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Comic Con Day 4: The British Are Here and So Is the End

(Sorry for the delay in this post. As it turns out, the traffic between San Diego and LA after Comic-Con is exactly as bad as everyone says it is. Also, sorry for the length of this. It was going to be two posts, but the opportunity to write up the first half never presented itself. - TV)

For the final day of Comic-Con, my wife joined me. My wife is not known for her devotion to all things geek, but she does enjoy Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the Con was screening the musical episode as a special sing-along event as its final session. Enticed by the promise of that and her crush on Doctor Who star David Tennant (she would swear she's not THAT geeky, readers, but she is; she very much is), she bought a Sunday pass on impulse, despite the fact that the thing she hates most in the world is standing in line. This promised to end well.

And, indeed, the line for Doctor Who's panel, the first of the day in Ballroom 20, which was rapidly becoming my own Purgatory, was insanely long, especially for a specialty sci-fi series that airs on a channel few people in the U.S. get that is also exceedingly British, much of the time. I mean, yeah, there's a rumor that Tennant's going to play The Hobbit (the guy even brought it up to dismiss it as not true in the panel), but he's far from a household name. That didn't stop the 10 a.m. panel (on what's supposed to be the quietest day of the Con, no less) from being stuffed to the gills with rabid fans of the series. When Tennant came out wearing a T-shirt featuring a glittering Stormtrooper, the place erupted like no other room I've been in this Con. At the end, the applause for him was even louder. Matt Smith may be exactly as good of an actor as everyone says he is, but he's going to be very, very lucky if he even comes within several miles of the adoration Tennant has received for his portrayal.

The panel was a bit light on news, since no one involved has any idea what Steven Moffatt and Smith are up to as they're no longer actively involved in the show's production, but this was made up for by an exclusive trailer for Tennant's final episode as the Doctor (airing this Christmas), which will feature the return of Donna Noble and family and a villain who will be very familiar to fans of the show (not spoiling this one, though a cursory Google search should turn it up). The panel also showed trailers for last night's Planet of the Dead and the "coming soon" Waters of Mars, which was far more in the way of footage than we thought we were getting. Tennant even insisted they show the trailer for his final episode twice, geeky grin plastered on his face.

The panel was all about celebrating the life of the show under Davies and Tennant (a tone that seemed to run through many panels this week), and Tennant absolutely adored the attention paid to him (at the end, he got up and ran along the front of the stage, hand extended to receive any fan high fives that might stray in his general direction). The trick to being a hit at Comic-Con, I've learned, is to seem to genuinely appreciate the affection bestowed upon you. Jim Parsons pulled it off. The Lost folks pulled it off. Joss Whedon pulled it off. But Tennant was the master at making himself seem like just one of the geeks but also one who could lead and entertain them. As the panel went on and Tennant talked about all of the ways he felt tied in to Doctor Who history (as when he said his favorite memory was hearing Elizabeth Sladen call him the Doctor in character as Sarah Jane Smith at a readthrough), he truly seemed like just one of the fans. He just happened to be the biggest fan of them all.

After that, we thought about hitting the American Dad panel, but we decided, instead, to catch lunch and hit something comics-related after. Television was getting sickening, and we still had Torchwood (which promised to be contentious) ahead of us. When lunch ended too late to go to a Bill Willingham panel, we decided to hit the show floor, particularly the booths of some of the indie publishers and the famed Artists' Alley. A friend had told me to check both out but also cautioned me to avoid walking the length of the show floor, saying that it would be easy to get stuck there for hours on end, trying to maneuver around people gawking at movie props or footage from movies they'd already seen. This friend was right. We went in at 12:15, fully intending to hit the voice actor panel recommended in comments yesterday at 1. We were only able to extricate ourselves at 1:30, after making the mistake of, yes, walking the entire show floor, end to end. The floor wasn't too crowded on either end, where most of the comics stuff we wanted to see was, but in its middle, where the big movie, toy and comics companies set up shop, it was murderously hard to walk, even though these booths were not as over-scheduled with giveaways and events as they were on other days (the only major event we spotted was an autograph signing by some Supernatural stars). But since Sunday is deal day on the show floor, a huge number of people were there. It was easy to get into panels; the show floor was where things fell apart.

All that said, we had a pretty good time wandering around and checking things out. Had there been about 500 fewer people on the floor, I daresay it would have been my favorite thing at the Con. We met Owly artist Andy Runton (the wife's a big fan) and had him sign one of his books for us. We happened upon author and Time book critic Lev Grossman at the Penguin booth, where he was promoting his new novel. We briefly greeted Charles Schulz's son. We checked out the merch from some of our favorite Web comics. We pawed through boxes of $1 comics and movie soundtracks on LP (even though we don't own a record player). We watched a couple of kids play LEGO Rock Band. I misplaced my water bottle at some point. And we wandered Artists' Alley, which is at once wonderfully thrilling and horribly depressing. It's amazing to see the level of talent that's still displayed by freelancers and amateurs at the Con, the thing that used to make up the event's beating heart and has now been shunted aside in favor of E-ticket rides. Some of the artwork there was fantastically gorgeous, worthy of hanging on any wall (would that we had the money!). But it was also horrible to think about how the Hollywoodization of Comic-Con, much as it draws attention to the event and allows people like me to make a little extra cash working there, has mostly left these people behind, consigning them to a corner of the show floor people wander through when they've seen everything else. The show floor was an experience like none other, but it also offered a lesson in what happens when an event like this sells its soul. Inviting Hollywood in was probably done with the best of intentions (and with a few exceptions, the movie and TV panels here featured things that geeky attendees would genuinely be interested in), but it's gradually pushed the soul of the event deeper and deeper underground until it's very hard to find.

After we escaped the show floor, we just wanted to sit down, so it was back to Ballroom 20, which was playing host to a trio of short panels on independent films of interest to Con attendees. We only got to see the last of these panels, for the direct-to-DVD Alien Trespass, starring Eric McCormack and directed by R.W. Goodwin, whose work was tremendously important to the look and feel of The X-Files. Trespass looked cute enough (the production design, meant to emulate '50s sci-fi drive-in flicks is dead on, as is McCormack's wink of a performance), though it was easy to see why it went straight to DVD, and Goodwin had a lot of good thoughts on how hard it is to emulate earlier eras of filmcraft. Even thought I've spent lots of time this week complaining about how inviting big studios and networks to Comic-Con has made it a bloated behemoth, I have trouble getting too upset when little indies like this, especially ones in genres comics fans love, get some publicity. It all has to do with scale; from as empty and distracted as Ballroom 20 was during the Trespass presentation, McCormack and Goodwin might as well have been hanging out in Artists' Alley. If only they could have starred in Iron Man 2, huh? But, hey, at least this way, they're not a part of the problem.

From there, it was on to the final panel I'll be writing up, for BBC America's Torchwood, which just completed the genuinely wonderful Torchwood: Children of Earth on our shores on Friday. Because it's difficult to talk about the tenor of the panel without spoiling a major event that occurred in Children of Earth, the following two paragraphs will feature some major spoilers for that miniseries. (Also, before Torchwood was a panel on Being Human, another BBC America show about a ghost, vampire and werewolf living together. I didn't take notes during it, but it looked pretty overwrought.)

Children of Earth was received very well by fans, the viewing public and critics for most of its run. The viewers and critics liked it throughout (it tripled Torchwood's typical ratings on its UK broadcast, and critics' reviews were stellar), but the fans liked it up until the death of fan favorite character Ianto near the end of episode four. Ianto, who was main character Captain Jack's boyfriend, was much beloved, and even though creator Russell T. Davies has frequently cautioned that people die on Torchwood and even though lots of characters have died on the show since it began, fans went ballistic online after his death (to the point where, series star John Barrowman said, "Ianto" was trending as a topic on Twitter above "Michael Jackson" immediately following the character's death). Davies, who's frequently cited the character-kill-happy Joss Whedon as a major influence, continues to patiently explain that killing Ianto drove home the seriousness of the threat in Children of Earth in a way that no other storytelling devices would have. And while he understands that fans are upset, he also thinks their reaction is a bit overstated (he claimed that the BBC has received only nine packs of coffee from a fan-led campaign in that country to resurrect the character by sending in such things). He's also not going to bow to them, and his slightly confrontational attitude continues to give the story legs. "No one's changing my mind, and no one's going to bring him back," he said, in response to how he could do such a thing. Yikes.

Sadly, the panel was not quite as crazy as it could have been. For one thing, no one brought up the fan theory that it was all done because Davies wants the show to appeal to American audiences and thus felt he had to kill off the show's one openly gay character, despite the fact that Davies is a very open gay man who's best known for treating the multiplicities of human sexuality matter-of-factly on Doctor Who and for creating the original Queer as Folk. But Davies is also addicted to keeping viewers on the edge of their seats, and the irresistable force of his storytelling sense is, at present, meeting the immovable object of a corner of fandom that knows what it wants and isn't going to go down quietly. (The first time the death of Ianto came up, loud boos rained down on Davies from the crowd, and Barrowman mockingly ducked under the table.) Sure, the crowd was excited by the rest of Children of Earth and loved Barrowman's antics (just being in the same room as the man gave me a caffeine contact high), but the undertones of serious, serious displeasure remained throughout. What's going to happen next? No one knows, since Torchwood isn't yet signed up for more episodes, though such a thing is considered a foregone conclusion.

After that, it was the Buffy screening and then time to leave and crawl home on the I-5 (to the point where we thought about just getting another hotel room for the night and leaving early the next morning). But something about Comic-Con stuck in my craw and wouldn't quite eject itself. I liked what Comic-Con aspired to be, but I wasn't quite sure I could fully get behind what it actually was. And that got me to thinking.

Throughout the day, we kept encountering a young geek with a smug smile holding a cardboard sign reading, "Twilight RUINED Comic-Con," carrying it to all corners of the Con, where he was met by people who applauded him at length. I kinda hated this kid on sight (I think it was the smile), but everyone else seemed to find him incredibly prescient. And, yeah, it's easy to blame Twilight because its fans are kind of ridiculous and have so little overlap with the rest of geekdom, but Comic-Con has been headed down this path for a long time, I think. I hadn't even heard of the event until this decade, but every year, there was more and more in the way of movie and TV news leaking out of the place and more and more people were attending. Blaming Twilight strikes me as missing the forest for the trees. The New Moon panel (which I didn't attend) was on Thursday, and most of the people who attended came to Comic-Con just for that and then stood outside the building to watch its stars leave in huge SUVs (one girl ran into traffic to catch up to Robert Pattinson's vehicle). They didn't, say, wander into a panel about Captain America and ask when Cap was going to meet some werewolves. Because they're totally separate from the Con itself and from geekdom, blaming them is the easy thing to do. It involves no self-recrimination, and it gets easy applause.

What I saw of my first Comic-Con was a tiny show catering to a specific sub-culture (one that I am not a part of) in the best way it knew how and not terribly inviting the throngs to come in and join it. And then running alongside that was a giant show, filled with the sorts of corporate entertainment giants who are constantly bombarding us with ideas of what sorts of things we have to see to be a part of the cultural conversation. What they've done is take that small, soulful, eminently geeky event and added a giant sideshow that's become the main show, further allowing them to choke out the individual voices the Con was originally invented to promote and continue their monopoly on that conversation. It's probably impossible for Comic-Con to back away from what it's become at this point or even to restructure so that it's better organized in this regard, but it is possible for geekdom to question why it's so easily swayed by things like this, why it's let its High Holy Days be so easily corrupted by big money and big footage. I'm a fan, just like everyone else at Comic-Con. I loved the hell out of the Lost panel. Seeing the way rooms reacted to people like David Tennant, Jim Parsons or Joss Whedon was electrifying. I wish I had seen the Iron Man 2 footage. But at the same time, the event is just too damn big to be sustainable now. And instead of blaming a bunch of teenage girls and their moms, it's time to take a look at the role everyone who attends the Con or even reads a report like this one played in what it's become. If the Con suddenly became a small, comics-based show again, I probably wouldn't go, and I certainly wouldn't be covering it, but it might recover some of its soul again. Is the tradeoff worth it? That's something everyone involved will just have to decide.