Con and On Review

By | Wednesday, May 15, 2024 Leave a Comment
While the individual issues of Con ∓ On came out last year -- and I somehow managed to miss hearing about it at all -- the collected edition reprinting all five issues was published in late March from Ahoy Comics. The story follows several different people connected in various ways to the comics community as they attend the Vista Al Mar Comics Festival over the course of several decades, starting in 1992 and wrapping up in 2022. Every year, the positions and connections with comics have changed and readers get to see their lives play out as both they and the industry at large grow in unexpected ways.

Well, I say "unexpected" but it's clear writer Paul Cornell is drawing on his first-hand experiences in comics over that period. While the individual character paths may be unexpected, the comics industry seems to play out pretty much identically to what we've actually seen over the past few decades with comics as a whole being derided by most everyone to a powerful (i.e. money-making) industry that seemingly everyone is trying to tap into. If you've been a comics fan since the early 1990s or earlier, you'll see a lot that looks familiar.

The story touches on any number of aspects of the industry, many of which didn't get much attention until years after the fact. Creators who shafted former friends, editors harassing (or worse) women trying to get into the industry, outright dismissal of anyone not expressly focused on superheroes, the perennial "women in comics" panel, the "surprise" from publishers that webcomics are a thing... While I've seen the story referred to as a "love letter" to comics conventions and, while it is that, it's an honest one that doesn't sugar-coat the uglier parts of them.

I liked that we storytelling setup here. Each chapter is a different convention and we're just presented with vignettes of whatever's going on with the various characters. Some are, at first, young enough that they have to be brought to the convention by their parents and eventually grow old enough to bring their own kids. Others are grizzled industry veterans who pass away during the course of the overall story. And there's plenty in between as we see a number of folks grow (and trash!) their careers in the process. Jumping back and forth between all of them gives both a sense of energy larger conventions have, and it also showcases just how many different perspectives there are at a single show. Everybody attends with their own agenda, and we see many of them on display. Again, no doubt based on first-hand experiences Cornell witnessed.

That was one thing I found a little odd about the book, though. Not bad, really, but something that caught my attention early on and I found it a little distracting every time I encountered it. Namely, that the story makes the disinction between fact and fiction very blurry. Like, there are any number of references to real people and events. One of the main characters has some direct interactions with Roz Kirby, one of the actors that attends the con is expressly cited as having played a Romulan in a fifth season episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (with a later cameo on Star Trek Discovery), Cornell himself makes a brief but notable appearance... But then there's a lot of other elements that are obviously drawn from real people and events -- ones that are immediately recognizeable as soon as they appear -- but the names are changed. In some cases, I can understand not wanting to drag real people's names in the mud posthumosusly, and I can understand wanting to dodge some sensitive topics for professional survival, but the parallels with the real world counterparts are plain. They're only disguised as much as Superman is when he puts on a pair of glasses, so why even bother? It just made for some weird mental shifts when, on one page I'm making a mental note that all references to Julius Kerunkle are actually referring to Julie Schwartz, and the next page, I'm just presented with Jack Kirby as himself. If you don't know any of the people involved, it'd be fine but I found it just distracting enough to take me out of the story in many cases.

Which makes me wonder who the book is aimed at? As I said, I found the super-insider stuff distracting when it was shifted into fiction... but I don't know if people who weren't already familiar at that level would appreciate the book in the first place. Would anyone who came to comics in, say, 2015 appreciate the vibe of a convention circa 1992? Maybe they would, I don't know, but it seems like it's all deep enough that you have to come to the book not only loving comics and the comic convention culture, but having loved that for several decades. Heck, would anyoe under 30 appreciate the first half of this at all? Maybe the shift-to-fiction stuff doesn't bother most people, or they know enough to be familiar with the '90s convention scene but not enough to know the specific personalities and stories being referenced.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Marika Cresta's artwork. I know she's got a good body of professional work out there, but I think this is the first book of hers I've actually picked up. She had one of, I think, the hardest jobs a sequential artist can be given: drawing not only the same characters over and over and making them look consistent, but drawing them at several different ages and making them look like the-same-person-but-older every time. An insanely challenging job that she seeme to handle with ease. Not to mention that she's regularly having to show the huge convention crowds and packed after-parties, and just a lot of busy details all over the place. Plus making the story move along smoothly? Excellent job on the artwork all around!

That fiction-shifting aside, I actually rather enjoyed it. I think it does indeed capture the spirit of comic cons over the years; I've been watching the changes myself since the mid-1980s and everything shown in the book felt familiar and true. I suspect that if you're popping over to read through my blog in the first place, you'll probably appreciate Con ∓ On but I can't vouch for a wide audience appeal. The trade paperback collection, as I said, came out in March and retails for $17.99 US.
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