Listen: Take a scrap of paper and draw a stick figure of a man. Next to that, draw the same figure with his knees bent up, arms raised, little bubbles of sweat popping off his head. You've just drawn a comic of a man jumping, and that little imaginary jump sings to me. I taught myself to read with Peanuts and Superman comics, and besides sex, comics are probably my favorite form of communication. I've relished the attention given to graphic novels over the last two years by the New Yorker and the New York Times, almost as much as I dread the inevitable backlash that will turn them back into a dirty, shame-filled habit, like dating a cousin, and events like this convention do not help. Men (and they are mainly men) come to pay homage to superhero comic books, to celebrate an embarrassing anachronism, to speak publicly of (and thusly feel less alone in) their love of guys in tights, as though there is nothing to be embarrassed about.
But of course, they should feel embarrassed. Superheroes have been dying since the 1970s. After World War II, best-selling comics sold nearly a million copies a month, whereas a current hit, Ultimate Spider-Man, written by convention attendee Brian Michael Bendis, manages to sell between 90,000 and 100,000 an issue. Fan demographics are now dwindling down in the direction of the number of people who collect tiny souvenir spoons. Children and teenagers still read graphic novels, but they prefer manga, which lacks the starch of Batman or Spider-Man.
A boy of about 8 tugged on his father's sleeve at one of the many booths packed with plastic-wrapped back issues. "Look, Dad," the boy said, genuinely excited, "They have Conan comic books!" The father ignored his son, grunting in response, because he was too busy ogling a double-sized Green Lantern anniversary issue from the 1980s. The few kids in attendance seem to know that superheroes are dead and shameful, safe and dull, that they never change and they always win: The last superhero who was created to achieve longevity was Wolverine, in the mid-1970s.
The convention--Emerald City Comicon is now one of the most prominent independent comic conventions in the country--is the last stand of the fellowship who won't quit their childhood fixations: The line for Mr. Bendis never dipped below 100 people. There were excellent publishers at the convention: Seattle's own Fantagraphics and Top Shelf, notably, but their booths faced each other, off to the side, marginalized.
Saturday was by far the busiest day of the two, and as the hall filled with nearly 5,000 people by organizers' estimates, I began to feel claustrophobic. As I moved through the aisles of musty old issues, a woman backed up into me. Her buttocks were the size of toddlers, side by side, sewn into the seat of her pants, and they pressed across my stomach, and there was nothing for a moment but the smell of ass, and the feeling of my own hangover crawling back up my gullet.
After recovering in the bathroom, I noticed a young man in a black trench coat dressed as Doctor Octopus, the bad guy from Spider-Man 2. He had affixed to his trench coat "tentacles" made out of soda cans duct-taped end to end, and a Doctor Octopus action figure was sewn onto his hat. Each of the four tentacles extended about four feet out from his waist, and for most of the convention he wrestled with his own robot limbs, staggering from booth to booth, humbly accepting compliments on his outfit from awed fanboys. I became discouraged by the tender humanity of the image, the man felled by his own wardrobe, and I wondered if anyone could possibly interpret it as heroic.