Written by: Fred Van Lente
Illustrated by: Tom Fowler
Published by: Quirk Books
Synopsis: Comic book artist Mike Miller arrives at San Diego Comic-Con, seeking sanctuary with other fans and creators—and maybe to reunite with his ex—but when his rival is found murdered, he becomes the prime suspect. To clear his name, Mike will have to navigate every corner of the con, from zombie obstacle courses and cosplay flash mobs to intrusive fans and obsessive collectors, in the process unravelling a dark secret behind one of the industry’s most legendary creators.
Anyone with a passing knowledge of comics or pop culture will have heard of the San Diego Comic-Con. The event, first held in 1970, has become synonymous with the term “comic-con” and attracts over 160,000 visitors to California every year. It has truly become a mecca for fans of geek culture, encompassing anime, sci-fi, genre TV shows, blockbuster movies, videogames and cosplay. Even those note able to attend in-person can feel the after-effects of the event as companies often time announcements and trailers for the mid-July weekend to increase buzz and conversation. While I have never attended SDCC personally, I have visited other comic-cons that use the same template (albeit in smaller forms) and it is certainly a unique atmosphere to be surrounded by like-minded fans. There is a sense of hysteria and rabid fanaticism in the air at these events, something which author Fred Van Lente uses to his advantage to craft a murder mystery set during Comic-Con.
Van Lente is a comic book creator – known for working on the series’ Cowboys & Aliens and Marvel Zombies – and as such, he has a knowledge of the inner-workings of the con from the professional’s point-of-view. It is this insider-knowledge that allows him to write authentically about the San Diego Comic-Con experience, offering a very different and unromantic take on the proceedings as San Diego is transformed in a corporate dreamland for fans. It is a great setting for the murder mystery, establishing a new sub-genre of “geek noir” where the faded veneer of pop culture hides a darker underbelly beneath. As a noir setting, it is a refreshing alternative to the typical 1950s Hollywood or Las Vegas locales and Van Lente manages to make the setting an integral part of the story. While the abundance of pop culture references may put some readers off, it helps form the novel’s unique voice and creates a “whodunnit” as bold and original as “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”
At the heart of Van Lente’s story is comic-book artist Mike Miller, a pastiche of various different creators (and possibly part-inspired by Van Lente himself), who finds himself investigating a conspiracy of murders and other misdemeanours. Told in the first-person, Miller’s narrative voice is charming and witty as he details the various misadventures that lead to his troubles. The way he is thrust into danger and is forced to rely on his wits is reminiscent of Cary Grant in North by Northwest, and Van Lente’s decision to tell the entire story from his perspective allows the reader to connect with the character. There were times where I was ahead of the character in solving the mystery connecting the various crimes together, but it was still a pleasing conclusion to the novel – although it would have be nice to have a bit more closure in some areas.
There is an interesting mix of fact and fiction in this novel as Van Lente uses real-world characters and creators alongside his own analogues. While I can’t claim to know all of inspirations behind Van Lente’s creations – I did pick up on similarities between Ira Pearl, head of the ficitious Atlas Entertainment and the notorious Ike Perlmutter, the real-life CEO of Marvel Entertainment. Given how not all of the characters in the novel are likeable, I wonder how many bridges Van Lente may have burned in conjuring up these comic-book industry caricatures. Telling the story from his character’s POV also allows Van Lente to debate some of the thornier issues of the comics industry, particularly the injustices surrounding creator rights. Midway through the novel, the character makes an impassioned speech about how Golden Age creators have been neglected over the years and how sad it is that charities like The Hero Initiative exist to help fund ageing creators’ health bills. The way Van Lente wipes away the “glitz and glamour” of the comics industry to reveal the cracks beneath is very reminiscent of the Hollywood underbelly usually explored in Noir fiction, making his homage to the classics feel even more authentic.
“The Con Artist” is an interesting blend of comic-books and crime fiction, however it is likely to only appeal to fans of the former than the latter. Even though San Diego Comic-Con has increased its mainstream appeal over the past few decades, I still think it may prove somewhat impenetrable for casual crime novel readers without a serious interest in the comic book industry. While the storytelling was a bit uneven at times, I really enjoyed Van Lente’s attempt to marry geek culture with the traditional “whodunnit” storyline and he did a fantastic job in creating a likeable protagonist in Mike to guide the reader through the underbelly of geek nirvana. As I mentioned earlier, there was a strong Hitchcockian vibe to Van Lente’s narrative, and if I had to boil this novel down to three words, it would be: Hitchcock goes Geek.
Even without the murder and violence, “The Con Artist” offers a surprisingly dark take on the Comic-Con experience that will reward the most dedicated comic-book fans. In fact, there were times where the “behind-the-scenes” revelations of the comic book industry was more compelling than the murder mystery, and I’d quite happily have read a straight “confessions of a comic-book artist” style novel starring the same characters.