August 2006

Liz Miller

features

Deepak Chopra, Snakes on a Plane, and Ricky Gervais in Fancy Dress: Comic Con 2006

You never fall in love like you did the first time. You get older, more jaded, less easily impressed. But that doesn't keep you out of the scene. It doesn't keep you from going back for more.

To call Comic-Con 2006 a perfect experience involves redefining the word perfect to some degree. But a lot of things were done, a lot of fun was had, and all without anything going terribly wrong. Here is yet another saga from the front lines. Here is yet another tale of a pretty good time.

WEDNESDAY
7:00 pm: Despite some traffic mishap-ing, we're at the convention center for Preview night with plenty of time to register. And as it turns out, registration is smooth and painless, the best it's ever been; sure, barcodes contribute to the dehumanization of America, but man do they make it easy for us to get our badges.

7:15 pm: We enter the floor, which is already elbows-to-sides packed. We take the opportunity to gape at the actor who plays Chief on the revamped Battlestar Galactica. When last we saw Chief, he was thickly-bearded and organizing the oppressed residents of New Caprica into organizing for a better life. Today, Chief is wearing a nice button-down shirt and possibly helping the folks at the Sci-Fi booth hock credit cards. An earring studs one lobe. He is very nice about posing with people.

Everyone wants to look at everything at once; it takes only ten minutes for us to get separated. I wander the floor feeling unexpectedly old and cranky; it's my fourth con in four years, and perhaps the fatigue is just setting in early this year. I duck the offers of flyers and postcards and swag like they're dodgeballs, because only a few weeks before, I'd successfully managed to clean out the corner of my bedroom where all the flyers and postcards and swag from years past had gotten tossed immediately upon my return from San Diego. Going through the advertisements and offers for projects long since forgotten was not only depressing, but a dreary dusty afternoon of work, and thinking about housework just makes me feel older and crankier. I walk away that night only having acquired two chapbooks, one sampling of "urban noir," and one excerpt from a fantasy novel that I've heard copious raving about. (It's the Napoleonic Wars, but with dragons.)

I do try to find the DC Comics booth, to add to my collection of DC buttons (still need a Batman, goddamn it). I have a surprising amount of difficulty finding it, though. I have a surprising amount of difficulty finding the comics in general. The half-price trade booths are fewer in number and overflowing with the same three volumes of Ultimate Spider-man; I find a few things that look interesting, but can't get the energy to make a purchase. Meanwhile, the Nintendo DS booth casts a pale glow over about a quarter of the convention floor. That's where all the kids are.

I'm so glad I've never had to go to a convention without a cell phone; reuniting is painless. There, I get a chance to ogle my friend Leslie's newly acquired copy of Lost Girls, purchased for her by her boyfriend. Her boyfriend did this by storming up to the Top Shelf booth and telling the woman sitting behind the table to "give her smut," not immediately realizing that he was talking to Mrs. Alan Moore herself. The book's inscription is too charming for words.

9:30 PM: Back to the motel for the sweet relief of vodka tonics and slumber. We are experienced con professionals. We know we will need our rest.


THURSDAY
11:00 AM: Mike and I, eager beavers that we are, arrive right on time for Voice Acting Auditions (otherwise known as "Killing time before other things"). The panel is a showcase for the unbelievable cuteness of Margaret Kerry, the rotoscope model for Tinkerbell in Disney's Peter Pan and a hardcore old school voice actor. She tells us about how nice it is to live in Glendale, and I wish there was some sort of legal proceeding for adopting someone as an extra grandmother.

Despite the panel's title, no one really gets to audition for voice-acting -- four audience members get semi-randomly selected to perform short pieces, but the earnest adults just get overshadowed by a cute little kid, who speaks so fast that he leaves sentences behind in pieces.

Let us not mention the guy in the front row, who wears a plaid shirt and is determined to get the room's attention. Both hands shoot up to ask questions, he responds to the rhetorical at the top of his lungs. He jumps up and down when Tinkerbell looks for voice actor volunteers. We HATE him.

1:00 PM: The next time I consider going to a professional networking panel, I should really check the credentials of the person giving said panel. Especially when there's a chance that that person's chief piece of advice is "create zines." It's not that zines don't have their purposes. I'm just not sure he even knows what a zine is.

2:00 PM: Meet up with my friend Asa for lunch at Quizno's. Asa has had significantly more luck at the half-price trades booths, scoring a book about the preliminary Captain America experiments, which were performed, Tuskeegee-style, on black soldiers. Yes, comics. Yes. THAT is interesting.

3:00 PM: I rush back to the convention center for the tail end of the Spotlight on Greg Wiseman, who created the mid-90s Disney cartoon Gargoyles. If you never watched Gargoyles, then you never got to see a weekday afternoon cartoon treat folklore as fact and mature themes as suitable entertainment for children. It was the Toon Disney equivalent of Gaiman's Sandman. Wiseman talks about the delights inherent in chasing after Star Trek actors for guest spots, and the new comics series. It's like being fourteen all over again.

3:30 PM: Deepak Chopra and Grant Morrison. Holy shit.

I mean, HOLY SHIT.

The panel starts with the two of them explaining how Morrison's comics work was directly inspired by Chopra's extensive writings on spirituality. Chopra, in turn, was interested in the mythological impact of comics; myth being the metaphorical mother of us all, the womb of creation. "Through mythical beings, we aspire to do the impossible." A job for Superman. Miracles are tomorrow's science, all possible via the human imagination. Imagination being an attribute of the soul.

And then Morrison starts talking about Superman. "A hero who will not kill." He calls for stories about hope and human possibility. He says that we need them. He does not need to mention why.

Comics, according to Morrison, are a two-dimensional universe -- a convergence of the reader's consciousness and the writer/artist's consciousness. His theory is that reading comics engages both the left and right sides of the brain. Chopra wants to hook up an EKG to the brain of a comics reader. He mentions ancient cave paintings, and Morrison starts talking about gods, which are feelings and states of consciousness. Embodifications of singular concepts. "Archetypal energies," chimes in Chopra, "that exist within us." Chopra breaks down the seven main chakras, and Morrison starts identifying each of them with a member of the Justice League.

Lunch starts to settle heavily. After taking over a page of notes, I drift off to the sound of extreme genius.

5:00 PM: Wandering the floor with Asa, we find a display copy of Lost Girls (it comes in three beautifully bound volumes, and a slipcase, because it is the classiest smut you would ever hope to find). Flipping through it briefly certainly confirms several things. Such as: "Wow, Peter Pan certainly is giving the Darling boys handjobs." I fail to check if Melinda Gebbie's Tinkerbell resembles Margaret Kerry in any way. This is perhaps not by accident.

I pick up a chapbook of vampire erotica (for Mom) at a small-press table, and they thank me for my interest by giving me a brand new book to read. I have already packed two books for this trip, neither of which I have had a chance to start reading yet. But -- free books! I am no fool.

At this point, I've managed to wander the entire floor. My favorite booth? Adult Swim's. They have neon plastic owls, and Astroturf, and a babbling water fountain. For some reason, it is the most beautiful thing I've ever seen, an oasis of tranquility.

I am perhaps a little tired.

6:30 PM: Asa and I sit on the lobby floor for some sustained silent reading. I crack open my free book, which has an interesting premise: a woman forced to choose between a quick death on the gallows, or serving as a poison taster for a general of a medieval totalitarian regime. Interesting premise, but could be better written. "This character has sapphire-blue eyes that sweep coldly over the girl," I complain to Asa.

"So he's the love interest, then." I have my doubts about that. The girl chooses to be a poison tester. There are worse jobs, I suppose. Mel Gibson's P.R. agent, for one. (So topical, that joke!)

8:00 PM: After a long walk back to the parking lot to drop off purchases in cars, we resolve to take a shuttle back towards the convention center. The nighttime entertainment being offered is intriguing, after all: kung fu action, followed by a screening of This Film is Not Yet Rated. But the shuttle we board, although claiming to take us to the convention center, actually winds around it to the back, leading us like Pinocchio and his friends to the harbor directly behind. Inside the ocean-side amphitheater, a symphony warms up with the opening strands of Howard Shore's score for The Lord of the Rings. We flee to the Joe's Crab Shack across the way, where there are lovely drinks (mine comes in a plastic cocktail shaker that I am then allowed to KEEP!), popcorn shrimp, and a pack of homophobes afraid of our dancing skills. At some point, someone says that leggy girls can't be nerds. The quote is unattributed, and thus can only be considered false.

10:30 PM: From Joe's Crab Shack, we walk back towards the convention center. When we walk by the loading dock for Hall H, we can see inside the massive auditorium. And what we can see, specifically, is the reverse projection of a movie on one of the many screens dangling from the ceiling. And what we can hear? Are the sounds that snakes might make, while onboard planes.

We stand there, barely able to see the climax to a movie that already climaxed in March. There's enough of a gap in the chain link fence for us to slip through, but we stand there instead. The air is cool, and when I squint I think I can see the plane land safely.

We miss This Film is Not Yet Rated. I don't mind so much.

FRIDAY
11:30 AM: We're a little slower this morning, and I miss two of the three panels I was hoping to catch. Get to enjoy about twenty minutes of How To Write and Draw Graphic Novels, because I like to listen to writers talk about writing. The big name guest on the panel is supposed to be Peter David, but he's AWOL and I have no idea why. It's only after I learn that the average number of panels on the comic book page today is 4.5 that David barges into the room, thrilled to announce that Guillermo del Toro loves Fallen Angel. Everyone cheers! Movies will save comics! By making comics profitable!

After Peter David takes a seat, discussion turns to how to break into the industry, as discussions between those who are in and those who are out often do. The only new advice is "if you don't have talent, bring donuts." I write that down.

12:30 PM: This is Bookslut, so talking about the 72-minute pilot of Heroes feels a little odd. But hey, it's SORT OF about comics, and it's SORT OF good, depending on whether or not you have a high tolerance for dialogue like:

"Your father is dead!"
"But I've been following in his footsteps all these years!"
"Now you will never be able to prove yourself to him!"

But despite the weak dialogue and heavy-handed exposition, there are some compelling plot twists, and it's impossible not to fall in love with Masi Oka. Even if his character's name is (swear to God) Hiro. Maybe when they've cut it down to only eight or nine storylines, it'll be actually cool.

Greg Grunberg and Hayden Panettiere aren't there because of production, but Milo Ventimiglia and Masi Oka are wearing t-shirts that say, respectively, "Grunberg Is My Hero" and "Hayden Is My Hero." So, during the Q&A, a girl asks where she can buy one of those t-shirts, and Ventimiglia proceeds to take his shirt off and give it to her.

I didn't even know the human vocal cords could squeal at that decible level. But I don't watch Gilmore Girls.

2:30 PM: When Neil Gaiman posted some set photos from the Stardust adaptation currently in production and mentioned that clips would be shown in San Diego, I knew I'd make a point of going. Which is why I've now gotten to see Ricky Gervais and Robert De Niro face off in fancy dress.

The panel finally answers the question of how crime-drama-producing Matthew Vaughn ended up directing a fantasy movie -- Vaughn produced Gaiman's Short Film About John Bolton, and was originally just going to produce Stardust with Terry Gilliam directing. But then, of course, Terry Gilliam decided to really, honest-to-god try and make Good Omens, and Vaughn decided to take on Stardust himself. Could ultimately be a fantastic decision. The clips shown look good, and there seems to be a real commitment to taking the story and making a real sort of fairy tale out of it. There is also real interest in having Tori Amos do the voice of the character who is based on her. She'd be playing a talking tree? It's been a long time since I read Stardust.

3:30 PM: Bones is one of my all-time-favorite bad television shows, so I spend fifteen minutes at the Bones panel, secretly hoping to learn whether or not the show's creator is as fervent a Republican as I suspect he is. All I learn, though, is that Hart Hansen is Canadian. which tells me nothing. Oh, and David Boreanez is just weird.

4:30 PM: On the floor, wandering, I see that Jim Sterenko has got a booth going. Having listened to several people tell me that Sterenko's Nick Fury work helped reinvent modern comics storytelling, I stop by to take a look. Sterenko is very short and very dandy, his hair very white. I buy some art from him, and he shakes my hand very firmly before signing it. I tell him about my friends who love him. He tells me, very firmly, to give them his regards.

5:05 PM: I switch over to my own adolescent idols, and pick up a copy of the new Gargoyles comic to get it signed by Greg Wiseman. I fangirl all over him. It's a little embarrassing. For me, mostly.

5:10 PM: My poison-tester book is still not particularly great, but I've gotten into it in between panels (even though Asa turned out to be right about the love interest). So I decide to go wait for the Snakes on a Plane panel, figuring I can sit and read in the back of the room.

5:15 PM: Find the beginning of the line.

5:21 PM: Find the end of the line. Outside the building. Wrapped around the courtyard.

5:22 PM: Wait in line. Read.

5:45 PM: The panel starts.

5:50 PM: So THIS is how cults get started.

6:30 PM: The ten minute preview clip is not shy about reaffirming that yes, there are snakes, and yes, they are certainly on this plane. Samuel L. Jackson is asked what it's like to be so bad-ass all the time. His answer is a modest "I just try and get through each day." He is asked if he thinks that the snakes deserve to die. His answer is "HELL YES."

Being Samuel L. Jackson must be very pleasant indeed.

6:50 PM: My friend Laurel arrives at the convention center, having come down from LA for the weekend. I find her in the upstairs lobby, and I take her by the hand. "Laurel, there is something we must do."

7:01 PM: I have dreamed of this moment for four years now -- the moment in which nothing would obstruct me from at long last attending the Klingon Lifestyle Presentation. Not that I have any idea what it is or what it's about. All I know is that it's there, and it must be seen.

7:07 PM: Laurel sits patiently with me as on the stage, a group of Klingons discuss the hunt upon which they are about to embark. I am a little disappointed to discover that there is no actual presentation, just a play about Klingons. That makes me no less glad that it exists, though.

Two Klingon teenagers squabble about the rituals involved in their coming-of-age ceremony. A gift-wrapped bat'leth is clearly visible on the stage. I see enough in six minutes to last me a lifetime.

7:30 PM: Hey, you know what's nice after a long day? Watching some of the funniest comedy to ever come out of late night television. The Robert Smigel panel is eight kinds of hilarious, complete with screenings of cartoons too risque for TV Funhouse DVDs. I'm never again going to be able to think about the Disney vault without laughing. Even the appearance of Plaid Shirt at the Q&A can't take the shine off it.

9:45 PM: So I'm not sure that when I pictured this weekend in my head, I imagined an evening spent watching my friends eat ice cream with writers of slash fiction (some of whom are in drag as characters from Pirates of the Caribbean). But given that our other option for the night's entertainment was the Platinum Strip Club, offering free admission to all Comic-Con badge holders and a revue "hosted by Wolverine," this isn't so bad.

My friend Mike faces off against Captain Jack Sparrow in a hardcore X-Files trivia contest. There is no clear winner.

SATURDAY
10:00 AM: I signed up to help out at the Friends of Lulu booth Saturday morning because being behind a Comic-Con booth was an experience I'd had yet to enjoy. Besides, what better way to meet new people than to hassle them into joining a non-profit organization?

I have a surprising amount of fun, actually -- encouraging people to enter the art contest, selling books, and talking about women in comics. And randomly, a guy I knew in high school passes by. I never see people I knew in high school. But with 100,000 people in a one mile square radius, the odds are good you'll see someone you know.

12:00 PM: Wander around the floor a little with friends from Cake Pony. We end up in the goth-y art area, admiring tattoos. There are many of them. There's nothing quite like going to Comic-Con and feeling like the uncool one in the room.

12:30 PM: I hang out in Quick Draw while waiting for my brother to arrive. Quick Draw, as always, is pretty fun -- a night at the Improv, with pens and paper. The first drawing prompt is "what's the worst thing about the convention floor?" I'm glad I'm not the only one who's feeling bitter and old.

1:30 PM: My brother arrives, and we join up with others for lunch. I always forget that leaving the convention for lunch kills at least an hour and a half of one's day, especially when you go with a group of ten people. We end up at a bar and grill with the slowest service ever; lunch is a pint of pear cider and half an order of popcorn shrimp. The pear cider, at least, is worth it.

3:00 PM: Back at the con, Eric and I split up and I run off to Comic Book Writers Talk About Writing, a panel I always enjoy. There, I learn that Marvel is switching to full script storytelling, as opposed to the old "write a synopsis for each page, let the artist break it down into panels, and come up with the dialogue later" method. "We are living in the era of people who don't know how to end their damn stories," someone complains. Another person points out that the training ground for comics writers is gone, because of the influx of writers from other media. It's an up sort of crowd.

I liked one writer's story about committing to writing an issue of Spider-man in Mary Jane's retro-70s voice, and then getting a feel for that voice by copying actual Mary Jane dialogue from the 1970s until he got the rhythm right. I like this story, because it's
just the sort of dorky thing I like to imagine comics writers doing.

5:30 PM: The Veronica Mars panel starts to get really squeal-y, and I flee to the J. Michael Straczynski panel in progress. This turns out to be the best decision I make all weekend. It's dark, it's cool, it's quiet, and it's just JMS with a microphone, talking bluntly about all of his fabulous Hollywood success. He tells a lovely story about having one last dinner with the actor who played G'Kar on Babylon 5, who passed recently from cancer. "Andreas showed me how to die," he says, and it's a human moment, an honest one. The kind you like knowing your favorite creators have. The kind you chase after at Comic-Con.

6:30 PM: Dinner, then showering and a little bit of pre-drinking. We're young, we're in San Diego, and the post-Masquerade dance party awaits.

9:30 PM: In order to get to the post-Masquerade dance party, though, you have to sit through the actual Masquerade. Didn't quite realize that. Get bored of the group cosplays pretty quickly. Pre-drinking devolves into straight out drinking.

10:30 PM: I didn't even know that I COULD mosh.

1:50 AM: We end up stumbling back towards the parking lot scant minutes before it closes for the night. Good night. Good night indeed.

SUNDAY
10:00 AM: Of the nine people with whom I've come to San Diego, I'm the only one who has any interest in attending Sunday's events. And honestly, I wouldn't care, except that I've been excited for Spotlight on Gail Simone (one of the best women writers in comics today, and a key contributor to the larger DC storylines) for weeks. So, rather than turn in the towel, I buy Lindsay a cup of coffee and she drops me off at the convention center on her way out of town. A pair of friends are also in town this weekend, checking out the San Diego Zoo, and have agreed to give me a ride back to LA whenever they're done. In the meantime, I'm alone with my small backpack in a big city. Fortunately, I still have my free book!

10:30 AM: I drink my own coffee. Finish free book, which ends up being a bit of a letdown. The gentleman with sapphire-blue eyes had an icy exterior, but the heroine's pluck melted it away. Ah well.

11:30 AM: Spotlight on Gail Simone is great. She talks about her origins as a hairdresser who started joshing around on the Internet, and gaining the attention of comics professionals as a result. Eventually, she moved on to write Birds of Prey, which features some of the best characterization in mainstream comics you're likely to see, and contribute to the always flawed, but always interesting DC brain trust.

As one of the most prominent women writers in comics, it's inevitable that a few questions pop up about what it's like to be one of the most prominent women writers in comics. But she stays the hell away from them; not surprising, since discussion of women in comics has gotten kind of tempestuous of late. (What with all those women being pissed off about all those times they were sexually assaulted. Go figure.) When she's asked about the site Women in Refrigerators, which was created to point out all of the horrible ways in which women have been victimized by the past fifty years of comics history, Simone states that she created the site to "generate discussion." The moderator, an editor for DC, says that it's important to make sure that all voices are represented in comics, including the ladies. Which explains the extreme amount of diversity currently present in mainstream comics. Yes.

In all of her answers, she is careful about what she says, politically correct always. She is definitely a writer for DC Comics.

She is still my favorite, though.

1:00 PM: For the first time all weekend, I'm suddenly, actually interested in seeing what treasures can be found in the half-price trades booths. So I do what I can, but the treasures have been picked off days ago. It's only after the fourth box containing nothing but three different trades of Powers (a series I like, but a series I feel uncompelled to own) that I give up. My friend Ethan is on the floor, and we wander around together in search of the bootleg DVD booth in the back, the one that airs fan films on a loop. We pick through the crowds, talk about television and movies and books, what we've seen, what we've heard, what's up, what's down, what's old, what's new and what's just about to begin.

Over the din, my phone rings, and I pull it out of my bag. It's my ride out of town, calling me away. I give it one ring, then two more, before I finally answer.

It's 2 PM. But I could have stayed a little longer.