Monkey See
9:00 am
Mon July 22, 2013

A Comic-Con Diary, Day 2: Man Of Steel, Man Of Urgency

Originally published on Tue July 23, 2013 8:50 am

Monkey See contributor/longtime nerd Glen Weldon recently attended San Diego Comic-Con. He kept a diary during one of the largest media events in the world.

9:30 a.m.: I file the Day 1 diary with Linda and send out a tweet asking Pop Culture Happy Hour listeners who are attending Comic-Con to come to the Marriott bar at 5:30 today to get a PCHH pin. It's something on the order of a "meetup," as the kids say.

Yeah, I know. I don't recognize myself either.

11 a.m.: Late start today. JC and L stole out of the suite in the dead of night to head to the airport, and F is spending the day with a friend from high school, so I'll be flying solo for the next two days.

The boat ride over from the hotel was packed but disappointingly cosplay-free. Is this what the real world looks like? Just people sitting around in, like, frickin' golf shirts or whatnot? Step up your game, Normals. Compared to the wonders these eyes have witnessed these past two days, contemporary casualwear now seems a mighty thin gruel.

11:30 a.m.: I report to the DC Entertainment booth to spend some time with a demo of the upcoming Batman video game, Arkham: Origins. Actually, it's the game's Creative Director, Studio Montreal's Eric Holmes, who's spending time with it – I'm watching over his shoulder as he walks me through a mid-game level wherein Batman follows his bliss (read: brutalizes thugs and reconstructs crime scenes, because: Batman). (My decision to let Holmes navigate the game's obstacles was just effective time-management, really. I know my madd gaming skillz well enough to know that if I were at the controls, my 15 minutes with the game would consist of Batman walking into a series of exquisitely rendered walls and firing Batarangs at his foot.)

Origins is the third game in the universally and justifiably acclaimed Arkham series, which combines stealth missions with a combat system that's not only easy to pick up and play but remarkably deep. Most importantly, perhaps, the game's Gotham's City is still festooned with conveniently placed gargoyles, the better to pose dramatically, broodingly, upon.

This release is the first in the series not to be developed by Rocksteady Studios, and whenever a franchise changes horses in mid-stream like that, gamers worry.

But Origins, a prequel to the previous Arkham titles, feels gratifyingly familiar, and looks great. I couldn't tell, from my brief time with the demo, if the game's added emphasis on crime-scene investigation – an aspect the previous Arkham games only flirted with – will make players feel more like Batman, or simply gum up the gameplay by forcing the player through a series of required actions. But I'm optimistic. Also (I whisper to myself as Holmes takes out a thug with a new grapple hook-gadget) I'm Batman.

The DC booth also features mannequins dressed in the various Superman costumes that have been featured in film and television over the years, including the (woefully misguided, angers-up-the-blood-ing) red pleather jacket from late-era Smallville.

I can't take my eyes off the version of the costume from 1978's Superman: The Movie, the iconic power of which is only enhanced by its mannequin's physique. It takes nothing away from Christopher Reeve's indelible performance to note that his Superman was one lanky dude. Oh, he was muscular – but he was '70s muscular, before Pumping Iron and Calvin Klein underwear ads changed how we view male physiognomy.

Because it must be said: this mannequin wearing Reeve's suit is SERIOUSLY jacked. He's got a body that comports more closely with contemporary images of male hummina-osity. The combination of that familiar costume and that impossible anatomy looks more like the Superman of the comics than anything I've ever seen.

1 p.m.: The panel's subject is can't miss: "Humor in Graphic Novels." Humor? Graphic novels? My two passions! And the four authors — Jeffrey Brown (Vader's Little Princess), Tom Gauld (You're All Just Jealous of My Jetpack), Lisa Hanawalt (My Dirty Dumb Eyes) and Ellen Forney (Marbles) — wrote four of my favorite books of the last year. They seem like nice, smart, friendly people, and I'm sincerely pulling for them as I watch them attempt to find a way to talk about the Craft of Humor in a way that DOESN'T leach all life and color and hope from the world. In their defense, that's a feat that has eluded Man since first He crawled from the primordial muck. Let's just say the audience's post-lunch blood sugar doesn't help.

2:30 p.m. A panel on digital comics, moderated by Rob Salkowitz, a comic geek-turned-business writer whose book, Comic-Con and the Business of Popular Culture, offers the most rigorously clear examination of Where All This Is Headed that I've come across.

A note, here: When tablets were first introduced, some tech writers were making bold predictions that the technology would single-handedly rescue a moribund comics industry from its aging, shrinking readership. I was skeptical that such a high-cost chunk of technology would have much of an effect, for various reasons.

So, yeah, I was wrong. Or at least, I was more wrong than the boosters were. It's still early days, and digital distribution represents only a fraction of comics sold, but it's a number that's growing fast. Companies like Comixology, which now offers over 40,000 comics from both the big publishers and from individual creators at the tap of an app, are widening the playing field.

For years, brick-and-mortar comics shops have stuck to a business model that's very risk-averse – they buy only the titles they know will sell to their largely male, largely superhero-loving audiences. Now, digital distribution allows writers and artists who are telling stories about something other than superheroes to get their work out into the world, and in the process demonstrate to comics shops that there is, after all, a market for them. They're not tearing down the hoary old distribution infrastructure, they're building it out.

3:15 p.m.: I've made it a habit to ask everyone I speak to for more than a minute or so the same two questions: When did you first notice that nerd culture had gone mainstream? And why do you think it happened?

The first question gets at the societal change that's taken place in the past decade or so: The fact that "geeking out" over one's obsessions, be they Doctor Who, craft beer or fantasy football, has become for many millions of us the new normal, the default mode to engage with the world around us. The second question — WHY did that change happen? — is what I'm trying to write a book about. (More about the answers I'm getting later.)

I'm struck, as I talk to various people over the course of the day, by what I'm NOT hearing. Namely, buzz from Hall H.

For years, I'd naively assumed that announcements made by big television shows and films in that giant auditorium, filled with screaming fans who'd camped for hours for the chance to receive them, would spread through the con like wildfire. But as you walk the floor, or chat with those seated around you in the moments before a panel begins, or lurk in a hallway attempting to get a cell signal before getting shooed along by a polite and apologetic security guy, there's no "buzz." At least not the sort that the publicists for media megalocorporations like Sony and ABC get paid the big bucks to generate.

Hall H is removed from Comic-Con by both location and commitment level. Those who make it in to see one of those hyperactive hypefests tend not to leave and share what they've learned. (Tomorrow morning I will learn that the stuff coming out of Hall H does eventually make it to the floor; it just takes about a day for the great beast of Comic-Con to digest it.)

So what are people talking about instead? Logistics. Always, endlessly, logistics.

Where to meet. Where to eat. What's being given away for free, and where, and for how long. Whom you've just seen. Why you didn't go before we left the hotel.

3:30 p.m.: The third lead of a notable genre show of the '90s is signing autographs at a table in a cavernous room above the convention floor. There is about him the haunted, ravaged look of a Breaking Bad background extra. I worry about his life choices, up to and including the frosted tips.

4 p.m.: The Thrilling Adventure Hour, a monthly comedy stage show presented in the style of old-time radio and distributed as a podcast, is a thing about which I can claim no journalistic objectivity.

Because it is the greatest thing.

No, seriously: The smartest, funniest, best thing in the long and storied history of things. And this panel, in which we are treated to glimpses of the official TAH comic book and new web series, only renews my conviction that the Thrilling Adventure Hour is the greatest thing, and that it is a thing to which you should listen, already.

5:30 p.m.: About 14 charming, effusive and mind-boggling sexy people possessed of excellent taste in audible entertainment show up to the PCHH meetup. Over the next two hours, people who listen to our show reveal themselves to be witty and enthusiastic about a great many topics. I sink happily(!) into conversations with nerds about nerds and meet several very funny people whom I've often retweeted.

I discover the great and good Maggie Thompson talking to a few industry legends, as is her wont, and bring her over to meet the PCHH people. Those who recognize her from her appearances on the show greet her warmly, and the others, being insightful people of good character, are charmed by her surpassing great-and-goodness because she is, after all, Maggie.

I ask her for a humiliating tale from the childhood of her son (and my colleague) Stephen Thompson – something awful, something that would unsettle and humiliate him, something that would freeze his very blood and send him running out into the night, keening like a banshee on the desolate, mist-shrouded fens and moors of his Silver Spring, Md., subdivision.

She opts instead to regale the table with a story about young Stephen so innocuous and adorable that it still cheeses me off as I sit here typing this. I will not share this "story" of hers with you, dear reader, as it does not resemble, in any meaningful way, a story, lacking as it does any trace of conflict or hardship. It is anti-story, this thing she tells us. Unstory. It is nothing less than the ignominious heat-death of narrative itself.

Maggie excuses herself to get dressed for the Eisner Awards. She'll meet me here, and we'll walk over to the hotel on the other side of the convention center, where the Eisners are given out in a giant banquet hall amid no small amount of pomp and a generous dollop of circumstance.

Got it, I say, and return to the table of PCHH listeners, who are, seriously, pretty great themselves.

7:55 p.m.: Maggie's back, looking terrific in a black sparkly jacket-thing. I take my leave of the table and walk out into the really astonishingly busy evening with Maggie. She walks quickly through the crowd streaming over the sidewalk.

"How far away is this thing?" I ask idly.

"It's right next to the convention center," she says. "On the other side. About a mile."

"It's ... what?"

The convention center is large, you see. Very, very large.

"Hey, Maggie," I say, checking my phone. 7:58. "Don't the Eisners ... start at 8:00? Are we gonna be ..."

"Don't say it," she says, brightly, and disappears into a clot of Koopas ahead of us.

The wait for the elevators was interminably long, evidently. And then she had to rethink the outfit, as she'd left the top she'd planned to wear tonight at home.

I glimpse the back of her tiny salt-and-pepper head several yards ahead, bobbing and weaving through crowd, and rush to catch up. About a mile. "Should we grab a cab or something?" I ask, weakly.

But there are no cabs to be grabbed. There is only this brisk, determined march through the most colorful, most furry, most Spock-eared obstacle course in the world.

8:18 p.m.: We arrive at the hotel. Maggie is unruffled, zooming up the escalator with preternatural speed. I follow, ruffled.

The ballroom where the Eisners are given out is huge, with two entrances. The back half of the room is open to the public, and through that back entrance I glimpse many people sitting in rows of folding chairs in the dark, gazing up at oversize screens that capture the action onstage.

The front half of the room is filled with round banquet tables where industry professionals and nominees sit in assigned seats. The entrance to this section of the room is behind a velvet rope.

The people running tonight's event recognize Maggie and wave her and her harried, underdressed plus-one through.

We get our seat assignment and head into the auditorium. The show is underway, of course, someone is standing on the stage gripping his award, being humble. I note, as I follow Maggie to our table, that dinner has already been served and cleared.

Our table is at the front. The very, very front. What's more, the only chairs left unoccupied are those closest to the stage. The frontmost front seats it's possible to get. I am so close to the podium I can see the remains of tonight's salad course on between the Eisner winner's front teeth. Our seats are at the front, is my point here.

I turn behind me to see them, the attentive, expectant faces of the men and women who produced the works that shaped me, and that continue to shape me, who told and tell the stories that live in my head.

I turn back to the stage. There are 30 Eisners to give out tonight, a process that will take up at least the next three hours, without an intermission. There is no table service. So it's just me and this sweaty glass of ice water for a while.

Not that I can even think of drinking water, or anything else, at the moment. The notion of taking a sip causes me to wince. Because I am in pain. Because I've been drinking beer for the past three hours.

Because man-oh-man but I really, really, really need to pee.

TO BE CONTINUED.

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