Comic-Con at 50 — SDCC 2019

This is what I always tell people about San Diego Comic-Con: it’s the Iowa caucuses of popular culture. Those people who didn’t sit at the cool table in high school? These are the passionate, fearless fans who will be shaping what those cool people will be talking about in two years. They come to Comic-Con to learn more about the popular culture they love and to see what’s next, because they do not wait to be told what is great. They trust their own instincts and though the rest of the country might not realize it, we do, too.

It began with a small group of fans swapping stories and comic books in a hotel room. It has now grown to extend beyond San Diego’s convention center to take over much of the surrounding neighborhood, with about 130,000 attendees and the biggest stars of television and movies there to reveal their latest projects. Famously, a movie no one knew anything about decided to premiere its trailer at Comic-Con back in 1976. It was “Star Wars.” Now “Star Wars” continues to produce blockbuster movies plus books, games, and a big attraction at Disney World, movies based on comic books are a multi-billion dollar industry, and Comic-Con includes anything that fans feel passionate about: movies, television, games, books, and of course comics. Comic-Con always has a place set aside for portfolio review. You can arrive as a fan who draws and leave with a job that can have you on a panel at Hall H some day.

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Yes, there are crazy costumes. But only about ten percent of attendees come in costume and they are very friendly about stopping for photographs. And the Masquerade costume competition on Saturday night is always a highlight. This year was one of the best, with smart, imaginative takes on “Game of Thrones,” James Bond, Harry Potter, and various game characters. And, yes, people do wait in line for days to get into the legendary Hall H, where they got to see, for example, Tom Cruise show up unexpectedly to talk about the sequel to “Top Gun” and the astonishing new list of Marvel movies.

But while all that is going on, there are dozens and dozens of panel discussions and autograph sessions and a gigantic exhibit hall filled with everything a fan of popular culture could get excited about, many with the ultimate selling point — exclusive to Comic-Con. Yes, you’ll be able to find them on eBay, but they won’t have the irreplaceable “I was there” vibe. The hall has everything from a $450,000 copy of Superman’s first appearance in comic books (Action #1) to a Captain Marvel movie costume (displayed with a cat, I mean a Flerken) to Christmas tree ornaments of Spider-Man (hanging upside down, of course, with Santa hat), the Infinity Stones gauntlet glove, and Negan from “The Walking Dead” (made by Hallmark!), Golden Girls Chia Pets, to t-shirts with every possible superhero character and every possible snarky pop culture reference, to massive displays and “experiences” from movies and television series. On opening night I went inside the “Dark Crystal” experience, with props, clips and settings from the upcoming prequel to the Jim Henson film, coming to Netflix. It is endearing to see fans who are so attached to the movies and shows they love want to literally touch them through these exhibits, artifacts and collectibles.

I like the Think Geek collection, which has exceptional panache and wit. Look closely at this Batman plush for the images of Batman on the mask.

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They also had tiny, detailed replicas of all the Harry Potter wands. And this is as up to the minute as it gets, a backpack inspired by the new season of “Stranger Things.” (A lot of cosplayers were inspired by the Scoops Ahoy ice cream shop, too.)

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Megan Harris at Think Geek told me there are three reasons these collectables have customers lining up (I had to go back twice to buy something from their booth). First, she says, sometimes there is a movie or TV show we loved when we were children and having something like this connects us to the time when being a fan meant so much to us. Then there is what we love now. These items help us feel even closer to the movies and shows we love and maybe help connect us to some of what we love about them — the courage or brainpower of the characters, their ability to defeat the bad guys. And then there is the reason at the center of SDCC: these items help us to connect with the people who love the things we love. “Maybe you will feel more comfortable talking to a stranger if a pin or backpack lets you know that they like something you like.”

I also visited the always-amazing FutureTech exhibit hall, including Focals by North, eyeglasses with a holographic display of your appointments and apps, VR technology to simulate a forklift for training purposes, the KOOV robotics and coding kids that let kids build all kinds of fabulous toys while learning STEM skills, a stunning tour of the galaxy from the University of California at San Diego Center for Astrophysics and Space Sciences, and an astonishing 3D VR art creation program from Deploy XR, plus glow in the dark and LED-lit temporary tattoos from Sprite Lights.

I always like to hear from the people behind the scenes at Comic-Con. I started the day with an interview of Thanos creator Jim Starlin, then attended a panel on composing for television. David Klotz talked about the “Neverending Story” scene in the new season of “Stranger Things,” where the kids sing the theme song from the movie that was popular in the 1980’s, when “Stranger Things” is set. “The kids sang without a click track, different keys and tempos, and there was no way to match the original.” They had to re-record the original at a faster speed “without making it sound like a club remix.” Jim Dooley talked about scoring “A Series of Unfortunate Events” when he had to write some music to match the hand movements Neil Patrick Harris made earlier when he pretended to play the piano. Kurt Farquhar (“Black Lightning”) had some advice for a would be score composer who is still in school: “Get the tools. Then the rest of your career will be about trying to forget what you’ve learned.”

The “game-changing” women’s panel included “Clueless” costume designer Mona May. Then there was the “You’re Wrong, Leonard Maltin” panel, with people objecting to bad reviews from one of the all-time greatest movie critics and historians — and one of the all-time greatest and most gracious humans. The vigorously defended films included some critical darlings and audience favorites like “Taxi Driver” and “Blade Runner” and “The Princess Bride” but also some with few — but passionate — fans (this is SDCC, after all) like “Bonfire of the Vanities” (defended by IMDB founder Colin Needham). Then there were those who thought Maltin had been too kind to films like “Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull.” One audience member brought up Maltin’s most embarrassing mistake — in a short documentary about “High Noon” he said the film gave Gary Cooper his only Oscar, forgetting “Sergeant York.” And another asked how we should look at Oscar-winner “Gigi” in light of its storyline about a family training a teenager to be a courtesan.

The panel of “Doom Patrol” costume designers sponsored by the Costume Designers Guild took us through the departments from concept to sketches to assembly, with all the coordination required between costumes and stunts, production design, cinematography, assembly, and repairs.

I attended a press event for “Cobra Kai,” a real pleasure to chat with the original stars of “The Karate Kid” and the people who brought them back for this very popular new show.

I got to hear about other upcoming series, too, including “Pennyworth” (the early years of Batman’s butler, Alfred), “Undone” (an animated series with hand-painted oil painting backgrounds), “David Makes Man” (from Oscar and MacArthur winning writer Tarell Alvin McCraney.

One difference from previous years — nearly every event I attended had someone say, “This is so timely” or “This is of course a metaphor for the political issues we face today.” Of course that has always been true one way or another in the world of science fiction and fantasy. But the heightened conversations about the political issues of 2019 make just about everything seem like political commentary.

The annual Black Panel was immoderately moderated by Milestone Media’s Michael Davis, with Black Panther writer Don McGregor and RUN-DMC’s Darryl McDaniels, who told the group that popular arts like music and comics can make a unique difference in communicating and bringing people together: “The arts succeed where religion and politics fail.” He said that hip-hop was a response to the false narrative of disco, which made it look like New York was “Studio 54, diamonds, Bentleys, Rolls Royces, and sex. It took young brothers and sisters to tell the world. It was spoken creatively. We didn’t have to write about fun. We could write about the issues that affect us all.” He called on everyone there to participate: “Everything that was on that record is still happening. It’s your responsibility to tell the world what is going on.”

Women from the Costume Designers Guild appeared on a panel to talk about the “Doom Patrol” universe, and what made this presentation special was that it was like seeing each costume go down the conveyer belt from the head designer to all of the people involved in bringing that vision to life. As a fan of “Drop Dead Diva,” it was a special thrill for me to get to see the moderator, April Bowlby, who plays Elastic-Girl on “Doom Patrol” but to me will always be Stacy on “Drop Dead Diva.”

I enjoyed the panels on the history of EC Comics and cartoonists at MAD and the New Yorker (a surprising number publish in both).

I met with specialists in computer animation. I especially enjoyed speaking to Richard Dorton, a motion capture actor who likes to say, “If you’ve played a video game, you’ve killed me.”

I didn’t make it into “The Good Place” panel–the line extended almost back to Los Angeles–but that made it possible for me to go to a session that is always one of the highlights of SDCC , the Quick Draw, with Disney animator Floyd Norman, MAD’s Sergio Aragonés, and Scott Shaw responding to all kinds of very silly suggestions about what to draw, each trying to outdo the other. Original “Not Ready for Prime Time” SNL star Laraine Newman showed up to play a word game and it was delightful. The following panel was cartoon voice actors, and Newman, who does a lot of voice roles, most recently in “The Secret Life of Pets 2,” stayed on for that. The best part was the panelists slipping in and out of many different voices as they told their stories, and the silly substitute words they come up with when they dub over bad language for the broadcast versions of movies.

Leslie Combemale’s annual “Women Rocking Hollywood” panel, with women producers and directors, is always one of my favorites. It was very heartening to hear how many projects these woman are working on, from “Queen Sugar,” to “Walking Dead” to an upcoming Aretha Franklin biopic with Jennifer Hudson, the choice of Franklin herself.

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I tried out a demo of the new Dr. Who VR game. The first time I tried VR at Comic-Con, the images where ghostly and indistinct. The demo made the most of those limits by making the story fit those pictures. This game is many, many leaps forward, as the doctor (voice of the 13th doctor from the series, Jodie Whittaker) is missing but has left some clues and a way to McGuyver a communications device. I was not a good player in part because I am a terrible gamer but in part because I was enjoying the level of detail and wanted to look at everything. Developed by immersive entertainment studio Maze Theory, led by former Activision and PlayStation veterans, Doctor Who: The Edge Of Time will launch on PlayStation VR, Oculus Rift, Oculus Quest, HTC Vive and Vive Cosmos in September 2019.

I also attended a panel on time travel in science fiction, featuring legendary authors Larry Niven, Greg Bear, and David Brin. They agreed the primary motivation for time travel is “make it didn’t happen.” Niven said the lesson to be learned from time travel stories: “Don’t waste your lives just wishing.”

They said they had all been contacted by various national security offices trying to think about what they never think about. So they’ve set up this thing called TASAT (There’s a Story About That) to index all “thought experiments” (i.e., fiction) just in case some day mole people start coming up from underground and the imaginary version might provide a head start.

I made it into the legendary Hall H for the “Mayans” session. Comic-Con attendees got an exclusive look at the first 15 minutes of the show’s second season, which includes an ultra-violent shoot-out. The actors said they treasure the opportunity to work together, and to have a chance to take often-stereotyped characters and give them depth and complexity.

And then the annual conclusion, the “Starship Smackdown,” where a group of very funny sci-fi nerds debate which is the greatest fictional spaceship of all time with a combination of intense knowledge of minutiae and a very silly sense of humor (which is pretty much the theme of Comic-Con). There’s always a lot of spirited argument, but the winner is usually the Enterprise or the Millennium Falcon. They know their stuff. So do the SDCC attendees, unabashed fans who are almost always supportive of each other’s passions and so happy to be there that it is impossible not to feel like part of the community. “This is who I am,” I heard an attendee say one year. “It’s the rest of the time that is cosplay.” For them, I should say, for us, it feels like home.

Movie critic, corporate critic and shareholder advocate, critic/editor at @ebertvoices @moviemom, and #corpgov #movies and editor at @miniverpress

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