Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Observations of a Comic-Con Newbie

Sitting in the San Diego airport, latte and laptop at hand, I have plenty of time to make sense of the whirlwind four days (and preview night!) that is Comic-Con. Last Monday I stayed the night in Orlando to be on time for the 4:30 a.m. check-in, and until roughly the same time this morning, my life has been a series of long lines, strange and wonderful conversations, and unexpected experiences.

If anything, my Comic-Con experience could be a metaphor for life. It was amazing, but it went by too fast. I learned from creative people, made new friends, and took a few side trips to see the world outside where I was “living.” Sometimes I did everything right and played by the rules but still got screwed over. Sometimes I was in the right place at the right time for a magical experience. I savored excellent meals and gulped junk food. I was exhausted and exhilarated. I didn’t do everything I planned or hoped, but pleasant surprises spiced up the journey. In retrospect, SDCC was more (of everything) than I could have imagined.

When I look back, particularly at Friday, I feel the trip was worth the aggravation of crashed servers, long lines, misinformation, and the occasionally rude fan who felt the need to cut in line or dump my bag in the haste to get a seat. The majority of fans, exhibitors, guests, drivers, guides, and security personnel were friendly, helpful, and knowledgeable. They chatted amiably and shared tips for a successful convention. They smiled—a lot—and seemed genuinely happy to be there.

The highlights listed next are easy to enumerate by day but are more difficult to explain—the reasons for their significance are personal as only fan experiences can be.

Preview Night:

Doctor Who t-shirt. Check. SDCC comic book exclusives. Check. Beatles taxis. Check. The booth numbers I’d mapped before leaving home came in handy when I wanted to dart down aisles to make purchases.

And then I found the Weta booth.

Daniel Falconer, who designs weapons and armor and has worked on films like The Lord of the Rings and District 9, signed my District 9 book, chatted a few minutes, and even graciously agreed to a future interview. I’ve admired his work for years, and I now admire the man for his friendliness and genuine interest in Weta fans. If I had only talked to him at Comic-Con, I would've deemed the trip a massive success.

But the fun was only beginning. I lasted two hours in the crush/rush of the Preview before calling it a night and taking a shuttle back to the hotel.

Thursday highlights:

• TheOneRing.Net (TORN) panel—old friends, news of The Hobbit, and a strange introduction to some cast members [e.g., Benedict Cumberbatch (Smaug/Necromancer) was introduced via a photo of Sherlock and the actor’s reading of Jabberwocky—but then, I forget that not everyone is as enamored of Cumberbatch and familiar with his incredible voice]

• Indie film festival—a series of shorts or animated films, plus a Vuguru panel about web films, my first meeting with Dominic Monaghan and Ray Wise, and an unexpected meet-and-greet after the panel

Wilfred panel—an episode screening followed by cast Q&A, fueling a hilarious and insightful meeting between the actors and fans who are seriously into the series, Jason Gann, and Elijah Wood

Friday highlights:

Torchwood panel—an early morning run to get in a line that still left me 2000 deep in the herd heading to Ballroom 20, but—success!—a seat about halfway back, and a reunion of far-flung, naughty, extroverted “family” on stage or on the floor. But more about John Barrowman and panels later.

• The queue outside Nerd HQ—where I said hello to Elijah Wood and managed a shaky “Hello, fine, thanks” when Dominic Monaghan asked how I was doing as he walked past

• A Conversation with Dominic Monaghan—an intimate, funny, insightful, never-to-be-forgotten hour for the hundred or so fans participating in the conversation, which was streamed to a worldwide audience

• A Conversation with Scott Bakula—another memorable hour capped with a bonus signing session—and a memorable if impromptu duet from Bakula and Zachary Levi—All right, I have to boast that I received a “good question” comment from Monaghan and Bakula, which means a lot to someone who likes to interview actors.

Saturday highlights:

TV Guide panel of “supernaturals”—a decidedly low tech (or no tech, when the clips couldn’t be correctly played) screening of television series, but the actors saved the session by giving their fans just what they wanted—plenty of sexy, irreverent comments that made this panel possibly the bawdiest and funniest of the con

• Toby Whithouse—No one was in line when I showed up a few minutes early for his signing session at the SFX booth! What was wrong with that crowd?! I blame my surprise at being suddenly face to face with one of my favorite writers for my incoherent gushing about Being Human. Usually I’m so much cooler. Seriously.

Sunday highlights:

• Anthony Head—I had hoped to gush about the Doctor Who panel, but I chose 1) to stand in an autograph lottery line that didn’t work out and 2) to meet Anthony Head at the BBC America booth. The latter was an excellent choice; Mr. Head was gracious and funny. He gave each fan his full, unhurried attention. I’m a fan for life.

A few experiences and comments deserve more than a list item; they, perhaps as much as a fan moment with a film maker, writer, or actor, determined the quality of my Comic-Con experience.

John Barrowman and a Tale of Two Panels

During Friday’s Torchwood panel, John Barrowman clearly was in his element, fielding questions with aplomb and double entendres, letting every panelist shine, and generally seeming to have a good time. Although he wasn’t officially the session moderator, that lack of designation was a moot point. Everyone on stage and in the capacity crowd of the extremely large Ballroom 20 only had eyes for John. Eve Myles was hilarious, but even she couldn’t keep up with Mr. Barrowman.

As is his norm during interviews or public appearances, Barrowman thanked his fans for their support. He emphasized his love of playing Captain Jack. He cracked jokes and played to the crowd. He sang, although in Saturday’s panel he seemed to wish he’d chosen something other than “Tomorrow” from Annie. He posed for photos. And he looked like he was having a good time.

To date, I’ve attended two of Barrowman’s concerts (the third coming up this Thanksgiving) and more performances of La Cage than I should admit to seeing. I’ve watched the man interact with fans via webcam and at stage doors. He knows how to relate to fans and make them feel that, although he and they may never say hello face to face, they are important to him. That inclusiveness was a big part of Friday’s Torchwood panel, a session less about cheerleading for Torchwood (although that was certainly its purpose) and more a love fest between Barrowman and his fans.

The vibe was very different at the TV Guide panel. Yes, John Barrowman waved to his fans, many who crowded the second or third row (where I sat) and took hundreds of photos during the session. Yes, he brought sexy back to 5AB and made a teen werewolf blush. And yes, he sang “Happy Birthday” and gave the birthday boy a kiss. But it just wasn’t the same level of energy or enjoyment provided by the Torchwood panel. Barrowman was a team player and applauded others’ series or quips, but the majority of fans in that room wanted to talk only with him. Barrowman participated graciously, but he wasn’t in charge, and the magical “family feeling” of the other panel never materialized. Say what you will about Barrowman, but put him in charge of a group of fans and he can unify a crowd while making each person feel special. That is a rare gift.

Fab Four

I don’t mean to be sexist, but I was most impressed with my encounters with these four men: Dominic Monaghan, Scott Bakula, Anthony Head, and Zachary Levi.

I have wanted to meet Dominic Monaghan since 1998. On July 22, 2011, that meeting materialized and exceeded my fantasies. (Keep your thoughts clean, people.) I sat in the front row for the Vuguru panel, and I learned a lot about film making and web movies. After the panel, the audience was invited to a meet and greet with the panelists—giving me the opportunity for a lengthy discussion with a scriptwriter and shorter but very pleasant conversations with actors. I asked a few questions, told Mr. Monaghan about the way I use DVDs of his performances in my “heroes” classes, and shook his hand. Absolutely brilliant.

On Friday, I attended Monaghan's "conversation" session hosted by the Nerd Machine. Those who know me will not be surprised to learn that, when there was silence in the “are there questions?" part of the program, my hand popped up automatically. During a break in the action while the mic went back and forth from me to the handler before it worked, Dominic Monaghan said he remembered me. Let the record show that he actually said we hung out together on Thursday. Somewhere there is a recording of the streamed video to prove it. My fan life is now complete.

I had a similarly wonderful fan encounter during Scott Bakula’s “conversation.” I last met Mr. Bakula in 1996 at a Quantum Leap convention, and both times he has impressed me with his honesty in answering questions (especially about the television industry then and now) and his kindness in talking with each fan.

What impressed me about these actors—and also Anthony Head, who graciously met everyone in the long line snaking around the BBC America booth on Sunday morning—is their complete focus on the (probably inwardly shaking) fan before them. They made each person feel important, unlike the cattle call or the 100-people-per-hour signings becoming more common at fan conventions. Unfortunately, what is construed as good manners in the "real world" is too often rare in the interactions between fans and those being adored. My Comic-Con experience benefited from brief, but very "real" interactions with these actors.

The man behind Nerd HQ is Zachary Levi. He bounced between headquarters next door and Joltin’ Joe’s, where the special fan sessions were held. He made the calls and gathered the talent for a whole schedule of fan events, the proceeds going to charity. Levi’s concept for the off-site mini-convention, his exuberance for fandom, and his shrewd business sense made the Nerd HQ one of the best places to be in San Diego this July.

Life, or Comic-Con, is What You Make It

My Comic-Con experience is unique. Every attendee has his or her stories, successes, and regrets. My clubbing nights are over, but I filled the days with panels, shopping, and exploration. I walked around the Gaslamp Quarter, but I also visited Old Town and the maritime museum. I saw (all but one) of the panels I really wanted to see. I also had the “queue” experience of waiting hours, sometimes in vain, for a panel, but rewarding in the conversations with other fans on line.

I talked with fans shut out of everything, line after line, day after day, although they waited two or more hours per line. I wouldn't want that to be the extent of my Comic-Con. Yes, I lost a few hours of my life in the Doctor Who line and an autograph queue that didn’t work out, but I can now say that’s part of my Comic-Con experience. But my Comic-Con wasn’t defined by long lines. I sometimes chose smaller events or panels that were expected to be less populated but were well worth seeing. I didn’t go to the movie premieres or win big prizes. (I did get lots of freebie pins, a t-shirt, a CD, and a DVD from the sessions, which thrilled me as much as some of the bigger giveaways would have done.) I did have some incredible fan encounters and got to see at least some of San Diego. Epic win.

Will I be back next year? Doubtful, even if I wanted to. I refused to stand in the ticket line four hours or more (the average reported from people who stood in those lines, including one woman who slept outside to be closer to the front). What would I have sacrificed to wait for next year’s ticket—the Torchwood panel or a conversation? Would I risk this year’s opportunities in the hope for next year’s Preview Night (and the chance to fight for space with hundreds of people wanting the same exclusive merchandise)? Nope.

So my first Comic-Con may be my last, even though it surpassed my wildest dreams, and my dreams can get pretty wild (although my partying is pretty tame). For such a large event, I thought it was adequately organized (outside of the Epic Ticket Fail of 2011), and the staff members I encountered were incredibly chipper and helpful.

What did I learn about the Meaning of Comic-Con? Maybe the answer to fan "life" isn't 42, or even Comic-Con, but Zach Levi and Nerd HQ.

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