Monday 27 July 2020

Virtual Comic-Con needs nerd herd

Comic-Con@Home has ended. Nick Smith, our US-based stellar scribe, reflects on the highs and lows of the five-day event as we all try to navigate our way through the Upside Down.

Guest post by Nick Smith

After a gentle start on Wednesday, Comic-Con kicked into high gear with panels featuring Marvel executive VP Joe Quesada, Henry ‘Fonz’ Winkler, the cast of BBC/HBO’s His Dark Materials and Bugs Bunny (who turns 80 this year!).

The Con was jam-packed with instructional panels geared toward kids (for example, Marvel HQ showing how to draw Venom) and adults (Comics During Clampdown covered creativity, racial politics and the shifts in working methods that have occurred during COVID). Other panels covered making action figures, breaking into comics, and making and teaching comics – the latter led by James Sturm, co-founder and director of the Centre for Cartoon Studies, a school doing excellent work producing and legitimising the medium in White River Junction, Vermont.

Some of the panels were less how-to, more chit-chat; during “All the Starfleet Ladies: Then and Now,” an all-female roster of writers and pro-fans held an in-depth discussion about the early marginalization, and later prominence, of women in Star Trek.

But for most of us, the stars were the real draw of this Con. This year’s line-up included Charlize Theron, Norman Reedus, Melissa McBride and Jeffrey Dean Morgan (The Walking Dead), Ron Perlman, Famke Janssen, Felicia Day, Keanu Reeves, Kelly Overton and Tricia Helfer (Van Helsing). And that was just the actors. Production-wise, contributors included Eric ‘Supernatural’ Kripke, Kevin Smith, Seth McFarlane, Robert Rodriguez and J. Michael Straczynski (Thor); from comics we saw Quesada, who’s been attending since before he went pro; Todd McFarlane, the wonderfully talented Matt Kindt, Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead), John Ostrander (Suicide Squad) and Jeff Smith (Bone). Quesada was particularly positive about the way Comic-Con is fuelled by, ‘the power of comics, the power of genre.’

Not a lot of big genre movies were present, because no one’s going to the pictures right now. This really gave TV shows a chance to shine, with established hits like The 100, Power Rangers and The Goldbergs rubbing shoulders with new streaming efforts from NBC’s new Peacock service and the struggling blip-length platform QuiBi.

One of Thursday’s highlights was definitely a panel uniting the cast of Amazon’s The Boys, along with producer Kripke. Everyone was energetic, looking forward to their second season. Another panel celebrated the forthcoming New Mutants, with cast appearances including my fellow Bristolian Maisie Williams (Game of Thrones, Doctor Who) and Charlie Heaton (Stranger Things).

Thursday’s crème de la make-it-so crème, however, had to be the Star Trek Universe panel, which not only included a table read of a Discovery script by the original actors, but also linked up the main Picard cast for the first time since they wrapped season one of the CBS show.

More than anything, this virtual version of Comic-Con gave attendees the chance to dip into panels. Not your cup of tea? You could jump to another YouTube video without having to get up, leave a room and try to creep into another one without everyone staring at you. This allowed regular Con-goers to soak up a wider variety of content, catching dozens, if not hundreds of the panels. There was a real sense that the organisers wanted to make this more accessible than ever and more inclusive than ever, without losing a charming social awkwardness best represented by their ‘welcome to Comic-Con’ video. The big-name events were not as slick as expected, with audio issues (Titan), semi-rehearsed introductions (Rooster Teeth) or downright disorganisation (they know who they are). Others, such as Marvel HQ’s offerings, were entertainingly edited. The sloppier panels were more like Dunder Mifflin Zoom meetings than publicity drives from a movie studio; Informality is not always a bad thing and we got to see people like Patrick Stewart warts and all.

Toy reveals have been a big part of Comic-Con for decades. This year Mattel announced new Halo Master Chief micro action figures; NECA Gremlins, including a Target Exclusive Back to School Gremlin, based on the original movie ad; a NECA glow in the dark xenomorph from Alien; Witcher toys from McFarlane. My favourite exclusive offering was a talking Dennis Nedry figure from Jurassic Park in a fake Barbasol can. My only disappointment was that it didn’t come with a real can of shaving cream.

In my Comic-Con preview I made a crack about orcs. I’m the last person to paint genre conventions as being populated by grown-ups dressed in rubber (that would be a different kind of convention) but it’s always fun to see cosplayers wearing garb from their favourite shows. Can Klingon fans still enjoy themselves when they can’t get suited up, show off and hang out together? According to the play “Klingon Lifestyles,” the answer is yes. For the 27th episode of this series, the producers have come up with a plot about singing alien warriors on vacation in ‘The Home Alone Year.’

‘I feel like I’ve learned new techniques on how to do things, especially during filming,’ said actress Denise Hanon who plays Captain Novax, ‘…and how to do fights with people who are far distant, that’s a pretty interesting thing.’

Cosplayers were encouraged to record themselves (using social distancing) and submit the videos for a contest called the Comic-Con@Home 2020 Virtual Masquerade Costume Competition.

Voting for the Con’s Eisner awards was shut down early this year due to concerns of a privacy leak and mixed-up accounts, according to Gizmodo. But the Eisners still covered a good, wide range of voices. Image’s Bitter Root won Best Ongoing Series. Top Shelf’s They Called Us Enemy, written by George Takei, won Best Reality-Based Work. This graphic novel about the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II tells a story still lacking from history books, and one that is sadly still relevant today.

Erica Eng’s Fried Rice was named Best Webcomic. Neil Gaiman and Colleen Doran’s Snow, Glass, Apples won Best Adaptation from Another Medium. Mariko Tamaki (Harley Quinn) was crowned Best Writer, while Raina Telgemeier won Best Writer/Artist for her Guts.

Meanwhile back at the panels, there were loads of filmmakers and TV studios present with stuff to selling stuff. That included Kevin Smith’s new film Killroy Was Here. Smith stood in front of a camera and talked for an entertaining hour. That guy’s a talker! Also represented were NOS4A2, Archer season 11 (!) and Amazon Prime’s Upload.

The action movie Deep Blue Sea 3 was promoted by its director, producer and cast in an event hosted by Anthony C. Ferrante (Sharknado). Deep Blue Sea 3 will be released online this week in the US, with a disk in August. The cast talked about shooting in South Africa and how to act as if the movie’s digital sharks were real; Nathaniel Buzolic (who plays Richard) compared them to his mum… in a good way. She helps him to self-tape for auditions and he has to imagine a good actor in her place!

Beyond the hoopla there were also people who simply love comics and have devoted their careers to the medium. Karen Green (Columbia University), Dean Mullaney (The Library of American Comics), Peter Maresca (Sunday Press), and Eric Reynolds (Fantagraphics) discussed reprinting classic comics, their love of newspaper strips and artists like Milton Caniff. You could almost smell the musty pulp paper while they enthused about their subject. Maresca pointed out that all the panellists had helped each other in the past. ‘Once someone’s locked onto a book, the entire community is right behind them and that’s a great thing.’

And that’s the one thing this virtual con is lacking – the sense that crowds of enthusiastic fans are rooting for the Con and its participants. Views ranged from one for a live sketch event (two if you count me), to hundreds for the studious discussion panels, to thousands for the Big-Name panels.

The fans are the ones who will make this a flop or a success, and this virtual set-up brings Comic-Con closer than ever to the online culture that has helped popularise or extend the life of certain characters/franchises, such as Deadpool, Spider-Girl and Family Guy.

For many this will be their first experience of San Diego Comic-Con (SDCC), and at ticket prices running at $69 a day for the live version last year, I don’t know if they’ll think it’s worth the money when the Con returns to normal. Yet a live audience can be an incredibly powerful thing and I hope some viewers get bitten by the bug and visit San Diego when they get the chance.


  1. Thanks for the report, the empire appreciates the hard work of it's intelligence operatives. Ironic though that the event that is famous for everyone wearing a mask is cancelled because everyone has to weak masks

  2. thanks for the astute observation CHHO!


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