Field Notes from Denver Comic Con 2015

Fiction Unbound went to its first Comic Con last weekend, and our Unbound contributors are here to talk cosplay, comics artists, and the special salience of our nerdiest literary medium.

Unbound Writers Lisa Mahoney, CS Peterson, CH Lips and Theodore McCombs attend Denver's 2015 Comic Con with Comic-Com-patriots, William Haywood Henderson, Nancy Graham and Jennifer Siebert.  Photo: William Haywood Henderson  © 2015  

Unbound Writers Lisa Mahoney, CS Peterson, CH Lips and Theodore McCombs attend Denver's 2015 Comic Con with Comic-Com-patriots, William Haywood Henderson, Nancy Graham and Jennifer Siebert.  Photo: William Haywood Henderson © 2015 

Christie Lips, Comic Con Virgin No More

Waiting for the doors to open on 2015 Denver Comic Con. Photo: William Haywood Henderson  © 2015.

Waiting for the doors to open on 2015 Denver Comic Con. Photo: William Haywood Henderson © 2015.

This year I finally embraced my inner geek and rode forth from the suburbs on Denver’s light-rail steed to attend Comic Con 2015. My first experience on this fantastical journey occurred on the train as a caped, booted and waxy-bearded cosplay artist instructed some young apprentices on how to “weather” their costumes and weapons to add just the right touch of realism. (Yes, I had to look up cosplay.)

The train’s final approach revealed an endless line snaking round the Convention Center—multitudes of Black Widows, Groots, Wolverines and Wonder Women stood beside moms, dads and kids, more subdued, but still joining in the spirit of all things Con, wearing t-shirts with Captain America or Star Wars or Pokemon logos. I was definitely in the minority, my badge the only visible sign of Comic-Con-ness. Over the long weekend, despite rain, hail and tornado watches, Denver Comic Con would host 101,500 attendees. 

There was so much to do! New things I’d never considered, like Sci-Fi Speed Dating and learning how to be a Cosplay Minion. In the Exhibition Hall I could pose on the Iron Throne, watch comic book artists at work and try on steampunk hats. And the things Legos can do these days! Who knew?

For those with a literary bent of mind as we are at Fiction Unbound, there were literary panels. I learned about "Anti-Heroes in Gritty Worlds" and "Strong Women in Film and Fiction," but bailed on "Post-Modern Mythology" when a young gent on the panel got preachier than I could tolerate in the over-heated room. Meeting Robin Childs, Denver’s local comic-book artist, was the highlight of my day. Like me, she had abandoned an ill-chosen career in engineering to pursue her art. Check out her work at

For the 2016 Denver Comic Con, a cosplay competition is a must. I plan to observe, but who knows, maybe I’ll get crazy, do a little cosplay myself. Those steampunk accessories are pretty freaking groovy. 

Groovy steampunk attire. Photo:   KyleCassidy  .   CC BY-SA 3.0

Groovy steampunk attire. Photo: KyleCassidyCC BY-SA 3.0

Lisa Mahoney Meets Joëlle Jones, Comics Illustrator (and Writer by Necessity) 

In advance of the Con, I read 12 Reasons Why I Love Her and You Have Killed Me, graphic novels written by Jamie S. Rich, illustrated by Joëlle Jones and published by Oni Press. I also read the first four Lady Killer comics, written and illustrated by Joëlle Jones under the Dark Horse imprint. When I met Joëlle at her artist booth, I asked if she was excited to be writing as well as illustrating. She answered she’d pitched Lady Killer to Dark Horse really because she hadn’t been illustrating the material she wanted to work with, so she wrote it herself. She sometimes asks Jamie S. Rich for advice about dialogue.

The result is a hip and graphically retro style. Lady Killer tells the story of a heroine who is the only unusual member of her family: she's an assassin. There are suspicious grouchy mothers-in-law, back-stabbing bosses, and gossipy neighbors, but Josie will survive by whatever means necessary while she keeps her house tidy, her girls happy, and her husband in the dark. 

The graphic novel 12 Reasons Why I Love Her consists of twelve snapshots of a failed relationship and showcases Jones's playful style. On the page shown here, we follow the lovers arguing as they jump across rocks in a stream. The first time through, I read all the dialogue bubbles from top to bottom on both pages, following convention instead of following the pair over the rocks from one page to the next. I realized I’d still understood the argument because there was nothing the girl could say that was going to make the guy forgive her. Not that she was really asking for that.

This got me thinking about dialogue in general. When two characters are determined to say what they intend to say, no matter how the partner replies, then the points the characters make in a conversation can jumble because nothing resolves. Each character is so bent on getting their way that neither is swayed. This insight would be harder to notice on a linear, "one-dimensional" page of a novel. 

12 Reasons Why I Love Her , written by Jamie S. Rich and illustrated by Joëlle Jones, published by Oni Press.

12 Reasons Why I Love Her, written by Jamie S. Rich and illustrated by Joëlle Jones, published by Oni Press.

Theodore McCombs, on the Fierce Urgency of Adventure

I was supposed to go to panels; it's the respectable thing to do at a Con, isn't it? I had every intention of doing so, but I dawdled on the convention floor, browsing Golden Age titles and wondering whether to pay $40 for a picture with Lou Ferrigno. (I'm more of a Cap guy, as you can see.) I did go to the panel on sidekicks, but I read Ms. Marvel instead of listening.

One panel, at least, was excellent. "From Tonto to Super Indian: The Rise of the Native Superheroes," with Native American writers/artists Arigon Starr and Lee Francis IV of INC Comics and Native Realities, traced Native characters through comics history, drawing on Michael A. Sheyahshe's excellent critical study. Native American characters written by non-Native authors have had a decidedly mixed run, from the heroic but often cringeworthy Tonto, to racist messes like Scalphunter (wtf?), to more three-dimensional heroes like the X-Man Forge, whose mutant power amazingly has nothing to do with eagles, tracking (*ahem* Warpath), or vague close-to-nature-y-ness. The panel then turned to current, Native-authored titles like Starr and Francis's Super Indian and the forthcoming Pueblo Jones.

Both panelists expressed special impatience with the trope of the lost Indian, whether in the form of the vanishing noble savage of Last of the Mohicans or the modern, irretrievably tragic victim of injustice, mired in alcoholism and poverty. Comics, as a medium, provide a special opportunity for Native-American creators to show Native characters having adventures, having power and having fun. Literary fiction carries the weight of a studious realism, which can obligate Native authors such as Louise Erdrich and Sherman Alexie to tackle the grim fruits of centuries of injustice—important, excellent work. But comic books are obligated to be exciting, enjoyable, addictive above all. So Pueblo Jones tackles the looting of indigenous art, but via a heroic archaeologist who repatriates artifacts. Super Indian battles a vampire Blud Kwan'Tum, who wants to become 'full Indian' by collecting the blood of others. These stories can stay honest about challenge, without being "terminally sincere," as CS Peterson put it. Despair can be a supervillain for a group that is too frequently remembered as extinct, and supervillains demand superheroes. 

CS Peterson, on Tropes and Trope-Busting in Comics

This was also my first Comic Con ever and it surpassed my every expectation. We spotted inventive cosplay interpretations of every franchise, including complete sets of Borderlands and BioShock characters, flocks of secure men sporting Jayne hats and flouncy prom-dress interpretations of both a TARDIS and a steampunk Dalek. I attended several panels—especially those on the literary track—and they were quite engaging, although I did read most of Ms. Marvel over Ted’s shoulder.

Kagagi: The Raven  , by Jay Odjick.

Kagagi: The Raven, by Jay Odjick.

Panelists discussed what we love about Anti-Heroes—as long as they're good at what they do, we don’t seem to mind so much if they are psychopaths; Sidekicks—their mission is the interpretation of the protagonist to the reader; and Native American Artists—we’ve gone way beyond Frybread Man, so in addition to the titles Ted mentioned, check out Kagagi: The Raven, the Anishinabe superhero authored by Algonquin artist Jay Odjick.

Comics and the worlds they inspire are often defined by tropes that prompt their dismissal as a lowbrow medium. There is rampant stereotyping, objectification and gravity-defying female bosoms [ed.: check out this horror], not to mention all-male panels discussing ‘Women in Comics.’ But these tropes have a bright side. They allow a frank revelation of the prejudices of dominant culture that other, perhaps more subtle, polite media do not. At the same time, the possibility of exploring diverse characters in diverse roles is more acceptable because of the boundary-pushing that's the most enjoyable part of comics. Plus, good comics are always fun. Get your hands on Ms. Marvel, Lady Killer and Kagagi. Good clean, trope-busting fun!

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