By Hannah Means-Shannon

Wizard World Philadelphia Comic Con is no New York Comic Con at the Javits center. It doesn’t operate on such a massive scale as NYCC and its successes over time have been fairly mixed, often giving the general impression that cosplay and celebrity signings were the focus rather than comics. Artists’ alley has, in the past, felt particularly neglected, but this year advertising seemed to promise a greater commitment to comics fans. Some of the quirkier aspects of the con immediately apparent to ticketholders included loud techno music, the sale of alcoholic drinks on the floor itself, and prominently displayed superhero kitsch such as the newly released Avengers line of distinctive colognes and the dominating four-color DC Comics themed bikinis. If you were wondering where these products, touted online by Marvel and DC in recent months, would ever be sold, you have your answer: Philly, of course.

The most impressive thing about the con, however, was the undercurrent of irascible comics creators making their presence known and staking their claim in this peculiar pop-culture no man’s land. FUBAR, for instance, is a highly collaborative comics enterprise with multiple artists and writers working together to produce a theme-linked volume. These are zombie war comics that convey stories of zombie attacks during major wars with an American focus. FUBAR appear at Comic Cons with their full “bling” of wartime tent and semi-costume and they use the internet to sell sketches, all to finance their three published volumes.  Their anthology format can act as a “revolving door” for comics creators in a good way, bringing in contributions from a wide array of artists and writers who are able to do single chapters without committing to the pressures of a whole series. One very clever feature of the bound volumes are sketch boxes available to “collect” work by each contributing artist in said volume, encouraging fans to attend cons and signings and attempt to get a complete “set” of sketches in each book.

The FUBAR format and aesthetic is highly idiosyncratic, and if you’ve ever picked up a FUBAR book, you’ll remember it and recognize it when you see it again. It’s a happy combination of necessities that have helped form the FUBAR brand. The volumes appear in “manga digest” size despite being in comics panel format. They print in black and white to keep the costs down but do careful work with grayscale to bring depth to the images. Editor Jeff McComsey feels that this disparate group, including  Dominic Vivona and Steve Becker, has one facility in common: they can all “do everything” in terms of writing, art processing, and finishing touches, so they are never short-staffed in times of need. This is the kind of versatility that keeps an indie title running during tough times.

Writers Frank Barbiere and Matt Rosenberg manned a table to support their own comics branding. For Frank this is Atlas Incognita and for Matt, this is Ashcan Press.
Both have delved pretty deeply into self-publishing. Frank’s recommended strategies for aspiring indie comics makers are to complete projects at all costs, on your own if necessary, and show the comics market that you are capable of following through. He advises a new comics creator to be prepared to pitch consistently and wear “many hats” if you are self-published, from marketing to hiring collaborators. Like Frank, who comes from a film backgrond, Matt Rosenberg also comes to comics from another artistic field. He used to run his own record label and frankly, found it a lot easier a job than writing indie comics but he learns all he can about the industry by working at a comic store while pursing several writing projects.

Frank and Matt were actually encouraged to represent their work by being given gratus table space as the Philadelphia Con attempts to grow the show. They have banded together as friends partly because they find themselves at odds with familiar comics categories. They are not mainstream superhero comics writers, but nor do they fit with the broader spectrum of indie comics, known these days for its autobiographical content. Their work is more typical of “genre” categories of storytelling and may represent an increasing need for genre promotion within indie comics, as evinced by FUBAR. While genre comics are clearly appealing to fans and catch the eye of con attendees, they seem harder to market to publishers. Only by sheer dint of will and a kind of insistence on their own existence do they reach their well-disposed fan-base.

Avatar Press, always an enthusiastic and well-organized staple of cons both small and large, was a font of exciting new developments and forthcoming work. Alan Moore’s 1984-written, yet unpublished, series Fashion Beast will reputedly be coming out in 2013. Ferals, a series “like Trueblood” but exclusively featuring werewolves, is top of their newbie list right now, featuring David Lapham of Crossed, Caligula, and Stray Bullets, and newcomer Gabriel Andrade. Crossed, which has been going strong since its 2011 release, now also features exclusive free webcomics on the model of Warren Ellis and Paul Duffield’s smash hit Freakangels. Keith Davidsen was also happy to talk about the up and coming Bleeding Cool Magazine, now in issue 0, slated for regular distribution in the autumn.

The Philadelphia Comic Con had a climate at ease with the realities of the commercial aspects of popular consumerism. It was a little more honest than some conventions about the connections between a batman bikini, a Star Trek photo op and the driven comics creators forging away at self-publication out of sheer devotion and personal vision. The boundaries between these mass-marketed cultural products and indie comics is not something you can clearly demarcate, but that doesn’t mean you have to “smell like an Avenger” if that’s not your thing. You could patiently collect all 17 tiny artist cameos in the back of a FUBAR collection instead, for example. These kinds of cons are all about personal options and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

–by Hannah Means-Shannon, @HannahMenzies on Twitter

Hannah Means-Shannon is a comics scholar and medievalist who has published articles on the works of Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Grant Morrison in the International Journal of Comic Art, Studies in Comics, the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, reference books, and upcoming essay collections. She is working on her first book for Sequart Research and Literacy Organization about Neil Gaiman, blogs about Alan Moore for Sequart, and teaches at Georgian Court University in New Jersey.