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Stranger in a Strange Land

MoCCA Art Festival 2007
Props go to John (and Robert A. Heinlein) for lending me the title of this post, for today was my first foray into the world of Indie comics as I traversed through MoCCA 2007. As a relative newcomer to comics, my experience thus far has kept me in the Marvel/DC superhero realm of comic books. So I wasn’t exactly sure what an alternative con could offer me. And after spending last weekend among the mainstream fanboys who flocked to Wizard World Philadelphia, my expectations were that I would encounter the same crowds, except that now I would have absolutely no idea what anyone would be talking about. Needless to say, I was a bit overwhelmed. But the gods were smiling today, and not only did I go WAY overbudget on my purchases–hint, mega-indie reviews to be coming down the pike–but I learned that there can actually be kind of a “cool” side to this industry.

During the Marvel panels at Wizard World, a considerable amount of time was spent discussing the lack of female influence in the comic universe, both from a creative and a readership standpoint. At one point, my friend Wes remarked to me that while the ratio of guys to girls in the audience was completely disproportionate, the long-hair/short-hair ratio was actually spot on. Fair enough. Marvel Editor in Chief Joe Quesada defended that in all honesty, men constituted the principal readership, and if there were a compelling storyline and equally compelling women writers to drive it forward, he would be all over it. But that, he said, just wasn’t necessarily the case–I mean, Ms. Marvel? What??

The point of this rather lengthy digression is to say that today I learned that there is in fact a vast female writer and readership in comics–they’re just not reading and writing Spider-Man. In fact, as I was walking around the exhibitions today, I found myself remarking to John on more than one occasion that the girls were, well, kind of hot. “You need to write that in your post!” he told me. Done. For hot chicks that dig reading comics, ditch the Marvel fanboys and aim for the indies–what other convention would headline Fun Home‘s Alison Bechdel as THE guest of honor?
Cover to Anders Nilsen's
Okay, now that I’ve addressed my hormones, I can delve into my impressions of the writers and comics–this is, after all, a blog about comics, right? As I said, I’m a newbie to alternatives, so for some more erudite opinions, I encourage you to check out John’s post. But here goes. The first panel we sat in on was hosted by Drawn & Quarterly, and we were treated to a reading from Anders Nilsen’s Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow, an homage to the artist’s girlfriend who sadly died of cancer. This was an absolutely astounding example of the flexibility of comics as an art form. In the portion he recited, Nilsen had culled aerial images of cities and landscapes off the Internet and on them superimposed a human silhouette, who pondered mankind’s cycle of birth, old age, sickness and death–what Buddhist’s call Samsara–as he was forced to say goodbye to his love. So powerful and moving in its simplicity–the images said nothing and everything at the same time, completely elucidating the absurdity and beauty of life–the work left me speechless. The only thing I can say is that if you’re looking for a slice of humanity in your comics, Nilsen’s is a must.

Another must would be Alison Bechdel, whose graphic memoir is probably more popular among the rest of the world than all Indie and mainstream comics combined. Suffice it to say my former colleague at Time Magazine, Lev Grossman, listed it as the best book–comic or otherwise–of last year. I might not go that far, but it’s damn good. In it Bechdel airs all of her family’s dirty laundry, centered arCover to Alison Bechdel's ound her father who after spending his whole life as a high school teacher/mortician/family man was revealed to be gay, then took his own life. “I shouldn’t be talking about this in public,” she said during her presentation. “I should be ashamed of it.” When she was asked how her family reacted, in an absolutely brilliant moment of self-deprecating comedy, she admitted, “I don’t recommend writing an intimate memoir about your family, but I can do it because I’m not that nice of a person.”

But self-deprecation was certainly a running theme throughout the convention today–I don’t think I’ve ever met so many talented people completely humbled by their own assumptions over their lack of self-worth. All the better for me, who had the opportunity to speak with them as a lowly blogger who knows next to nothing about their world and work, and still feel accepted. Every book I had signed was accompanied by a personalized sketch–a trend, John informed me, that has long since left the mainstream realm and was therefore a refreshingly novel experience for me.

The last panel I saw was held by Jeffrey Brown, the other Indie superstar headlining MoCCA. I had met Brown earlier in the day, and noted how timid he was, especially for someone who has already divulged some of the most embarrassing sexual escapades imaginable to quite a sizable readership. I was therefore curious to see how he would perform in front of a room full of doting strangers, one of whom even asked him how he could NOT be embarrassed by what he’s written. He says, for the record, that he’s not. But there was certainly an air of awkwardness throughout the discussion, with long silences punctured by moments of sheer hilarity–not unlike, as my buddy Wes pointed out, his books. The highlight of the presentation was his reading of a spec Wolverine story he wrote to pitch Marvel (Joe Quesada respectfully informed him his style didn’t quite fit in with the direction and tone of Marvel’s current lineup, but “see you in the funny pages!”) The story featured Wolverine, after a sexually charged mishap with Kitty Pryde, fighting off a bunch of zombies in a forest, only to discover that Kitty herself has become a zombie. What’s a dog to do? SKRIT. SLICE. GURGLE. Bye bye Kitty. The final scene shows a distraught Wolverine in a cry-for-help moment, cutting his arm open with his claw in penance for her death. There’s an image that will forever change how I see Marvel’s favorite bad boy. Awesome, just awesome.

The last lesson I learned today was that, contrary to popular belief, some Indie publishers actually make decent bank. John and I were invited to join Top Shelf Productions–who publish Jeffrey Brown’s work among many titles–as they celebrated their tenth anniversary at the swanky Manhattan bar Gstaad. In addition to having rented out the entire bar on a Saturday night for three hours, they served an impressive array of food and an open bar–in keeping with the title of their publishing house, I was drinking Johnnie Walker Black Label all night. I’m um, hoping it doesn’t show right about now…In any event, the party was done right, I had the opportunity to meet founders Chris Staros and Brett Warnock who, like every other exhibitor I met today were shockingly personable, and I think it’s safe to sa
y that I’ll now have to rearrange my budget to offset all the extra comics I’ll be purchasing in the future. Who needs food anyways, right?

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