Klaus Janson, as well as my own Etcetera before it became The Comic Reader; I’d have been at the cons a few years earlier, but my family left for our summer vacation just before July 4th each year, and it had taken me a while to convince them to change our migration).  I’d like to think if I’d been standing under the arch in 1991, watching the tide mostly part around the DC booth and take their enthusiasm to the new Image offerings, I might have been wiser about competing with them earlier on.
 
Walking the convention floors now, what strikes me most is both the explosive growth of cosplay, and the largely untapped business potential it represents.  Most of the players are clearly new blood for our world; people as unexpected as the young women who were the majority of my American Graphic Novel class at Columbia who asserted that their interest in comics hadn’t started with manga or any of our customary "gateway drugs."  Convention organizers are doing a good job of attracting these folks, and some of them are turning into readers of the more diverse range of material being published today, but there’s such energy, enthusiasm and economic opportunity posing around the shows, I wonder what the possibilities are.  This is an aspect of our field that has nothing to do with the motives Phil Seuling had for dressing up as Captain Marvel, so long ago…
 
Get up and walk around... there’s information there for the gathering, and for someone, inspiration for some new business ideas.
 
--Paul Levitz has been active as a comic fan (The Comic Reader), editor (Batman), writer (Legion of Super-heroes), executive (30 years at DC Comics, ending as President & Publisher), historian (75 Years of DC Comics: The Art of Modern Myth-Making), and educator. 
 
--The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial staff of ICv2.com.
 
 
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