Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Denver Pop Culture Con

I had a nice weekend as a guest of the Denver Pop Culture Con, doing five panels while scouting the sales floor, going to other people's panels, watching good books win pretty trophies, peeking at TV and movie stars, getting lost, and walking around one of my favorite American cities. I reunited with some friends and made some new ones.

Denver Pop Culture Con is produced by the non-profit Pop Culture Classroom, which gives it a different feel than other conventions I've been to. In addition to the usual superhero, video game, and pop culture fol-de-rol, it focuses on being family-friendly with an undercurrent of education: creative workshops for kids, using comics in the classroom, more than the usual share of teachers and librarians.

The Con staff was always friendly and eager to help. The Con itself presented some challenges. Signage was poor; I spent all day Friday looking for something that was listed in the program but gave me no other clues where to find it. People who wanted to attend my panels had to leave the exhibition hall, take an escalator down one floor, walk about 40 yards, take another escalator down, then peek down hallways until they found the right room. I think that kept panel attendance low. My most popular panel was one I did on the enduring popularity of "Peanuts" with Schulz Museum Education Director Jessica Ruskin, Schulz Museum Archivist Sarah Breaux, and comics historian R.C. Harvey, which drew about three dozen people. But another panel I did had six people; a friend moderated a panel that only had one. There was some confusion and miscommunication attributed to key organizers leaving just before the Con, including the person who invited me.

Still, it's a poor, ungrateful guest who criticizes his hosts. Some of my beefs, such as the Convention Center layout, were out of their hands. Overall I had a terrific time with nice people who all seemed very happy to be there. It's a good event with a unique mission and flavor.


The Denver Convention Center is hard to miss: just look for the gigantic blue bear peering in the window.
Thousands of people waited for the doors to open on Saturday, by far the busiest day. Despite crowds that reportedly exceeded 100,000, the space was large enough that there was (usually) room to walk and breathe, and even some quiet corners to sit and rest.

A typical row of the main exhibition floor. This was on Friday; Saturday was more crowded, but the wide spacing between booths kept things mostly navigable.
A connected room the size of an airplane hangar was set aside for celebrity autographs. Lines were sometimes long, but also occasionally astonishingly short, and this vast space never filled up. Sam "Flash Gordon" Jones, George "Sulu" Takei, Cary "Princess Bride" Elwes, Catherine "Dr. Who" Tate, Dave "Drax" Bautista, Claudia "Babylon 5" Christian, and many others took their turns in the boxes. I enjoyed seeing Christopher "Doc Brown" Lloyd and Tom "Biff Tannen" Wilson sitting peaceably next to each other. Photography was forbidden here--I got scolded for taking this one--because that's how the stars make their money. I didn't pay to say Hello to anyone famous but enjoyed breathing the same air.
Unfortunately, the entire nation of Canada was a no-show.

Saw some old friends, made some new ones, and just said "Howdy" to a few folks.

The first person I ran into as I walked into the Con was Tom Racine, podcaster extraordinaire, who moderated three or four panels. I went to a couple of them; Tom was about as prepared, professional, and nimble on his feet as a moderator could be. During a break we recorded an interview for a future episode of his Tall Tale Radio podcast, which is the best on the Net.
I met comics critic and historian R.C. Harvey last September in Sacramento, and we reconnected in Denver to sit together on a panel about the enduring popularity of "Peanuts." Bob is a knowledgeable, delightful man who only plays a curmudgeon online. I bought that Accidental Ambassador Gordo book in front of him, which Bob wrote with one of my all-time favorite cartoonists, Gus Arriola.

I found syndicated cartoonist and best-selling author Terri Libenson! Now we’re friends in real life, not just Facebook. She did a charming “workshop” for a couple dozen young fans of her books.
Terri at work, teaching the kids how she draws her characters.
Peter Bagge is an independent comics great, coming out of an underground tradition to today focus on biographies of people other writer/artist/publishers might not touch. I bought Credo, his bio of Rose Wilder Lane, the daughter-editor of Laura Ingalls Wilder and a fine writer, editor, and social agitator in her own right, and joked that he and I might be the only two people in the building who knew who she was. Peter and I did a panel together, followed by a long, quality conversation that I really enjoyed. The next morning we happened to hit our hotel's breakfast buffet at the same time and had another short talk. He's a very nice and gracious guy. I'm still a bit dazzled.
Brigid Alverson is a respected comics journalist who moderated one of the panels I was on. We've corresponded and spoken by phone several times over the past 15 years or so, including a recent interview about A Fire Story, but never met in person until now. Turns out we're kind of kindred souls, about the same age with backgrounds in physics and journalism. Love her.
I first met Nathan Hale, best-selling author of historical comics for kids, a few years ago. We reconnected in Denver for two panels, the second on "Comics in the Curriculum." He's a dynamic, polished, entertaining speaker who took charge of the panel in the very best way, since it was my fifth panel and I was kinda out of gas anyway. Happy to let him take the lead.
A selfie of that panel underway, moderated by Schulz Museum Education Director Jessica Ruskin. One of my favorite moments of the Con happened here: Jessica was introducing us, and when she said, "To my left is Nathan Hale--" there was an audible gasp in the audience from a teacher who didn't know he'd be there, had no idea what he looked like, but was thrilled to be in the room with him. In some circles, he's a superstar.

My brief encounter with Neal Adams gets its own paragraph. Mr. Adams is an all-time great artist in both superhero comic books and newspaper comic strips. I've loved his work all my life. He’s been at every con I’ve attended, manning his giant expensive end-cap booth, and I’ve always been too intimidated to approach him. Mr. Adams has a reputation for not suffering fools, and I was certain that if we ever met, I'd prove myself a perfect fool. But this time I figured What the Hell.

That's Mr. Adams in the tan jacket, dwarfed by his enormous booth.

"Mr. Adams," I said, "I just wanted to say thanks. Your work was important to me and has been a big inspiration."

"How?" he asked.

"Well . . . you set a very high standard and showed me just how good comic art could be."

Mr. Adams leveled his gaze. "But what did I inspire you to do?"

Ah. This was a test.

"Well," I said, "I've published three graphic novels and won an Eisner Award . . ."

Mr. Adams's eyes lit up and he smiled.

"Well then," he said, "thank you!"

Handshake, and I was out of there so fast I left little cartoon dust clouds in my wake.


Some comics purists don't like people who dress up as characters and go to conventions. They think it detracts from the "true meaning" of the event, and clogs the aisles with people who are there to be seen rather than buy their stuff. I think those purists should lighten up. Cosplayers add creativity, fun and color to a convention. Their fandom is just as pure and true as anyone else's, and comics aren't a zero-sum game. It's a big pie; there's plenty for everyone.

Some of these costume references are pretty obscure. The deeper the dive the better. Not everyone will get it, but if someone does, you've made their day.

I did have fun storming the castle.
Queen Amidala braving a dangerous mission. Truly! Would you risk an escalator in that dress?
Avengers Assemble! The fellow on the left exemplifies the most popular cosplay I saw at the Con, as every guy with a beard, belly, and ratty bathrobe--honestly, not a trivial proportion of comics fans--realized he could be Thor in "Avengers: Endgame."
Loved this groovy gang.
My favorite of the Con, and maybe my favorite cosplay of all time. Somebody close that door.

A Note About Originality

I don't know if it was just Denver or a general trend in comics conventions, but I saw a lot of something I really dislike: giant walls of prints published by people who have no right to the intellectual property they're ripping off.

Not to pick on this guy, but, like, this guy. He's a good enough artist--his technique is fine and the character likenesses are good--but if he got permission from Marvel, DC, Paramount, the CW, the BBC, etc. to sell prints of these characters, I'll eat them all.

Fine-tuning my outrage: I think true fan art is terrific. A kid who loves Iron Man and draws up little pictures, stickers and stuff to sell for a buck a piece is technically violating copyright but should be left alone. They're expressing their passion for the character. I like passion.

Likewise, comics professionals who've made a living drawing these characters should get a pass. Neal Adams defined the look of Batman in the 1970s and for generations to follow. As far as I'm concerned, Mr. Adams can draw and sell all the Batmen he wants.

That's not what's going on here. These print peddlers are big commercial operations. They're not in it for the love of characters or stories, they're in it because the prints sell. And unlike fandom, booth space at conventions is a zero-sum game. There's only so much real estate. These big guys crowd out others doing original art with characters and stories they actually created.

It's hard to feel sorry for giant corporations that own Superman and Indiana Jones. That doesn't make violating their copyright OK. I don't think these print emporiums are good for comics, conventions, creators or fans, and I'd really like to see cons crack down on them, maybe with a little encouragement from the true copyright holders and their scary lawyers. Make room for new creative voices producing original material. That's the real life-blood of the industry and art form.

Off my soap box now . . .


Denver is my platonic ideal of a medium-large American city. It's walkable, clean, artsy, vital. Beautiful surroundings. My only complaint is that the airport is about 45 minutes away--seems like it's halfway to Kansas. Otherwise, it's a terrific town. I spent quite a few hours just walking around downtown, and only wish I'd had more time.

This great Midwestern bookstore had a few copies of A Fire Story, and was happy to have me sign them.

Thanks to Pop Culture Classroom, Denver Pop Culture Con, all the organizers and volunteers who were nice to me and got me to where I needed to go, my old and new friends, and everyone who made it a great weekend and event for me. I'd go back anytime.

Monday, June 3, 2019

I Can See My House From Here!

I'm home from a good weekend at the Denver Pop Culture Con, where I did five (!) panels, spent time with friends, met some cool people, and had a great time. As soon as I upload some photos, I'll share here.

Meanwhile, I have a much better story that needs a little wind-up.

Ross Franquemont became a friend via other Facebook friends in the way we do these days, which is to say I've never met any of these people in real life but still feel close. Until he recently retired from a 20-year USAF career, Ross flew the U-2 spy plane, which is still in service and I believe still holds some flight records despite being developed in 1957.

This weekend Ross was in Denver training for his new job as a commercial airline pilot, saw that I was in town for Pop Culture Con, and messaged me asking if we could meet. Then he sent me some photos. And I figured that if a guy likes your book enough to take it up 68,000 feet (not quite the edge of space, but high enough to see the horizon curve) on his very last U-2 flight, and has the thoughtfulness to photograph it while flying over your actual house on the distant planet below, the least you can do is buy him a beer.

So I did.

When Ross said he shot the photo while flying over my house, I thought maybe he meant somewhere in the general vicinity. That would have been neat enough. But when we met, Ross pointed out some ground features in the photo above and told me what he thought they were....
...and after checking with Google Earth, I confirmed that he was absolutely right. My house is actually in this photo! If my mind weren't completely blown right now, it still wouldn't be able to come up with words to express how cool I think this is or much this means to me.

This is the closest I will ever get to being an astronaut.

Thanks Ross, for a gift that will look AMAZING on my new studio wall!

For more of Ross's beautiful U-2 photos, visit Extreme Ross Photography, especially the Gallery labeled "U-2 High Flight Photos."

Ross with spacesuit and helmet...

...and without.