San Diego Comic-Con International 2018 Review: Go for the Comics, Stay for the Stories

Another year of Con but this time it's the Big Picture
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Is it as easy as copy and paste?  If you have followed my writings even tangentially over the past eight years, you know I thrive on two things - consistency and nostalgia.  I attend many of the same panels each year, like reuniting with old friends or watching an old familiar film for comfort.  The annual gathering of misfits known as the San Diego Comic-Con International brings together tribes from all over the world.  If you're there - badge or not, costume or not, Captain America shield, Batman mask, or Stormtrooper helmet - you are among your brethren.  

Usually this is the point that I write about my experiences at the Con in chronological order.  I was reading some of my older posts so I don't just look like I am repeating myself.  I think that I'm missing ways to portray the adventure.  Because years after I attend a convention, it's no longer important what order I attended panels.  It's the impression you walk away with each year.  It's how you look back over a decade and see the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that the Comic-Con has evolved.  I'm going to look at this year's panels in a thematic way to see if it helps draw better conclusions.

SCIENCE / PSYCHOLOGY

When Earthlings Become Martians: Mars Season Two

An Evening With Batman's Brain

Over the past few years, the Convention has done a great job of embracing the science of science fiction.  Talks of Klingons, the reality of Death Stars, and the science of Dune have been replaced with actual talk about science.  I have attended panels by the Mythbusters and I've listened to an International Space Station Commander talk about his journey into Space.  The problem is that they haven't adjusted the size of the rooms of the panel to the level of interest into larger rooms.  So while I attempted to attend five or six science-related panels, I was only able to get into two.  It's a shame with a growing interest in science (hey, there was a Science March, it's that popular), there's room to expand panels on deep space exploration and Cosmos  to make sure all curious minds can attend.

The upcoming season on National Geographic of Mars will pick up a few years after the end of Season One a couple years ago.  The previous season was an interesting hybrid of a traditional television drama about our colonization of Mars mixed with interstitial talking heads giving interpretations of the real science involved in an actual trip to Mars.  This season the colonization has progressed to there being multiple countries represented on the planet.  The population is learning how to adapt to life far away from family and friends.  I like the series but it's that added level of commentary along the way that makes it an unique show that I'll be watching in November.

I've attended a few of the strictly psychological panels, usually related to Peanuts.  These have been interesting on a macro level but without a PhD in Psychology, spending 50 minutes deep in the weeds of a lecture at Masters Level Behavior Therapy tends to make my eyes heavy.  The "Evening With Batman's Brain" was just what the title suggests.  With authors Mark D. White (Batman & Philosophy) and Travis Langley (Batman and Psychology) and producer Michael Uslan, the panel had a lack of focus.  It's hard to talk about Batman and work your way between the movies, TV show, and comics all at once.  There is quite of bit of material to explore with the psychology of superheroes. It just needs the focus of a small topic and a good moderator.  As good as the science panels have become, these psychology panels need to be workshopped a little more before they make the program.

PERSONALITY

Anything Goes w/John Barrowman

The Black Panel

Any gathering celebrating the popular arts is going to be about one thing - The Cult of Personality.  It's the stars with faces that adorn 10 floors of a hotel or the side of a baseball stadium for a week.  It's the TV and movie actors who are whisked into underground parking structures and in the backstage door of Hall H.  It's the costumed Wonder Woman and the family dressed as The Incredibles who stop their lives every five minutes all day to have their pictures taken.  It's about over-the-top talent and humor.  Rarely do writers get their own panels, ironic considering it's the person that can tell a story in front of a group that make for successful panels.  When they are good, they are good.  When they suck, I forget about them immediately.

These two panels are examples of what works.  John Barrowman, he of Arrow and Torchwood and Doctor Who, has been the highlight of my Cons for years.  He isn't there to promote anything specific.  He doesn't have much of a script.  He just hits the stages and riffs.  His ease with the crowd is unmatched.  It's definitely a PG-13 show with an ever-increasing amount of risque humor in his "act".  John came out and told an almost 20-minute story about his appendix bursting last Summer.  It was structured the way that any good stand-up routine or episode of Louie is put together.  The main thread moves forward and all the side stories lead back to the plot.  The references back to previous appearances were appreciated and the thematic "take my temperature" was well placed throughout the story.  How comfortable is this panel for me?  One, I'd pay money just to see him tell stories and sing some showtunes.  Two, it's so easy to love that even two of the questions from the crowd were popular repeat attendees from last year.  It's like the best sequel - it refers to the previous episode but keeps moving forward in new directions at the same time.

"The Black Panel" is entertaining but a bit on the opposite end of the spectrum.  This panel one of the very few "smaller" panels to be allotted 90 minutes.  It may have people like Isaiah Washington (The 100), LaShonda Clinton (singer/writer) and Kevin Turner (agent) but the panel really belongs to mega-personality Michael Davis.  Two years ago, the room railed against the potential of electing Trump.  Last year, Michael hijacked the show with a police-brutality rant (of which he apologized for to start this year).  I can count on a few things each year - Michael will spend most of the time while he is talking trying to pull up a person or video on his phone - Wayne Brady will be stuck in traffic and call in - a video won't play but we'll try to fight through it anyways - Michael will talk so far away from the mic that I'm not sure what was just said.  This year's highlight being the first Con appearance of George Clinton, despite over Skype by his granddaughter.  The lowlight being that she twice revealed his cell number to the crowd because the video wasn't shut off quickly enough.

Both panels address political issues in their own way.  They have an agenda but go about presenting them in different ways.  John has a positive message about role models and coming out in this current environment.  He is open about his sexuality in a self-depreciating way that's empowering and funny at the same time.  It's obvious by the adoration of the fans that he's reaching a crowd that isn't represented in popular culture.  Michael is also about uplifting messages.  Despite rants on #metoo and police brutality and the evils of the Trump administration, his overall message is to uplift your own community.  Michael preaches to pass on your success.  In almost every panel I've attended he challenges successful people to reach out and mentor younger folks.  Despite all the sidetracks in both presentations, I walk away from both appreciating a message that isn't that I need to buy or view some product.

THE PAST: CELEBRATED AND REFLECTED

Forever Fantagraphics

Walt Kelly's Pogo

50th Anniversary of Underground Comix

It Was 50 Years Ago Today

Happy Birthday, Frankenstein

Warner Archive's Toonstock

This Is Your Life, Jonny Quest

LIttle Lulu and John Stanley Fan Group

Oddball Comics Live!

From the size of that list, you can tell where my interests lie.  With over two decades of panel attendance, I've gravitated towards panels that celebrate the past for a few reasons.  I have no patience for lines and it's the large rooms of movies and television shows that take hours to get into.  These small room panels feel more intimate.  I lived through many of the times that we talk about in these panels and it's fun to hear other stories or background information from people who provided me with entertainment in my youth.  The last and most important thing is hearing the verbal tradition of storytelling from people who experienced things firsthand before they pass away.  It's reason that I value the times I heard Ray Bradbury and Ray Harryhausen and Lou Schimer speak at these conventions.

I can subdivide these panels a little further.  The first is a very basic tribute or celebration of an event.  The cartoon shows of Toonstock and Jonny Quest celebrate older cartoons of the '60s through the '90s but mostly they are there to sell new releases from Warner Archive.  You can't celebrate Frankenstein with anyone who was alive when the book was released 200 years ago.  And my new favorite celebration is the "It Was 50 Years Ago Today".  This is an offshoot of the panel started back in 2012 to celebrate the movies of 1982.  That panel has grown in popularity so much so that this year I couldn't even think about getting into the 1988 panel.  They can fill a room to talk about Cocktail but a room talking about the releases of 1968 - 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes barely filled up a few rows of seats.  I almost didn't want to write about it so as to not attract too much attention in case we talk about 1969 next year.

Celebrating the past is a lost art.  Our focus in our youth is so often on the current.  It's on the future.  I was guilty of the same thing until I was in my early 20s.  I'm not talking the nostalgia for the shows and music of our youth.  It's fun to go see a panel about the history of Johnny Quest.  It makes me sentimental for the days of watching it endlessly in repeats through my teen years.  I see parts again for the first time in a long time and I'm instantly back on that bean bag reading the TV Guide with a grilled cheese on my lap.  But there's a need to discover the works that extend beyond our years.

I have attended the Pogo panel on and off for years.  It rides the fence between celebration and reflection.  The release of the Pogo archives that are happening by Fantagraphics are part of the reason this panel exists.  So there is a retail reason for existence.  The content is why we are really there.  Walt Kelly's ear for political b.s. in all aspects of life is what makes his strips timeless.  That's the key to this place.  You want someone in their 20s or 30s to spend their money on a comic or movie from the 1940s, then give them a connection.  Pogo reads like it was written in the current political environment. 

The Fantagraphics panel celebrated Love and Rockets among their other accomplishments.  The Hernandez Bros. bring a passion to their work that makes you want to run out and get all the collections.  This was a poorly attended panel.  I was with a small handful of folks who heard the energy that a small company brings to their craft.  These are anti-establishment folks who found just enough success writing about Punk culture and bisexual Hispanic women in early '80s Los Angeles that they could literally flip off the folks at Marvel (a great story that I've heard from them before).  How symbolic.  Artists finding their voice and their audience at the same time.  Love and Rockets is a book with no rules except that it feels like you are sitting around the neighborhood hearing them just tell their stories.  Sometimes exciting.  Sometimes the story finishes and you ask yourself "What the hell was that?".  But the stories fill in the canvas of their lives.

It may feel like we treat the Little Lulu panel as a butt to a joke at each Con.  But you want to see anti-establishment?  The group celebrates a character that was featured first in magazines and then in comics from the 1930s into the 1960s.  People will tell you they don't know what you are talking about and then they'll see the character and say they know her by sight but nothing else.  So this group gets together for years just in a bar during the Con to talk about the character they love.  Eventually, they reach out to the Convention and are granted a room to meet.  They don't advertise, have a website, meet any other time, have a leader, or even really grasp technology past 1984.  But walk into a room as far away from Hall H as you can possibly get that's still part of the Convention and you'll see a dedicated group dressed as the characters.  They don't give a crap what anyone thinks about their 1940s humor character.  They are here to celebrate part of their youth and bond with fellow fans.  I was lucky enough to participate in their yearly "radio drama" of one of the comics.  The attention to detail that someone puts into making these scripts for a once-a year, 20-minute table reading of a comic is a testament to love that you don't see in every room here.  I respect these fans.  It's easy to be 18 and a Tomb Raider fan.  No one will say a thing.  Walk around for a day in shorts and a suit jacket with a hat the size of a cupcake on your head and tell me that these people aren't punk rock.  I want to listen to them tell their stories over anything else I do here.

The Underground Comix panel is the highlight of my visit this year and you're lucky it's not the only subject that I write about this year.  It's called "Revolutionary".  It brought together Underground Comix artists from the Summer of 1968.  Present were Trina Robbins (It Ain't Me, Babe), Ron Turner (Last Gasp publishing), Robert Williams (Juxtapoz), Mary Fleener, and Carol Tyler.  These are all folks who stood at Ground Zero of the counterculture movement in comix in 1968.  They have firsthand experience and knowledge of what happened.  The panel was hosted by CBLDF director Charles Brownstein.  I appreciate any panel hosted by Charles because he's well read and researched about the topics and people on the panel.  Even the panelists appeared surprised at the focused questions he was asking about their careers.

Why does this matter today?  That's a good question for any panel you attend that talks about things that happened 50 years ago.  The Underground Comix movement was a true break from what was happening in the mainstream comics at the time.  This was work that pushed the sexual barriers.  It was stories told by and drawn by women.  It was celebration of sex and drugs and rock and roll.  This wasn't happening in Amazing Spider-Man or Batman in 1968.  It had never happened before. There were movements in San Francisco and Los Angeles and even in Milwaukee to tell stories that were personal and meant something to the creator.  Where would comics be today without that side of the industry? And it took over 30 years to get to that point.

Life in 1968 was tough.  The group was pretty much in agreement that while today's times are tough they aren't the level of 1968.  Political assassinations.  Race riots.  Vietnam War.  Today if you fail a college course, you go live in your parent's basement and play X-Box.  In 1968, you fail your College Writing course and you are knee deep in rice paddies in a few months.  Life isn't that dangerous today.  That's the important message here.  I was floored by a short rant Robert Williams gave on the subject.  I wish I had the transcript - I'd just post it in place of all of my words.  I'll summarize the best I can.  There are 200,000 people at this convention and maybe 50 of them are in this room with us.  So don't fool yourself that you are a movement.  You don't change minds by telling people they are wrong.  These artists at that table told their personal stories.  They used humor to poke holes in the establishment.  They talked about their lives.  The artists weren't the ones getting arrested for what they drew, it was the people selling their comics.  (Robert threw in an additional 57 "God damn"s in there so translate as you will)

Think about that.  Think of the symbolism.  The writers and artists create the anti-establishment comix but it is the people who sell them that pay the price.    It took a few minutes for that to rattle around in my brain.  In that moment, I saw our country in a new light.  With the power of a story.

MOVIES/TV

Anatomy of a Robot: "I Am Mother" (Weta Workshop)

YouTube Originals Origin

Netflix's Iron Fist

RZA: Movies, Music and Martial Arts

Doctor Who: The Road to Thirteen

This aspect of the Con used to be my reason for attending.  Before the internet and YouTube and promo videos released minutes after they air in the panels, this was the coolest way to find out what was coming out before you read about it on Ain't It Cool News or in your latest EW.  For many people, seeing current and upcoming shows and movies is their main reason for waiting in lines all day long.  I still enjoy hearing casts speak but they really can't give away any pertinent information.

The I Am Mother panel was a nice surprise because I thought I was going to a panel on the role of robots in movies.  It turned into a surprised preview of a creepy robot film from Australia starring Hilary Swank.  Sure, it's of the "robot raises girl and turns evil to protect her" genre.  They brought the robot to the panel and just seeing a moving hunk of metal with vaguely human shape was pretty creepy/cool.

"Origin" is a straight-up "Alien meets The Thing" with the story structure of Lost.  In fact, it's so obvious that one of the questions from the crowd was "Do you worry about copying other shows when you make your show?".  The next season of Iron Fist will likely improve upon last season by not being bogged down by origin stories and just surviving on wall-to-wall fighting.  RZA is entertaining but I was disappointed to hear that he's only acting in his upcoming film and not working on his music right now.  The Doctor Who panel was about the upcoming comics but so generic, not wanting to give away plots, that we saw nothing more than slides of comic-book covers like a large scale Previews catalog.  In all, it no longer can be an hour of beating around the bush to just show an extended trailer to hold my attention.

Attending the same panels and the same themes each year might seem like a waste of valuable panel time.  But what you get is the sense of time changing.  Panelists that have aged, panelists no longer living.  The familiar past takes on new meaning.  The stories don't change; the telling of the stories changes.  Ron Turner telling a story of hanging out with S. Clay Wilson and stealing whiskey from Janis Joplin carries a load of rebellion in that little anecdote.  But it also frames the story of Underground Comix in 1968 vs. 2018.  Go for the comics, stay for the stories.  The narratives of days past seen through the mirror of our present.  And isn't that the glue that holds us together?  Our stories.

See you next year.

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