Secret Pop

Jul 29, 2009

In-Flight Ramblings

Trapped in the center seat of the center aisle with a non-working audio jack on a flight from New York to San Diego, this afternoon was as good a time as any to break the silence. So here it is.

Comic-Con was a familiar yet unfamiliar revisitation of the places and (yes) pablum I make space for year over year. Rob and I even did an interview for ESPN late in the night of Comic-Con's final day. We both made numerous pithy observations about what makes Comic-Con quintessentially CON -- and what might conceivably be done to preserve and even revitalize what is in danger of being lost -- in an hour-and-a-half long phone conversation that yielded a threadbare clump of less-than-verbatim quotations in the final article, through no fault apparently of the reporter. But still. They didn't even use the photos of me in costume I spent an hour trying to send. Maybe that disappointment is precisely what Comic-Con yields for me today. For years, there was so little expectation associated with my annual trips to the San Diego Convention Center. But at some point -- perhaps when I began laying out serious coin to stay at the Marriott Marina and exerting considerable effort to rally the enthusiasm of my friends and family -- I began to feel this BURDEN. And if the experience was ever less than...well, I noted it. And for a few years now, it really has been. Even this year, it's hard not to glare accusingly at the marketing materials. I have literally adopted the position that if I am not actually ON a panel or the close friend of someone else on one, I don't even bother trying to get in. It's not that I'm uncommitted. It's that the whole business has become this clusterfuck of bad crowd management and an impossibly unsatisfactory user experience. Comic-Con needs to hire those Disney engineers that design and manage the line dynamics. Because for some reason, I resent that experience less. I get into line after having seen a full-disclosure estimate of the time it will take me to hop aboard a gondola, and there is an implicit understanding that this is an acceptable exchange of services. I'm willing to wait. But at Comic-Con, there is no estimate. No reasonable expectation of satisfaction. No promise of a repeat performance. No enchanting fantastical environment. No textured walls to run your hands over as you breeze past. No easter eggs.

There's literally no incentive to wait. (Ironically, a similar indictment could be made of me and my blogging dereliction.)

My favorite thing in the five days I was there was the dependable late night reunions in the lobby bar of the Marriott. Where we dissected our experiences and justified our disillusionment. Where we were well looked-after by a server named Cinnamon. Where we ordered our fill and always felt welcome. It was Steve Melching who astutely pointed out that the arrival of celebrities to the Comic-Con line-up was what seems to have ruined the whole thing. The people who queue up for these Hall H presentations aren't (to a one) excited to see the creators preview their offerings or to hear about the magic behind the mask. They're there hoping to catch a glimpse of Robert Pattinson. Full disclosure, I just typed "catch a clap of Robert Pattinson" at first. I don't know what that means. I'm just saying.

And that's the seminal disconnect today. Comic-Con used to be the place where you would get to rub elbows a bit with your heroes and creative geniuses. And there was a noble appreciation of the actual creative arts. And a well-placed reverence for the men and women who write and draw and conceive the fantastical characters, environments, and scenarios that Hollywood has co-opted into the money-making machine of studio movie-making. Don't get me wrong. I'm so grateful that Warner Brothers exists. I'm so grateful that well-heeled, well-funded enterprises recognize and revere the value of science fiction, fantasy, and comic book superheroes. I'm so glad I can be transported to these worlds I have loved by purchasing a ticket to an Arclight screening. But at the same time, I wish there was some persistent recognition that the phenomenon of Comic-Con is more about the dedication of the fanbase than it is about the endorsement of the studios. And the teen girls that rally around an opportunity to see their heartthrob are all well and good. But they're missing the big picture. Those actors -- cute as they may be -- aren't, for the most part, responsible for the product they adore. It's writers and directors and musicians and visual effects people and the whole lot. Just seeing Gerard Butler last year at the RocknRolla panel brought that succinctly home. Gerard Butler was above it. An ACTOR looking out on a sea of weirdos. This wasn't an audience in whose bosom he wanted to find himself. Ever. This was, instead, a freaky, funky (in the olfactory sense), socially inept army who came across frightening if only for their numbers and like-mindedness. These were people he was clearly afraid would love him to death. He needn't fear me in that respect. I can assure you.

But he was wrong. Because, in my experience, the true Comic-Con faithful are the most respectful, most self-effacing, most personal space-respecting sort. They might come up and thank you for the entertainment you have provided. They might ask you to allow them to take a picture. They might blush. But these are not the paparazzi. And they won't ask you to sign the interior wall of their uteruses with a Sharpie they will happily provide. And they won't assume that once you lock eyes with them, the whole of the future will reorient itself to adjust to their personal fantasy, heretofore only ever lived out in the company of a lip-print-laden glossy poster hanging above their bed, coincidentally fashioned in the likeness of the Starship Enterprise. The NCC-1701A, since you asked. And if anyone in the world is more anxious to preserve the sanctity of fandom, it's the attendee badgeholders at Comic-Con. Who spend thousands of dollars to attend. Who endure thankless, sweaty discomfort wearing their various helmets and wings and body armor. It's those die-hard devotees who recognize the divide between the fan and the fawned-upon more than anyone. These are fans who aren't hoping that a short skirt or a willing twinkle in their eye will give them a pre-shame glimpse of the color of a celebrity's pants-lining. They're not hoping to be noticed or to be befriended. They're not expecting their lives to be changed. They're purely there to appreciate. And as their ranks have been infiltrated by the scoop-hungry bloggers and the scout-minded studio execs and the panty-less skanks, it seems the landscape has been blurred. Like one of Bert's sidewalk paintings in Mary Poppins after the rains came.

My iPod playlist of choice at the moment is a collection of film music based on a mixtape I once made. I've now gotten to the opening titles of The Reivers. It's a John Williams composition, and it's brilliant and uplifting. The first time I remember hearing it, it was John Williams conducting the L.A. Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl with Ossie Davis narrating. And I made a note to myself to go buy that soundtrack. And I did it. And I can tell you that, as huge a fan as I am of John Williams, if I were to see him on the street, the chances that I would even disturb him are slight. Beyond that, the chances that I would hope to attract him or fantasize about a night in the future when we might share an intimate dinner (maybe Italian?) are basically nil. That isn't the kind of fantasy I entertain. There's no sexual urgency in my worship. If I love your work, I love your work. And I maintain the steadfast expectation that I might not necessarily like you so much. You don't have to be cute. You don't even have to be clean. Your work stands alone. This is the mindset of so many of the Comic-Con faithful, I find. And whether that comes from having grown up as ugly outcasts, I don't know. And I'm not setting myself apart in that comment, in case it was unclear. My fantasies generally never extend beyond hoping to strike up a stimulating e-mail penpalship with those I admire. And even that I treat as a pipe dream. On occasion, I have found myself in that state of benign disbelief that I am now friends with someone I once placed in an untouchable personal pantheon of genius. And that's definitely a dream. But that doesn't mean I've ever found myself being an out-and-out weirdo. Nor would I. Even if I was meeting Marc Shaiman.

So, Comic-Con this year was fun on many levels. Disappointing on many others. I learned that the thrill of being on the list for this party or that is misplaced. I don't care about the parties. Unless I'm going to run into my friends. And I could just as easily arrange to run into them at a convenient, comfortable place of our choosing. No amount of open bar is worth the harangue of skeevy people and their skeevier expectations and being made to feel that the actors of Stargate are more deserving of the edge of the concrete planter I've been sitting on than I am.

I was having a cigarette outside the hotel with Danforth, and we were talking about the lack of impetus to try and evangelize people about Star Trek. And a lanky long-haired young man in a cape came up and said, "I overheard you talking about Star Trek. Mind if I join in?" That, coupled with the moment on the elevator when a fox-headed Jedi subtly effected the Jedi mind trick before the opening elevator doors, represents the very essence of Comic-Con to me. A welcoming of the often unwelcome. A committed performance of dedicated fantasy. An assumption that the people in the elevator will get it when you say, "Hey. That Jedi just did this [pantomime Jedi mind trick] when the elevator doors opened." And they will. And they did.

I'm disappointed I didn't see or do more. As evidenced by my one panel reference above being from last year. The convention hall actually seemed less crowded for most of the show. The exception being Sunday, which also happened to be the day I was dressed in my U.F.O. Moonbase Operative costume. I managed to move about on the floor with very little panic for the most part. But I didn't even bother to plan to go to the panels I would have wanted to see. I went to see a couple of panels Rob was either moderating or participating in. And I attended the panel on which I was an actual panelist. But that's what allowed me to breeze in after everyone else was seated. And I have a faint recollection of Comic-Cons past when I could do that -- panelist or no -- at nearly every panel on the events schedule. I doubt that even relocating the Con to Los Angeles or Anaheim or Las Vegas will make that possible. All that will do is make the becostumed attendees that much funkier (again, we're talking about smell here). And wait till a couple of Bladerunner Replicants get mugged in Downtown Los Angeles. The end of the innocence has long since been marked. If the future of the comic arts is as bleak as the future of the biggest, most wonderful celebration of them, I can only hope the Y: The Last Man movie comes out before it all goes to shit.

I don't know if I'll ever be married. But if I'm ever on the receiving end of a wedding dance, I hope it will be Let Me Roll It by Paul McCartney.