A seven-and-a-half hour overnight drive found me in San Diego by dawn on Thursday, with enough time to reconnoiter my hotel (500 West, a former YMCA--and it shows!) and plot a cunning plan for four days of free parking. My parking windfall is top secret, but I can offer some small advice about surviving Comic-Con, based on my first year in attendance. Book early, be early, prioritize, and make detailed plans (but stay flexible). If you're wont to collect free posters (of which there tend to be quite a few), think ahead and bring a poster tube, but otherwise travel as light as possible for your endurance and sanity (in fact, rolling luggage carts are banned on the crowded exhibit-hall floor).
For a cheap breakfast, I recommend the Sun Cafe (421 Market St.), a cash-only diner that's operated since 1920 in San Diego's historic Gaslamp Quarter (the cafe was also featured in Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous). It opens at 7am Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, and it's close to the Convention Center and area hotels, so it makes a good greasy-spoon sitdown spot to plan the day ahead. I availed myself—twice in four days—of the #4 (two eggs, hash browns, toast and bacon or sausage), priced $3.70.
THURSDAY, JULY 14: After scoping out the exhibit hall (dominated by elaborate, funhouse Hollywood studio booths), I settled in for my first panel, DC Comics' Batman: Year of the Bat presentation with Bob Schreck (editor), Bill Willingham (writer: Robin, Fables), Greg Rucka (writer: Gotham Central, Countdown to Infinite Crisis, The Omac Project), Joey Cavilleri (editor: Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight), and a latecoming Jim Lee (artist: All-Star Batman & Robin). The panel turned out to be a door-buster, closed after reaching capacity.
Through bit tongues, the panel attempted to explain the recent restructuring of DC's editorial staff to eliminate "group editors" (meaning that, currently, no one man serves as the Bat-editor). According to Shreck, who edits the All-Star books, "It's an interesting switch-up of players...We're no longer in groups, but in two-man teams. Pete Tomasi is editing Detective Comics and Batman, but has no purview over Robin or the other Bat-titles. It's an experiment. Change is inevitable. Life is change, and if you don't know that right now—leave."
Gregarious Greg Rucka teased a future issue of Gotham Central to be illustrated by Steve Lieber (Whiteout): "Four words: Shazam in Gotham City." Cavillieri noted that Will Pfeiffer ("who writes everything else not written by Geoff [Johns] and Greg") would handle a story arc to follow "Snow," calling the Chris Weston-drawn story "some of the best stuff we've done." After that: a special double-sized issue with Eddie Campbell script and Bart Sears artwork. Shreck dropped a bomb by announcing a prestige-format, four-issue mini to debut in early 2006; it's a Paul Pope creation called Batman: Year 100, about what happens to the Bat-mantle after Bruce Wayne's death. Mostly, the panelists submitted themselves to the questions of the packed house in 5AB, begging off Birds of Prey and Jason Todd questions in deference to, respectively, the absent Gail Simone and Judd Winick.
Willingham talked about penning the upcoming "War Crimes" crossover in Batman and Detective Comics, a sequel to the "War Games" storyline. "One of the things we're trying to do with 'War Crimes' is get a new Batman out of it. We've had the 'Biff! Boom! Pow!' Batman, and for a long time we've had the grim n' gritty Batman. What we're trying to do is introduce the warm and hugging Batman." Rucka: "Come on, Joker! Let's hug it out!" On the subject of the Joker, Willingham bowed down to Detective Comics scribe Andersen Gabrych for writing a Joker zinger so good he had to crib it to open the following story.
Rucka couldn't say how "War Crimes" would affect Gotham Central since he hasn't yet seen "War Crimes." Shreck took the opportunity to note, "What we try to do is put together stories so if you want to play, you can play with it, but if you don't, you don't have to." Rucka praised Batman Begins (but complained about the pronunication of Rā's Al Ghūl), and sheepishly admitted that he never would have killed off Rā's in "Death and the Maiden" had he known the film was using Rā's. He also said chances are excellent that Gotham Central would feature Harvey Dent in the near future, confessing that he loves the character ("I have a hard time not writing him in"). Rucka openly mused about a story he wants to do called Gotham Plus 20, with Batman searching for a successor after suffering a stroke. As of now, it's only an idea he's kicking around. No serious love interest is planned for Bruce Wayne, who Rucka insisted will be Batman until he dies (if anyone were to succeed Batman, he said, it'd be Tim Drake).
When Jim Lee hustled in late, he explained that he had just finished issue 5 of All-Star Batman & Robin: "No, really! I started at midnight last night and finished at 7 a.m. this morning." Lee winkingly addressed Shreck, his boss. "I sent it in, but if the file is corrupt, just let me know and I'll resend it." Pause. "In a couple days." Lee also thrilled the crowd by announcing that Frank Miller had expressed an interest in continuing the title, with Lee, beyond their six-issue commitment. Lee said he'd be happy to stick with Miller as long as the writer wanted him. That said, Lee admitted to initial apprehension about revisiting the character after illustrating the hugely popular "Hush" storyline. Asked if All-Star Batman & Robin—which had only just streeted—would mark a change in Lee's Batman style, Lee responded that he saw "Hush" as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so he held nothing back. Impossibly high expectations aside, he's happy to stick with his well-known Batman design, noting only slight adjustments. Lee said he'd like to one day draw Legion of Super-Heroes.
Next, I settled in to the sizeable Room(s) 6CDEF for Warner Independent Pictures' panel on A Scanner Darkly. The next feature from Richard Linklater (Bad News Bears), this Philip K. Dick adaptation uses a process similar to the one used in Linklater's Waking Life to rotoscope trippy animation over footage of actors (including Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey, Jr., Winona Ryder, and Woody Harrelson). The panel was manned by producer Tommy Pallotta and lead animators Sterling Allen, Evan Cagle, Nick Derrington, Christopher Jennings, joined by a Philip K. Dick "android" (seriously). A two-minute, fifteen-second trailer and a three-minute scene promised weird, wild stuff from the movie, as if a Philip K. Dick "android" sort of responding to audience questions wasn't weird enough. The $8 million film, originally scheduled for 2005 release (because, according to the animators, Warner never thought to ask how long it would take), is now targeted for March 2006.
Between panels, I popped in on Golden and Silver Age of Comics: Working for DC in Room 8. Six comic book vets—Gene Colan, Sy Barry, Ramona Fradon, Nick Cardy, Arnold Drake, and Murphy Anderson—discussed their work for DC Comics from the '40s through the '60s, with moderator Mark Evanier. The Golden/Silver Age panels are a real hoot, with no-B.S. talk about the best and worst editors and the highs and lows of bygone days in the comic-book industry.
Next up in 6CDEF: an impassioned panel focused on the long-awaited movie based on the late Will Eisner's legendary comic The Spirit. Screenwriter Jeph Loeb (Batman: The Long Halloween, Batman: Dark Victory, Smallville, producers Deborah Del Prete of Odd Lot Entertainment (Green Street Hooligans) and Batfilm Productions' Michael Uslan (Batman, Batman Begins) joined Eisner's longtime comic book agent Denis Kitchen and acclaimed comic book artist Darwyn Cooke (DC: The New Frontier) to announce the film, a Batman/The Spirit stand-alone special for late 2005 (written by Loeb and drawn by Cooke), and the launch of an ongoing Spirit title to be written and illustrated by Cooke. With no finished script, director, or cast (Loeb: "I'm a big fan of Cary Grant, so if [we] could get him..."), the film of The Spirit is still at least a couple of years away, but the panel was confident that the film would be made, come hell or high water. Loeb plans an origin story, set "out of time," that will include the characters of P'Gell and Ebony White. Purportedly, the comic-book and film plans, such as they are, had all been approved by Eisner before his death earlier this year.
The Spotlight on Bruce Campbell panel next invaded 6CDEF, completely busting the room's capacity and leaving many shut outside. This man—star of The Evil Dead films, novelist, raconteur—is a Comic-Con phenom with a brilliant handle on how to sell himself and please his sizeable cult audience. After some typically snarky opening remarks, Campbell ran a trailer for THQ Games' Evil Dead: Regeneration, then a trailer for Walt Disney's Sky High; he also plugged his new-ish book Make Love the Bruce Campbell Way and his directorial debut Man With the Screaming Brain. Campbell's been on a 30-odd-city tour promoting the latter two projects, so his snappy patter is well-rehearsed, but he's also quick enough on his feet to snipe down left-field questions with consummate zingers. It's arguable who's the coolest fan-adored chatter: Campbell or Kevin Smith (more on him later).
I wrapped up my day in 6CDEF with director David Cronenberg and screenwriter Josh Olson, who sat together to promote their collaboration on New Line's A History of Violence, starring Viggo Mortensen, Ed Harris, and Maria Bello. Moderator David Poland (film journalist of The Hot Button) kept the panel humming along, with airings of the trailer and the inciting diner scene preceding an extensive Q&A. Poland asked about the new ground the film implies for the director (answer: "It's not like I say that [every film] has to have body portals") and noted that A History of Violence reminded him of the French New Wave (answer: "Please don't put the curse of the French on me!").
Despite the fact that the $32 million A History of Violence departs radically from its comic-book source material, this audience greeted Cronenberg (and his film clip) warmly. "I think we have a special audience here," said the director after the audience cheered at the clip's violent payoff. "It was a really good response. Thank you...Just remember, children: don't play with guns!" Understandably a bit uncomfortable talking to an audience who hadn't yet seen the film, Cronenberg further teased the crowd by asking, "Don't you think we should just show the movie?"
After gushing that Cronenberg's involvement was "beyond my wildest expectations...He was one of my top two living directors," Olson mostly deferred to his director, who worked hard to steer clear of spoilers. Cronenberg did admit—in answering a point-blank question about the final scene of the comic—that his film ends differently. In point of fact, Cronenberg claims he wasn't aware John Wagner's graphic novel existed until well after he agreed to film Olson's script: "There was something about the script that was disturbing and resonant and really good." The randy director added, "I want you to know that Josh's first draft had no sex— I forced him to write his first pornographic scenes."
Cronenberg described casting as "always a torturous process...You do get into list-making. It's a strange thing, but it's true...I can't say Viggo was the only one on my list, but he was always on my list"; the director added that Mortensen is "an underrated star—He's actually a superb, superb actor" ("I was pulling for Carrot Top," quipped Olson). Cronenberg explained that his own acting stints have helped him to understand "why actors are the way they are" and their "gypsy mentality." The director recalled shutting himself in a room and toiling on the Naked Lunch script when not acting on the London set of Nightbreed, saying, "I was quite introverted and strange," and quickly adding, "I'm sure none of you have had that experience."
When asked about the upcoming Special Edition DVD reissue of The Fly, Cronenberg equivocated about the merit of deleted scenes, but confirmed that the disc would include the infamous cat-monkey scene and a fine new documentary. Cronenberg also discussed his "warm and supportive" collaboration with actors, based not on the rigidity of storyboards, but trust in the actor's instrument (the body) and the benefits of on-set spontaneity. The director also explained why he collaborates regularly with composer Howard Shore: "We developed together— We grew up together in the business...He constantly amazes me—with how beautifully adapted to the movie [the music] is." Cronenberg confirmed that Shore scored A History of Violence: "I work with the same people as long as we can stimulate each other to new cinematic heights of ecstasy."
FRIDAY, JULY 15: In my morning roamings, disorientation sets in. While trying to swing by the freebie table around 10am, the flow of traffic stops in the long corridor. Suddenly I'm in a line. As other confused pedestrians strip away from the line, I ask someone what's going on. "This is for a chance to win a Natalie Portman autograph." So there's a tip for y'all. Keep your ear to the ground. None of the programs—not even the daily newsletters—listed this opportunity; it was strictly a secret for people in the right place at the right time. (In case you're wondering, I didn't win an autograph.)
Shortly, I headed off to Hall H, the giant convention floor with a capacity of 6,500. I had vastly underestimated the time it would take to get in—the line was the longest I'd ever seen, winding down the street and looping several times through a grassy knoll before returning to the building, through the lobby, and finally into the hall. After what seemed like an eternity, I made it into the hall and got a seat about 20 rows back for what proved to be the single hottest event of the con: an appearance by Portman at the Warner Brothers Presents panel. Portman, producers Joel Silver and Grant Hill, and original V for Vendetta artist David Lloyd unveiled the first trailer for V for Vendetta, then took questions from the audience.
A note here about asking questions in Hall H. When it comes to Hollywood talent, Comic-Con tries (and often fails, bless 'em) to protect the stars from stupid questions. As such, the microphone is guarded by people who want to know: "What's your question?" It's best to be prepared, before the panel even begins, with a couple of queries for whomever you'd like to question. I spontaneously decided to dash up and try a question on Portman about her preparation for the role, but after explaining my question to one mirophone "guard," one of the few people ahead of me asked the same thing. As I tried to think of another question, the second microphone guard wouldn't shut up and let me think. That went something like this: "What's your question?" "Someone just asked it. I'm thinking of another." "Okay--who's it for?" "Natalie Portman. I can't hear—" "Okay, well, if you want to think of another question..." "I'm trying to think." "Why don't you ask her about..." "Forget it." As a consequence, I didn't even hear Portman's answer at the time.
The first two questions for the panel were, not surprisingly, stupid: "I was wondering if you can give me a completely and utterly original moment" (to which poor Portman blithered and made faces for a couple of seconds) and "I'm an up-and coming producer...[I wonder if] you would ever play Audrey Hepburn" (Portman demurred politely, but the producer lingered at the mic). People asked Portman to name her favorite costars, favorite role, and preference of genre, leaving Portman to apologize repeatedly for being "political." To find out how Portman prepared for the role, why Alan Moore didn't participate, the origins of the project, and Lloyd's feelings about the story's fresh relevance in light of the London bombings, read the complete transcript.
Next up was an exclusive reel of footage and B-roll from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, with a special Comic-Con introduction by barely contained director Mike Newell, who talked about the scares of Year Four: the Tri-Wizard Tournament and "even more frightening for Harry...girls". The reel was suitably impressive, with weird new characters, pulse-pounding action, and a dark look that promises to flow seamlessly from Alfonso Cuarón's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
Real, live guests came out for Tim Burton's Corpse Bride: producer Allison Abbate and co-director Mike Johnson. The panel began, though, with a hopelessly perfunctory taped greeting from Tim Burton, in which he unconvincingly promised to make it out to Comic-Con someday. Following the greeting came a seven-minute clip from early in the film, setting up the "corpse bride" premise with the accidental reanimation and a subsequent barroom musical number, by Danny Elfman, that details the Corpse Bride's folk-story exposition. Nifty stuff, and Abbate and Johnson carried the torch well by fielding questions and championing stop-motion animation in a world of pixels. They mentioned that the musical number was one of four, noting that the movie isn't really a musical, and sorry, Nightmare Before Christmas fans: legal tangles prohibit a cameo by Jack Skellington.
The Fountain is Darren Aronofsky's trippy science-fiction epic that tells three parallel stories over 1000 years, all on the themes of the Fountain of Youth and eternal love. Aronofsky unveiled a reel that showed the film's first ten minutes (with a brief scene appended at the beginning for a bit more context)—hard to make heads or tails of this one yet, but chances are that it'll either be brilliant or a train wreck. Aronofsky chuckled nervously about the studio's marketing befuddlement ("Warner Bros doesn't know what the hell to do with this film"), but regaled the crowd with a freewheeling Q&A, star Rachel Weisz at his side.
The director talked about coming from a place of trying to solve the problem of "It's all been done" in the science-fiction genre; hence, his far-flung narrative. As to budget and scale, "when you do a $90 million movie for $35 million, the only way to get it done is guerilla," then talked of a scaffolding on the film's Montreal sound-stage that was "more expensive than Pi" and promised "amazing" new dimensions from Jackman. Aronofsky talked of trying and failing to adapt Kurt Vonnegut's novel Cat's Cradle with Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko): "That book was a very important book in my youth, but I just have no clue what to do with it." Aronofsky teasingly side-stepped questions of the film's spirituality, but admitted that Mayan spirituality had more to do with this one than Jewish mysticism.
I asked Aronofsky a question of my own. Groucho: "People have been asking a lot about the challenges of this film—were there any advantages to a six-year development process, spending that much time with the material?" Darren Aronofsky: "Yeah, well, always...if I got to do this with every movie, it would be a real luxury. [I'd] make six films in my life is the only problem. But I think you learn—you know, every day you get to think about it more; you get to learn more and more about what the problems are. And this film was really hard because it was three different time periods, and it kind of weaves in and out, and it was dealing with big themes. So it took a long time to figure out exactly what was going on."
Rachel Weisz gushed over the script and accidentally let spoilers slip (Weisz: "Can I say all that?" Aronofsky: "No." Weisz: "No?" Laughter. "Ummm..."). Aronofsky later goaded Weisz to give up the secret contents of her onset iPod ("it will always remain secret"). The panel also included a humorous, specially taped Comic-Con greeting from Weisz's co-star Hugh Jackman ("I'm here to present a movie that I'm really, really proud of...It's probably the best thing I've ever been involved with. We're doing amazing things with X3, and I think you...What? The what? Fountain? Ohhhhh"). This guy's a class act.
Sayonara to Hall H for the rest of the day. Off to Room 5AB for the tail-end of the 25th Anniversary of Teen Titans panel, where moderator Marv Wolfman (The New Teen Titans) chatted with original Titans artist Nick Cardy, former editor Barbara Kesel, current writer Geoff Johns, and Glen Murakami, producer of the animated Teen Titans series. The audience Q&A was detailed and affectionate, after which I corralled Murakami for a short interview (coming soon). Murakami graciously spoke with a number of fans before I stepped in, and he realized quickly that he had lost Nick Cardy before he could ask for an autograph, meaning he'd have to catch up with Cardy in "Artist's Alley" in the exhibit hall. Murakami later explained to me that he's still not used to "working" Comic-Con, as opposed to coming as a fan.
After the interview, I checked out a few minutes of the Masters of Horror panel in Room 20. The new Showtime horror anthology series features 13 one-hour films by the likes of panelists Mick Garris, John Landis, Don Coscarelli, Roger Corman, and Stuart Gordon, who collectively constituted a mutual love-fest. Mostly, the portion I saw involved Landis effusively complimenting Coscarelli on Bubba Ho-tep, and Coscarelli reminding the crowd that the series owed not only to directors but great writers like Joe Lansdale.
No rest for the wicked, though, so I headed over to the Spotlight on Ray Harryhausen panel to see what I could see for about twenty minutes. In fact, this panel was devoted mostly to the 1933 King Kong, as evidenced by the others on the panel: Mark Cotta Vaz (Living Dangerously: The Adventures of Merian C. Cooper), Joe DeVito (Kong: King of Skull Island; Merian C. Cooper's King Kong), and Brad Strickland (Merian C. Cooper's King Kong), and moderator Arnold Kunert (Ray Harryhausen: The Early Years Collection). Interesting stuff about the eventful life of Cooper and the skill shown in Kong from direction to effects to score.
At 3pm, it was back to Room 20 for the SCI-FI: Battlestar Galactica panel with executive producers David Eick and Ron Moore, and nearly the whole cast: Mary McDonnell (President Laura Roslin), James Callis (Dr. Gaius Baltar), Jamie Bamber (Capt. Lee "Apollo" Adama), Grace Park (Lt. Sharon "Boomer" Valerii), and Tahmoh Penikett (Lt. Karl "Helo" Agathon). Michael Davis, senior editor of TV Guide moderated the panel, which was joined, quite late in the hour, by Katee Sackhoff (Lt. Kara "Starbuck" Thrace). The second season was the topic of discussion, with the season premiere scheduled to run that night, after its Comic-Con premiere earlier in the evening.
This was a happy panel, with a witty and energized cast. Topics included the allegorical elements of the series (especially the modernist political undertones), in-depth discussions of character (and speculations as to where they might go), and the growing relationship to the fans (McDonnell: "You are deeply interested in the metaphysical. You are deeply into politics. You are deeply interested in the environment, and you are deeply interested in sex. So thank you for that"). McDonnell joked about sexing up her character, Park represented for the Cylons, and the British Bamber commented that he enjoyed being Bruce Willis one minute and feeling as if he was in a Chekhov play the next. Dropping the biggest bomb, Moore revealed that the Battlestar Pegasus (an element from the original series) will appear in the tenth episode of the second season, launching a multi-episode story arc; he also specifically confirmed that Cain will appear, but Sheba will not.
For my last panel of the day, I hightailed it to Room 6CDEF for Warner Bros. Animation: The Batman and Justice League Unlimited Superhero Action Panel. Justice League Unlimited producers Bruce Timm, Dwayne McDuffie, James Tucker, and Shaun McLaughlin unveiled the fourth season's penultimate episode "Divided We Fall" (for those who hadn't already "caught" the Canadian broadcast, this screening scooped the American broadcast by about 28 hours). As everyone knows by now, "Divided We Fall" is a literally smashing episode, but Timm and company truly rocked the panel by running a clip from the beginning of Season Five (stop reading now if you wish to know nothing). Luthor's prison escape coincides with a recruitment by the Legion of Doom, whose headquarters sport the classic look seen on SuperFriends. And the crowd goes wild.
Timm promised, "There's going to be a lot of Legion of Doom goodness throughout next season." To the question of a DCU ban on Batman characters other than the Dark Knight himself (and occasionally The Joker), Timm confirmed that, since the film and new animated series are actively using those characters, he's been told not to incorporate them. Still, he's "not finding it's a big problem. There's lot of villains—a Legion of them." Also to appear next season: the Legion of Super-Heroes, the Seven Soldiers, Stargirl, and Carter Hall to "complicate" and "resolve" the Green Lantern/Vixen/Hawkgirl triangle. Timm also confirmed that a direct-to-video JLA feature had been discussed but no definitive steps have been taken, just as Timm could only stress patience for JLU season sets, the number-one question on fans' lips.
The Batman's Tom Kenny (Penguin), and Kevin Michael Richardson (Joker) joined producers Jeff Matsuda, Duane Capizzi, and Michael Goguen for a round of Q&A that visibly thinned out after the JLU panel (though, to be fair, the seats refilled to some degree with people who wanted to hear about The Batman). The producers rolled a reel to tease a new season of shows, which will introduce Batgirl (a natural progression, the producers point out, from the recent introduction of Commissioner Gordon), Poison Ivy, Maxie Zeus, Gearhead, and a new theme song. Just as Timm's been asked to curtail Batman characters on JLU, The Batman is leaving Robin to Teen Titans, at least for the time being.
The voice talent cut loose, with Richardson describing his Emmy-winning Joker as "Jiminy Glick meets Hannibal Lecter," and Kenny explaining that he was warned at his audition not to do Burgess Meredith, but he did anyway, figuring that it was so bad they wouldn't notice: mission accomplished. Duane Capizzi let slip that, in addition to his Batman duties, he'd penned a direct-to-video Superman feature to coincide with Superman Returns. Superman's challenge will be "a 12 labors of Hercules kind of thing," and the animation style will hew to the earlier Bruce Timm series.
At the end of the panel, Warner rolled twenty minutes of world-premiere footage from Warner Home Video's feature-length The Batman vs. Dracula, with Peter Stormare as the famous vampire. Batman's encounters with the Penguin and the Joker precede the Penguin's involuntary servitude to Dracula. Surprisingly, the dread vampire does actually suck blood, thereby turning victims into the undead (you don't see that on Saturday morning, though the clips otherwise looked in keeping with the series).
At the tail-end of the footage, I ducked out a bit early to queue up to meet the JLU and Batman panelists at the Mattel booth. Here, I asked Bruce Timm if there was any chance JLU would run as long as The Simpsons. With the weary look of a TV producer, he seemed relieved to give the short answer "No." At this point, I ran by Room 6B to see if I could still get into The Jim Henson Company's 50th Anniversary: Retrospective and Sneak Peek at MirrorMask, but the room had reached capacity, and no one was getting in, which meant Friday at Comic-Con was a wrap.
SATURDAY, JULY 16: By Saturday, I was beginning to get a handle on this whole Comic-Con thing. At 9am, I decided to check out the announced drawings in the Autograph Area (to keep tabs on this schedule, consult the daily newsletters). Saturday's celebrities included Joss Whedon and the cast of Serenity (the film sequel to TV's Firefly); Josh Holloway (Lost); Charlize Theron (Aeon Flux); Kate Beckinsale, Scott Speedman, & Len Wiseman (Underworld: Evolution), and Eva Mendes, Mark Steven Johnson, & Avi Arad (Ghost Rider).
(In the Autograph Area, fans buzzed about the planned exhibit-hall signing by Lost cast members—whose appeal was vastly underestimated by Inkworks, the signing's host. Inkworks had scotched their published invitation for people to just show up at the time of the signing. Instead, they arranged—apparently by word-of-mouth at their booth—to have people pick up signing tickets first thing in the morning on Saturday. This, too, was a mob scene that reportedly ended in a matter of minutes, with clamorers pushing forward and consuming the available tickets in record time. Plenty of empty-handed fans grumbled then, and no doubt at least three times as many complained when they showed up later to line up for the previously announced time.)
Meanwhile, in the autograph area, lines snaked for the Con's official drawings. After waiting in line, reaching a hand into a grab bag, and drawing a ticket, one either wins a chance to attend a private autograph signing...or not (each signing has a separate line, so autograph hounds need to prioritize and/or dash around). Losers are entitled to get right back in line and work back to the front for another chance. It's time-consuming and frustrating, but, in fickle fate terms, fair. With a little perseverance, I landed a ticket to meet the cast of Serenity.
This was my cue to dash to hallowed Hall H, where fans were packing the house to see director Bryan Singer unveil the first footage from Superman Returns (Singer's appearance was a "break" in the film's Australian shoot). I was expecting Singer to roll the clip first, but he came out and asked if he was taking questions (or what?). This time, I was ready with a pre-printed question to show the microphone guards.
Groucho: "What Superman comics would you put on a recommended reading list for people who want to bone up before they see the film?" Bryan Singer: "Uhhhhh, I don't know, I'm...probably uhh—. Well, the early Action Comics. You know, I—as most of you know, I never grew up reading enormous amounts of comics. I've gone back obviously to look into the—you know, I've sort of fallen in love with the Alex Ross comics, just because [of] the visual style and because of the duality thing. So those would be my favorite, for at least looking at the comic and taking it seriously. Also, in terms of just execution, if you look at some of the Max Fleischer animations, [they're] very unique, very extraordinary. And also the George Reeves television show and of course the 1978 Richard Donner film. I would definitely see the 1978 Richard Donner film, of which this is kind of a springboard from."
Singer's Q&A was wide-ranging. The first question of the panel echoed the high point of Christian Bale's WonderCon panel, in which he said he saw Bruce Wayne as the disguise and Batman as the dominant persona. Asked about his perspective on Superman's identity, Singer said Clark Kent was the disguise, but that Superman has three personas: the Clark Kent from his Smallville home, his bumbling Metropolis persona, and Kal-El of Krypton. Singer explained that Superman Returns is being shot on a new high-end digital camera (the Genesis HD), and described the look of the film as a 1940s hybrid: Rebecca in color.
Surprisingly, Singer deigned to take a meeting with Smallville's Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, a smart move to avoid treading, creatively speaking, on each other's toes. Singer confirmed that Marlon Brando (at least his CG-enhanced head) would appear as Jor-El, adding to the effect of honoring the universe established by Richard Donner in Superman and, to some degree, Superman II (Singer said the script only vaguely refers to the latter). John Ottman is composing the score, but the iconic John Williams theme will be used. The film, focused on the theme of "old boyfriends coming home," will likely run over two hours.
Singer talked about his friendship with Donner, and the importance of getting his blessing to take on Superman. Singer also promised to ask Donner—on behalf of the fans—about the long-rumored Superman II Director's Cut (though conventional wisdom says it's taken this long since a true director's cut is impossible, given Donner's early dismissal from the film). As for jumping ship from the Donner-produced X-Men films, Singer was politic, explaining that he could neither pass up the Superman opportunity nor split himself in two. He explained his personal connection to Superman, a hero of his youth who was, like Singer, an orphan, an only child, and an American.
The director also spent some time defending his choices. Of the costume, he noted that it has always undergone adjustments, and Singer's were made partly to reflect modern tastes (abandoning the silk-screened logo for a raised one) and partly to "suit" Brandon Routh's physique. As for spring chicken Kate Bosworth playing veteran reporter Lois Lane, Singer sheepishly asked that audiences suspend their disbelief, and added that younger actors will serve to prolong the new franchise over the next decade.
Asked about Logan's Run, Singer explained that he'll cull from the novel and the previous film to arrive at his own vision, but promised that, as with Superman, there are some things you don't mess with. A production designer floated the idea of subcutaneous palm crystals, triggering this response from Singer: "Dude, they're the palm crystals. They stay above the skin. This is Logan's Run!"
Naturally, the breathless high point of the panel was the montage reel of footage from the filming so far. I've been known to express skepticism about Superman Returns (particularly the casting of Bosworth), but the reel was encouraging. A few seconds of special effects were finished for the reel (including a nifty shot of Superman in flight, cape bustling and flowing in the sky), but since the film is still shooting, most of the footage depicted images from the Smallville farm and the Daily Planet offices, with a brief glimpse of Kevin Spacey as Luthor.
I was struck by Routh's vocal similarity to Christopher Reeve, though his lack of facial expression in the clips may be cause for concern. Obviously, the jury remains out, but the cinematography is warm and elegantly composed, and in-the-know fans applauded the cameo by Jack Larson (TV's Jimmy Olsen) as the Daily Planet's local barman, another sign of Singer's respect to his forebears. Singer worked the exhilhated crowd by wondering aloud if he should just roll the reel again, which he did for the delighted audience. Certainly, the Superman Returns panel lived up to the hype as the panel not to be missed.
I decided to take a break from Hall H and hit the exhibit floor for a bit. When I returned to Hall H, Charlize Theron was explaining Aeon Flux to 6,500 people. Flanked by Peter Chung (creator of the animated series on which the film is based), producers David Gale and Gale Anne Hurd, director Karyn Kusama and co-star Martin Csokas, Theron waxed eloquent about the sexuality of her character, but also noted that the series' revealing costumes had been toned down a bit ("Certain things must be hidden"). Much discussion about the moral nature of the character in the film (since Aeon is a killer-for hire), and how the film would differ from the series. The behind-the-scenes reel and trailer confirmed what I expected: Aeon Flux is bound to fall into the category of dumb-foundingly stupid Hollywood sci-fi.
Next up was huge draw Kevin Smith, the filmmaker with a legendary gift for gab. Smith didn't disappoint, and though he could easily talk his way through an hour, he brought some special features: clips from his upcoming three-part story arc (with Jason Mewes) on Degrassi: The Next Generation and director Richard Kelly, who teased the audience with a storyboarded sequence for his hotly anticipated follow up to Donnie Darko: Southland Tales.
I had to leave before Kelly came out, but Smith was a riot, especially on the subject of The Passion of the Clerks versus The Passion of the Christ. Smith admitted he was courting free press with his title, subject of controversy to Gibson-loving Fundamentalists. Smith proved his point when a fervently Christian audience member freaked out and started yelling at Smith, who riffed extensively. Only the cheerfully blasé, naughty-by-nature Smith could sound unthreatening on this topic and others, like making raunchy sexual references around the deadly ailments brought up by a couple of fans on the mic.
Since the Serenity signing was scheduled for 1:45pm, I dashed off to the designated room. The doorman advised that the signing had been rescheduled to 3:30pm. Instead of braving the Hall H line again to try to rejoin Kevin Smith's packed house, I stopped by teh Autograph Area to chat with Carel Struycken (of Twin Peaks and The Addams Family), then went to "Artist's Alley" in the exhibit hall to meet Jerry Robinson and get a signed sketch of the Joker (Robinson drew most of Batman #1, meaning he effectively co-created the Joker and Robin the Boy Wonder with writer Bill Finger).
Back to Hall H, where James Gunn, Nathan Fillion, Michael Rooker, Elizabeth Banks, and Gregg Henry were wrapping up their presentation for the horror movie Slither. On their heels, Joss Whedon worked the crowd much as he did at the previous WonderCon. He introduced "a few of my friends," the cast of Serenity (only Alan Tudyk was absent, obligated as he was to Broadway's Spamalot!). Much mirth ensued when Whedon introduced each cast member, but forgot Jewel Staite. The panel discussed the leap to the big screen, Nathan Fillion taught the crowd the slow-building clap (to show excitement about the film), and Whedon danced around the casting of the upcoming Wonder Woman film. He said Gina Torres and Morena Baccarin would "have to fight to the death," and Fillion quipped, "Hey, other people here have a lot to offer in that role!" Fillion proceeded to demonstrate his Lynda Carter spin.
In one of the panel's most interesting digressions, each cast member speculated on how their character would die. As at WonderCon, an extensive clip represented the film, which looks very promising (the most enterprising fans picked up tickets Saturday morning, at the Browncoats fan booth, to see a preview screening that night of the final-cut film). After the clip, the panel discussed how their lives have changed since Firefly, and how much of themselves is in their characters. The funny, easy repartée of Whedon and the obviously friendly cast was once again hearteningly evident.
Off to the Serenity autograph signing, manned (and womanned) by a gracious cast and Whedon. Once more into the breach of Hall H, I made way to the front of the hall (just a few rows back) to settle in for the rest of the day. Upon my return, Eva Mendes, Mark Steven Johnson, & Avi Arad were plugging Ghost Rider (Mendes offered the stale trivia that star Nicolas Cage sports a Ghost Rider tattoo, which everyone in the room seemed already to know...just goes to show you should never underestimate the useless knowledge of 6,500 geeks). One questioner grilled Johnson about a previous film—"Daredevil—what the fuck?"; to his credit, Johnson tried to give a straight answer, adding that he thinks the DVD Director's Cut is much better than the theatrical cut.
In an unannounced move, Sony trotted out director Rob Cohen and stars Josh Lucas, Jessica Biel, and Jamie Foxx to shill for Stealth. Cohen hyped the $34-million-dollar effects budget, but the crowd smelled a stinker. Still, fans were generally giddy to see Foxx after his fresh Oscar win. One fan actually asked Foxx, "After being in a good movie like Ray, what was it like to be in Stealth?" That pretty much said it all, but Foxx tried to turn the brief panel into a party anyway, describing Stealth as a great popcorn movie and cracking jokes. Nevertheless, the extended-trailer footage didn't exactly light up the room.
The last panel of the Hall H day: Universal Presents: King Kong. The panel began with a sincere, lengthy video greeting from newly svelte writer-director Peter Jackson. The introduction culminated with Jackson teasing the audience to make some noise in order to convince him to roll the footage. True to form as a genius marketer, Jackson had prepared an unfinished sequence bound to pump up the crowd: a battle between Kong and two T-rexes, with Naomi Watts' Ann Darrow caught in between. Preceding the footage with a lesson in animatics versus final cut, Jackson nervously unveiled the sequence, which had sections of animatic and even Watts before a green screen. Plenty of jaw-dropping action appeared to be finished (even these bits, Jackson hastened to warn, would be premature), and the crowd ate it up.
Fans expected to see Jack Black, whose Tenacious D was scheduled to perform, but Universal also offered surprise guests Adrien Brody and Naomi Watts when the lights came up. Jack Black turned out to be the biggest star in geek-land, and he fielded many questions about Kong and "the D." Black explained, "This has more dramatic elements than my previous roles. I didn't pursue this role. Peter, Philippa [Boyens] and Fran [Walsh] called me in for a meeting, and I was doing mental backflips at the idea. I had more fun making this movie than any other." Black also performed an somewhat impromptu Kong song ("Kong... His Name Is Kong...Back in the jungle, is where he belongs!"), with Brody and Watts goading him to it by laying down the beat.
Black deferred questions about Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny, since the film would be discussed during the concert to follow, but he did confirm that he will be starring in Nacho Libre, Jared Hess' follow-up to Napoleon Dynamite. In Nacho Libre, co-written by School of Rock scribe and Black buddy Michael White, Black will play a priest who becomes a masked luchador (Mexican wrestler) to save an orphanage.
Naomi Watts responded to a question about stepping into Fay Wray's shoes, one that she's already practiced at answering. "It was daunting! It's an iconic part in an iconic film. I was a little nervous about that," she said, adding that she would honor certain aspects of Wray's performance, while staying true to her own vision of the role.
Poor Adrien Brody was addressed once as "the dude on the left" and then as "James." The gracious star flew into a mock rage ("That was the guy from JAWS. I'm Adrien," then said it was no big deal. The star explained that the 1976 version of Kong, unlike the 1933 original, had no influence on Jackson's remake (or at least no positive influence). Brody felt moved to give the panel an encore at the end, stepping back onstage after the panel's ovation to enthuse about the film and its personal importance. "I can assure you, this is a real labor of love for all of us," Brody said. "To get a chance to play a role of this nature, I thank Peter for his enthusiasm and attention to detail. It was really a remarkable experience."
Before the panel ended, the Universal representative clumsily attempted to repeat the audience-frenzy magic of the Superman Returns panel. Like Bryan Singer, the rep asked if the crowd wanted to see the reel again. The crowd cheered, the lights dimmed, and the reel played, with a video glitch bisecting the image. Whoops—not that publicist's day. The clip played for a minute, then mercifully, it stopped and the lights came back up.
After the Kong cast exited, a New Line representative promised that Tenacious D would be out soon, but first, some trailers for New Line movies! Wedding Crashers, The Man, A History of Violence, etc., though the Comic-Con crew kept interrupting the trailers as they attempted to get ready for the Tenacious D concert. Again, not exactly a slam-dunk for the latest publicist.
No matter, for the Tenacious D concert would be a masterful performance for a packed house. As I waited for the concert to begin, I noticed Joss Whedon among the VIPs in the front and center section. And Miguel Ferrer, with his son Lucas, arrived too late for a seat, leaving him squatting in the aisle and eventually standing on the sidelines. Kevin Smith re-took the stage to introduce the band ("There are only nine cocks in the world I would suck. There were ten, but I topped Affleck off and crossed his name off the list. These guys I'm gonna bring out are numbers six and five. Give it up for the men of Inspirado...TENACIOUS D!"). Gass dropped trou in an attempt to collect.
Black and D-partner Kyle Gass didn't skimp on the comical banter, mostly about the filming of their movie Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny (which Black promised would have live-to-film performances before undermining that promise by performing a lip-synced number). The duo played some new songs from the movie ("Kickapoo," "Dude, I Totally Missed You," "The Government Totally Sucks"), as well as favorites "Flash/Wonderboy," "Dio," "Fuck Her Gently," "Tribute," "Lee" (with the actual Lee running on stage to dance), and a "saxaboom" solo. Though Comic-Con seemed cluelessly unprepared for it, the duo returned for an encore: their Tommy medley.
Though the concert was scheduled for 30 minutes and started late, it ran for about 45 minutes. Black told a story by way of explanation, saying he assumed that people were paying 10 bucks to get in, so he'd thankfully only have to live up to $10-worth of rocking. When he learned that many had paid $35 for their passes, Black explained that the D would have to supply $35-worth of rocking. Mission accomplished.
SUNDAY, JULY 17: Sunday is the shortest day of Comic-Con programming, but some Hollywood panels retreat to Sunday to stand out from the ever-ballooning pack. Universal staked Sunday territory for Doom, followed by Disney's panel on The Chronicles of Narnia. My Sunday, however, was all about Paramount Television, which invited me to attend the press conferences for USA's The 4400 and CBS' new show Threshold.
But before I settled in for hours of Paramount excitement, I tried using the exhibit-hall line upstairs in the autograph area to see if it was effective. The idea here is that people line up in the morning to be the first into the hall. With nothing better to do before my press conferences, I gave it a try. Sitting in a line for an hour did actually deliver results, but I would only recommend it to those with...well...nothing better to do. Eventually, of course, one can enter the hall from one of many doors downstairs, but they're guarded until the hall opens, invariably later than promised.
The upstairs line, when unleashed, led down back stairs and into the rear of the hall. First thing in the morning, the hall is easy to navigate and still very cool from air conditioning untested by the hordes that fill the hall as the day wears on. This method allowed me to take a relatively leisurely stroll through the hall and pick up a few comic-book magazines for research.
The first press conference was at 11am, with 4400 executive producers Ira Steven Behr and Maira Suro, joined by four cast members: Joel Gretsch, Jacqueline McKenzie, Mahershalalhashbaz Ali, and Chad Faust. My questions and answers will be posted here soon. After the first press conference, I hustled over to Ballroom 20 to see the Threshold panel, with executive producers David S. Goyer, Brannon Brage, and David Heyman, as well as cast members Carla Gugino, Charles S. Dutton, Brian Van Holt, Rob Benedict, Peter Dinklage, and Brent Spiner. Here, first looks were unveiled: a behind-the-scenes reel showed nervous executive producers on the set, episode director Peter Hyams, clips, and interview snippets with the cast, and a clip from the pilot showcased an unfinished dream sequence for Gugino's character.
After the panel, I went back to the press room to participate in the Threshold press conference. Click the link to read my Q&A with the cast and producers of Threshold. After the conference, I metaphorically doffed my press hat and lined up in the Autograph Area to walk the receiving line for the casts of 4400 and Threshold. As fate would have it, a surprise autograph signing for Narnia popped up nearby (with Richard Taylor and Ben Wootten of Weta, isual effects designer Dean Wright, and Howard Berger, the B of KNB EFX), so I held my spot in line and dashed over to the short but slow-moving Narnia line before reclaiming my initial spot for a bit more waiting. The 4400 and Threshold casts did their thing, schmoozing with each other and the fans (Gugino and Dutton recognized me and complimented my questions from the press conference, which was nice).
Should you find yourself with nothing to do on Sunday, the place to be is the freebie table, adjacent to the autograph area. On Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, the freebie table seemed to have nothing but flyers, but on Sunday, stored-up swag flows freely from this publicity nexus: primarily movie and video posters, but also the odd T-shirt, cap, or promotional pen. The giveaways come in waves, so you might want to make more than one pass to see what's new.
I ended Comic-Con by taking in Starship Smackdown: Finale, supposedly the last of its breed. Like Spock, though, it might be hard to bury this still-popular event. Presented by CFQ magazine, Starship Smackdown features a panel of professional geeks—including Dan Vebber (American Dad), Robert Meyer Burnett (Free Enterprise), Steve Melching (The Batman), Daren Dochterman (ST: TMP Special Edition DVD), Kay Reindl (Millennium), Chris Gossett (The Red Star), and moderator Mark A. Altman (Free Enterprise)—that decides who would win in clashes between various starships. Serenity, the Heart of Gold, the Defiant, the Milennium Falcon, Battlestar Galactica, et al, duked it out, with the panel—the last of the convention—going well overtime to settle its scores, with the audience helping by weighing in from time to time. This panel is what everything thinks is going on at Comic-Con for four days, and for two hours, they'd be right!