Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Comic-Con 2009

The following are just general observations and impressions of the Comic-Con International, July 22-26 in San Diego. They are in generally chronological order.

Preview Night was nearly unbearable. Although there were sneak previews of movies in other halls, the convention floor was packed horrifically. Moving through the aisles was unpleasant and cramped. If we return, Mrs. Speculator and I may skip out on Preview Night in the future since no one we knew was in Artist Alley and the booths we most wanted to see were in the center of the frenzy. It was far easier to do what we wanted on Thursday morning, including getting our con T-shirts. We had no interest in the Preview Night exclusives. It was no help that it appeared that the con had a very small staging area for people who picked up their badges and wanted to hang around the convention center until the doors officially opened. I say "appeared" because we got different stories from pretty much every security person we asked. Some said there was more staging space elsewhere and directed us through the convention center, and yet when we reached a certain point, we were turned back and told that the area did not exist. I was lucky enough to find a quiet corner inside so that when the shout went up from what staging area there was when the doors opened, I went downstairs and in the front door, beating most of the people in the staging area to the floor. But then, although the con was supposed to open at 6pm, some of the doors opened at 5:30. And yet I stood inside and watched a set of outside doors be held shut until 6, with the people outside looking at me and trying to figure out why they were being held back. A few bright folks moved down the convention hall 50 feet and came in other doors that weren't being held closed. And then at about 6:15, someone announced that the interior doors were being shut, and pulled them closed in the face of incoming crowds, but the next set of doors on either side remained wide open. It was all very confusing and I was glad to be inside watching, but as it turns out, the security inconsistencies just presaged general chaos through the course of the whole weekend.

Quantum Quest (http://www.qqthemovie.com/) seemed like it would be a fluffy animated movie with a lot of talented actors providing their voices. But it turns out that it has getting kids interested in science as a goal, and to accomplish that, the movie will use footage from exploratory craft to all of the planets out to Saturn. The clips they showed of the animation looked okay but the footage of the planets was spectacular. This promises to be a really fascinating movie, if only to see footage and animation of planetary voyages on IMAX.

The panel called Wonder Women discussed strong women characters in genre movies and television. Included in the panel was Sigourney Weaver, who had some insight into the filming of the movies in the Alien franchise, including the nugget that Ripley originally was supposed to be a male character. But more revelatory was Zoe Saldana (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0757855/), Uhura in the recent Star Trek movie. For someone apparently so young, she had some really thoughtful opinions about the role of women in Hollywood in general, also taking the time to point the parallels with the struggles of non-Caucasians in cinema as well. She was a pleasure to listen to, and I expect we may hear more from her in the future, and not necessarily as an actress.

If you want to pack the audience in for your panel and make sure that everyone hangs on the edge of their seat, not knowing what is going to happen next, be sure to include Bruce Campbell. The Bruce was at the Burn Notice panel and was at his manic best. He began with a thoughtful meditation on why Burn Notice belonged at Comic-Con since it didn't seem to fit into any of the genres usually represented. But he pointed out that his character on Burn Notice is named Axe, so there is horror. The show takes place in Miami, which has lots of aliens, so that makes it science fiction. And his character goes out with a lot of attractive Miami women, so fantasy is also included. Paired with Matt Nix, the drily funny creator of Burn Notice, there really was no reason for anyone else to be on the panel as the two of them could have gone on for the entire day. To no one's surprise, The Bruce was hysterical throughout.

Thursday night, Mrs. Speculator and I went to a fine eating establishment across the street from our hotel. The wait staff was fantastic and the food amazing. For entertainment, we looked down at the bar from our balcony seats and listened to a San Diego native rail against the waste of the convention. His math told him that the con cost more money to put on than it took in for the city (apparently, he's never rented a hotel room in the Gaslamp Quarter). I considered going down to tell him that Mrs. Speculator and I spent half of what he thought the average food budget for attendees would be for one meal at that restaurant. In his mind, the city would be much better off using the money spent on the convention instead on infrastructure. He also had a very stereotyped view of convention-goers, mocking the convention by describing the 20 Klingons that patrons newly entering the restaurant had just missed. In reality, the numbers I hear for the economic impact are staggering: millions of dollars into the city coffers. However, it became clear over the weekend that the con has outgrown its facilities, and for the first time, panels were being held off the convention center premises. There were lines for pretty much everything and hours-long waits. The local stations picked up on the general unhappiness and made the possibly departure of the convention their top stories. Authorities were quick to point out that the convention has a contract until 2012, but the annual rumor that this would be the con's last year in San Diego was louder than ever before. Pretty much everyone can easily admit that the con can't be held in San Diego at these facilities beyond 2012 without substantial growth. Though no one suggested that the con admit fewer people, which would cut down on the huge numbers….

I passed a fairly incognito Kevin Sorbo (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001757/) when I went out for a bathroom break. Good lord but he is a big man.

The Big Bang Theory panel featured the five primary actors for the show. Jim Parsons was congratulated a number of times for his Emmy nomination for the role of Sheldon, and one eager fan asked if Parsons would wipe his mouth on a napkin so the fan's sister could have DNA to clone him from. If you are a fan of the show, you would recognize the reference to the Christmas episode and Penny's gift to Sheldon, and of course the audience ate it up. Delightfully, so did the cast, who it turns out, seems to be just a huge family. I don't know how much actors from a series hang out together off the set, but these folks vacation together. The chemistry that is so integral to the show was abundantly apparent in their panel.

At the Dollhouse panel, Joss Whedon showed the "lost" thirteenth episode from this past season. Fox has decided they will not show it on their network, and I can understand their thinking. It would have been, by far, the best science fiction episode on TV in the past year, and probably incredibly offputting to a non-genre audience. I think it even takes tremendous risks for a genre audience. Whedon has extrapolated the core conceit of the first season, the ability to transfer entire personalities between people, into some pretty harrowing and thought-provoking areas. Given his general concern with the abuse of power by authorities, Whedon of course imagines that unscrupulous people get hold of the technology and begin to use it to their own benefit. And then, like most other new technologies, it gets hacked but with far more nightmarish results. And as this story is revealed, we get flashback scenes of what is happening in the "present day," pushing already rich characters into new places. It was perhaps the most intense viewing I have done since I last watched Children of Men, and I enjoyed every second of it. Fans of thoughtful speculative fiction need to see this episode, and it makes the first season DVD set something of a must-have for hardcore fans of the genre. I am so very looking forward to the second season which will still have this episode at its heart even if it will never be broadcast.

Several times, the convention had scheduled panels back to back without any break. And in every case where I attended them, the panels built in a 15-minute break as they switched around on the stage. This had the unfortunate effect of shortening the panel, such that the panel for Bones was shortened considerably by the previous panel running over and then the non-existent fifteen minutes between panels. As a result, the Bones panel was only 30 minutes long instead of an hour. The convention just has to stop planning this way since it just doesn't work.

It turns out that Doc Hammer, part of the creative force behind the supremely funny and irreverent Venture Brothers, is pretty much insane. Once he got on a roll, he could not be interrupted. It was apparent where the energy of the TV show comes from, and his wit was sparkling and cutting all at once. Clearly a fan, he traded jabs with questioning attendees and had the room rolling in laughter. It was only after about 30 minutes that they read the placards that suggested that there may be folks in the audience under the age of 18. Fortunately, they realized that anyone who was attending the panel had already heard similar things on the show, and so they laughed it off and kept going. But it was also clear from the highlight reel from the other Adult Swim shows that I am just not in their core audience. Nothing struck me as being very funny outside the things the Venture Brothers brought to the table. Go Team Venture!

As we were waiting in line to get into the Fables panel, I made my way to the restroom, which I was soon sharing with a security guard, J. J. Abrams (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0009190/), and Michael Emerson (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0256237/). My geeky Lostness warred with my manliness such that I forbore attempting to greet either of them as we stood in a line in the urinals or to shake their hands after our ablutions were done. Besides, I think the security guard would have pinned me most uncomfortably between urinals if I did anything beyond recognize who I was there with. When I went back to the line, I told Mrs. Speculator who I had peed with (careful not to cross streams), and the people around us were very impressed or totally clueless about who I had seen. I guess we all geek about different things.

The Fables panel was again a delight. Writer Bill Willingham recognizes the treasure he has in his devoted fanbase and so greeted the fans with yet another convention exclusive—another one-page story. The creators really do seem very much a family and they are as excited by the stories they tell as are their fans. In many ways, that panel typified what the panels are really supposed to be like.

On Sunday, I had two very esoteric moments before breakfast. On the way down to breakfast, Mrs. Speculator and I shared an elevator with the legendary Chuck McCann, who everyone knows but don't know they know. The IMDB page shows his very long career (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0564841/) but I'm pretty proud of myself for not asking him to do the voice for which he is best known—Sonny the Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs. And then, as we ate breakfast, Ted Raimi (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001646/) came in the restaurant and was greeted by enthusiastic fans (not the Speculator family though).

All in all, it was a pretty good weekend. Mrs. Speculator and I are tremendously torn about going again next year; the convention has lost a great deal of its charm to the media turnout. The exhibit hall was torture to work through, and that press of people extended pretty much throughout the entire building. Comics felt even more of an afterthought, and we fell prey to the media panels instead of doing as much in the comics and science fiction areas as we might have liked. The convention used to be a celebration of all things comic, but now it feels more like a giant publicity opportunity for TV and movies, with a little comics thrown in for old times' sake. And we like those media things, but it just feels more and more like a good part of the heart of the convention is missing. We're still talking about going back; Sunday was a delightful day, a throwback to the experiences I had when I started going a decade ago. It saved the entire weekend for us. But now that I've been home for a day, I've gone out and done a review of what the major comic Web sites have done regarding the convention and realize I can get all the same information there without having actually been in California. I think that we are mentally making our lists for and against going back. It's no help that the preregistration was $100 per person, up from $65 last year and $40 a decade ago. If we don't go back, it'll feel like we wasted the money, but if we do go back, we need to find the things that make all the effort and cost worthwhile. There's grumbling everywhere, from exhibitors to attendees to, apparently, native San Diegans. Tensions are rising at an accelerating rate: I foresee some huge changes down the line. And as one person being interviewed on the local news said, "I'm not sure it's worth coming back if it's not in San Diego…".

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