Games and Gamers

New York Comic-Con: Where Were All The Comics?

Tahmoh Penikett in 'Dollhouse'

Don't be a Helo: Tahmoh Penikett was at a loss to explain why the Dollhouse crew was at NY Comic-Con. Fox hide caption

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By Laurel Maury

I walked something like 200 feet into New York Comic-Con without seeing a single comic book.

Booths for video games, regular books, Dungeons and Dragons, sure. Toys, everywhere. But this year, the four-year-old NY Comic-Con seemed to be about everything but comic books.

What did go on? Well, Joss Whedon's new TV show, Dollhouse, premiered its first episode on Sunday. Japanese pop idol Sho Sakurai turned up to promote a movie; British It Girl Peaches Geldof wandered the convention floor with a film crew, courtesy of Nylon magazine.

The panel for the British sci-fi show Torchwood was mobbed. Booths sold T-shirts, corsets, vinyl dolls, messenger bags (really cool ones from Gamma-Go), even doorbells.

But it was increasingly clear that big "cons," as comic book conventions are called, are no longer the comic book geek's natural habitat — they're places to see and be seen, where Hollywood and the gaming industry try to get products into the hands of early adopters.

Joss Whedon, Tahmoh Penikett, and The New York Times on pimping it Comic-Con style, after the jump ...

The New York Times, which famously doesn't have a comics section, had a booth. "We're here because a lot of people are here," said the man behind the table.

Battlestar Galactica's Tahmoh Penikett, who's starring in Whedon's Dollhouse, talked eloquently about his love of Punisher comics as a child. But he couldn't quite explain what, if anything, his new series had to do with comics.

And Whedon himself, much in evidence as part of the Dollhouse promotional push, couldn't come up with anything. "I shouldn't even be at this convention," he joked. "It's a sham."

Even comic-book publishers themselves were putting their efforts into areas besides comic books. DC Comics pushed a multiplayer online game set in the DC Universe and showcased its new animated Wonder Woman film.

Sadly, one group that wasn't well represented was small, independent comics publishers and creators. Traditionally out in force at New York Comic-Con, they've been priced out of booths by the recession.

Another casualty of the downturn? The good parties. Usually, there are dinners and bar-hopping sessions for insiders to crash. The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund bash on Thursday was one bright spot, but on Friday evening, when a few of us wandered over to Dark Horse — where they always seem to know where the good parties are — no one had heard of anything.

Part of the problem is that kids don't read comics anymore. It takes about 15 minutes to read a comic book. At $2.95 to $3.95 a pop, that's a pricey quarter-hour for a 10-year-old who can get his mom to spring for a video game that will keep him occupied for two months.

These days, kids who read comics tend to buy graphic novel collections, and the kids reading manga lean toward manga journals like Shojo Beat.

So selling comic books is now about video-game tie-ins, toys and movies — even independent comic-book publishers are getting their books optioned. Bryan Lee O'Malley's indie comic Scott Pilgrim is being made into a film by Paramount; The Surrogates, starring Bruce Willis and based on a comic by first-time comic-book writer Robert Vendetti, will be out in the fall.

It's as if, just at the moment the comic book is gaining appreciation as a real art form, it's losing its vitality.

Vertigo, the brainy imprint at DC Comics, still wants to make money the old way: by selling comic books and graphic novels. They're rolling out a number of tasty-looking series and graphic novels, including Dark Entries, a crime story by novelist Ian Rankin, and Cuba, a memoir by a woman who was a soldier and surgeon in Castro's army. Also Going to Amerikay, about three generations of Irish immigrants.

And although no one said "recession" at the Vertigo panel I attended, they're selling a number of their series' debut issues for $1 this year.

Oddly, one group that's weathering the recession very well is sellers of collectible comics. Albert Stoltz of Basement Comics said he'd had a customer drop $5,000 on one first-issue collectible. "He said it was a better investment than stocks," Stoltz said.

Loitering near Stoltz's stall was comics fan Dan Gintis, who'd spent $1,500 on old comics at the show. "I only meant to spend $500," Gintis said. "Don't tell my mom."

Gary Dolgoff, who's been selling collectible comics for 40 years, says that his high-end comics are selling as well as ever.

And at one booth, as I stood gaping at a $5,000 copy of Spider-Man #1, dealer Michael Carbonarra thrust an original piece of Jack Kirby cover art under my nose. I admired Kirby's famous swooping lines.

"That's worth $30,000," Carbonarra said, and I nearly jumped out of my skin. "It'll sell by June."

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