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Comics and Digital Culture in the Emerald City

Column by Rob Salkowitz

Published: 03/24/2014 04:09pm
The first big show of the 2014 Con season, Emerald City Comic-Con points the way forward for geek culture in many different ways.

This Friday is the start of the Emerald City Comic Convention (ECCC) in Seattle, now entering its twelfth year.  The show is sold out in advance for the first time and is expecting upwards of 65,000 people, making it the first really big comics show of the season and a prime destination for the west coast fan and pro community.

It’s also my hometown show, one I’ve attended each year from the first (in the modest surroundings of the Qwest Field Plaza) to the most recent, when a year-to-year attendance jump of more than 10,000 exposed some noticeable growing pains.  This year, ECCC has maxed out its venue, the two-block, four-story Washington State Convention Center, increased the size of the exhibit hall, and added new programming tracks, celebrity appearances and multimedia events, although organizers insist it remains a comics show at its core.

Diverse Demographics.  Even before ECCC became a full-fledged member of the major league con circuit in North America, it was always an interesting regional show. Attendance at the Con over the years has always reflected a broad demographic mix, with a strong element of techies, hipsters, steampunks, makers and  other "nerd-adjacent" subcultures intermingling with traditional comic, gamer, manga/anime and cosplay types long before this became the norm at bigger cons.

It’s also a crowd open to less commercial, non-mainstream work, as opposed to the superhero-first audience you’d get at other comic-centric events of this scale.  Small presses and independent creators are well represented on the show floor and the program schedule, as befits a convention staged on the home turf of Fantagraphics. Portland, another hotspot of comics creativity (must be all the rain...) sends a large delegation up I-5 for the weekend, led by Dark Horse and its full slate of events, creator appearances and programming.

The Digital Show.  Seattle is also a center of the high tech industry, home to Microsoft, Amazon, Nintendo and a burgeoning community of feisty startups.  Besides the institutional interest from those companies, the cubicle farms of South Lake Union and Redmond are occupied by well-paid, well-connected pop culture fans who line up in their tens of thousands for a first-tier con experience in their own back yard.

The programming schedule is packed with events appealing to tech-oriented fans, including lots of panels about digital comics, games, apps and digital illustration and f/x design. Amazon is debuting its Jet City imprint here, for example.  Forward-looking companies are increasingly seeing ECCC as the "digital show" in the same way that San Diego is the Hollywood show and New York is the publishing show.

Comics and digital culture.  One part of that trend is a new program track called "Comics and Digital Culture" that I’ve developed with ECCC in conjunction with the University of Washington Communication Leadership (CommLead) program.  The goal of the series is to put the spotlight on some of the most interesting trends and people extending comics as both an art and a business in the digital realm.

This new program will depart from the traditional con panel format and feature the speakers giving 20-25 minute solo presentations in the format of TED Talks, followed by Q&A.  There are four sessions running Saturday afternoon 1-5pm.

It’s also an experiment for the UW CommLead program, a professional, graduate-level department that is interested in comics for their role in the evolution of communications, storytelling and media, rather than the traditional academic focus on their literary, artistic, historical or sociological qualities.

Ted, Not TED.  OK, it sounds a little pretentious, but the Comics and Digital Culture series is meant to appeal to fans and creators as well as some of those "nerd-adjacent" audiences who deal with media and communications issues for a living.  The lineup reflects a combination of business and creative innovators with some interesting stories to tell, including:
  • Ted Adams, Publisher/CEO of IDW Publishing, talking about comics as the center of a larger media universe, and introducing IDW’s new cross-media story V-Wars, created by Jonathan Maberry.
  • Allison Baker, co-publisher of the digital imprint Monkeybrain Comics. Her session, called "Springboard to Oblivion?  The Promise and Peril of Digital Comics for Independent Creators," explores how creators can get noticed and make a living in the free-for-all digital publishing world.
  • Yen Yen Woo and Colin Goh, co-creators of the bilingual manga app Dim Sum Warriors, who will showcase how interactive comic apps can become powerful tools for education without compromising the entertainment value of story, art and humor.
  • Liam Sharp, fan-favorite artist and chief creative officer for Madefire, who will talk about how digital elements like motion, interactive navigation and sound design enhance and influence the storytelling power of comics.
Future of Geek Culture?  One reason ECCC is such an ideal place to talk about the future of comics is because the show itself looks like the future of comics--at least the one that I call "The Expanding Multiverse."  Supportive of creators and celebrities alike, embracing the broadest conception of styles and subjects from indie work to mainstream superheroes, self-consciously diverse and inclusive in its conception of fandom, ECCC and shows like it represent a sustainable path forward for geek culture in an age of super-saturation and sensory overload.  Plus, it’s a load of fun.

The 2014 con season kicks off on Friday, and hopefully will kick Peak Geek up another notch.  If you’re there, come say "hi," Saturday afternoon, room 204!

Rob Salkowitz (@robsalk) is author of Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture and is curating a speaker series on "Comics and Digital Culture" at Emerald City Comic-Con in March.

The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial staff of ICv2.com.
 
 
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