I went to Rhode Island to see John and Chris. John is my best friend of 25 years. We have been through it all: four divorces (two each), five marriages (he can make it six), new careers, new houses, and the almost-death of his first son, Jonathan, back in 2000. John and I have been to a number of conventions together (see here, for example), and it was time to add the Rhode Island Comic-Con to our roll.
Chris is Chris Claremont. I love John like a brother, but let’s be clear: Chris is what drew me, a lifelong Southerner, to New England on the cusp of winter (November 5-8). I have been a fan of Chris since high school, when my friend Margot introduced me to a pretty cool comic called The Uncanny X-Men. The first issue I bought was #216. I read it, was hooked, and started buying it each month. My father noticed my zeal, and realizing he could teach investment skills while doing something fun with his soon-to-be-too-old-for-him son, he started advancing me allowances to buy back issues. I learned to grade comics and spot value, and within a year, I owned issues as far back as #12, the first appearance of Juggernaut.
I just realized: that was when Stan Lee was still writing the series.
Eventually, I let my collection stagnate, and then I sold it in 1999 for a couple thousand bucks so I could marry wife #2. (Now I don’t have her or the comics, and guess which I miss more?) But I never forgot my adoration of Chris Claremont. Then I saw he would be in Rhode Island, and I called John, with whom I hadn’t planned a trip all year. John said, “I’m in,” and I thought, You better be.
Rhode Island Comic-Con isn’t as large as San Diego or C2E2, and it isn’t as venerable as, say, DragonCon. But it is on the rise. I had this brought home to me when I talked to Susan Soares, the director of media. She told me she was expecting 60,000 attendees. In 2012, there were 16,000. This is an increase of 275%—in only three years! It is the “largest and most income-generating event in the state,” according to Susan, who expects the convention to keep growing because (1) Rhode Island is not a saturated market, (2) the staff is professional and easy-going, and (3) they advertise the heck out of it.
The growth hasn’t been easy to manage, however. In 2014, the convention made headlines for the wrong reasons, overselling and getting shut down for half a day by the Providence fire marshal (see this link for the full story). I asked Susan how that contretemps would be avoided this year, and she outlined a three-part strategy:
Expansion. Last year’s event was confined to the convention center in downtown Providence. This year, they planned to situate some elements (like the dealer room) in the adjacent Dunkin Donuts Center.
Day 3. Instead of being Saturday and Sunday only, this year’s convention would start on Friday.
Scanned badges. Using the New York Comic-Con model, convention employees would scan badges as people enter and exit. This would allow them to track how many people are in the convention center at any time, thereby not exceeding capacity and getting shut down.
Overall, the strategy was a success. They had sold out of Saturday one-day tickets by 11:00am on Saturday, but I heard no other accounts of people being turned away. There were, however, navigation problems. In a convention spread across two buildings, I was surprised by the dearth of directional signs. Plus there were no printed maps—the only map was on the mobile app—so all weekend, I heard people murmuring “Where is the dealer room?” or “I can’t find Vic Mignogna’s table!”
After two circumnavigations of artist alley, I found Chris Claremont, who had been gracious enough to agree to an interview.
Me: Chris, I want you to know: you are the reason I am at this convention. I wanted to see you. Princess Leia? Pssssh. Besides, she cancelled.
Chris: Oh, really? She cancelled?
Me: Yeah. [And she wasn’t the only one. Nearly a dozen celebrities were quietly flensed from the web site as of Friday morning. I’m used to one or two no-shows, but double digits?]
Chris: The funniest thing I’ve heard is the projected opening weekend gross for that film global is one billion. I saw the very first show of Star Wars at the Astor Plaza in New York, and it was empty. It gradually filled up, but there were empty seats, and we figured, nice movie when it started, but when it finished, it was like, holy shit. We walked out the door, and the line was four-deep around the block, and it didn’t go away for about three months.
Me: Speaking of movies, what do you think about Marvel’s movies, especially X-Men?
Chris: So far, Marvel has done very, very well. Kevin Feige is a brilliant film exec. Lauren Shuler-Donner is a brilliant film exec. Between the two of them, they have nailed the Marvel pantheon. The X-Men movies maybe aren’t as financially lucrative as The Avengers. On the other hand, the casting of them is breathtaking, from the first X-Men to Days of Future Past—and, from all accounts, Apocalypse. Kevin, by the same token, starting with Iron Man, it’s been an incredible ride. I mean, Ant-Man? Who would have thought Ant-Man?
Me: Ant-Man was good.
Chris: That’s the point. It was good. And, more importantly, the actors playing the roles seem to enjoy the experience. They want to come back for more.
Me: Did you have any involvement in the X-Men movies?
Chris: Well, I helped crystallize the deal that got it all started back in the beginning, when I was briefly an executive at Marvel. I provided north of 80 percent of the source material for the characters. I mean, they’re all my guys and gals. And two-thirds of them are pretty much straight adaptations of my work. I suppose you could honestly say it was all my fault.
Me: And we’re very grateful.
Chris: Actually, the funny part is, every so often I sneak into the Marvel movies. Scarlett Johannson’s secret identity in Iron Man 2, when she walks into Tony’s house and is introduced as Natalie Rushman . . . well, Natalie Rushman is a secret identity that I invented for the Black Widow when she did a four-part team-up where she had lost her memory as the Black Widow and thought she was a schoolteacher from Boston named Natalie Rushman [this takes place in Marvel Team-Up #82-85, and the alias is actually Nancy Rushman].
Me: Cool. Switching gears a little, you’ve written comic books, and you’ve written prose novels. What’s the difference in writing the two?
Chris: When you’re writing comics, the writer’s job is to tell the story to the visual artist. All the work that goes into writing a novel goes into describing the scene. [He opens a copy of Marada the She-Wolf. A Red Sonja-like character, Marada was created by Chris and the English artist John Bolton.] So it’s describing this scene so that John Bolton could bring it to life brilliantly. Which he does. It’s giving him the sequence of events and allowing him to do what he does best, which is draw a picture that makes you go, wow! When I first drafted this scene, there was going to be lots of dialogue about how she lost her father, lost her mother, yadda yadda yadda, blah blah blah. But when I got to the scene, when you see the images, when you get to this image, you don’t need any words. I mean, if you can’t figure out what’s going on, if you can’t figure out the emotional relationships just from looking at it, then neither of us is doing our job. John did his job brilliantly, unlike me talking now. The key to being a writer in comics is to know when to shut the hell up and let the artist do the work.
Me: So would your instructions for that panel be “Have someone lying on the bed,” or would you describe exactly how it should look?
Chris: Well, depends on the scene. Marvel did a 9/11 remembrance book [Heroes, released December 2001] where a writer and an artist would team up to do a poster commemorating what happened and how they felt about it, and when my page came around, I spent about 2,000 words describing the scene, and Salvador [Larocca] just drew this brilliant, brilliant picture, and as far as I was concerned, it didn’t need anything more from me. I had done my work, he had done his work, and the end result was brilliant.
Me: Very good. So you were inducted into the Comic Book Hall of Fame earlier this year. What was that like?
Chris: A lot of fun. One of the more unexpected things in my life. It’s way too cool for the likes of me.
Me: It doesn’t surprise me at all.
Chris: Well, you can think that. I’m not supposed to because I’m supposed to be shy and modest. But it’s way cool.
Me: When did you start doing conventions?
Chris: When they started asking me. How else can you meet the fans? In the old days, it was more fun because people would write letters, and the nice thing about them is it tells you what they were thinking of and how they were reacting to specific issues. Now it’s all posted online, and you seriously have to go looking for it. There aren’t that many hours in a day. But conventions are a really nice way of putting a face on the readership.
Me: What are a couple of your more memorable convention experiences?
Chris: Just meeting people. It’s a weird sensation when you run into creators, actors, people you’ve respected, and they tell you how cool you are, and you go, “No no no, that’s my line.”
Me: Do fans ever just go to pieces meeting you? Do they cry? Hyperventilate?
Chris: Oh yeah. But the cool thing is that now I’m starting to see a lot more young kids coming, which leads one to believe there’s hope.
Me: What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Chris: Get a day job [laughs]. Being a writer is like being an artist: if you’ve got the bug, you do it. You don’t argue. You can’t argue. Then it’s just a matter of kicking at the wall until something sells. And then, once you make the first sell, you go for the second, then the third, then the fourth, and so on. There’s no real secret to being a writer. There’s just having an idea and then having the madcap determination to see it through to fruition.
You might assume this is an excerpt from the interview. It is not. This short conversation lasted over 20 minutes because we were sitting at Chris’s table in artist alley, and he was signing books all the while. My recording of the interview is peppered with crowd noise, his sidebars with other fans, and announcements blasted over the PA system. Chris had trouble getting into the convention—apparently, his vendor badge could not be located—and the interview started late, when he already had more people waiting for him than a Soviet bread line. Yet it was one of my best interviews ever. Chris is articulate and witty, and he cares a lot for his fans. Though I didn’t hyperventilate, meeting Chris Claremont is one of the highlights of my life. And it happened at Rhode Island Comic-Con.
The rest of the convention was as you might expect. Dunkin Donuts Center is a basketball arena, which makes it an odd venue for a convention. The dealer room was on the court, which was roomy, but some of the celebrities were tucked away in what looked like janitor closets. Know who had the longest signing lines that I saw? Tom Kenny and Bill Fagerbakke—you know, SpongeBob and Patrick, which confirms my theory that the next growth market for collectors is 1990s memorabilia.
There were few fan-led panels, which disappointed John. Such panels were the seed of conventions back in the 1970s, but they are in danger of disappearing in this bigger-is-better era. John likes the panels. He considers himself a fan but not a super-fan. The super-fan award goes to the girl I saw at Jim Beaver’s table. Tears streaked her teenaged face, and after she and her mother walked away, they stopped and hugged as though a dog had died.
Friends, that is fandom. That is love. Wil Wheaton says that the defining characteristic of being a nerd is that “we love things. Some of us love Firefly and some of us love Game of Thrones, or Star Trek, or Star Wars, or anime, or games, or fantasy, or science fiction. Some of us love completely different things. But we all love those things SO much that we travel for thousands of miles … we come from all over the world, so that we can be around people who love the things the way that we love them.”
Rhode Island was a great place to go for love. The convention is young, so I have no doubt they will work out the problems of limited space and no maps and unreliable celebs. Every staff member I saw, every volunteer I talked to, was a delight, which confirms what Susan Soares told me in the beginning.
So if you have the chance, go to Rhode Island Comic-Con next November. Buy your badge early. Study the schedule. Stay hydrated. It will be one of your best shows all year.
John and I weren’t the only attendees.
This guy was also there. Wait, he’s at every convention!
Due to the no-weapons policy, this guy wasn’t allowed to be armed.
Chris Claremont signs my comic.
The Fonz tells me to leave the convention.
Whoops! This isn’t the way to the men’s room.
An angel just below my shoulder.
Various winners from Saturday night’s costume contest, which had 70-80 total entries.
“You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.”
Jim Beaver asked me where I am from. “North Carolina,” I said. He nodded and said, “That explains it.” I wanted to say, “Right. Like Bobby Singer doesn’t have a rural accent!”
John and Groot, not seeing eye-to-eye.
“Uh, Doctor? I think you regenerated a little too far back.”
This gal is a great little Kidder.
Not something you see at most conventions, but a good idea.
This guy also shows up at every convention. It’s like he has a time machine or something.
In honor of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, here’s a look back at the art show dedicated to the movie!
Watch The Man himself Stan Lee speak to a captivated audience at Boston Comic Con 2015 in a panel moderated by comic creator Jimmy Palmiotti and Stan’s manager Max Anderson. The event featured a special appearance by Stan’s best friend Ken Bald, Guinness World Record holder as the oldest living comic artist, and a phone call from Stan’s wife Joanie.
Back in 2011, John sent me an email that read, “Son, look at this.” John and I have called each other “son” for twenty years. It’s our oldest invention, the stone tools of our friendship. His email included a link to a convention called DragonCon, which I was unfamiliar with. “We should go to this to watch all the freaks,” he went on. “We’d have the time of our lives!”
We went to DragonCon that year, plus the next two. In 2014, John was unavailable, so I took my wife and daughter, who went with me again this year, marking my fifth Labor Day weekend spent in Atlanta, Georgia.
* * *
DragonCon has been held in the Dogwood City since 1986, when it was started by a science fiction and gaming group, the Dragon Alliance of Gamers and Role-Players (DAGR). From the outset, it was different. In an era when most conventions focused on a single universe (Star Wars, Star Trek, Doctor Who) or medium (comics, games, science fiction), DragonCon was founded as a multi-genre convention, and it has remained one ever since.
That first gathering drew 1,400 fans and featured some surprisingly renowned guests: Robert Asprin, Lynn Abbey, Michael Moorcock, and the band Blue Öyster Cult. Attendance grew every year, doubling in some years. By 1995, it was at 14,000. It topped 40,000 in 2010, and in 2015, just five years later, over 65,000 were expected. Heck, there are now more volunteers (2,300+) than inaugural attendees!
Most gatherings of that size take place in convention centers, but DragonCon is still hotel-based. Initially confined to the Piedmont Plaza, it now swamps five four-star venues: the Hilton, Hyatt Regency, Marriott Marquis, Sheraton, and Westin. Vendor booths are located in a sixth building, the AmericasMart. Over 3,000 hours of programming are spread among those hotels, divided into fortysomething tracks. Tracks such as comics and Tolkien are the DNA of DragonCon. Others like podcasting, Whedon Universe, and filking are newer. The curriculum is always changing, always improving, according to Dan Carroll, DragonCon’s director of media. The alternate history track, for example, was added seven years ago when a panel on the topic was planned for 400 people. Over 3,000 showed up.
I went to one panel this year. Cacophonously titled “Legendary SW Authors Talk Mythos,” it featured four writers—Rebecca Moesta, Timothy Zahn, Michael Stackpole, and Kevin J. Anderson—who have totaled no fewer than 50 Star Wars novels. To call these authors “legendary” carries a double meaning, as their works, like others of the Star Wars Expanded Universe, are no longer canon thanks to a 2014 Lucasfilm decree. (This article describes the new continuity in detail.)
The authors talked about this decision, not to bellyache but to explain that it isn’t the degradation most fans seem to think. They knew from the start that they were scribblers, hired to tell tales from someone else’s world. They didn’t feel betrayed; they felt lucky for the opportunities. After all, it isn’t just any world—it is Star Wars, one of the best worlds in this, or any, universe. Besides, there is nothing to stop Lucasfilm from taking their work—say, Michael Stackpole’s X-Wing books—and turning it into a separate movie or TV series, a possibility hinted at during last year’s San Diego Comic-Con.
The panelists discussed other topics, including their tastes in stories (westerns, Doc Savage, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and fortuitously, romances like Gone with the Wind), what influenced them as writers, and how they collaborate. It was a fascinating colloquy despite the feebleness of the moderator, a supposed Star Wars blogger whose questions were rambling and confused the panelists. One question had already been answered by Stackpole, and after the moderator asked it, Kevin J. Anderson said, “Mike, you want to run through that again?” The moderator smiled, turned to the audience, and said, “Never mind. We’ll take your questions now.”
* * *
One of the biggest attractions of DragonCon is the Walk of Fame, where all the TV, movie, gaming, and other guests interact with fans. Over 400 guests attended this year, a few of them household names: Stephen Amell, John Barrowman, Katie Cassidy, Karen Gillan, Nichelle Nichols, and Edward James Olmos. I wanted to interview some guests, a process DragonCon manages better than most conventions. Reporters who are granted press passes must be separately approved for interviews. These approvals are based on the size of their media outlets. Once I got my approval, I could request interviews with up to ten guests.
With over 500 interview requests for 114 slots (according to Samantha Douglas, the interview coordinator), not every reporter approved for interviews actually gets one. Imagine my surprise when I was offered two: one with Sylvester McCoy, who played the Seventh Doctor on Dr. Who, and one with Caroll Spinney, who played Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street. The interviews were actually press conferences held in one of the Marriott meeting rooms. About twelve reporters were at each one. Most represented nerd-news sites like ConventionScene, though I also saw CNN and Georgia Public Broadcasting.
Through no fault of DragonCon, the press conferences were disasters. After we waited thirty minutes for Sylvester McCoy, someone came in to say that he was cancelling. His panel had run long, and because he was leaving that afternoon, there was no time to reschedule. Carol Spinney was over an hour late (he simply forgot) and stayed only about ten minutes. Here is a bit of what he had to say:
Reporter: I heard in other interviews that you based Big Bird on a four-year-old child. Over the years, have you had to adjust your characterization of that four-year-old child version of Big Bird based on the generations?
Spinney: Actually, initially, since I decided Big Bird could not read or write, he was four-and-a-half. Then I had to go up to six. And now he has been six for years. He is a precocious child of six. He travels by himself with a dog. And he went to China, somehow. I don’t know how he got tickets. I think it’s just fun playing him as a kind of wide-eyed child. I get letters all the time from children saying, “Big Bird, you’re my best friend. Please come and play with me.” One said, “How about next Thursday?”
Reporter: When the movie [Follow That Bird, 1985] came out, Big Bird had already been around for a while, and a whole generation of children had been watching him and relating to him as a friend, and kids really felt that their friend had been kidnapped. Were you expecting Big Bird to connect to a whole country of children at that deep of a level?
Spinney: I didn’t really know what to expect. When Jim Henson hired me, we were both puppeteers. I would do whatever characters needed performing, but by the third year, with Big Bird, I was so busy. They tried to have me continue doing the incidental stuff too, but one day, Big Bird was in almost all the scenes, and I had to keep taking a taxi up and down Broadway [performing as different characters in different scenes], so one day I said, “Let’s not play this game anymore.” On the fourth year, I said I was busy enough that we needed more puppeteers. So we got some more.
Reporter: I saw that you visited the Center for Puppetry Arts yesterday. Can you talk about what you saw and did there?
Spinney: Well, the museum is going to open by November. They have so many things to display. I saw the place where they are building and repairing puppets, a lot of the Henson puppets that are worn-out. Some of the material has decayed. It has turned to powder. The only puppet I ever created myself is one that has gone to pieces. It was Bruno, who carried Oscar’s trash can around. There were fake arms going to Bruno’s shoulders, and my hands were inside. Oscar would come up and try to boss him around, but Bruno would not be bossed. I designed Bruno so that my head was in his head. I could see out through where the bags under his eyes would be. He looked like a Bert-type puppet. That way, we could get Oscar out on stage for concert tours. I asked a couple of years ago why we don’t use Bruno in shows anymore. He doesn’t exist. He has turned to powder. I asked why they don’t make a new one. It would cost $20,000, so good-bye, Bruno.
Reporter: You are an animator as well. Are you planning on making any future animations?
Spinney: Not really. After four years of doing it in Boston, I kind of got tired of it. I was glad it didn’t have to be my permanent career. I was hired by Disney Studios to be an animator, though I didn’t take the job. This was 1957, and the pay was only $56 a week for the first two years. I decided I’d try for something different, so I did. Walt [Disney] actually walked into the room during my interview. I never actually got to speak to him. I had always had a bucket list of three people I would like to meet: Andrew Wyeth, who I spent an afternoon with once and his son Jamie; Walt Disney—at least I was in the same room with him, and I turned his company down; and the other one was Jim Henson, who personally hired me. So I guess I accomplished all those.
* * *
Suppose you are thinking of going to DragonCon in 2016, which will be its 30th anniversary. What do you need to know?
- Book early. Tickets are plentiful, but the hotels fill up fast. The marketing manager at the Hyatt told me that it takes fifteen minutes to sell his 1,250 guest rooms for DragonCon weekend.
- Prepare to wait. You will wait for autographs. You will wait for panels. You will wait for the Heroes & Villains ball or the DragonCon Burlesque or panels with the biggest celebrities. Heck, you will wait for an elevator or a restroom. Get used to it.
- Pay in cash. I have a dream that someday the DragonCon decision-makers will realize they need to mail pre-paid badges. What’s the point of buying online when you have to pick them up in-person? This means 65,000 people standing in line. Yes, registration starts on Thursday, but this benefits only those who buy a weekend pass. Those who want a one-day pass on Saturday can only buy it on Saturday and must pick it up on-site, even if they paid online. You may as well pay for a one-day on-site, and if you do, pay cash. The cash line is terribly shorter and faster than the credit card line.
- Account for the parade. A highlight of the weekend is the Saturday parade, which starts at 10:00am and stretches through downtown. Over 80,000 people show up to watch, making it the second largest parade in the state of Georgia (the first is the Savannah St. Patrick’s Day Parade). Along the parade route, every inch of sidewalk bears a geeky gawker. It’s like a Marvel mosh pit, so plan accordingly. I heard one woman complaining that she had missed her Saturday morning photo op (which she had paid for) because she could not reach the hotel through the throng.
- Schedules are bunk. The program you are handed at registration contains a detailed schedule for the entire weekend. It is outdated the moment it is printed. There is a smartphone app that is kept current, but even it is not omniscient. For example, when I entered the Walk of Fame on Saturday, I saw a handwritten sign taped above Karen Gillan’s booth announcing that she would arrive on Sunday. DC Comics luminary George Perez left at 1:00pm on Saturday, and that was announced only when his signing line was cut off at noon. And I’ve already mentioned the press conference bloopers. Bottom line: No one can manage a convention of this heft flawlessly, so be flexible. Don’t have a meltdown when something goes awry.
- Take care of yourself. Dan Carroll calls DragonCon an “immersive experience.” This can be dreadful if you don’t manage it. He told me about an attendee some years back, a diabetic, who fainted during a session in the gaming room. She told the EMT who restored her that she hadn’t eaten in two hours. “When did you last eat?” the EMT asked. “Around 2:00,” the woman answered. The EMT looked at her and said, “Honey, it’s now 11:00.”
Six buildings. 65,000 attendees. 2,400 volunteers. A $55 million economic impact. You may have attended conventions in the past, but none compares to DragonCon, one of the United States’ largest and most venerable. Nowhere is this more evident than in the cosplays, which are more sumptuous than those you’ll see anywhere. Check them out for yourself below. Maybe I’ll see you there next year, when I plan to be dressed like this.
* * *
Gotham City’s underworld, circa 1925
I didn’t want trouble, but these guys brought it. Big trouble.
George Lucas’s first casting attempt
Here’s Sam. Where’s Dean?
It’s always hot in Georgia in early September. Some people respond by practically going nude.
Who you gonna call? Sorry, wrong ghostbusters.
Maybe Mystery Inc. was looking for these guys. I found them instead.
I went to DragonCon looking for a life-size Barbie doll. Here it is.
This was a ood cosplay . . . I mean, a good cosplay.
An impromptu Muppet Show breaks out.
I found a baby once. Then this guy took him from me.
Preach it, Deadpool. Preach it.
Want to know what 3,000+ cosplayers in a parade look like? Here’s a glimpse.
Want to know what happens when my wife and daughter spend an entire weekend together? Here’s a glimpse.
Chuck Rozanski from Mile High Comics provided regular updates from the San Diego Comic-Con, and we have them gathered in one place for you.
Next year’s Deadpool film emerged as one of the highlights of this year’s San Diego Comic Con. Here are the full panel, interviews including one with Rob Liefeld, and the leaked trailer (NOTE: The trailer is not work-friendly or kid-safe.)
— Ryan Reynolds (@VancityReynolds) July 12, 2015
— 20th Century Fox (@20thcenturyfox) July 12, 2015
— Ed Skrein (@edskrein) July 12, 2015
— Ed Skrein (@edskrein) July 12, 2015
July 9, 2015 by Brian Pate
Filed under Animation, Anime, California, Comic Books, Comic-Con International, Con Reports and Photos, Cosplay, Gaming, Horror, Movies, Science Fiction and Fantasy, Television, Top Stories, Video Games
Be sure to keep coming back for more as we curate the best videos from the 2015 San Diego Comic-Con.
Marvel will be streaming live from the San Diego Comic-Con from 9:30AM to 7 PM PT each day (5PM on Sunday), and you can watch it right here:
Back in the fall of 2014, when I saw that Wizard World, that latter-day arbiter of pop culture sensibilities, was having its first-ever convention in Raleigh, North Carolina on March 13-15, I thought, Cool. I had been to the Minneapolis and Chicago shows, traveling hundreds of miles to write about each (see here and here, respectively). Raleigh is only 45 minutes from my house.
When I later saw that William Shatner would be at Raleigh Wizard World, I thought, Sweet. Who better than the Captain to explore this strange, new world? I watched as more excellent guests were announced—Sean Astin, John Schneider, Kevin Sorbo. And when I saw Rob Liefeld, the creator of Deadpool, added to the list, I thought, Awesome! Liefeld is one of the hottest comic artists of the last twenty years. I need some more stuff signed by him.
And when I received an email on February 24 from Wizard World’s PR person telling me that Doctor Who’s David Tennant would be in Raleigh, I thought, Oh. My. God.
David Tennant! No offense to other guests, but this was huge. Poll after poll shows him as the most popular Doctor among Whovians (see here, here, and here). Tennant’s Doctor is charming, funny, and passionate. Christopher Eccleston, the Ninth Doctor, did the hard work of rebooting the twenty-year-dead series in 2005; Tennant presided over its expansion both in the UK and across the pond. Plus he is a rarity on the convention circuit. Raleigh would be, in fact, his Wizard World debut (his second appearance will be in Philadelphia this May).
I am a middling Doctor Who fan. My wife and daughter? Rabid. And their favorite, of course, is David Tennant. My wife makes and sells fandom-related jewelry, and she had another convention that weekend in Winston-Salem, about two hours away. Urban Dictionary defines fandom as “a cult that will destroy your life”; I prefer to think of it as the impetus for restructuring your life on the fly. Thus, after much wrangling and a pair of David Tennant VIP tickets ($399 each!), we settled on the following schedule:
Friday: My wife and me at Wizard World, our daughter at the Winston-Salem convention
Saturday: All of us at the Winston convention
Sunday: My wife and my daughter at Wizard World to see David Tennant, me at the Winston convention
Actually, my weekend started on Thursday, at the Wizard World launch party. It was held at the Marbles Kids Museum in downtown Raleigh.
Advertisements for the party indicated that celebrities (plural) would be in attendance, though the only one I saw was Kevin Sorbo, star of the 90s hit series Hercules. Still, we had a nice chat:
Kevin: There are a lot of people who have faith. All the polls show like 80% of people believe in God. We tend to skim over that, and Hollywood doesn’t put out movies that deal with that. And when they do, they sort of bastardize it. Look what they did with Exodus. Look what they did with Noah, for crying out loud. Why would you hire atheist directors to do something out of the Old Testament? It’s weird to me.
Me: The emphasis there seems to be more on special effects.
Kevin: Yeah. We went to a private screening of Noah, and my wife said, “This is like Transformers meets Water World.” Visually, it’s beautiful, but you’re like, does the Bible talk about Noah being schizophrenic, alcoholic, and hell-bent on killing his own family at the end?
Me: You’ve had a varied career, but of course you’re most known for Hercules . . .
Kevin: Yeah, that and Andromeda.
Me: Right. How did your role in Hercules come about?
Kevin: It was a typical audition through Hollywood. My agent called me up and said, “They’re casting five Hercules movies, and they want to see you.” I said, “I’m a big guy, but don’t they want some steroid dude with no neck or some bodybuilder who weighs 280 pounds?” He said, “No, they’re looking for an athletic-looking, sort-of decathlon, Joe Namath-type quarterback.” So I went and read. They called me back and called me back. Seven times they called me back. I was up in Vancouver, Canada filming an episode of The Commish, and they called me and said, “You’re Hercules.” I thought it was going to be five two-hour movies. Then, boom! It became a series, and it passed Baywatch to become the most-watched show in the world.
Me: Before filming, how did you get into the role? How did you prepare yourself to play a mythical hero?
Kevin: It was all in the writing. They made the character very 90s. It was a very Malibu sort of Hercules. He was very hip and accessible and approachable, very self-effacing. There was a lot of humor. The fight scenes were never very violent. Our spin-off show, Xena, was a much more violent show, killing guys. We never killed a guy.
Me: Speaking of writing, you did a book a couple of years ago. What was that like?
Kevin: It’s been great because of the number of speaking appearances I get. I did a dozen last year, and I’ve already got about eleven more lined up this year. It’s been amazing to get out there and do all the talking I’ve been doing about the book, which is about a health scare I suffered. I was the healthiest-looking guy in the world in the 90s, and I had three strokes and almost died. It took me out of the show [Hercules] for four months. We had to re-write everything.
Me: Which is harder, writing or acting?
Kevin [laughs]: I think writing is much harder. Writers take much of the blame for everything in Hollywood, so God bless them. It’s the toughest job around.
Me: How did you get started doing conventions?
Kevin: You know, conventions really didn’t kick off until about fifteen years ago. The growth has been astronomical. In the 90s, comic cons weren’t that big. They were around, but there wasn’t the publicity and the push and the hype. I got invited during the 90s, but I could do only one or two a year because I was in New Zealand ten months out of the year [filming Hercules]. Now, I go to a lot around the world. I’m doing two in April in Australia. I have one coming up in Belgium. I get invited to about five a month, and I go to six or seven a year.
Me: Are there things you won’t do for fans? Are there lines fans try to get you to cross that you push back against?
Kevin: Not really. Women have not exposed their breasts to me, but they have wanted me to sign the top of their chests. Some people get very nervous because they know you from TV, and now they’re seeing you in the flesh. It’s a surreal moment for them, and I get that because when I first moved to L.A., I started meeting some of the celebrities I used to watch on TV, and I was like, “Wow. That’s really him standing there.” For me, it was Anthony Quinn [who played Zeus in Hercules]. Meeting him blew me away.
The next night, Friday, was my night at Wizard World. It is often said that Wizard World, with its deep pockets and runaway costs, delights in squeezing out local conventions. See, for example, this article decrying “William Shatner at $199 an autograph,” which is ludicrously inflated. Shatner charges less than half that amount, and he has charged it for years.
What has changed, and not for the better, is the number of comic book artists who now charge for an autograph. Michael Golden charged $10. Dean Haspiel (who?) charged $10. Tom DeFalco gave one or two free signatures, but he charged after that due to, as the sign on his table exhorted, the miserable capitalists who sell his stuff on eBay.
And Rob Liefeld. When I saw him in 2012, he charged $20 to sign copies of New Mutants #87 (first appearance of Cable) or #98 (first appearance of Deadpool). Everything else was free. Now he charges $30 for any Deadpool item, $20 for any New Mutants or X-Force issue, and $20 for any book being witnessed by CGC. He’s still a cool guy, though, and he did not charge me for this picture.
I get that writers and artists are trying to make a living. A market exists for their autographs that they did not create and are merely tapping into. But their judgment—or is jealousy?—of collectors feels wrong-headed. eBay does not lower payments to creators (a buyer’s market does that) nor deprive them of ownership of their work (publishers retain this). Besides, CGC’s fees are rich enough. To pay an extra $20 for the signature hurts.
Perhaps it was this increase in signing fees that was responsible for the small crowd.
Or the fact that few celebrities showed up for opening night (aside from Tony Stark).
The dealer’s room was livelier, but what struck me most there was the dearth of comic book dealers. I counted two. The rest had toys, decals, T-shirts, etc. Curiously, there were also the Lasik Vision Institute and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, giving the dealer’s room a festival-in-the-park feel. I left without buying anything (or scheduling eye surgery).
I tried to buy a third David Tennant autograph ticket for Sunday, the day my wife and daughter would be there, for my daughter’s friend. But they were not selling any more tickets until Sunday morning—possibly (as it turned out, they didn’t have more then, either). “It’s the first time we’ve worked with him,” said the apologetic young woman, “and we’re not sure what to expect.” Translation: they had under-prepared. Wizard World has remedied this (sort of) for Philadelphia, making David Tennant photos and autographs available only to VIP ticket buyers. It’s an imperfect solution: a limited quantity of tickets at a cost that prices a lot of people out of contention. But at least they won’t run out by the first day of the con.
So my daughter’s friend lost out. My wife and daughter, however, racked up, each of them receiving (1) any item autographed, (2) a professional photo-op, (3) a David Tennant collector’s card, (4) other Doctor Who stuff, and (5) a limited edition Walking Dead comic book with a black-and-white sketch cover by Dean Haspiel (so that’s who he is!). And they got into the Tennant Q&A, which, we found out, was open only to VIPs because the room was so small. (My question: why didn’t they rearrange the rooms? It’s David Tennant. You can bump the Harry Potter fan fiction panel to a snack bar table.)
If the crowd was meager on Friday, it had Hulked up by Sunday. There were 500 VIP ticket holders that day (600 on Saturday), plus who knows how many who managed to get a one-day autograph or photo ticket before they were sold out. My wife took over 100 pictures during the Q&A, enough to allow us to play a game called The Many Faces of David Tennant.
David ponders why the TARDIS isn’t cleaner on the inside.
David does his Gilbert Gottfried impression.
David whistles “Dixie,” because he’s in the South.
David tries to hypnotize the crowd but puts himself to sleep.
This is David Tennant, not David Bowie.
“Blimey, Rose! I told you to close the TARDIS door before take-off!”
Tennant is surprised at how popular Doctor Who has become in the United States—surprised but pleased. Asked about his acting career, he said he likes the variety of roles (in his new drama, Broadchurch, he plays a character as far from the Doctor as you can imagine). Whom would he cosplay as at a convention? “Someone with a mask, so I could enjoy the convention.” One questioner recommended that he try the barbecue before leaving North Carolina. This apparently led to a discussion of food in which he dissed American bacon (too dry and crunchy). Another asked him who he fanboys over. Answer: Marvel Comics, which he had recently toured.
After the Q&A came photos, and about an hour after that, the signing line started. When my daughter reached the table, she asked Tennant if she could record him saying hello to her friend (the one who got gypped on the autograph). Most celebs won’t do this, but in the absence of an advertised prohibition, it doesn’t hurt to ask. Astonishingly, he agreed! Then a Wizard World staffer stepped in and put a stop to it. Normally, I would rail against this, but the staffer had a point. If Tennant did that for my daughter, he would have to do it for everyone, which would slow the line to a crawl. The lesson for convention goers is this: guests aren’t being rude or aloof when they refuse some of your requests. The refusal may simply be a matter of convention policy.
So the inaugural Wizard World Raleigh was a success. Great city, great guests, friendly service—and the Doctor. One woman my wife talked to had driven eight hours from Alabama with her two kids to see him. On top of the arm-and-leg-ness of VIP tickets, this struck me as insanely devoted. “Would you do that?” I asked my wife on Monday as she stared out the kitchen window, a melancholy smile on her face. “Yes,” she said without hesitation. “Yes I would.”
Well-played, Wizard World. Well-played.
After taking a brief hiatus from cons, I attended the 2015 Wondercon in Anaheim! With the lack of a big entertainment presence, as well as only a few big name artists and writers, I didn’t expect this show to be a successful one. But I was wrong.
Driving up to the con, I saw a long line of cars just waiting for parking! Walking on to the show floor, the con was packed for Friday at noon, and the crowds were packed all weekend long. Con season was in full swing, and Wondercon was a great warmup to Comic Con in a few months! Adding to the excitement was the news that Wondercon will be moving to Los Angeles next year. Hopefully, LA can accommodate and handle the eager fans I saw in Anaheim, and Comikaze provides an excellent indicator that LA can handle a great comic show. I guess we’ll see next year if the move was the correct one. And now, onto some of cool things I saw last weekend:
And now, onto some awesome cosplay!