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Ren and Stimpy and Mustard

This weekend my family and I spent some quality time at a local comic convention. It was very small – only about four rows of vendors in what was basically an auditorium – even so, among the overpriced tchotchkes and long boxes of half price graphic novels and Silver Age comics, they were able to attract the likes of Steve Niles and Darrick Robertson, who are two of my favorite comic creators. They had plenty of adoring fans crowding around at various times to get their attention, myself included, and they were gracious with the fans, as were all the artists and writers in the hall from what I could see. It wasn’t crowded, but there was a steady stream of geeks filing through, which means that this will definitely be back next year.

During our wandering, though, I was reminded of a post involving the dearth of comic fandom at cons (whether you or I agree or disagree with that post is irrelevant to this one. It just crossed my mind, and you’ll see why in a second.). Now, I don’t think it’s as dire as all that – there’s still plenty of comics fans, and considering some of the current content, comics themselves are being seen less and less as a child’s medium and more of a multi-generational thing. It’s certainly less embarrassing these days to be seen reading or talking about comics than in the past. In America. that’s been a long time coming. But what made me think of that essay was not the size of the con or the fans swarming the artists.

Down at the end of the artist’s alley was none other than John Kricfalusi. His Ren and Stimpy cartoons were a watershed moment in animation for kids, with it’s graphic violence and surreal story-lines and just all around grotesque characters foreshadowing current bizarre offerings such as Uncle Grandpa, Regular Show and The Amazing World of Gumball. I’m sure Family Guy and South Park could probably owe more than a passing nod as well. Yes, I’m aware of John K. being fired from his own show, and that may have something to do with why he’s not currently more well-known, even if he is steadily working. Even so, it was quite a coup for a tiny show charging a whole $7 a head (13 and under free). It’s not cheap to display at these shows – even if the show itself doesn’t cost much per table, there still the time you have to spend getting there, setting up, tearing down, transporting your goods … it’s a whole thing.

So, there I am with my family, trying to find some way of telling John K. that Ren And Stimpy was a great time of my life, while not insulting him that we weren’t buying a poster (because, frankly, it would’ve gotten ruined and we have no place to put it – and it was $20), he finishes up the small piece of art he’s been working on, and the fan comes back to pick it up. It was a sketch of Ren and Stimpy with a tan wiener dog. It was cute, sure, and I understand getting sketches from your favorite artists is one of the cool things about interacting with them at cons – I have my own book of favorite artist sketches that is quite awesome. That said, I felt it was rather beneath someone like john K. to do a sketch of someone’s dog, like he’s some kind of street caricaturist. The worst part was when he asked who she wanted him to sign it to, she gave him the dog’s name, Col Mustard!

At that point I just felt embarrassed for Mr. K and kind-of sad, and I had to walk away. I asked my wife what she thought and she agreed – this sort of thing seemed wrong, somehow. It’s like if someone asked Maya Angelou to write a poem to their cat, or David Mamet to write a short play about feeding your birds. Perhaps John felt different about it, and if he’s cool with drawing pictures of people’s dogs then great, but there was just something disrespectful about the whole thing.

And that’s what made me think of the post about how comics creators are having trouble meeting expenses at these shows. (No, I don’t think it’s because of cosplayers.) There’s a point where kids and young adults now haven’t had to wait for things, and so the value of those things is somewhat lessened, I think. Not that they don’t enjoy the things they enjoy, but they all start to seem more disposable and replaceable, so there’s little respect owed them. I know even I feel this on occasion, when I watch something on Netflix or read a book on my Nook – it just feels less “real”, and less important. Even when I watch shows OnDemand or get collections of comics, there’s a feeling of being slightly removed from the experience of other viewers/readers who were engaged at a completely different level by having to wait for the next installment. (Strangely, I’ve never felt this way about films I watch on DVD/Netflix. But that’s probably because I’ve been watching films at home forever. I wonder if that would have been different if I’d been older when the VCR first came out.)

To be clear, I’m no technophobe – I embrace technology. I would completely plug my mind into a computer and I’d love to live forever as data, as long as I could go to the movies every once in a while. I truly enjoy having access to the million hours of media I have at my fingertips when I go on Netflix or Hulu or  YouTube. But there’s a huge difference between having to wait for the next episode of your favorite show and just binge-watching it online. I don’t know if it’s better, per se, but at least back then I feel we were more engaged. And we’d never have asked our favorite cartoonists to do drawings of our dogs.

May 2020

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