This Weekend - Baltimore Comic-Con: Talking to Marc Nathan
by Matt Brady
Date: 26 September 2008 Time: 06:31 AM ET
This Weekend - The Baltimore Comic-Con
This weekend, if you’re looking for the comic book convention of fall, you’re looking at the Baltimore Comic Con, operated and organized by Marc Nathan.Now in its ninth year, the Baltimore Con is seen by many pros and fans as the final major convention of the season (which began with Wonder Con in February) and as a result, carries with it an after prom flavor – it’s nowhere near the size of a San Diego, therefore it’s much more laid back, and accessibility to pros isn’t a huge issue. Plus – if you’re going, go ahead and look for a media starlet. Seriously, give it a try. Nope – this is a comic book show. Plus, Baltimore’s Inner Harbor is only a few blocks away from the convention center, with loads of restaurants and bars where getting crabs is an expected part of the evening (not in a bad romantic decision kind of way). This year, the two-day show kicks off tonight, with Jim Lee throwing out the first pitch at nearby Camden Yards, which is seeing the Orioles host the Toronto Blue Jays. And of course, the Harvey Awards are being presented at a dinner and ceremony Saturday evening.
Seriously – it’s a good time. With the kickoff (yes, a very bad sports pun which only reinforces stereotypes of comic book fans) a little over 12 hours away, we spoke with Marc Nathan to take a look inside this year’s show. Newsarama: Marc, catching up on the Baltimore Comic Con’s age – how many years is this for you? Marc Nathan: This is number nine. NRAMA: And the streak of bad luck is over – no more shooters, no hurricanes…and people who are new to the Baltimore show are wondering what we’re talking about… MN: [laughs] Yeah – it’s all old news. NRAMA: Nine years in, what’s scheduling and setting up like for you? Is it routine, if that’s a word I can get away with saying, or is every year like a brand new show? MN: Every show feels like it’s all new, because I add a new challenge. Whatever I’m accustomed to doing, I feel like I’ve got to add something to it – or rather, I don’t feel like I have to, something just gets added. It’s not even like a sense of trying to top it – there are only so many hours in the day, and if you know that pieces of the show are going to be handled by other people, I tend to start looking around for other things to do and add in. That’s what it is – we add another feature, because we’re accustomed to doing it. If you have a routine, and you know how much you can do, and you know when and how it’s going to get done, you can pace yourself to add something else. NRAMA: So what’s the new thing added in this year? MN: We have more publishers this year than we’ve ever had, which is striking. We’ve added a Baltimore Orioles game…even though we’ve gotten tickets in the past and given them away, this is a bigger endeavor than we’ve ever tried with them. That was actually easy to do, but long. Every step of the way was another question from them – they didn’t quite know how to work with us, and there were a lot of obstacles that came when you deal with a company that works with so many other outside sponsorships. Everything had to be approved and checked off, and what you and I would think of as simple decisions would take a week to make their way through all the proper channels of the organization. But it all worked out, and it’s all happening. Everyone was easy to work with and very willing to make things work out, but it took perseverance. But it all worked out for the best – it’s going to be a fun night. Especially when Jim bounces the ball five times before it gets near the plate. NRAMA: Are you saying Jim has a rubber arm? MN: [laughs] My warning to him is – no matter what you think you can do, if you don’t practice, it’s easy to mess up. It’s not easy with people watching, and that distance from the pitcher’s mound to home plate can stretch on a little longer than you may remember it from the last time you were at a baseball field. NRAMA: You spoke with us earlier this year when we spoke to convention organizers about gas and economics. With your show imminent, are you getting any sense that they may have to pass on the show? MN: Not really. A few months ago, when we spoke and it was all really new, yeah, I think it was more on people’s minds, so we’re not as upset to be paying $3.80 for a gallon of gas as we were when the prices were going up every single day. Also, something that’s helping us is that the Orioles are “only” playing the Blue Jays this weekend. In the past few years, we’ve been playing the Red Sox or the Yankees, and that made Baltimore a lot more expensive to get in and out of. So, in the past two years, good hotel rooms were $400-$500 dollars. This year, with a new Hilton hotel and the other hotels, along with the fact that the Orioles are limping to the finish line, and the Blue Jays don’t even draw in Toronto, let alone in Baltimore…the hotels are softer this year. That could be from the economy as well – maybe not as many people are traveling, period. But regardless, if you’re coming to the show this year, and staying in town, it’s, or it should be cheaper this year – except for gas. NRAMA: Along with Heroes Con and only a couple of other shows, Baltimore is a convention that keeps comics as the center focus. As comic books are reaching further and further into other media, do you feel the pressure to open the doors to other media exhibitors? MN: I’ve always said that I would do it if it made sense, and I never said that I wouldn’t do it. I’ve wanted to build a very large audience of people coming through the doors that have one focus, and that’s what we buy, sell and read. When that is built, then I think you can do other things. But the retailers and the guests have got to have a fantastic weekend to start. You’ve got to build your cake first, and then put the frosting on it. The truth is, if we have a movie star or whatever media guest, they’re there for a select group of fans, and they’re there for padding the attendance so the promoter makes more money. That’s what it’s all about. By and large, the people who are there to see the media guest are not going to stop by and pick up comics at the retail booths. Well, maybe – but I’ve been doing enough shows to know that it really doesn’t happen that way. When it does, you’re shocked. You’re happy, but you’re shocked. But these days, you might find guests who came for the media guest hunting down the Watchmen trade. But then, you’ve got to be smart about it and have them there. I did Pittsburgh years ago when they had Mick Foley there as a guest. This was at the height of “Mick Foley,” and they had a line around the entire convention center floor, and as soon as he was gone, those people were gone too. From my perspective, if having that guest there meant that ticket prices were cheaper and booth prices were cheaper, or at least didn’t go up from year to year, then it was a good thing. But I don’t recall selling anything to any one of those people who were there to see Mick Foley. I’m not opposed to opening the doors to media guests and all the rest, but I want my core audience to be there, and keep coming back year after year. But it’s not something I’m going to sit down and plan. That said though, I think we do have a “celebrity” guest this year. NRAMA: Who’s that? MN: As you know Abrams has been publishing comic material in book format - Nat Turner for Kyle Baker, the beautiful Kirby book, and they have more planned. I think they’re doing a really good job with the stuff they put out. Among their titles is Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney, who was nominated for eight Harvey Awards – by the nature of who he is and what he does, he’s outside the box in terms of comic professionals. I’ve been told by Abrams that we can expect thousands of ten year old boys. When I was talking to them about Jeff, they said, “Marc, this is our Jim Lee.” Sure enough – the response for him has been pretty heavy. We’d already worked with librarians and schoolteachers already, so they kind of knew about him, but I’m not sure what’s going to happen. If Abrams says “thousands” and it’s actually a hundred – that’s still great. If a hundred ten year old kids come through the door because of this guy, that’s a great guest. NRAMA: Speaking of that demographic, you always do a lot with outreach, particularly to younger readers via the Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts. Have you done that again this year? MN: Yes – and that’s what I was talking about earlier – you know what you’re doing, so you do it, and you do some more on top of it. After you do something like that a number of times, the paths are already there, and it’s quicker to set up, so you can make time to do other things. That stuff with the troops is already happening – it’s organic now. It frees me up so they can go ahead and do it with the Scouts, and I can go and find the next grass roots thing, which is really the most rewarding thing of what I do. Buying TV ads and print ads – that’s necessary, but it’s not as rewarding as watching that Cub Scout troop walk through the door. NRAMA: Another thing that we always talk about when we have these annual chats – is Baltimore closer to being a three day show this year? You always seem on the verge of pulling the trigger. MN: [laughs] But I’d need a new staff if we did that. It’s possible. Last year, we went to a larger space, and it worked. Trust me – when you add that much square footage, you get scared. It looked great, and I was really happy with it. This year, though, we’re back to our two halls that we’ve had in all the years previous. We could be scrunched up, which could be a good thing or a bad thing… But there’s nothing to read into that, other than these were the only halls available. The convention center is going to be full on our weekend, so it was this or not at all. Next year, just to confuse everybody, we’re back to the three halls we had last year, just because they were available. That said, right now, instead of three days, I’d like to try to be as inclusive and have as many people that want to be there first – that’s what I want. NRAMA: What’s the exhibitor attendance like this year? MN: I had to turn people away – we’ve been sold out for a month. A lot of Artist’s Alley people and exhibitors wanted to be there, but I was just out of space. It’s not going to be the case next year, I don’t think – although maybe we will fill that hall. So to answer the question, right now, I’m more worried about making the size of the show bigger, rather than making the show longer. NRAMA: Of course again with the show, you’re hosting the Harvey Awards. Why’s that something that’s important in your eyes? MN: A lot of reasons. The truth is, most comic creators don’t really care about winning an award. Who it does mean something to are the publishers. That’s because a book on the shelf that says “New York Times Best Seller” means something. It means something to the person who is buying it for Borders, and they should stock it. The consumer then, rushing through the airport or bookstore, if they stop, will take a longer look, or just pick up that book because it’s won an award. So it means more in publishing – it’s a greater understanding of value. We don’t have a “New York Times Bestseller List” in comics, so for an audience that might be hungry for what we do, they need a little better guidance than the guy at Borders or Barnes and Noble. That’s one of the things that makes the Harveys important. As for why it’s important for the convention, it helps us get publishers, and that’s good for programming and lots of other things. And overall, it’s a really good night. People get together to celebrate the good stuff – to celebrate the stuff that stands above the rest. You get a chance to be part of a standing ovation for Joe Kubert, like last year. It’s just a wonderful time. But those are just small parts of it. It’s so much larger…I’m kind of at a loss for words…it’s just a great time to come together and celebrate comics. NRAMA: Your reach for the casual visitors who might still be looking for something to do this weekend extends to the DC area as well as Baltimore and into Virginia. For people who may have become a little more familiar with comics thanks to The Dark Knight, Wanted, Iron Man, Hellboy and Hulk this summer…why’s the Baltimore Comic Con a good place to get your feet wet in comics culture? MN: There’s a lot of reasons – the show is about comics, period. BWI is the airport to fly in and out of, which sounds strange to say, but it’s an important factor for people who travel. You can get to the show from the airport easily. And the environment of what we do is pleasant. There isn’t a hassle about the convention – people are accessible, much more accessible than most places. And I love my harbor. It sets up for a great nightlife. You do enough convention setups and spend enough time on a convention floor, sometimes you don’t know where the hell you are – what city you’re in, what convention center you’re in. But what you remember about the convention is what you do after it closes. That’s the big reason why people love San Diego. I’m not sure if they love the show as much as they used to, but I know they like going out at night. It’s a beautiful city and it’s always 72 degrees. That’s part of the reason why I picked this time of year for my show – it’s not humid, it’s pleasant, and there’s a great place to go in the evening. Check back with Newsarama all weekend, as we bring you the latest news from the floor of the Baltimore Comic-Con. The Baltimore Comic Con is being held at The Baltimore Convention Center (CHARLES STREET ENTRANCE) One West Pratt Street Baltimore, Maryland on Saturday and Sunday, September 27th and 28th. For more, check out the show's official site .