Dispatches from Nerdvana: Wha Happen at Fan Expo

Apologies about the formatting, will fix tonight!

The Mr. Spock on my streetcar is violating the Prime Directive several times over.

Rather than the clever combo of a fisherman’s cap to cover the ears and awkward

racial commentary to cover the eyebrows and eyes, which has been used to great effect

in past to hide the presence of an alien on 21st Century, pre-First Contact Earth, he’s

just hanging out. Hanging out and playing Candy Crush on what must seem to Vulcan

eyes to be a hopelessly outdated piece of technology.

Most illogical.

I guess he ran out of game time, though, because he swears most un-Vulcanly and

makes a phone call. I guess he missed the whole ‘A Vulcan will show no emotion’ part

of his education (or he was in the heat of Ponn Farr. It’s hard to tell, sometimes.)

We’re getting off at the same stop, so I flash him a ‘Live Long and Prosper.’

He gives me the finger.

If I can find a working communicator at Fan Expo this year, I’m totally going to report

him to Starfleet. Maybe it’ll lead to one of those awesome court martial episodes, where

Kirk has to defend him to a by-the-book admiral.

It’s a fitting start to Fan Expo 2013.

***

Every year, I make a pilgrimage of sorts to the sweaty, crowded, and infinitely

nerdy (and hallowed) halls of Fan Expo. For the uninitiated, Fan Expo serves as

Toronto’s largest pop culture event; serving the fervent fandoms of film, TV, horror, sci

fi, comics, anime, video games, super heroes, fantasy characters, and collectors (and,

most bizarrely this year, sports fans). The Metro Convention Centre is now entirely

consumed by the event, which has spread across both the north and south buildings

and hosts hundreds fans and celebrities every year.

For many, Fan Expo is about costumes (and indeed some Cosplayers work all year

on elaborate costumes; I have seen some who never enter the Expo itself, instead

installing themselves at the foot of the escalator for adoration and photo ops) or about

scoring rare merch (or in some cases, hilariously nostalgic merch…I saw the mint

condition, unopened Ghostbusters firehouse I spent countless hours playing with going

for $400 today. Glad I still have -and played with- mine). It’s often an orgy of spending

and photography.

But for me, this is my writer’s retreat; this is where I go to hear my favourite authors,

actors, directors, and effects people unfold their craft. To hear stories from people who

I respect and admire about struggling with writer’s block, or to find acting work.

It’s a reminder that every nerd icon started out (and often still is) just a fan with big

ideas and the ability and perseverance to follow through on them.

The gorgeous women in skin-tight nerd costumes don’t hurt either.

So here I am, embarking once more unto the nerd breach to be inspired, revitalized,

and to nerd right the frak out,

…and also, to have my patience tested by anime fans wearing 6′ wide metal wings

who give exactly zero fucks about crowd control, and nerds with delusions of grandeur,

who really really want to talk at their favourite celebrity while a room of 200 people

wishes a speedy and efficient death upon them.

Game on, Fan Expo.

Fan Expo begins, as is traditional, with a massive ticketing clusterfuck.

Hobby Star, the fine people behind Fan Expo, make a yearly habit of under-estimating

just how many people are coming and -perhaps more importantly- how irate people in

fully leather costumes get when waiting in line.

Ain’t no rage like a nerd rage.

Following the signs to tickets, I blare the Pirates of the Caribbean theme (cuz

I’m cool like that, savy?) which quickly proves to be both highly anti-climactic, though

strangely appropriate. As I am continually rebuked (“No, you need to go down the

street, past Steamwhistle, to a mysterious parking garage.” “No, you have a premium

pass, that’s the north building.” “Oh, that’s actually just your receipt. You had to

click ‘1 of 1’ to open your ticket, then print that.”). Anti-climactic, because by this point

I had played the song four times (each time leading to another dead end, despite my

determination to the contrary). Strangely appropriate, because if viewed from afar, I

was the determined looking guy marching back and forth futility in a highly Captain Jack

Sparrow-y way.

Rum would have helped, mind. Why is the rum always gone…?

But finally, I had my printed ticket in hand (leaving my fiancé in line for the shady

underground parking garage, which over my time away had somehow turned into a line

of infinite sadness.)

What followed, was an almost perfect re-enactment of the ‘Jerry gets upgraded to

first class, Elaine does not’ episode of Seinfeld. I arrived to a short line to pick up my

Premium pass (behind an aggravatingly dense nerd in a suit, who repeatedly asked the

ticket lady -who was in the process of giving him his wristband- if she could get him his

ticket. Entitled Suit Nerd earned the coveted position of ‘First Punchable,’ which refers

to the list I will be running of people I want to punch at the Expo.). Got my pass and a

nice, quiet priority entrance, bypassing the frustrated masses (the fiancé, at this point,

was exactly where I left her, as they were processing same day purchases with the

majority of their windows, leaving only one for fools who want to buy a day in advance.)

We premium pass holders get in two hours early, so I was able to take in the sights of

the Expo at my leisure and scoop up a long sought after graphic novel (only to realize I

was a rube minutes later when I found it for my $25 purchase for $4 elsewhere.)

My fiancé, meanwhile, still languished in line.

Then I went to the Premium Lounge. Now, this is a lounge in the most rudimentary

sense; it’s a big fucking subterranean room with a bunch of round tables, but dammit,

it’s our room. (I had secretly hoped to be served drinks by R2-D2 while Slave Leias

danced to Cantina music…but I guess that’s the separate VIP lounge…). I even got to

watch some plebeians kicked out by the awkward 15-year old who was handing out our

premium loot bags. Bwahahaha! Nerd privilege.

The fiancé, by this point, had finally been told a second window had opened, only to

be told by said window that they were only selling same day tickets and to get back in

line for other tickets. This led to a verbal sparring match the likes of which…

Who am I kidding. The nerds revolted and the poor site manager sold them their

tickets.

Nevertheless, I was feeling pretty happy with the premium tickets by this point. I kept

this to myself.

If you’ve never been, here’s the sight that greets you when you finally pass all the

hurdles and make it to the hall.

PHOTO COMING SOON

The space is roughly divided into a large retail space (in turn sub-divided into comics,

collectables, and costumes), Artist’s Alley which is an incredible place to find some truly

beautiful art or purchase commissions from a favorite comic artist (and responsible for

the majority of the art in my apartment), and large demo areas for new video games and

film memorabilia/displays. Present in this space, one finds horror, sci fi, comics, anime,

and some gaming. There is also a food court, with a surprising amount of options (a far

cry from the ALL PIZZA PIZZA, ALL THE TIME philosophy of years gone by).

In the hallway, smaller rooms are reserved for screenings, games, seminars, and

Q&A’s (which are the core of my experience). This year, the festival wisely spread into

the second convention hall building, moving the celebrity signings and big guests into

the larger space. This also allowed for the addition of perhaps the largest ‘times they

are a-changing’ section of the Expo: the sports section. Was a time nerds and sports

fans were oil and water; now we’re sharing wristbands.

All of this was before me, as I entered the Expo…but Thursday is new and a bit slow. I

picked a couple events and made my way…

SKETCH DUEL, LEE BERMEJO VS RYAN STEGMAN

This is a unique and often under-attended event at Fan Expo and one that only

came to my attention last year (when I had been following comics enough to actually

appreciate who these people were).

The concept is a neat one: two or three artists are given an hour to draw a character

picked by the audience live, while answering questions from the audience. At the

end of the hour, the two drawings are given away by raffle. It’s an incredible way to

score some free work from top artists while also getting a peak at their process and

personality. Unfortunately, due to the time constraints, the process often proves more

enlightening than the forced responses to questions that are really only distracting them

from what they are doing, but it’s a cool process nevertheless.

The two I wanted to see are a couple of my favorites, though their styled wildly differ.

Bermejo is the artist behind Joker, Luthor, and most recently Batman: Noel, with an

incredibly detailed, almost oil painting style (which he admits is heavily influenced by

Norman Rockwell, which was a revelatory ‘THAT’S what it reminds me of’ gasp from

me). Stegman, on the other hand is a regular artist on my favourite Spider-Man comic,

using a much more cartoony style influenced heavily by Todd MacFarlane’s runs on

Spider-Man and Spawn.

One of my favourite parts of such duels is the chance to see artists draw someone

they never do (I saw the incredible Amanda Conner draw a mash-up of Daenerys

Targaryen and Marvel’s Squirrel Girl. Which was awesome beyond explanation).

This year, the requests were Lex Luthor holding Krytonite (easy for Bermjo, who did a

whole book on Luthor), Hawkeye, ‘a totally legit’ Aquaman, Dr. Who (shot down by both

artists), and finally Spider-Man as requested by an adorable little dude holding a Spidey

mask.

Stegman applauded this, so it was chosen, which is a bit of a bummer, since we see

his Spidey on a bi-monthly basis, but nevertheless the two drew awesome Spider-Men.

Part of the problem with interviewing visual artists as they work is that they often aren’t

that talkative to begin with, let alone when working. The conversation was fairly stilted,

though there were a few awesome moments between the artists, where they spoke

about each other’s work, and a great anecdote from Stegman about finding out the

entire top secret arc about Doc Ock taking over as Spider-Man from the writer Dan Slott

in a pizza place during a comic expo, where basically the scoop of the year was being

loudly discussed but went entirely unnoticed.

The end results went, improbably, to 395914 and 395915 (who were dour and moody

in victory), but were all made worthwhile by the little suggestion dude, who literally

gasped in awe when the image was displayed, “It’s Spidey!’

There isn’t a lot at these expos just for kids, but in a lot of ways, this duel was. And

that’s awesome.

There were a bunch of highly specific comic nerd things that came up during this, that

I have neglected to mention, but if you’re interested, let me know and I’ll give you the

scoop.

HOLY SHIT, IT’S STAN LEE.

I got chills when Stan Lee strode epically onto the stage. At 92, the man has more

energy and wonder in him than half of audience (I’m looking at you, jaded asshole

circling his guidebook instead of listening). The man is a legend, having created

Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, the X-Men, the Hulk, Iron Man, Black Panther, Doctor

Strange, and countless others. Particularly since the advent of the Marvel film universe,

the man’s creations have had an incredible and lasting effect on popular culture and

seeing the legend in the flesh was damn inspiring.

Stan is basically a cross between a kindly, eccentric, elderly uncle and an old-timey

vaudevillian showman. He is unabashedly honest about the real driving force behind

all of his greatest creation being financial (“It was my job. I had to come up with super

heroes or I’d get fired. Your boss says come up with a super hero, you damn well

better come up with a super hero.”), but is also so proud of the stories he’s told that

he practically glows. His voice, if you haven’t heard it, bares a striking resemblance to

George Carlin’s, though with a twinkle in his eye and constant sense of bemusement,

that the gruffer more cynical Carlin lacked.

He is also full of quips and glee, handling many questions with a flippant remark and

a shrug (among the best: “I wasn’t in Wolverine because it was shot in Australia and

it was too far to swim,” Question: “You’re 92, what’s your secret for living so long?”

Answer: “Don’t die.”)

But the true brilliance of Stan Lee lies in his simple, clean understanding of how to tell

a super hero story. He speaks of giving legendary artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko

the story, without dialogue, which he broke down into: the story, who the villain was,

what the villain was doing, how the hero would stop them, and the ending. Reflecting

on older comics, this model is everywhere and helped shape and define the genre. Its

a useful, reductionist attitude for a writer like myself who is generally insistent on wildly

over complicating my outlines.

I also found it found particularly interesting that Stan would only add dialogue after

receiving the art, to ensure that it synced up perfectly with the images (unimaginable in

the industry today, where scripts often resemble film scripts). This proved particularly

useful when Kirby added a random naked silver guy on a surf board to a panel involving

Galactus, since he thought a world eating super alien ought to have a sentinel that

would scout worlds for him. By accident, the Silver Surfer was born.

In his creation, Stan talks about looking at what hasn’t (or hadn’t) been done.

Spider-Man was born of a lack of teenage heroes and heroes with problems (quoteth

Stan “Superman’s biggest problem was that if he took off his glasses, everyone would

know he was Superman or some damn thing.”). Even this was too revolutionary for his

editor who killed the idea stating that people hated spiders, teenagers could only be

sidekicks, and that super heroes didn’t have problems because they were super heroes;

so Stan dumped it on the final issue of a dying book (Amazing Fantasy) and after wildly

successful sales, Spider-Man got his own book. But he’s always looking to fill a gap

which has led to some awesome, awesome characters.

Iron Man, for instance, was born of the idea of taking a character no one liked and

making him likeable. In the height of the 60s, he took all the things his audience hated

-the military industrial complex, wealth, capitalism- and combined them into Tony Stark

(who he based on Howard Hughes, a fact so obvious it has become obscure again).

The response from smitten female readers was through the roof. It was yet another

successful gamble (and he could not be more about Robert Downey Jr as Iron Man.)

When pressed to pick a favourite, he begrudgingly goes with Spider-Man (his Mickey

Mouse), but loves them all. At Expos like this, you sometimes see indifference to things

people created or starred as, but Stan Lee lights up naming all of his characters. He

absolutely loves them, which is inspiring and truly touching. I suspect he loves these

heroes as much as we do.

“I’m my own biggest fan,” he grins.

And he leaves us with one final tidbit, which I think might be a Q&A first for him since

it came so far off the cuff, but he admitted that he has a terrible time with names in life

and writing, so almost all of his characters have the same letter begin their first and last

name (Bruce Banner, Reed Richards, Sue Storm, Peter Parker, Matt Murdock, Scott

Summers, Stephen Strange, Warren Worthington, Otto Octavious, Dr. Doom, Green

Goblin…) because he could use the letter of their first or last name to spark his memory

for the other name.

As a fan and a writer, there are few more inspiring things than seeing someone who

has created all these wonderfully arresting things, still be as excited about them as you

are; and when he left the stage yelling his trademark “Excelsior!” You can’t help but be

the true believer he always called you in the narration boxes of his comics.

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