My Inner Fan Boy Escapes, or Memoirs of a Comic-Con Newbie

Last time, I shared some reflections on my first time experience of San Diego Comic-con last month. I wanted to add a few more thoughts today.

The biggest shift in the media coverage of the convention this year has come from growing attention to the women who attended to conference. As we’ve noted here in the past, San Diego is often depicted as the seat of power in the fan boy universe and over the past few years, we’ve seen a steady stream of articles stressing the renewed influence of male fans on the decisions made by the film and television industries. Yet, this time, primarily as a result of the phenomenal turnout for the Twilight panel, the press has finally started to notice that there are ladies in the house. As I noted in my exchange earlier this week with Kristin Thompson, there were certainly still more male than female attendees. I don’t have access to any statistics but at a glance women represented between a quarter to a third of those attending the event. Yet, they made their presences felt and heard at pretty much every event I attended and to nobody’s surprise, they were interested in different things than some of the guys in the room.

At the risk of stereotyping things, the archtypical fan boy at San Diego seemed preoccupied with getting spoilers. Almost every panel started with someone explaining that they were not going to be able to tell the audience much about the coming season. And the fan boys would see this as a competition, asking spoiler questions again and again, until someone let something slip and you knew it would be all over the blogs in a heart beat. The industry has helped to create this phenomenon by using the convention as a space to roll out preview reels, clips, or even whole episodes worth of forthcoming material, seeing the gathering both as a way to gauge response and as a publicity mechanism to get buzz going around their projects. The audience has gotten so spoiled that there’s almost total indifference if the panel simply shows something that’s already been released on the web — even a few days before. The focus is relentlessly on the future — everybody wants to know something before the general population — and that’s become half the reason why you wait in the long lines and sit in the back of a packed auditorium, hoping to see a few scenes of your favorite series before it reaches the air. And be forewarned, the notes that follow probably represent the rumblings of my inner fan boy.

Female fans are certainly interested in spoilers, but my experience was that they were much more likely to ask questions designed to get greater insights into the ongoing relationships on the series — either those between characters or on the set. Rather than always racing ahead, they seemed to have a deeper interest in understanding what the series was all about and how the production staff thought about some of the issues which had sparked conversation on Live Journal or have started to inspire fan fiction. As a rule, these questions were more apt to get substantive responses from the panelists, rather than get shot down because they weren’t going to share any spoilers. The male questions are all or nothing and most of the time they yielded nothing, where-as the fan girl questions are more apt to spark a bit of fun interplay between cast members or even, heaven forbid, shed some light on the programs and films of which we are fans.

While we are on the subjects of female fan culture, I wanted to do a shout out to Francesca Coppa who was interviewed in a recent issue of Reason Magazine about the history and practices of fan vidding. It’s a very smart interview which contributes to the ongoing struggle of fan vidders to gain a bit more recognition for their historical contributions to remix culture. My bet is that anyone who’s read this far into the post will find it a rewarding read.

My big bad confession is that while I came to San Diego for the comics, I didn’t really attend any of the comics-related sessions. I was as star struck as anyone else by the sheer number of my favorite actors and creative artists in attendance and tended to camp out in the larger venues to learn more about film and television shows I liked. And to make matters worse, the one comics panel I attended — a session featuring Stan Lee and Grant Morrison — made it onto my schedule because it was right before the Doctor Who and Torchwood sessions and I was afraid I wouldn’t get a seat. I convinced myself I was morally superior to the others camping out all around me because at least I know who Lee and Morrison were, and I could even rationalize being there because the topic was supposed to be about Virgin Comics and I have a grad student doing a thesis on Virgin. But to be honest, I’ve seen Stan the Man before and once you’ve heard him do his “I’m so egotistical…” jokes once, you’ve probably heard them enough to last a lifetime. And I also have to confess that I’ve never really liked Morrison’s comics as much as I am supposed to — you might apply this to any comic which is described as “cosmic.” I don’t do “cosmic.” I like my comics to have richly drawn characters and witty dialog alongside the action scenes — and not go trapsing off into other dimensions (spirital or otherwise). If I wanted mysticism, I’d buy a pack of Tarot Cards — which some of Morrison or Moore’s worst stuff seems to resemble.

The Doctor Who panel, on the other hand, was a real treat — even if Russel T. Davies did not make his announced appearance. We still had an hour to bask in the wit and intelligence of Stephen Moffat who has not only written some of my favorite episodes of Who but also is the man behind Jekyll, a really stunning mini-series about a contemporary descendant of Doctor Jekyll. And things really came alive when John Barrowman (Captain Jack Harkness on Doctor Who and Torchwood came on stage). Barrowman is even more out-going in person than he is as a character and he brought the other castmembers and creators out of their shell. As with everything else, the audience had more fun when it looked like the actors were having fun and Barrowman was having a total blast.

But fan loyalties call me elsewhere and I had to sneak out of the room half way through the Torchwood panel in order to make sure I’d get a seat at the Middleman session. I sang this series praises after seeing only the first episode earlier this summer and I have to say it has gotten stronger and stronger with each episode, as we’ve gotten to know the characters and learned more Middleman backstory and as the writers and actors have found their voice. If you missed any episodes, get thee to iTunes. You missed what I think was the strongest television of the summer — So You Want to Dance being the other series which helped me get through the hot and sweaty months. Alas, no Natalie Morales at the Middleman panel, continuing a panel of disappointing no-shows. But I did get a chance to hear Javier Grillo-Marxuach, the series creator and executive producer, and Matt Kesslar who plays the Middleman. This was a much cozier affair — in a room that seated only a few hundred rather than several thousand — but there was a sense that all of us in the room had made a discovery together of this little known cult series which needed our support.

And we ended an exhausting day with the panel focused on HBO’s True Blood, a forthcoming vampire series created by Alan Ball (Six Feet Under), and starring, among others, Anna Paquin, both of whom were in attendance, along with pretty much the rest of the cast. Like Twilight, this is a “my boyfriend’s a vampire” story, this time with lots of local color stemming from the New Orleans location. It seemed good enough to motivated me checking it out in September, but there was little here to distinguish it from any other recent vampire series on television, other than the fact that Ball has a pretty good track record and they have a very imaginative ad campaign involving mock billboards that we had seen all over Los Angeles earlier in the trip. The big problem is that most of the folks on the panel didn’t seem to recognize that they were speaking in genre cliches and acted as if they were inventing most of these elements from scratch. If you want to read a good comic with a similar plot line, see Jessica Abel’s Life Sucks.

Friday, like everyone else at the convention, the goal was to get a seat for the Watchmen session. And we made it — barely. Zach Snyder, the Director from 300 who finally managed to get one of my all time favorite graphic novels on the screen, was there was pretty much the entire top tier cast of the movie. I had been nervous about what Watchmen was going to look like on screen, especially after the really tacky pictures which were in Entertainment Weekly, but once they got through showing the extended preview a few times and I picked my jaws off the ground, it was clear that I was going to love this movie. As someone who has taught the book more than once, I recognized pretty much every shot in the preview as coming from a specific panel in the graphic novel. And it was clear that they captured not just the look but also the tone of the story here. Snyder himself was mumbling and inarticulate. I suppose I now know why his movies are rich in images and sparse in spoken language.

We stuck through an hour’s worth of screening of film previews (which disappointed primarily because most of them were already in the theaters and because so few of them really fell into the genres that drew me to the con in the first place) and then a short session showcasing the forthcoming remake of The Wolfman. Benicio Del Toro, who plays the Lawrence Talbot role made famous by Lon Chaney Jr. in the original Universal film, and Emily Blunt, who plays his love interest, were there in person as was veteran special effects artist Rick Baker. Baker totally sold me on the film — as recapturing the spirit of the old Universal and Hammer horror films that I loved so much in elementary school, while giving them an adult spin. To be honest, I have been anticipating the release of this film since I saw the first stills of Del Toro in his monster make-up because it was so clear that the creature was crafted with enormous respect for the old style monster movies.

And then it was The Spirit session, including Frank Miller and Samuel R. Jackson, not to mention several of the actresses who played Femme Fatales in the film. This one made me a great deal more uneasy. Jackson was Jackson and that was worth all of the effort of coming to San Diego. And it looks like it should be a beautiful movie to watch, other than the fact that it looks just like Sin City. Miller was giving speeches about his long time relationship with Will Eisner and his respect for the original and so forth, but in reality, I came away seeing much more of Frank Miller on the screen than of Eisner. That’s too bad because I love when Darwyn Cooke has been doing with The Spirit in recent comics and I admire the Eisner original, and this felt so radically different from either. I could go with it if I felt it was taking us some place fresh and different but so far, it just looks like they just kept on shooting when they finished the second Sin City movie and they just wanted more of the same. Maybe I will be proven wrong, but this was probably my biggest disappointment at the Con.

On Saturday, I felt even more victorious having waited in a line which seemed to have no end that I made it into the Heroes panel. And this was the Comic-Con experience I’d been waiting for. They brought out the entire cast of the series, as well as most of the creative talent behind the series, and they seemed as excited to see us as we were to see them. And as I wrote in my earlier post, it was nothing short of heart-stopping to be able to watch a new episode of the series in a room of more than 6000 hardcore fans. In many ways, Comic-Con had been the place where the cult following of Heroes began and the first season showed that more people than anyone had expected would rally around this well-made ensemble drama. I’ve suggested before that Heroes feels more like an alternative comics take on the superhero genre, less like Marvel and DC, and for that reason, it’s exciting to see some many people get excited about its approach. I liked the second season better than most of my friends did but I still wasn’t prepared for just how good the third season opener is. It’s found its pace; it’s rediscovered its characters; it’s gone back to the plot elements that intrigue us; it’s playing around with back story and flash forwards in a compelling way. (I think last season’s Lost has probably paved the way for a discovery of how valuable flashforwards can be in serial drama but Heroes was also doing this in Season one.) If the rest of Season Three is anywhere near this good, it’s going to be a hell of a year.

And, then we saw Joss Whedon and Eliza Dushku talk about their new series, Dollhouse. They were nothing short of delightful to see on stage together. It’s clear that they really are very close friends and that the series is a labor of love which emerged from Whedon’s interest to give Dushku something to show off her range as an actress. Dushku plays an escort, who gets stripped of her memory over and over again and then reprogrammed to do what the client wants. This allows them to put Dushku into a range of different genres and to play an array of diverse kinds of characters, all within a series which nevertheless has some serial elements, as her character is starting to remember things from one transformation to the next and a detective is doggedly trying to figure out what’s going on. This one looks fun, though there was little here that showed the wit and humor that I value so much from Whedon’s earlier series.

And, then came Battlestar Galactica, with Ron Moore and most of the lead cast members, minus Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell. They had just finished shooting the final episode of the series a few weeks before and this was the closest thing to a public goodbye party you could possibly ask for. I could have done without Kevin Smith as a moderator. Smith felt compelled to perform the part of Kevin Smith and he was anything but Silent Bob. In this context, I would have much preferred a moderator who got the cast members talking and then got out of the way. In any other circumstances, I would have really enjoyed seeing Smith. I’ve been hooked on his movies going back to the first release of Clerks but this was a bit like pouring really good chocolate on raw oysters. Either by itself will tickle my tastebuds but not all great tastes belong together.

And then my final Comic-Con experience was seeing J.J. Abrams and cast talk about Fringe. Abrams was as smart and thoughtful in person as I could have hoped for. He didn’t fully sell me on the series premise but I was going to check it out before I went to the panel and nothing convinced me otherwise.

So, this was a classic Comic-Con experience — in the course of three packed days, I got to hear Stephen Moffat, Alan Ball, Joss Whedon, Ron Moore, Javier Grillo-Marxuach, and J.J. Abrams, not to mention the casts of many of my current favorite series. I spent way too much time and money in the dealer’s room. And I reassured myself that this was still a fan convention, despite its lofty trappings, by seeing bad paintings of cats, wolves, dragons, and scantly clad women in the art show. (Somethings in fandom never change!) I will certainly come back next year, though I doubt I will spend quite so much time camping out in Hall H, because I missed out on so many of my favorite comics writers and artists and on some of the smaller shows that are also programmed onto my Tivo. The absurdity of Comic-Con hit home when I found myself trying to figure out whether to stay for the Lost panel and run the risk of not getting in to see Joss Whedon who was going to be speaking right afterwards in another room. And we weren’t there on Sunday to see the Harry Potter and Supernatural panels. You can’t do even all of the E Ticket things at Comic-Con and you just have to control your hyper-fan-boy instincts.

One of the good things that came out of the con for me was discovering two blogs which offer extensive coverage of all the things that fans like — Hero Complex, run by the Los Angeles Times, did the best coverage of the convention and I’m finding myself reading it a lot since I’ve been back, and io9, which is run by an old friend, Annalee Newitz, and again covers the world of genre entertainment very well. I’m sure I’m the last fan in the universe to discover these blogs, but in case, you are also totally off in Tralfamadore, check them out.

My inner fan boy has left my body and I will now go back to more high minded topics for the next few posts, in any case.

Comments

  1. Henry, this is a great report. I’ve always wanted to go to a Comicon and I’ve never been able to. It sounds like you had a great time.

    And Nomi and I agree with on Middleman. We’re desperately hoping this show gets to continue.

  2. schmutzie says: