Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Remembering Comic Con 2010

The First Cut Is the Deepest

Everybody that regularly attends the San Diego Comic Con remembers their first San Diego Comic Con. I first attended in 2000, when my buddy Brent and I scoped out the small press section in anticipation of unveiling our self-published K.O. Comix the following year. I only attended one day, a Saturday, and was overwhelmed by the immensity of the event. Still, despite dense crowds, I approached some of my favorite writers and artists effortlessly, getting autographs and asking about writing technique. I fondly remember brief but meaningful conversations with Jeph Loeb and Greg Rucka. The whole ride home, and really most of the year in between, I eagerly anticipated 2001 and sitting on the other side of the exhibitors' table, like they did.

When that fantasy became a reality, it was a rollercoaster of realized and disappointed expectations all at the same time. Firstly, fellow fanboys weren't mobbing us for our little self-published comic, like they did in my delusions of grandeur, but periodically we experienced brushes with fame, like when a plain-clothed George Takai flipped through our book, or when we realized we were just a few tables down from Phil Hester and Ande Parks. While we weren't of the same caliber as our favorite personalities in the comic book industry, those exhibitor badges still made us one of them, an honor we wore proudly.

Then, one year, it was over. Comic Con became the premiere pop culture event of the year -- not that it wasn't already, but the media was now covering it more heavily than ever before. The small press section was already split into two, and now Comic Con International had more applicants than they could accommodate. We were placed on a waiting list, for naught. Brent and I became (gulp) mere attendees. We had to wait in growing lines like everyone else. We didn't have a table to house our swag, or chairs to sit in when our tootsies got tired. Worst of all, we weren't contributors, with comics of our own on sale. We were just consumers. Of course, this didn't stop us from attending, but the experience certainly wasn't the same.

I've heard friends tell similar tales. One of my fellow fanboys started attending Comic Con in the '80s, before film, television, and video games consumed the exhibit hall, and one could just slip into a panel without worries of long, potentially cut-off lines. Featured guests were comic book writers and artists, period. Even in 2000, I knew Comic Con was a multi-media event. Who could really blame Hollywood for seizing a chance to travel to San Diego in July, especially when they could write off the trip as a marketing expense?

Convention Retention

This year, I finally found a way to make the Con work for me. My girlfriend and I only purchased Friday passes, so I knew my time was limited. I made a list of the comics I hoped to find and set a goal for the amount of money I'd spend on them, and I was determined to chat with old friends in the small press section. Along the way, I decided to pass out my latest comic personally, sans table or booth, despite any awkward obligation on the receiving end. I'd purchased my Mattel exclusives on-line so acquiring those action figures in the fulfillment center was more of an errand and less of a chore. Overall, I'm satisfied with the results. I scored great deals on comics and put my fingers on the pulse of small press again. I even saw my favorite artist Erik Larsen drawing Spider-man and his flagship character, Savage Dragon (below). I actually felt that same excitement that gripped me back in 2000, when I went to Comic Con with the hope of experiencing comic book culture in a way I hadn't before.

Location, Location, Location

Of course, after Comic Con, the news media at large over-analyzes the event, a tradition as steadfast now as camping outside of Hall H, and the one that bothers me most. More so than A-list movie star cameo appearances, these analyses elevate the Con past its comic roots, making it a sociological experiment pop culture pundits can mock for both its scope and substance. When you read, "Is Comic Con too big for San Diego?" the author is often really asking, "Why is Comic Con too big for San Diego?" Conjecture that the Con will move to Las Vegas is the mainstream media's way of begging it to move there -- to an adult playground they can better understand. The Los Angeles area has been suggested, too, probably because Spider-man and Edward Scissorhands can already be found outside the Mann Chinese Theater, so the locals are used to the weirdness.

Alas, trust me, Hollywood loves San Diego. It's far enough away to be vacation but close enough to make transporting a whole faux Stargate reasonable and cost-effective. Move Comic Con to Anaheim or L.A., and you won't see Angelina Jolie there again. She deals with those paparazzi everyday, and enduring the 5 Freeway's crush isn't worth a hour in a panel for 4000 fans. Move it to Vegas, and the cost of transporting set pieces like sky rockets . . . well, sky rockets. What I, and most others that attend, love about San Diego is how it absorbs the Con so effortlessly now. It becomes the city, and the city becomes the Con. In Vegas, Comic Con would just be one of a million other things happening -- and worst of all, if it happens in Vegas, all that awesome stuff just might stay there, and I'd like to remember taking a picture between Teela and Evil-Lynn, thank you very much.

The Pen is Mightier . . .

This year will suffer from the Hall H stabbing incident, as well. In the post-Con analyses I've read, folks attribute the sudden violence to the event's exponential growth, and its inability to shuffle the crowd in a way to please everyone. The perp's problem was his neighbor camping through one panel to view another, right? I've griped about this issue, too, but I've never felt compelled to strike! Unfortunately, for the immediate future, all attendees will have to live with this stigma, that we're just that into it. The Westboro Baptist Church's protests, as silly as they were, could've been vindicated in that moment, especially in the "eye for an eye" justice of the incident. How policies will change to avoid incidents like this has yet to be determined, but I'm certain that word of next year's convention events will be preceded with changes to make sure Comic Con isn't in the cross hairs of another controversy like this.

Bringing It Full Cycle

Oh, and let's not forget the biggest news of the weekend: Tyrese got a speeding ticket on a bike courier. Thanks for keeping us in the loop, TMZ. The lesson is clear -- Comic Con is a fluid thing, perhaps moving too fast for its own good. It's only worth the ride when you decide to grab the handlebars and steer yourself through the experience.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Movie Review: Batman: Under the Red Hood

When I first heard that the next DC animated feature was going to be Batman: Under the Red Hood, I wondered how the film would pull off a story incorporating critical details from The Killing Joke, A Death in the Family, and Infinite Crisis. Apparently, Bruce Timm had similar concerns, or so he confessed at the San Diego Comic Con panel that premiered the film. Fortunately, writer Judd Winick pitched the film thoroughly and excitedly enough (via telephone conference from San Francisco to Burbank, to boot) to earn the green light. As a fan that always prefers the source material to cinematic adaptation, I must say, Under the Red Hood is the exception, and not because of what Winick managed to cram from decades' worth of comics into a mere 70 minutes.

It's because of what he didn't.

First of all, the story of Jason Todd is a cornerstone to my comic book collecting career. I vividly remember buying a Batman comic book three-pack from K-Mart when I was a kid, perhaps even before the box of comics my dad scored at his moving job that changed everything, and, anyway, those three comics were Batman #408-410. On the heels of Year One, which I knew nothing about at the time, the origin of Jason Todd was rebooted to boast more humble beginnings as an orphan surviving in the streets of Crime Alley. As a child on the verge of adolescence, I loved this interpretation, and especially its contrast from Dick Grayson's Robin -- while the Dynamic Duo was still a team, their relationship was truly dynamic now, truly multi-dimensional.

Then, Jason died.

I knew Jason was going to die, because I'd seen issues of A Death in the Family on newsstands a few years prior, but I never knew the whole story: how he and Batman met, his controversial role as the second Robin, and the circumstances around his death. The trade paperback of A Death in the Family cleared up everything, and as a young person still developing his concept of death, not to mention how these make-believe superheroes affected my real life, I cherished these tales. As I grew familiar with the flakiness of death in comics, I grew particularly fond of writer/editor Denny O'Neil's quote on the back of the trade: "It would be a really sleazy stunt to bring him back." That's how I knew; Jason was dead, and death carries permanent consequences. It's everybody else's job to live with those consequences.

Then, Jason returned.

Through a series of convoluted cosmic circumstances, DC Comics found a way to bring Batman's second ward back, but it wasn't as quick as that beloved four issue story that killed him. No, DC took years to hint at Jason's resurrection, first in the high profile Jeph Loeb/Jim Lee collaboration Hush, then through a series of stories and finally an annual that offered the final piece of the mystery to Robin's defiance of death. Ready? When an angry Superboy from a parallel earth punched the multiverse (the hub of endless multiple realities), Jason Todd from a realm where he survived slipped into our world -- that is, the one where he was six feet under. He clawed his way out of the grave, was recovered by Ra's Al Ghul, and after a maddening jolt from a Lazarus Pit, when a bit nuts and became him own man. I told you they were convoluted circumstances.

For Under the Red Hood, Judd Winick put that story on a diet. First of all, no cosmic crises. Too much indigestion. Secondly, he kept the return to Jason Todd linear, without offshoots like Hush getting in the way. He presents the story as chronologically as possible: Batman has a new partner, Robin was captured and murdered by the Joker, then a mysterious man wearing a Red Hood (like the Joker did before he became the Clown Prince of Crime) rapidly takes over Gotham's underworld. I won't elaborate and spoil the minute details, but stripping this story to its bare bones makes it much more emotionally effective, and from a marketing perspective, more universally approachable.

That the action kicks butt certainly helps. The Red Hood is very explosion-happy, but the fisticuffs are what makes this cartoon not your daddy's Batman. From Batman and Nightwing's scrap with Amazo (one of my favorite recent comic book bouts, and one I'm grateful made the transition to film) to the climatic battle royale between Batman, the Red Hood, and the Joker, every blow has fluidity, purpose, and impact. The fighting actually moves the story along, rather than breaks it up to keep your interest, and since both elements are good independently, watching them work together was even better.

I will say, though, that I was amused by how every action sequence ended with a shot of a tight-lipped Batman, trying to process it all. It became redundant and therein kind of hilarious.

The film is quick witted, too, thanks in no small part to Neil Patrick Harris as Nightwing. When you think about it, Dick Grayson is comics' first and most prominent child star, and like NPH he has found a career in adulthood independent of that image. I wasn't as nuts about Joe DiMaggio's Joker as the crowd at the screening was, probably because I, like many others, am used to Mark Hamill's high-pitched inflection and cackle. DiMaggio's Joker was a bit more understated and even-toned; in short, it was masculine, as only DiMaggio could be, and I've never perceived the Joker as something less than a force of nature before.

Now, I'm a sucker for last lines. Forget Dickens' "best of times, worst of times" shtick; anybody can write a poignant first line. I'm most interested in all-encompassing last lines, those that sum up the tone of the piece perfectly, and maybe leave you a bit wanting. I won't ruin it, but Under the Red Hood has it. I feared the typical pan upward toward the Gotham skyline, or the standard swinging superhero sequence, but Winick was wise enough to give us something more, something that practically explains the entire motivation behind the film, not to mention the Batman/Robin partnership. Further, the way he pulls it off really couldn't have been done in the comics, not in established continuity. So, I'm grateful for this retelling. It doesn't make bringing back Jason Todd any less of a stunt . . .

. . . but now it seems a little less sleazy.

Batman: Under the Red Hood will be released on DVD, BluRay, and On Demand July 27.