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Comic-Con and Cosplayers

Mike as Indiana Jones

Mike as Indiana Jones

A slim young man in Indiana Jones attire is walking through the streets of San Diego, and I immediately guess we have the same objective in mind: Comic-Con, the nerd Mecca of the world. He tells me to call him Mike. In real life he's a marine stationed in Arizona, but when he gets the chance he cosplays to the hilt. He spent roughly two thousand dollars assembling his current outfit, and speaks disdainfully of the Indiana Jones cosplayers who think they can just show up with a paper hat. He had to get his shirt custom-made so it would match the one that Indy wore; apparently only the real fans know the difference. His future cosplaying plans include blowing seven hundred bucks to assemble a costume for an Imperial Officer from Star Wars.

He assures me that he's one of the cool guys. Last night, he won a raffle to get into a party with Megan Fox and Stan Lee, the opposite poles of nerd worship, and he blended in with the crowd in contrast to the other nerds, so he tells me. He says Comic-Con fans are unfairly stereotyped; you have a lot of cool people and a lot of people who are exactly what you would expect.

Mike's goal is to break into the entertainment industry somehow. He acts, does art design, and writes whenever he gets a chance, and driving three hundred miles to get to Comic-Con is a way to make contacts, on top of being a fan.

Inside the doors of the San Diego Convention Center, the nerdiness becomes even more concentrated. For me, Comic-Con is kind of like college—it's notable not simply for what you find there, but for the kind of people it attracts among its attendees. You have cosplayers representing every obscure niche of geek culture, women dressed up in the most revealing costumes the world of fiction has to offer and enjoying the attention, small-scale artists and writers trying to make it big, and girls in cat ears offering "free hugs"—apparently related to something called the Free Hugs Campaign. Every obscure fanbase or subculture is represented somewhere here. I found out later in the week that Adam Savage from Mythbusters had been wandering the floors at Comic-Con in costume to avoid being mobbed by fans. He was dressed up as one of the Joker's clowns from The Dark Knight. I actually walked by him a couple times, but I was no closer than anyone else to guessing he was actually anyone significant underneath the mask.

Free Hugs campaigners

Free Hugs campaigners

You can kind of gauge how popular something is by how well represented it is among the Comic-Con fans. After Pirates of the Caribbean's release, Comic-Con was flooded with pirates and Captain Jack Sparrow imitators; The Dark Knight gave us Jokers of every body type and gender; and closer to the release of Star Wars Episode III, there were more Jedi walking the halls than the movies ever had time to show. While all of the above were still well represented this year, the biggest new arrival was a set of cosplayers inspired by the Watchmen movie, with Rorschachs, Night Owls, and Silk Spectres doing their best not to be mistaken for their counterparts in the world of mainstream comics.

The half a million square feet of the exhibit hall is filled with corporate reps showing demos and trailers on flatscreens; small-time artists and writers just showing up to talk about their material with their fans; and vendors trying to hawk their wares to a particular segment of the geek community. I've been going to Comic-Con for four years running now, and my perspective on it is that the most interesting stuff you'll see there isn't an advance trailer for a movie that will end up on the Internet within the hour anyway, an early release demo, or even all the exclusive and rare swag you can pick up. It's interacting with the creators of all these works of media, and both learning things you won't hear anywhere else and offering feedback in the other direction. In past years, I'd gone around with a giant novelty pencil to pick up autographs and drawings from self-sacrificing artists, or gone in with the goal of discovering new comics through the recommendations of some of the experts there. This time around, I intended to learn all the interesting things I could about the different areas of media represented. I did some full-length interviews that stand on their own, and I plan to do a later article on all the creators whose work relates to the Web (Web publishing, webcomics, etc.), but for this piece I just want to give an overview of the interesting people and events at the convention.

Furries and Literature

Walking the exhibit hall, one table catches my eye for being more than a little offbeat: "Sofawolf Press." It looks like an indie comics retailer with a small selection of books, but the material has titles like "The Dog's Days of Summer" with pictures of anthropomorphic canines wearing swimsuits and smiling coyly at the reader.

Furries

Furries

A lifetime of exposure to Internet culture informs me that the material is obviously catering to "furries," a subculture whose members exist somewhere on a spectrum of relating their personalities, interests, and sexual identities to anthropomorphic creatures. I've had far more exposure to people who make fun of the subculture than anyone involved with it, so I ask the vendor about his involvement in doing furry comics. He tells me he prefers to characterize what they do as trying to tell good stories, and it just happens that the stories they work on collecting go with the furry theme. I ask how he relates to the "mature" side of the fanbase, and he tells me they don't shy away from it, it's a part of humanity and storytelling, but they don't want to indulge in something erotic for its own sake. At the end of the day they want it to be about having a good story to tell. His apology for the community and its public celebration of its fetishes is that people have been projecting themselves into unrealistic fanciful situations for thousands of years, and that all this anthropomorphism is really nothing new. He's been a part of the fandom for eighteen years; the Internet just collected small pockets of people who are into this kind of thing and grew a subculture out of it. Comic-Con is a place that has a good part of that fanbase represented. He informs me that his company also goes to furry conventions, and that yes, some of his best friends wear fursuits. He sees his place in that community as bringing out the literature-oriented side of things, and proving that in addition to dressing up in suits and interpreting every character from mainstream fiction as an animal, that yes, furries will read a good solid book that suits their interests.

Strategy Guides and Publishing

Aaron from Prima Games

Aaron from Prima Games

While Sofawolf has undoubtedly benefited from the growth of the Internet and fan communities, later that day I was talking to another publisher for whom mass fan organization has had the opposite effect. Aaron from Prima Games works in the business of publishing strategy guides for video games, and his chief competition is a community of video game fans who research the same games he puts out guides for, and give away their work to the rest of the Internet for free. Prima Games has the advantage of working directly with the developer teams who are making the games, so their guides can draw on insider knowledge and exclusive art assets. On the other hand, casual fans writing guides online have months or years to study the underlying formulas of the game, perfect their style of play, and take advantage of mass community research without being up against deadlines or working off of early builds. In addition, because of how Prima Games works with game developers, they can't write about glitches or exploits in a game, while a typical online guide will have a list of game-breaking bugs to watch out for or to potentially exploit. And while a physical guide is a paper artifact you can page through while playing a game, an online guide is searchable, potentially with hyperlinks among all of its relevant sections, or built with sortable tables or customizable views. Aaron tells me Prima is also trying to do things like hyperlinked digital guides, but those are always an extension of the print product rather than a constantly up-to-date guide like the ones fans will create, and he admits to me that someone building a site about a game from the ground up could do a better job making an online guide than they do.

Aaron tells me that his company does well by collectors: a certain number of people will just buy a guide for every game they play, and Prima does a lot to add to the collectability of their guides, such as using gold-lined pages and stand-alone cloth maps for the premium Zelda series guides. Some genres like RPGs lend themselves really well to guides. The Fallout 3 strategy guide sold about 40% as many copies as the game's retail versions. The game simply had so much content to reference, and console gamers are much more likely to buy guides than PC gamers. Aaron tells me that in the past they had done an unauthorized Final Fantasy guide to get around some of the restrictions they have to work with when doing an authorized guide, but because of how many publishers they work with and need to keep happy, they realized they couldn't continue doing it. He assures me that the strategy guide industry is still doing well. It's a hundred million dollar industry, even if it has been shrinking over the last ten years despite the game industry's growth. He thinks the future of guides may be to branch out and write about topics closer to game design, how to mod games and design levels, so they could provide an asset to educational channels and communities of gamers who work with those tools.

Video Games Music and Concerts

While strategy guides may be on the decline, another aspect of gaming that's only gotten more attention is its music. Right outside the convention center during Comic-Con I attended a concert of live video game music put on by the San Diego Symphony and Video Games Live. The concert was partly visual as well as auditory. While the symphony played medleys of video game tunes both classic and contemporary, large screens showed clips from their respective games set in time with the music. In addition to performing the music of Mario, Zelda, and Metal Gear Solid, they had some guest stars. A pianist, who'd become famous on YouTube for playing complex arrangements of video game music blindfolded, played a medley of Final Fantasy music he arranged himself. A Master's student studying music was there to perform a flute arrangement that she wrote using Zelda music.

It was basically a celebration of game music and the video game aesthetic. One of the heads of Video Games Live, Tommy Tallarico, told the audience that video games are the entertainment medium of choice for the current generation. After the concert, I chatted with some of the game composers and sound designers in attendance, who had backgrounds ranging from studying music in academia, to starting out in a rock band, or simply picking everything up by ear. I asked Tommy Tallarico a music theory question about one of his pieces and he wasn't quite sure how it worked himself: he said it was likely something he picked up from Beethoven or Mozart or one of the classical composers. Tommy and I talked a little bit about his concert's focus on the more recognizable melody-driven music associated with games, as opposed to the ambient style of music that dominates a lot of gameplay time since it bears up well to repetition. He told me that while he does try to work in some slower pieces in different styles, it's challenging to build a selection of pieces that are recognizable and intense enough to keep an audience's interest. The experience of Video Games Live is much closer to a rock concert than a classical symphony. Fans are encouraged to scream and clap throughout, and it's less of an attempt to introduce your audience to something new than to celebrate the stuff they already like.

One of my friends who sings in the San Diego Symphony attended Video Games Live with his game-loving sons the previous year. He told me that although the symphony was giving away only a few concert tickets to its members, he didn't have a problem getting his hands on them—the attitude among the other professional musicians seemed to be that doing a game music concert was still a bit gimmicky. My friend enjoyed the concert a lot himself. Being involved in the classical tradition, he said it was interesting to hear the type of music that the current generation is listening to being given weighty treatment.

Fantasy and Writing

In addition to the exhibit hall and all the events going on around the convention center, there are a number of panels and workshops that are aimed at both obsessive fans and career hopefuls trying to find a way to break in. I attended a panel on "urban fantasy and paranormal romance." Every author there had some cynical things to say about how the genre was usually presented: the typical cover is apparently a half-naked girl sporting a tattoo and looking over her shoulder. Fittingly enough, this matched the description of a bookmark I was given to promote one of the publishers involved. The authors explained urban fantasy as a genre that tries for more realism than epic fantasy. Since it's grounded in reality, it actually requires research, and being tied to the details of normal life, it's just real life with more magic and monsters. Paranormal romance, by comparison, is set in a similar type of world but weighted more towards a romantic plot, and tries for a little more respectability than off-the-shelf romance novels by building a different type of world. Comparisons were drawn to Harry Potter as a world that is closely tied to reality, yet where magic exists, and only people "in the know" are aware of it. The extent to which a story focuses on magic, with reality occasionally intruding, or on reality, with magic occasionally intruding, marks a fine line between epic fantasy and urban.

Another panel on antiheroes and villains talked about twisting the typical conventions of writing. Kevin J. Anderson spoke about the main hero and villain of Dune, and how it's completely obvious which is which, but when you get right down to it, both of them are responsible for people dying and both make complicated plans and counter-plans: they're almost like two versions of the same person. Villains are often the active element who disrupt things and cause problems, while heroes are the reactive element. For this reason, Anderson thinks villains are often more interesting; they start things. One last bit of advice he had to offer budding writers was to remember that everyone who's teaching a creative writing course is someone who failed at making it in writing as a profession. But one lesson in creative writing courses that stuck with him was that ultimately every character has to have some reason that lets them at least justify to themselves what they're doing. No one ever really thinks they're the bad guy.

Game writing panel

The panel on game writing

The last panel on writing that I attended was one about writing in the context of games, where admittedly it often takes a secondary role. Chris Avellone of Knights of the Old Republic fame argued that a game's writing is far less important than its gameplay, while others tried to argue that having a story at least connects you to a gameplay experience and increases the value of engaging in the game's mechanics. Writers are often brought in to tack on a story after most of the game is completed, and they have to struggle to fill in narrative gaps from levels that were cut or didn't get completed in time. The point was made that a gamer always has their finger on the A button, ready to skip your cutscene or race through your dialog the moment you aren't entertaining them enough. One technique they discussed was trying to engage a player by letting him provide the motivation for a scene and let him do whatever he wants, like the Fallout series tries to do, as opposed to giving him a scripted story to work through. But they ultimately agreed that games are still in their infancy and game storytelling likely has a way to go.

Digital Novels and Digital Comics

Two ambitious projects being hyped at Comic-Con are attempts to bring two different mediums into the digital age: novels and comics. Anthony Zuiker, the creator of CSI, worked with EQAL, the creators of the lonelygirl15 Web series, to produce Level 26, a "digital novel" with supplemental video content available online to add to the story. Marvel Comics is moving in the direction of having comics you can both read and watch an animated version of. These projects are trying to shift their media toward video, higher production values, and the Web, in order to keep up with a changing world. Marvel Comics showed two "digital comics" that were animated versions of existing comicbooks. The first was a Spider-Woman comic that felt too melodramatic and surreal in its dialogue to be believable when all of its lines were spoken. The other comic was a Joss Whedon X-Men title that felt much more natural, but it still left me wondering why you wouldn't just do a cartoon from the ground up if that's what you wanted to do. The Marvel representatives seemed to have the philosophy that the fans wanted as true a realization of the source material as they could get. That made less sense to me than radically reinterpreting your source material for a different format; I wasn't convinced that redoing your comic line-for-line with voice actors and animation made the most sense.

Last Blood cosplayer

A cosplayer representing the Last Blood webcomic

Marvel Comics ultimately hopes to reach a point where they can release every comic with a DVD instead of putting a digital comic on the Web. I had the chance to speak with Anthony Zuiker and Miles Beckett from EQAL about Level 26, and asked why they didn't just go the DVD route in releasing their video content and why they went with the Web instead. Anthony explained that one of the things he wants to do with his project is establish community, to have people read the book, log on, and interact with other fans who are having the same experience they are; the website will be built such that you can discuss any given part with people who have read as far as you have. And he frankly stated that he doesn't think there's any future in DVDs, and that downloadable digital content is where the world is heading. What he wants to do with his project is build a community he can interact with, and continue to grow it with the releases of future books. The website could be a lasting home for that.

I asked why he chose to release the book all in one segment as opposed to putting it out serially to slowly build the mystery and suspense. He said that they intend to release new content to the site on a serial basis, with new information pertinent to the story appearing, and eventually adding a component to the site whereby viewers can unlock new narrative themselves through an interactive gameplay experience. Their goal at the moment is to build a solid foundation for their project and continue growing it from there—Miles Beckett compared it to an online book club where you can hang out with people who know as much as you do. For me it was slightly odd to think of people going back and forth between videos on a website and chapters of a book. Anthony talked about having a rhythm to the experience where you read for a while and watch something that drives you back to the book to find out more, but he admits that it's certainly possible that someone will power through all the videos online or just read the book in a single sitting when they don't have Internet. They want to allow for multiple levels of immersion with the project and the online activities they're building around the book. Miles Beckett described his reasons for being excited about the project; it wasn't just conceived of as a book with a website and videos to promote it but an integrated mixed media project, and ideas have flowed both ways, from the production of the videos to the novel and vice versa. Miles compared the production of Level 26 to an "agile project" from software terminology: you make an initial "build" of the story and then iterate through the whole creative process again to revise it. They talked about writing the first sixty pages of the novel, shooting the video used as a chapter bridge, and then going back and revising the novel in response to what they learned from that process. We ended our discussion by finally focusing on the story of Level 26 rather than its unique production. I asked what makes his villain an interesting character, and he described him as someone who executes justice when people do wrong, which ultimately leads you to realize that no one is really innocent and that everyone is on the hook for that. His villain doesn't kill, but he's still feared by both criminals and law enforcement, and he lives by a code of his own.

Zach Snyder, Watchmen, and Faithfulness in Adaptations

On Saturday I had the chance to talk with Zach Snyder and attend his panel on the Watchmen director's cut. The Marvel Comics guys mentioned that the Spider-Woman digital comic was written and drawn by the artist with the intention of turning it into a motion-comic later. Zach Snyder's approach to doing the sequel to 300 is almost the opposite approach. Frank Miller is working on a sequel to his graphic novel 300, and Zach Snyder intends to make a movie out of it like he did for the original. But Zach doesn't want to be involved in the creative process at all until it's done. He wants Frank to make the best comic he can without thinking of it as a movie, and once that's done they can figure out how to turn it into something else.

Zach Snyder faced a particularly difficult adaptation with Watchmen. He mentioned that at one point he considered splitting it into two parts and "Kill Bill"ing it, but the story was such that there was really no natural break in the middle to end it. At the panel, he talked about all the changes he made to the movie as concessions to reality: you can't make an eight hour long movie, you can't produce a mini-series with the same quality as the movie would have had, and there wasn't enough time in the movie to fit in all the plot points that led up to the ending used in the graphic novel. His adaptation of Watchmen has been both dissected for all of its differences from the source material and critiqued for its literalness. To me, Zach Snyder kind of represents one end of the spectrum in making adaptations by sticking closely with the source material, in contrast to a lot of well-known adaptations like Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings that have taken fairly significant liberties with their stories to make them work as movies, and have often been raked over the coals by hardcore fans as a result. I know hardcore fans from some fandoms who wouldn't trust anyone but a Zach Snyder to make their movie and get it right. With all that in mind, I asked him why he goes for the approach he does in making movies adhere fairly literally to the source material, in contrast to changing the story into something he thinks would work better as a movie. He told me that he thinks you have to take a hybrid of those two philosophies; he tries not to analyze what he's doing too much, which is apparently my job; he just goes with his gut for what works in the movie. But ultimately he feels that any movie is going to come out changed from the source; it's like a game of telephone where something happens to the story by the time you tell it again. He basically tries to see if his "bullshit meter" goes off when he's looking at the screenplay or the storyboards in the various stages of the process, whether it still feels like the story he's trying to retell. There's no hard and fast rule that he has, but he knows when he's gotten it wrong somewhere. He has to take a hard look at what he's doing at each stage of movie-making and see if he's gotten off track from what he wants it to be.

The Watchmen director's cut panel that evening alternated between a scene-by-scene dissection in relation to the comic and simple random revelry. At one point they were taking questions from the audience and someone asked Zach Snyder what his favorite type of peanut butter was. He answered, and someone found a jar of it in their backpack and brought it on stage. After a comment that he wished he had some bread, someone produced a full loaf and gave it to him. A few offhand comments about jelly, plates, and silverware later, and the director had himself a make-shift Comic-Con sandwich to eat as he watched his own movie. I talked for a while with the kinds of fans who had sufficient dedication to show up three panels early to be assured seating to the Watchmen director's cut panel, and they seemed to have comparable attitudes about Zach Snyder's work. They appreciated that he didn't sell the movie's concept out as a ninety minute action flick, that he stayed as true to the convoluted comic as he did, and while they had their issues with the way some things turned out, they thought he did as good of a job as making a movie out of it as they could have hoped anyone in Hollywood would have. Dave Gibbons, the artist for the comic, talked about the changed ending as a point of differentiation from the comic for him: that at the end of the day the comic is one thing and the movie is a different thing; you can enjoy them both but they are different stories in a sense, both of which he appreciates.

Massive crowds

The crowd in the exhibit hall

Faithfulness to source material is a big deal to the types of people who show up at Comic-Con, who are often the original hard-core fans of the material that is eventually mined and turned mainstream. There's an entire community of German Harry Potter fans who aren't satisfied with the German translation. They mine the English books for differences and come up with their own vocabularies that they feel better represents the world of the books. Similarly, there are anime, manga, and video game fans who despise dubbed versions and sometimes resent the efforts of English translators to dumb a story down for them. One Manga fan I talked to felt that you needed to understand a fair amount of Japanese to appreciate some of the stories in their original forms, and a lot of the meanings conveyed by honorifics and Japanese modes of speech are simply lost in English, which annoys her. And all of this, of course, stands in contrast to the approach of telling a story differently for each audience and medium. A sign-language interpreter I talked to told me that if someone tells a joke in one language that isn't funny in another, you have to work in a different joke, and when something just doesn't make sense in a particular cultural context she thinks it's better to rework it than lose someone. Translation of anything can never be perfect. Simply the act of telling someone a story causes them to change it in their understanding of it.

If you ever get the chance to meet a subculture-obsessed, by-the-book, uncompromising Comic-Con attendee (such as myself), treat them with respect. Remember: they were into the stuff you like long before it was cool, and they'll still be into it long after it ceases to be.


Mark's homepage is http://newheiser.googlepages.com and his blog is http://newheiser.blogspot.com.



Mark Newheiser is a graduate of UCSD with a master's degree in Computer Science. When he's not designing or dissecting complex systems, he enjoys giving the other half of his brain a workout in the worlds of sci-fi, fantasy, and gaming, as seen in his Strange Horizons dispatch of Comic-Con 2009. You can find out more about Mark by visiting his website or dropping him a line.
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