The Con Artist — Death at San Diego Comic-Con
Fred Van Lente knows comics. He’s been writing them for over a decade, with credits that include Action Philosophers, Marvel Zombies, Cowboys & Aliens, and The Comic Book History of Comics.
Now, he’s written The Con Artist, a murder mystery set at the San Diego Comic-Con. Need a thriller to read on the plane to the show? Or something to remind you why you’re actually glad to not be attending this year? This is the book for you!
Mike Mason is an artist who lives at comic book conventions, following the circuit all year. He had a successful indy comic that became a movie before drawing Mister Mystery for a big publisher. Now he mostly sells sketches at shows. His mentor, creator of Mister Mystery, is going to be honored at the big awards, which is why he agrees to go to this con in spite of the risk of running into his ex-wife Christine.
Then the disliked editor Danny Lieber is killed in the middle of a cosplay meet-up. Mike previously worked for him, but worse, Lieber took up with Mike’s ex-wife, so he’s a lead suspect. Christine is a plot device more than a real character, but the way she dates through the small community is realistic.
I found it amusing to speculate on who inspired which characters and concepts. Mister Mystery is similar to the Spirit, while excessive wannabe genius Sebastian Mod sounded like Grant Morrison. I appreciated that Van Lente’s convention world wasn’t just male; there are a few significant female characters, of whom I liked Katie Poole best. She’s the artist who replaced Mike on Mister Mystery and is trying to navigate the convention while pregnant. Plus, Bleeding Cool and the Beat get call-outs.
There are a handful of sketch-style illustrations by Tom Fowler, to give us an idea of how Mike would draw what he’s seen. Plus, there are nods to the original art collectors market, geek burlesque, the extremes of fan behavior, the messed-up economics that put creators of famous properties into poverty, and the need for representation in comics beyond the usual white male.
The reason to read The Con Artist is how well it captures the atmosphere and weirdness of a huge show. Mike spends more time in the bar and surrounding areas than at the convention, but that’s what a lot of people remember about their time there. I’m not sure the mystery and motivations hold together, but as an extended monologue about how bitter working in comics can make you, the book is right on. I enjoyed the read for reminding me why so many people still care about comics, regardless of the twisted business and politics and merchandising. (The publisher provided a review copy.)