It’s 2018 and it’s a fact that geeks now rule the world. Marvel rules the theatres, everyone and their mother knows who Iron Man and Black Widow are, and it’s a good chance your humble reviewer is typing this while wearing a Captain America t-shirt (SPOILERS: it’s true). Super-heroes have always been a part of American culture, but it’s always been with a bit of a snide side-eye from the jocks and cool kids. Not anymore. The geeks won, and now we walk with our ironically-chunky-eye-glasses wearing heads held high. But let’s not forget that comic-book pop-culture all comes from a source material: the humble comic-book. And while inside those stories, the hero swoops in to save the day, in the real-life comic book industry, that’s not always true.

In THE CON ARTIST, Fred Van Lente takes us to San Diego Comic-Con, the largest comics and pop-culture show in the world. It’s where comic-book fans from all around the world gather in one of the world’s most beautiful cities to celebrate their four-color heroes and villains.  Van Lente introduces us to comic-book artist Mike Miller. Miller is a successful industry veteran, but most well known for Mister Mystery. While Miller is something of a fan favorite amongst his fans, his personal life is a crumbling mess. He caught his wife Christine cheating on him with his former editor Danny Lieber. At that moment, Miller just walked and left it all behind. His wife. His home. And since he really hasn’t been producing any new work… his future, too. Miller now lives a vagabond life. He travels from convention to convention, coming into town a day early and leaving a day later. He then hops a plane to the next city and the next convention. He has clothes and art supplies stashed in storage units all over the country.

Mike Miller effectively lives at Comic Cons all over the country.

The normal amount of comic-book craziness is always amplified by 100% at San Diego. The surreal aspects start adding up as soon as Miller gets off the plane. He’s met by an enthusiastic young woman dressed up as one of Miller’s signature creations: Violent Violet, a sort of Road Warrior-esque character from a post-apocalyptic future. She becomes Miller’s Girl Friday for the event, getting him set up at his table and running whatever errands that come up over the weekend. As Miller attempts to settle into the flow of the convention, we see him meet up with friends, co-workers, and the numerous enemies Miller has made from a lifetime spent in the world of comics.

And then a bloody body shows up and ruins his weekend. The weekend takes an even worse turn when the body belongs to Lieber.

Yup, just like that, the bloody body of jerk editor Danny Lieber slides down one of the main staircases at the convention hall. Everyone knows Lieber had the affair with Miller’s wife. Everyone knows Miller wanted nothing more than to see Lieber dead. So how can Miller prove to the cops that he didn’t do it? By taking his trusty sketch pad and asking the tough questions. And when your suspects are all dressed up as zombies or have fetishes involving Disco Mummy (google her), those questions prove to be tougher than normal. THE CON ARTIST is filled with rough sketches of various suspects and crime scenes. These are very cool and provided by real-life comic book artist Tom Fowler.

This is where Van Lentes skills really shine. A veteran of the world of comics himself, Van Lente is clearly no stranger to building a strong narrative. But with the satirical nature of THE CON ARTIST being so prevalent, it would be very simple for this to become a one note cozy mystery. Make no mistake: this is a very, very funny book. But Van Lente also succeeds at building his fictional world of comic book publishing that Miller inhabits. The world of comics and entertainment giant Atlas Comics and it’s billionaire owner Ira Pearl. While clearly based off of Marvel Entertainment, it was really interesting to watch Van Lente create this other world. That being said, the amount of inside comics jokes are so numerous, I think readers may need more than just a passing knowledge of the industry to really appreciate the humor.

While many of the jokes are poking no small amount of fun at comic-book fandom, Van Lente never pokes fun at fans themselves. Miller knows that without fans enjoying his work, there would be no work to produce. So while THE CON ARTIST is a very enjoyable mystery, it’s no mystery that the book is also a celebration of comics and the people that love them.


Dan Malmon