When it comes to that ongoing debate over whether or not comics are getting "pushed out" Comic-Con by the ever-expanding Hollywood behemoth, you can place me squarely in the "comics aren't going anywhere, so why don't we all just calm the fuck down" camp. I spent nearly a week in San Diego for the show this year, and had almost an entirely comics-focused experience. I went to nearly a dozen panels covering everything from mainstream superhero announcements to indie cartoonist spotlights (all of which were very well attended), picked up new comics from creators like Matt Furie and Disney animation studios' collective storyboard department, talked shop with too many comics bloggers and professionals to name and on the whole avoided most all Hollywood hype, video game marketing and Hall H. This year's Comic-Con was a true comics show for me and one of the biggest and best comic shows I've been to in a long while.
That said, there is something uniquely insane and fun about the way Comic-Con has become the rally point for Hollywood's desperate need to exploit any kind of franchise or property with a semi-passionate fanbase. It gets said often in snarky and angry ways that L.A. producers and agents don't really get nerd culture, and while some may take this fact as an insult or worse, I view the relationship as one of the most absurdly funny things about life and the universe imaginable. Face it: beautiful people and nerds aren't supposed to mix, so watching both sides fumble through a weekend in paradise where each side wants something from the other but both work to a very demanding standard just makes for hilarity. With that in mind, here are my top five celebrity encounters from this year's show.
5. Dennis Miller
I'm sure most of you are thinking, "What the hell was Dennis Miller doing at Comic-Con?!?!" And that's just it! I don't think he was there for the show! I've looked all over the web the past few days for evidence that the former comedian/post-9/11 conservative nutjob pundit/most verbose announcer in the history of Monday Night Football was actually in town to attend the convention, and I have found none. But sure enough, that was Miller I saw early on Wednesday night, wandering through the lobby of the Marriott and scratching his scraggly beard in some kind of confusion. For all the celebrities who come to the con to intentionally interact with fandom, prepared or unprepared for what that means, there's nothing like a famous person who just wanders into a hotel full of Jedi and dudes in Red Lantern T-shirts. In my heart, I imagine Miller excitedly packing his bags Thursday in the early morning, chain-smoking and thinking to himself, "I've got to get the fuck out of this town before one of these ass holes asks me about 'Bordello of Blood!'"
4. Freddie Highmore and Kristen Bell
I spent most of my time off the floor in CBR's floating command base – a small yacht parked just behind the Convention Center and Marriott. Now, celebrity sightings on the boat are somewhat commonplace as CBR honcho Jonah Weiland gets the boat partially to host video interviews for the site on the top deck, necessitating hard-working producer Remmy Minnick to run the hot-to-trot Hollywood types back and forth from the con to the yacht in a golf cart. So over the course of the week, people like Bruce Campbell and Brandon Routh were stopping by, generally announced and expected by everyone aboard.
But for some reason, when I made my way back out to the ship's cabin on Thursday afternoon to wrap a panel report, none of my fellow computer jockeys seemed ready for anyone to stop by. And when I looked up and saw a young, baby-faced man in a sweater vest stepping down off the dock and towards the cabin door, I thought, "Oh that's nice. Someone's bringing their nephew out to see the boat." Little did I (or any of the CBR staff) know that "Astro Boy" star Freddie Highmore had just stepped on, so you can imagine how thrown we all were when Gossip Girl herself, Kristen Bell landed in our cramped, carpeted news room with a loud thud from a single high-heeled pump. There was a moment there where Bell – one foot in the ship and one foot out, knees reverse-akimbo in her olive green party dress – struck an unintentionally Marilyn Monroe figure, except that instead of betraying a sense of coy humor her face was more a mix of panic, confusion and fear.
We all hung there for a moment in an awkward silence until video editor Seth Sherwood did his best to play host. "Hey. Um...do you guys want a soda or something?" he asked, standing up from his computer and shifting on the balls of his feet. Both stars shook their heads with quiet nos.
Another silence. Seth, looking for some way to break the ice, asked, "Well...do you want a puppy?" Bell responded immediately with, "Yeah, I want a puppy!" Unfortunately, there were no puppies to be had, though by the time Seth ventured to apologize for misleading her, Bell and Highmore had both been swept above deck by their publicists. In fairness, I should say that Jonah told us how Bell was in a total state of exhaustion from the show when he spoke with her for more than 23 seconds, and when I've met her before at smaller cons, she's always been very excited and happy to have nerds offering her invisible baby dogs. But that really did us no favors in the belly of the beast, you know?
3. Justin and Lindsay Hartley
This one made me feel kind of bad, honestly. See, a few years back I was somehow made "Smallville" point man at Wizard when we were still covering TV shows on the website. Aside from heading up an oddly morose weekly discussion group of new episodes that featured the interns, a guy from Inquest who hated EVERYTHING and Dave, I'd have to do semi-regular interviews with members of the "Smallville" cast or writing staff. The magnificent golden peak of this era of my work career was a Friday morning chat with Justin "Green Arrow" Hartley, who despite holding the stink of the WB's failed Aquaman show on his shoulders (well...Ving Rhames needs to take some responsibility too) ended up being a real treat as Ollie Queen. In our interview, Hartley came off as nice and down to earth as not just any actor I'd ever met but any person in general. He was gracious, smart and funny as all hell (the interview got lost in one of several Wizard website reboots, but Ben can back me up that when he talked about how Kyle Gallner was really short and how the Aquaman guy's balls kept popping out of his wetsuit...that shit was hilarious).
ANYWAY, Sunday afternoon I went down to the baggage check at the Marriott to claim my gear and head off to the airport when I spot the emerald archer himself in his civilian disguise, accompanied by his lovely wife and their young daughter who was cute as a button in a sparkly pink Supergirl outfit. Now typically I'm not the kind of guy who throws himself upon celebrities of any stripe even if I've spoken with them on the phone multiple times, but like I said, Hartley was a class act all the way, and while I'm sure he wouldn't have remembered one of hundreds of dumb fanboy calls he's done over the years, I have no doubt that he'd have been very pleasant to chat up after the show. That is, I figured he would be until I made it up to the storage room door and caught a look in his eye. Y'all...Green Arrow was piiiiiiiissssssssed oooooooffffffffffffffffffffff.
I can't place exactly what had his goat as I'm not one to try and eaves drop on other people's conversations, but there was definitely something about this baggage claim situation that was not going well for that nice young man. Maybe his quiver got lost in the shuffle? In any event, I'm sure it helped matters none when I walked up, gave dude my two purple tickets, had my bags in hand three minutes later and then went about my business. As I crossed back out, I caught a look in Hartley's eye that I'll never forget. It's not like he was giving me the dick eye. It was more a look like somewhere in the recesses of his mind he was saying to God, "What did I do to deserve this, huh? Did I not pretend-kill enough fat cats?!?!?"
Poor dude. King on the Comic-Con floor, stranger in the Comic-Con parking lot.
2. Pierre Bernard
I'm sure there are at least one or two other people in the world who upon seeing the man above walking from the Hyatt to the convention center Saturday evening would be taken by a sudden need to fall on both knees and give an epic howl of "PIERRE BER-NARD'S RE-CLINER OF RAAAAAAaaaaaaAAAAAAAAGGGGGGeeeeeEEEEE!" Thankfully, I was able to suppress that desire quickly as the former "Late Night" graphic designer went about his business, but hot damn was it cool to see him! I know that not many of the celebrities on my list rank anywhere above what Hollywood folks would call "C-level" and that even amongst them Bernard is a totally obscure part of the pop ephemera, but it's truly great to see someone who's been such a life long fan of the nerd media that drives Comic-Con get a little taste of the national spotlight, even if it is in a "poking fun at yourself" way on a late night talk show. Bernard's rants on his pet obsessions are always ingeniously detailed in a way a faux fan could never pull off, and even though I can't find it right now to share with you guys...the episode where he first gets to go to the "Stargate SG-1" set and meet MacGuyver face to face is one of the most joyous pieces of television I've ever seen. Do yourself a favor and start familiarizing yourself with the segment via the magic of the internet.
Bottom line, America: Pierre Bernard is a man who should be revered and congratulated for his accomplishments in the field of educating the populous at large about Stargate, Justic League Action Figures and the women of anime!
1. Joss Whedon and the cast of "Dollhouse"
The highlight of Comic-Con nightlife for me has to be the annual Oni Press/UTA Friday night party. More than any other event I go to at the show, the joint venture of one of the more well known but still very small indie comics publishers and one of the biggest talent agencies in Hollywood represents that strange, sweet, sick Comic-Con love affair between our beloved underdog artform and the glitziest mega-corporations on planet earth. I remember hitting the party two years ago and crouching around a small table in the midst of the party with Wasteland writer Antony Johnston and James Lucas Jones' brother shooting the breeze while the possibly-underage cast of "Superbad" bounced around us getting drunk and trying to pick up on women. It's the kind of thing you just don't see every day.
This year, I rolled to the party a bit wary of our party prospects after being turned away at a similar Hollywood shindig up the street. Man oh man, are we glad we soldiered on. The Oni bash atop the San Diego Padres PETCO Park would have been the highlight of my show (and most likely my year) without any celebrity crossover thanks to a beautiful view, a can't beat 'em cross section of comics folk ready to get down and a DJ that turned on a killer, Michael Jackson-heavy set just when we were starting to feel some late night fatigue. But the fact that we shared the dance floor with Joss Whedon and the cast of "Dollhouse" took things up to another level.
I mean, it wasn't just the fact that at odd times during "Pretty Young Thing" I'd bump into a person and realize it was Dichen Lachman I was pushing out my way so I could get down. And it wasn't watching Enver Gjokaj bop by like he was programmed to bust ass and forget it the next day. And it wasn't the odd feeling I kept getting seeing Ashley Johnson on the floor, precipitating many conversations the next day where I was like, "You know...she was Chrissy Seaver in the later years of 'Growing Pains' and then played Mel Gibson's daughter in 'What Women Want'?" (Note: knowing both those facts apparently does not make you cool) It wasn't any one of those things by themselves but more so all of them together that made the night so strangely satisfying. Oh yeah...and it was also the fact that Joss Whedon DANCES LIKE A GOD DAMNED MANIAC.
Every time I'd turn myself into the direction of the main crowd, I'd see Whedon bouncing up and down in the sea of beautiful people like that Ernie doll floating across the back cover of "Dookie." He always had this wild, sweaty look on his semi-beardy face that screamed, "Holy shit! I'm having so much fun!" His repertoire of dance moves resembled something a foreign exchange student cribbed off multiple late night viewings of "Yo! MTV Raps." He was spinning, grinding, pogoing and at one point he was doing this mad weird karate chop move on someone. It was like she was a tree and he was a desperate lumberjack. It was like he was a robot built with only a funky samurai setting. It was like he was a nine-year-old circa 1992 who had just eaten a triple pack of Fun Dip and watched "Secret of the Ooze" for the first time. It was incredible.
I get the feeling that for folks working the show, Comic-Con serves mostly as a giant stress factory. It keeps you up late nights. It yells at you over the phone and tells you you're not doing good enough. It's hard on your knees and your throat and your brain, keeping you away from the people you'd like to be hanging with. It makes you worry about endless Hollywood bullshit and never about awesomely life-affirming comics, doing its best to extinguish the undying flame of your soul.. And yeah, I get that. I was pretty much a total wreck sitting around the airport Sunday waiting to get home, but despite all the other distractions and heartbreaks and setbacks I went through over the weekend, I still thought the weekend was fucking rad. And sure, a big part of what makes the con so great is the comics, and I don't want to count that part of it out. But moving forward, whenever I think of this show, my late night Hollywood dance party is going to be the thing I remember first – playing over and over again as an endless loop in my brain.
See you next year.