New York Comic Con 2013 and the Twin Peaks of Con Culture

New York Comic Con 2013

The past weekend the Jacob Javits Center hosted New York Comic Con, the East Coast’s largest popular culture event run by the ReedPop division of Reed Elsevier. Early reports estimated this year’s attendance at more than 130,000, putting the event on par with North America’s premiere pop culture event, San Diego Comic-Con run by Comic-Con International.

Like most major Cons, New York Comic Con included a wide array of pop culture activities: a show floor filled with exhibitors and vendors, panel sessions on comic books, movies, and television shows; and abundant costumed characters (both attendees and marketers).

It is interesting to note the unexpected outliers, however. This year’s New York Con evidenced two trends — one disheartening, one encouraging — at the opposite poles of Con culture.

Marketing to Nerds

Chevrolet: New York Comic Con 2013

Costumed attendees look over a Chevy Camaro on the show floor.

As with last year’s New York Comic Con, among the stalls of vendors selling comic books, video games, and sci-fi action figures were a smattering of general consumer products having little (or nothing) to do with the traditional pop culture focus of Comic Con (see Knowledge@Wharton, “Consumer Brands Go Geek at Comic Con” for a report on last year’s consumer marketing trend).

Like last year, Chevrolet had a major presence with a large booth on the show floor. In the Javits atrium, a row of four Chevy Sonic Hatchbacks were decorated with images from comic book publishers BOOM! Studios, Dark Horse Comics, Image, and Valiant. Outside of Artist Alley, a Camaro was being adorned with illustrations by comic book artists.

While most of Chevy’s presence seemed tangential to the usual themes of Comic Con, there was at least one pop culture moment for the company: The Marvel booth featured S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson’s 1962 Chevrolet Corvette, “Lola.”

Craftsman, which last year had a large booth on the show floor touting their Bolt-On tool system through a comic book tie-in with DC Comics, didn’t repeat their appearance this year.

But Playboy was there, promoting their Super Playboy Fragrances. The company sponsored a sci-fi speed dating event and provided the opportunity for Comic Con attendees to participate in a photo session with a Playboy bunny. When asked how Playboy’s presence relates to Comic Con’s usual focus on comic books and popular culture, and spokesperson mentioned that Super Playboy “transforms you into a sexy superhero.” While this may seem like a stretch, even Stan Lee had a fragrance being marketed at the Con, indicating how far geek culture has spread from its historic roots.

Arizona Beverages: New York Comic Con 2013

A model touts Arizona Beverages’ “I ❤ Big Cans” campaign.

Perhaps the most unfortunate ad campaign at this year’s New York Comic Con was from Arizona Beverages. The company was publicizing new soda flavors available in large, 23.5 once cans. To promote the latter, a fulsome model wearing an “I ❤ big cans” T-shirt was striking poses for the crowd. When asked what this has to do with comic books or pop culture, a representative in the booth initially seemed puzzled and then stated, in perhaps an unwittingly apt expression, “It’s about exposure.”

While Arizona Beverages’ presence at the Con provided visibility for their products, it may be the type of marketing more likely to misfire than to build brand loyalty. Successfully promoting a pop culture brand involves more than just exposure; it’s about connecting with your audience in a way that builds a loyal fan base.

For Fans of All Ages

At the opposite end of the spectrum from Playboy bunnies and models with T-shirts about big cans, this year’s New York Comic Con featured a number of events targeted at young people.

Carrie Goldman: New York Comic Con 2013

Author Carrie Goldman reads messages of support to bullied children from Comic Con attendees.

With a large percentage of modern comic books targeted at (and only appropriate for) an adult audience, a number of industry watchers are concerned about fostering a new generation of fans. BOOM! Studios co-founder Ross Richie raised the issue in a panel session on the company’s upcoming products. “We need to start building the next generation of comics readers,” Richie stated. John Rogers, president of Comic Con International which hosts the other major North American Comic Con in San Diego, has expressed similar concerns about the need to cultivate a new generation of fans so the audience for comic book conventions doesn’t “go extinct.”

To be sustainable, popular culture needs new cohorts of fans, and this means supporting material for young readers to enjoy.

For the first time this year, New York Comic Con provided a “family room” featuring three days of presentations and events for fans of all ages.

The Anti-Bullying Coalition had a significant booth presence at New York Comic Con, as well as a panel session titled “End Bullying! Responding to Cruelty in Our Culture,” hosted by Chase Masterson. The booth included notes from Con attendees to young victims of bullying or those with self-esteem issues. The sentiments on the wall of cards included “You are important. Don’t allow other to have control of who you are! ❤” and “It’s not you. It’s them. Be yourself.

Meanwhile, Elsewhere at the Con…

Comics Creators: New York Comic Con 2013

Comic book artists, writers, editors, publishers, and industry professionals.

This year I forwent most of the panel sessions to spend time on the show floor and Artist Alley photographing comic book creators and industry professionals for a project in conjunction with a major pop culture publication.

Random celebrity encounters — always a fun aspect of the major Con — included bumping into Whoopi Goldberg walking the show floor, spotting 30 Rock’s Scott Adsit conversing with illustrators in Artist Alley, and running into famed book designer Chip Kidd chatting with Jim Sternako (with whom he once worked as an assistant).

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Cosplay: New York Comic Con 2013

Cosplay at New York Comic Con 2013.

And, as always, there was a lot of great cosplay throughout the Con.

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For all 215 photos of New York Comic Con from my point of view, see my Flickr site: New York Comic Con 2013

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Victorian Font Rasterization

Alphabete für die Strickerin ABC-1020x368

Typography is shaped by the physical medium in which it is rendered. Clay tablets and styli gave rise to cuniform. The sinuous curves of serif typefaces were refined by carving letter shapes into stone.

When typography entered the digital age, font designers faced the challenge representing font glyphs by an array of pixels. At high-resolutions, this was a relatively straight-forward process. At low resolutions, however, representing the serpentine curves of typographic characters by a course grid of pixels was more challenging, requiring carefully-honed images to create characters that looked correct at small sizes.

In the mid-1980s, Adobe Systems’ PostScript Type 1 font format introduced on-the-fly rasterization of outline fonts using a breakthrough hinting technology to avoid digitization artifacts. But hand-crafted bitmapped images remained the standard way to render fonts on low resolution printers and video displays, requiring font designers to carefully work out how to arrange pixels to simulate the shape of the complex character forms.

This was not the first time designers confronted this challenge, however. Adherents of cross-stitch embroidery also wrestled with fitting font shapes to the cells of a fixed grid. An old book I discovered at a flea market, Alphabete für die Stickerin (“Alphabets for Embroiders”), contains sample alphabets rendered as bitmapped character shapes to be realized in thread.

The book is undated, but it was likely published in the late 19th or early 20th century, reflecting embroidery techniques of the Victorian and Edwardian eras — at the dawn of the nearly century-long quest to represent letter shapes through a fixed array of pixels.

A few samples from Alphabete für die Stickerin are below.

Alphabete für die Strickerin - plate 25

Alphabete für die Strickerin - plate 20

Alphabete für die Strickerin - plate 24

Alphabete für die Strickerin - plate 01

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Locust Moon’s Comics-Focused Fest Expands

Locust Moon Comics Fest 2013

For comic book fans who bemoan the encroaching influence of Hollywood on the major comic cons, there are a number of small, local events that carry on the spirit of the original comic book conventions.

The Rotunda at the University of Pennsylvania

The Rotunda.

This past Saturday, Locust Moon Comics, a Philadelphia-based comic book retailer, hosted the second annual Locust Moon Comics Fest. The event’s focus was squarely on comic books and related art. No costumed characters were in evidence, much less representatives from movie or television studios. The vendor tables typically displayed the exhibitors’ own works rather than boxes of back issues of popular comics or superhero action figures.

Like last-year’s inaugural event, the convention was held in the Rotunda, a century-old former house of worship now owned by the University of Pennsylvania. Last year’s show was contained in the small theater at the rear of the building. This year, exhibitors’ tables filled both the theater and the larger sanctuary, roughly tripling the area of the show floor.

In addition, this year’s Fest included five panel sessions held in Locust Moon’s retail space. These sessions covered topics ranging from the legacy of legendary artist Jack Kirby to the influence of underground comics.

Jim Steranko at the Locust Moon Comics Fest

Jim Steranko chats with fans.

Comic book creators at this year’s Fest included writer, artist, and comics historian Jim Steranko; artist Chrissie Zullo; letterer and calligrapher Todd Klein; artist J.G. Jones; and many others. Steranko, noted for his innovative work on Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. in the late 1960s, sat at a long table in front of a gallery of his original paintings as a line of fans waited to get his autograph or hear stories of his life and work.

While this year’s larger venue featured more exhibitors than in last year’s cramped quarters, some vendors remarked that the expansion in floor space didn’t appear to be matched by a proportional increase in attendance. Festival organizer Andrew Carl estimated that the event attracted roughly 500 attendees last year and around 1000 this year. Of course, the first few San Diego Comic Cons only attracted a few hundred attendees, and that event is now the largest popular culture event in the U.S. with an attendance of more than 130,000. It will be interesting to see how the Locust Moon Comics Festival evolves in the next few years.

For photos from the event, see my Flickr set: Locust Moon Comics Festival 2013.

Locust Moon Comics Fest 2013 Locust Moon Comics Fest 2013 Locust Moon Comics Fest 2013 Locust Moon Comics Fest 2013 Locust Moon Comics Fest 2013
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San Diego Comic-Con 2013: Recap and Photo Highlights

 San Diego Comic-Con 2013

Each person who attends Comic-Con International: San Diego has a unique experience. With the large number of simultaneous activities from which to choose, everyone finds their own path through the festivities.

Here is an overview of San Diego Comic-Con 2013 from my perspective.

Wednesday Kick-off

Ender's Game Experience

The Ender’s Game Experience.

Godzilla Encounter

The Godzilla Encounter.

Before the festivities kick into high gear, Wednesday afternoon typically provides an opportunity to stroll around San Diego to observe how Comic-Con has taken over the city. This year, in addition to the ubiquitous banners, signs, and ads, San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter included several structures assembled or converted into immersive experiences promoting forthcoming films such as Godzilla and Ender’s Game. With so many activities from Comic-Con proper competing for attention, I often skip most of these offsite events. This year, however, I was struck by the number and scale of these walk-through environments and made it a point to experience several these over the next few days for an article for Knowledge@Wharton, [See Knowledge@Wharton, “Comic-Con Marketing: Experience the ‘Experiences’“]

Enders Game Press Event

Hailee Steinfeld and Asa Butterfield greet the press.

Wednesday afternoon at the Ender’s Game Experience, actors Hailee Steinfeld and Asa Butterfield along with writer/director Gavin Hood and producer Roberto Orci were conducting press interviews and photo ops to promote the film.

Wednesday at Comic-Con is always centered around Preview Night. Reportedly there was a time when Preview Night was lightly attended, allowing people to comfortably browse the vendor booths before the insanity of the Con hits fever pitch. No longer. Preview Night was jam packed with throngs of people looking to get first dibs on booth exclusives and other goodies. The great joy of Preview Night, however, is the lack of competing panels, providing one of the few times where you can enjoy the exhibition hall without fretting over what you’re missing elsewhere.

After strolling the exhibition hall, photographing cosplayers and connecting with acquaintances from Cons past, Wednesday’s final stop was the Enchantment Under the SDCC Party hosted by Jeremy Rutz’s San Diego Comic-Con Unofficial Blog.

Thursday is Hall H Day

Geek and Sundry

Felicia Day at the Geek and Sundry offsite event.

Thursday began with a visit to the Geek and Sundry offsite presence. Shortly after Comic-Con, Felicia Day would be speaking the Wharton Web Conference, and I wanted to speak to her about doing an interview following her keynote presentation.

Thursday afternoon provided a rare opportunity for easy access Hall H. The programming lineup in Hall H for Friday and Saturday made it clear fans would be camping out much of the night to secure access to the 6,500 seat auditorium on those days. Friday’s sessions featured the “Veronica Mars” panel, fan favorites AMC’s “The Walking Dead” and HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” and the Sony Pictures/Screen Gems panel. Saturday offered Warner Bros/Legendary Pictures in the morning, followed by Lionsgate (including a panel on The Hunger Games), 20th Century Fox, and Marvel Studios.

While I would have loved to have attended all of these, estimates were that, to guarantee access for either day, you would need to get in line by around 4:30 AM. You might gain access to the hall joining the line as late as 6:00 AM, but anything after that was expected to be a long shot. [For more on the meticulous planning required for successful time management at Comic-Con, see Knowledge@Wharton,”Comic-Con: Best Laid Plans.”] And, indeed, at midday Friday I spoke with someone who had been in line since 6:30 AM and still hadn’t gained access to Hall H. He said the line hadn’t moved in hours and he was debating whether he should leave the line given the bleak outlook.

Thursday’s relatively subdued programming in Hall H allowed me to walk directly into the room with no wait for several panel sessions:

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‘Europa Report’ cast and crew.

Sebastián Cordero’s Europa Report.

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Entertainment Weekly's 'The Visionaries'

‘The Visionaries’ panel with Alfonso Cuarón, Marc Webb, and Edgar Wright.

Entertainment Weekly’s “The Visionaries” panel with Alfonso Cuarón, Marc Webb, and Edgar Wright.

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Divergent

‘Divergent’ cast and crew.

Neil Burger’s Divergent.

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Ender's Game

Ender’s Game cast and crew.

Ender’s Game, with actors Asa Butterfield, Hailee Steinfeld, and Harrison Ford; writer/director Gavin Hood; and producer Roberto Orci.

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One of the attractions of Hall H is the opportunity to photograph the panel participants. Unfortunately, changes to the policies for general press photography this year made getting good photos a challenge. Last year, general press were allowed to briefly (very, very briefly) approach the front of the stage to get direct shots of the participants (such as this and this). This year, the Hall H staff didn’t allow this. In addition, changes to the layout of the small area at stage left set aside for press photography made it challenging to get good photos from that vantage point.

Friday and Saturday: Comic Book Panels, Eisner Awards, and the Zombie Walk

Given the challenges of accessing Hall H — and the limited opportunities for photography — my Friday and Saturday were focused on the smaller comic book and industry panels.

Several panels explored important trends in the comic book industry and popular culture.

Digital and Print

‘Digital or Print: Friends or Foes?’ panel.

Digital or Print: Friends or Foes?” on Friday brought together comic book publishers and retailers to discuss the growth of digital comic book formats and distribution platforms.  Moderated by J. K. Parkin from Comic Book Resources, the panel included director of digital publishing at Top Shelf Chris Ross, Joe Field  from Flying Color Comics, ComiXology co-founder John D. Roberts,  IDW Director of ePublishing Jeff Webber, and Thrillbent co-founder Mark Waid. While the rise of digital platforms has roiled other media industries — from music to print publishing — there was little antagonism between advocates for print and digital media in the realm of comic books. Participants generally viewed the digital and print as reinforcing each other and opening new markets rather than cannibalizing each other’s readership.

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Comic Book Entrepreneurs

‘The Comic Book Entrepreneurs’ panel.

Saturday’s “The Comic Book Entrepreneurs” panel moderated by Rob Salkowitz included IDW Publishing co-founder and CEO Ted Adams, ComiXology co-founder and CEO David Steinberger, and Valiant Entertainment CEO and Chief Creative Officer Dinesh Shamdasani.

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The Power of Geek

‘The Power of Geek’ panel.

The panel session on “The Power of Geek: Superfandom and Why Brands, Media, and the World at Large Want In” moderated by Steve Rotterdam, partner and co-founder of Bonfire Agency, included Bonfire Agency founding partner Ed Catto, entertainment marketer Francis Mao, IDW Publishing CEO Ted Adams, futurist and author Rob Salkowitz, writer/producer/comic creator Grace Randolph, and Los Angeles Times director Jeff Dellinger.

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Other panels on Friday and Saturday provided opportunities to hear from comic book creators.

How I Broke into Comics

‘How I Broke into Comics’ panel.

Bob Wayne moderated a panel on “My Secret Origin, or How I Broke into Comics” which featured comic books creators Amanda Connor, Jim Lee, Greg Capullo, Jimmy Palmiotti, Gail Simone, and Scott Snyder discussing how they got started in the industry.

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Gerry Conway

Spotlight on Gerry Conway.

The spotlight session on Gerry Conway had the comics writer answering questions about his work, including the controversy surrounding his storyline in “The Amazing Spider-Man” #121-122 that resulted in the death of Gwen Stacy.

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Avengers X-Men Dr, Strange 50th

Avengers, X-Men, Dr. Strange and Sgt. Fury 50th Anniversary panel.

On Sunday, the “Avengers, X-Men, Dr. Strange and Sgt. Fury 50th” panel with Mark Waid, John Romita Jr., Brian Michael Bendis, and Roy Thomas marked the 50th anniversary of several key Marvel titles and characters.

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The Eisner Awards

The Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards.

On Friday evening, the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards honored creative achievement in comic books. The event is a major production, with its Oscar-like staging and celebrity presenters including Edward James Olmos, Chris Hardwick, and John Barrowman. The highlight of the show was when Neil Gaiman and Jonathan Ross — the comedy duo of the awards show — took over the stage.

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The Zombie Walk

The Zombie Walk.

Saturday evening brings the traditional Zombie Walk through San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter, a cosplay highlight of the weekend, with costumes ranging from the bizarrely amusing to the truly terrifying.

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Booth Signings

While Hall H proved challenging for photography this year, booth signings provided an alternative avenue for photo ops.

X-Files Signing

X-Files signing.

To get a few photos of Gillian Anderson for my friend composer Melissa Dunphy, I camped out for the X-Files signing  in the IDW booth with Anderson, series creator Chris Carter, actor Dean Haglund, comic book writer Joe Harris, and illustrator Joe Corroney.

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Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ webcast.

The Marvel booth presented a live video webcast of interviews with the cast and creators of the upcoming ABC television series, “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” In front of the camera for successive interviews were Joss Whedon and Clark Gregg; Jeph Loeb, Jeffrey Bell, Maurissa Tancharoen, and Jed Whedon; Iain De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge; and Ming-Na Wen, Chloe Bennet and Brett Dalton.

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Joss Whedon Signing

Joss Whedon signing in the Dark Horse booth.

Joss Whedon also appeared at a signing in the Dark Horse Comics booth on Sunday, where a long line of fans waited to share a few moments with the legendary writer/director.

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A More Serious Sunday

Sunday was bookended by two of the more weighty events at this year’s Con.

Anti-Bullying Summit

Anti-Bullying Summit.

Sunday morning was the Anti-Bullying Press Summit hosted by actor Chase Masterson. Speaking at the event was Carrie Goldman, author of the 2012 book “Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear,” along with “Lost Girl” actor Ksenia Solo and writer and personality Jenna Busch.

John Rogers at Con Talkback

CCI president John Rogers leads the Con Talkback session.

Each year after the last panel session on Sunday, Comic-Con holds the annual Talkback session. Comic-Con International (CCI) president John Rogers was seated at a long table listening to a litany of complaints and suggestions about the conference. The session is scheduled for one hour, but often runs much longer. It’s a rather dour way to end the Con. While many fans make a point of expressing their appreciation of the successful aspects of the event, most of conversation consists of a stream of complaints about the Hall H line, the convention center facilities, disabled access to tickets and venues, the encroaching influence of Hollywood, and many other topics.

Comic-Con International faces a difficult problem in allocating scarce resources — more people want to attend than the San Diego Convention Center can accommodate. It’s interesting to note how CCI make the inevitable tradeoffs this requires. I’m impressed by the way in which Rogers considers how the decisions of Comic-Con International will affect the long-term viability of fandom.

This year, for example, one of the myriad issues that arose concerned the process by which current attendees secure tickets for next year’s Comic-Con. Some wanted more tickets set aside for recurring attendees, suggesting a “loyalty program” for fans who have been coming a long time, “before it was such a huge event.” Rogers pointed out that CCI tries to distribute badges in the way that is “fair to the greatest majority of people.” Later, he made the point more strongly, underscoring how he didn’t want Comic-Con to follow the course he had seen taken by some science fiction conventions.

CCI President John Rogers

Comic-Con International president John Rogers.

“I started going to science fiction conventions at a certain age,” Rogers said. “You know what? That’s still the age of that entire group, because the younger generation never came along and never fell in love with it.” Rogers doesn’t want Comic-Con to follow a similar path and “go extinct, when all of us age out in a natural process.” As he stated: “I don’t want it to be like the Boston Red Socks where someone you know has to die to get a seat.”

Rogers’ focus is on the long term goal of creating an ongoing, sustainable fanbase for popular culture. He made a similar comment at the previous year’s Con Talkback in response to the inevitable complaint that “the Twilight people” have somehow ruined the Con: “I like the Twilight people. We were all young fans of something that probably wasn’t particularly good…. I sat and watched ‘Logan’s Run’ eight or nine times and I loved it as a kid. What can I say? Let us not cast stones.”

Cosplay and Conversation

Comic Book Creators

Comic cook  artists, writers, and publishers.

Throughout the event were great conversations with Anina Bennett, Tony Isabella, Erin Gray, Reggie Banister, Tony Kim, and many others.

As always, I particularly enjoyed meeting so many comic book artists, writers, and publishers.

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Cosplay

Cosplay at San Diego Comic-Con 2013.

And, of course, every day was filled with fabulous cosplay — from Galactus ready to devour planets to a woman sporting a Sharknado headdress, from professional makeup and costumes from the Cinema Makeup School to the wonderfully silly amateur outfits. One of my favorite costumes from last year — the AWESOME-O 4000 — made a return appearance. This year I was particularly fond of the charming couple dressed as George and Meg from Disney’s Paperman short film.

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For a comprehensive look at the year’s Comic-Con from my perspective, view the nearly 700 photos posted to my Flickr account: San Diego Comic-Con 2013.

San Diego Comic-Con 2013 Gillian Anderson and Chris Carter Galactus cosplay Neil Gaiman and Jonathan Ross and the Eisner Awards Ceremony The A.W.E.S.O.M.-O 4000
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Philadelphia Comic Con: Batman, Buffy and … Bath Fitter?

Wizard World Philadelphia Comic Con 2013

This past weekend’s pop culture convention in Philadelphia — officially known as Wizard World Philadelphia Comic Con — included a broad array of activities for fans of science fiction, horror and fantasy. The show also highlighted the increasingly fuzzy line between pop culture fandom and broad marketing outreach — as evidenced by the eclectic assortment of businesses hawking their wares to attendees.

Some regional comic cons concentrate on comic books, harkening back to the halcyon days of the early shows before they were focused on movies, television, and celebrity appearances. In contrast, the Philadelphia Wizard World event — one of nine sponsored by Wizard World around the U.S. — more closely follows the pattern of the large annual pop culture extravaganzas in San Diego hosted by the non-profit Comic-Con International, and in New York run by the ReedPop division of Reed Elsevier.

This weekend, the exhibition hall in the Pennsylvania Convention Center was filled with vendors of comic books, original artwork, movie posters, T-shirts and costume accessories. In Artist Alley, comic book creators displayed their artwork and chatted with fans. Panel sessions included discussions with pop culture aficionados and celebrities.

Jewel Staite and Summer Glau

While there were a few panel sessions centered on comic books, many of the larger panels focused on cult television shows such as AMC TV’s popular “The Walking Dead” and two former Joss Whedon TV series, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and the short-lived fan favorite “Firefly.” In contrast to San Diego Comic-Con’s longstanding tradition of showing exclusive clips and “sizzle reels” of forthcoming blockbusters, movie screenings at Wizard World Philly took a nostalgic look back at the late-1980s and early-1990s with Andrew McCarthy appearing at a screening of Weekend at Bernie’sand Lauren Holly hosting a showing of Dumb and Dumber.

There were also abundant opportunities for autograph signings and celebrity photo ops where, for a modest fee, fans could obtain a memento of their moment with a favorite actor or pop culture icon such as WWE wrestler John Cena.

CosplayAnd, of course, it wouldn’t be a comic con without “cosplay” — fans who stroll around the conventions and pose for photos arrayed as their favorite comic book, TV or movie characters, from Batman and Robin to blood-drenched zombies. [For a general recap of Wizard World Philadelphia Comic Con and photos from the panel sessions, celebrity sessions, and cosplay, see “Wizard World Philadelphia Comic Con: Recap and Photo Highlights.”]

One frequently-voiced criticism of the larger comic cons is their “Hollywoodization” – the growing emphasis on movies and television rather than comic books. Yet, movies have played a role at San Diego Comic-Con since the 1970s, including the world premiere of The Golden Voyage of Sinbad in 1974 and a pre-release presentation on Star Wars in 1976. Given the movie industry’s increasing reliance on comic book properties — from D.C. Comics’ Batman to Marvel’s The Avengers — the con’s expansion to embrace the full range of popular culture is hardly surprising. In a world awash in media crossovers, the focus is, appropriately, on the content rather than the medium.

Yet, some recent comic cons show signs of expanding well beyond the traditional realms of pop culture content. As I previously noted in Knowledge@Wharton previously [see “Consumer Brands Go Geek at Comic Con“], Chevrolet and Craftsman Tools were conspicuous at Reed-Elsevier’s New York Comic Con last October. Despite their dubious connection to the pop culture universe, both firms worked to ally their products with the geek zeitgeist, with Craftsman handing out a comic book in which the Craftsman Technician saves the Justice League with the help of the company’s Bolt-On tool system.

Norton by SymantecOn the show floor at the Wizard World Philadelphia Comic Con, the array of exhibitors stretched further beyond the usual realms of sci-fi, horror and fantasy entertainment.To promote its Norton Internet security products, Symantec had a large truck on the show floor with Superman co-branding touting ways to “discover your powers” to protect “your digital Metropolis” (that is, your computer). It’s a stretch, but one can perhaps divine a connection between video-game-playing superhero fans and the need to, as Symantec’s life-sized Superman cut-out says, “detect and overcome attacks on your digital world.”

A bit farther afield were the Rohto “cooling eye drops” being dispensed at the show. But, here again, perhaps the bleary-eyed crowd could use some eye relief after hours of video games and movie marathons.

Stranger still was the table for “Readings by Brandy,” offering “palm and tarot readings” and the ability to “answer all life questions” — including, presumably, why it made sense to have a fortune teller at a comic con.

Bath FitterBut most perplexing was the booth for bathroom remodeler Bath Fitter – complete with tub and shower surround on display. It’s difficult to see the market overlap between people looking to remodel their bathroom and the costumed superheroes and zombies who roamed the show. And, indeed, while the Superman-themed Norton/Symantec exhibit had a steady stream of people lined up to view the display, the Bath Fitter booth showed little evidence of activity.

Yet, the trend to ride the rising wave of geek chic shows little signs of slowing. Nerd culture is no longer purely the domain of the young and socially-challenged. The crowd at the con included people of all types and ages — young and old; adults, children and families. What was once a market niche is becoming mainstream. And where audiences go, business follows — and that includes comic cons, whether or not the business can claim any direct relation to popular culture.

For a photographic overview of the event, see my Flickr set:
Wizard World Philadelphia Comic Con 2013.

Summer Glau Stan Lee Dr. Strange cosplay Michael Rooker Iron Man cosplay

This article also appears in a slightly different form in Knowledge@Wharton, “Philadelphia Comic Con: Batman, Buffy and … Bath Fitter?.”

 

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Philadelphia Comic Con: Recap and Photo Highlights

Wizard World Philadelphia 2013 Montage

This past weekend, Wizard World Philadelphia Comic Con brought much of the razzle-dazzle of a large pop culture exhibition to the Mid-Atlantic region. While some the smaller comic cons in the area — such as Asbury Park Comic Con and the Locust Moon Comics Fest — focus on comic books and independent press publications, the Wizard World event follows the style, if not quite the scale, the major U.S. cons held in San Diego (hosted by the non-profit Comic-Con International) and New York (run by the ReedPop division of Reed Elsevier).

Stan Lee at Wizard World Philadelphia 2013

Q&A with Stan Lee.

Wizard World Philadelphia Comic Con included the full spectrum of con activity: fans in superhero costumes, an exhibition hall filled with vendors of comic books and pop culture wares, comic book creators displaying their artwork, and panel sessions on popular science fiction and horror television programs. While the panels may not have had the Hollywood star power of San Diego Comic Con, the smaller scale had its charms. On Friday evening, you could walk in at the last minute to grab a seat at the Q&A session with notable Marvel Comics impresario Stan Lee.

Firefly panel at Wizard World Philadelphia 2013

“Firefly” panel.

Unlike most other cons at San Diego and New York, Wizard World cleared the auditorium before the more popular panels, such as for “The Walking Dead” and “Firefly.” While this forced a difficult decision on those who wanted to see both, it avoided the problem of fans being completely locked out of the one panel they most wanted to see. (The issue of whether panel sessions should be cleared between sessions is hotly contested among con-goers and is frequently raised in the San Diego Comic-Con “talkback” sessions.)

The show floor at Wizard World Philadelphia 2013

The show floor at Wizard World Philadelphia 2013

Compared with the jammed passageways of the show floor at San Diego or New York, the spacious corridors of the exhibition hall at the Pennsylvania Convention Center allowed for comfortable browsing of comic books, artists tables, and the myriad vendors at the show. While many of the booths offered the conventional comic con fare of comic books, artwork, and pop culture tchotchkes, there were a few of surprising vendors looking to jump on the geek chic bandwagon. (For more on this, see my article in Knowledge@Wharton, “Philadelphia Comic Con: Batman, Buffy and … Bath Fitter?“)

Here are highlights from the set of 322 photos in my Flickr account from Wizard World Philadelphia Comic Con 2013:

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“Firefly” panel with Adam Baldwin, Gina Torres, Summer Glau, and Jewel Staite.

The panel session on Joss Whedon’s “Firefly” with Adam Baldwin, Gina Torres, Summer Glau, and Jewel Staite.

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Michael Rooker, Jon Bernthal, and Norman Reedus from “The Walking Dead.”

Cast members of The Walking Dead: Michael Rooker, Jon Bernthal, and Norman Reedus.

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James Marsters and Charisma Carpenter from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Spike.”

Buffyfest with James Marsters and Charisma Carpenter from Joss Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Spike.”

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Holly-Marie Combs and Brian Krause from “Charmed.”

The “Charmed” panel with Holly-Marie Combs and Brian Krause.

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“Doctor Who” panel.

The “Doctor Who” panel with  Tony Kim, Deborah Stanish, Alan Kistler, and Ken Deep.

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Stan Lee at Wizard World Philadelphia 2013.

Q&A with Marvel Comics’ Chairman Emeritus Stan Lee.

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William Shatner at Wizard World Philadelphia 2013.

Q&A with William Shatner.

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Cosplay at Wizard World Philadelphia 2013.

And, throughout the show, cosplay.

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Asbury Park Comic Con 2013

Asbury Park Comic Con 2013 - Photo by Kendall Whitehouse

New Jersey Expo Expands While Keeping Focus on Comic Books

While Comic-Con International’s WonderCon in Anaheim, CA, attracted an estimated 40,000 pop culture fans this past weekend, Asbury Park Comic Con on Saturday offered similar attractions on a smaller scale for East Coast fans.

While still modest in size, Asbury Park Comic Con (or, as it sometimes appears, “Comicon”) has grown substantially during its three-year history. After two years in a local bowling alley with a maximum capacity of 300, this year’s event moved to the larger Asbury Park Convention Hall with panel sessions held across the street at the Wonder Bar. Robert Bruce, co-founder of the Asbury Park expo, reported selling 1,400 advance tickets with an estimated equal number of tickets sold at the door the day of the show. The conference falls somewhere between the large expos like San Diego Comic-Con, New York Comic Con, and WonderCon, and the small, largely local events like Philadelphia’s Locust Moon Comics Fest.

Bruce stated that he wanted to produce a comic book convention in the spirit of “the original Phil Seuling cons from the ’70s.” As such, the focus was on comic books rather than the broader spectrum of sci-fi and horror television and movies that occupy much of the programming at the larger conventions.

"Of Clerks and Comic Book Men" panel at Asbury Park Comic Con 2013 - Photo by Kendall WhitehouseThe impact of TV and movies was not entirely absent, however. A crowded panel session featured the stars of the AMC TV reality series “Comic Book Men,” and Brian O’Halloran from the 1994 movie Clerks. The expo’s keynote speaker, Michael Uslan, is best known as the executive producer of the Batman films. Yet, comic books were central to the conversation throughout the day. The AMC TV show is, after all, a program about a comic book store, and Uslan’s journey to Hollywood started with his love of comic books.

Michael Uslan at Asbury Park Comic Con 2013 - Photo by Kendall WhitehouseIn his talk, Uslan told the tale of how a kid with “an incredible passion for superheroes, especially Batman,” became the first person to teach a college course on comic books, and later went on to write Batman stories for DC Comics, acquire the movie rights to Batman, and struggle for 10 years until he was able to bring his vision of a “dark and serious Batman” to the movie screen. It’s an inspiring tale of dedication, perseverance and a love for comic books — a story Uslan related in his autobiography (The Boy Who Loved Batman), and previously discussed with Knowledge@Wharton (see: “Movie Producer Michael Uslan on Superheroes, Comic Books and Why Hollywood Doesn’t Get It” and “The Boy Who Loved Batman: Michael Uslan’s Journey from New Jersey to Hollywood“). Yet there was added resonance in hearing him tell the tale in Asbury Park, where the young Uslan would pick up comic books at the local drug store and later, as a teen, drive his car around “the circuit,” the loop around Ocean and Kingsley avenues — directly outside the Wonder Bar where he was giving his talk.

Other panels included conversations with Al Jaffee, Mad Magazine‘s longest-running contributor famous for creating the magazine’s back-page Fold-In feature and “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions”; and artist Bob Camp, best known for his work on “The Ren & Stimpy Show.”

Allen Bellman at Asbury Park Comic Con - Photo by Kendall WhitehouseVendors on the show floor included multiple generations of comic book artists and writers. In addition to the 92-year-old Jaffee, the golden age of comic books was represented by 88-year-old Allen Bellman, who drew Captain America and the Human Torch for Timely Comics (the predecessor of Marvel Comics) in the 1940s. At the other end of the spectrum, many of the vendor tables were occupied by young self-published comic book creators and small, independent publishers. Unlike the comic cons in San Diego and New York, there were no large booths from the major comic book companies like Marvel, DC, Image, or IDW.

Co-founder Bruce seemed fine with this. “I like the oddball comics,” he said, adding that he believes the future of comics lies with indie productions — “guys with a Xerox” who publish and market their own creative content.

The vendors were generally pleased with the crowd and reported that sales were brisk. Rafer Roberts of Plastic Farm Press tweeted: “What a fun show @AsburyComicon was. I need to do some math, but I’m pretty sure this was one of my top sales days ever.”

Next year, Bruce hopes to further expand the Asbury Park Con and increase the number of panel sessions, which he feels are “essential for the fan to meet the artist.”

Asbury Park: Madam Marie's - Photo by Kendall WhitehouseIf Asbury Park Comic Con continues to grow, it may play a small role in helping to revive the area’s economy. After suffering from decades of decline — poignantly captured in songs by Bruce Springsteen — Asbury Park was struggling to gain its economic footing when super-storm Sandy dealt a devastating blow to the Jersey shore. Strolling down the boardwalk from Convention Hall, the after-effects of Sandy are still in evidence in the rows of boarded-up shops and damaged buildings. Yet there are signs of a comeback. Madam Marie’s, the fortune telling stand made famous by Springsteen’s “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy),” sports a new coat of paint. Graffiti on a nearby storm damaged storefront proclaims, “Yo, Sandy… We’ll be back!!!

“Five months ago we had one of the worst storms ever, [yet] the shore survives,” Bruce said. “The shore’s open. It’s time for people to come back.”

For a photographic overview of the event, see my Flickr set:
Asbury Park Comic Con 2013.

Asbury Park Comic Con 2013 Asbury Park Comic Con 2013 Asbury Park Comic Con 2013 Asbury Park Comic Con 2013 Asbury

This article also appears in a slightly different form in Knowledge@Wharton, “Asbury Park Comic Con Rises.”

 

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Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and the Mythical Marvel Bullpen

Best wishes to Ken -- Stan Lee, Jack Kirby

“Best wishes to Ken — Stan Lee, Jack Kirby”

The website for the Jack Kirby Museum, which honors the legendary comic book artist, somehow came across a scan I made of a page with two autographs. It’s a sheet of mid-1960s Marvel Comics stationary which says, “Best wishes to Ken” followed by the signatures of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Robert Steibel posted the image on the Museum’s website with the comment, “If anyone knows the original owner of this piece I’d love to know the story behind it.”

I’m the owner of the piece. Here’s the story behind it.

As a young lad I was — like so many others — a fan of Marvel comic books: Spider-Man, Daredevil, X-Men, The Fantastic Four, Thor, and the entire stable of Marvel characters. In addition to being fascinated by these superheroes, I was equally intrigued by the creative talent behind them: writer Stan Lee; artists Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Gene Colan, and Don Heck; inkers Joe Sinnott and Vince Colletta; and many others.

Lee and the team at Marvel were clever marketeers who created wonderful folklore about the writers and artists behind the comic book superheroes. The “Stan’s Soapbox” column written by Lee frequently contained anecdotes about the antics of the Marvel bullpen — the offices where the editors, writers, and artists brainstormed ideas and created the tales of my youth.

It seemed like a magical place. All those talented men and women trading ideas, playing pranks, goofing around — and creating great art at the same time.

When I was around 11, 12, or 13 years of age, I thought it would be great to get the autographs of this assemblage of talent. I sent a note to the address listed in the fine print at the bottom of the opening page of the comic books — 625 Madison Avenue — asking whether they could pass a piece of paper around the bullpen for the gang to sign.

I was thrilled when I received an envelope in the mail from Marvel Comics. Hurriedly opening it, my eye fell on the stationary with the two signatures. I’m now somewhat embarrassed to admit that, at first blush, I was a bit disappointed.

First, I was taken aback by how Lee had truncated my name. I had always been known by my full name, Kendall, but Stan had addressed the note to Ken. My dad, Kenneth, was known as Ken; I was Kendall.

And only two signatures? Where’s the rest of the gang? Where are Steve Ditko and Don Heck? Where are Joe Sinnott and Vince Colletta?

Years later I realized that, by the 1960s, the Marvel bullpen was largely a myth. There was a time when the artists and writers worked together in Marvel’s original offices in the McGraw-Hill building on West 42nd Street and later in the Empire State building. By the time the Marvel offices had moved to Madison Avenue, the bullpen existed principally in the tales spun by Stan Lee.

By then artists typically worked at home and stopped by the office only to drop off artwork or have a brief story conference with Lee. Sometime in the mid-1960s artist Steve Ditko stopped speaking with Lee entirely. Ditko would plot and draw his Spider-Man and Dr. Strange stories on his own and drop off the artwork for Lee to add dialog and captions.

As comics historian Blake Bell writes:

The greatest myth of Marvel Comics in the 1960s: an actual bullpen, a gang of raucous comrades, whooping it up all day in the tiny offices at 625 Madison…. Such is the charm of Marvel Comics during the “Silver Age of Comics.” Stan Lee’s hyperbole made you want to believe it all.

And believe it I did. Hence my confusion and disappointment as I stared at those two lone names on the paper.

The intervening years have greatly changed my perspective. This tattered piece of paper is now a treasured asset. Yes, it only holds two signatures, but what a pair. Stan Lee, the most influential writer/editor in comic book history, and Jack Kirby, the medium’s greatest artist.

Even Lee’s truncation of my name now seems a charming reflection of his ebullient persona. Of course Lee assumed I was being overly formal in using my full name and would personalize his response by calling me Ken. It’s classic “Smilin’ Stan” — always friendly, always jovial, always promoting his comic books and the Marvel brand.

“Best wishes to Ken — Stan Lee, Jack Kirby” on 1960s Marvel stationary. What could be more perfect?

 

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Evolutionary Innovation: Moving Hay, Barn Doors, Heavy Machinery, and Joyous Children

John Wanamaker Monorail

How Could I Remember a Monorail I Had Never Seen Before?

The former John Wanamaker store in central Philadelphia — now a Macy’s — has been a popular holiday shopping destination for over a century. The store’s center atrium features a 2,500-pound bronze eagle statue, a 1904 pipe organ, and the wonderfully retro Christmas light show. Yet the current store, while still charming and vibrant, evinces only a shadow of its former grandeur. The Wanamaker store I discovered when I first moved to Philadelphia in the 1970s included nine floors of retail space, with major departments — veritable stores within stores — dedicated to various product categories. The eighth floor housed the toy department and featured a monorail suspended from the ceiling that ferried children around the room to marvel at the toys below.

When I first saw this magical conveyance as a young adult, I was flooded with a sense of déjà vu. I recalled riding the monorail as a child many years earlier. But I didn’t grow up in Philadelphia. I had never been to John Wanamaker in my youth. I lived near Syracuse, New York, when I would have been of monorail-riding age.

As some quick research revealed, these kiddie monorails were installed in a number of department stores in major U.S. cities. In addition to the Rocket Express monorail in Philadelphia’s John Wanamaker, there was a monorail in the E.W. Edwards store in Syracuse — the monorail from my youth. There was also the Santaland Monorail at Meier & Frank in Portland, Oregon, and the Pink Pig monorail which traveled from inside the store out onto the roof of Rich’s in Atlanta, Georgia. There were kiddie monorails in the Kresge department store in Newark, New Jersey, the Herpolsheimers in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and nearly two dozen other locations.

What spurred this flurry of department store monorails? How did so many different stores around the country all install ceiling-mounted conveyances for children around the same time in the post-war era? The answer, it seems, lies in the creative expansion of a product line from a 19th century farm equipment company.

Moving Hay and Manure

Born in 1841, William Louden, the son of Irish immigrants, spent much of his youth working on his father’s farm in Iowa. Louden was reportedly a frail young man, which may have set his mind on methods to reduce the physical burden of farm work.

In 1867, Louden was awarded his first patents for devices to help workers stack and move hay. His hay carrier attached a traditional hay fork to an overhead monorail with counter-weights to make it easier to lift. In 1870, Louden started the Louden Manufacturing Works to build his labor-saving farm equipment. The depression of the 1870s hit him hard, and the business failed in 1876. Louden persisted, however, constructing his equipment and traveling from farm to farm to demonstrate its benefits. In 1892, Louden, along with his brother Robert and an investor named J. C. Fulton, founded the Louden Machinery Company in Fairfield, Iowa.

One of the company’s most enduring inventions was a revolutionary barn door mechanism introduced in 1895. By adding wheels to hang barn doors on a railing, the heavy doors could be slid open and closed with relative ease. “Louden’s Everlasting Barn Door Hanger — It Runs on a Rod” declared an early advertisement. Most modern barn doors still use some version of the Louden system.

Louden Litter CarrierThe Louden Machinery Company found other uses for its rail-and-wheel mechanisms, including facilitating the unpleasant task of hauling manure from inside the barn to a waiting wagon for transporting it to the fields. The Louden Machinery Company was awarded a patent on these manure haulers, which were euphemistically called “litter carriers.”

Louden’s rail-based transport mechanism continued to be applied to new applications. In 1919, the company developed a monorail conveyor system, and in subsequent years the company’s technology was deployed in a wide range of applications to assist manufacturing production. According to an article in a publication of the North American Hay Tool Collector’s Association, Louden’s monorail crane system assisted the manufacture of Boeing B-29 airplanes during the Second World War and aided materials handling during the development of atomic bombs in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

Riding the Litter Carrier

louden-carrier-hopper-640x524In the July 2005 issue of Farm Collector magazine, A. Clyde Eide recounts the tale of how, as a young boy on his grandfather’s farm in northern Illinois, he was fascinated by the Louden manure carrier that ran from inside his family’s barn to a post 80 feet outside. He was so intrigued that one day, when the adults were otherwise occupied, Eide and his two cousins decided to give each other rides on the monorail conveyance. Things went well until all three children climbed into the hopper together and got stuck when the device came to halt at a location too high to jump to the ground. The frightened children remained swaying in the manure carrier until Eide’s uncle Everitt finally heard their cries for help.

Apparently the notion that the Louden rail-and-wheel system could be used to transport children occurred to others as well. Sometime after the Second World War, monorail trains began appearing in toy sections of department stores around the U.S.

An article on Louden published by the Jefferson County Trails Council of Fairfield, Iowa, questions whether the finished monorail system was manufactured by Louden or another company such as Rocket Express Systems (which is credited in an 1950 article in The Billboard — the “Amusement Industry’s Leading Newsweekly” — as building the first outdoor kiddie monorail). But it is likely that Louden technology was the basis for these department store rides. A December 24, 2002, article in the The Portland Tribune describes the Santaland monorail at Meier & Frank as a “Louden Supertrack monorail” and states that it is the “only survivor of 26 such conveyances built in Fairfield, Iowa.”

And, indeed, Acco (self-described as “a company for the 21st century“) — which was formerly the American Chain and Cable Company and a descendant of the Louden Machinery Company — still sells the Louden SuperTrack, “the pioneer heavy-duty monorail track section” which is “ideal for non-electrified monorail and crane systems with loads up to two tons.”

While most of these post-war monorails have long ceased operation, the Wanamaker monorail was saved from destruction and is currently on display at Philadelphia’s Please Touch Museum.

There’s something charming about a location-specific childhood memory that is shared by many others across the country — all from a 19th century technological breakthrough that became a source of continuous innovation in transporting hay, barn doors, manure, heavy machinery, and joyous children during the holiday season.

The image of the Wanamaker monorail is from the Temple University Libraries Urban Archives (via Humanities magazine). It is believed that the use of a web-resolution screenshot for identification and critical commentary qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law. The images of the Louden litter carrier are believed to be from a U.S. publication prior to 1923 and in the public domain.

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Locust Moon Comics Fest: Philly’s Indie Comic Con

Locust Moon Comics Fest 2012

J.G. JonesThis past Sunday, Philadelphia’s Locust Moon Comics & Movies hosted their first annual Comics Festival at the Rotunda in West Philadelphia. Unlike many of the larger comic cons, which are chiefly focused around mainstream comics and popular culture, the Locust Moon fest carries on the tradition of the former Philadelphia Alternative Comic Con in showcasing “alternative/fringe/indie/art comics and zines.” As such, much of the event’s vibe — in addition to the physical layout — was reminiscent of the Philly Zine Fest held a few months earlier at the same venue.

Although many of the tables at the Fest were occupied by comics creators who self publish their works, the event also included industry professionals working for traditional media outlets. Nationally syndicated comic strip artist Terry LaBon was in attendance as was artist J.G. Jones, who is currently illustrating The Comedian for D.C.’s “Before Watchmen” series.

For a photographic overview of the event, see my Flickr set:
Locust Moon Comics Festival 2012

Skuds McKinley Carolyn Belefski and Joe Carabeo Little Baby's Ice Cream Rafer Roberts Terry LaBan
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