San Diego Comic-Con 2011 Analysis

Marketing “Anything Can Happen”

In the past, the convention has used its association with Hollywood to build momentum around the attendance of certain guests. While this year didn’t see a major reversal of that trend, it did feature a few notable attendees who hadn’t been previously announced. This created a general sense that missing a crucial panel or event might lead to missing something bigger than one had originally expected. The ‘bonus surprise’ often left fans buzzing. A primary example of this trend was the case of Peter Jackson, who had released a statement on Wednesday saying he wouldn’t be at the Convention with “The Hobbit.” He neglected to mention that he’d instead be at the convention with “Tin-Tin.” Those lucky enough to get into the panel that featured Steven Spielberg’s first appearance at Comic-Con, to discuss “Tin-Tin,” were given the added opportunity of seeing Mr. Jackson participate in the majority of the panel. Conan O’Brien made a less-well-kept-surprise appearance on the “Green Lantern” animated series’ panel. Scott Bakula’s unannounced appearance at the “Star Trek” panel for the documentary “The Captains” thrilled the crowd. In one of the stranger examples of these sorts of celebrity surprises, Hugh Jackman wound up passing out t-shirts in a downtown San Diego parking lot as part of an off-site promotion for his upcoming film “Real Steel.” One can only imagine the curious shock of passersby. Convention-goers even appeared to appreciate overly-staged surprises. One example of that was the new “Amazing Spider-Man” Andrew Garfield giving an impassioned speech about how reading Spider-Man comic books saved his life. Even though some pundits felt that Garfield was genuine, it is always hard to determine the truth. Just the same, the clip of him speaking became the YouTube sensation of the convention.

Off-Site Events Continue To Grow

Hugh Jackman’s t-shirt giveaway off-site was far from the only activity taking place around downtown San Diego. In one major Twitter promotion, people participated in scavenger hunts while trying to win the 2000 tickets available to the “Cowboys vs. Aliens” premiere in San Diego. Cirque Du Soliel held a free show at Petco Park, across from the convention center. A flying car from the upcoming remake of “Total Recall” sat just outside the ballpark. Every evening, the downtown appeared to hold mini-parades of some sort, most featuring sponsors from the likes of Cartoon Network. Finally, temporarily art galleries and promotional trailers were scattered around the area, attempting to grab the attention of fans or non-attendees alike.

Digital Distribution: On Everyone’s Mind

Many panels touched on the topic of digital delivery of content for different media formats. George R.R. Martin ended his fantasy writing panel by stating that eBooks would replace mass market paperbacks in the future, but the beautifully bound, collector’s editions printed on acid-free paper for collectors will continue to be available. As it was, Mr. Martin earned more in royalties from eBooks than from paperback or audio versions of his books. While digital distribution for eBooks might be succeeding, independent filmmakers were not as optimistic. At the Troma Films panel, director Adam Green railed about how online piracy is causing career hardship for up-and-coming filmmakers. Mr. Green contended that Hollywood executives only look at a director’s prior film grosses when considering how comfortable they might be in hiring the director for a big-budget film. Piracy reduces that revenue number and gave the impression that a director’s film under-performed. According to independent comic book creator Terry Moore, there did not yet appear to be a viable business model for comics professionals to “pay a mortgage” through digital distribution. His hope was that someone in a younger, more tech-savvy generation would eventually come up with such a model. At a panel focused on digital comics, it was pointed out that digital comic books can’t innovate too much or else they become part of another medium. When a digital comic book added motion elements, it crossed over into becoming a cartoon. Piracy was also at the top of most minds, given how digital copies of media can be easily copied. One panelist discussing digital comics said that, for most independent creators “Having 7000 pirates interested in their comic would be a great problem to have.” Another cited how “poetry conventions” are not having the same problems with revenue as comic books. Ultimately, many felt that pirates can’t be stopped, since for the pirate it is often a choice between spending their time “pirating or [masturbating].” In contrast to other forms of media, comic books often base their business model on an idea of scarcity that movies or traditional books don’t. A reader purchases an issue of a comic book immediately, since it might not be available the next month. Some also purchase it with the idea that it might increase in value. Digital comics would negate that scarcity, since all comics could theoretically be available at any time. Furthermore, comic book publishers have often been held hostage by retailers. This isn’t much different from movie studios being fearful of offering digital distribution of film during earlier release windows due to the objections of theatre owners. In the case of both industries, it will take at least a few more years in order to update these legacy models.

What Makes An Interesting Panel?

Given how many panels are competing for the attention of attendees, one would assume that those holding a panel might feel pressured to ‘up their game.’ That wasn’t always what I observed though, particularly in a case such as the “Evolution of Transformers” panel where the property is enough to get people in the door. As basic as it might seem, the presentations at several panels that I attended seemed as though they could have used an additional rehearsal or two. Speakers didn’t bother to stand while presenting and many certainly didn’t bother to speak dynamically. These sorts of sloppy presentations were ultimately disrespectful to the very fans whom the panelists likely considered to be customers. Those panels that were the best featured presenters who were witty – such as Peter David or J. Michael Straczynski. A panel also needs to have stern moderators, like the one during the Jim Henson presentation who repeatedly insisted that questions for the panelists not include statements. That sort of iron fist maximized the time available for answers.

Shifting Demographics And The New Fanatic

Somehow the conventions popularity reached a critical mass or tipping point over the last year. The trend that led to this tipping point wasn’t unpredictable, as the scarcity of tickets had increased over the past few years. Whereas it had previously taken until the week of the convention for a sellout to occur, it only took two weeks last year. This year, it took less than three hours. There appear to be a few groups that have quickly grown in size who might account for the convention’s spike in popularity. First, a much larger number of women are attending than in the past. In the five years that I’ve attended the convention, the kinds of people attending has changed. Most striking was the continued growth in numbers of those who could be described as ‘normal-looking women,’ rather than such women of the past who were seemingly always the stereotypical tag-along, bitter girlfriend. As for location of origin, an unscientific sampling showed that 9 out of 10 people seem to be from California though, as per their badge locations. Regional attraction to “check it out” after hearing about the convention for years on the local news. Finally, there was clearly a higher number of what one could term the ‘new fanatic.’ These are fans of particular creators or properties who are attending the convention solely to focus on those things and are willing to endure previously-unthinkable circumstances in order to do so. One example of this type of behavior was a woman whom I observed visibly shaking with excitement at the Jim Henson Productions panel – while such a reaction might not be overly healthy, she was clearly loyal to the products being presented. These fanatical types, in particular, were a creature whom I’m still struggling to understand. They compose a growing number who are more willing to camp overnight and sit in long lines in order to see only a particular panel on a given day. These are individuals whom almost anyone would love to be selling a product to. Aside: Have no fear, the usual suspects were in attendance. In one of the most disgusting acts that I’ve witnessed at the convention over the years, a guy seated in front of me during one panel randomly applied aerosol deodorant under his arms and along his lower back. He then put his arm around a woman whom I assumed to be his girlfriend.  Perhaps she’d demanded such behavior.

Already In Line for 2012

There was much chatter in the hallways and on the convention floor about the disaster that was the 2012 Comic-Con ticket pre-registration. Limited amounts of tickets were sold daily and stories emerged of people camping out for twenty-four hours in advance to purchase them. In doing so, such individuals were effectively missing a full day of the convention simply to get the next year’s tickets. Some might wonder what would motivate fans to exhibit this sort of behavior. Much of the answer would seem to be that of status. Simply put, for a large number of individuals, it is more important than actually attending to be able to spend an entire year telling their friends that they have a ticket to Comic-Con. While it might not explain the pre-registration behavior, a greater local interest could help explain why tickets initially sold out so quickly for the convention, despite there later being a large number of hotel rooms left available. As stated in the prior section, locals have spent years seeing nightly news reports showing the madness at the convention center and Comic-Con has likely become “the thing to do.” Besides the hotel vacancies, this theory could also be confirmed by a casual glance at the hometowns listed on the badges of attendees. On the second day of the convention, Chuck Rozanski the owner of the nation’s largest comic book reseller, Mile High Comics, wrote in his customer newsletter that comic book fans passing through his booth were “livid” by the lack of 2012 tickets.  In the past, Mr. Rozanski has made case the convention organizers were marginalizing the comics retailers, but he said that this year was the first time that the fans themselves had felt marginalized. The fact that tickets for 2012 cost 50%-75% more than 2011’s tickets did was unlikely to stop many prospective buyers from signing up. Mr. Rozanski speculated that the price increase had less to do with dissuading attendance and more to do with the need for the convention to have a bigger financial “war chest” for use in future negotiations with the city of San Diego. Some pundits have suggested splitting the show into interest areas such as movies or videogames or lengthening the convention across two weekends. However, those suggestions would likely face resistance from big-spending Hollywood studios who rely on the intense concentration of fans to justify their presence at the convention. One interesting situation that is emerging is the rise of Disney’s D23 convention in August. Neither Disney nor its subsidiary, Marvel Studio, held presentations at Comic-Con. Most expect the Disney films and Marvel’s “The Avengers” to be highlighted at D23 instead, thus giving that convention the spotlight. Of course, Disney would love nothing more than to have a Comic-Con-sized convention grow in the vicinity of Disneyland in Anaheim. Hollywood might like it better as well, due to the even closer proximity to their homes.

“All About Me”

It was probably not a surprise that a significant percentage of attendees in 2011 seemed to have a self-promotion agenda in mind. Again, this is the latest evolutionary step in a trend that had seemingly started long ago. More than ever, Comic-Con seemed to be “It’s all about me.” People were promoting themselves in a wide variety of ways, with on-the-spot video segments being recorded or people outright shilling their wares to fellow convention goers. During panels, many questioners made statements and sometimes asked questions that ultimately referenced projects that they had available for sale. One of the wackier sightings that I noticed while walking around was a use of whiteboards by some to create portable billboards that could be changed to showcase ‘witty’ sayings for the crowded masses. This says nothing of the attractive women in professional-style costumes looking for photo opportunities. I witnessed more cleavage on display than in the past – from both men and women – and, in many cases, the convention was not better for it. . Those in costumes were there to be seen, complimented, photographed, and have those photos posted online for even further attention. In the past, aspiring creative professionals seemed to rely more on true networking with professionals at the convention. I can believe that this approach works and could continues to work in slowly creating the stepping stones that build a career. The emerging trend of simply trying to get the attention of a crowd rather than networking person-to-person seemed much less effective. Of course, getting quick bursts of attention requires much less effort and, obviously, is the path of least resistance. Unfortunately, many of the panels that I attended seemed to somewhat encourage this behavior, by giving a sort of false hope to these folks. In particular to what I witnessed, Guillermo del Toro, Kevin Smith, and those at this year’s pitching panel all fed into that notion. In one example, Mr. del Toro made it sound as though he was regularly hiring artists from the convention and that visiting the set of one of his movies was as simple as mailing a Hotmail e-mail address with the request. While it was undeniable that many do end up landing work of some sort due to contacts made at the convention, the reality of this number is assuredly quite small. Not to sound like a wet blanket, but I hope that those attending Comic-Con aren’t doing so with the assumption that it is going to land them a job. First of all, they need to be a world-class talent to begin with and, it would seem, most attendees with stars in their eyes are forgetting that step in the process. That said, if attendees made a good professional contact or two, the weekend should be considered a success. One final encounter that sounded more impressive to relate than to actually see in person was catching a glimpse of a dog riding a motorcycle, albeit it was a small tricycle-style motorcycle that featured an even-smaller dog. The owner of said dog was trailing behind the motorcycle, passing out his business card – a poetic end to the convention.

Appendix:  Daily Detailed Notes – Day 1 (July 21, 2011)

Putting the “Epic” in Epic Fantasy: Writing to Excite! This was my first panel upon entering the convention, after a delayed train ride, and the usual long lines at registration. The main draw was author George R.R. Martin, whose new book “Dance of Dragons” has topped bestseller lists, hot off of the success of his HBO series “Game of Thrones.” Within the span of the past few weeks, he’s been turned into a virtual rock star. It was also nice to see Kevin J. Anderson on the panel, as I’d read some of his “Star Wars” books in the mid-1990s and I’ve followed his association with additions to the “Dune” franchise. Beyond those works, Mr. Anderson has developed a substantial body of fantasy work. While discussing the writing process, Mr. Martin commented on only having an initial image of wolf pups in his head when starting “Game of Thrones.” He kept writing to discover what would happen next. Other authors on the panel championed pre-planning and intense plotting; as usual, opinions on this topic differed. Interestingly, Mr. Martin has disliked references to himself as “The American Tolkien.” He confessed that he hasn’t engaged in the same level of detailed ‘world building,’ such as language creation, for which Tolkien was known. On the topic of eBooks, all of the authors admitted that they expect digital versions of books to overtake paperback books in the near future. While collectable editions of books will remain, disposable versions will disappear. Mr. Martin joked that he’d “…rather tie a message to a raven’s leg” than embrace new communication technologies, but he admitted that having an eBook reader was invaluable while traveling on long book tours.

The Pitching Hour This has been an annual panel that features a number of entertainment industry professionals, all offering advice on how to get a pitch meeting and what to do once you’re in the room. The panelists weren’t household names, but they did seem qualified to speak – Jermaine Turner (director, Disney/ABC Cable Networks Group), Zach Schiff-Abrams (executive producer, Fourth Wall Studios), Valerie Alexander (screenwriter), Charlie Chu (editor, Oni Press), Carina Schulze (Chatrone), Matthew Cohen (video game developer), Lindsay Rostal (producer, The Odd Gentlemen), and Dan Evans III (freelance development executive, Robot & Monster). Unfortunately, the tips that they offered weren’t groundbreaking or necessarily new. For those completely green to the idea of pitching their work, these might have helped, but most with a rudimentary knowledge on the topic would have left disappointed. One significant problem that kept emerging with audience questions was a lack of willingness by questioners to get very detailed when explaining the concepts that they intended to one day pitch. This concern over protecting project secrecy led to a series of awkward questions that were often too vague to result in the panelists giving helpful advice. In several instances, the panelists said that they couldn’t give more direction without knowing more about the project and that led to dead ends in the conversations.

Marvel: Next Big Thing Marvel Comics certainly had top talent on hand, with star writer Jonathan Hickman center-stage. However, new Marvel editor-in-chief Axel Alonso didn’t reveal any giant revelations. It was largely already known that Marvel would be re-launching their ‘Ultimate’ line of comics.  The promise to have a big surprise at the end of the panel went largely unfulfilled.

Walter Simonson Signing (IDW Booth) My one luxury purchase of the convention was a limited-edition version of IDW’s Walter Simonson “Thor” Artist’s Edition book. This was the second in IDW’s Artist’s Editions line, following up last summer’s “Rocketeer” book. That line is focused on reproducing the original art behind significant comics work. Rather than showing the finished product, the book presents scans of the original drawings, reprinted at their original size. Hence, the book is rather large at 12″x17″. Mr. Simonson was pleasant to meet in person, taking time to sign the book amid a short line for his signature. The most memorable part of the interaction was that I ended up having a random conversation with renowned comic book colorist Steve Oliff, who was nearby saying “Hi” to Mr. Simonson. Mr. Oliff was a central figure in popularizing computer coloring in the early 1990s during the launch of Image Comics. Prior to that heyday, he’d refined these emerging techniques on Marvel’s localization of “Akira” in the late 1980s. That early work is still eye-catching today. Mr. Oliff’s company, Olyoptics, handled the re-coloring for the full Walt Simonson “Thor” omnibus that came out this past spring. It was a giant hit, selling three printings before it was even released. Unfortunately, I was shocked to learn that Marvel is hedging on producing future re-colored omnibi. Thankfully, Mr. Oliff was working on drumming up similar efforts. I’m a purist, but even staunch purists have admitted that the “Thor” omnibus was hands-down gorgeous.

The Visionaries: A discussion with Jon Favreau and Guillermo del Toro Billed as a discussion of “The Future of Pop Culture,” I’m not sure that the topic really kept much in that direction. If anything, the recurrent topic seemed to be that of the respectful relationship that Mr. Favreau has shared with Mr. del Toro Mr. del Toro swore like a sailor throughout much of the presentation, making endearing remarks regarding how passionate of a fan of horror he is. Mr. Favreau said repeatedly that he has sought out Mr. del Toro’s advice on his films, showing obvious reverence. Both men discussed how effects need to be used as a tool and that all manners of approaches need to be considered, from practical makeup to computer graphics. Much of the conversation focused on the upcoming works of both filmmakers. Mr. Favreau had the premiere of his new “Cowboys vs. Aliens” two nights later and has been working on the “Night in the Museum”-like “Magic Kingdom” for Disney with writer Michael Chabon. Mr. del Toro has “Haunted Mansion” in the works for Disney and appears to be a super-fan of the Disney park attraction, admitting that he’d wants to live inside the mansion. He also mentioned his new film “Pacific Rim,” but didn’t give much in the way of details, saving those for the next day’s Legendary Pictures panel. The lively discussion was certainly worth attending though and it was a shame that the cavernous Hall H was only two-thirds full for it. People missed out.

Evening Analysis – “Game of Thrones” and “Prometheus” I wasn’t able to attend two of the more-significant panels of the day – “Game of Thrones” and “Prometheus” – so I caught up with them later in the evening. The big winner of the entire weekend, at least amongst the major film presentations, appeared to be Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus.” While the actual footage shown hasn’t leaked online, I was able to view some of the panel discussion. A late re-write of the script by “Lost” co-show runner Damon Lindelof appeared to energize the project and alleviate the immediate concerns of most fans. It was hard not to get excited about the prospect of Ridley Scott directing his first science fiction film since the one-two punch of “Alien” and “Blade Runner.” That said, the marketing strategy for “Prometheus” continued to be odd. While I applaud the sense of mystery that has been maintained, it has seemed questionable to deny that the film would be a prequel or spin-off of “Alien.” It has been obvious from set leaks and the talent involved that the film features the alien threat from that film in some capacity. With “Game of Thrones,” I was able to watch the entire panel online. No second season footage was shown to attendees, but the major cast members were in attendance and seemed to banter quite well with one another. There weren’t any great revelations; rather the event came off as a sort of celebration of the show’s somewhat-unexpected status as a major hit.

Appendix:  Daily Detailed Notes – Day 2 (July 22, 2011)

The Captains This panel featured a preview and discussion of a new documentary in which William Shatner interview all the actors who’ve played the main captain roles on the various “Star Trek” television series. Kevin Smith moderated the panel. Avery Brooks represented the captain of “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” while Scott Bakula, captain on the series “Star Trek: Enterprise” appeared mid-way through the panel as a ‘surprise guest.’ While I was ultimately shut out of this panel, due to not getting into its incredibly-long line early enough, I did have somewhat of an experience with it just the same. I’d ended up temporarily camping out outside the panel room’s exit and was able to see the panelists hustled by me, in to the room. For being 80 years old, Mr. Shatner still looked good. Mr. Brooks had a fairly intense look to him while wearing unusual clothing. Mr. Smith looked like, well, Kevin Smith. Mr. Bakula appeared friendly. I was somewhat surprised that more amateur ‘paparazzi’ hadn’t figured out the convention’s plans for hustling celebrities in and out of the various rooms and then staked out the areas. Granted, the guests were all surrounded by security guards, but it was easy enough to take photos from an exit vantage point.

Star Wars Books I was excited that this panel featured author Timothy Zahn, whose book “Star Wars: Heir to the Empire” was credited with kick-starting “Star Wars” books and media attention in the early 1990s. Odd as it may sound now, most “Star Wars” licensees had virtually given up on the property after it had started waning in the late-1980s. Mr. Zahn’s book brought me back to “Star Wars” in a major way, igniting a newfound passion within me while I read it over summer vacation soon after its paperback release. The book was significant because it was essentially a sequel to the original “Star Wars” trilogy, officially approved by Lucasfilm. The trilogy of books that Mr. Zahn eventually completed formed the basis for a new renaissance in “Star Wars” novels that continues to this day. As expected, the panel opened with an overview of upcoming books, but then jumped immediately into a question-and-answer session. I’d expected some discussion around the background of “Heir to the Empire,” but little more was said about the book. Besides announcing a 20th anniversary edition, little more was said. One surprise for me was that a number of various “Star Wars” encyclopedias continue to be published. In the pre-internet days, such print resources were invaluable. However, given how the creation of new tie-in material makes the “Star Wars” universe ever-growing, such materials are bound to be outdated the same day that they’re released.

Spotlight on Jeff Smith “Bone” creator Jeff Smith and his wife/business partner Vijaya presented what was essentially a look back on their journey in the twenty years since the publication of “Bone” #1. Their slideshow was a fun look back, as I was reminded of some key moments in the history of the series. Now that the complete series has been reprinted so many times across various formats, it is easy to forget the struggles behind the original publication of “Bone.”  Major events, such as when Mr. Smith took a year off near the end of the original publication to work on an ill-fated “Bone” film, have been largely forgotten. Unfortunately, the panel provided a good example of what I’ve seen now in a number of panels where the final three questioners did the old ‘I’m going to talk about myself now that I have the microphone. I’ve seen this behavior boo-ed in the past, but it seems to be much more prevalent and, oddly, tolerated this year. One positive aside though – Mr. Smith was very kind after the panel in chatting with my Bone-fan friend. Said friend was able to get a photo snapped with Mr. Smith and also have brief conversations on his influences, which included Walt Kelly’s “Pogo.”

The Boy Who Loved Batman Michael Uslan, executive producer of “Batman,” “Batman Begins,” “The Dark Knight,” and the upcoming “The Dark Knight Rises,” gave a presentation that walked through the high-level story of his life with the movie rights to Batman. Much of what he discussed is undoubtedly cover in greater detail within his new book “The Boy Who Loved Batman.” As a young Batman fan, Mr. Uslan watched the 1960s Batman television series with a dual sense of happiness and horror. While he enjoyed seeing the cool car and other realizations of the comics, he was horrified by its campiness. Mr. Uslan ended up making it his life mission of sorts to rid the public consciousness of “slam, pow, bam.” After becoming the first college professor of comic books and getting a call from Stan Lee to intern at Marvel, Mr. Uslan eventually briefly wrote Batman for DC Comics. He later became an entertainment lawyer and, in the late 1970s, acquired the film rights to Batman, but was unable to sell his concept of a darker vision for the character. It took over a decade until the 1989 Batman film changed the public’s notion of what Batman could be.  In the over twenty years since that film, it would appear that Mr. Uslan was successful in his mission. As it related to his struggle to sell his notion for a Batman film, Mr. Uslan had the quote of the day with his statement that “It doesn’t matter how great an idea you have, if you can’t market it.”

Evolution of Transformers This should have been a great panel, with Hasbro’s “Transformers” marketing director and brand manager discussing the post-U.S. animated series history of the Transformers property in Japan. The DVD company Shout Factory was on hand as well to shill the new releases that they were putting out of these Japanese cartoons. Most U.S. Transformers fans are aware of the 100 or so episodes that were originally created in the U.S. market. What most weren’t aware of was that Transformers continued in animated form in Japan for another three series, totaling around 150 additional episodes. Only with “Beast Wars” in the mid-1990s would the Japanese and U.S. television viewers converge again. The audience for the panel was packed, obviously full of rabid Transformer fans. Unfortunately none of the panelists came across as dynamic speakers. Their PowerPoint presentation looked sloppy and was needlessly rushed. I found myself learning more from quick reads of the slides than from the speakers. The oddest quote of the day might have been a panelist who referred to the mythology of “Transformers” as “One of the greatest stories of our time.” I realize that he was playing to the rabid crowd, but it was hard to hear that sort of message in a serious context and wonder if it wasn’t being said with some level of sarcasm attached.

Evening Analysis – “Amazing Spider-Man” and “Pacific Rim” As was the case yesterday, I didn’t make it into two of today’s most popular panels. Sony’s presentation for “Amazing Spider-Man” kicked off with new Spider-Man actor Andrew Garfield giving a surprise speech to the crowd.  He’d initially appeared as a belligerent fan, standing at the question microphone in a cheap Spider-Man costume.  After revealing his identity, the crowd roared and Mr. Garfield made remarks about how reading Spider-Man comics as a kid “saved his life.” Later reporting made the stunt sound more compelling than it appeared though, as debate raged regarding just how authentic Mr. Garfield seemed after the video leaked onto YouTube. Fan reaction still seems to be dominated by skepticism around the need to spend an entire film re-telling the origin of Spider-Man. Based on the “Amazing Spider-Man” trailer that was release immediately prior to the convention, I’m not comfortable pining many hopes on it. The trailer ended with a first-person view of Spider-Man hopping over rooftops and swinging between buildings; it should have been cool, but it looked too much like a first-person shooter video game. Convention attendees complained that that sequence looked worse blown-up on Hall H’s giant screens. “Amazing Spider-Man” Actor Rhys Ifans scored the convention’s only notable run-in with the law while allegedly assaulting a security guard. Oddly, the Legendary Pictures panel was not booked in Hall H, despite featuring bigger names than many of the panels that did appear there. Guillermo del Toro promised “Giant f*cking robots vs. giant f*cking monsters” in his new film “Pacific Rim.”

Appendix:  Daily Detailed Notes – Day 3 (July 23, 2011)

Activision I had little interest in seeing clips of the “Spider-Man” and “X-Men” games that Activision was using this panel to promote. Rather, I wanted to catch a glimpse of Marvel Comics legend Stan Lee. It also didn’t hurt that the always-amusing writer Peter David was a panelist as well. Mr. Lee appeared at the beginning of the panel and received a wild reception, with many fans snapping photos of him and some standing on their chairs to see him while applauding. To his credit, Mr. Lee did manage to say a few things that were directly applicable to the videogames, but he also waxed poetic about the days when he co-created “Spider-Man” and the original “X-Men.” Understandably, Mr. Lee only spent around twenty minutes at the panel before departing. As usual though, it was worth the effort of tracking him down.

Spotlight on Steranko Jim Steranko is well known as a legendary Marvel Comics artist from the late 1960s, despite only having drawn around a dozen full comics for them. Obviously his limited output made a big impact. While waiting in line for the panel, I had the pleasure of meeting a random guy who had worked with Cheech and Chong on all of their films since 1975. Interestingly, he mentioned how their drug use in those films was simply acting and that the men only partook in such recreations off-of-the-clock. He also seemed to have a connection to Mr. Steranko, referring to him as ‘Jimmy’ and gushing about how quality of a musician Mr. Steranko was on his jazz guitar. When the panel actually started, Mr. Steranko strode into the room like royalty, making his way up to the front via a confident walk down the room’s center isle. He looked sharp in a nice suit, hair impeccable as always. Right off the bat, Mr. Steranko courted controversy while promoting the upcoming re-release of his graphic novel “Red Tide.” He pointed out that, although Will Eisner’s “A Contract with God” is often cited as the first graphic novel, it was really a collection of short stories. Also, Mr. Steranko mentioned that “Red Tide” came out in 1976, two years prior to “A Contract with God.” “Any questions?” was how Mr. Steranko concluded his case. Later in the panel, Mr. Steranko told a long story about how he became ‘tough’ while growing up in a world full of vicious bullies. He finally fought back, after their distraction had caused him to live a life of fear. When asked to choose a concluding story, the audience selected Mr. Steranko’s rendition of how he landed his first Marvel Comics job, rather than a story involving Steven Spielberg. Essentially, he took samples to Marvel’s office and demanded a meeting with Stan Lee. Stan’s secretary, ‘Fabulous’ Flo Steinberg asserted that Stan was too busy to see him, but Mr. Steranko insisted, asking her to show Mr. Lee his samples. Ms. Steinberg returned a few minutes later to announce to Mr. Steranko that Mr. Lee would see him. Mr. Steranko was then given the choice of any Marvel series and, wanting to keep expectations low, chose the floundering series “Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.” A legendary run of comics ensued.

Terry Moore I enjoyed Terry Moore’s work on his “Strangers In Paradise” series. While that series ended a few years ago, he’s continued to produce work that is interesting and has been a leading voice amongst independent comic book creators. Mr. Moore touched on digital distribution by pointing out that the business plans aren’t in place yet for most creators to  make sustainable income. His comments echoed many that I heard at the convention, namely that the comics industry has various mechanisms in place for digital distribution, but that sustainable business models still need to be worked out.

Spotlight on J. Michael Straczynski J. Michael Straczynski’s panel typified the typical talent panel. That is, he facilitated over a session that was one part promotion of his new work and one part motivational pep-talk for creative-types in the room. Playing to the crowd at one point, Mr. Straczynski received a loud laugh by ripping on MBAs who are incompetent Hollywood executives. I might have been the only person in the room not laughing, although I can’t deny that it was unfortunate for one executive in a story to not know who Captain Ahab was. In a statement that seemed to respond to both the pitching and Michael Uslan panels that I’d attended earlier, Mr. Straczynski reminded attendees that ideas are a dime a dozen. Rather, he pointed out that their value had to do with how well one marketed them. In fact, he felt that ‘staying’ a writer has been harder than it was to initially break in. One last bit of wisdom was to not allow one’s life to end up being a catalog of missed opportunities.

Digital Distribution: Comics, Web Comics, and the Business Model of the Future Writer Mark Waid (“Kingdome Come”) headlined this panel and it touched on the theme of comics in the digital medium that came up over and over all weekend. I’ll get more into the specifics of it when writing up my lessons learned from the entire convention weekend. Needless to say, the topic of using piracy to one’s advantage was a central theme.

Universal Pictures: Snow White and the Huntsmen This could be considered a ‘bonus’ panel, in that I didn’t plan to attend it. Rather, I’d expected to be standing in line outside of Hall H for the Kevin Smith panel and took advantage of the fact that there was no such line. It was a bit surprising that, with the names involved, this film’s presentation wasn’t more crowded. Of course, the unappealing idea of making Snow White’s story more “Lord of the Rings”-like might have something to do with it. In general, the lack of people in Hall H during much of Saturday meant that panels in smaller rooms elsewhere were simply much harder to get into. There was no footage to show yet, only stills and production design illustrations. Oscar winner Charlize Theron (who was also in “Prometheus”) and Chris Hemsworth (“Thor”) both carried themselves better than Kristen Stewart (“Twilight”), who seemed uncomfortable. I later overheard someone suggest that Ms. Steward was high during the panel, but I just assumed that she was disinterested. Hilariously, Ms. Theron seemed to have the crowd around her finger and she used that at one point to throw Ms. Steward under the metaphorical fan bus. She was quite cunning and evil queen like, I had to say.

Further over the Rainbow: A First Look at Dorothy of Oz This was another ‘bonus’ panel that I would not have otherwise attended. Of note was writer Roger Baum, great grandson of original “Oz” writer L. Frank Baum. The new, animated “Dorothy of Oz” film that was being presented was apparently based on some of his work. The main attraction of the panel was undeniably Patrick Stewart, who appeared at Comic-Con for the first time. He received a royal welcome. Unfortunately, the first audience questioner made a reference to sodomy with Mr. Stewart that ended when the questioner’s microphone was cut. To make up for it, the audience later sang happy birthday to Mr. Stewart. Hopefully he won’t be scared off and will attend again in the future.

An Early Evening with Kevin Smith Given Kevin Smith’s half-decade slide in both critical and box office success in film, I felt that he came into this panel with a lot to prove. And, after kicking off the panel by admitting that he was high, he seemed to get into a groove early on. Yes, he made reference to his new projects, such as the film “Red State” and also made reference to his growing podcast/internet radio empire. However, he mixed up the plugs well enough for the first forty-five minutes. After showing an extended “Red State” clip, Mr. Smith – literally – patted himself on the back for the quality of the film. Instead of then assuming a more traditional role of storytelling though, most of what followed during the question-and-answer period were continued plugs for his work. It was odd to hear him equate his podcast or internet radio program – referred to collectively as ‘smodcasts’ as though they were equal in quality to a written script or opinion column. I suspect that the level of effort put into these broadcast was significantly less than in those other cases. By the end, all I could hear was him seemingly repeating ‘smodcast, smodcast’ over and over in reply to every question. There were also references to supporting Mr. Smith’s multiple streams of revenue, such as a company that he’d partnered with to transcribe podcasts into book form. One has to assume that, if these are of good quality, they aren’t cheap. People interested in having their own podcasts transcribed can use the same service, with Mr. Smith, presumably, taking a piece of the action.* *  Mr. Smith also has a line of shoes available.

Can DIY Filmmaking Replace Hollywood? This panel was essentially the Troma Films panel, occupying the same timeslot and featuring most of the same panelists as they had last year. Lloyd Kaufman, the head of Troma was promoting his new book “Selling Your Own Damn Movie Without Selling Your Soul!”  A couple of clips for upcoming Troma films were also shown. The panel was largely presided over by Troma president Lloyd Kaufman. Other panelists included Brian Taylor (“Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance” and the “Crank” movies), Adam Green (“Frozen”), Pat Kaufman (Lloyd’s wife and, oddly enough, the New York Film commissioner), and Scott McKinlay (“Creep Van”) And, while he didn’t say much, it was also fun to see Lance Henriksen from “Aliens” and “Millennium” on the panel. He added to a piracy discussion by mentioning how his new film, co-starring Robert Patrick (“Terminator 2”), that had just debuted that weekend in one theatre in Los Angeles and had already been pirated. For some odd reason, the lingering debate of the panel ended up being that general topic of piracy. Adam Green took the position that his career had been needlessly limited due to “Frozen” being heavily pirated. Had the film grossed more of the potential sales lost to pirates, he would be directing large-budget films now, rather than planning small or mid-level films. In Mr. Green’s view, the music industry represents how the film industry will look in ten years. Namely, Hollywood will produce a few giant-budget films and the rest of the industry will be composed of micro-budget independent films. Lloyd Kaufman disagreed with Mr. Green’s hard stance against piracy, stating that pirates can help promote a film and get it attention or word of mouth. There were flaws in both positions, but they bring up fair points. Kaufman also touched on the debate over copyright and how copyrights keep getting extended within the U.S. due to lobbying of big media to protect characters such as Mickey Mouse.

Tidbits: Brian K. Vaughan One announcement that caught the eyes of comics fan was that Brian K. Vaughan (“Y: The Last Man” and “Ex Machina”) has a new series entitled “Saga” coming out in early 2012. Mr. Vaughan had been away from comics for a while now, working more in Hollywood lately, both with “Lost” and also selling several feature scripts. Thus, it was welcome news to be surprised by his return to the medium.



Appendix:  Daily Detailed Notes – Day 4 (July 24, 2011)

Archaia Entertainment and The Jim Henson Company: The Early Works of Jim Henson Screening with Special Tale of Sand Discussion This panel was scheduled for a smallish room and ended up being much more popular than likely expected. The L.A. Times had highlighted it in their convention preview column and that might have contributed to what was a crowded room. While those hoping for footage from the upcoming Muppets film would have been disappointed, the presence of Jim Henson archivist Karen Falk made the panel worthwhile. The main project being promoted at the panel was the upcoming graphic novel release by Archaia Entertainment of “A Tale of Sand.” This book was produced based upon a script that Jim Henson had developed with his longtime collaborator, Jerry Juhl. Juhl played a significant role in the Henson world, with key contributions during the early years of “Sesame Street,” show running of “The Muppet Show,” and co-writer on “The Muppet Movie.” “A Tale of Sand” never made it to film, but it was something that Henson and Juhl kept polishing, going through repeated drafts. It would have been an ‘existential,’ experimental film and that likely limited its marketability. For tonal comparisons, some early, experimental films of Henson’s were shown, including the Oscar-Nominated “Time Piece” and a stark short entitled “The Cube.” These shorts were very ‘hippie-trippy’ and showed a different side of Henson than was later seen in his Muppet work. Ms. Falk offered some interesting insights during the question-and-answer portion of the panel. She reminded the audience that Henson would have been 75 years old this year, having died when he was only 53. He was consistently interested in using new mediums or technology in his work and would have been fascinated with the internet and broader use of 3-D. In the late 1980s, around the time of his death, Mr. Henson was experimenting with what might be considered reality television. Ms. Falk also pointed out that Henson aimed high with his goals, even if he knew that reaching those goals might not be feasible. One amusing anecdote involved Henson telling the writers of “Fraggle Rock” that he intended the show to bring about world peace. He didn’t believe that that would be truly possible, but it gave a guideline for what he wanted in the tone and message of the show.


Side Note: Downtown Evenings This was my first Comic-Con that allowed for later evenings downtown, due to staying at a hotel that was part of the convention’s official shuttle bus service. Said service ran as late as 2:00am, taking only four hours off before resuming at 6:00am. As such, my companion and I were able to dine near the convention center and experience samples of the evening nightlife. As a fan of hamburgers, I can strongly recommend Nicky Rottens. While I might have been happier with the music inside turned down a few notches, the food itself was great. I don’t normally like skinny fries, but the ones that they served were quite good. The burgers featured organic meat and buns baked fresh by a local bakery. The quality showed. They offered a food challenge involving a 2.5 pound burger that my companion almost tried to conquer, but the devil appeared to be in the details. Our waitress implied that the ‘proportional’ amount of fries that were included was what tended to make most challengers fall short. We were also impressed with the short wait to get seated. Given that masses of convention-goers were also searching for dinner downtown, we expected at least a forty-five minute wait. Thankfully, that ended up being a quick ten minutes. In light of their quality and quick service, Nicky Rottens should be considered a hidden jewel for convention goers.

D.S. Christensen
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