Comic-Con, Day 2: Seven short films about Comic-Con

Comic-Con, Day 2: Seven short films about Comic-Con

Phil Foglio is in high spirit.

A young woman seeking a critique of her work has brought her portfolio to the venerable comics artist (best known at this juncture for his work on the Web comic Girl Genius), and he’s been happy to oblige her request. As he stalks through her portfolio, the others in his booth—including his wife, Kaja—keep wincing, as though terrified he’ll scare the poor girl out of her art. But he can’t stop. He’ll say something like, “See, now this is good,” then lavish some praise on the overall composition of a drawing before immediately finding six or seven faults with it. He points to his own vivid red shirt and tells her to think about brighter colors; she uses too much grey, he says. Look to the Napoleonic era. See how they used color.

For her part, she’s nodding extensively, surprisingly agreeable and amenable to the criticism he’s giving. (She did ask for it.) And he’s always careful to tell her that, overall, she’s very talented. She’s just a developing talent, someone who’s not careful enough and ends up with sloppy work from time to time. And with a Web comic that updates only once a week? Well, she can’t be having that.

One of the women moves over to distract me from his continued spiel (which has attracted a small crowd of gawkers). I’d come over here because Girl Genius is a title I mostly like when I think to check it (which is too rarely) and because, well, Foglio is a boisterous presence, particularly in that red shirt. Like many artists, he’s as much a showman as anything else. What he really needs is an awesome cape or something.

I’ve come to the Web comics section of the show floor mostly because a few readers suggested I do so but also because it’s one of the little hidden enclaves in Comic-Con, the communities within the larger whole that build each other up and try to support each other’s work. Foglio recognizes in this woman someone who’s good but has lots of potential to get even better. The second he makes his critiques, I can see what he’s talking about, even as her artwork is fairly stunning to me. It’s good; with a little work and practice, it could be great. And from the way she’s nodding and agreeing with what he says, maybe he recognizes that she knows this too, that she’s ready to take the next step in whatever artistic evolution she’s undergoing.

They didn’t tell her anything this detailed upstairs at the portfolio reviews held by the big comics companies and animation studios, she says.

Foglio snorts. They don’t care up there, he says, as if this were self-evident. The unstated addendum hangs in the air. They don’t care up there, but they do care down here. This sleepy neighborhood within the giant city of Comic-Con takes care of its own, even if that means drawing an audience as you point out a fellow citizen’s artistic shortcomings.

Maybe I’ve read the whole situation wrong. Maybe Foglio is trying to drive competition out of the game. Maybe she goes back to her hotel room and cries her eyes out. Maybe she gives up art and goes to law school and moves to Tucson. I kind of doubt it, though. I think this is what artists and apprentices have been doing for centuries, playing out in an entirely new way that’s exactly the same as it might have been 500 years ago. Right here, smack dab in the middle of Comic-Con.

***

When I was a teenager and young twentysomething first reading about Comic-Con, what most enticed me and made me want to go was the prospect of getting to see TV pilots long before they aired anywhere else. The story of how the Lost producers brought the pilot to Comic-Con and ended up with an instant wall of buzz is one of those Comic-Con legends Hollywood types tell, and since that day, nearly every genre pilot worth its salt has popped up here. (As well as a few non-genre pilots. For whatever reason, The Middle was here a couple summers ago with its pilot.)

But now that I have access to screeners, this aspect of Comic-Con has lost all excitement for me. That long line of people eager to see ABC’s new horror pilot The River? Please. I watched that weeks ago. Amateurs! I’ve always been eager to experience the “new,” and now that I get to see the “new” long before anyone else does, Comic-Con has lost one of its chief appeals to me.

Or perhaps it hasn’t. IDW Publishing somehow got 20th Century Fox and the Fox network to let them screen the pilot for Locke & Key, a prospective series based on Joe Hill’s comic book series about a haunted house in the middle of nowhere that holds plenty of terrifying secrets and offers several neat metaphors for a family’s grief. And the pilot—shot by Mark Romanek—is damned gorgeous. Had this show been picked up, this pilot would be at or near the top of most critics’ new drama lists with the usual caveat: How the hell is this a series?

And it’s here that Locke & Key gave me pause, even as I found it getting its tendrils into me throughout the running time. The horror elements and hints at a deeper mythology are solid here, but the character work and the stuff about a family trying to overcome the death of its patriarch could use a little work. Romanek and pilot writer Josh Friedman find lots of great visual ways to tell their story, but it leaves some of the characters feeling just a bit adrift. (Miranda Otto’s matriarch, Nina, and an uncle character seem particularly ill defined.) Plus, it’s hard to see this storyline extending into infinity. Hill mentions in the post-pilot Q&A that maybe the show could have adopted a “key of the week” formula (wherein the kids would find new keys that would open new doors to strange and greater horrors), then divulge more mythological puzzle pieces every third or fourth episode. But that seems like it would be singularly unsatisfying, and with Hill’s admission that the comics series leaves room for only about eight episodes of actual material, it’s hard to see how this could last past a season anyway. (Why not make it a miniseries? Because TV’s abandoned the format.) It’s easy to bring up The Walking Dead here, but The Walking Dead is a perpetual motion machine. Locke & Key has questions that have definitive answers. The Walking Dead has situations that can be infinitely extended. One is better suited to television.

But there are moments here as good as anything I’ve seen in a network pilot in quite some time. A moment near the end when the many storylines start to dovetail unexpectedly is particularly genius, and I liked the way the slow, deliberate nature of the pilot still got quite a bit of story told. There’s also very little outright exposition here, with lots and lots of visual explanation where other shows might use clumsy monologues. I don’t blame Fox for passing on Locke & Key—it ultimately wasn’t a TV show, almost certainly—but I do wish the studio would figure out a way to put the thing on DVD. It’s a nice little piece of television, and people should get to see it. If nothing else, it’s made me much more interested in checking out the comics.

***

Lev Grossman has found a secret passageway in the San Diego Convention Center.

It seems appropriate that he has. He’s a fantasy novelist, with his latest, The Magician King, coming out early next month. If anybody’s going to discover a mystical portal to another world here, it’s probably Lev Grossman.

And the place he’s found—which is mostly long stretches of backstage hallway that let various convention center workers get where they need to go quickly and cleanly, like they work at Disneyland or something—isn’t exactly unknown. As mentioned, there are workers here, and apparently some sort of Sirius XM recording booth. But to get there, you have to know just the right method and just the right access point. You have to have just the right attitude, too, and act as if you belong there, because you probably don’t.

I’m loath to give up this secret. I’m sure other journalists know about it, but it still feels weirdly special (like, say, a magic wardrobe), and after I’m done interviewing Grossman (look for that near the book’s release), I conduct another interview there later. No one seems too confused by the grown men sitting on the floor and conducting an interview in the middle of the Con’s backstage area. But it’s a place that’s peaceful and quiet, with lots of power outlets for charging various electronic devices. It’s the closest we’ll get to an actual fantasy wonderland here in San Diego.

***

Did you know that if you leave the convention center late enough, the people who bid you farewell are all older gentlemen dressed in sailor suits, like the building is a long-stranded ghost ship they must take out on the water that evening?

***

The kid next to me is really, really pissed. I’m not entirely sure why.

Well, I mean, I know WHY. I just don’t know why what he’s pissed about is worth getting worked up over. I’ve decided to attend the “Hey, We Still Care About Comics!” Con, which is split into two sections: “We Still Care About Current Comics!” and “We Still Care About Classic Comics!” I’m at the former, checking out Marvel’s Spider-Man panel and DC’s attempts to explain their various Superman reboots. (So far as I can tell, the most salient bits of info out of the latter panel are the following: Superman will now wear pants instead of tights. Superboy will be the villain in Teen Titans for some reason. Streaky the Supercat just might make an appearance. Actually, that might have been a joke.) And the kid I’m sitting next to is growing increasingly furious with Marvel’s sly digs at DC. “They make jokes about 52, but they did the SAME THING with ‘One More Day,’” he seethes under his breath. Also, for some reason, he’s carrying around a collapsed pup tent, like he’s about to just set up camp here in 6DE, which is the big comics room.

I don’t get comics fandom. This is not to say that I think it’s stupid or beneath me or whatever. It’s just that I didn’t get the particular button inside of me that needed to be pushed pushed at an early enough age to get interested. I know the broad strokes. I like Superman. Mark Waid’s approach to Daredevil, with its blatant attempts to run away from Frank Miller’s legacy on the title, intrigues me. But I’m never going to become the kind of guy who wanders into the comic book store and buys 15 titles every Wednesday. Even at the height of my comics buying period, I was only buying five books per month. I was a mighty failure at being a comics nerd.

But at the same time, I get that there are lots of people who would look down on ME for watching so much television or for loving to read science fiction or for having to see every movie with dinosaurs in it that comes down the pike. I like nerdy stuff, so I’m not going to get down on someone for their particular brand of nerd-dom.

And yet I have no friggin’ clue with this DC vs. Marvel stuff. No friggin’ clue. (I’m similarly lost when it comes to video game console wars.) Why wouldn’t you just buy the best books from both publishers if you were really into comics? I get that they have slightly different approaches to superhero stories, but it’s not like they have wildly different aesthetics. I mean, I watch good shows on HBO AND Showtime. And I’m not cheating on either if I go and watch Breaking Bad over on AMC either. So why this irrational anger? I could get, like, arguing about which of two comics titles was better. That’s basically like having the old Mad Men vs. Breaking Bad argument. That I get. But arguing over which corporate entity is better? Why on Earth would you want to do that?

And I’m sure most comics fans are this way and just read good titles from both publishers. And yet I have two close friends who read comics, and while neither is a fanatic and both read titles from both companies, one admits he’s more of a DC guy while the other says he’s more into Marvel. Is this just part of a comics fan’s DNA? Somebody help me out here.

The panels themselves didn’t make a lot of sense to me—one of the Avengers is apparently a frog now, I guess, and what looked to me to be a generic picture of Superman surrounded by fire drew excited gasps—but that’s because I’m not steeped in this world. Plenty of these people wouldn’t get why I was so excited about the Breaking Bad premiere either. I did, however, enjoy the lengthy question and answer sessions with fans, which almost always featured plenty of bizarre complaints of the sorts The Simpsons used to make fun of and fans asking for spoilers to upcoming story arcs (like Marvel’s heavily hyped Spider Island, which appears to just be someone at Marvel throwing up their hands and saying, “Fuck it! What if we gave ‘em ALL spider powers?”). My favorite in this regard was a fan attempting to get news of whether Aunt May would gain spider powers during this story arc and being continually rebuffed by a panel that didn’t want to give up any more than it had. But she was living in New York! Of course she’d get spider powers! Well, what if she was out of town? This went on for a while.

My favorite question of both panels, by far, came late in the Spider-Man panel, from a guy who’s still upset about the controversial “One More Day” storyline of a few years back and wanted to know if there were plans to reverse it. “No,” said everyone on the panel, to the applause of the audience. This was followed by one of the panelists (and my apologies for not getting his name) asking the fan if he still read Spider-Man. Yes. He did. Did he still enjoy it? Yes. Very much so. Well, why was he still angry? Did that whole story work? Maybe not, but it paved the way for other stories the fan enjoyed. But by focusing so much on one particular element and his reaction to that element, he lost all perspective. Ah, fandom. You fickle bitch.

***

Greg Grunberg doesn’t care that there are only about 30 people in the room. He’s gonna give ‘em a great fuckin’ show.

I’m hosting a panel for a tiny little Web series called Issues. The show’s got some solid laughs, and I like the people behind it. I’m also very interested in the future of Web TV and independent TV, so I’d like to grill them about that a bit. But the panel is for a Web series no one’s seen, and it’s scheduled for 9:30 p.m. on a Friday night in an absolutely massive room. Nobody’s there. The people that are there are mostly there for Grunberg, who did a guest voice in two episodes and came along because he likes Comic-Con, I guess.

Still, the guy’s a consummate pro at this kind of thing. Normally, it would be hard to turn this sort of situation into a winner, but after I very quickly exhaust any and all topics related to the series that I can think of, Grunberg and series star and co-creator Josh Cooke just start riffing on weird auditions and the strangest things that have happened to them as celebrities and so on. (Grunberg tells a lengthy, hilarious story about the weird consequences of sending a woman an autographed photo.) What can you say about a three-minute Web series over the course of an hour? Surprisingly, there’s a lot, but there’s even more when Grunberg and Cooke go off script.

And the crowd eats it up. They’re really into all of this, even if there are so few of them. And once it’s over, Grunberg stays until he’s ushered out, signing autographs and talking to fans and being generally agreeable. These people came out at 9:30 on a Friday—when downtown San Diego offers plenty of other attractions—and they largely came out to see him. That’s gotta be simultaneously a weird and thrilling feeling, to know that people don’t just like you. They REALLY like you.

***

I don’t realize it, but I’m on the last train away from the Con, headed back to my hotel. I’m exhausted—it’s impossible to not end the day here without being exhausted—but it’s a good kind of exhaustion. I met a lot of people and had some cool experiences and then had a long dinner chat with friends before walking back to the train with a fellow TV critic who filled me in on the details of the Donald Glover show I had to miss in favor of the Issues panel.

I’m sitting next to a group of guys, obviously friends, who have similarly exhausted faces, but they’re all smiling as they toss Aqua Teen Hunger Force and Futurama lines back and forth, a kind of friendly currency that marks all of them as kindred spirits. Everything at the Con is about this shorthand, about finding your tribe and knowing that just the right Bender quote will make them all accept you.

If you look out from the train as you slide away toward the quieter parts of downtown San Diego, the convention center sits in small pools of light, like one of those YouTube videos that purports to show a ghost looming up out of the ground. The last panels for the night are finally over. It’s past midnight. The security folks are cleaning the place out to get it ready for the hordes to descend again in the morning, for what will be the Con’s biggest day. A small crowd makes its way out, down the sidewalk, off to hotels or apartments or cars for a long drive home.

Climbing down the gleaming white outdoor stairs of the convention center are a handful of black silhouettes, not really wanting to leave but not having much choice in the matter. There are maybe a few movies still showing at one of the film festivals. Or they could go get in line for Hall H. More likely they’ll sleep for a while and come back in the morning. But then they stop for a moment, look out at that last train embarking for other parts of town, bearing away those who are nearly the last of the attendees. They stop and watch for a while, then resume their descent, black figures among white lights, reluctantly leaving the building behind.

More Comic-Con