Comic-Con 2011, Day 1: The many faces of Comic-Con

Comic-Con 2011, Day 1: The many faces of Comic-Con

The most common misconception about Comic-Con, even from people who regularly attend, is that it’s one convention or even one kind of convention. If you read media portrayals of the event, they seem to think it’s merely a Hollywood propaganda tool that tricked its host into raising some other bird’s egg as its own, until that other egg tricked the mother bird and kicked it out of the nest. Comic-Con used to be all about the comics, this particular narrative goes, and while that’s still present, every year, big Hollywood gains just a little bit more ground, and it will soon run down the original Con and feast on its bones.

These accounts ignore the fact that Comic-Con was going long before Hollywood gained word of it and that it will keep going long after Hollywood loses interest as well. It won’t be as big, and it won’t attract as many people, but that’s not because it will have lost focus; that’s because big, glitzy, mainstream entertainment is always going to attract the most attendees. Smaller stuff is always going to attract very different niches. The smartest thing Comic-Con ever did was creating a bunch of conventions that comfortably rest right next to each other, since they largely all appeal to the same audience, broadly speaking, but drill down into that audiences ultra-specific subsets. That’s why both the people who complain about how it’s no longer just about the comics or people who fear that Hollywood will drain it of its life force are largely wrong. It hasn’t been just about the comics for decades; an organism with many different hearts is much tougher to kill.

Look at it this way: By my count, there are nine or 10 different events going on under the umbrella of Comic-Con. They all, in one way or another, split off from the main body of geek culture, but when you attend these various events, they can all feel like they’re taking place on totally separate planets. Walking the show floor’s center—which is dominated by the big media companies—feels like a totally different experience from walking either end—which are dominated by small comics shops and various artists and small presses. Similarly, sitting through the onslaught of commercials and studio propaganda in Hall H or Ballroom 20 feels very different from attending smaller panels that, in one way or another, are really about attendees digging deep into their particular areas of interest. (There’s also an anime film festival and a more general film festival, though I doubt I’ll have time to really devote to either.) And this is to say nothing of the many, many odd traditions hanging around the edges of the Con, like the Masquerade Ball (which is sponsored by HBO but stubbornly remains an expression of weird fan ingenuity).

This is all why I’ve resolved to stray off the beaten path covered by the more mainstream outlets out there, and after a day doing so, I’m glad I have. Any of these other conventions is much more lively and much less devoid of all honesty and emotion. I’ve made little forays to the other realms in the past two years I’ve been here, but I’d always get sucked back in by, say, a TV panel, and then it would be all standing in lines to hear a few pieces of carefully packaged news, presented like holy writ.

The first thing I’ll say is that the Con, by and large, seems much better organized this year than it has in either of the other two years I’ve attended. I can’t say for certain that this isn’t because over 7,000 people were standing in line for Ballroom 20 today (along with those people camped out since Monday to see the Twilight kids in Hall H), thus shifting a whole bunch of people out of the main traffic areas. But things certainly seem to be flowing much better, and the one time I stood in a line today, it began moving and ended with me in the room in about five minutes when it would have taken nearly 20 last year. The show floor seems to have a few more exits open, thus allowing for better flow of traffic, and the various volunteers are much better at eyeballing which lines are going to go where and who’s going to get in. That 6,000 person head count came from the Con itself, and just having the event acknowledge that, yeah, getting that many people in line is going to be a huge clusterfuck, no matter what, is reassuring in and of itself.

The first Con I attended today was the “So You Want To Be A Creative Person Like Us” Con, and it’s where I ended the day as well. The one line I ended up standing in was for something called “Putting the Epic in Epic Fantasy” (after I stood in line for something completely unrelated—totally accidentally—for a good 20 minutes), and even though the line stretched all the way out of the building and under some tents, it was the one that moved quickly and efficiently. The panel actually ended up being perhaps my favorite I’ve ever seen in three years at Comic-Con, and the long line was justified, as famous and popular authors like George R.R. Martin, Patrick Rothfuss, and Christopher Paolini (who had lots of good points, even as I continue to dislike his books) dispensed plenty of great nuggets for the aspiring fantasy authors around them (the guy next to me wrote down practically every word they said verbatim in a little notepad and frequently double underlined things they would say about the marriage of character and plot). In particular, I was intrigued by a solid debate among the panelists about just how much outlining they do or don’t do, and I liked Paolini’s notion that the epic remains a viable storytelling form because it allows for so many smaller stories to fit together within one larger story. I’m not one who reads a lot of epic fantasy (at least not until it climbs onto the bestseller charts), but the panel definitely gave me a new appreciation of just how much work goes into creating those hefty tomes, even beyond just writing the things.

The following panel in the “So You Want To Be A Creative Person” Con featured Christopher Moore, someone many of you had wanted me to track down, so I decided to stick around and give it a listen. It started as a much drier discussion of the various strengths and weaknesses of the graphic novel form and the novel form for telling a particular story, but as the panelists gradually got away from the central topic and grew looser (particularly as fan questions came up), it all became very loose and goofy and fun. By the end, Jim Butcher (author of The Dresden Files) was riffing on the idea that all villains have good traits, since, after all, Darth Vader was “a capable administrator,” and Amber Benson was dissolving into giggles when trying to point out the flaws in Jesus as a literary character, at least as established in the New Testament. Throughout, Moore sat at the end of the table in red-rimmed sunglasses and dark black baseball cap, tossing out acerbic one-liners and suggesting that he’d write another book about vampires depending on how bad things got financially. It was a good example of how a panel can gain a lot of worth just by having the right mix of personalities. The actual topic didn’t leave much room for discussion beyond “graphic novels are like this, but novels are like this,” but any aspiring writers in the room probably got a good sense of what their favorite authors are like in the flesh and also a few writing tips here and there.

I also stopped by what seems to be an annual Bill Plympton panel during this part of my sojourn, and I’m incredibly glad I did. This was a fine example of a panel where a creative person essentially cleans out their junk drawer and stops by with whatever they find. Plympton had brought a new version of his famous short “Guard Dog”—re-animated by dozens of amateur animators in their own signature style—along with the world premiere of a new video he made for Weird Al Yankovic, set to Yankovic’s tune “TMZ.” From there, he showed off a variety of short cartoons he’d made, the opening moments of a documentary on his life, a gorgeous remastering he’d done of an old Winsor McCay cartoon about a flying house (featuring the voice talents of Patricia Clarkson!), and a bunch of sketches he’d just had laying around, including one from a time when he almost directed a Madonna video. It was a revealing look into a great animator’s mind, and though unfocused, the panel always had something new and interesting at any given moment.

From there, I segued into the Con most people know best, the “Hollywood Has Some Movies And Television It Would Like To Sell You” Con. I, sadly, only got to see about half of the Game Of Thrones panel (and that on a TV monitor), but hearing the crowd react at seeing the actors on the show was great fun and a nice way to realize why so many creative types come back to this thing year after year. It’s nice to hear the people chanting your name. (Incidentally, Kit Harrington and Peter Dinklage got the biggest response.) Martin was the moderator for the panel, and he did a nice job of keeping the panel from questions that might spoil future books while still allowing plenty of material for people who’ve read every book in the series. He’s an avuncular presence, and he kept the whole thing rolling. From all accounts, Game Of Thrones was the big draw of the day, and though I didn’t get to see all of it, I’m glad things went well.

Why did I have to leave early? I unexpectedly ended up being asked to host the Archer panel (seriously, they asked me Thursday morning, for an event being held Thursday at 4), and that took up my next hour and a half. The panel was light on actual news, but there was a very, very good reason for that: FX chose to screen the entirety of the season three premiere (airing Sept. 15), and it was, as you’d expect, incredibly funny. There’s nothing quite like seeing an episode of a favorite show that you’ve never seen before in a room full of people who are laughing just as hard as you are at it, and “Heart Of Archness,” as it’s called, was a ton of fun. The panel itself yielded some fun tidbits, including the fact that series creator Adam Reed is considering setting an episode in outer space next season, as well as an episode in Morocco. (Aisha Tyler teased him about the disparity between those two locales, in a very funny moment.) There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the Hollywood Con, even as many (including me) bash it from year to year. It’s just easy to lose all sight of perspective when you ONLY attend events taking place there.

Finally, I went with a friend to some events taking place at the “We Have Some Properties And Genres We Really Enjoy And We Would Like To Consider Them Academically” Con, which is slightly drier than the other Cons, but no less interesting. With her, I attended a session on GLBT characters within the Buffy universe and the role of female heroes in science fiction (and which sorts of female heroes are more effective for female readers than others). The latter, in particular, was very thought provoking, if occasionally a bit academic, particularly the extended section in the middle where everybody praised panelist Gail Simone for her groundbreaking essay on female comics characters getting dismembered and stuck into refrigerators. (I also discovered that Warehouse 13’s Allison Scagliotti is only 20 years old, which makes me feel ridiculously old.) The former was also interesting but primarily of interest for Buffy fans (naturally enough), though I was amazed when the moderator asked who in the room identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered and something like 80 percent of the hands in the room shot up. For all of the stereotypes of geek culture, it’s much more diverse than it would initially appear and offers at least some degree of acceptance for most subcultures (except Twilight fans, it would seem).

After that, I hung around with my friend for a panel featuring Thomas Lennon and Ben Garant, centered on their new book, How To Write Movies For Fun And Profit. It was a return to the first Con of the day, as Lennon and Garant, in between offering up wildly witty ad libs off audience queries, gave prospective screenwriters tons of great tips both about navigating the industry (always send your scripts in .PDF format, so you can find out you’ve been fired when the studio requests a Final Draft version of the file) and just getting the writing done. The duo also showed their rejected FX pilot, Alabama, which was a wild satire of Star Trek and other space-set TV shows, with jokes piled on, seemingly by the metric ton. If one joke failed, there was always another right around the corner, and the episode featured an inspired guest turn by Eddie Izzard as the villainous ruler of a distant planet who gradually loses interest in the elaborate game he’s set up for the crew of the Alabama and loses track of whatever message he’s trying to impart. Not everything in Alabama worked, but it was very, very funny, and it’s not hard to see how it could have been a good match for It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia or Archer, had FX picked it up. But no. I’m one of the few people who ever got to see it.

That’s often a theme of these side-Cons within the bigger one. As exciting as it must have been to see that Dexter trailer live in Ballroom 20 for the first time, it was up online just a few hours later for anyone to take a look at. Alabama, however, was a one-time deal, as will be tomorrow’s screening of Fox’s rejected Locke & Key pilot. (Well, a two-time deal, since the pilot will be screened later in the evening.) The best that Comic-Con has to offer is the sort of thing you can’t get anywhere else, whether that’s Aisha Tyler making fun of Adam Reed or Patrick Rothfuss exhorting fantasy authors to write more and better female characters. These moments are what make the whole thing worth attending, and if you find ways to trend away from the prepackaged, they’re in much wider supply.

Some other thoughts:

  • While sitting in the lounge, half-watching the Game Of Thrones panel and half-doing work, a guy asked me where I got my soda, then asked if he could take a chair from the table I was sitting at. I answered both without looking up, but when I did as he was walking off, I saw it was… Justin Timberlake. Comic-Con’s weird blend of the ultra-famous and the rest of us strikes again. (Damon Lindelof was also there. Sad to say, I got far more starstruck by him.)
  • I wandered the show floor a bit last night, though I hope to do so again some other day this weekend (possibly Sunday), and the crowds are just as large as last year, but, again, the Con has done a better job of keeping them spread out somehow. Perhaps the big, gawkable items are spread out more or something. (And I include myself among the gawkers, no doubt. The DeLorean from Back To The Future was cool.)
  • I’m thinking tomorrow will be a day to try and hit the actual “Hey, We Still Do Comics Stuff” part of the Con, though I’m always open to suggestions and I have quite a few interviews scheduled for the day.
  • Today’s best costumes: a guy in an incredibly elaborate centaur costume (pictured above) and two other guys in wetsuits with inflatable remote-controlled sharks hovering along above them, occasionally diving toward the guys or other Con attendees.
  • You can follow me on Twitter for occasional updates, chances to help me pick what to see next, and other news. And if any of you are hanging out down here, let’s try and set up an A.V. Club meetup for Saturday night. Let me know in comments or via Twitter if you’re down for that.