Comic-Con, Day 3: Where the fans are

Comic-Con, Day 3: Where the fans are

How to court a rabid fanbase in a few easy steps with special guest star Bill Willingham

The idea, I guess, is that Comic-Con is for the "fans." You hear the word "fans" more than just about any other at Comic-Con. And for the most part, that's true. Most of the people here are hardcore fans of one thing or another and are here to celebrate that one thing or another. Some people are here to gawk, sure, while some people are mostly just here to try and find some celebrities (like the kid I stood in line with this morning, who kept asking me which celebrities I thought would be there today). And other people are here to take in the whole experience and not really get too immersed in any of it. But the vast majority of the people here are fans, which is turning into a word with increasingly less meaning in the hands of marketers. At the Piranha screening the other night, one of the publicists wandered by after the majority of us had waited over an hour to see gory footage, and said to the recently arrived actors, "The fans have been so patient."

Honestly, though, fans of what? I guess I'd call myself an Adam Scott fan, but he wasn't the reason I was there. Fans of the original Piranha movies? Of director Alex Aja? Or has the word "fan" just become an all-purpose word to mean anything anyone wants it to mean. I find fandom a little alienating and hard to process because I'm just not sure I can muster that level of devotion to anything, much less something entirely fictional (I'm not even a hardcore fan of any sports teams). I like things. I appreciate things. But there are only three or four things I'm a genuine "fan" of. But the Hollywood definition of a fan tends to be anyone who can be suckered into anything. Now, to a degree, this is true. Most fans buy a lot of crap devoted to their chosen properties. But how is it at all possible to be a fan of something you haven't even seen yet? Comic-Con is a machine devoted to ruthlessly turning people from those who don't care about shit, to those who care passionately about it, to those who forget how passionately they felt about it while at the Con years later when they're disappointed by the final project.

I've heard a lot about the "Sundance effect" from people who go to that film festival, which, roughly, means that at the festival, any film that is the slightest bit entertaining often gets massively blown out of proportion as some sort of new masterpiece, simply because a lot of the fare offered at the festival is so depressing and hard to watch. There's a similar effect at Comic-Con, which creates an ideal atmosphere to screen pretty much anything with any geek potential (and plenty of things without) and then builds a place where it will be met with mostly uncritical eyes. There are exceptions, to be sure, but Comic-Con is a place not to build anticipation but fan faith, a rock solid belief that, lo, these things will be as awesome as they seemed after you spent all that time in line to get into Hall H.

I'm thinking about this today because it was the day for THE two movie panels, the Warner Brothers one and the Marvel films panel. I attended neither, though I sat in line for the Marvel one for a bit, simply to spend a little time outdoors (one of the cruelest ironies of Comic-Con is that it sends 100,000 people to one of the most beautiful outdoor cities in the U.S., then asks them to spend all of their time indoors). I was also thinking about it because of how well the trailer for The Walking Dead was received, even by me. It's much, much easier to cut together a bunch of awesome moments from a movie based on a pre-existing property that Comic-Con attendees are already warmly disposed toward than it is to get people interested in any sort of original property (just ask the folks behind new independent sci-fi drama Skyline, which emptied Hall H yesterday). I'm increasingly less sure of why anyone covers Comic-Con, because it's turned growing hype into a science. Everybody here is hearing Pavlovian bells. (I hope to write more about this tomorrow.)

That said, though, the entertainment world runs on geeks, more or less. Geeky objects of affection have largely become the mainstream culture. This is more or less fine. I like this stuff, too, even if I seem curmudgeonly about it. But Comic-Con has become so huge that it has kind of a love-hate relationship with the folks who are its lifeblood. Today, at the Chuck panel (which you can read my full report about here), the interest in keeping things moving along so quickly led to the asking of absolutely no fan questions. For a show like Chuck, which has something of a deeply symbiotic relationship with its fanbase, this was ludicrous. It makes sense that there's a need to keep the Ballroom 20 schedule moving along nicely, but not even allowing fans to ask one or two questions was a bad call.

And yet, Comic-Con is often one of the few places where it's possible to develop a relationship with fans for the entertainment community. Stars are more approachable here - I could, say, walk up and talk to an actor I liked, should I spot them - and they tend to be a little more gracious. The people here are the hardest of the hardcore fans, and while I'm sure it's just as exhausting for a Harrison Ford as it is for anybody else, I was at that Community panel, up on stage, and the effect of having 1,600 people cheering in your general direction is electrifying. I knew they were in no way cheering for me, but, Lord, it was still a tremendous rush (and I'll write more about that panel in a separate post).

Leverage and The Venture Bros.: The problem, then, is how to give the fans a valuable experience. I almost said "what they really want," but, honestly, for a lot of fans, just being in the same room as the actor or author they love is enough. The panels that go from merely good to truly great, however, are the ones that figure out a way to harness what it is that the fans might love about their particular favorite property and find a home for it on a Comic-Con stage. I attended two panels in the Hilton's Indigo Ballroom today to get a feel for the room (which was where Community was), and the difference between the two was oddly illustrative.

Leverage isn't a bad little show, but the panel it hosted was flat and blah for some reason. It's entirely possible that this had to do with the audience being about half Venture Bros. fans waiting a panel they weren't interested in out, but it also felt like the collection of actors assembled was a little unsure what to do with all of the fan attention (outside of Christian Kane, who's used to it from Angel). Sometimes, you can just tell that a particular celebrity is a little frightened of the fan attention, and that was the case here. Timothy Hutton, for example, wasn't hiding under his table or something, but it was easy to tell he felt slightly out of his element. It didn't help that the panel's momentum was broken up by a lengthy, out-of-context clip from tomorrow night's episode that brought everything to a screeching halt, pacing-wise. When it came time for fans to ask questions at the end of the panel, the moderator had to keep begging more fans to step forward and ask.

The Venture Bros., meanwhile, came almost completely unprepared. James Urbaniak, Patrick Warburton, Doc Hammer, and Jackson Publick had a trailer to show us - and it was a very good trailer indeed - and a few bits of news - the next batch of episodes from season four will hit on Sept. 12! - but, for the most part, they just showed up to shoot the shit with each other and invite us to listen in. Since so much of what makes The Venture Bros. so enjoyable is the interplay between the voice actors and the weird, weird minds of Hammer and Publick, this was a completely acceptable alternative to the normal, staged-within-an-inch-of-its-life panel, where "news" bit after "news" bit is trotted out for all in attendance. The team behind Venture Bros. knew that no one from the big, mainstream media was going to be there, so they just relaxed and let us listen in on their conversation. Urbaniak started things off by quoting Citizen Kane. At one point, Warburton tried to get girls to take an interest in his teenage son. There was a lengthy story about Hammer lactating or something. Not a lot was going on, but almost all of it was very, very funny. And, even more importantly, everyone on the panel had some idea of how to work the show and didn't seem terribly stiff at it.

At the end of the Venture Bros. panel, Hammer and Publick replayed the trailer and added snarky director commentary (with one saying he'd typed up the text for the trailer and given it to the other to proofread and he'd only made one spelling error!) over top of it. None of this was absolutely vital. I'm not sure that I learned anything new about the show, nor do I think I would have missed much if I had skipped the panel. But it was marvelously fun all the same, a way to celebrate the show's fans that was at once both essential and inessential. (And I loved Publick and Hammer's snide way with dispatching "news" that wasn't really news but was, instead, full of the most minor of tidbits about the upcoming episodes. It was wonderfully snarky and subtly satirical.)

Fables: After Community (about which, again, more in a moment), I sat in the Hall H line for a time, and I came to realize that for a certain subset of fan - say, the fans who are not under constant deadlines - the line standing is part of the point of the whole process. The girl I struck up a conversation with was downright cheerful about waiting in line for Kevin Smith (who was on after Marvel), since she got to meet so many interesting people in line and talk to them. It's easy to forget while working a job steeped in covering pop culture that for a lot of people, there are very few people in their lives who care this much about trivial bullshit. Standing in line and meeting someone who's just as excited about Kevin Smith movies as you are can be a warming experience, a way to feel oddly connected.

But then there was a stabbing. Yes, a stabbing (with a pen). Other sites have all of the details, but Hall H was closed down, with no one being let out or in, and it soon became obvious that nothing was going to come of waiting in that line, so I decided to go to the Fables panel instead.

Fables was the series that really got me into comics a few years back. I came to comics pretty late, not allowed to read them as a kid (outside of the few at my grandmother's house), and the only superhero I know terribly well in the sense of having a good working knowledge of his storylines and villains is Superman. Fables, though, had such an irresistible concept that I just had to pick one up. And then I kept picking up trade paperback after trade paperback, until I had blitzed through the entire series and simply had to start visiting my local comics store to keep up. Whereupon I started buying other acclaimed series and seeing what they were all about. The first time I thought of going to Comic-Con was a couple of years ago, and it was solely to see the Fables panel. I've fallen away from interest in the series in the past year, catching up only sporadically (and I've let Jack of Fables slide entirely), but I still have a huge sense of goodwill toward the series.

Say what you will about Bill Willingham, but the guy knows how to take care of his fanbase. He's easily approachable by just about anyone who might want to talk to him. He maintains an online forum which remains one of the most polite and thoughtful on the Internet, and he regularly talks to his fans there. While we were waiting in line for the panel, he came along to assure us that all of us were going to be getting in and talk with us about what we hoped for from the panel. He seems like a nice guy who's really pleased to be doing this full-time, and his overall demeanor colored the whole panel, which was full of occasionally unfunny jokes (bastions of humor the Fables team aren't), big news for fans of the comic, and assorted other odds and ends.

It seems like Willingham and his team are going all out for the series' 100th issue, making it 100 pages and including lots of great goodies, like a board game and cutout puppets. The main story of the issue is going to be about a magical duel between a character who seems to be Frau Totenkinder and Mr. Dark (a villain I like in theory but whose nebulousness and pure evilness has dragged some of the suspense out of the tale), and the artwork shown from upcoming issues was gorgeous. The panel also announced another Cinderella miniseries, this time featuring her taking on her deadly arch nemesis (who will have something to do with Asian Fables) and just generally joked around with fans.

I complained a bit about comics panels yesterday, but I genuinely enjoyed this one, even if I've fallen out of love with the series. Willingham's jocularity set the tone, and the fanbase for Fables is small (though large for Vertigo) but loud. This, honestly, is a property that's just waiting for just the right adaptation to really blow up huge - and might I suggest Rachel McAdams and Josh Holloway as Snow and Bigby? - and it's nice to see Willingham biding his time until that inevitably happens by building a relationship with his fans (many of whom he seemed to know by name). I don't know if this panel made me more likely to pick up the latest issue of Fables or continue with Jack of Fables again, but I certainly didn't find it bafflingly self-serious, like I've found many other comics panels.

Up next: I'll bet you're just dying to know what it's like to moderate a Comic-Con panel. Well, I'll tell you!

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