July 16, 2012 - 10:07a.m.
So this is what a ball-jointed doll is.
A ball-jointed doll is a doll that has balls in its joints. This may seem obvious at first, but the more you think about it, the more it seems absurd. How does the doll do anything but flop all over with balls in its joints? (Answer: There are strings inside that can be pulled taut, so the doll can “snap” between positions.) What could possibly be different about this sort of doll from the sorts of dolls you might be used to? (Answer: These sorts of dolls allow for almost infinite customization once you really know what you’re doing, in a way that’s harder to do with more traditional types of dolls.) And what would you do with these dolls once you had enough of them? (Answer: Mostly pose them to make for nice displays, but there’s plenty of time to make outfits for the dolls, or to buy new doll forms and turn them into new companions for the already present dolls.)
Comic-Con has a really strange hierarchy of what’s “acceptable.” That’s not just true of Comic-Con, of course. It’s true of fandom and humanity in general. But there’s very much this sense that certain entertainments at Comic-Con are “cool” and certain others aren’t. All you have to do is think back a couple of years to the kid carrying around the “Twilight ruined Comic-Con” sign to realize that as much as the fandom attending the show purports to be open and accepting, there’s still a deeply entrenched stigma in favor of certain forms of entertainment and against others. Nobody’s really sure how to deal with the stuff that wanders too far afield, and all too often, these sorts of things are tossed aside in weak jokes about all of the weird stuff you can see at Comic-Con.
Oftentimes, the Ball-Jointed Dolls Collectors Panel has been the subject of those jokes. Now, don’t get me wrong. Not all of these jokes are meant to be malicious, not at all. For the most part, these jokes center on the basic idea that, man, you can find anything at Comic-Con, because the vast majority of people aren’t going to know what a ball-jointed doll is. (I certainly didn’t.) But every so often, you’ll hear an edge, a sense that this panel doesn’t “belong.” But who determines that sort of thing at a convention that was started to attempt to bring prominence to art that was always regarded as “outsider” to begin with? During her presentation, Robin, the woman running the BJD panel, says that she’s run into some people within fandom who are unsettled by her dolls—“tinies,” she calls them—and she just shrugs it off. That’s just the way some people are. If something makes you happy, why would you care what other people think?
Isn’t that all it, though? So many of the people attending Comic-Con are people who spent long childhoods and adolescences trying to fit in with the majority, even as their interests skewed more toward the minority. So many nerd-ish pursuits promise both mastery—over tiny facsimiles of the world as it is and as we would like it to be—and untapped power, trapped just inside your rib cage, if only you knew the magic words that would unlock it. But with the rise of events like Comic-Con and the fact that superhero movies (and other geeky flicks) have conquered the box office, fandom finds itself in a place it doesn’t really understand: a place of uneasy cultural dominance.
It’s become sort of cliché to say that the eternal war between jocks and nerds is over, and the nerds won, but it seems increasingly true. We all live in a world where technological innovation has made it possible to drill down into the things you’re interested in, where everybody can be exactly as geeky as they like about any topic they could ever think of. It’s a world where communities as strong as any ever formed are built in virtual spaces, and it’s a world where communication is key. Bullying is still an issue, but there are so many more outlets now if you’re looking to escape an unpleasant high school existence. Comic-Con was something started by a couple hundred people in a hotel ballroom, and it’s grown into this dominant event on pop culture’s social calendar. So the longer the convention is up and running, the more it drills down, the more it splinters off into smaller and smaller segments. And that’s where the sorts of things that cause people to say, “What the hell is that?” come in, things like the BJD group or the Little Lulu fan club.
When I sit in on the BJD session, however, I realize just how cool this sort of thing can be. It’s not the sort of thing I’m ever going to go in for—it’s apparently a hobby that can get fairly expensive, and I already have far too many of those—but the lineup of dolls up on the front platform features a surprisingly wide variety of figures and types. There’s a note-perfect Jack Sparrow, made by a woman named Pam who takes commissions online and then spends months upon months bringing those commissions to life. (Jack took her 10 months.) There’s another doll who’s been outfitted to look like Merida from Pixar’s new movie Brave. And there are strange, fantastical creatures that seem to have stepped right out of the pages of some unknown storybook.
For the most part, these dolls are entirely the creations of their owners. Oh, sure, they’ll buy custom-made outfits or buy certain parts, and it’s rare for anyone to cast their own doll molds, instead ordering the basic frame a doll will be built upon online. But the dolls that take shape upon those frames are all springing forth, fully formed from the imaginations of the people who bought them. The customization doesn’t stop there. A man named Bruce, who runs a meetup for BJD collectors in San Diego, builds one-third scale dioramas for those meetups, and the collectors gather and place their dolls in the diorama. (The next meetup, in November, has a Wild West theme.) At one point, a panelist describes the dolls as little friends, and instead of seeming odd, it seems completely natural. Of course the dolls are friends. In many ways, they’re extensions of the people who made them, creative expressions of whatever was on their mind at the time.
This is something I can get behind. If you’ve read these reports for any length of time, you’ll know that creative people, those who find some way to express what they’re thinking, are my folks. I love somebody who can take a blank canvas or a big hunk of clay or a doll form that has yet to be made to look human, then turn that into something beautiful and artistic. There’s no way I could do half the stuff the BJD collectors do almost as a matter of course, and sitting in the room makes me feel almost a little guilty, as if I’m intruding on a private ceremony without anyone knowing. There’s a raffle held for various prizes—including some pretty great doll boots and a steampunk outfit set—and I’m briefly embarrassed by the thought that I might accidentally win a prize. (The room is so uncrowded that it’s a distinct possibility.) If that happened, the jig would be up. I’d have to give it away, because it would be of less use to me than anybody else in the room. I just want to observe, to see the evident joy these people get as they talk about their dolls, to listen as they let out an excited gasp at the sight of the raffle prizes. I don’t want to get in the way or intrude on something borderline sacred.
When I talk to Robin and Bruce after the panel, when time has been set aside for the attendees to snap photos of the dolls and ask those more experienced in collecting for advice, both tell me that meetups within the BJD collector community are fairly frequent. There’s also a thriving web presence, with sites like Den Of Angels, where discussion of the dolls and their customization can get heated. (There’s some discussion of how Den Of Angels is too closed off to members of other doll communities, and that idea that sometimes, fandoms can be strange about other fandoms rears its ugly head again.) But no matter how much the web and the meetups make the BJD collector community feel like a constant presence, it’s not, not really. The world is naturally designed to cut people who get passionate about things off into tiny islands, on which it can be all too easy to feel like the only person who lives there. Events like those meetups and places like those websites are necessary to bring the islands together into a continent from time to time, to remind yourself that there are other people who love what you do and would love nothing more than to sit and talk about it with you for hours on end.
That’s why events like Comic-Con endure, why they matter, no matter how big they get or how much Hollywood tries to turn them into elaborate dog-and-pony shows. When I have dinner with my friend Darren Franich of Entertainment Weekly Saturday night, he tells me how when you’re in Hall H, there’s this excitement that’s easy to get caught up in, something that comes along and carries you in its tide and washes you up on the other shore, giddy at what you just saw. It doesn’t matter what the movie is. It doesn’t matter if the footage is any good. Just being gathered with that many people who care about what you care about is the high, is the point. It becomes a kind of church, a place where everybody lifts their eyes to the sky and, for one second, gets to focus in on the same thing. It might seem silly to friends and family, but here, it’s the only way of doing business.
It’s all too easy to hijack that sacred moment, though, to take something that’s beautiful and pure and so, so human and make it into a marketing tool. Movie studios and TV networks know exactly how to do this. They’ve been doing it for decades, and they’re experts at leaving the energy ping-ponging around the inside of Hall H or Ballroom 20 until it feels like nothing else in the world. And those sorts of panels are fun—to this day, one of the best things that’s happened to me at Comic-Con is a panel I attended for Doctor Who the first year I went, at which David Tennant lit up the crowd like he was Mick Jagger or something. But there’s also something stage-managed and manipulative about them. It’s all about the screens giving out the Word, and the fans receiving it, not about them giving it back.
For an instant, it becomes ever more clear why those evangelists have set up camp outside the convention center all weekend long. We’ve taken the language and reverence of religion and turned it into something else. Whether that’s entirely healthy is a question I’m not qualified to answer. But there is no doubt when you’re sitting in Hall H. Everything is carefully made to stimulate you in a certain fashion, and when the moment comes, it’s easy to give in to rapture. The media coverage of the event strikes me as ever sillier, simply because everything is so strenuously created to provoke the desired reaction. And when you’re sitting in a crowd of nearly 7,000, all of whom are raising their voices in joy at what they’ve just seen, it’s hard not to be affected by that. It’s an ocean to pour your hope into, a place where pop culture really can save.
But that’s present in room 32AB, too, where the BJD collectors are talking back and forth and snapping photos of their respective dolls. The more I talk to them, the more I’m impressed by the sheer amount of work they put into the little figurines, and the more I realize just how happy they all seem. Here, for two hours, they’re among their people, and as I watch two women carefully put their dolls back in carrying cases, I’m struck by how this is another kind of rapture, but one that’s a conversation between the fans and what they love. There are no dolls unless these people put the effort into them, and that explains the bristling that occurs when Robin talks about “bootlegging,” dolls made at half the cost that are cheap knockoffs of other molds. At their best, these dolls are unique, right down to the frame. But the more people that get into the scene, the more there’s a demand for cheap, mass-marketable product. As always happens with fandom: Eventually, somebody realizes how much money remains to be made, and everything gets bigger and bigger. You can’t stop the rock from rolling downhill.
Will that happen to the BJD community? It’s hard to say. At one point, I get to hold one of the little dolls—it’s one that’s “used to being handled,” Robin says—and there’s something satisfying about hearing the little pop that comes when the joints are bent into new positions. It’s easy to see how this could be turned into another way to send fans of other properties something that would remind them of the film, book, or TV show they love. (When I hear a list of Pam’s commissions, they’re almost all of film characters, including, oddly, Tom Selleck’s character in Quigley Down Under.) On the one hand, this all seems like so much work for a neophyte. On the other hand, it’s easy to imagine a world where pre-made dolls of Katniss Everdeen and Clark Kent are down there on the show floor, ready to be snatched up for a reasonable price. And the convention is already hurting the BJD collectors panel. When it started in 2005, it was still possible for those who wanted to attend to just get Sunday passes (and get them the day of). Now, it’s so hard to get tickets that many BJD collectors don’t even bother. The con gets bigger and bigger, and while it keeps all of its old selves within it, they become less and less the focus.
When I go up to talk to Robin, there’s an instant where I tell her who I am and what I’m doing there, and I can see this instant of something intangible race across her eyes. In that instant, I’m embarrassed to have been there, to have sat in on something that is so clearly so important to these people. And I see the jokes and the questions of, “What’s a ball-jointed doll?” and the easy laughs and the fear that it would be so easy to just make this article some sort of, “Can you believe what these people get up to at Comic-Con?” snark-fest. It’s all there, but she plunges on ahead, and we talk, and it’s great. And what I don’t say—what I should have said—is that I know what she’s probably afraid of, but there’s no reason to be. I play Dungeons & Dragons and read crappy sci-fi novels and love Doctor Who. I’ve got all these little geek islands I live on, and when I come to a place like this, it feels good to walk across bridges to other ones. Comic-Con may be big and unwieldy and ultimately pointless, but it’s also continental drift in reverse, bringing all of the pieces back together toward Pangaea.
July 15, 2012 - 08:07a.m.
If you listen to the media coverage, then the center of the Comic-Con experience is found somewhere in Hall H, where movie studios screen footage from their upcoming films, as Warner Bros. did today with The Man Of Steel, Pacific Rim, and The Hobbit, and as Marvel did with Iron Man 3. I wouldn’t necessarily say the event has a center, but if I were forced to pick one, I wouldn’t place it in Hall H. I’d locate it somewhere on the show floor, which is a giant, gleaming collection of everything that makes Comic-Con great and awful all at once. It’s a giant mob of people, all moving aimlessly, but it’s also the world’s greatest, geekiest shopping mall. It’s a punishing experience involving standing and standing for hours on end, but it’s also a place where you can find just about anything you might be looking for when it comes to pop culture—and from sellers who are usually willing to negotiate, particularly if it’s Sunday, and they just don’t want to pack everything up.
It’s ridiculously hard to describe the show floor to someone who’s never been to Comic-Con, because the sheer scale of the thing is remarkable. It’s well over 450,000 square feet, and walking the length of it takes the better part of an hour when it’s full. Trying to see everything that’s present on the floor is all but impossible, and often, the best tactic is just to wander, letting your feet take you where they will (and ideally into a booth with plusher carpet than the barely-there rugs the con lines the concrete floors of the exhibit hall with). The basic setup is that of a flea market, with numerous retailers and other companies setting up booths where attendees can buy stuff or get free crap, but numerous booths are set up more like tiny stores, as with a rare books dealer, who’s managed to make his booth really feel as if you’ve stepped into a little store off a busy side-street in a major city.
The floor contains sections for comics, toys, gaming, film and TV, and assorted other things, but they’re not always as organized as they could be. For the most part, like is near like, so if you’re shopping for cheap comics from the many comics stores that come to the con, you can stay in the same corner of the room and root through white boxes to your heart’s content. But the books section goes on for a few aisles, ceases for no apparent reason, then picks up again in another few aisles, and while the video games section seems to be getting better than it had been in the past, it still feels as if the gaming companies are tossed onto the floor at random. (Curiously enough, there doesn’t seem to be a big presence for tabletop gaming at the con—perhaps because GenCon already fills that niche so neatly—but it’s possible I just haven’t stumbled upon that section of the floor yet.) But things are organized just enough to offer the occasional feel that the attendee is wandering through a particularly jumbled department store, except for in the aisles that specialize in clothing, which are tight and crowded and offer some of the feel of an open-air bazaar.
There’s also almost nowhere to sit. There are some tables and chairs near the back—where you can buy crappy, over-priced food if you’re feeling hungry—but for the most part, once you hit the floor, you’re hiking it back and forth all day long. It’s an easy place to get good exercise. (I’m far from the world’s healthiest person, and I almost always lose 5-10 pounds over the course of the weekend, just from all the walking I do.) The walking is further exacerbated by just how crowded things get, particularly in the middle of the show floor, where the large exhibits from the big corporate entities cluster. While attempting to make my way to Artists Alley, for instance, I got caught up in a scrum surrounding the Fox booth, consisting of fans trying to get photos of the stars of Glee, who were there signing. Extricating myself from the situation (which, admittedly, I was stupid enough to wander into) took some doing, but this is always happening. The larger booths try to create manageable lines, but it almost never works. They’re swamped by people trying to grab a photo of whatever star happens to be there. And it’s almost impossible to predict when one will break out—like the weather. You’ll be walking by a booth when you’re suddenly surrounded on all sides by people who are aiming for a glimpse of a TV star or simply a chance at a free T-shirt.
The best plan is to stick to the edges of the show floor, and perhaps skirt around the middle by exiting and re-entering in a later door. The edges hold most of the comics and art stuff anyway, so that’s where many of the best deals and coolest stuff can be found. Artists Alley, for instance, is all the way over in the southwestern corner of the show floor, while the webcomics and small press area tends to occupy a position on the northern end off toward the east. (Getting between these two areas—which would seem to be natural fits for each other—can be a trick.) You could probably be very happy here—and avoid most of the throngs—simply by taking in the far eastern third and the far western third and leaving the middle alone entirely.
But just describing the logistics of the space isn’t really all that helpful, because it doesn’t convey the hot, sweaty, frustrating, terrific experience of the whole thing. It’s a constant assault on the majority of your senses, with lights flashing and the smells of rotten hot dogs and the sounds of throbbing music and constant conversation and the feel of all those people jostling up against you. That’s to say nothing of the costumes, which always seem to be slightly more plentiful on the show floor than anywhere else. But the floor is also much more than just the constant sensory overload. At its best—and at its worst, come to think of it—the show floor is like one of those country houses that orphans and sickly children are always being sent to live at in British children’s novels. It’s filled with long passageways that seem to have little rhyme or reason to them. There are all sorts of things to see. And once you start to figure out the maze, new, hidden places open up to you. Wandering the show floor is like one of those novels’ protagonists making his or her way through that country house, turning a corner, and seeing something new and splendid.
I’ve been coming to Comic-Con for four years now, and I don’t think I’d ever been all the way to the floor’s far eastern edge, until I resolved to walk the complete perimeter of the show floor today. (I made two circuits of the floor, and it ate up around four hours, though it felt like eight.) Perhaps unsurprisingly, that far end is filled with a hodgepodge of dealers, including those who can appraise your non-sports cards (and why just the non-sports cards, I don’t know) and a few who are happy to help you sell your comics collection at an auction or on consignment. It’s a weird little section of the floor, almost like going to a strip mall and finding a dentist or lawyer sandwiched in between a rare coins store and a local deli, but it makes sense for them to be here all the same.
Another thing I’ve never really stumbled upon until I take the time to do so are the various bootleg DVD dealers here, all of whom are selling stuff that’s not readily available on DVD in the U.S. Most focus on films that aren’t available here—particularly anime—but I’m in Heaven once I discover a dealer who’s got almost all old TV shows that have never (and probably will never) be available on DVD, including a complete set of WKRP In Cincinnati with the original music (something that will never exist in a conventional physical format and may never be seen again). His prices are a little steep for my tastes, but there’s no way I’m not re-visiting him on Sunday to see if he’s willing to come down just a little bit on some of these. It’s entirely possible these are just rips he’s made from Internet files. There’s no real way to know the video or audio quality. But there’s something thrilling about seeing all of these shows that will never be available to me and holding them in my hands. (I have to imagine that’s why there’s a great crowd around the anime booths.) I have a similar experience when I stumble upon a booth that seems to simply be every single toy I had as a child, jumbled together in bins. The urge to buy is less strong here, but it is still a fascinating place to just browse.
But the surprises on the show floor also involve turning the corner and seeing someone you really love or somebody you’ve long been a fan of. For plenty of fans, that meant camping out by the Fox booth for the Glee kids to show up. For me, it meant abruptly realizing that Rick Geary had a booth, or stopping in again on one of my favorites, Katie Cook over in Artists Alley, to see if she could paint some pictures of my cats for my wife and I. (Yes, we’re those kinds of people.) The signings here are plentiful, and celebrities will pop up in the oddest of places, hanging out in some other booth or just wandering around on their own. Plus, there’s a real, personable quality to everybody here, a laid-back vibe that permeates nearly everything. It’s easy to have a brief discussion with the people you encounter here, to realize that the guy you bought a Peanuts comic from earlier also is involved with a comic about a cowboy who rides a bear, and doesn’t that sound awesome? Yeah, it’s still all about selling you stuff, but it’s much more friendly and direct than the Hollywood smoke and mirrors act.
It’s that good vibe that makes me think whatever’s going on on the show floor is closer to the center of the con than anything in Hall H. The more times I come to the convention, the more I realize that everybody’s too tired or blissed out to get too upset with each other. I’ve seen fights break out, and I’ve seen angry words yelled, but these events are in the distinct minority. (That’s one of the things that sets the extremely angry proselytizers who’ve set up camp all around the convention center this year stand out even more. As they glare at convention attendees and preach their words of supposed salvation, they just come off as hopelessly confrontational in a place that’s filled with people who do their best to avoid such things.) The show floor is a big, jostling mess, and it’s something that will always be a big, jostling mess. But it’s also a world of wonders and a giant space of surprises. And it’s extremely rare that anybody ever gets all that mad, because the second they nearly do, well, they turn the corner, and there’s that perfect gift, that perfect sketch, that book you’ve been looking for. And all is well again.
So this morning, as I was on my way back from an interview with the producers of American Dad (look for that closer to the show's new season, this happened. My favorite was the guy with the microphone casting an exhausted eye over at the kids (and they could not have been older than 20) holding up their signs.
I spent the bulk of my day on the show floor, but I did make it into three panels, all of which were hosted by the great Mark Evanier. The first was the long-recommended-to-me “Draw Something!” which was as fun as advertised, mostly for the presence of the famed MAD! magazine cartoonist Sergio Aragonés, who may be getting older but remains as sharp as ever when it comes to drawing witty gags quickly and efficiently. (The other two artists present—Scott Shaw of Simpsons comics and Keith Knight of The K Chronicles—are very funny as well.) The object of the game involves Evanier offering up prompts to three artists, who attempt to draw the funniest answer as quickly as possible. At times, Evanier solicits suggestions from the audience, as when he asks us to shout out two cartoon characters for an “if they mated” type of game. (Aragonés draws “Iron Man and Vampirella” and quickly slays the room by drawing a tiny robotic tyke with a bat on her finger—and two doctors straining and sweating to cut the umbilical cord with a saw.) “Draw Something!” is a holdover from the con’s earliest days, and it’s such a simple concept—get three funny artists to draw silly gag cartoons as quickly as possible—that it would be hard to screw up. Indeed, so long as Aragonés remains involved, the other two panelists could be people who possess no artistic talent whatsoever, and the whole thing would be fun.
I’m less enthused by Evanier’s “Cartoon Voices” panel. I’d tried to get into the Bryan Fuller panel at the same time but been shut out (by only three people!), so I figured I’d give “Cartoon Voices” another shot after enjoying it so much last year. Sadly, though, the whole thing is a touch too repetitive of that panel, with even the same script making the rounds. On the other hand, Evanier has gotten some true greats up on the panel, including Chuck McCann, whose work stretches back several decades. And he saves his best surprise for last, when he brings out Stan Freberg—whom he claims is the voice-over actor with the longest-running current career—who’s a living legend in humor circles and one of the last remaining links to the Warner Brothers Termite Terrace animation crew. (Among others, he was the voice of Baby Bear in the old Looney Tunes shorts.) By the time Evanier gets Freberg out, the panel is technically over, but no one’s going to silence him. Freberg holds on at some length, even as fans for the next panel—on Marvel’s X-Men Vs. Avengers event—keep filing in, often audibly wondering who the hell the old guy is. There’s something delightful about nobody having the temerity to stop Freberg, even if he’s rambling, and it makes the whole thing that much more memorable.
The final Evanier panel I attend is a quiet little memorial for Ray Bradbury, held in a spacious hotel ballroom that’s maybe only a quarter full. The event collects many of Bradbury’s friends and admirers—including Margaret Atwood and Joe Hill—and it’s surprisingly moving. Bradbury’s presence was always felt at Comic-Con, and he was to attend this year and make it his final appearance before his death in June. (Indeed, the panel was announced the day before he died.) Clips of Bradbury telling stories of how he decided to become a writer are played. The tributes are short but beautiful. (And, okay, Rachel Bloom performs her “Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury” song.) The whole thing is quiet, an oasis of thoughtfulness in an event that too often substitutes the loud for the meaningful. Of course, only a handful of people are there, but they all seem touched as they quietly file out at the end. It’s yet another reminder of how we have all of these last living links to things we take for granted—how the old men talking about their relationships with the great sci-fi authors of the early 20th century are our last real links to the pulps, as surely as Freberg is the last link to Termite Terrace. I keep saying that nothing dies at Comic-Con, and I really think that’s true. And as much as I sometimes wish people would let go of, say, a 10-year-old space western that was canceled (even if I love it, too), there’s something beautiful about the idea of these people carrying torches forward into the dark.
The second annual A.V. Club meetup was terrific fun and attended by 16 people in total (though not all stayed for the whole thing). Let’s do it again next year, yeah?
As has become tradition, here is my favorite costume of the day. The music played and everything!
July 14, 2012 - 08:07a.m.
The only way—the only way—to get through Comic-Con without wanting to slit your wrists is to decide just how much you care, then be comfortable with the fact that if you don’t care enough about Firefly to get in line for its reunion panel at 3 a.m., then you probably should be okay when you don’t get in after getting in line at 8 a.m., even though the thing is at noon. No matter how hardcore you think you are at Comic-Con, there is always someone who’s more hardcore. Like the two guys who’ve been hanging out in the line for Hall H since the first day of the Con, playing cards, seemingly biding their time for… I’m not sure what, exactly, but they’ll be first in line for whatever it is. If the only way you’re going to have a good experience here is to get into that Firefly reunion, then you’d better do everything in your power to make it happen. If, on the other hand, you can see alternate routes to enjoying yourself, take them at all costs.
It’s a lesson I forgot yesterday, when I structured my day around that RiffTrax panel, but it’s a lesson I re-apply on a Friday that I find much more leisurely and enjoyable than my first day here. I bop around between Spotlight panels (at which comics artists stand up in front of the crowd and just free associate with a doodle pad for an hour), academic panels filled with rousing defenses of Jack Kirby, and something that was seemingly created just so two former writers for FlashForward could explain what would have happened in a second season of FlashForward. I also spent a fair amount of time on the show floor and just took a couple of breathers to hang out and watch the world stream by. When people talk about how much fun it is to just hang out at the con, they’re usually talking about this sort of day. The only thing you have to do is give up on all of the reasons you probably came in the first place.
The only panel I’m shut out of all day is the Kate Beaton Spotlight panel, which is all right. I got the full Beaton the day before, and it was awesome. I do attend a Spotlight panel for For Better Or For Worse creator Lynn Johnston, mostly because some weird part of me thinks it would be hilarious to live-tweet it while the rest of the world is live-tweeting the Firefly panel I would have had to have been in line for at 3 a.m. to attend. But I end up getting weirdly engrossed in the Johnston panel, and I start to remember that there was a time when I was as engrossed in FBOFW as I have been in any serialized novel, that there was a time when the storyline where Lawrence, Michael’s friend, came out, and it was genuinely transgressive and daring. At her height in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Johnston was doing a newspaper comic strip that was a worthy successor to things like Gasoline Alley and the like, and if it fell off toward the end, when she seemed uncertain of how to wrap everything up, well, she was going through a lot of shit at the time.
Johnston’s a gregarious, surprisingly funny presence, with a dark sense of humor you wouldn’t expect, given what she’s most famous for. She discusses small town gossip about her ex-husband (who left her for a woman half his age) with a vengeful, silly gleam in her eye, and she carries on about her apparently lonely war to get a buttcrack into the nation's comics pages. The whole thing is literally just Johnston holding court and talking about fan mail she’s received and sketching FBOFW characters on the overhead projector, and although I mostly came in just to sit down, the room is eventually completely filled with people who are eating out of her hand. She’s like your cool aunt who lives in the big city, the one who lets you have a little wine over dinner, and she makes for a terrific guest. (And if you want to know more about this panel—and I know you do—I did, indeed, live-tweet it.)
Comic-Con—and the media coverage of same—is focused with such laser-like precision on promoting the movie and TV panels that it’s easy to get distracted by them and decide that attending them is the be-all and end-all of attending the event. But shutting yourself inside of Ballroom 20 all day so you can get to the panel you want and a bunch of kids get shut out of the Legend Of Korra panel is no way to experience everything that’s going on. I’ve been going here four years, and I continue to be surprised by the new people I’ll meet just wandering around, from Johnston, whom I bump into on the show floor, to a husband and wife team pitching a new graphic novel in the autograph area to anyone who will listen to novelist Patrick Rothfuss, who joins a few of us in line for a panel he’s on, just to see if he can piss off people who’ll think he’s cutting. The only reason to be frustrated about the con is if you narrow your focus so much that you can’t take in the world of stuff going on all around you.
The more I let go of the notion that I’m ever going to get into a TV or movie panel, the more the whole thing starts to become as weird and fun as it’s been in the past. Novelist Margaret Atwood is here, and her Twitter feed serves as a rough inspiration. All she seems to be doing is wandering around between signings and taking photos with people she thinks have cool costumes, and it’s almost like a weird rallying cry: If Margaret Atwood can be having this much fun—highly respected novelist Margaret Atwood, author of several of the best books of the last 50 years—then why do you let yourself get so worked up about all the stuff you think you’re missing out on. The con rebroadcasts Hall H and Ballroom 20 panels at night, if you really want to see them, still. Take a break. Hang out. Watch some guy harangue you for a while about how great Jack Kirby was, ending on a note meant to inspire triumphant applause that, instead, garners a handful of claps.
It’s a cliché to say it’s all in what you make of it, but it’s really the case here. This is a place where the difference between a good time and abject misery is often all about adjusting your expectations and setting those sights just a little bit lower.
I don't know what this is, but I want one.
For the second day in a row, I’m in a room when Deborah Ann Woll unexpectedly pops up on a panel. In this case, it’s something called “Girls Gone Genre” that I’m only half paying attention to because I’m trying to get some work done, but I look up, and there she is, talking about how her Dungeons & Dragons group has two girls in it. Woll is so seemingly omnipresent this year (at least in my experience) that I almost wonder if she senses Felicia Day’s weakness as the hot, red-haired geek girl and Comic-Con queen and is swooping in to scoop up her territory. She certainly seems to have all of the qualifications. We’ll have to see if Day will pop up on Sunday, TV On The Radio’s “DMZ” playing, as she gets up in Woll’s face and tells her to stay out of her territory.
I wrote kind of a despairing article after spending a little while in Artists Alley two years ago at my second convention. Since then, I’ve been impressed with how the little section—which took up a tiny fraction of the show floor two years ago—has slowly but surely expanded and expanded to take up more space. This is another case where webcomics (and Kickstarter) are helping artists who might not have had the cash to attend a few years ago carve out a little area for themselves at the con. The usual stalwarts are there—including almost all of the people I wrote about in that article two years ago—but they’ve been joined by more and more new folks, almost all of whom have something interesting to share. If you’re at the con and need to spend a half hour doing something that won’t inordinately stress you out or make you feel claustrophobic, the alley’s a great place to check out, and I’ll guarantee you’ll find something worth bringing home for a reasonable price.
Weirdest sight of the day: a mom in her late 30s, dressed as slave Leia and leading around three sons under 12, all dressed as Jedis. I’m just trying to imagine all the conversations leading up to that moment.
Here’s another one of those Comic-Con secrets not everybody will tell you. Power outlets are one of the most sought-after resources at the con, simply because most people are running low on cell phone or tablet battery by the midpoint of the day. (Or, if you’re in the press, you’re running low on laptop battery.) The problem is that the only outlets you can actually sit by are out in the hallways, nowhere near the action on the show floor or in the panels. The exception? Room 7AB, which boasts a long line of chairs against the back wall and at least three outlets, all of which are easily accessible to those sitting there. (It’s also a large enough room that the panels there tend to be at least mildly interesting, though it’s still small enough to be easy to get into most of the time.) This also creates a very, very odd situation where those lucky enough to get one of the six plugs then have to offer up USB ports to others looking to charge, creating weird, instant pods of new best friends, bound by electronics. All of which is to say that I have several new best friends, and it’s all thanks to 7AB.
I always like attending literary panels at Comic-Con, simply because I don’t get to spend a lot of time reading online about the best fantasy and science fiction novels of the year during the rest of the year. I also like that the writers on these panels are very generous with advice, usually treating the panels as an opportunity to share their own tricks and tips about writing genre fiction. The crowd almost always gobbles it up as well. I attended one panel for something called “Epic Fantasy War,” which turned out to be nothing more than a publishing house getting a bunch of its fantasy novelists together (including Rothfuss, Raymond E. Feist, Robin Hobb, and Christopher Paolini) and then having them compare notes. It broke out into a legitimately fascinating discussion among the panelists about just what was the best method for writing fantasy, including a lengthy, polite argument about whether research was necessary. Some of the writers—Rothfuss and Paolini included—like to do lots of research. Some—like Feist—only do it when they determine they can’t make it up. And some—like Brandon Sanderson—insert notations into their first drafts about stuff they’ll have to research later, lest they lose momentum in the initial writing process. (Sanderson says he leaves himself notes that say, “Be clever here,” and that sounds more or less like my process, only I forget to take the notes out.) I had to leave the panel early for an interview, but I was sad to. I always enjoy these writing advice panels, and hearing from people in corners of the geek universe that wouldn’t instantly be recognized on the street or cutting into line in front of you.
I was less enthralled by an io9 panel on “science fiction that will change your life.” The theme of the whole thing was weak, and even when it seemed to settle down into something about sci-fi books and films that are less heralded than others, the panelists (including some io9 writers and various sci-fi professionals from the literary and television fields) seemed to keep hitting the same two or three items. The site’s editor—Annalee Newitz—offered up a handful of suggestions I’d genuinely never heard of before, but the panel ended up being a little repetitious and poorly focused. Still, if you’re going to listen to people gab about the same things over and over, at least when it’s writers, the jokes are pretty funny.
After the surprisingly good time I had at Lynn Johnston’s panel, the most fun I had was at a panel convened by two FlashForward writers, in which they brought forth several of their TV writer friends to discuss the things that would have happened on their various canceled TV shows, had they run for additional seasons. Though the revelations for Firefly and Dollhouse were mostly minor, since the planned stories for both series were accelerated to fit into the film sequel and second season, respectively, the revelations for The Middleman and FlashForward were more wide-ranging and all-encompassing, including two completely separate versions of what would have happened on FlashForward. (The version preferred by original showrunner David S. Goyer—which involved escalaing flashforwards that culminated in one where only 17 people were left alive, and those 17 had just three days to avert the end of the world—would have sounded cool if I hadn’t seen the show it would have emerged from.)
This, again, is one of those “only at Comic-Con” type events, an hour of people still slightly angry about their shows being canceled letting it all hang out there. Did you know Inara on Firefly had a terminal illness? Or that the focus of Dollhouse would have shifted to Echo sending dolls out to help people in distress in the post-apocalyptic world established in “Epitaph One”? Or that Wendy from The Middleman’s father was a Middleman himself, who had been sent to another planet, and would return to be younger than her—and in need of her training him? Well, you do now, as well as knowing that Middleman creator Javier Grillo-Marxuach had hoped to make the season premiére of season two the resolution to a cliffhanger that was never set up.
With just nine minutes left, one of the panelists invited the audience to start bombarding them with whatever questions they had left, and it turned into a weird lightning round of aborted TV possibilities. In some alternate universe, there are panels for these shows that are dealing with the mind explosions caused by the best-possible versions of all of these storylines. In this universe, we only get to listen to what might have been, but that what might have been lives on at Comic-Con, where even the mention of what I had previously assumed to be the almost universally loathed FlashForward gets big cheers. I said yesterday that nothing ever dies at Comic-Con, but there’s an awful corollary to that: If nothing ever dies, then we all keep circling around in the past, even if that past never existed. The canceled show panel was fun—and let me make jokes about a FlashForward season two panel all day—and it was surprisingly big on revelations. But it also created the weird sense that sometimes, it’s best to just let go, even if that’s the hardest thing in the world.
My rough plan for today is to spend as much of the day on the show floor as I can. Tell me stuff to look for there, set me scavenger hunt-style challenges, and make it worth my while. Tomorrow will be TALES FROM THE SHOW FLOOR.
Since you were nice enough to read all of that, here’s a picture of Lynn Johnston with Luann artist/writer Greg Evans.
Remember: The A.V. Club meetup is tonight. More details will be forthcoming on my Twitter account, but we’re planning on meeting up probably around 8 and going for drinks at one of the gaslamp bars, assuming we can find one that’s not an utter terror. Let us know in comments or on Twitter if you’re hoping to come!
July 13, 2012 - 08:07a.m.
It’s when somebody dressed as Axe-Cop removes his mustache and hat to reveal that “he’s” actually True Blood star Deborah Ann Woll that I realize that everything about Comic-Con starts to sound like a crazy dream if you describe it long enough. Nothing ever really dies at Comic-Con, to the point where there's a panel for a '70s TV version of Shazam that I've never even heard of. But that also means that everything you could ever possibly think of is here and wandering around, all the ghosts of your childhood entertainments live and in the flesh. Today, I stood in line with a Snork and saw a sexy Tom Servo. And those are among the more easily understandable costume choices. Everything about wandering around here has that feel of when you fall asleep after being awake too long and your brain starts rummaging its own couch cushions for spare change.
This is all elaborate preamble to saying that today was one of the most frustrating days I've ever had at the con, but by the end of it, it seemed as if it had all worked out. Things are often like that at Comic-Con. You think you've got your heart set on one thing, and then you have to head for something else entirely. But by the time you're there, you realize it was what you wanted all along.
In the past, I've come to realize that the best things to pursue at Comic-Con are the sorts of experiences you could only have here. I can tell you lots of stuff about the Berkeley Breathed panel I attended a couple of years ago or the voice-over actors panel I attended last year, where an assortment of cartoon voice greats gave life to an old-time radio script. I'm not so sure I could tell you a damn thing about, say, the Fringe panel I attended last year. That's not a slight against Fringe, which I very much enjoy. It's just the fact that you pretty much know what's going to happen once you get people from movies and TV shows up in front of this audience. They're going to avoid spoilers, they're going to speak in platitudes about how great the "fans" are, and they're going to make a handful of jokes. That's about it. You don't always know what's going to happen when it's some lesser known geek treasure.
So since today's schedule was a little light on things I wanted to see, I decided to build my day toward a live RiffTrax event. Mystery Science Theater 3000 was a touchstone of my childhood and adolescence, and though I haven't liked every RiffTrax commentary I've listened to, I've liked enough of them to think seeing one live could be fun. Plus, c'mon. It was the guys who made me laugh myself sick as a kid. Even I'm not immune to nostalgia. I figured even a weak performance by the crew would be worth it, if only to see them performing live.
The problem is that a lot of people had the same experience as me and wanted to see RiffTrax as well. There's nothing wrong with this—it's good to have shared interests with fellow fans—but it does mean that getting to see RiffTrax meant sacrificing a bunch of other stuff I might have wanted to see and standing in line for two hours. (At least we all got to stand by the ocean, one of those value-adds that really makes me hope this event never decamps for Las Vegas as occasionally threatened.)
Every year, I come to Comic-Con, and I'm stunned anew by the size and scale of the thing. Every year, it seems to get bigger. This year, however, the volunteer staff often seems as discombobulated as everybody else. This hasn't been the case in the past years I've been here, but over the course of the first day, I've been sent to the entirely wrong place by three different staff members. There would be nothing wrong with this if I were asking these volunteers questions they had no idea of the answer to, but in all cases, I was looking for the end of a line that volunteer was ostensibly monitoring. I always got to the right place in the end, but usually at the cost of something else I might have seen.
A case in point: Immediately prior to RiffTrax was a panel for Archer. While I try to avoid TV panels here, I love Archer, and the show almost always brings an unaired episode to the con. I figured sitting through Jon Benjamin cracking wise would be a relatively painless way to wait for RiffTrax. But despite getting in line for the event almost 90 minutes beforehand, I didn't get in, simply because I was initially sent to a weird holding area, where I and a bunch of other people milled around for a while before being told we couldn't get in line there and had to head outside. Had I been sent to the right place straight off, I would have gotten in. Instead, I stood around for a long time, and you don't get any Archer news. And I am not the only person who was frustrated by this. I wandered by the guy who was first in line for Hall H. He was going to get to see the panel he wanted to see. And he was yelling, absolutely furiously, about Twilight or something, at the volunteer in charge of letting people into Hall H . Having to sit and wait and slowly pick your way forward can be a horrible experience, but there is simply no way around it for the con.
I'm really trying not to whine here. Thinking about ways to redesign the con is one of my favorite pastimes while I'm here (I have weird pastimes), but the more I check out the sheer bulk of it, the less I think there's any way to fix it. The city of San Diego isn't structurally built to handle a crowd of this size. It has a very nice downtown district, and the convention center is a perfect venue for this sort of thing, but the city itself lacks the kinds of robust parking and mass transit options that would help funnel people in and out of downtown quickly. (Indeed, the Fashion Valley Mall, formerly a popular Comic-Con parking spot, thanks to its proximity to a trolley stop that leads directly to the convention center, has shut down all Comic-Con parking, leaving more and more people with nowhere to park that doesn’t cost $20 or more.) As such, the most common refrain for how to fix the con is to move it from San Diego. But I doubt that would work at all if the con suddenly lit out for Vegas or Anaheim or Los Angeles. Every year, thousands are turned away, and every year, just as many can’t find affordable housing and have to make the trek from Mission Valley or Coronado or Poway. The event might scale up to 200,000 or 250,000, but that would almost certainly only make it feel more crowded and troublesome, not less. Plus, standing in line is almost a vital part of the con now. Almost all of the people I have met at Comic-Con, people whom I greet with a smile when I see them again, were met in line. And everywhere I go, I see similar situations, where friends greet each other as they pass in line. This thing is about more than just the panels. The people surrounding the event matter, too.
Gregory Ellwood, who writes for Hitfix.com, tweeted this evening that it feels almost as if a bunch of people have decided to just check out the con this year, even if they don’t have any real interest in it. He compared it to Sundance in 2003, and it’s an interesting comparison, since this year, a number of “shadow” cons have sprung up in San Diego’s downtown, including one run by Ms. Comic-Con herself, Felicia Day, for her Geek & Sundry YouTube channel. This roughly tracks with how the growing popularity of Sundance made way for things like Slamdance and even smaller festivals, how there’s a constant attempt to keep the heart of what people originally loved pure by coming up with newer, smaller nuggets.
I don’t know if Ellwood is correct, but this year certainly feels busier. I only got into three panels—one the RiffTrax thing—and that was largely because two of them I stumbled into since no one was there. One was for the New Crusaders, an iPad-only comic from Archie Comics imprint Red Circle that revives a series that has long lain dormant. It was sparsely attended (though those there seemed really into what was going on, and more power to them), for fairly obvious reasons.
On the other hand, I have no idea why nobody was attending a panel featuring Kate Beaton and Allison Bechdel, but I’m amazed by how skillfully Kate Beaton succeeds at being exactly whom you would expect Kate Beaton to be. I’m a huge fan of her work, and seeing that she’s exactly as witty and sardonic as her work would have led me to believe. This panel—on what it’s like to be a “graphic novelist” in an age where mass-market bookstores are gradually giving way to Kindles—was a big highlight, and there were some great stories from all of the participants about just how hard it is to get bookstores to figure out what, exactly, a graphic novel is. (At one point, Bechdel lamented how her stuff always ends up in the gay and lesbian section, while many of her colleagues’ stuff is slotted into the humor section, while Beaton talked about finding her book in the “teen” section and opening it immediately to something no parent would want their teenager reading.) I had merely stumbled into the panel because I couldn’t get into something about dystopian science fiction—featuring Paolo Baciagalupi—but I found the whole thing rewarding. On the other hand, that fiction panel would have been a cinch to get into even just last year. The con gets busier and busier, and everything gets fuller and fuller.
This year, the staff has mostly been forced to cope with this by having to get pedantic about things. It’s literally the only thing the con can do to hopefully manage the giant beast of traffic, and it’s lead to things like “entrance” and “exit” doors for the convention center, which aren’t really necessary but are now in place for some reason. At the same time, the organizers simply gave up trying to enforce a fire marshal edict that visitors can’t sit or stand against the walls of the convention center. The con tried to placate those who need a seat with a few dozen chairs on the main floor, but quickly realized this wasn’t going to work. After a Wednesday night in which volunteers seemed to do nothing but tell people who’d plopped down on the floor to stand, Thursday was comfortingly full of people sprawling out wherever they could up against the walls.
It’s bigger and it’s messier and it’s much more frustrating, yes, but it’s still Comic-Con. It’s still the sort of place where wild and unexpected things can happen. All of which brings us back to Deborah Ann Woll revealing herself underneath her Axe-Cop get-up. Woll has become somewhat famous in recent years for her elaborate costumes, which allow her to stroll the show floor unrecognized, and this costume was impeccable, right down to the fake axe. She’d strolled on stage to “guest judge” a movie pitch “contest” the RiffTrax guys were holding, in which they asked panel attendees to offer up the worst movie pitch they could think of, in order to win a prize. (Most participants utterly misunderstood the game, but everybody got a prize—an awful DVD—for participating.) Woll, it turns out, is a big fan of Mystery Science Theater, as well as RiffTrax, and knows the guys behind it well enough to get called in for a favor. (She was also promoting her boyfriend’s plan of running marathons blindfolded for charity.) It was so out of nowhere and bizarre and amazing that it ended up making the whole day. In that one instant, everything washed away, and I was delighted to be where I was, seeing what I was seeing. The RiffTrax live riff had been fun—particularly once it got going and the guys were making jokes about the ridiculous short itself, instead of lame pop culture gags—but this was something else entirely, the sort of thing you’d never see anywhere else.
On the way out of the Hilton ballroom where the RiffTrax panel had been held, it was possible to hear a man who’d positioned himself with a megaphone of some sort on a walkway leading across the way to Petco Park. He lectured the throngs on their immorality, on how sinners would not get into Heaven, even if he went off Biblical script to wrap in any number of sinners who aren’t listed in the passage he was quoting but probably struck him as equally important in the moment. With every new person ignoring him—thousands upon thousands—his voice got a little louder. He punctuated each paragraph of his rant with an endless refrain of “Heaven? Or Hell? Heaven? Or Hell?” And while I could see what he was trying to do and could understand the frenzy he was in at all of these people elevating mere pop culture above his god, I also wanted to climb up to him and ask him if he couldn’t see that this? This was both.
Hey, if you’re at San Diego Comic-Con, we’re planning an A.V. Club meet-up for Saturday night. I’m here. Noel Murray’s here. Oliver Sava’s here. Caroline Framke’s here. Let’s make this happen, and let’s get some dinner and/or drinks. More details will be forthcoming via my Twitter account. Please comment or tweet at me if you’re interested in meeting up.
And since you read all of that, here's your reward: my favorite costume I saw all day.
July 12, 2012 - 10:07a.m.
The San Diego Comic-Con has been dubbed the “nerd prom,” largely because the event is often the highlight of the year for those focused on geekier pursuits. Yet after three years here—and upon entering my fourth—I’m not sure that moniker has it exactly correct. “Nerd prom” suggests the culmination of something, the idea that everything has been building toward this, and once it’s over, something new will have to begin. But Comic-Con is pretty generally a chance for Hollywood, comics companies, and ball-jointed doll enthusiasts to get fans excited about what’s coming down the pipe. No, Comic-Con is the Nerd State Fair.
This reference might not make a lot of sense, because state fairs are on the way out, but the events are scarily similar. State fairs began as gathering places for farmers as the summer waned and harvest drew near, and they still maintain those agricultural roots, with places for farmers to check out the newest equipment, demonstrations of various farming techniques, and carnival rides. (Okay, that last one has very little to do with farming.) A state fair is a massive expo, designed to get people talking about the latest gear and to bring people together who will only see each other once a year. I should hope that would sound familiar.
But Comic-Con is also something of a Nerd Political Convention, with the friendly rivalry between DC and Marvel standing in for the not-so-friendly rivalry between Republicans and Democrats. Everything’s scripted within an inch of its life, and the attendees are easily supplicated with the promise of free things. The whole event is designed to placate the faithful, and delegates travel from all over the world to stump for the things they truly love. And yet when the whole thing is over, it leaves a distinct taste of artificiality in the mouth. There’s very little that’s real about it. It’s a carefully stage-managed event designed to put fans in close proximity to the things they’re fans of, while allowing for maximum opportunity to control the narrative sent out by the press. Naturally, of course, all of us in the entertainment press feel the need to cover the thing.
If the past couple Comic-Cons have felt a bit dour at times, the first night of Comic-Con 2012 felt downright delightful. The show floor was crowded, the exhibitors were plentiful, and even Artists Alley seemed to have expanded. While more Hollywood studios than ever before are sitting the year out, the film portion of the week will still have the presence of a handful of movies the faithful are actually somewhat interested in, including The Hobbit and Iron Man 3. With The Avengers mopping up every last box office dollar the world had to throw at it, superhero movies are once again ascendant, and this time, they’re on steroids.
The last few Comic-Cons have been bedeviled by the question of whether it’s really worth it to these studios to bring their big movie properties down here to preen for the fans, like those farmers watching prize ponies race around an arena at the state fair. The failures of Comic-Con hits like Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World and the success of films that came out of the convention with bad buzz, like Avatar, suggested that the Comic-Con audience was pre-sold and wasn’t all that massive to begin with. Why debut footage to just under 7,000 people who are tired and cranky after standing in line all day, then hope for good buzz, when you could just put that footage up online and reach far more people in an instant? Hollywood had tried to turn Comic-Con to its own ends, and it had largely left in puzzlement.
Yet Comic-Con has continued on, drawing roughly the same amount of people, even as the studios have grown ever more skeptical. Part of this is the way that television has swooped in to fill the void. Summer’s a great time to hold a massive TV convention, and more series than ever will have a presence at this year’s convention, including such non-genre series as Breaking Bad, Homeland, and Shameless. In addition, the convention allows networks to debut their new pilots for an audience pre-selected to at least slightly like the programs. As a case in point: NBC screened its pilot Revolution here tonight. This is a natural, since it’s a science fiction, post-apocalyptic series with heavy overtones of The Hunger Games. And yet the network is recasting the pilot and reshooting much of it. The pilot shown here will never be seen by anyone by those in the TV industry, TV critics, and whatever fans wander into the screening. Yet it’s a somewhat safe bet that enough of those people will like what they see—or the idea of what they see, perhaps—to spread the word.
TV doesn’t explain it all, though. At this point, Comic-Con has simply become a self-perpetuating machine. Essentially every geek pursuit has a niche here, and while much of the media coverage focuses on the film and TV stuff (with a sidebar about comics here and there), there are entire sections of the convention that are never written about anywhere, including a film festival, assorted tabletop role-playing game sessions, and a room set aside to screen classic anime non-stop. The convention is so big—and so filled with weird little nooks and crannies—that if you happen to like some weird little geeky thing, chances are you’ll find other people here who like it as well. Hollywood helped Comic-Con get big, but once the convention had gotten the lift, it took off under its own power.
To be sure, most people are here to sit in a room and listen to their favorite movie and TV stars talk about their latest projects. But to walk the show floor this year and look around is to see that this is a convention that’s simultaneously in transition and becoming more fully what it always was. There will always be people here who are simply excited to get swag and check out the latest movie trailers or game demos. But the show floor is increasingly filled with weird, intriguing little things, like independent films, bootleg DVDs of British movies, Kickstarter campaigns to fund indie comics, and webcomics galore. (At times, it feels as if DC and Marvel—whose presence is big as always—have been surrounded by the webcomics scene, which grows with leaps and bounds with every new year, at least on the show floor.) The Kickstarter presence is no accident. Geek culture seems to be in the process (at least in some quarters) of further democratizing itself, and Comic-Con, with its ever-shifting and splitting multiple selves, is a new epicenter for that movement, as surely as it’s a place where seemingly everybody is into The Big Bang Theory. (Seriously. The only thing I saw more T-shirts for was Star Wars.)
As such, it’s time for your annual chance to tell me what to check out at Comic-Con. The more I wander away from the giant movie and TV panels, the more fun I have, and the more I love what the convention is. There’s no way one person can cover all of this, but I’m going to do my best to see as much of it as I can. Noel Murray and Oliver Sava will be here covering comics news, so I’m going to be focusing on other things. The schedule is here. Tell me where to go, and I’ll be there.
After all, there’s only one Nerd State Fair, and it only lasts four days.
July 25, 2011 - 08:07a.m.
Everything started somewhere. When you dig down deep enough, you find the core, the DNA that keeps things ticking along. And Comic-Con, beneath all of the movie stars and TV fans in long lines and voice actors performing radio scripts and comics being sold and artists sketching commissions, started out as a simple, downright idealistic concept: If you put a bunch of aspiring artists in the same room as the professionals and the comics companies, then the amateurs will get advice from the professionals and get jobs from the companies.
But is it still that? Portfolio reviews are still a part of the Con, but they’ve been shunted off way to the side (they’re in the room everybody walks through when they’re on their way somewhere else), just like I’ve never seen a single minute of the Anime Film Festival or the role-playing game sessions that apparently exist here. (Also? Some sort of fighting pavilion. I don’t even know what that’s supposed to be.) I said the Con was a whole bunch of different events smushed together in an arranged marriage that somehow works back on day one, but it can be damned hard to find some of those events unless you know exactly where to look.
But I knew the comics portfolio stuff existed from my very first year, when a friend who’s been through the process told me all about how she was getting sicker and sicker about the commercial aspects of the Con overwhelming the idea of what it was supposed to be originally: a super networking event for people who wanted to hear honest critiques of their art (and maybe get a job).
So that’s why I tracked down Stephanie Stober.
Stephanie, you’ve probably figured out already, is the young woman who was getting the extensive critique from Phil Foglio back on day two, the one that turned weirdly, potentially embarrassingly public. People started gathering, like Foglio was a carnival barker or something, but Stober kept smiling through the whole thing, taking it all in stride, water off a duck’s back and all that. (Today, she says that she’s going to take some of his tips, but some of the suggestions he made for her are things she doesn’t like about his work, so why would she incorporate them into her own?) Her friend, Missy Pena, who’s had some success finding work via this system, even in the last two years which were apparently lean for companies looking to hire, scoffs at the notion that everything was too grey and muddy. C’mon. It was raining.
This is Stober’s first Comic-Con, and she’s sort of kicking its ass. It’s hard to say that someone exudes positivity, because that’s somehow become a negative thing in our culture, but I want to say that Stober’s relentlessly positive (in a completely good way). She takes every single critique or thing someone says to her and collapses it all down into some bright ball of energy that’s aimed solely at making everything she does better. If this were a sitcom’s opening credits, she’d be tossing a hat in the air at the end, thrilled at the prospects ahead of her. Pena shakes her head at Stober’s confidence, is sort of amazed she’s this good at the whole game at her very first big show.
Pena, for her part, has the very quiet confidence of someone who’s slightly older—she’s 23 to Stober’s 21—and is really starting to figure out who she is and what she wants to do. Where you can still see Stober’s primary influences coming out loud and clear in her portfolio (mostly drawn from her Web comic, Final Arcanum), Pena’s art blends her influences into something that’s starting to look more like her own style. Her colors are bright. Her lines are at once loopy and precise. There’s an intriguing half-cartoony, half-realistic vibe to the work, including rabbits that seem to be caught halfway between a Disney film and a kids nature text. She’s finding success here with this portfolio, and she’s already got a part-time job illustrating for Gaia Online. Her first year didn’t go as smoothly as Stober’s, but, then, she’s been here to help her friend.
We’re sitting in the portfolio review area, which is a long string of blue folding chairs sitting in a couple of rows in the middle of a wide, open room. Forming a perimeter around the chairs are a series of booths from the various companies—comics and animation—that are looking to hire or just looking to provide portfolio critiques. (Pena says that in recent years, there had been less hiring, but that seems to have picked up this year.) At 10 a.m., the reviewers filter in and sit at their booths, ready for the last day of this process. A Con volunteer starts reading out names loudly to the many people sitting here, nervously jiggling their knees or listening to their iPods to relax or flipping through their portfolios, looking for last minute saves. She says the name three times over the space of about a minute. And if you’re not there? That’s it (though you can apparently beg to get rescheduled).
While we’re sitting there talking—and a former Yale cartoonist named Reuxben Barrientes has joined our number—the volunteer calls out a woman’s name three times, receiving no response. Pena looks nervous, picks up her phone. That was her friend, see, and now her friend might not get that all-important look, the one that could lead to a big break or comics stardom or just an honest appraisal of her strengths and faults.
But, OK, what happens when you go to the booth? Well, it depends on the company. The worst, Stober says, is when someone just tells you that something is really good but doesn’t bother to elaborate and doesn’t ask for a card or anything like that. Are they just trying to let you down easily? Or do they really not have any further clue what to say? Pena bumped into someone who told her, “Everything’s perfect. Just submit something to us.” But she doesn’t script anything, and without any notion of what the company might be looking for, she’d be grasping at straws. She doesn’t plan on submitting.
DC and Marvel don’t have people up here anymore. They operate through a third-party company, Space Goat, which will occasionally find something it likes and pass it along up the chain. But for the most part, the two big guns aren’t here looking for new talent anymore. They’re the aspirational places to eventually land, not where you start out. (DC’s portfolio review literally just involves dropping a bunch of drawings in an envelope through a mail slot.) Who’s up here are smaller presses, companies that have need of illustration for other reasons (like, say, Wizards Of The Coast), and, weirdly, TV animation studios like Nickelodeon.
All around me, the reviews are starting to happen. People are sitting down with editors and reviewers and putting their hearts on the line. There aren’t any dramatic reactions. Some people walk away with glum faces, some with optimistic smiles. When I first heard about this place, I guess I pictured people throwing their hands in the air in excitement like they’d just won a Vegas jackpot, but this is quieter, a place where people can have their dreams come true, sure, but something more reverential, more earnest. Everything’s on the line here, kids. Best make a good impression.
And if nothing else—if neither could actually draw anything more than a stick figure or that turtle you used to have to draw to attend art school—Stober and Pena are great at that, at making it seem like everything you say to them is just fuel for whatever happens to them next. They’ve heard stories of people going a little nuts when their work is panned, but both of them accept it as a cool reality of the business, even when being harshly critiqued on the show floor before a small crowd. It helps, of course, that both are very good artists, that both will likely have a future in the industry should they want it.
Barrientes is in a different spot. He, too, is a good artist, but he’s out of college now, and he needs to find a job, needs to find money. Where Pena’s bobbing along with her tidy amount of illustration work (though she’ll admit she once had a day job as a waitress at a pirate-themed restaurant) and Stober’s still got a year of school left, Barrientes is taking a job teaching English overseas because, well, money. And what happens then? Does the dream go underground? Do you just give up? Do you let your employers know that if you randomly got that call from Joe Quesada in the middle of the night, you’d pack everything and go? He even asks me this question, as though I have any clue how to balance practicality and hanging onto your dreams for dear life. All I can say is that no one can fault you for having lofty dreams, and it makes as little sense to me now at 30 as it did at 20. Stober and Pena know people who have day jobs AND publish multiple Web comics AND fit in illustration commissions around the edges. But not everybody can be that. Not everybody can serve so many masters so effortlessly, and at some point, the energy just runs out.
I’m thinking about this the rest of the day, as I attend a panel for Doctor Who where fans ask the actors on the show for acting advice, as I wander the show floor, looking for last minute deals. I head over to Artist’s Alley to check in on one of my favorite Internet cartoonists, Katie Cook, just to see if she has any copies of any of her self-published books still available. She’s actually a bit swamped the whole time I’m there, quickly sketching cats in Star Wars helmets for kids attending Family Day. But she doesn’t seem tired, even at the end of the last day of a long Con. She’s successful, and this is a part of that success, always leaving that good impression. Others in Artists Alley, with smaller crowds, look more rundown, more haggard, as though it’s time for this to just be done, except for those who are constantly sketching and never look up.
Over at Top Shelf, Andy Runton, the guy who draws Owly, is doing much the same, drawing a long succession of sketches of Owly in costume for a number of people who’ve commissioned such things, including a man planning to give one to his fiancée to celebrate their impending nuptials. Runton processes credit card orders with an iPad and seems to sell more merchandise than I can keep track of in the waning minutes of the Con. But he, too, keeps up the good impression. This is what he does. This is what you have to do.
And it strikes me that Cook and Runton and Pena and Foglio and Doctor Who’s Matt Smith and the dozens of others I’ve talked to here this weekend all share one thing in common, one thing you can read on their faces as they work: They’re lucky. They’re so lucky. They know what they want to do, and they’re finding ways to make a living at it, at doing what they love. Sometimes, it’s just barely. Sometimes, it’s to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars (or pounds or Euros or whatever it is they use over in the U.K. nowadays). But they’ve all found a way to make the leap, to take the chance, to plunge into the uncertainty and come up swimming, even if that was never a guarantee. Their heads are above water as all around them people wonder whether it’s worth the effort to keep treading. You can see in Stober’s eyes that she’ll keep treading as long as it takes, even if she has to take a job at Subway or something. And Barrientes, too, seems likely to keep plugging away, even if the day job’s a little more demanding. But all around, people are slapping down portfolios on those tables and coming away thinking that maybe it would be better to just give up, that maybe this was a dumb idea in the first place. (Pena disabuses me of this notion. Plenty of people who get—and deserve—bad reviews come back year after year after year, never quite getting what it is they could do better, treating the whole thing as a kind of weird theater.)
I’ll freely admit that I went into this story expecting one narrative—Comic-Con has given up on the artists, man—and ended up with quite another. But it wasn’t until I was trying to pull all of this together that I started to figure out what that was, and I think it’s something that underlies the whole event, that makes it still worthwhile, even as the image most people see is that of a hollowed out, commercial husk of what once was: Comic-Con is an event that promises to put you in the same room as someone or something you love, surround you with other people that love it just as much as you do, then leave space for something magical or amazing to happen. Smith breaks the Con’s rules to sign a kid’s homemade Dalek. A little girl gets to meet the voices behind her favorite cartoon. A woman I sit near while waiting for a panel talks about how the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles literally saved her life, allowed her to make friends, helped her stand up to bullies as a kid. Two young women put their best foot forward for people they respect and begin climbing a long, long career ladder. “Everybody has a passion here,” says the woman talking to Ninja Turtles woman, and when you get down to the core and DNA of Comic-Con, it’s that passion that keeps the show from growing stale. Hollywood would very much like to turn that passion into money, but it can’t wholly tame it and turn it to its own ends. It will exist long after Hollywood’s moved on to a live-action movie about the Wuzzles. (After all, the Browncoats are meeting in one of the smaller rooms right now.)
It’s easy to forget, sometimes, that it’s always easier to not do something than to do it. Inertia is a very powerful force. For all of Stober and Pena’s ultra-modern touches—they play Dungeons and Dragons online and meet often with a group of like-minded artists to all work on art and writing together over Skype—they’re still engaged in that oldest of human pursuits, in the idea that if you get up and try to make something of yourself, something amazing just might happen. You move to Hollywood and start auditioning. You work hard to get into the graduate program you’ve always wanted to attend. You bug the editor of your favorite pop culture publication on Facebook about a job writing random TV reviews. Sometimes, it works out. Sometimes, it doesn’t. People fall by the wayside and give up. You don’t have to pursue your lifelong dreams to be happy, after all. It just often helps.
At its best—as it is here in Portfolio Review land—Comic-Con provides a safety net, a bunch of people in the same boat as you just waiting to say, “I get it. I know what you’re going through,” and help you navigate whatever’s next. It doesn’t matter if everybody hates what you’ve come up with—a bad critique can be more helpful than a good one. It doesn’t matter if they offer you a job. All that matters is the act, the dare with yourself that you can run out to the end of the board and arc through the air, down toward whatever’s next. Because they’ve called your name two times already, and the third is just around the corner. At home, by yourself, alone, it’s always easier to stay sitting down, to let the chance pass by. But here, there’s always somebody there to push you to your feet and say, “It’s time.”
July 24, 2011 - 12:07p.m.
A big part of Comic-Con culture is found standing in line. A big part of what aggravates just about everybody about Comic-Con is standing in line. There’s really no way to get the full experience of the Con that most people are attending—the one where you spend all weekend attending panels instead of, I don’t know, playing role-playing games based on the long-dead TV series Jericho (which is an actual thing you can do here)—without standing in a few lines.
So I went looking for lines today, though I went out of my way to find ones that might result in me getting a pleasant experience eventually—i.e., lines that would actually let me into panels I might want to see.
In the first line, I had one of my favorite experiences of the Con. I always really enjoy meeting people here, but I particularly enjoy when I meet people with kids, especially when those kids are driving the whole experience, instead of the parents dragging their sons or daughters along to stuff the kiddos couldn’t possibly be interested in. While standing in line for “Cartoon Voices 1” (a panel I’ve had recommended to me for years by you folks and one I was only just now getting a chance to attend because the Community line was insane), I found myself in front of a mother and her daughter, who was insisting that they go to see the panel for Last Airbender sequel Korra (something I tried to get into but found the line too long for), which was in the room a few hours later. Mom, not quite knowing what to do with her kid for all that time, just dragged her to the line for the room, and she sat on the ground, playing with a Phineas And Ferb action figure she’d gotten down on the show floor earlier. (Lord, that I might have a kid with awesome taste.) Mystifyingly, the Con had scheduled the annual chat with Marvel’s Joe Quesada in between the two animation panels, and the thought of the daughter having to sit through that amused me.
“Do you want to come back to Comic-Con next year?” mom asked the kid, with that tone in her voice where the answer is implied to be “No.” The kid looked up, frowned. “Of course. Why wouldn’t we?” The mom turned to me as I chuckled. Sure, she said, she complained about the whole thing every year, but once she got there, she came to really enjoy it. And she had stood in line for True Blood for hours the day before and finally gotten in, an experience she had really enjoyed. Plus, it must have been fun for her daughter to get to meet the guys from Phineas And Ferb and see the footage from Korra, and even if mom wasn’t into it, it’s always nice to have a kid who’s really into something that doesn’t make you want to blow your brains out.
The lines can be a great way to chat with people, to find common cause with the many other geeks at the event. But if they don’t result in you getting into the panel you really want to see, your whole day can be shot, and the anger at both the Con and its scheduling can become all-encompassing.
Take the second line. After returning from an interview, I decided to try to get into the Adventure Time panel, though I knew the line would be forbidding for a panel that was starting in five minutes. And, indeed, shortly after I arrived, the room was closed down with me well away from the front of the line. I trundled up to the front to wave my press pass around and ask if I might hang out in the back to watch the show. I wouldn’t take up a seat. (The Con doesn’t always—or even usually—allow this, but they’ll occasionally be fine with it if you ask really nicely... and have a press badge, I guess, since I've never seen this work for one of you civilians.) At the same time, the doorman let in a handful of press pass holders.
And then the teenage girl started to shriek. She and her friends had gotten to the front of the line, then been told they couldn’t get into the room unless someone left, opening up seats. She and her friends had been waiting in line for HOURS, and they couldn’t get in. But the Con was just going to let in the PRESS? (At this point, I carefully covered my press pass and decided not to approach about standing in the back, lest I become a secondary target of wrath.) She went through the five stages of grief so rapidly that it was like she was a cartoon character or something (even at one point bargaining with the idea that if she could just get one of the HATS Cartoon Network was going to hand out, she’d be fine). And finally, she and her friends left, having come to terms with the fact that they weren’t going to get to see whatever was making the people in room 6A laugh so heartily.
I stood around, though, trying to plot my next move. And sure enough, about five minutes later, the doorman let in several more people they’d found seats for.
These forbidding lines can also turn people away from panels they’d otherwise love to attend. Anecdotal evidence suggests that’s what happened with Fringe, a show that would seem to be a Comic-Con natural but one that left a good portion of the seats at the back of Ballroom 20 empty. (That The Big Bang Theory and Community can easily fill rooms of several thousand people and Fringe cannot suggests there’s something unstable in the universe.) And yet once I Tweeted about this, I started to hear from people both online and in real life that they assumed the long lines that have plagued Ballroom 20 all weekend long (it was the host of the 7,000 person line debacle) would be in effect for Fringe, and they might as well not even try. Instead, the line rarely got much above 1,000 people, and we all got in, even if we had to wait for a bit. (The panel itself was unremarkable and probably the worst I’ve seen this year, with lots of evasion of any sort of spoilers for season four—although an opening video featuring a panoply of actors from Michael Emerson to Greg Grunberg to Danny Pudi auditioning for the role of Peter Bishop was very funny.)
If we’re going to “review the lines,” though (and as that mom pointed out to me, a lot of Comic-Con, like going to a theme park, is about standing in those lines and hoping the “ride” at the end is worth it), it’s worth pointing out that the Con has figured out ways to make them less torturous. They’ve put up little markers for every 1,000th person, to let you know where you are in the grand scheme of things (you can see one above). They’ve figured out ways to direct traffic much more succinctly, so everything moves more quickly. And they’ve found ways to route those who aren’t in line in ways that won’t get in the way of the actual lines keeping moving. The whole system has been rethought, often with solid results.
But at the same time, the Con has totally missed the fact that it’s slowly evolved from a convention where movies are the main draw to one where TV shows are the main draw. Part of this has to do with the uninspiring movie slate this year—I love Francis Ford Coppola, but the guy’s hardly an instant Comic-Con draw. Part of it has to do with the event’s reluctance to potentially piss off the big studios by relegating the “lesser” movie panels to Ballroom 20 or even smaller rooms, instead of Hall H. And part of it has to do with how the Con rode to prominence on the back of those big movie panels, while TV was always the red-headed stepchild. But every time I went by Ballroom 20 today, the line was at least 1,000 people long. And when I walked by Hall H, the line was 20 people long. It’s not hard to see where this is all headed.
And, really, this all makes sense. The Con comes at the perfect time of year for TV folks. Most shows are on summer hiatuses, but they’ve also just gotten back into production, so they have various things to tease for the diehard fans. And fans of TV shows form much more concrete relationships with their favorite characters than movie fans do with their favorite stars. Sure, it’s pretty cool to see Harrison Ford here (as many did last year), but he’s still crazy old uncle Harrison Ford, making his visit every couple of years and sending photos to you via the tabloids. Danny Pudi, though? That’s your best pal Abed. He comes to your house every week! Two movie panels briefly ignited excitement—the Spider-Man one and the Tintin one (mostly because Steven Spielberg came)—but nothing else could muster that much enthusiasm. And the studios have realized time and again that a movie can get bad buzz out of Comic-Con and become a hit (Avatar) or get good buzz and become a flop (Scott Pilgrim). The audience that’s going to stand in line for that movie for six hours at Comic-Con is still going to see it, no matter what they think of the footage they see at the Con. It’s convincing everybody else that’s tricky, and your mom doesn’t give a shit about the buzz out of Comic-Con.
But TV’s different. In this age of ultra-divided audiences, producing a TV show is often more about the care and feeding of a fanbase than anything else. And Comic-Con is a fantastic way to do just that. Get several thousand fans in one room, feed them some intriguing tidbits and fun videos, then allow that information to trickle out via Twitter to the other fans who couldn’t attend, giving them a chance to get excited for the next season. A Comic-Con favorite like Chuck is in the same position as Scott Pilgrim—where all the good buzz in the world couldn’t make it a hit—but it’s also sort of not, in that a lot of its survival has depended on keeping the fans happy, thus keeping the ratings just steady enough to give NBC an excuse to keep it around. Movies, increasingly, are about blowing everybody away. TV’s about maintaining, and that’s why the Con should downplay the movie angle (outside of the really huge blockbusters that decide to come) and shift toward a TV focus going forward.
That Cartoon Voices panel, by the by, was one of the most fun things I’ve attended at any of the Cons I’ve been to, and I thank those of you who’ve been pressing it on me all these years. There’s just something amazing about seeing one person come up with 20 or 30 different voices, and the lineup of talent (including Tara Strong, of my beloved My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic) was terrific. The initial question and answer session was OK, but when moderator Mark Evanier took it upon himself to deliver unto the panelists an old-time radio script (of a children’s play of Snow White) that they were to perform after only the barest of preparation, the panel crackled to life. I’d recommended the panel to the mom and daughter, and during the mundane talk about careers (granted, talk spiced with famous cartoon voices seemingly appearing as if from nowhere), I was worried I’d steered them toward something they’d find awfully boring. But once that script started up—complete with a haggard, blowsy old woman for the Wicked Queen and Beavis and Butthead as two of the seven dwarves—the whole thing came to life. There’s a definite side of the Con that might as well be called the “Experiences You Can’t Have Anywhere Else” Con, and while they can be hard to find, they’re always worth seeking out. This was one of those.
Overheard on the show floor (best if read in the voice of an older woman who's seemingly smoked three packs a day her entire life, as I first heard it): "Oh great. There's always a slowdown around the fucking slave Leias."
Because of my interview schedule, I didn’t get a chance to do much more exploring—particularly once I tried to find some of my favorite Artists’ Alley denizens to see how they were doing and found the show floor absolutely packed, to the point where walking in it was like being stuck in an elevator that moved laterally, a move that sucked up probably 30 minutes despite me moving only about the length of a football field—nor did I get to see a lot of panels (well, I did sit through one about the history of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund that was interesting but incredibly dry).
As the night ran down, however, I ended up in a Penny Arcade panel that was mostly enjoyable—since those two guys really know how to interact with their fans and have a lot of natural comic timing—but one that was unfortunately marred by the, uh, “dickwolves” controversy, something I didn’t even know existed before stumbling upon this panel. (And if you click on that link, prepare to lose several hours of your life.) The two clearly want to play this off as no big deal (especially since it’s mostly been a moot issue for the last several months), but it was also something people kept bringing up one way or the other, and it gave the whole panel a weirdly muted tone, even when the laughs were flying.
From there, it was off to the Fables panel, what with Fables being one of the two comics series I make a point of keeping up with (Unwritten being the other). I don’t know what it is about Fables that has its hooks so firmly sunk into me—I’ve been as disappointed with it as other comics I’ve dropped, but I always keep buying it, eventually finding it worming its way back around into my good graces again—but I suspect it has something to do with the very thorough mythology and world Bill Willingham has created, one that seems to constantly reveal new and unexpected depths. (I’d say that the folks who tried to turn Locke & Key into a TV series should be paying attention to a comic with the sort of endless storyline that could make an irresistible show, but everybody’s already making shows that are incredibly similar to Fables anyway.)
And you know what? I enjoy the hell out of this panel every year. Willingham—who’s apparently just gone full Dude, what with his Jeff-Bridges-in-The-Big-Lebowski hair—is an avuncular guy, and the whole creative team seems like a wacky family, as though you could build a hoary old sitcom filled with bad old puns and lots of weird practical jokes around the team, if they didn’t all live in different parts of the world. And the panel—which had been moved to a bigger room yet again—was filled with lots of nice little touches, like Willingham presenting a fan with an actual trumpet (no, really) or giving all of us a neat little one-page story fitting into the series’ current chronology. The big news out of the panel was that there will be a new Fables spinoff—to take the place of the canceled Jack Of Fables—called Fairest. The concept is pretty nebulous. It basically seems to be simply, “Fuck it! Princesses!” But the art looks tremendous, and the idea of doing a series that’s essentially a series of miniseries has potential, if all involved can nail down keeping the multiple voices within the property seeming like one authorial voice. (Jack often felt too jerked around by a variety of impulses and weird creative decisions.) Plus, the fandom around this show is so tightly knit—thanks to Willingham’s Web site, which might be the friendliest community on the Internet—that it feels like everybody knows each other’s name. (I half expected special celebrity guest Phil LaMarr to wander over and say, “Hello, Todd!”)
Plus, for every weird creative call Fables makes, it’s always got a bunch of intriguing ones off on the horizon—another Christmas special (yes, please)! More stories set in Oz! The plotting of the series has strayed toward being too loose in recent years (very like a long-running TV show, actually), and Mr. Dark remains a problematic villain, due to an utter lack of personality. But the characters are so well-defined and established and the world so compelling that I keep coming back. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that Willingham—like those TV producers who know exactly how to keep the fans happy—is very good at cultivating that fanbase, at making sure everybody feels welcome and ready to enjoy this series. I keep reading Fables for the same reasons I keep watching a long-running show that misses a step or two here or there: It feels like home.
I kept getting some of you asking me to check out Trickster, and it finally spurred me to Google the damn thing just to figure out what it was. And tonight, after leaving the Con, I headed over there with the fellow folks who joined us for the first (of hopefully many) A.V. Club Comic-Con meet-up. Trickster is much more focused on the art of comics than is really my bag (I’m only a dabbler in such things), but it’s certainly an attractive set-up, and the whole thing—despite the fact that it’s free and open to anyone who wants to wander in—just feels classier than the main Con, less commercial. There were guitarists crooning softly, plentiful amounts of wine, and great conversation between fans and comics professionals. Those who’d like Trickster to become a solid competitor to the main Con are probably going to leave wanting, but Trickster suggests what could become a very enjoyable side event, particularly for those who are trying to break into the comics industry (about which more tomorrow).
Finally, while walking in downtown San Diego last night, I saw this, which is just the most terrifying thing ever. (Imagine it set to the Twin Peaks theme and filmed in slow motion.)
July 23, 2011 - 09:07a.m.
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.
July 22, 2011 - 09:07a.m.
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.
July 26, 2010 - 05:07a.m.
Sons of Anarchy and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia: I plan to spend only an hour on the show floor, but I end up spending nearly three. Just walking around and talking to people - like the creator of my favorite webcomic, Axe Cop - ends up being a lot of fun. I always forget just how approachable most everyone is at the Con, and even though my feet are killing me (note to self: better shoes if we go again), I can't stop. I briefly consider spending the rest of the day there but remember I'm supposed to meet friends for the Glee panel and would like to see what's up with Sons of Anarchy, one of my favorite shows, anyway.
The line for Glee, of course, is long. Naturally, I don't get in. (It sounds like I didn't miss much, what with a 22-minute clip reel that made little-to-no sense and a frequently self-contradictory panel. See you in September, Glee!) At this point, I've learned to let go and love the lines, and talking with the other folks in line - who are, in a heartening turn, there to see the FX shows - is fun. We hear the last shrieks of excitement for the Glee cast, and the line, lurchingly, starts forward again, seeming to disappear into a restroom but actually disappearing into Ballroom 20, where the final few panels of the Con will be held. It's family day at the Con, and it's also the least attended day of the Con. I've liked Sunday the best of the four days I've been at the Con both years I've gone, and I think that has something to do with the slightly lessened crowds and the many small children wandering with their parents, who break up all the slow-building rage that can calcify while sitting in line after line.
We get inside, where I talk with colleagues and meet up with my friends. It's surprising how many people have filed in to see the cast and crew of two FX shows that have a fraction of the ratings of most of the shows that have filled Ballroom 20, to say nothing of the show immediately preceding them. The Sons of Anarchy panel is a little light on actual information - creator Kurt Sutter offers a few teases of season three (there will be three prospects!), but he and the actors answer most questions with some variation on, "Gotta wait for the episodes, guys" - though the season three trailer is compelling but sparse. This is more like the Community panel the day before, where the cast and crew got to be surprised by the level of love for the show among Con attendees. And I love the way all four panelists and moderator Alan Sepinwall laugh after the first questioner points out the similarities between the season two finale and The Empire Strikes Back.
It's the It's Always Sunny panel that ends up being the surprise. We're shown a completely new episode from the upcoming sixth season of the show, one that won't air for several months. FX tried the same tack with Archer, and it resulted in good buzz out of that panel, so perhaps they scrambled to throw this one together. Or maybe this was always the plan, and FX was smart to ride it to two panels filled with big buzz. I saw a guy dressed as Greenman while waiting in line, so I'm fairly certain that this crowd is full of Sunny fans. At the end of the row I'm sitting in, there's a guy who is so ecstatic about seeing a new episode of the show that he keeps vocally cheering and throwing his hands excitedly in the air.
It's a good episode, honestly. I won't spoil in this report, but there's a central question that requires the guys to think back to a night when they were very, very drunk, and it's an It's Always Sunny spin on one of my very favorite sitcom episode types: the "everybody remembers things differently" episode. As the story told in the first flashback slowly morphs into something more and more ridiculous and off-the-wall, the episode grows funnier and funnier, and then there's a great, great sick joke that goes so far that it completely stunned the whole room into silence. (All I will say is that the joke I and about 5,000 other people made after the episode ended was that the episode seemed grossly inappropriate for family day until it became grossly appropriate.) The episode is followed by a too-short Q&A, which is what happens when you screen a full episode. At least the entire cast - and Mary Elizabeth Ellis - is there, and they invite David Hornsby (who plays Cricket) up on stage after a fan asks a question about him. Inflexibility is Comic-Con's greatest strength - as it keeps a massive, massive event mostly running on time - and its greatest weakness - as it has a tendency to cut things short just when they're getting going. Another 15 minutes with the It's Always Sunny gang would have been great, but then the Buffy musical would have started short on time. Maybe the show will get its own panel next year and won't have to share, which would help.
At the end of this, my friends and I head down to the show floor again to see if the rumors of crazy deals in the last hour of the Con are true. They certainly appear to be, but we mostly end up just taking in the sights and talking to folks. The swag collectors have a gleam in their eye, a gleam like they know a good thing is about to end and they're desperate to grab more stuff. Even Artists' Alley is packed, filled with people picking up a last minute item or a last minute gift. It's like the end of summer camp. I try to buy a few bumper stickers from the Axe Cop booth (book out in December), where I yet again run into Felicia Day, and they're just pressed on me, all the better to not have to take them home, I guess. Ethan Nicolle, the illustrator and co-author of the comic, seems a little overwhelmed by the response to his comic, but he's still jovial even as the minutes tick down.
Finally, the ever-prevalent Comic-Con Magic Voice says it's time to go. I'm in the midst of buying a piece of original Peanuts art I found for a song, and my other friends are trying to figure out if they have enough to buy a Duck Amuck still. The transaction completed, we're swept out of the room, so all can close down and pack up their wares, waiting for another year, perhaps one of the last ever in San Diego. Outside, the crowd streams slowly across the street, like something out of The Ten Commandments, and we head for the car, glad to return home and step out of the weird sphere of Comic-Con, where Tron is the most important thing ever and all anyone cares about is who's going to play Bruce Banner.
Why cover Comic-Con?: Honestly, I don't want to talk myself out of a job next summer or anything, since I've greatly enjoyed attending the Con and doing these write-ups, but I'm increasingly less convinced that the Con is worth serious news coverage. The people and personalities that attend the Con are certainly fun, and the rush of the whole thing is so overwhelming that all pop culture heads should probably go for at least one day, like everyone should at least drive by the Vegas strip at least once in their lives. But the vast majority of the news that comes out of the Con can be covered as well by Sean O'Neal sitting in Austin and posting links to press releases and other reports as it can be by someone sitting in Hall H. Perhaps telling is that the number of reporters who spent yesterday digging to the bottom of the Hall H "stabbing" story - even as they couldn't leave the hall! - was absolutely dwarfed by the number who wrote variations on the same report about Harrison Ford making his first Comic-Con appearance.
Now, business reporters, of course, cover big corporate announcements and product introductions. Video game writers cover the E3 conference, which is very similar to Comic-Con. So it's not as though we entertainment writers are the only people who do this. But business reporters usually get their hands on prototypes of the products introduced, and video game writers are able to try out nearly every game on the E3 show floor. By necessity, the studios and networks control the message much, much more easily at Comic-Con than other companies are able to at comparable events. The only thing someone sitting in Hall H can provide that Sean can't sitting in Austin is a description of the footage shown and a rough opinion based on that footage. It's the Comic-Con equivalent of the hands-on tryout of a game on the E3 floor.
But here's the thing: It's ridiculously easy for a studio or network to control what's shown in the "sizzle reel." Networks will often show entire pilots, but it's rare that you'll see a screening of an entire movie. There's just not enough time. Thus, every panel becomes a way to announce a few pre-selected tidbits of news, which the press then reports on and the fans cheer. The press reports all follow roughly the same patterns, and the studios completely control the flow of information. The whole thing is, in essence, a press release in motion. The goal of the media is generally to be skeptical. The greatest success of institutions like corporations and the government in the 20th and 21st centuries has been to figure out ways to work around that skepticism.
I'm not criticizing media coverage of Comic-Con. I eagerly lapped up the live-blogs the folks over at Hitfix did on the Hall H movie panels. I enjoy hearing about this stuff as much as anyone. And, honestly, I'm happy to go to these events and provide that kind of coverage, as I did with The Walking Dead. But at the same time, if I really think about it, that event is specifically created to allow for the minimum amount of skepticism. The clips in the trailer are carefully chosen for maximum impact. The room is stacked with people who are predisposed to like what they're about to see. And the whole thing is presented as unprecedented and historical. Nobody in Grant Park on the night of Obama's election was saying, "But can he successfully wrangle a public option through the Senate?" Nobody even wanted to think about that.
I'm not trying to argue myself out of a job or anything, but I do wonder if the amount of ink spilled on Comic-Con is truly necessary. This is an event created to specifically keep people from saying, "Oh, hey, maybe this won't be good, huh?" Aside from all of the big, obvious problems - the long lines, the inability to stop thinking like a small convention when this is one of the biggest conventions out there, the ridiculously overpriced concessions, the fact that the whole thing may move to Anaheim, LA, or Vegas - no one really talks about whether news organizations should even be sending people like me to cover this stuff. Comic-Con started out for the fans, and then Hollywood got involved and tried to make all of the attendees fans of everything it could possibly get them to consume. And now, the event is such a big deal within the entertainment media that it sometimes seems as though the studios are using it to sneak a virus out to the public at large, just another bit of marketing in the long march toward a big opening weekend, but a form of marketing that we haven't yet built up a resistance to, like billboards or TV commercials.
Again, I think the media coverage of Comic-Con is mostly good. I'm just not immediately sure that there's a point to the media covering the event in the first place. Maybe there was a time when Comic-Con was a small convention where news arose organically, but it long ago crossed over to a point where the news was stage-managed. And yet, I really did want to know who was going to play Bruce Banner, at the end of the day, and I really did want someone to describe the Sucker Punch footage to me. I'm not as pure as my argument. There's definitely a place for media coverage of Comic-Con - and it's here that I should mention that, obviously, it's a terrific place for entertainment writers, including myself, to hook up with interview subjects to discuss any number of topics - but I do wonder if the rush to "break" news that is already being broken in a carefully considered fashion isn't something that we should all take a more careful look at next time.
Oh, who am I kidding? Next summer? There's gonna be more BATMAN. Awesome. Can't wait.
July 26, 2010 - 03:07a.m.
When Al Wiesner looked at the superhero landscape in the late '80s, he thought something was missing: Judaism. Naturally, he responded by creating his own superhero, a strange rock-turned-man called Shaloman. Shaloman rides the uneasy line between parody and straight-up superhero comic, and it's never immediately clear if even Wiesner knows his true intentions, outside of one issue, his favorite, which he constantly refers to as "the parody issue." But the parody issue doesn't look appreciably different from the regular issues, outside of jokes like "Nosir Nyafat." ("Instead of Yassir Arafat," he says.) Behind him, a woman I take to be his wife is digging into a bagel and lox. She's tired. He's tired. Last day of Comic-Con, and the last chance to pitch Shaloman to people like me, who stop by, curious about what the hell "Shaloman" could mean. Prices have been drastically reduced, and he assures me, once he sells out issue 1, he will print no more, not like Marvel or the other big boys. The woman just stares into the middle distance.
I'm in Artists' Alley, one of the elements that the original San Diego Comic-Con grew out of years and years ago. This was the place for comics artists to set up booths to show off their artwork and network with each other. Over the decades, it's shifted from the center of the convention to the far corner of the show floor. Has it gotten smaller? Larger? I get different answers from different people, and I think the truth lurking behind the conflicting statements is that the Artists' Alley section of the Con has gotten definitively larger, in the sense of size and area, but has gotten smaller in terms of how important it is to the show. Now at the center of the show floor, as near as I can tell, is a perfect recreation of Bumblebee from the Transformers movies.
Creativity always, always gets shunted aside by commerce. It shouldn't be as depressing as it is, but the constant reminders of this fact in seemingly every aspect of our lives somehow don't stop feeling like new, fresh stabs at the vital part of ourselves that demands something GOOD, for God's sake. Something true and original and bold and precious, something driven by a person or small group of people that has something to say, even if that something to say is as basic as, "I wish there were a Jewish superhero." There's a reason so many movies pitch the scrappy underdogs beating the giant, corporate behemoth, beaming with pride at the end as the big guys realize that they were wrong all along. There's also a reason these movies have multi-million dollar advertising budgets.
I keep trying to slot Artists' Alley into my preferred story of the Con: Artists' Alley has gotten less and less important as time has gone by because the organizers behind the Con made a deal with Hollywood to bring in panels geeks might be interested in, then let the money Hollywood brought lead them down a path paved with good intentions but ultimately leading to ruin. The problem, though, is that this story just isn't true. Every artist I talk to says that having more people at the Con means more people wander by their booths, means more of them stop to talk, means more of them buy sketches or merchandise or stuff. Having more people visit the booth allows them to float along on commissions or sketch sales until one of the comics companies comes calling, and having a very popular booth is also a potential way to attract the attention of those companies.
The comics industry, for the most part, is sort of like that "Gotta Dance" number in Singin' in the Rain, at least to hear some of these people tell it. It's all about knocking and knocking on doors until someone answers and sees you and likes what you have to offer. Obviously, it's not like that completely, and it's not nearly so egalitarian, but the industry remains small enough that someone like a Chrissie Zullo - whose covers for a Fables miniseries have been justly celebrated - can get a job simply by sending an attractive image as an e-mail attachment. Sure, she has to find that e-mail address somewhere, and she has to have the talent, but there's a sense that these doors are easier to knock on than the doors in other entertainment industries. (Granted, the people I talk to have mostly broken through. For many with talent who haven't broken in, it must feel as impossible as winning So You Think You Can Dance? feels to me.)
I talk to Richard Peter Han, who's here with his creation, Sprocket and Gear, which is a tale of a friendly cat and rat who use crazy inventions to accomplish their tasks. Han's sketches of the characters burst with color and life, and somehow combine the influences of cute animal cartoons, early Disney, Depression-era comic strip street scenes, and the inventions of Leonardo da Vinci into a blend of influences that feels new. The sketches, at least, are enough to make me want to see a full comic featuring the two characters. Han's hoping to turn them into a TV series. He came out of video games, and he'd like to break into that industry. All along, his high school art teacher sits off to the side, a quiet smile on her face. She knows this stuff is good. She knows he's got the initiative. Sprocket and Gear will likely go somewhere. Han just has to find the right medium for his characters.
But the experience of Artists' Alley also requires seeing people who are just here because they're hanging on to a dream that will likely never come true, a piece of themselves that is dedicated to something that will always exist outside of themselves, no matter how hard they might race after it. You can almost see the difference in their eyes, a kind of quiet panic, a brain firing synapses that keep saying, "This isn't right, this isn't right, this isn't right." They were supposed to be famous by now. They were supposed to be something other than this, something other than people trying to get a flood of fellow humans headed toward Bumblebee to stop for a second and notice them and say, "Hey, you're the best artist ever." But the flood rushes past, not even having the dignity to sweep them along with it.
Artists' Alley is the best part of the Con because it's the most HUMAN part of the Con. Every booth is a little story of its own, a narrative in process. Katie Cook - whose blog I read regularly, so I sought her work out - is pregnant and recently quit her full-time job to pursue her bright, cartoon-y art. I buy a handful of her drawings, thank her for her sunny characters. Jackie Huang wanted to find a new kind of toy for a newborn child and took up needle felting, something I'd never heard of. Now, he's surrounded by little stuffed toys that gaze out from wide, uneven eyes, a unique expression in plushie form. A giraffe towers above him, and he kindly smiles at someone who asks if it's for sale and says no. He'll be hanging on to that one. Over there is Gary Friedrich, co-creator of Ghost Rider, who shuffles his sketches and script replicas with wrinkled hands and watchfully scans the crowd for anyone who might stop by and say, "Hey, I LOVE Ghost Rider," so he can smile and say thanks and show off his wares. And next to him is Al Wiesner, insisting to anyone who stops that Shaloman isn't a Jewish story, it's a human story, and the woman, still staring into the distance, still working through that bagel, still looking as though she's just ready to pack up and head home.
Creativity can be the most horrible thing in the world. It's a piece of yourself that breaks off and wanders out into the world, where everyone else can see, on some level, who you really are. There's a mask between you and the rest of the world, most of the time, but a creative work removes that mask, asks people to judge you, on some level. That's why so many creative people never risk sharing their work. To be told it's not good enough, that they're not good enough, is simply too painful. It leads to a long, slowly decaying life of trying to find that person who thinks you're good enough, a long life of panic growing tight behind the eyes, the mask working harder and harder to contain it. I don't terribly understand Shaloman, but I buy an issue anyway because I like Al Wiesner a lot. I read it later while sitting in line for a panel filled with the people who let that piece of themselves out and found others ready to embrace it, and I still don't understand it. It is a thing Wiesner is desperate to tell me that I can't wholly grasp. Somewhere along the way, I lost the ability to decode it.
Inside Ballroom 20, teenagers shriek for the cast of Glee. I look up from Shaloman to see TV cameras sweeping along the line of us waiting to get in - we won't. Downstairs, I know, similar cameras are trained on the people around Bumblebee, all part of an easy local news piece on the craziness that is Comic-Con. They'll pack up and go, too, and they'll all file reports filled with footage of people in elaborate costumes, complete with reporters giving the raw numbers of how many people attend the Con and how many went to the Hall H panels. The anchor will smile at the camera after the report is done and say something like, "Looks really fun, Jeff," then cut to the weather.
And there you go. That's the story. Cut and print.
In Artists' Alley, they're packing up, too, putting the pieces of themselves back in the trunks they brought them in and wearily making their way to their cars. Maybe it was a good year, maybe it wasn't. Maybe this is it. Maybe they'll never be back. Maybe 50 people will be dressed up as Sprocket or Gear next year. Maybe that giant giraffe will get sold and Jackie Huang will always regret it. Or maybe he'll hang onto it and be able to spend the rest of his life looking at it and knowing that he, at one point, driven by something he maybe didn't even fully understand, made that. And no one can take that feeling of accomplishment away.
They say goodbye to their friends from the next booth over and head out on the road into the California never-dark. And no matter how disheartened or enthused the reaction to their works at Comic-Con made them, they will face a point in the next few weeks where an idea will spring to their minds, unbidden, while doing the dishes or taking a shower or walking the dog. And they will find a blank piece of paper or pick up their needles or grab their watercolors.
And they will begin.
July 25, 2010 - 12:07a.m.
Community creator Dan Harmon sits at the table in the green room for the Hilton's Indigo Ballroom, playing through worst case scenarios. Someone could ask just why Community, the show he created, is at Comic-Con, suggests a publicist. He tries to convince himself that if the room is half full or completely full, it's good both ways, since the former means that everybody who wanted to see the show got in and the latter means that lots of people wanted to see the show. Unless it means that the room is full of people waiting for something else.
Honestly, he shouldn't have worried.
I can't give you a full accounting of just what happened at the Community panel because I could only hear about every fifth word (the echo-y microphones complained about by James Urbaniak during the Venture Bros. panel really were that bad). But in aiming to capture the whole of the Comic-Con experience, I guess it might be helpful to capture what it's like to be up there on stage. (And, no, I'm not going to give you any backstage scoop about the Community cast, mostly because I don't have any. They all were very nice people when I spoke with them.)
The first nice thing about being a moderator, honestly, is getting to have lunch. I generally don't eat lunch at events like this and rely on whatever I can find at the hotel's continental breakfast. But as moderator, I get to eat a sandwich! This may not seem like a big deal to you, but it was, honestly, the highlight of my day up until that point. From there, it's all boring procedural stuff, involving making sure everybody has the same schedule, getting a hold of note cards, then just waiting for everything to get started while spying on celebrities from the other panels. (Including the cast of The Guild, since Felicia Day has apparently decided to listen to my complaint about not having seen her last night and start stalking me, since I've seen her three times since then.)
From there, we're led to the backstage area, where we can see the main room filling in. And it's here that we first get a sense of just how massive this thing is going to be. The hall is just massively packed. One of the producers walks over to another and says, gleam in their eye, that the line is so long not everyone's going to get in. Suddenly, the whole question of long lines and being stuck in them is flipped on its head. In this case, a line so long that some people are denied is DESIRABLE. We WANT those people foaming at the mouth to get in. I mean, even I do, and my stake in this whole ordeal is, ultimately, rather low.
And then, the clip reel starts, and the hall explodes.
I don't really know if the level of excitement for the Community cast is comparable toward the enthusiasm tossed toward other casts. Friends in the audience say it was just as loud out there as it was on stage. And on stage, where we've crept out in the semi-dark, the whole thing feels like a massive wave of sound, bearing us along on it and immediately removing any nerves. These people are here to see the cast of Community. I could just stand there and lob them things like, "So what's your favorite color?" and it would be met with loud cheers. Nobody's here for another show. Nobody's here grudgingly. They love these people, and they want to hear them talk.
Again, I can't tell you exactly what was said during the panel. I can remember some of the answers, but the sound problems are pretty terrible. But I do catch Harmon teasing an Apollo 13-inspired episode involving one of the characters going into space (but not really, apparently), while Donald Glover and Danny Pudi tease a Troy and Abed love triangle (and I do hope this wasn't just a joke). The rest of the questions are mostly just excuses to get the cast going and doing amusing things so the audience will continue to be entertained, but, honestly, it doesn't take much. These guys are wonderfully funny and fun to watch, and eventually, I'm able to just step outside of myself and enjoy what's going on. A friend later calls it the most purely entertaining panel he attended, and I'm 100 percent certain this has nothing to do with me.
The audience question and answer section lasts about ten minutes, and I'm surprised that the vast majority of questions are directed at Pudi and Glover. Well, I'm not surprised, exactly, since those actors play characters who have become fan favorites, but it's still amazing to see just how thoroughly Comic-Con reveals just how devoted a show's fans are to that show. Most of the media attention around the show focused on Chevy Chase and Joel McHale when it launched, and much of it still does. It's not as though the crowd doesn't like either actor - indeed, they give both hearty ovations - but when it comes down to it, what everybody wants to see most is the Spanish rap or Pudi and Glover dueting on "Somewhere Out There," both of which the duo perform during the panel.
By the time the panel is over, everybody's ebullient. Community is an embattled show, renewed for a full second season, but largely because it's on a struggling network. Its ratings, sadly, are pretty bad, and there's a very real fear that we might be launching a "Save Community!" campaign come next spring. But events like this give the people working on the show a better sense of just how passionate their fans are. It's one thing to read the comments section here and realize that, yeah, a lot of people are really digging the show. It's quite another to step out onto a stage and be blitzed by hardcore love. We're walking offstage. We're happy. I mean, honestly, I have no real reason to be so, but just being in the general vicinity of that much love has given me a contact high. For all my bitching, there's something wonderful about the love expressed in pure fandom, and we all ride that feeling straight off the stage.
(As I write this piece, I'm watching the rebroadcast of the Comic-Con Masquerade ball. Honestly, I try to at least understand what's going on in most panels, but I have no friggin' clue what this - a Comic-Con tradition - is supposed to be about. I guess it's a way to show off costumes? That makes the most sense, at least.)
July 24, 2010 - 11:07p.m.
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!
July 24, 2010 - 12:07a.m.
The hardest thing to do at Comic-Con is remember what it is that YOU love, not what Comic-Con loves. Take, again, my favorite whipping boy: Tron. I have never, ever in my life seen Tron. I have never wanted to see Tron. I'm sure that it has good elements, and I'm sure that it appeals to the people who like it, but there's just nothing in it that I'm terribly interested in seeing. And yet, when Tron: Legacy took over Hall H yesterday and when there was some sort of weird ARG last night, specifically designed to lead people to a reconstructed version of the arcade from the film, well, I wondered if maybe I didn't like Tron after all. I mean, it was EVERYwhere, and the original was an all-time classic! What better film to see the highlight reel from than its long-in-the-works sequel?
The hardest thing to remember when you're subjected to this much hype and advertising in the space of one convention center is that you don't have to like what you're told, just because you're told to like it. I know that this sounds stupid, but the mob effect is really pronounced at this show. EVERYbody's going to see the Marvel movie panel tomorrow. Boy, I'd better be among the everybody, right? The hard thing is to keep your head about you, to remember that, basically, none of this MATTERS. Comic-Con is what you bring to it, more or less, and you've got to fight your way through the flood and remember that most of the stuff introduced here will be handily disposed of a few days after it opens.
To a degree, folks like me make this even more difficult. Most media outlets have someone parked in Ballroom 20 and someone parked in Hall H, writing about the big developments in both rooms, and that makes it seem like the only stuff going on at the Con is the big set of announcements from the major studios and networks. Really, there's a whole other world of weird, hyper-personal geekery that flows around the edges of the stuff that gets written about, and it's that kind of thing I've been trying to capture in these write-ups. So much of Comic-Con is about making you forget what you really love to replace it with a temporary high that clinging to the things that truly mean something to you becomes that much more important.
Berkeley Breathed: Take me, for instance. I LOVE newspaper comic strips. I've always liked comic books well enough, but my obsession with the comics page runs back to before I could even read. I believe I've mentioned my Peanuts obsession - to the point where I spent years scooping up every collection I could find in every used bookstore that there was - but I've spent way too much money over the years making sure I had healthy collections of Calvin & Hobbes, The Far Side, Bloom County, and any number of others. So when many of you pointed out that Berkeley Breathed was going to be here to talk about his career, I thought it would be great fun to check it out, at least if I could make it in.
Honestly, it was a near thing to get in, even in the Con's third-largest room. I didn't expect so much residual Bloom County love, but there it was, and I ended up in a completely filled room with people who gave Breathed a standing ovation when he first stood up to speak after receiving an award from the Con. Breathed is kind of a recluse (though nowhere near on the Bill Watterson level), and this was his first Comic-Con. He seemed genuinely moved and touched by the reception he received from the room, and at times, it seemed to leave him completely speechless. The panel that followed was incredibly funny, as would be expected, but also surprisingly moving, as he talked about the places he drew from to get his ideas (turns out his kids are big influences) and seemed baffled as to why people would still want to see him.
Somewhere around the middle of the panel - I think it was the part where Breathed unexpectedly started showing us never-before-seen drawings of Calvin and Hobbes that Watterson had included at the bottom of little notes he used to send Breathed in the '80s and '90s - I felt the weird beginnings of something like joy, simply from being in a room with a man I respected and enjoyed listening to and getting to look at something I could honestly geek out about instead of simply feeling obligated to geek out because of the location and folks surrounding me. Breathed gave good panel, even if it occasionally seemed like his preparation consisted of cleaning out his closet, finding a bunch of stuff he figured we might find interesting, then placing it in a Powerpoint presentation.
But, honestly, I DID find most of the stuff interesting. He showed us three different cracks at an animated Opus movie undertaken for Dimension back in the day. He broke out a bunch of rare cartoons that probably won't be republished for one reason or another. He showed us panels that he just couldn't make funny for a variety of reasons. He showed us gorgeous direct scans of the watercolor originals that made up the illustrations for his children's books, as well as photos from the motion-capture process from the film being made out of his book Mars Needs Moms. He worked the room very well, but he seemed eminently human at all times, as though he realized it was a great gift to suddenly realize how many people had loved his work over the years.
A line of people longing to ask Breathed questions stretched toward the back of the room, and he, recognizing that he'd never get to all of them, asked them to all come and have a chat with him at the IDW booth on the show floor when he was there signing books. I had, honestly, intended to sit in the Breathed panel for a bit to recharge my batteries and type up Walking Dead while half paying attention, but I ended up getting completely sucked in. The panel was maybe the most fun I've had at Comic-Con ever, and it was a nice reminder that there's all kinds of passionate fan stuff going on that doesn't get very much coverage. It's not all Tron and True Blood. Sometimes, it's a middle-aged man being blown away by how much people still love him.
Autographs, autographs: I had never wandered the autograph section of the Con, which attracts a very specific type of fan (usually a very dedicated subset). After the Breathed panel was over, I had hoped to head over to the Peanuts panel I've been talking about at length (perhaps even ditching Breathed early, though that became impossible when he was so engrossing and ran a couple minutes long), but when I got there, I found it was at capacity. All right. I could deal with that. I'd stand in line for Joss Whedon. But there were thousands upon thousands in line for whatever he was selling, plus the other thousands in line for True Blood (who kept at least one Steve Heisler out of the panel he was trying to get to). So, my friend says, "Nicholas Gurewitch is on a panel!" This leads to me going to that panel and discovering that, well, it, too, was completely full. (I don't know if the Con, itself, is fuller, but this FRIDAY was much fuller than last year.)
At this point, I probably should have just gone home. Clearly, the Comic-Con gods were out to get me. But, instead, I found the one panel where seats were available. Predictably, it was the most boring thing I've ever seen here. Sadly, it was a panel about actual comics. It turned out to be DC's Superman panel, and while I was grateful for a seat, I wasn't grateful for the long, self-congratulatory blather from the DC Superman team about how amazing the new issues with Superman wandering America were, since I haven't thought too much of them. This was followed by fans getting up and asking the writers to compare Superman and Thor within the American and Germanic mythic traditions and, also, asking the writers to compare Superman to Jesus, like this was "Marge vs. the Monorail" ("Is Superman faster than Jesus?").
Naturally, I left this, too. I had an interview to get to. After sitting through a few moments of comics panels at the last two Comic-Cons, I guess I'll have to accept that they're taking place at another Comic-Con, one entirely different from the one you see on the news and more dedicated to actual comics in a hardcore fashion. There's no learning curve here. You're either getting bombarded with heroes you've never heard of or listening to "Superheroes as Modern Myth 301" talk.
Before I made it over to my interview, I decided to kill some time on the autographs floor. While it wasn't nearly as despairing as I thought it would be - Heroes creator Tim Kring, who came complete with women dressed like Jackie Kennedy in the Zapruder film for some reason, only drew four or five autograph seekers while I watched - it was still a remarkably strange way to spend a half hour. I didn't get anyone's autograph, but I was astounded by the number of people who seemed to think that their autograph would be a prized possession for some nerd somewhere. Among the actors? Some girl from a Web series who had a guy drooling over her while he ignored his (much hotter) girlfriend, the guy who plays Don Draper's dad in dream sequences on Mad Men, and any host of people who once played a guest part on some sci-fi series somewhere.
Honestly, if the people behind Party Down are looking for a new show, I think they should look no further. Doing this has to be lucrative enough that these people travel from con to con to get people to pay them to sign stuff, but at the same time, I never saw anyone coming up to get an autograph from the vast majority of them (even blessed St. Kring). There's an air of seedy desperation to the whole thing that is alternately depressing and hilarious, and I think the Party Down crew could make something out of it.
The autograph area is also the best place to just hang out and watch people go by, since it lies on the nexus between the two main areas of the Con upstairs. After doing that for a while, I felt much better about the world. There were enough people fascinated by Peanuts to fill up a whole room! And Berkeley Breathed drew an adoring crowd! And the line for Archer was so long I wasn't certain I would get in! I had no idea that other people actually liked these things, and knowing that they did was almost enough to, again, rekindle that sense of nerd kindred spirit. For a little while, at least.
And then I didn't get into the Archer panel because the line was too long, and it all went away.
- Let's hit on some things I've noticed that I haven't been able to work into the main body of these pieces.
- Daniel Dae Kim was asked repeatedly about the end of Lost. Surprise: He liked it!
- It's too bad that I missed the Archer panel. A friend who got in (to the far, far too small room where it was being held) insisted that it was amazing. And with the entire voice cast sans Jessica Walter AND a complete new episode from season two, it really should have been. My friend says it seems as though they've upped the budget for season two, and that would be nice if it were the case.
- Apparently, a lot of celebrities have been walking the show floor in disguise. A colleague found out Deborah Ann Woll dressed as Hit Girl the other day, while James Callis has also been seen out and about in assorted disguises. And, as always, the cast of The Guild - celebrities at the Con, if not in the mainstream culture - is everywhere (though I have yet to see Felicia Day). This is to say nothing of the actual, actual celebrities who are also everywhere. Just today, I walked right by Thomas Jane and got caught in a fray of people trying to take pictures of Bam Margera (I think, since they kept shouting, "Bam! Look over here!").
- Every time I think I'm over Comic-Con, it reels me back in. I had soured on things after my cautionary tale about scheduling True Blood and The Big Bang Theory in the same room came true today and after I couldn't get into a panel to save my life for most of the afternoon. But I just typed much of this up in the very back of a room screening the "Worst Cartoons Ever," and damned if they weren't hilariously awful. Thanks to Cartoon Brew's Jerry Beck for finding these.
- The problem with Comic-Con, I've realized, isn't the scheduling or the lines. It's the one-issue fans. The guy with the "Twilight RUINED Comic-Con" sign was wrong, but he was also sort of right. People who come to the Con JUST to see a certain property and then take up valuable real estate in the room showing that panel create a situation where long, long lines never move forward. I left the line for Ballroom 20 when it became obvious that I wasn't going to see Whedon, and when I wandered by later to see if I had a prayer of getting into True Blood, the people I had been in line behind were heading home dejectedly after standing there for four hours, after waiting to see Joss ... and then the women who kick ass ... and then some actors who play vampires. They had thought all three sounded fun and didn't see a one. One-issue fans, like one-issue voters, tend to have a lot more passion, so they're more likely to get up and fight for their favorite property, and this can only end poorly. Plus, one-issue fans are the ones least susceptible to the seat-clearer panels the Con tosses in between bigger ones to get people to leave and make room for new folks. Thinking about it, I think some sort of panel preregistration is the best solution to this problem.
- Also thinking about what people were saying in comments yesterday, I think the reason that there's SO much complaining about lines at Comic-Con in the media is that we're not used to waiting in line. With a few exceptions, the press pretty much has to wait with everybody else. And that's cool! That's one of the things that makes Comic-Con great! But since this is the only place where we're treated like this, we're probably disproportionately likely to notice.
- Finally, it's time for an actual journalist whine: I wish the folks at the Con wouldn't be so touchy about plugging in laptops to the outlets here at the convention center or us standing near our computers while they charge. The only way we can give you publicity is with electricity. Make us stand in line, definitely, but give us our power!
Tomorrow: My morning is pretty set. I've gotta cover the Chuck panel for another outlet, then I'm going to hit Venture Bros., since you guys seemed interested in that (and I like the show too). After that, I may try to hit something else, but from 2 p.m. on, I'll be Community's. After that, if I can get away in time, I'm torn between trying to get in to see Scott Pilgrim, going to the Marvel films panel, or going to the Fables panel. Readers: Choose! Or pick something else entirely.
July 23, 2010 - 03:07p.m.
There are few comics series I enjoy as much as Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead, a sparsely written and gutsy tale of life after the zombies take over. What I love about The Walking Dead is its close-up focus on its characters, the way that it turns the trappings of a zombie movie into the stuff of domestic drama. Kirkman is unflinching with plot twists and things like character deaths, and while that can sometimes feel cheap, he's also good at giving these moments the weight they need. If someone dies in The Walking Dead, or if someone is injured, those events matter. They continue to reverberate the longer the series goes on, and there's a real sense of loss you only get in the best apocalyptic fiction. Also, there's lots and lots of zombie killing.
So, naturally, this is a perfect fit for AMC, home of Mad Men and Breaking Bad. And, obviously, what I've seen at this point is a trailer (though a well-cut one, as all AMC trailers are). And what I've heard at this point is what Frank Darabont, the writer-director tasked with bringing the series to the small screen, has told me and told other interviewers like Alan Sepinwall (my interview will run closer to the series' October debut). But based on those things and based on today's panel, I'm surprisingly confident that the series is going to fit within the network's brand.
The look of the thing almost seems like Breaking Bad with zombies, and that's a very good thing indeed. Darabont and his crew are shooting on Super-16 film, which gives the footage shown the feel of a kind of faded epic. There's a shot of series star Andrew Lincoln (playing Rick Grimes) riding alone on a horse into the ruins of Atlanta that is ripping off a million other shots but somehow making it feel fresh at the same time. Obviously, there are concerns about how well a television series is going to be able to handle zombie gore (concerns the panelists tried to assuage by saying what we saw - which already had plenty of cool effects - had to be cut back to meet Comic-Con's "family" specifications). And, of course, there are concerns that basing a series on a well-known comic will rob the series of any sense of surprise (concerns the panelists tried to assuage by saying they would head in the same general direction as Kirkman but make their own side-trips along the way). (The trailer gets mega bonus points for using the song "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore.")
AMC brought most of the show's creative personnel and a fair number of the cast members to discuss the direction the series is going to go. Again, a large panel can be problematic at Comic-Con, but the Walking Dead program figured out a way around this by splitting the panel into two halves and using the trailer as a gap between the two. The first half focused on the creatives, allowing them to talk about how they came to the series, the decision to film on Super-16, and any number of other issues. This also gave Darabont the chance to announce that fan favorite TV composer Bear McCreary, who wrote the tremendous score for Battlestar Galactica, will be scoring the show. McCreary was in attendance and came up on stage at the end to answer a fan question about whether the score would solely consist of "scary noises." (McCreary said it wouldn't.)
The series films in Atlanta - a point that led to the panel's one moment of discord, as a Los Angeles-based crew member wondered why the show wasn't filming there (and went on about it, even after Darabont shared his sympathies) - and actress Laurie Holden claimed the temperature atop a roof while filming one day was 152 degrees. This seems unlikely, but she was so insistent, and the cast was so animated about how hot Georgia is (and how nice it was to bask in the cool San Diego ocean) that I'll give them the benefit of the doubt. The cast members also seemed to genuinely enjoy hanging out together, with Lincoln and Jon Bernthal (who plays Shane) telling stories about getting lost in Atlanta and hanging out. Now, granted, acting like they like each other is what actors get paid to do at things like this, but all seemed impressed both by the project and by the footage shown (which was the first any of them had seen of the finished product).
Much of what was said at the panel has already been out there in regards to the show for a while now (and, indeed, almost all of the things covered in the Sepinwall interview were covered in the panel as well). The real proof is going to be in seeing whether Darabont and company can pull off a unique blend of the deliberative pacing of an AMC series and the mounting dark intensity of the comics. if they can, they'll have something very unlike anything else on television at the moment. The trailer screened suggests they've gotten the look right. The cast camaraderie on stage suggested the actors just might be right for the parts (and the little bit seen of Lennie James as Morgan in the trailer suggested he might steal the show). But now comes the hard part, which is making sure this captures the spirit of the comics without being a slavish adaptation and, indeed, running toward what makes TV work. If they can find that middle ground, they'll be good. But sticking the landing will be tough.
Brief thoughts on Hawaii 5-0: I've seen the Hawaii 5-0 pilot, which is very, very fun, but I didn't feel a particular need to get into the panel (though I figured I'd try, since it was before Walking Dead, and why not?). I managed to make it in for the end of things, and outside of a fan asking Grace Park whether she would be in a bikini most of the time (a creepy question she deflected so easily that I suspect, sadly, she gets asked it a lot), the thing was a lot of fun. Daniel Dae Kim and Park were the only cast members involved, but both were in high spirits and very funny. Hawaii 5-0 is just breezy fun, but the panel suggests everyone involved knows that.
July 23, 2010 - 03:07a.m.
Any true Comic-Con experience is incomplete without a visit to Hall H. Obviously, if you want to avoid the behemoth space where major movie announcements are made, you can, but the big "news" that comes out of the Con? It's all being announced there, and if you want to find out that, say, Joss Whedon is confirmed to direct The Avengers or that, I don't know, Tron: Legacy looks pretty cool, it's the place to be. Getting into the place is also a massive, massive hassle, involving standing in line under tents and hot sun for hours on end until things crawl forward just enough to admit you. Comic-Con has improved the Hall H experience from last year to this year - the lines are now mostly housed underneath tents, and if you're not getting into a panel, they have a soothing Mr. Voice to let you know now, instead of some guy coming out and yelling at you - but Hall H is also still most of what's wrong with Comic-Con and, worse yet, everything the show cannot fix, no matter how big of a facility it moves to at the start of its next contract.
The dream of Comic-Con is maximum mobility. In this dream, you can be on the show floor one hour, hanging out with animation voice-over actor the next, meeting the cast of The Big Bang Theory the next, and watching Joss Whedon announce his new directorial gig the next. This, however, is basically impossible once you get up past about 25,000 people admitted. Considering that the event passed that number up long ago, the show has been creeping up toward standstill for a while now. One of the nice things about Comic-Con is the democratization. I have a press pass, and I have to stand in line just like everybody else, and those who buy four-day passes are no different from those who buy a one-day pass. It's a great system, in theory, but it also tends to unfairly bias toward those who are the most hyper-passionate.
Consider this: Friday in Ballroom 20 (the room for the big TV panels), there will be a ginormous Big Bang Theory panel. The show was one of the most popular at the Con last year, and now that it's broken out even more in its third season, it will likely be an even bigger draw. But later in the day is THE TV event of the Con, the True Blood panel. I overheard some girls who were planning to show up at 7 a.m., just to be certain they'd get front row center seats to see the True Blood folks. Which means they're going to sit through a whole day of other TV panels they couldn't care less about for the vampires.
Now, in and of itself, this isn't a bad thing. Four or five girls who really like True Blood aren't going to keep the vast majority of people who want to see Jim Parsons do his thing out of Ballroom 20, which is, after all, the second largest room at the Con. But multiply those four or five girls by a couple hundred, and the problems start to increase. I showed up last year to stand in line for Lost, the big TV event of that Con, at 8 a.m. There were already hundreds of people in line. Now, that panel was in Hall H, which is, again, the biggest room at the show, comfortably seating thousands. But at the same time, anyone who showed up even an hour before the panel - not unrealistic - probably didn't get a seat. I simply got lucky.
So what happens is a gradual stalemate. If I want to see True Blood, it gets more and more likely that I'm going to show up earlier and earlier in the day, sitting through a bunch of stuff I don't care about to get to what I do care about. And if I want to see The Big Bang Theory, I'm going to combat possibly getting crowded out by True Blood fans by also showing up early. So, potentially, tomorrow's first panel in Ballroom 20 - for Stargate Universe - is going to lock out anyone who just shows up and figures they can get in at the last minute.
Now, I don't think things are THIS bad just yet. I got in line for Hall H right after my interview at 4:15 and just missed out on The Expendables - which I had hoped to attend solely to see the slow morph of Sylvester Stallone into Liza Minnelli continue - at 5, then managed to get in for Scott Pilgrim at 6 (after being informed by Mr. Line Supervisor that it was unlikely it would happen). If you arrive a panel or two early for the thing you really want to see, you're likely to get in by the time that thing starts. So the nightmare scenario described above isn't happening at such a wide scale that it's really grinding things to a halt just yet (though this was one of the less attended days of the Con, and I already saw it happening).
But, again, the dream is mobility. I've got an interview at 4:30 tomorrow, and if I hope to catch True Blood at 5:15 to cover it for another publication, well, I've just gotta pray that I have a lot of luck. And forget about going from the Peanuts panel I'd like to see straight over to Joss Whedon, even though the two aren't scheduled at the same time. To go to the former is to miss the latter, and to make sure I make the latter will require sitting through something I don't terribly care about. I know this is pretty much a nerd whine no one will care about. I know that there's basically no better way Comic-Con could organize this, so long as it's devoted toward fitting in as many people as possible. But if there were a solution, it would make for a more intellectually diverse experience. If all I want to see for TV and movie panels tomorrow is True Blood and there's a way for me to make sure I get in even if I show up at 5, then I'm more likely to take chances on things like Stan Freberg. But that's an idyllic system, and, worse, one that there's no possible way to make come true. The way it is now is the way it will always be, and at some point, you just have to grin and bear it.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: I've been wondering if I should start to cover these panels as, basically, product launches. Now, obviously, something like Scott Pilgrim is close enough to release that this is less a launch and more a way to keep the fires of hype burning. But, the thing is, on either level, this panel was kind of a failure. There were some cute jokes and some fun moments, but they were absolutely swallowed up by the cavernous space of Hall H, which absolutely requires a major star or someone with an intuitive sense of how to work a room that large to make happen. (A friend who spent much of the afternoon there says that both Whedon and Stallone played to the room very well. Someone like Anna Kendrick, though, was completely lost.)
Worse, the entirety of the panel was obviously building up toward a screening of the full film. The panel was scheduled for the end of the day, which meant that nothing would be in Hall H afterward. The fact that basically every cast member was on hand and so many hadn't seen the film itself suggested they would get an opportunity to do so very soon. And the way that director Edgar Wright kept teasing bits of non-information as major developments similarly suggested that something bigger was coming. And since the movie is less than a month away from release and promotional materials already permeate the pop cultural landscape, there was basically nothing left but to show us the damn thing.
And here's the thing: They DID show the full movie. Just to a select few, who either wrote for specific press outlets (not this one, sadly) or happened to draw the right button in an elaborate giveaway system. I don't begrudge this system. For whatever reason, Comic-Con is unwilling to utilize Hall H in this fashion (or they may be forced to vacate by a certain time by the convention center), and they DID show the movie and schedule two additional show times for those who did not draw the right button and still wanted to see it, free of charge. It was the best way to get around an unworkable situation. It just left the rest of the panel feeling like a long drum roll with no climax. Those guys got to see the movie (and, apparently, Metric). We got to watch ... a music video. When you're launching or hyping a product, that's a death knell.
This is not to say that the rest of the panel was terrible. Michael Cera came out in an elaborate Captain America costume that was basically the best sight gag ever (you can see a fuzzy photo I took of it here). Jason Schwartzman had a ridiculous mustache. There were more than enough laugh lines from everyone present - including a curious number of them from Brandon Routh - and I think Alison Pill managed to interject a sarcastic aside every time the panel was in danger of losing momentum. Wright was ebullient and fun as a host, and the various clip montages used to introduce all of the panelists were well-edited, feeling for all the world like the nominee rolls at the MTV Movie Awards, only cooler.
But the film had brought 14 panelists. Hall H is a cavernous space, basically something very like a cathedral, and it has a tendency to force everyone into a seat where the only way to see the action is to watch it on one of the video screens. Fine. It works as a way to get a bunch of people in to see what's happening. But on a panel this large, half the fun comes from cast interaction, and the camera operators whose feeds tie in to the video screens tend to frame anyone who's speaking in close-up. So if Cera is speaking, and Pill interjects something funny, and Aubrey Plaza makes a face, all we're going to see is Cera staring down the table at his colleagues. (Since the venue uses multiple cameras, it might be easier to keep one in a wide shot and cut to it whenever anything interesting is happening involving interaction. But that might prove too complicated to handle, logistically.) Plus with 14 panelists, any number of them were going to get short shrift. I'm not sure Kendrick talked beyond her initial introduction, and much of the burden of tossing to people who weren't talking fell to Wright, who was also trying to build the event to his climax.
Still, the event was a success in one measure: It made me more interested to see Scott Pilgrim vs. the World than I had been going in. On the other hand, I was pretty much a skeptic about the whole project in the first place, which meant that all the movie had to do was not look terrible to turn my skepticism into slightly less hardened skepticism. It's not pre-emptively my favorite film ever, and I do think the panel was a bit of a botch, but something in the understood chemistry in the actors (so understood because I couldn't really see them, just the giant screen representations of them) and the clips shown made me think the film could be something special. Or maybe it was just Schwartzman's mustache.
Piranha 3D: And then Dimension decided the best course of action was to get the cast of Piranha 3D in a room with a bunch of journalists and the few fans who found out about the screening of footage and do a sort of unofficial Comic-Con panel (the Con itself rejected the footage shown for being ridiculously gory and, well, featuring naked breasts). I was so out of it by this point - around 11 p.m. - that I spent much of the screening of the footage giggling exhaustedly at the ludicrousness of the footage - which features everything from Richard Dreyfus puttering around in a little boat to women making out underwater to a girl getting her face ripped off to Ving Rhames using a boat motor as an improvised solution to the piranha menace. It's not going to be my thing, but for gorehounds and people who love the ridiculously over-the-top, it's probably going to hit the spot. It's sensationalistic and trashy and way, way over the top, and the assembled cast and crew seemed oddly proud of the fact that it was this ridiculous. (My favorite moment came when director Alex Aja said that he had "fallen in love" with a story of ancient piranha being unleashed from a crack underneath Lake Havasu - Lake "Victoria" in the movie - after an earthquake. Eli Roth, sitting next to him, struggled to keep a straight face.) Piranha 3D looks stupid, but it's pleased that it is, and I suppose it's nice that it's not self-serious in the least.
Tomorrow: No, seriously: Peanuts or Whedon? I've got more interviews, too, but I'm definitely checking out the panel for the Walking Dead TV show, which is turning into one of my most anticipated of the fall season. Anything else you guys see?
July 22, 2010 - 04:07p.m.
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.
July 22, 2010 - 04:07a.m.
For a lot of people - myself included - Comic-Con is about seeing old friends again. I didn't manage to make it down to San Diego until about 7 p.m., then spent an hour looking for parking and picking up my badge, which left me with only an hour to spend hanging out at the Con itself. But the experience - shortened though it was - wasn't wholly worthless. There's always this sense in the first few moments of the event that this will be the Comic-Con where the good geek vibes overwhelm the fact that, well, this event has gotten way, way too big, way, way too scattered, and way, way too predictable. There's basically no spontaneity to anything at Comic-Con anymore. It's all about carefully managed moments, designed to make people think they're having a good time, like a Disneyland ride where Angelina Jolie and the kids from Glee are the animatronic figures.
And yet, as I sank into yet another year of madness, I realized that parts of me were really looking forward to what was to happen this year. I was seeing people I met last year and talking with other journalists here to cover the show and hanging out with some old friends. But perhaps more importantly, there was a sense that every single one of us was here because, at some level, we shared a common purpose. We were here to embrace, let's face it, some pretty silly pop culture, but we were here because, well, sometimes that's all you've got. The thing that makes Comic-Con keep getting bigger and bigger is not the fact that it attracts big MOVIE STARS (though that helps), it's the fact that it packs 100,000 kindred spirits into the same building for the same day and turns them loose on each other.
But those good feelings can only go so far. Since all I had to do tonight was wander the show floor, basically, I hooked up with some friends and we did just that. And, honestly, after the thirteenth or fourteenth time when traffic stopped dead so a mob of slack-jawed mouth-breathers could take a picture of a movie prop or a giant robot suit, I was pretty much ready to kill everyone who's here. I'm not so good with not being able to move freely. I'm sure you can see where this would be an issue. But then things would start moving again, and there'd be a booth with amusing T-shirts or interesting art or classic romance comics from the '50s, and all would be well again. The show floor is all that's good and bad about Comic-Con, condensed into an experience you can have in just under an hour. Indeed, if you came here and just did that, you'd pretty much get everything the show has to offer.
Weirdly, this year seems like the year the recession came to Comic-Con. The show is just as packed as ever - maybe even more so - but the show floor seems more than a little desperate. There are much more open direct pleas to nerd sexuality, what with erotica booths that would have been a little more secretive about their wares last year. The prices seem a little lower, as well, and I'd wager that there aren't as many of the smaller retailers here showing their stuff off. And I know for a fact that many of the smaller publishers don't have as large of booths as they did last year.
The best parts of the show floor are, as always, those at either end of the giant hall. Off to the right, as you enter the hall, you gradually filter past the movie studios, TV networks, and big comics publishers and hit first the smaller comics publishers (where I was pleased to see Boom! have such a large presence), then the webcomics folks (who are out in full force on the show floor this year), then the books publishers, then the purveyors of specialty merchandise. This is the stuff I live for, where you can find assorted comics and other book titles that you haven't seen in an actual book store in ages or check out what, say, Fantagraphics is up to. (Whatever it is, it involves a vaguely creepy dude in a Snoopy costume, who was led around the show floor on what looked like a leash by a handler, as though he were some sort of deadly CIA beagle.)
Head over to the other end, and you'll work your way toward video game publishers - where MTV Games was showing off Rock Band 3, though no one appeared gutsy enough to brave the keyboards on the demo version - and, finally, through artist's alley, the tiny core of the massive, massive pustule that is Comic-Con 2010. This is where the show started, for the most part, the thing that brought all of these people together in the first place, and now, it's shunted off to the side and forgotten (no, look at that photo I took above; quality's terrible, but you can see just how little anyone wants to visit, which is sad). I mean, don't get me wrong. I like to see a Master Chief made entirely of Legos too, but there's something sad, at the same time, about how commerce so consistently beats the hell out of art. There's some cool artwork over at this end of the floor, and most people never bother to even find it.
So, yes, art. But also advertising. Everywhere. Handouts and flyers and pictures and girls in skimpy clothing covered in logos and everywhere people snapping photos of the latest new doodad and pretty face. When I was a kid, we always went to the state fair at the end of the summer, and I'd always spend a morning with my father, checking out the latest farm equipment, walking around it and kicking the tires as other farmers did the same. The early morning sun burned its way through the dew, and the air carried a hint of fall. In a lot of ways, Comic-Con reminds me of the geek state fair. The companies of Hollywood (and the various smaller companies that aspire to be them) bring their wares to us, and we are asked to kick the tires and come up with instant judgments. The old man in the seed corn cap was trying to sell my dad a tractor; the people at today's panel are going to try to sell me on Scott Pilgrim. It's all the same game, just pitched at different interests.
But that schizophrenic nature to the whole event is compelling in its own way. After walking the length of the show floor and examining all it had to offer, my friends and I headed into the unseasonably cool San Diego night air, where a mist was gathering around the city and threatening to turn into rain. While waiting for some idea of which direction we were heading, we noticed a freight train that had chosen that moment to try and make its way through downtown San Diego, mournfully blowing a long note as oceans of nerds passed before it. It would be a while before enough would clear for it to chug forward.
"How long do you think that train is?" one of my friends asked, not honestly expecting any of us to know.
The man standing just off to the side said he figured it was about 6,000 feet, though we didn't think to ask him how he knew this.
While pondering just how we might get past the train to the other side, I jokingly suggested we launch ourselves over the couplers between cars. "You don't wanna do that," said train knowledge man. He then explained that we'd, likely as not, miss, and the train wouldn't stop until they "scraped your body off in Barstow."
"And how do you know?"
He worked for the railroad. Then, the coup de grace: He's killed three people in his line of work.
My friend takes a long sidestep away from him. He laughs. Assures us it was all accidental. It's clear he's just trying to look the badass in front of his girl, trying to while away the night with a few of us kindred spirits.
"So who's your favorite superhero?" I ask, trying to nonchalantly direct the conversation away from hobo splatter.
He muses for a long moment. "Oh, the Punisher." And then he rattles off information about how he's a normal man with lots and lots of guns.
We're gone then, pressing on to other commitments, since the night is, after all, young. But the alternately funny and unsettling conversation sticks with me, part of a night filled with people who aren't quite sure what to do with being surrounded by just this many people who are, sort of, just like them. Would I have had this conversation with this guy under other circumstances? Doubtful. But we did, and it was fascinating and more than a little weird. If nothing else, Comic-Con makes moments like that possible, moments when the world seems like one big collage of people from varied backgrounds, all of whom want to tell you about just how much they like the Punisher.
Tomorrow: Probably the lightest day in terms of stuff you guys want me to take in. I'm going to hit the Scott Pilgrim panel, since that came up quite a bit, and I have a late afternoon interview. But other than that, I'm free to do pretty much whatever. Stan Freberg, here I come!
July 21, 2010 - 04:07p.m.
Been noticing a random uptick of Hulk references in your daily newspaper lately? Has the local news been showing B-roll of people dressed up as obscure video game characters? Wondering what it all means? Well, it could mean any number of things, but most likely, that all-consuming beast known as "the media" has noticed that it's time for yet another San Diego Comic-Con, where geeks and nerds of all stripes gather to celebrate all things that might possibly be of any interest to them. There's still comics stuff, to be sure, but increasingly, it feels like that's just in the name. No, this is all about Hollywood co-option now, and, sadly, that's dragged more media attention to the four-day event than it possibly could have stood in the past.
"Hey," we here at The A.V. Club said, "we are in 'the media.' Perhaps we, too, should be covering this." So, once again, I'm heading down to San Diego to see what's going on and wander the halls. I'll simultaneously have a looser and tighter schedule than I did last year - when I often ended up just sitting in the same room all day, slowly going nuts - and I wanted to avoid the pitfalls of last year, when I often ended up sitting through panels you guys just weren't interested in. I'll warn you, of course, that a lot of my time spent at Comic-Con will be taken up by standing in lines, but I thought I'd throw this post up, that you guys might take a look at the schedule and let me know what I absolutely, positively must take a look at before the whole thing begins. I can't get to everything, but I'll try to hit some of the more out-of-the-way stuff.
Really, you can get coverage of every other movie panel in Hall H just about anywhere out there. If that's what you guys really wanted, though, I'd make every effort to be in there to see just what's up with Captain America or whatever. But I suspect you guys have some more esoteric interests, and I'd be fascinated to see what they are. I can't guarantee that I'll be the most knowledgeable person about every single topic covered at the Con, but I'm willing to check in and give you guys an honest accounting of what's going on. I hope to spend a little more time on the show floor than I did last year, and I've got certain other commitments to fill, but for most of the time, I'm yours. And if you need more immediate reactions, I'll be on Twitter as well.
So tell me what interests you, and I'll try and build my schedule thusly. I'll be back tonight with preliminary thoughts from Preview Night.
July 26, 2009 - 11:07p.m.
(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.
July 25, 2009 - 11:07p.m.
You know me by now, AV Club readers. You know I'm a TV guy. That's what I know. That's what I'm comfortable with. That's what I do, by and large. And when I decided to come to Comic-Con, the assignments I started taking were all TV-related because, well, that's what I know. So today after Lost, I was supposed to head over to Futurama, but Keith was able to catch it when he didn't think he would be able to, so that left me with a big, blank space in which to try and figure out something to do. And then I saw it. The big, general DC Universe panel. I, dear readers, was going to get comics-y.
I chose DC because I know Superman and Batman better than just about any other superheroes, and I know most of the other players tangentially. So when I sat down, I thought I would have a pretty good grip on which announcements were the big ones and which were the minor ones. Then, IMMEDIATELY, Dan DiDio, executive editor, said that since there had been a Superman panel and a Batman panel, neither character would be brought up much, if at all, in the ensuing panel. Furthermore, most of the really big revelations would be saved for the "Blackest Night" panel, which was to immediately follow and which I could not attend. Then everyone in the audience proceeded to cheer at the exact same level for literally every announcement, the return of literally every character, no matter how major or minor. I think the big announcement was Geoff Johns working on The Flash: Rebirth (at least, that's what everyone seemed most excited by, by a matter of degree), but it also could have been J. Michael Straczynski taking over The Brave and the Bold.
The rest of the panel consisted of DiDio taking us through a long series of newly announced titles, some of which had such obscure characters that he had to have the writers explain to many in the audience who they were except for the guy sitting next to me, who kept nodding at every announcement and saying, "Uh huh," as though checking off characters on a mental checklist of every possible corner of the DC Universe. After running through all of these titles (and you can see a perhaps more thorough recap from Newsarama here), the floor opened up to Q&A, and that seemed to mostly consist of DC fans talking about how Marvel should know that DC just wiped the floor with them and somesuch. The old DC vs. Marvel debates seem to have moved most of their vociferousness to the great video game console wars, but they still exist apparently.
I realize this is probably not what you're looking for in comics talk, but I'm the sort of person an event like this should be courting. I have a passing knowledge of most corners of the DC Universe, and I'm generally persuadable about things like following the Green Lantern or something. All-Star Superman was one of my favorite comics reads of the decade. I would like to know more about this sort of thing. But, instead, the two major comics companies seem devoted to onanism, to chasing the same fans around the same old corners over and over and over, while neglecting the casual fan or even the potential fan. I realize that saying this is nothing new, but sitting in on the first half of the DCU panel really drove the point home to me. I get that it's hard to do new things with these characters. I get that it's easier to fall back on continuities that have worked in the past. But it doesn't work for drawing anyone in. I caught the tail end of the Marvel Dark Reign panel before this, in fact, and while I had no clue what was going on there either, at least Joe Quesada had the good sense to bring a little kid up on stage and have him answer questions about what he wanted to be when he grew up. That I could follow.
I say that I only saw the first half of the panel because from there, I had to head to a screening of the pilot of V, as I was reliably informed Ballroom 20 was filling up and filling up fast Everyone says that Saturday is the worst day of the Con because it's so full of people. Because I had stood in a long line for Lost (at Hall H, where long lines are the order of the day) and then gone directly to the relatively sparsely attended DCU panel, I had no idea. When I got in the line for Ballroom 20, it was like something out of a Cecil B. DeMille film. At one point, Comic-Con made all of us go down a long flight of stairs and then back up it (which, if Comic-Con thinks we should lose weight, there are nicer ways of suggesting it) for no apparent reason. While I certainly got to know the people I was standing with in line really well (even the precocious little girl, who overcame my general reticence about kids at the Con by being really funny) and I enjoyed seeing the weird melange of Simpsons, Fringe, True Blood, V and forlorn Futurama fans that made up the line, its sheer disorganization and the massive numbers of people in it made it too hard to stand. Had I not been obligated to attend what was at its end, I probably wouldn't have put up with it. Particularly problematic were the clear Simpsons fans who were obviously there for the Simpsons panel but missed out on it because they were stuck behind a nation of millions of True Blood fans. There's gotta be a better way to do this, but I'm unable to think of one.
Since Keith already reviewed the V pilot in this space, I won't belabor his points here. I think we generally agree on things, though he seems slightly more high on the pilot than I am. I like the alien stuff in general, but the character development was a little rough (including not one but two scenes where a character tells another character that they're worried about that they just need to talk about what's bothering them when ALIENS ARE FALLING FROM THE SKY). Of course, this is just a preview version and not a final one, so things could change. The crowd seemed into the pilot, but not so much that they embraced it with any sort of fervor. They laughed in the right spots and were shocked in the right spots, however, so that's worth something. (And you can read more on this, if you care, here.)
From there, I had to attend two other pilot screenings of shows I wasn't particularly interested in. Before they began, though, I sat in on most of a Ray Bradbury panel in the same room, which was cool because, a.) Ray Bradbury is still alive and b.) he's at that age where he can say completely crazy things and people just think it's adorable. Today, for example, he talked about how specifically he remembers the flavor of his mother's breast milk, and we all just sort of went with it. (No, really!)
All joking aside, though, the Bradbury panel was one of the few to give me hope for the future of geek-manity. All of these people sitting in a room and hanging on the every word of one of our greatest science fiction writers, listening to him declaim about how the United States needs to let comics into the education process to interest kids in reading (he's going to write a letter to the president, which is sort of an old man thing to do but also adorable in a crotchety sort of way), made me think that this wasn't just all about movie studios giving people who grew up in the '80s yet another way to fetishize their childhoods. There are still people interested in the more literary and explicitly nerdy parts of geekdom. You just have to know where to look for them. And they were all hanging out with Ray Bradbury, apparently.
Anyway, the other two pilots were Human Target and The Vampire Diaries. Human Target played like gangbusters, and the panel went even better, thanks to a cast featuring genre favorites like Mark Valley, Chi McBride and Jackie Earle Haley. It helped that the pilot features a truly terrific action sequence, which takes a typical action sequence and handily rethinks it by moving it to a completely different locale than you're used to seeing it in. Also, there's a wonderfully gruesome disposal of a bad guy. The tone is roughly similar to Burn Notice, but it has a bit more grit to it, which isn't a bad thing. Again, it's not a final version, so I won't speak too definitively, but I liked what I saw. It's not too ambitious, but it has potential to be a solid actioner.
Finally, there was The Vampire Diaries, which screened in a half-full room that abruptly changed into the most crowded room I've been at at this Con once the True Blood panel let out and all of that show's fans wandered in. The tone of the screening quickly turned borderline savage as all of the people sitting in the room for the Watchmen director's cut screening coming later on that evening scoffed at the pilot's goofy presentation. There's an audience for this sort of thing at Comic-Con (and most of them seemed to be sitting up front), but any time you bring something like this here, you run the risk of making the haughty geeks roll their eyes at your attempts to placate them. I don't like The Vampire Diaries, but I'm not sure it deserved open hostility either. Then again, that was kind of awesome, so I'm on the fence.
Tomorrow: I'm just going to wander around a lot and try to hit some things that maybe sound interesting that I wouldn't normally check out due to the big mainstream announcements choking them out. Also, Doctor Who! If you have any other suggestions, put 'em down in comments.
July 25, 2009 - 05:07p.m.
Can I mint a phrase for the occasion? “Survival of the fannest.” Here’s who’s getting into these panels: The hardest of the hardcore, those willing to plot, strategize, and sacrifice to get where they want to go. My plan for today was to hang in Ballroom 20 from morning until afternoon, kicking things off with a panel for Chuck, a show I’ve come to like quite a bit. I was in line to enter the Convention Center before the doors opened at 9:30. Once in, I stopped by the bathroom then got in line for the 4200-capacity room at 9:40. This was a horrible mistake. That pit stop insured I would not make it into the room to see what was, by all reports, an awesome session that involved a performance from the Chuck-created band Jeffster and other delights. I’m a fan, but I wasn’t fan enough.
Sticking it out, I did make it in for the next panel, a focus on Family Guy that kicked off a stretch of FOX animation panels. This that would go on to included an awkward, sad panel for Futurama, the beloved, Matt Groening-produced series that’s due to be revived next year.
Riding high off its continued success and the newfound respectability of an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Comedy Series, The Family Guy crew seems to be in good spirits. Much of the panel was given over to clips from the in-the-works sequel to the Star Wars parody Blue Harvest, which looked pretty funny, though not the sort of thing to designed to please those who see the show as little more than a gross-out-and-reference factory. MacFarlane and the rest of the panel teased future episodes, including one in which Mila Kunis’ Meg gets raped in prison—it’s taken this long for them to get to that?—and an abortion episode that FOX has already declined to air but which will be released on DVD and possibly the Internet. The fan questions are lamer than usual, led by two dudes auditioning funny voices for an annoyed MacFarlane. When asked if the cast likes working together, Seth Green and Alex Borstein fake a make-out session. Then Kunis turns it into a simulated orgy.
A preview of The Cleveland Show follows, which looks to be much in the mold of the other MacFarlane shows. The clips look funny enough, even if there’s not anything unexpected. Jamie Kennedy plays a Wafrican-American teen named “Federline.” And so on. My personal prediction: I’ll tune in, laugh, and never watch again. I respect shows from the MacFarlane factory, but I also tend to forget about them unless they're directly in front of me. The mileage of others varies wildly in both directions, I know.
Then: Futurama. Shortly before the Con, news broke that talks between 20th Century Fox TV and the original voice cast broke down, leading to an audition call to replace Billy West, John DiMaggio and others. The panel opened with a clip of Hypnotoad, speaking in an unfamiliar voice, telling the audience, “All is going well at Futurama. You will not notice that the voice cast is not here today.” Anyone hoping it was set up for a revelation that all actually was well with Futurama set themselves up for disappointment. Groening issued an inspirational affirmation and made some vague remarks about FOX before a segue into a fake making-of-Futurama documentary. The central gag, that actress Lauren Tom is secretly being behind all aspects of the show’s production from script to ADR work landed with a thud.
So did a panel segment in which Groening, co-creator David X. Cohen, and others from the writing and producing staff shared funny notes from the writers’ room. At least I think they were supposed to be funny. The topic of the voice cast was verboten during the fan Q&A session that followed, which featured some spoilers about upcoming episodes, including one involving an Amy/Bender marriage that sparks an anti-robosexual marriage movement and a push for something called Proposition Infinity. Cohen closed by asking the crowd, “Keep your fingers crossed. What’s going right now is business.” Clearly they wanted their actors back and put the blame for their absence elsewhere.
A fairly sedate Simpsons panel followed, featuring a few seconds of footage from this year’s “Treehouse Of Horror” episode, including a spiffy-looking, if not all that funny, homage to Hitchcock that veered from Psycho to North By Northwest to the Dalí sequence from Spellbound in a matter of seconds. The Q&A that followed included a kid asking Groening about what influenced The Simpsons to which Groening quipped, “I was inspired by The Family Guy.” He then gave the kid a Homer doll signed by Seth MacFarlane. Revelations about the new season include a bunch of guest stars, some inevitable (Sarah Silverman, Seth Rogen), others out of left field. (Gary Larson? Really?)
Though excitement felt tempered both on the panel and in the audience, everyone on stage seemed grateful for fans’ continued support and fans seemed grateful there was still a Simpsons to watch. At panel’s end, someone from Guinness gave Groening a plaque for being the longest-running sitcom in the world. Is that a new record? At any rate, it’ll be tough to beat. “Simpsons forever,” Groening says at the end. 21 years into its run, that almost seems like a possibility.
Tomorrow: That’s (probably) all for me today since it’s getting late here and there’s not a lot happening that I could conceivably get into at this point. (I’ve refrained from bitching about the lines too much, but I know it’s already too late to get into a Venture Bros. panel located in a too-small room.) I’m following tradition and skipping the typically sleepy Sunday installment of Comic Con. Todd will be on hand to cover the Doctor Who panel and any other excitement. Thanks for reading.
July 25, 2009 - 02:07p.m.
When Lost screened its pilot episode at Comic-Con in 2004, it was one of those things that longtime goers of the Con now grouse about. Every other panel, it seems, is now screening the full pilot of something or other for Con visitors. At this edition, such incongruous programs as Patricia Heaton star vehicle The Middle and reincarnation cop drama Past Life are having sessions, but since Lost had such success in the fall of 2004 and part of that success is attributed to good buzz out of Comic-Con, everybody takes their best shot.
But no one seems to begrudge Lost its annual panel o' fun, now in the ginormous Hall H (seriously, and I thought Ballroom 20 was big), largely because Comic-Con feels vaguely proprietary about the show, I imagine, and also because its audience and the audience for this event overlap so well. Plus, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, both executive producers, are so good at giving fans what they want without really spoiling their massive enterprise or trying too hard (like Tim Kring did when he brought the Heroes season premiere down here last year) that these events become a lot of fun. Even Lindelof jokes now about how the two of them answer questions politely without saying much at all, though they let more slip at today's panel about the mysterious final season than I thought they would.
The theme of the session was "fan appreciation," according to Lindelof, and the two opened with a montage of fan-made content that they had edited together, including everything from fan-made music videos to a short where an action-figure Hurley shoots the 1927 New York Yankees to a Brokeback Lost parody featuring Jack and Sawyer. The two then threw to the audience as quickly as possible to get some questions, but the stream of questions kept getting interrupted, though usually in entertaining ways. Paul Scheer from Human Giant showed up with a painting of Cuse, Lindelof and a polar bear (done on velvet no less), then pimped a Web site where you can see it yourself.
As the panel wore on, series stars Jorge Garcia and Michael Emerson playfully hectored each other (in a bit scripted by series writers Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis, according to Lindelof) over acting ability, followed by a mostly amusing video of Emerson auditioning for the part of Hurley (his skill for playing over-the-top comedy is not quite the equal of his skill for playing submerged menace, but it's close). Nestor Carbonell came out after a video where he applied eyeliner to his eyes in a mirror "backstage." ("Richard Alpert isn't immortal. YOU are," he said.) Josh Holloway even attended to pull off a bit wherein he tazed Lindelof to get Cuse to unlock a box purportedly holding the final scene of the show so he could read it. (Though Emerson ended up having to read it - after asking Holloway if he even knew how to read - and it ended up being a ludicrously overwrought scene from Heroes, involving Parkman, Sylar and a circus tent, and hearing Emerson read it was a pleasure in and of itself.) And then Dominic Monaghan turned up at the end, and the roar for him was deafening.
The biggest development at the panel was that Lindelof and Cuse definitively stated that Jacob has not appeared to any of our castaways as anyone other than himself, which could be potentially huge in figuring out all of the pieces in the final season. They also seemed to confirm that Elizabeth Mitchell (whose character, Juliet, was NOT in an in memoriam segment screened at panel's end) and Jeremy Davies would put in appearances in the final season and hinted that several others who haven't been around for a while would turn up as well. They suggested as well that the final season would have callbacks to the first season, particularly in boiling back down to a raw adventure template and presenting a sense that anything could happen at any moment.
The biggest tease, though, was a series of commercials screened about midway through the panel, which suggested an alternate universe where Oceanic Flight 815 landed without incident. The airline had a commercial promoting 30 years of flight without an accident, followed by an ad where Hurley promoted a new dish at Mr. Cluck's Chicken inspired by his Australian vacation. And then there was an America's Most Wanted segment (complete with John Walsh) about capturing Kate, still a fugitive, but on the run for having killed one of her stepfather's employees, not her stepfather himself (something Lindelof suggested would be important). Does this mean Lost's sixth season will have undone all of the development from the first five seasons and that Jack's plan actually worked? (Lindelof and Cuse nicely got right out in front of this by having Garcia ask that very question in pretty much those very words.) The two insisted we'll have to trust them, though, Garcia pointed out, the last time they said that, we got Nikki and Paolo. Also: We'll find out why DHARMA's still dropping food on the Island and more about Claire in season six.
All in all, it wasn't a panel for spreading information about the final season. I'm sure super fans will pick out some hints in the numerous videos screened at the panel (and a new documentary about the DHARMA Initiative available at ABC.com), but by and large, this was a chance for Lindelof and Cuse to take one last victory lap before having to do the hard thing of sticking the landing. It was a panel filled with people who were thrilled to be in the same room as these people from their favorite show. It was a chance for them to thank the two guys largely responsible for what they love about that show. And it was a chance for those two guys to be overwhelmed by the support shown them. So the sixth season of Lost is as much of a mystery as it ever was, but it's hard not to be anticipating it just slightly more after the panel.
July 24, 2009 - 11:07p.m.
After a little while in Ballroom 20, especially a little while without sustenance beyond the insipidly named Kawoosh purchased at the Cafe Diem, one starts to get a little punchy, especially when one is pretty much only there for panels situated at the end of the day that the cruel networks/Comic-Con schedulers are making you sit through other stuff for.
But that said, I had more fun with the 24 and Bones panels than I thought I would.
24 mostly showed up to promote the fact that, hey, it's eight seasons old, and you used to be obsessed with it, so why not pay attention again? Also, they wanted to show off that they've added the quiz show host from Slumdog Millionaire, Starbuck and Freddie Prinze, Jr. (most famous role: Freddie Prinze, Jr.) to the cast. This is not such a bad idea, honestly. Of course everyone loves Kiefer Sutherland, but this is a crowd particularly primed to welcome Katee Sackhoff in a form-fitting dress and a Freddie Prinze, Jr. who seems to have forgotten that his wife is beloved by 95% of Comic-Con attendees ("Oh yeah. She's big here," he said sheepishly when an offhand mention of her drew applause). Even though the panel marched through the usual questions about how Jack Bauer keeps going, it ended up being unusually forthcoming, as Sackhoff dropped hints about how her character changes from the first episode, when she's bright and bubbly and as Sutherland pretty much just abandoned the idea of talking around spoilers and went for it whole hog, revealing that the season will reveal around United Nations peace talks where the pivotal figures will be the president of the U.S. (the returning Cherry Jones). All involved talked about getting back to the realism of the first season, which is the sort of thing shows that have long since left the tracks say when they want to round up the old ratings gang for one last go of it, but everyone was just so happy to be there.
Well, that is until one of the questioners asked executive producer Howard Gordon whether or not 24 had suffered from not having significant female voices on its production team. Gordon hemmed and hawed for a while before finally saying some outrageously sexist thing about how none of the Rolling Stones were female, so he didn't see why any of the producers of 24 had to be either. Perhaps fittingly, Gordon didn't attend the 24 press room afterward, so fellow producer David Fury had to apologize for him (or so I'm told; I didn't actually get to go to the press room).
24 also showed a fair amount of footage from its new season. The first scene involved an old informant coming to Jack to tell him that he's got some new information, only for Jack to draw a gun on him and start shouting. Just like old times! Then, we cut to the new CTU, which looked like a cross between the Dollhouse set, the American Idol set and a mystical underground cavern ("So it looks like Fraggle Rock?" said my friend). There, Sackhoff's Dana met with her fiancee (Prinze) and condescended to Chloe (Mary Lynn Rajskub, also attending the panel) about how she'd catch up with her computer learnin' soon enough. Nobody condescends to Chloe and makes it out of a 24 season alive, so here's hoping Sackhoff is prepared for this. (Though considering she said on the panel that she told her manager to get her on 24, she's probably well aware.)
It was time for Bones after that, a panel I was planning on mostly zoning out to catch up on work, but damned if the irrepressible Emily Deschanel kept winning me over. David Boreanaz was stuck in Los Angeles with his wife, who is due to give birth to their second child any day now, so it was pretty much just Deschanel and creator Hart Hanson. Weirdly, Deschanel received the third-biggest ovation I heard all day, losing to Jim Parsons and Joss Whedon, but just barely edging out Edward James Olmos. The old maxim about women wanting to be her and men wanting to be with her probably applies.
The duo showed off a clips package featuring lots of gross and icky moments from season four (which suddenly made the show's continued presence at Comic-Con make a lot more sense) then sat back for some good-natured hectoring about how the season finale - a largely tangential dream sequence/Hart to Hart fan fiction riff that featured the two main characters as a married couple and everybody else as, like, bar owners and stuff. The finale was roundly pilliored, and while Hanson tried to insist the hardcore fans took the episode for the love letter to them that it was, we all knew the truth. There was also an extended discussion of how Deschanel's concern for animal rights issues colors some of the show's scripts, followed almost immediately with Hanson saying that in a future episode, the team was going to visit a chicken farm, complete with impeccably timed comic stare from Deschanel.
Most of the questioning, of course, centered on whether or not Deschanel's character and Boreanaz's character would sleep together, and when the audience was prompted to cheer for the two getting it on or the two keeping things platonic, both options received almost equal applause, which surely makes Hanson's job that much easier. All in all, it was a fun panel for a breezy show, and it ended up enlivening what could have been a dead stretch of the afternoon.
The whole day, a core of Ballroom 20 dwellers had been growing and growing and growing, as show after show after show pulled in more and more of them. A few stayed after Stargate, while even more stayed after BSG, while even more stayed after Big Bang and so on. But once it was about time for Joss Whedon to take the stage to air the purportedly lost episode of Dollhouse, the room began to gradually fill up (it was filling up already toward the end of the Bones panel), and when "Epitaph One" actually began, the room was completely full of rabid Whedonites, ready for whatever the guy had in store for him.
My full thoughts on "Epitaph One" are here, but it was a bold, ambitious piece of TV-craft, nothing less than Whedon trying to encapsulate everything he was trying to say earlier in the series in one episode designed to create an ever-mounting sense of dread. It's very hard to talk about "Epitaph One" without lapsing into spoilers (and the episode proper will get a review when the series is released on DVD), but it's unlike anything else I've seen on television in many a year. It was the perfect primer for the next panel, which featured 45 minutes of Whedon talking to his fans, series stars Eliza Dushku, Fran Kranz and Dichen Lachman at his side (and more on that here).
Whedon's always one of the best draws at an event like this, even if you don't quite like what he's selling. He's always funny, and he's always gracious to his fans. What I didn't expect was to see the guy so happy. He's usually beaten down by the world and the way things are going in his tortured relationship with Hollywood. But after receiving an unexpected second season of Dollhouse, after seeing Cabin in the Woods attract so much hype, after seeing Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog nominated for an Emmy, well ... the guy seemed downright peachy. It also helped that he sprinkled his talk with Dollhouse, season two spoilers, like the fact that the characters from "Epitaph One" will return in season two or the news that Alexis Denisof (he of Angel) has signed up for a recurring part.
After Whedon, it was time to wander down onto the show floor. After a full day of televiison panels, it was nice to remember what the show's roots were, though I didn't get nearly enough time to peruse Artist's Alley, so distracted was I by the vendors selling literally anything you could think of in geek culture. I'm sure someone's called it this before, but it was like a great nerd bazaar, and just being in the center of it was enough to nearly make the mind explode. I hope to get down and talk to some of the dealers and artists on Saturday or Sunday, just to figure out how they see the increasing Hollywoodization of the Con. Or, barring that, just to buy some rare issues of She-Hulk or something.
Tomorrow: More, sigh, TV, but Lost! Futurama! And a bunch of pilots!
July 24, 2009 - 07:07p.m.
Comic Con and grousing go hand and hand but some of the complaints have become clichés over the years. Mention that it’s not about the comics anymore and you’ll probably get a shrug. It’s a bit like complaining about MTV not playing music videos anymore or the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn. That ship sailed along time ago.
That said, it’s not not about comics either. There’s certainly more focus on comic books and comics, sigh, properties here than any other gathering on Earth. Comics companies large and small make their presence felt even when while surrounded by marketing interests with deeper budgets. And as Todd’s post earlier today notes, these folks are pretty tough competition. Did you know there’s a Halloween sequel out this year? Because the Halloween II-outfitted Segway-riders patrolling the grounds a block away from the Convention Center sure keep reminding me.
An interview with Park Chan-wook, director of Oldboy and the forthcoming Thirst, that took me off the beat for much of the first half of the day. When I got back, I decided to plunge into a pair of panels from the Big Two mainstream publishers: Marvel’s Cup O’ Joe panel, presided over by editor-in-chief Joe Quesada and DC’s DC Nation, led by DC Senior Vice President/Executive Editor Dan DiDio.
I’ve been to a number of these panels over the years and I think they’re starting to converge. Remove the names of the players and characters, and it’d be hard to tell them apart. Whatever their differences outside the spotlight, both DiDio and Quesada project a friendly, alpha-male-as-overgrown-kid-with-the-best-toys image. Both have also taken to handing most of their panels over to questions from fans seeking direct access to the men and women (today just men) who make the comics they love. They seem friendly, good-humored, accessible, and always on message.
When a fan expressed displeasure with Final Crisis and Batman R.I.P., some of the writers on the panel seemed confrontational. Without admitting any particular mistakes, DiDio stressed that they liked to listen to fans and to avoid making the same mistakes twice. Later in the same panel, DiDio solicited fans’ creative for input as to which DC characters should be revived from the dead in the popular new Blackest Night crossover event. It was a session short on big announcements—those are rumored for tomorrow—but long on bonhomie, and as a troop-rallying exercise it worked quite well. Some of DiDio’s decisions have made him a controversial figure in fandom, but here he’s got the sort of personality that puts the doubters to rest, at least until the hour’s up.
Marvel’s panel preceded DC’s and arrived amidst rumors, passed in part by Marvel itself, that the session would contain a major announcement. But first, the questions. Most fans lobbed softballs today, including a Australian who asked for an Australian Marvel hero so he could come dressed as that character to future conventions. And then came the news that Marvel had obtained the rights to Marvelman, news that will mean a lot to some and not so much to others.
Short version: Marvelman is a British hero derived from Captain Marvel in the 1950s and tied up in legal wrangling pretty much from his first adventure. Beginning in the early-‘80s, Alan Moore began writing a series of innovative stories, published in American under the name Miracleman. The early stories anticipated some of the ideas found in Watchmen. That later ones expanded on them. Then came more legal wrangling. (For a fuller account of the legal ins and outs, which also involve Todd McFarlane and Neil Gaiman, read comics gossip Rich Johnston’s piece on the subject.) Marvel announced the acquisition without getting into when, or if, they’d be reprinting the long-out-of-print Moore stories. In the end, the announcement felt less like the end of a long saga than its latest chapter.
I hate to end on an anti-climactic note. So here’s a picture of a wax Hugh Jackman.
July 24, 2009 - 04:07p.m.
One of the things that takes some getting used to at Comic-Con is just how thoroughly everything is propagandized within an inch of its life here. Obviously, there's a reason the studios/networks/what have you do this: They have a captive audience of people who are asked to ask "respectful questions" (not like adoring fans wouldn't do this anyway) and have those questions screened anyway. I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing. Offering a place for fans to interact with their favorite creative folks is a nice thing to do, and it gives the fans a rush. But that Comic-Con seems to increasingly draw more attention than, say, the TCA Press Tour is not a shift I'm terribly comfortable with.
And that's to say nothing of the blocks immediately surrounding the convention center, which have been turned into some weird zone of sheer marketing fervor, as though the studios honestly believe that if they toss a bunch of cute PR girls at the problem of, say, getting geeks in a frenzy over the upcoming animated film 9, it will surely work. Hell, SyFy took over an entire breakfast joint (Mary Jane's Coffeehouse) and renamed it after the Cafe Diem from Eureka. I mean, look at that photo above (which I mostly snapped because I was amused by the people rolling the Prisoner prop into place). The vast majority of the people in that photo are marketers, trying like Hell to interest anyone in what they have to pitch. But will it even work? I'd argue that the increasing placation of the geeks is one of the things ruining so many movies and TV shows nowadays (to say nothing of comics), but at the same time, geeks are among the few people still going to movies. So it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Spend enough money, and the geeks will know you'll be there. And they'll come. Hell, I probably will too. I'm as susceptible to marketing as any of you, even though I know I'm being bombarded.
But enough about that. What about the panels?
I'm spending all day in Ballroom 20 (at least until the last hour when I plan to hit the show floor and follow some recommendations made by someone who's been attending the Con since the '90s), which is an interesting experiment in audience flow. I tend to hang out toward the back, so I can scurry to the outlets to charge my battery every time there's a break between panels, and it's amazing that the three panels I've seen here so far have filled the room but with largely different people. Sure, there was quite a bit of overlap between the three, but there were enough people leaving the room in between all of them to let floods of new people in in between. The advent of Twitter has also allowed folks to let others know just how many people are still waiting outside and so on. But every time you think you get a bead on the crowd - ah ha! These Stargate fans are just here because the Battlestar panel is immediately after! - you realize that you have no idea what's going on (when many, many of those fans file out at the end of Stargate).
Anyway, I have never really cared one way or the other about the various Stargate series, which I've seen a handful of episodes of, but Stargate: Universe looks watchable, when it's not looking like a National Guard ad. The trailer shown doesn't do a terribly good job of explaining what the hell the show is all about, but, then, it's preaching to the converted, so it probably doesn't need to. It has something to do with a team of scientists (and a videogame geek played by journeyman character actor Daniel Blue) getting stranded at the ends of the universe and then getting a cool spaceship to fly around. It's assembled an impressive cast (Ming Na! Lou Diamond Phillips! Robert Carlyle!), and the look of it is very much Battlestar Galactica lite.
The panel actually made me interested in checking out the show, which I suppose is the intent of such a panel. I have a bottomless appetite for marginally successful-to-mediocre sci-fi (I watched the entire run of Dark Skies, for God's sake), and I like the premise of the show (or at least the premise I made up in my head to explain the trailer), though the fact that almost all of the fan questions focused on nitty-gritty mythological details of the show's universe that had me frantically Wikipedia-ing things suggests the learning curve may be steep, despite the producers' assurances that this is going to be a Stargate for non-Stargate fans. What's keeping me interested is that cast. They all seem really high on the project, and the supporting players, especially, were terrifically enthused to be there, giddy at what they were being asked to do.
The only reason I even went to the Stargate panel was because I had to cover the Battlestar Galactica: The Plan/Caprica panel immediately afterward for Hitfix.com, so if you want really detailed discussion of it, go there. If you just want the quick hits, though, I was surprised at the decision to not look back at the end of the run of one of the most critically successful science fiction series in history (maybe because I increasingly think I'm one of only four people to have liked the series finale) and, instead, look forward at the spinoff (which we got no new footage of) and the new movie (which we got a very cool trailer for, complete with suggestion that Dean Stockwell's Cavil might be the main character of the film). Caprica sounds, simultaneously, as though it will grow the franchise's world-building powers exponentially (Ron Moore started rattling off facts about Caprican society that sounded oddly fascinating) and create a less sci-fi-heavy world for people who just couldn't make the leap for Battlestar. At the same time, The Plan sounds as though it's going to be the ultimate hardcore treat for bigtime fans of the first series (which was the second series but ... never mind). It was a fun and insightful panel, overall, and Ron Moore, David Eick, Edward James Olmos and Jane Espenson are handling this transitional time for the franchise exceptionally well.
Then there was The Big Bang Theory panel, moderated by Mike Mignola of all people. I don't know that I got as much out of this panel as any of the others, but the sheer love for the show expressed by the audience made the panel a great deal of fun anyway. The entire ensemble, as well as executive producers Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady, were in attendance, and the adoration foisted upon them by the crowd was beyond anything I've seen here so far. Big Bang is one of those shows of the moment, and its blending of traditional sitcom rhythms with geek-friendly material has somehow created something that both my mom and my philosophy-major friend Luke are both incredibly interested in.
As mentioned, the panel itself wasn't full of new insight (though the constant specter of people who want Sheldon and Penny to hook up continues to terrify me). Much of it consisted of people asking Jim Parsons to recreate their favorite Sheldon bits from the show, which he graciously agreed to do time and time again. But, man, it was almost worth it to see Kaley Cuoco flirt with a fan or to see how happy Chuck Lorre (a notoriously glum guy) looked at the reception the show received or to hear Johnny Galecki expound about which Roseanne cast member he'd like to bring on the show next or to watch a fan hand over a napkin to Parsons so he could mop his brow, the better that the fan's sister could grow her own Parsons in a basement lab (a callback to the show's Christmas episode, singled out as one of the cast's favorites). It was an unrepentant love fest, but it was also a lot of fun.
Up next: 24 introduces new cast members, Bones has good chemistry, and everybody loves Joss Whedon.
July 23, 2009 - 08:07p.m.
Despite living in California for several years now and despite having a general interest in most things geek-centric, I have never been to the San Diego Comic-Con, largely because it sounds like a mess of epic proportions every time people tell me about it. But, also, every time people tell me about it, they get this little gleam in their eyes and say, "You have to go!"
Both of these things, as it turns out, are very much true. Comic-Con IS a mess of epic proportions. I stood in line today more than I did anything else. The only thing I could find to eat without throwing off my hectic schedule was a terrible, overpriced hot dog. And there seems to be little rhyme or reason to how people are herded into the various rooms. (At one point while waiting in line for Avatar, the SDCC volunteers pretty much just gave up and let us start trampling over the ropes meant to keep us in place.) At one point, I decided to ditch the Burn Notice panel since Keith was already going to be there and head across to Avatar (because, I don't know if you've heard, but it cures the leprosy), figuring I at least had a shot at getting in. Nah. We had to stand a quarter mile away from the convention center only to learn much, much later that we weren't getting in. I got a sunburn. It was a good time.
All of this should be far more enervating than it actually is. Something about the sheer insanity of the event and the general bonhomie among the fans gathered for it keeps the whole thing from utterly falling apart. I stood in line for nearly three hours while waiting to get in, in a line that snaked all the way around San Diego's Embarcadero, and I pretty much didn't mind. For one thing, the San Diego Pops Orchestra was rehearsing in a nearby bandshell, playing a suite of tunes from Super Mario Bros. For another, the costumes really are as bizarre and varied as you've heard. Sure, there are a ton of Jokers (though less than last year, I guess), but there's also a girl dressed as a sexy Dr. Horrible and an incredibly elaborate Optimus Prime (whom I saw slow dance with Boba Fett). For another, everybody's friendly. It's like Mayberry if Aunt Bea liked to dress up as a sensual steampunk leprechaun on the weekends.
So I spent most of day one drinking in the atmosphere and standing in line. It seems like the only way to see anything you want to see is to just park your ass in one room and hope for the best (which I'll be doing tomorrow as I ride out the entire day in Ballroom 20), but the things you come to see are often secondary anyway. (And if you want my running commentary, my Twitter feed is always a good bet.)
But, that said, I actually did get into the panel for Dexter's fourth season, though I didn't get in soon enough to see the roundly praised trailer for the season, which shows off new cast member John Lithgow, who's apparently playing a very, very creepy character (I'd say more, but I know y'all hate spoilers so). Lithgow was there, as were series stars Michael C. Hall, Julie Benz and Jennifer Carpenter and a phalanx of producers. Ralph Garman (better known to most for his voicework on Family Guy and better known to Los Angelenos for being the KROQ entertainment news guy) moderated the panel, which was more interesting for the things dropped in between the lines than what was actually said. For example, Lithgow has completed five episodes of the show but has yet to share screen time with any of the regular cast. And Keith Carradine will be back as Special Agent Frank Lundy, brought in to capture a new serial killer (and if you read between my lines, you'll get it).
The fan questions all tended to be variations on, "Michael C. Hall, you play a character who is so X but is also really X. How do you do that?", but Hall, who's surely used to this, was mostly patient and answered them. The fans did manage to get a few good bits out of those involved. Benz answered a question about which scenes she found scariest to film by saying her sex scenes (to, uh, hoots and hollers, which can't help) then revealed, tongue in cheek, that the baby playing Dexter's son is a "really good actor." Carpenter said she thinks Deb, Dexter's sister, probably suspects the truth about her brother. And producer Sara Colleton described Dexter's need to kill as his "special needs," which is surely one way of looking at it. All in all, it was the usual fan service, and nothing said really indicated whether or not the show would rebound from a third season that was hit-or-miss, though the fact that Lithgow seems to be relishing putting his 3rd Rock from the Sun days behind him and embracing creepiness sure seems promising.
Tomorrow: Todd VanDerWerff vs. Ballroom 20, wherein I confront Battlestar Galactica, The Big Bang Theory, 24, Bones, the collected works of Joss Whedon and probably some other stuff.
July 23, 2009 - 06:07p.m.
This afternoon I hit an Entertainment Weekly-hosted panel called “Wonder Women: Female Power Icons In Pop Culture” featuring Sigourney Weaver, Elizabeth Mitchell (Lost), Zoe Saldana (Star Trek, Avatar) and an unannounced Eliza Dushku. I went into it a little suspicious. I’m not sure if, in 2009, a panel united solely by a “Yay! Women kick ass!” theme makes portrayals of strong women—or “female power icons,” if you will—less marginalized or more. I’m still not sure any deeper theme united the panel but it turned into a pretty good discussion anyway. Everyone seemed to agree with Weaver when she noted that society is changing faster than the way Hollywood portrays it and that the greatest frustration for smart actresses is that scripts tend to write women as types rather than characters. (I’m paraphrasing a bit.) Everyone came off well, but nobody quite as well as Saldana, who expressed frustration with the roles available for women and minorities and wondered why movies didn’t reflect the diverse crowd gathered there.
Speaking of that crowd, I’ve never seen it more evenly divided between men and women. No doubt Twilight has something to do with that, but it hardly explains the shift in full.
I was secretly hoping that, with two cast members on hand, we’d get some footage from James Cameron’s Avatar without having to brave the line over at Hall H, which no doubt still carried the funk of Twlight fans who’d camped out the night before. (Overheard waiting in line: “My friend is 20 weeks pregnant and she slept outside!”) Alas, no. But fans of Burn Notice did get to see a clip of Jeffrey Donovan providing some spy tips especially for Comic Con. Donovan didn’t make it to the panel, but creator Matt Nix, co-star Bruce Campbell and various supporting players did turn up for a lively session highlighted by Campbell, who knows a thing or two about playing to a crowd of passionate geeks. A highlight: Campbell’s seemingly off-the-cuff discussion of a possible Burn Notice/Evil Dead crossover called Dead Notice. Interestingly, Nix often speaks in the distinctive cadence of one of Donovan’s how-to-be-a-spy voiceovers. He also hates CGI effects and insists on real explosions.
I can’t say too many other panels interest me today, so I think I’m going to head to the exhibit floor and catch some screenings. Will check back in later. (It also occurs to me that I've fallen into the come-to-Comic-Con-and-not-write-about-comics traps. I'll try to correct that tomorrow.)
July 23, 2009 - 02:07p.m.
Part of the joy of Comic Con is that there’s always something going on. That’s also part of the terror. Whatever you’re looking at, no matter how cool, there’s always the chance that something cooler’s going on the other side of the convention center. The solution: Just give up trying to take it all in and choose your events wisely.
With that in mind, I started out the day with a panel offering a sneak peak at Astro Boy, an adaptation of manga pioneer Osamu Tezuka’s classic comic book that was later turned into a beloved cartoon. The 2009 Astro Boy comes from Imagi Studios, the animation house best known for the CG Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles adaptation from a couple of years ago. Director David Bowers, a veteran of Aardman, producer Maryann Garger, and voice stars Freddie Highmore and Kristen Bell all showed up for the panel, with Bell, unsurprisingly, getting the biggest cheers.
The footage shown looked cool and funny, with action interrupted by gags that wouldn’t be out of place in Chicken Run. (That only sounds awkward.) It also bore a much stronger resemblance to Pixar than its anime origins. I was half-hoping for something that would meld the Astro Boy look to modern CG animation. This doesn’t look quite so daring. But it does look fun.
The movie will no doubt become inescapable when it comes out this fall. The Middleman was all too escapable when it aired on ABC Family last summer, but next door it drew a wildly enthusiastic crowd for a full-cast table read of what would have been the series’ season finale, “The Doomsday Armageddon Apocalypse,” if ABC Family didn’t pull the plug before it could be shot. But the cult the series picked up—a cult sure to grow with the recent release of its single truncated season on DVD—showed up in full force.
There’s no introduction and no Q&A after the session but no absence of warmth from the crowd. Middleman co-creator and executive producer Javier Grillo-Marxuach provided lively description of the action and the cast threw themselves into the performance of a typically fast-paced, pop-culture-reference-laden script, particularly co-lead Matt Keeslar and the ubiquitous Mark Sheppard as his nemesis. This may be the end of the line for The Middleman as a TV show—it’s continuing as a comic—but it’s heartwarming that Comic Con remains a place where such misfit orphans can find a home, if only for a final hour.
July 23, 2009 - 01:07a.m.
Preview Night, open only to those with four-day passes, is the sleepiest night of Comic Con, relatively speaking. It still draws a tremendous crowd, made thicker by the those stopping to photograph, say, a Stormtrooper made out of Legos, but compared to what’s to come, it’s a ghost town. Hey, want to see a Stormtropper made out of Legos?
How about a terrifying Voldemort?
Or a pink Darth Vader head? (A portion of the proceeds go to benefit breast cancer.):
It’s also, however unofficially, TV pilot night. Last year saw the debut of Fringe, which created a fair share of excitement and then a seemingly equal share of disappointment. Or maybe that was just me, though I’ve heard the show has gotten considerably better. This year we got not one, not two, but three pilots. I was later checking in than planned, so I missed most of the Human Target pilot, set to debut on FOX in January. An adaptation of a third-string DC Comics title, what I saw of the show looked slick and well-made. And it featured Chi McBride and Jackie Earle Haley, both plusses in my book. But I didn’t really see enough to judge, honestly.
This was followed by the pilot to V, a remake of the fondly remembered—or maybe that’s just me again—‘80s alien invasion/Nazi allegory. I don’t know whether the excitement of the pilot, which features both the seemingly benign arrival of alien ships across the globe and some clever twists and turns, can be sustained, but I’ll definitely be tuning into find out. Lost’s Elizabeth Mitchells, one of my favorite television actresses, anchors the show as a single-mom FBI agent who, by the end of the first episode, has begun to suspect that the alien visitors might not be as altruistic as they first appear. Also featured: Mitchell’s teenage son (Logan Huffman) who ends the episode enlisting in the show’s equivalent of the Nazi Youth, Joel Gretsch as a skeptical priest, Firefly’s Morena Baccarin as the alien leader, Morris Chestnut as a man with conflicted motives, and Scott Wolf as a callow TV news reporter. Wolf’s character could be key, since some of the best bits of the show exploit the weirdness of our 24-hour cable news cycle. A few moments feel a bit forced, but this is definitely a show fans of science fiction should welcome, assuming it can sustain the feel of its compelling pilot. It also created one of those only-at-Comic Con moments: When Alan Tudyk showed up on screen, the crowd cheered.
I stuck around for Vampire Diaries… for a while. Produced and, at least for this first outing, co-scripted by Scream and Dawson’s Creek creator Kevin Williamson, it’s based on a novel by L.J. Smith that preceded Twilight. But it still feels a lot like an off-brand Twilight: The Series, complete with a tragically inclined heroine (Degrassi’s Nina Dobrey) and a sensitive, hunky vampire hero (Paul Wesley). Williamson’s once-distinctive voice is tough to discern beneath the generic teen angst, and though I did like the soundtrack, it wasn’t enough to keep me around, especially with the prospect of more floor wandering and drinks with some colleagues on the horizon. Time’s too tight here to waste on mope without depth and bloodletting that feels weirdly bloodless. And if I stuck around, I would have missed this, whatever this is:
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