Written by Shawn Bourdo
This is always where attending the Con gets dicey. You have to have a Plan A, Plan B and a What “The Hell Is Happening” Plan. There are predictable panels that you will not get into if you don’t plan on spending your day on just them – this year that being Firefly, Tarantino, The Walking Dead, and more. I was able to start my day by ignoring the throngs waiting in lines inside and out and just get some great coverage of the convention floor. I saw many signs that people are spending money (a good thing for many of these small businesses that count on this weekend to make their year) and the content was more diverse than it has been in years. I see more and more Fine Artists selling their DIY items – t-shirts, vinyl toys, prints, and more. This Con should be about walking away with something unique that you might never discover in years of trolling the Internet.
HISTORY OF COMIC CENSORSHIP – I thought this had the potential to be one of the best panels I attended this year. Charles Brownstein of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund presented a rather typical PowerPoint on the history of comic censorship. I’m sure this was helpful for some in the room but many of us needed the advanced course. His presentation covered much of the ground that was done in the great documentary Comic Book Confidential.
Comics were the largest shipments that went to the G.I.’s in WWII. By the time they came home, they had developed a habit of reading the pulp stories and their favorite characters. The first banning of comics occured out of a moral panic because of the sex and violence content. This sentiment is repeated through the history of comics. But it’s also interesting to tie this to the panel on Women’s Art and Censorship I attended on Thursday. These works are being banned by people who are morally outraged and feel they have to protect everyone else from something that they don’t like. The famous book by Dr. Wertham, Seduction of the Innocent, was used against the industry in the mid-1950s. Dr. Wertham had a good-natured cause for the book – mainly to stop criminal behavior in juveniles. It was his “junk science” or bad research methods that would lead to self-censorship by the comics industry. Claims that the morbid themes led to violence, that Batman and Robin were secretly gay, and that Wonder Woman’s strength and independence made her a lesbian.
Brownstein relates some of the great stories of the testimony in front of the Senate Subcommittee including that of EC Comics publisher William Gaines who refused to sanitze his works. William is a gruff hero who may have been drunk when he testified after a long lunch break but his determination to stand up for the rights of the readers and creators, to risk going out of business for that support is worthy of extra attention. But in the end, the Comics Code Authority was established.
In the rebellious times of the late 1960s in San Francisco, artists decided to fight back against the chains of the Authority and published underground comics like Zap Comix. Artists like Robert Crumb, Clay Wilson and Gilbert Shelton laid the groundwork for the disolution of the Authority. They created these underground comics outside of the system. They used a “direct” system to distribute them to smoke shops instead of newstands. They illustrated everything that they couldn’t read about in a mainstream book. This DIY and rebellious comic got many retailers brought up on obscenity charges and led to it not being sold in New York City, once again out of moral outrage over the content. But these creators helped show the industry a way around the newstands, a way to take preorders for books that would lead to more profitablity for smaller presses and expanded the content of comics being made.
The presentation ended with talk of Mike Diana and his prosecution in the 1990s for obscenity that led to the reprehensible sentence of not being able to draw in his own home. How Ray Bradbury would feel the defeat of a judge telling someone that what came out of their brain was too dangerous to even be drawn on a page. And Brownstein spoke briefly of a current case of a man being held on child pornography charges in Canada for Manga images on his laptop. These attacks are not ending. There are still people using “moral outrage” as an excuse to attack books at libraries and in our schools. Books that are banned include The Hunger Games, Brave New World (maybe those two hit too close to the future envisioned by people who wish to ban them), and a new entry The Color Of The Earth (a Korean graphic novel about the coming of age of a daughter of a single mother that includes non-sexual nudity).
So many of the things celebrated at Comic-Con are mainstream properties that have reached mass acceptance. This is the other side of Comic-Con. It’s the creator-owned products, it’s librarians trying to provide access to materials, and mostly it is the dreamers. These are the folks that will stumble into writing the next Batman or the next Harry Potter. Creator-owned books are where most of the mainstream authors and artists get their start. And for many of them it’s where they hope to end up. It’s important that people see the pattern and know where to look for censorship in their own towns.
ARROW – I needed a break from the serious discussions and ended up in the panel for the new CW show, Arrow. It’s the story of Oliver Queen who masquerades as Green Arrow to fight crime. This take on another DC Superhero is directed by the same man who directed the Smallville pilot. I will say up front that I’m not a fan of the CW shows in general. I know I’m not their target demo but their house style leaves me cold. And this show was no different. It didn’t embrace the superhero genre the way that Smallville did. The show looks like Supernatural or The Vampire Diaries and it just doesn’t have the heart that I want from a genre show. This show plays out much more like a detective or cop TV show than it does superheroes. Even the cast of Stephen Amell and Katie Cassidy didn’t have the chemistry that you’d like to see for a new show. It all felt very forced. And can someone in Sterling City please turn on a few more lights.
THE WRITER’S ROOM – I write. Or I at least pretend to write on the Internet. When I read a comic book, the writing wins out over art every time. I will take a well-written book with terrrible art over a poorly written book with great art every single time. I went to this panel for three reasons – to see Ed Brubaker, to hear Robert Kirkman talk about The Walking Dead and because it was hosted by the very funny UK TV personality, Jonathan Ross. It was a winner in all categories.
Robert Kirkman spoke the longest and was the most articulate about the “vision” that writers need to have for their own work. He started with a title like Battle Pope. Often he says, you’ll pitch so many ideas that when one is finally accepted, all you have is the original idea but with no idea where to go with it. By the time we got started on The Walking Dead he had the big overall plan for the book. He doesn’t know what will happen each issue but he knows all the major beats. He has it planned out for decades to come. This vision isn’t without pitfalls. He used to write down ideas for things that should happen at certain points in the story. But he’d forget to look at his notes and by the time he did, it was too late to include them in the story. He says that we’ve missed some really good storylines.
Ed Brubaker and John Layman spoke together about balancing writing your own characters and writing for the major publishers. Both of them see an advantage to doing both. When Ed Brubaker is writing for Batman, he has decades of backstory already filled in with the readers and he knows that whatever he does with the character can be undone in a flash. When he is turned down for a storyline in the mainstream book, he can take those ideas to his own characters where he is not held to the same rules. There’s a freedom of creating and writing your own character that shows in the voices of all these men. They may have characters they loved as a kid that they want to write but ultimately there is nothing more freeing that something you created. No one is around to say no on your own book. It’s this power of the creator that excites me to hear in these panels.
SPARTACUS: WAR OF THE DAMNED – I caught the end of this panel for a show on STARZ that I’ve never bothered to watch. I see right away that there is a legion of loyal fans (do this many people get that pay channel?). I arrive after footage of the new and final season is shown but just as actors from the previous incarnations are introduced as unannounced guests, including a rousing welcome for Lucy Lawless. As the fans asked questions and the cast interacted with each other I realized what I was seeing. This is the anti-Arrow. This is a passionate cast that loves the work they do and they have genuine chemistry. Something I did not see earlier in the day.
BLADE RUNNER 30th ANNIVERSARY – I’d already heard a little talk of Blade Runner at the 1982 panel. This was a whole hour dedicated to one of the most important films in my fandom of Science Fiction. On hand were Paul Sammon who wrote Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner that I consider one of the best “making of” books of all-time since he was essentially embedded with Ridley Scott for the duration of the filming, art director David Snyder, and Charles de Lauzirika who put together what is consider the version of the film to watch – Blade Runner – The Final Cut.
This panel dovetailed nicely with the writers from earlier in the day. In all aspects, this film may have been based on a book by Philip K. Dick but it was the vision of Ridley Scott. All of the participants agreed that Ridley was difficult to work with but that’s mainly because he had a perfect vision for what the world he was creating should look like and didn’t want to compromise. I love hearing the stories of production and painting and repainting sets and molding existing buildings to fit what he wanted. This was the last true analog movie. A remake today would include way too much computer-generated animation. This was all done in front of the camera. It all existed on the set. And that was Ridley’s vision.
There wasn’t a big discussion of the post-life of the film. I’ve always loved to hear the road that it took through multiple cinema releases and to home video and eventually to the suitcase release of the film on DVD. That wasn’t a big part of this panel and that’s okay. This was a celebration of the work itself and what it meant to everyone involved. All I needed to hear was that when Philip K. Dick finally saw a portion of the film (he passed before it was released) he asked Ridley – “How did you know what was in my head?”
THE VACATIONEERS ARE A DISASTER – This comedy group from Los Angeles has just finished their second film and I’d read great reviews coming out of the Los Angeles Film Festival. It’s A Disaster also stars David Cross, Julia Stiles, America Ferrera, and Erin Hayes (Childrens Hospital). At a Sunday brunch for four couples at one of their homes, the apocalypse occurs just outside their door with dirty bombs being dropped on the city. They are so caught up in their own lives that they barely notice. The film looks like a fun take on disaster films, specifically end-of-the-world ones, and a commentary on our self-absorbed society in general. I’m actually quite curious to follow this film as it finally gets distribution. We were treated to their first short – “Google Maps” that was a famous viral video back in 2008. How did I not see something that was viewed by three milliion other people? I suggest you go find it.
WORST CARTOONS EVER – Ended the night with the legendary panel that I’ve loved every year. It did not disappoint with more episodes of Paddy the Pelican and Mighty Mister Titan. A welcome addition to the panel this year was the Marvel cartoons of the ’60s. I expect we’ll see more in the future but this year’s Thor was brilliantly terrible. In this election year, I did miss having a Super President in the mix. But it’s a great way to wind down after a very busy Day Two.
Next time – Day Three and the conclusion of the 2012 Comic-Con experience.