August 2004

Liz Miller

features

Comic-Con II: Electric Booga-Loo, or Twelve Hours of Comic-Con

Last year's excursion to the San Diego Comic-Con, that Nirvana of Nerdiana, was more than memorable, and truly marked the birth of my, um, affection for sequential art. This year I knew would be different, for a number of reasons -- fewer must-attend events, fewer Big Name Stars, and fewer days of attendance (just couldn't swing the days off work). But I was older, wiser, and well-read -- and knew to expect nothing life-changing, just twelve hours of good clean geeky fun.

Got it in spades.

Saturday
6:15 AM, Los Angeles: Wake up after four hours of sleep, wired and exhausted and ready for the drive south. That's a lie, actually -- I'm ready for another four hours of sleep. But these are details.

6:20 AM: Go into the living room and use one bare foot to nudge Eric, my brother of nineteen years, awake. Excitement blooms very slowly on his face.

6:30 AM: As I attempt to brush some sense into my hair, I run over my
goals for the weekend:

Buy comic books.
Talk about comic books.
Learn about comic books.
And have some fun, if there's time.

7:00 AM: Eric and I start driving. We stop on Sunset Boulevard for donuts, coffee, and water. It'll be two hours before we see the shiny towers of San Diego. And that's without traffic.

7:30 AM: Location -- Orange County. Music -- DJ Shadow. Topic of discussion -- Your favorite Matrix fight. I'm a purist -- I like Trinity's opening scene in the first film. Eric, meanwhile, enjoys the many weapons of the Chateau sequence from Reloaded. "That's all gimmick," I say. We argue about it some more. Call it a warm-up for the day.

7:45 AM: Eric starts reading out loud the day's schedule, marking down the panels each of us is interested in. His interest is video games and Star Wars. I'm there for the comics. Oddly, Eric's events take place in much bigger rooms than mine.

7:50 AM: Realize that that smell isn't coming from Irvine -- it's coming from Eric. "Dude, when did you last take a shower?"

9:00 AM, San Diego: San Diego! Parking last year was a mess, so handing a ten dollar bill to the round Asian lady at the Padres stadium parking lot is a relief. As is exiting the structure to discover that shuttle buses are waiting to take us to the convention center. Comic-Con -- learning from its mistakes since 2003!

9:05 AM: Tease Eric again regarding the smell. Regret teasing him when I get a good look at his bloodshot eyes. For a moment I feel pity for him, and then I remember that he spent Friday hanging out in my apartment, napping, while I worked a ten-hour day.

9:06 AM: Pity goes away.

9:24 AM: Still on shuttle bus. Start making list of people I know who might be at the con. Realize that for at least two of them, the odds are roughly one in 50,000 that I'll run across them. More's the pity.

9:30 AM: Still on shuttle bus, which is mired in traffic. Realize that shuttle bus is mired in traffic outside of the Marriott, which is approximately twenty yards away from the convention center.

9:31 AM: Get off bus.

9:40 AM: The lines from last year are gone, and the acquisition of my press pass and Eric's preregistration takes no time at all. Comic-Con has discovered that computers make peoples' lives easier. Marvelous things, computers.

We walk into the exhibition hall, all noise and color and people and things, so many bright shiny new things to be bought and seen and played with and read.

Eric rushes away to play, and I am lost in the chaos, left to wander up and down the aisles, make sense of what I see.

9:50 AM: The air inside the massive hall soon shimmers with the heat from machines and lights and so many people. I take off my lightweight sweater, revealing the Batman tank top below.

9:56 AM: I start wandering through the small press booths, taking in the creators sitting so hopefully with their wares. A thoroughly Afro'ed man calls out, "Hey, Batgirl!" and I buy the first issue of his series.

10:00 AM: Thus begins the day's trend: Buying Small Press Books. Buying indie comics, you see, means making independent, impoverished artists happy. They draw little cartoons inside the covers and talk to you and ask "Hey, what's Bookslut?"

I have a press badge, see, which means two things. One, I'm attending Comic-Con for free. Two, my badge proudly declares the name of the publication I write for, meaning that a fair number of the young men I stop to talk to take a look at my badge, making a quick mental calculation: "Well, I have books..."

In the end, though, I end up only trading money for the thin tiny comics I acquire. Nobody wins.

10:45 AM: One interlude in my odyssey is a stop at the Friends of Lulu booth, a noble organization with a central principle ("comics are for everyone!") that I fully endorse. As I sign up for my membership, I encounter the first person so far who's actually heard of Bookslut -- mainly because she knows Jessa. She is extraordinarily nice. I am a moron and fail to jot down her name. (But Jessa, she totally says hi!)

11:25 AM: In the process of buying my copy of the Flight anthology (the second-best selling anthology at Comic-Con, I later learn, and SO VERY GOOD), I make the exact same mistake I made last year -- assuming that because someone is wearing the name badge of an artist whose book I've just purchased, he is in fact the artist whose book I've just purchased. Can't judge a book by its cover, can't trust a man's name badge. I never learn my lesson the first time.

11:30 AM: The plastic shopping bag given to me at the press desk is straining under the weight of all I've acquired. It's time to remove myself from temptation -- and attend some panels.

11:35 AM: First panel of the day is almost over by the time I show up. "Spiritual Themes in Comics," it's called, and I'm there because Craig Thompson is as well. The discussion, though, is focused on the kind of Christianity that always makes me feel hellbound, and I scrawl in my notebook, Blankets is Christian? It dealt with issues regarding Christianity, sure, but Left Behind it ain't...

11:40 AM: Gary Martin, writer and inker of The Moth, is asked if he's the Gary Martin who created 20 Nude Girls. Surprise! He isn't.

11:43 AM: Doug TenNapel feels commanded to judge other religions as false. "I'd prefer to think that other religions were valid, if I could," he says. "It'd be easier."

11:44 AM: Doug TenNapel again -- "The Passion of the Christ was the number one movie in America, The DaVinci Code is the most popular book out today..." Wait -- now The DaVinci Code is Christian?

11:47 AM: Someone says something non-surreal, as Craig Thompson is asked about the risks inherent in telling an autobiographical story that features other people. "I worried about Raina and her family," he responds, "but I figured that being slanderous was better than forgetting someone entirely."

11:50 AM: Last question of the panel -- "Why doesn't Superman read the Bible?"

"BECAUSE HE'S JEWISH!" I nearly shout.

And then I run away to the heathens.

12:00 PM: That is to say, I attend a panel entitled "Comic Writers Talk About Writing." Original, as titles go. But I learn interesting things. I learn the difference between writing a comic book "full script" (every panel and line of dialogue outlined on the page) and "Marvel style" (the writer writes a rough story, the artist draws it, and then the writer fills in the dialogue bits). I also learn that no writer-artist team-up works exactly the same way, and to always remember that it's a collaborative medium, they say. This makes me feel guilty for only knowing a few artists names, but who am I kidding? I care a lot more about Brian Michael Bendis's dialogue than I do about John Romita Jr.'s pencils. Even if they are exquisite.

Chuck Austen is a surprise guest, and he mentions what I've always suspected -- that Alan Moore writes detail-packed full scripts that ooze with description. "It left me more free as an artist, though, to focus on the art," he remarks. I'm just wondering who has the nerve to argue with Alan Moore about things like that. I mean, the guy is scary.

12:34 PM: Someone asks what makes an interesting story. Chuck Austen has an acronym for the occasion: R.S.V.P. -- Relationship, Stakes, Vulnerability, Passion. I think about the hundreds of bad screenplays I've read over the course of my lifetime, and start brainstorming ways to distribute that message worldwide.

R.S.V.P. -- Relationship, Stakes, Vulnerability, Passion.

(This was the best idea I had.)

12:55 PM: Closing statement -- "if you're a writer, you have to be conscious of the medium." My notes aren't clear on who said it. But it's a great thing to say.

1:00 PM: Realize that I've been up for 7 hours. UNREAL. The day is passing super-quick. Totally without my permission.

I take a seat in the hall devoted to "X-Men Reload," a panel that's more an opportunity for all the writers currently working on X-books to stand up and be counted. And when I say "stand up," I mean that some of them had to stand up, as they didn't all fit behind the podium.

Chris Claremont got a front-and-center seat, though. Chris Claremont, who wrote some of the most groundbreaking storylines EVER, kinda deserves it. He writes "NEEDS NO INTRODUCTION" on his nameplate. John Cassaday, who currently draws Joss Whedon's Astonishing X-Men, writes "IT'S ALL MY FAULT" on his. John Cassaday, just for the record, is HOT.

The panel itself is Fanboy Supreme, with Claremont getting most of the questions regarding story and character. When Marvel editor-in-chief Joe Queseda gets a question regarding Magneto's back story, he turns to Claremont. "What do you think, Chris? You've been dealing with this metaphor forever."

Longer than I've been alive, at any rate.

2:00 PM: I wasn't expecting "Comics: The New Mainstream" to be especially entertaining -- spending an hour and a half to make one point seems a little excessive. The moderator had no idea what the panel was about, but the panelists involved -- including Max Allan Collins and David Brin -- were there to make a case for the comic book equivalent to mystery novels or screwball romantic comedies. "More crap is what we need." "Cheeseburger comics." I don't know how I feel about that. I don't eat cheeseburgers anymore.

However, Colleen Doran, who drew Orbiter and created A Distant Soil, was marvelous, adorable, and all sorts of good. A mature sort of pretty, with bright lipstick and a bubbly Southern accent, she talked about her first experience with comics not being of the mainstream -- the 1989 BookExpo, where she "couldn't get arrested," the DC booth she huddled at the focus of so much scoffing and snobbery. It took a long time to gain the acceptance she and others have now gotten ("The librarians just love Neil Gaiman -- he's like a rock star to them!"), but she now sells more comic books to libraries than comic book stores. Given that there are 116,000 libraries and 3,000 comic book stores in the United States, she feels okay with that.

And people say girls aren't good at math.

3:59 PM: I've spent the previous half hour sitting through a panel previewing upcoming DC comic books. Fairly similar to the X-Men panel I attended earlier, but with some key differences:

Marvel is independently owned. DC is a part of the Time-Warner conglomerate.

Marvel is ruled over by a god-king named Stan Lee. DC's power is found in its extremely marketable characters.

And most importantly in this instance -- while Marvel's editor-in-chief will not bullshit the readers, DC's editor-in-chief says "No comment" to pretty much every interesting question.

This makes for a very uninteresting twenty-nine minutes.

4:01 PM: I am sitting in the front row of a panel entitled "Give Our Regards To The Atom-Smashers!" I am not particularly crowded. Comic-con is sleepy in the late afternoons, and most people, I suspect, are ogling Sarah Michelle Gellar at the Columbia Pictures presentation. Fine by me, as I get to see Glen David Gold, Chad Kidd, and Brad Meltzer up close and in person.

Atom-smashers wasn't just the title of the panel, but also the title of a collection of memoirs edited by Sean Howe. (Sean Howe could compete with John Cassaday on the hotness front, for the record.) The central theme is that of comic books as formative experiences, especially for the young men of today. Most especially for the great writers of today.

But something that could have easily been formal and dull was instead a pleasure, a laidback hour at the local bar spent talking about the characters who got away. Only the pint glasses were missing.

Brad Meltzer, you see, isn't just a writer of best-selling novels and better-selling comic books (his DC series Identity Crisis has all the fanboys talking this summer, as it's taking the JLA to deliciously dark places). He was, once upon a time, a 13-year-old fanboy in love with Tara from Teen Titans. Tara was snarky and funny and Brad Meltzer loved her. And then it turned out she was evil. And Brad Meltzer loved her even more.

"Everyone's personal Golden Age consists of the comics being written when they were 12," Glen David Gold remarks. Glen David Gold likes people who are obsessed with things. His father collected clocks and watches all his life -- until he was 73, when "he'd gotten everything he could get." Gold himself collects original comic book art -- just like Samuel L. Jackson in Unbreakable. I do not ask if he is also a supervillain. He could be, though. It's always the quiet ones who write critically acclaimed novels. Right?

And there I am, in the front row, and I can make eye contact with Chip Kidd while he talks about his obsessive love for Batman. And I think about my tank top and I smile instead of saying "I understand" out loud. Because I don't need to say it out loud. I'm at Comic-Con, and everyone understands.

5:05 PM: I run into my brother in the hall, and rather than risk misplacing him in the mess of the convention, I drag his weary ass into "Spotlight on Adrian Tomine." The moderator, a writer for SPIN Magazine, starts off by asking Adrian the top five questions he typically gets asked. I give you the answers:

It's pronounced TOE-MEAN.
He submitted his work to Drawn & Quarterly, and then they printed it.
He's gotten calls about a potential film adaptation since Ghost World and American Splendor did well, but so far no dice.
No, he is not necessarily friends with the bands for which he designs album covers.
Yes. His work does relate to his life.

I pass Eric a note. A.T. writes loose, autobio stuff. V. mellow. V. sad. I like him a lot. PAY ATTENTION! My recommendation isn't enough to keep Eric awake, though, and I give up and drag him outside. I fell asleep at the Eisners last year, sure. But the Eisners were in a much bigger room.

5:45 PM: I take Eric on a tour of the autograph area, where several faded stars of canceled sci-fi shows lie in wait for the fans, publicity photos and Sharpies at the ready. It makes for a cheap thrill, but I'm beyond tired and cheap thrills are all I can really manage.

We're trying to figure out if we want to stick around for the Comic-Con Masquerade, where all of the people who have spent the past three days itching in spandex costumes have the chance to compete for prizes, when I see one entrant getting warmed up. Wearing a flawless Nightcrawler costume from X-2, he does a slow dangerous dance with a skinny black woman balancing a news camera on her shoulder. The two of them pace around each other, shifting their weight back and forth with the agile ease of sprinters primed for the race-- and then Nightcrawler spins around, backs up, backflips, and spins around again, fangs bared and head tilted and coat whirling a half-instant behind him.

It's all Eric and I really needed to see.

6:15 PM: We start the long trek back to the car, which will be followed by the long trek back to Los Angeles. Next year, there will be a hotel room and days off from work; next year, there will be new things to read and discuss and diss.

But it'll still be Comic-Con, where so many people come together because of such intense love. And it'll be wacky good fun.