Comic-Con, Day 1: It never changes to stop

Comic-Con, Day 1: It never changes to stop

In which Stan Freberg and Rob Liefeld provide enlightenment

The primary reason the press coverage of Comic-Con has ramped up in the last decade is the fact that it's become Hollywood's primary clearing house for REALLY BIG ANNOUNCEMENTS about WORLD-SHATTERING STUFF. It's the first place Avatar showed footage. It's the place the Lost pilot first screened for the adoring public. It's the land of big, carefully managed announcements, where the studios and networks and publishers go out of their way to hedge their bets. Sure, it sometimes backfires (as it did last year when everybody hated that Avatar footage - not that it ended up hurting the film's box office totals), but for the most part, this is a staged, created event, and we in the press go along and lap it all up like housecats. A Burn Notice prequel movie? Sweet. Guillermo del Toro directing a Haunted Mansion movie? We shall write up a Newswire item, sir!

But the reason Comic-Con remains vital, the reason it hasn't become a total PR show, is the fact that there is still some really weird, completely baffling shit at Comic-Con. I mean, you could spend the whole weekend here without once seeing a really big star. You could attend a Little Lulu fan panel. You could attend both gays in comics AND Christians in comics mixers (which are happening at the same time!). You could just wander the show floor and end up buying a dozen replica swords. Or you could go to something called the "Ball-jointed Dolls Collectors Group," which has the following description of itself in the Comic-Con guide:

"Doll owners and enthusiasts discuss the world of ball-jointed resin dolls from companies such as Elfdoll, Volks, Luts, Customhouse, Fairyland, Bambicrony, Iplehouse, and many others. Learn the basics about BJDs, and pick up tips on customizing, maintaining, and photographing these beautiful dolls. Share the beauty of your own unique doll, or just see the many dolls on display, from tiny to towering . . . it's a great opportunity to experience the different types of dolls in the world of BJDs. Make new friends, both real and resin!"

First of all, I have basically no idea what any of that even means. I'm sure I could Google it, but I prefer to be baffled. Second of all, am I reading too much into things, or does all of that have a weirdly sexual undertone? Third of all, doesn't that sound like the sort of thing you hear announced by a corporate PR shill in a sci-fi movie just before the BJDs ANNIHILATE THE HUMAN RACE?!

Look. I don't mean to pick on the BJD fans (more than a little). Lord knows I've got geeky shit I get excited about. Having to choose between Peanuts and Joss Whedon tomorrow is making me die a little inside, something I'm sure will amuse many of you to no end. The important point is that Comic-Con knows we've all got geek fetishes, and like the good Nerd State Fair it is, it delivers exactly the sugar rush every single one of us needs to enjoy ourselves. That's what keeps it vital. It understands that for most of us, that sugar rush is going to come from seeing footage from the new Thor movie or from watching the pilot to The Event. But it also understands that for some of us, the only thing that's gonna do is hanging out with a bunch of resin replicas of ... elves or whatever. At the actual State Fair, you've got the farm equipment and the world's largest steer and the collection of disgusting foods and the thrill rides. All cater to a different audience, but the whole event is chasing the largest possible number of vaguely agricultural people it can find. Again, same deal here.

So my mission for the first half of today was to get into some of the more offbeat stuff that goes on here and see what was what. It sure beat trying to get in to see Tron footage you'll see recapped everywhere else on the Web or getting in line for a 1 p.m. Ballroom 20 panel at 8 a.m. On the other hand, I had to stand in a fairly lengthy line to see Stan Freberg, which could be interpreted as a good sign (everybody loves Freberg!) or a terrifying omen of things to come. Because if the line for that is long and the Con has yet to admit many of its attendees (some of whom are still standing in a lengthy line outside), this is going to be a very long series of line standing sessions indeed.

Stan Freberg panel: The whole point of this was the point of various sessions featuring older luminaries of the entertainment scene at Comic-Con: Let's get someone who was formative in their particular field up on stage and let them ramble. I attended a panel where Ray Bradbury did this last year (which ended with him talking about writing letters to the president and recalling his time in the womb), and since a handful of you wanted me to check this out - rather than, say, standing in line for Tron - I decided to do so.

Honestly, I'm glad I did. Outside of the unfortunate middle section - which consisted of Freberg having the sound guy play lengthy cuts from his new album, which amount to Freberg coming out of his house to bitch at everyone crowding up his lawn in song - this was a really fun panel. Though sparsely attended (that long line didn't even fill up half of the room the show was in, and most of the people were there to see Charlaine Harris, author of the books that inspired True Blood), Freberg and wife Hunter Freberg were in fine form. "Moderator" Mark Evanier introduced the two, then got out of the way, as they pretty much just talked about the highlights of Stan's career, how Hunter does a dramatic performance of Cathy in the comics section for Stan every morning over breakfast, and the many cartoon voices and comedy routines Stan has been responsible for over the years.

The cartoon voices and comedy albums are likely what the guy is most famous for, and he didn't disappoint. He popped out everything from the voice of Cecil the Seasick Sea Serpent to the beaver from Lady and the Tramp to the Baby Bear character from his Looney Tunes work. And he also tossed off a few comedy album classics, like the "John and Marsha" routine that gets an oblique namecheck in this weekend's Mad Men premiere. Hunter was mostly there to keep things moving along and get Stan to tell stories of how, say, he made it big by just walking up to a talent agency and doing funny voices for them or his time working for David Merrick. Seeing the old guy just having fun and basking in the love of people who'd grown up on his routines and voices created a sense of something like unfettered joy.

Unfortunately, yeah, his newer material is pretty weak. It's clear that he's trying, and the audience gave him a sizable hand all the same, but his newer songs all sound ridiculously cranky and boil down to, "Shut up! And leave me alone!" Maybe this is what the older people of America have been crying out for, but I certainly hope not. Fortunately, however, the two ended the panel by screening some of Stan's old TV commercials (including the famous one for Sunsweet prunes featuring the line, "Today, the pits; tomorrow, the wrinkles"). It was an appropriately exuberant way to send the panel off into the sunset, and I hope to talk to Freberg down in Artist's Alley later on in the weekend.

The in-between: Honestly, if I could, I'd just spend all day wandering around the convention center and writing about what I saw and what the people I talked to said. There's nothing quite like a whole building full of people dressed as ninjas or Batmen or sexy variations on pretty much every nerd archetype. Along the way to my next panel, I happened across a bunch of folks bearing signs reading "Free hugs!" a meme that was everywhere last year but seems curiously absent this year. Naturally, I stopped to snap a picture and talk with them about where Free Hugs started - with a guy who went to a mall and wanted to give out free hugs until a security guard stopped him (and he subsequently got a petition started to let him give out hugs or something) - and how long it's been at the Con - probably since the early part of the decade. Then all involved gave me free hugs, and I didn't even have to ask. This was shortly followed by me seeing a fat, balding, Asian man in a Spider-man costume (sans mask), a guy dressed up as Greenman from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and Harry Knowles. Good times.

Rob Liefeld panel: I knew enough of Liefeld to know that he's an object of derision for many, many comics fans. I also knew that it had something to do with odd character designs, disproportionate bodies (including gigantic breasts), and a fondness for pouches. While standing in line for breakfast before the Con today, my friend confirmed that, indeed, these were the main beefs comics fans had with the guy, and that he also had a problem drawing feet. But at the same time, I was willing to give the guy a chance. I know basically nothing about character design in comics. I couldn't tell you which characters he had designed originally (Deadpool, apparently!). I was willing to learn from him all about how to design compelling characters.

What I wasn't prepared for was that the panel would be a Rob Liefeld self-love fest. At one point, the moderator tried to steer the conversation toward the ACTUAL TOPIC AT HAND - how to design instantly compelling superheroes - and Liefeld diverted that by talking, again, about how he designed his characters, which seems to boil down, mostly, to putting tunics on people and designing them to look "militaristic." I seriously have no idea how I would go about designing a great character from this panel, outside of, I guess, putting a tunic on them and repeating variations on the word "military" over and over and over. (He also went on a long rant about how Chewbacca was originally going to look like a "coyote-man," but the new design was awesome. Star Wars seems to be a big touchstone for Liefeld.)

The room was actually full of people who seemed to want to lap up whatever knowledge the guy had to give. I was prepared to feel sorry for them, until they started asking questions, which all pretty much boiled down to more excuses for Liefeld to talk about how awesome he was. Apparently, one of his creations has been reconceived as a gay superhero, which led into a long, rambling story about how he didn't like drawing a formerly male superhero as a woman for Teen Titans and how he would never reconceive Deadpool as a dog (equating being gay or a woman with being a dog? Nice). He explained that the best ways to draw hero Cable being smart were to show him traveling through time and reading books at the library (because reading books is something only smart people are capable of). At one point, he said something about a dinosaur in a dress, but I'm convinced I hallucinated that.

It's easy to rag on Liefeld for many of his greatest sins - though throughout the whole session, he didn't draw a single pouch and/or breast - but one of the things he stands for that I don't think gets a lot of play is the fact that he seems to completely fear change. Honestly, this is one of the things the whole comics culture (and geek culture, more broadly) stand for that I just cannot get. Every time a new costume from a superhero movie is revealed, the community goes nuts - as it did with the recent Green Lantern reveal - and I wonder why the hell anyone would care THAT MUCH (yes, yes, I am a person who regularly writes 5,000 word pieces on The Sopranos and wrote over 100,000 words about Lost this year; glass house, stones, blah). Maybe it's just the fact that I'm wedded to TV, a medium where things will often change, but the fact that Liefeld seems completely oblivious to the idea that coming up with new ways to approach old characters can make them relevant again, that, indeed, he seems ossified in his approach toward designing and building comics characters, sticking to a set of hidebound rules, strikes me as a far more telling flaw in his outlook than his inability to draw feet. But when he said words to the effect of how you don't change a character's signature look and the crowd applauded fervently, I wondered if that was because this was HIS audience or because this was the COMIC-CON audience.

To a degree, being a geek for anything is all about loving something in the way you originally came to love it. It's safe for me to love Peanuts, because those books aren't going to change. If someone comes out with an EXTREME SNOOPY movie or something, my complete collections of the strip's run are still on my shelf. The problem is that creativity necessarily requires poking at the edges of what's possible, even if you're making Deadpool a dog or Snoopy a hardcore skateboarder. I'm just as likely to write off the latter as Liefeld is the former (and they're both completely ridiculous ideas). But the only way anything interesting ever happens is if creative people get a chance to poke at old ideas with a stick until they wake up and do something interesting.

I suppose, I guess, that I should be thankful that a fairly good-sized room at the Con was filled by people who wanted to learn to draw, wanted to learn to express themselves. And I am! The fact that Comic-Con provides chances for fans to meet up with old icons like Stan Freberg or learn a little something about how to make their work better from comics creators strike me as good things, even as all of my colleagues were writing about how much fun Bruce Campbell is on the Burn Notice panel. The Con survives so long as it has these interesting, offbeat expressions going on down other halls. But it also survives so long as geeks - who are hardwired to fear the new, like myself, remember - get new stuff to plow through. Comic-Con is all about expression. It's also, in some ways, the enemy of expression.

Next up: I've got an interview, but after that, I'm going to Hall H! Let's see if I can't get in for some Expendables and Scott Pilgrim action.