Sunday, August 17, 2008

Vampire Weekend: A 2008 Comic-Con International Wrap-Up

Here's a piece I originally wrote for Below is the article in its entirety.  It was published in August 2008.

At what point did the Comic-Con International in San Diego jump the shark? I’m not complaining, just asking. It’s a glorious affair, one where the geek elite and the Hollywood prima donnas make nice with one another. Here, the fanboy is god, and fandom is the religion. As attendance balloons each and every year, San Diego bursts at the seams with the sheer thought of that almighty tourist dollar. And literally, the city streets swell to capacity with studio execs, publicists, starving artists, autograph hounds, cosplay freaks, collectors and kids.

For the first time ever, the event sold out in advance of all of its four days. You’re talking 125,000 people, all looking to get their hands on that Mattel Toys exclusive, all looking to get into that semi-secret advance screening of TROPIC THUNDER, all looking to be first in line for the WATCHMEN panel. If any of this sounds absurd to you, you have no idea. It’s not like a comic book coming to life. It’s more like the entirety of the Marvel and DC Universes rising from their pencil-and-ink and multicolored pages, invading a breezy West Coast metropolis for a long weekend. It’s geek jihad, and don’t be fooled: Millions are at stake — and with film franchises taking front and center over the past decade, maybe billions in the long run. Yes, billions, Dr. Evil.

A day or so after the last Klingon-attired attendee left town, an earthquake was reported not too far off in Los Angeles. Several weeks prior to this, as an advance sell-out became inevitable, there were rumblings of a different sort: perhaps the Con had outgrown its nest and it was time to fly the coop. While San Diego has a lot going for it, a loss like this would hit where it counts.
The Comic-Con has a contract with the San Diego Convention Center until 2011, with the promise from the facility of expansion and renovation. Clearly the Comic-Con would call the shots, but there is still a warm and fuzzy feeling between the city and the event that suggests the honeymoon is far from over. You get the sense that no one, on either side, would want to see the relationship end. Still, the possibility of wooing away the grand dame of geek spectacles has to have some cities already chomping at the bit like an malnourished rancor monster, like a city trying to court a future Super Bowl or — perhaps more apropos — WWE Wrestlemania.

Has the event gotten too big for its britches? Yes. Will a larger-waistlined venue provide the solution? No. There’s already far too much too see, way too many people vying to get the first glimpse, and too few days to accomplish any of these things. The answer may be in redefining what the Comic-Con represents, or what its purpose will be. A more accurate name might be Pop-Culture-Con. Yep, comics are still at the root of all things Comic-Con, but any time I attend an event and see porn queen Tera Patrick hawking video games, I start to ask myself if I stumbled into the wrong room. (Although it certainly does put a new twist on the term “game room,” doesn’t it?)

This year, more than any previous, left me with the sense that event organizers were doing their best to take stock and categorize exactly what it is they had on their hands, that being the different media and their respective fanbases. UFC Hall of Famer Randy “The Natural” Couture was on hand to autograph his action figure. There were people standing in that line who’d never cracked open a comic book in their life. And that’s okay. Maybe one would lead to the other.
A growing percentage of the crowd seemed to be there just for anime and manga. That, too, is okay. Again, maybe one medium could attract fans from the other, and the two could cross-pollinate among their ranks. But to say the event is just comics these days is like saying Disney is only about the Mickey Mouse Club. Comic-Con offers everything to fans, just shy of a trip on Space Mountain. There are times your head is pounding, like after listening to a poorly produced mash-up tape, where musical genres step all over one another, from an amateur DJ trying a little too hard to be ironic. Thankfully, much of the four-day event is like a silly symphony that creates a one-of-a-kind melody only possible when all the diverse elements are present, either in or out of sync: comics, film, anime, games and fans.

Since BOOKGASM celebrates books, first and foremost, let me provide some snapshots of the Comic-Con from the literary lens. There are plenty of other places to look online (or in print, soon enough) if you’re seeking detailed reports from the set of the big-screen adaptation of video game MAX PAYNE or photos from the REPO! THE GENETIC OPERA panel (yes, Paris Hilton was on hand; no, I don’t have any pics).

I’m not some type of biblio-snob or holier-than-thou artsy type. I’m anything but. Bitter, yes; sore feet, indeed; but really, I’m just frustrated that I wasn’t able to take everything in that was offered up by Comic-Con programmers. The weekend offers up so much for every type of fan, and despite the fact that the Hollywood glitz and glamour seems to get the most mainstream coverage, there are still tons of things for the discerning fan of books — comics or otherwise. I just wish I had enough time and energy to see all of it (that most certainly includes you, Ms. Hilton, and Mr. Payne, sure, why not, I dug that game and its John Woo-esque bullet-time feature back during the glory days of the PS2).

I’m convinced that the biggest draw at the Con that was non-comics-related and non-WATCHMEN-related was this Stephenie Meyer chick. For those of you living in the dark, she is the author of the insanely popular #1 NEW YORK TIMES best-selling vampire book series TWILIGHT. Summit Pictures is bringing the book to the silver screen later this year, and at its booth, you could get your photo taken with cardboard cutouts of the book/film characters.
Wait, there’s more. You could also spin a wheel for a chance to win swag like collector cards, temporary tattoos and T-shirts. You would have thought they were giving away printed money, because man, oh, man, were people ever going bat shit over this. There was a constant queue of giddy teens, tweens and their “TwiHard”-moms, unabashedly waiting their turn.

I haven’t read any of the books — the latest of which is the fourth, BREAKING DAWN — and I hate to generalize, but seeing the line over the course of a few days, all I could think of was, “Cool! HARRY POTTER for Goth kids!” It was a little creepy, though, seeing the moms in line with them — not to keep their kids company per se, but for their own crack at the wheel. Mama’s gotta win her some trading cards! But who am I to judge? I write comic books featuring Cuban drug lords on the rise and giant pterodactyl-vampire bats (not to be mistaken, these are two separate projects … but how cool would that be if they occupied the same pages?). I could only hope for the kind of audience that Meyer packs in.

And let’s not forget the sneak peek of the movie footage that would be playing to cavernous Hall H, which holds 6,000 people, every seat in the house spoken for. The film’s director and cast would be appearing along with Meyer. There was a nervous kind of buzz for this tantamount to 6,000 girls preparing to lose their virginity on prom night (nope, no sign of Paris Hilton here). I opted to skip this panel, but there was no denying that the TwiHards or members of Team Edward or whatever bootleg T-shirt seemed to be in demand were out in full (moon) force. I did get a strong vibe that only a very small percentage of the TWILIGHT crowd had ever read a comic book, or were even aware that they were attending Comic-Con. To them it was the Twilight-Con, but that’s cool all the same. There’s plenty of opportunity for crossover with these audiences, and that can only help but make both media stronger.

One side note of interest: A very reputable book dealer was present selling autographed copies of books, ranging from F. Paul Wilson to Clive Barker. Said dealer had a copy of Meyer’s THE HOST for $50. For a signed, first-printing set of the first three entries into the TWILIGHT saga? Add a couple of zeroes and one comma. (Anyone see Paris Hilton? We need a loan over here).

Who watches the Watchmen? If Thursday belonged to Stephenie Meyer, Friday belonged to Alan Moore (well, not really, since the reclusive and bearded mystery man has disavowed any connection to the Hollywood adaptation of what some consider the greatest graphic novel of all-time). WATCHMEN fans set their doomsday clocks as early as 6:30 a.m. to be in line for a panel that would begin at 11:55 a.m. You read that right: They waited in line all day just to see some footage and possibly to get a little Q&A action with the director and cast. Did you really come all this way just to stand in line, man?

Judging by the subsequent reaction of the masses, Moore has little to worry about. While the finished product will tell the ultimate tale of whether Sir Alan has a right to be pissy (yes, even for those of us who didn’t care to wait in line with 5,999 other fans all day), it seems if anyone should be scared of Hollywood soiling their beloved source material, it’s fans of Will Eisner’s THE SPIRIT. Early glimpses at that film gave the impression that comics legend Frank Miller, directing his first feature all by his lonesome, is turning in SIN CITY 2, and the essence — or the spirit, if you will — of Eisner’s creation is nowhere to be found. The appearance of Samuel L. Jackson is only icing on the crap cupcake. Only time will tell if The Spirit lives on, or if ol’ Willie will be turning in his grave.

We can’t forget DEXTER. The book series by author Jeff Lindsay — and now the popular Showtime (and CBS) series — proved to be a big attraction. I understand the character has a growing army of dearly devoted fans, but I didn’t predict that there would be such an intense following at Comic-Con, of all places. There is no DEXTER comic book to speak of … yet.
Some wise marketing and PR department called this one ahead of time, though. Whoever that was deserves a raise. Advertising in town for DEXTER covered signs and buses, second only to banners for THE MUMMY: THE TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR. And many fans got left out in the cold as the DEXTER panel filled the not-quite-big-enough Room 6CDEF to capacity. Many were disappointed as they were turned away, and wondered why the panel wasn’t being held in a room that could accommodate the excess serial-killer-with-a-heart-of-gold fans.

Who knew DEXTER had this many fans at the Con? In its own way, this was a stroke of marketing genius. After all, the hottest ticket in town is usually the one that you just can’t get your hands on, which plants the seed in your head that, “Hey!, I must be missing out on something cool here.” And that’s called building killer buzz, folks.

On Saturday, I was able to speak briefly with author Joe Hill, he of HEART-SHAPED BOX and LOCKE & KEY fame (and in the interest of full disclosure, LOCKE is published by IDW Publishing, the same company for which I wrote SCARFACE: DEVIL IN DISGUISE and THE MUMMY: THE RISE & FALL OF XANGO’S AX). He seemed genuinely surprised and delighted by the crowd that had lined up for his panel/reading/Q&A. He told me beforehand that he was going to try something a little different for a Comic-Con type panel and audience. He would be doing a reading from three different works, the first from a chapbook that Subterranean Press released, the second from his work-in-progress sophomore novel and the third a hilarious and charming “reading” from LOCKE & KEY, complete with blown-up cardboard panels from the comic-book series.

Joe was enthusiastic, down-to-earth, intensely bright and, with references to Neil Gaiman’s THE SANDMAN and ROM: SPACEKNIGHT, clearly a fanboy in his element. The Q&A that followed was insightful and engaging. He revealed that LOCKE & KEY would be going monthly, but that he doesn’t care to map out too much of his story ahead of time, as he feels that would be cheating the characters and the readers. He was a bit torn by small presses like Cemetery Dance and Subterranean Press, as he feels sometimes the product they release is a bit on the pricey side, but felt as if it provided a good opportunity for up-and-coming talent to build a career, while giving fans an alternative to the brand names at the brick-and-mortar stores.
Hill never once referred to his famous parents directly by name, only implying that, well, they were famous writers. Of course, one look at the guy and there was no hiding what his nom de plume had managed to do for a few years: He’s Stephen and Tabitha King’s kid. I thought by now since the secret was out, everyone pretty much knew this, but many in attendance were unaware, which means Hill is gaining fans based on the merit of his own work, and that’s precisely what he wanted.

Looking at him, his tone and his mannerisms, your brain couldn’t help but scream, “Yeah, 1982! CREEPSHOW!” Yeah, the resemblance was that uncanny. And he may be every bit as talented as his parents. There’s no telling where his craft will take him, but if his debut novel and short stories like “Pop Art” are any indication, the Hill name will be dominating bookshelves for years to come. He’s already that scary good.

And the future brings with it a changing of the old guard. After the Hill panel, as I was walking aimlessly about the convention room floor, I heard someone in front of me yell, “Please step aside for Mr. Ray Bradbury.” There, in front of me, being pushed in his wheelchair down the aisle, was the one and only Bradbury. He looked to be in poor health, and recent years have not been kind to his body. Everyone there, regardless of who or what brought them to the Comic-Con, seemed to recognize who this legendary writer was as they respectfully made way for him.
I’ve never met the man, and this was the first time I’d seen him in the flesh. Part of me felt like I was seeing my grandfather for the first and last time. He waved graciously to the polite onlookers as he passed by, some greeting him with applause and snapping photos. Bradbury, one of the last of a dying breed, has inspired countless writers and readers alike. There was an aura about him like that of a holy man. I suppressed a sudden urge to reach out and touch him on the arm, as if somehow I could manage to tap into some of his talent.

And as Bradbury passed me by, a mere arm’s length away, it dawned on me that he was the embodiment of everything that Comic-Con stands for: the power of good storytelling, regardless of the medium. It’s timeless and unifying. And I realize now that even though his posture was bent and the muscles in his face were droopy and contorted, there was a spark in his eyes that revealed the smile of a man who possessed immortality: the restless imagination of a 12-year-old boy.

Bradbury’s supreme talent will be his own vessel of escape. And isn’t that why all of us became readers in the first place? For the mind-expanding, soul-altering, pure escapism? For the timeless and magical truth? It’s the gospel according to Ray. This is Comic-Con. Here, the fanboy is god, and fandom is the religion.

—Joshua Jabcuga
Joshua Jabcuga is the author of the graphic novels SCARFACE: DEVIL IN DISGUISE and THE MUMMY: THE RISE & FALL OF XANGO’S AX.

No comments: