Comic-Con International, which begins its 46th annual run Wednesday night, is a pop culture celebration - and this party’s gone global. Of the 130,000-plus expected to cram the San Diego Convention Center and nearby sites, many will be foreign visitors. These will include fans of the genre, but also artists, writers and editors.
An international flair will be evident throughout the five-day event, especially at Friday night’s Eisner Awards ceremony. Nominees for the industry’s equivalent of the Oscars include pros from Belgium, Chile, England, Finland, France, Italy, Japan and Malaysia.
“If you’re a foreign author trying to publish in the North American market and you have to choose one event to go to,” said Gabriel Bá, a Brazilian artist and previous Eisner-winner, “it’s this one.”
For generations, comic books have reflected national themes and artistic styles. Kaiji Nakazawa’s “Barefoot Gen” (1973-74) and Jacques Tardi’s “It Was the War of the Trenches” (1993) are both anti-war epics, yet the former is obviously Japanese and the latter distinctively French.
Compare those with today’s multinational comic books. While aimed at American audiences, they address broad, universal themes and employ a United Nations of creators. IDW’s “Infestation 2: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” for instance, used a writer in Australia, an artist in the Philippines and an editor in San Diego.
“I had to take mental note of Manila being two hours delayed of Australian time,” said artist Mark Torres, “and 15 hours ahead of California’s.”
Time zones and cultural hiccups aside, cross-border collaborations are becoming more frequent. The melding of international talents often leads to “great alchemy,” said comic book publisher Gotham Chopra, the son of New Age guru Deepak Chopra.
As an example, he cited Virgin Comics’ swashbuckling “Seven Brothers” comic books. The action spanned the globe - as did the creative team behind this six-part series.
The producer, John Woo, is Chinese. The artist, Jeevan Khan, Indian. The writer, Garth Ennis, a Northern Irishman living in Scotland.
“They bring their respective cultural influences to a project,” the publisher said, “and from that something truly unique can emerge.”
The history of American comic books begins with a case of intellectual piracy.
Perhaps the first comic printed in the United States was “The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck,” an 1842 publication whose cover promised a tale in “188 Comic Etchings.” Unmentioned was the fact that “Oldbuck” was an unauthorized translation of 1837’s “Les Amours de Monsieur Vieux Bois,” by Swiss writer and cartoonist Rodolphe Töpffer.
“From the beginning, comics have been international,” said Barry Pearl, a writer and comic book collector, “even though we like to claim it here in America as our own.”
Modern comic books - illustrated stories in cheap, paperbound volumes - boomed in the 1930s, with the debut of superheroes like Superman and Batman. As the number of titles grew, so did the employment opportunities.
Comics were “less subject to the kinds of racial barriers that a young artist would encounter in the other U.S. communications industries during the 1940s and ‘50s,” said Ben Saunders, an English professor and director of comics studies at the University of Oregon. “There were African-American, Japanese-American, Chinese-American, Latin-American, Italian-American and... many Jewish-American comic artists, from the 1940s onward.”
This work force became even more diverse in the 1960s and ‘70s. When Manila’s own comics industry collapsed, Filipino artists like Tony DeZuniga, Alfredo Alcala and Alex Niño mailed their work to the New York offices of Marvel and DC.
In the ‘80s, a similar path was followed by writers and artists from the United Kingdom, including Alan Moore and Grant Morrison.
“They brought a completely different sensibility, more world weary,” said Jim Lee, co-publisher of DC Entertainment. “They looked at these iconic, over-the-top American superheroes and interjected a gritty edge to them that didn’t exist before.”
Fax machines and overnight FedEx shipments reduced - and later the Internet eliminated - the need to have artists, writers and editors in one location.
“The great thing about the Internet opening up the entire world is the diversity of art styles that we’ve been able to bring to our titles,” said Ted Adams, IDW’s chief executive and co-founder. “Not to mention the opportunities it’s afforded artists from any country, since now everyone has the same chance to have their work seen.”
IDW’s first major hit, “30 Days of Night,” featured covers by Ashley Wood and interior art by Ben Templesmith, two Australians. Another member of IDW’s stable, Gabriel Rodriguez, is Chilean.
Initially, admitted DC Entertainment co-publisher Dan DiDio, foreign artists were appealing because they commanded lower salaries. While this is no longer true, he said, the demand for overseas talent continues to grow.
“One of the things you see in the international market is different styles and different looks,” DiDio said. “At DC, we’re putting out 70 to 80 titles a month. You don’t want them all to look the same.”
Still, American publishers - catering primarily to American readers - have certain expectations. Bá, who estimated that more than 50 Brazilians draw superhero comics for the U.S. market, notes that Brazilian writers have a tougher time making the leap.
“You have to understand the genre, and realize that it’s deeply rooted in the American culture,” he said. “The writer must understand this, master the formula and believe in this idea of heroes and good and evil and all that in order to sell it to the reader, give them what they want.”
Assuming everyone understands just what’s wanted.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, Alberto Giolitti illustrated “Star Trek” comics, even though the Italian had never seen a single episode of the TV show. His ignorance was exposed when he drew the Enterprise landing on a planet - something the spacecraft has never done, before or since.
“Even today,” said Mark Evanier, a comic book writer, “mention the Gold Key ‘Star Trek’ comics to ‘Star Trek’ fans and they’ll say he got it all wrong.”
The tale is told of another foreign artist, asked to illustrate a story about a giant mummy.
“To this day,” Evanier said, “no one has figured out how ‘giant mummy’ was translated as ‘short pope.’”
DiDio cited an American writer’s script that had the Caped Crusader scolding Robin. Apparently, “scold” has a different meaning abroad.
“The art comes back,” DiDio said, “and it’s Batman slapping Robin across the face.”
“Seven Brothers” hit a snag when Ennis’ blue-tinged language sailed past his collaborators.
“There were definitely a few conference calls in which we had to have Garth, from downtown Manhattan, explain certain anatomical references and curse words to Jeevan in Bangalore, India,” Gotham Chopra said. “The things we do for art!”
Via email and text messages, errors can be rapidly discussed and almost as quickly corrected.
“We can go to sleep needing work to be turned in,” IDW’s Adams said, “and it’ll all magically be there when we wake up.”
Another option: Let the errors stand. Giolitti’s “Star Trek” books? Their cover price was 15 cents. Today, a copy in good condition will fetch $200.