Penman No. 263: Geekdom Galore at Comic-Con 2017 (2)

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Penman for Monday, August 7, 2017

 

LET’S START with some stats: last month, Beng and I were two of the 35 million visitors who would have trooped to San Diego, California by the end of the year. We go there regularly for our daughter Demi, but most others would probably mention the beaches, the ships, the Mexican food, the whale-watching—and, for 130,000 people in late July, that long weekend of masked madness called Comic-Con International. Those fun-seeking fans will book all of San Diego’s 40,000 hotel rooms—many a year in advance, at room rates easily triple the normal—and on the average spend over $600 per person, injecting some $80 million in direct spending and another $70 million in multiplier effects.

Geekdom, in other words, is serious business, and there’s no stronger pitch that the spinners and purveyors of fantasy can make to their market than Comic-Con, which began in San Diego itself in the dim and dingy basement of the rundown US Grant Hotel one day in March 1970. Since then, the US Grant—where Demi works—has been refurbished into the city’s swanky grande dame, and Comic-Con, like the superheroes it glorifies, has morphed from a pimply kid to a sleek and powerful machine.

I’m sure the fans aren’t thinking much about the history when they stream through the doors of the SDCC on opening day and emerge with bags and boxes of new Funko Pop Justice League figurines, Deadpool Wooden Push Puppets, and one of this year’s exclusives, a Twin Peaks Agent Cooper Bobble Head, all yours for $14.99. The comic-book collectors could dwell on decades past, but most of Comic-Con is decidedly future-oriented, always looking around the corner for the next TV season’s plot spoilers and the next sequel’s new villain.

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There’s even been an urban-dictionary term coined for the phenomenon: “FOMO,” or “fear of missing out,” the hidden impulse behind the surge of the pop-culture hysteria best exemplified by Comic-Con. It’s all fun, of course, on the level of cosplay and souvenir shopping. For others, it’s also a profession and the work of a lifetime.

There were two such professionals and icons I sought out in this year’s Comic-Con: the Filipino-American artists Whilce Portacio and Alex Niño. I’d already met and interviewed Whilce in last year’s event, and subsequently at the Asia Pop Comic-Con in Manila, but it was good seeing him again in top form, signing autographs and artworks for fans in his booth in the Artists’ Alley.

Whilce actually wasn’t there yet when we arrived, as he was being interviewed by Syfy about his work, so Beng and I wandered off to observe a long queue forming for the autograph of another artist whom we frankly had never heard of before—the very young Patrick Ballesteros, another Fil-Am and San Diego native.

“We’re everywhere!” Whilce would remind me later. “Marvel, DC, Pixar, you name it, we’re there.” Whilce himself would co-found Image Comics and create Bishop for the X-Men, and he has been going back and forth to the Philippines to mentor young graphic talents such as Leinil Yu and to set up a studio that can meet the growing global demand for illustrators and animators.

I missed Alex Niño last year—at 77, he now attends only the last couple of days of Comic-Con, leaving it to his son Jules to mind the booth—but I caught him this time at Comic-Con’s closing hour for a quick chat about his struggle to rise to the top of his profession in the US. Tony de Zuñiga blazed the trail for all of them, but Alex, Nestor Redondo, Larry Alcala, and later Whilce and his peers followed shortly after in the 1980s and 1990s.

Alex recalled a crucial moment at the beginning when, still in the Philippines, he was approached by DC to draw a comic, he came up with a carefully drawn work, only for DC to balk at his price. “I tore the pages up,” Alex said. “I preferred to do that than get short-changed.” Unknown to him, his wife Norma had painstakingly pieced and pasted the drawings together overnight, and had sent it to DC—which, understanding what had happened, paid Alex’s price. This sense of self-worth would serve Alex and his compatriots well.

He moved to the US in 1974, and I’ll leave you to check out Wikipedia for his voluminous credits since then. Time may have slowed him down a bit, but it hasn’t stopped him from working, albeit more traditionally than others. He has just finished illustrating a book on wines for Jay Ignacio. “I don’t mind technology, but I never got used to a tablet. With digital art, you can’t tell what or where the original artwork is. I still use a pen and ink, and markers. I had to evolve my own style to be different from the others. None of my five children have taken after me, but my grandson in the Philippines works in animation. I can’t retire, because I’ve yet to be satisfied by what I’ve done. I feel that my best work, my masterpiece, is still out there.”

Way to go, Alex—spoken like a true Pinoy superhero! Until next year—if we get those badges.

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Penman No. 262: Geekdom Galore at Comic-Con 2017 (1)

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Penman for Monday, July 31, 2017

 

I MUST’VE been a really good kid to deserve this fortune, because much to my surprise—and possibly the chagrin of my 20-something students for whom this would be the closest they could get to heaven without dying—I got to attend Comic-Con International in San Diego with my sidekicks Beng and Demi (and Demi’s husband Jerry) for the second year in a row. I’d given up on returning to the show after failing to score tickets (“badges,” in CC parlance) twice online, but again our San Diego-based daughter pulled off a miracle at the last minute and got badges for us for the opening and closing days of the four-day convention, smack in the middle of what’s become our annual US vacation.

As all of my undergrads and junior colleagues know, San Diego’s Comic-Con is the world’s largest and most-awaited extravaganza of popular culture, running now for 47 years and attracting 150,000 attendees from all over the world. This is geekdom galore—a global gathering of fans of comic books, superheroes, fantasy, toys, animation, TV, and basically anything that levitates, teleports, or transmutates.

If you’re my age (63) and can’t relate to anything I’ve said, I can’t blame you. The average age of the Comic-Con attendee is 25; until recently, about 60 percent were male, but that’s been changing with the emergence of strong female superheroes such as Wonder Woman and Supergirl and intriguing characters like Stranger Things Eleven.

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But while seniors (yes, we got a discount on the tickets) may seem out of place at Comic-Con, the fact is, we were the original comic-book fans who grew up not just on DC and Marvel at a time when Adam West still played Batman on TV and George Reeves, not Christopher Reeve, played Superman; we were also followers of Lastikman, Palos, Gagamba, Darna, and other Pinoy heroes in the local komiks. For older folks like me, Comic-Con is rejuvenation, if not resurrection.

Here, everyone who was ever made to feel weird or was left out because of, say, a desire to wear blue hair, green skin, or an extra eye will feel at home, because Comic-Con is just like that Star Wars bar scene, with patrons from a dozen galaxies, multiplied a hundred times over. Fans come to the show dressed as their favorite superhero or cartoon character, and you don’t even need the body (or, for that matter, the gender) of Gal Gadot to be Wonder Woman. I’d give this year’s Most Astounding Cosplayer Award to the Princess Leia who had all the right buns—and a beard. Before I could snap a picture, she/he was off to Alderaan (aka home).

Also ubiquitous this year were various iterations of Harley Quinn (the girl from Suicide Squad), Spider-Man, and Deadpool, and even a knotty Groot or two. Beng was swept off her feet by a Jack Sparrow lookalike who had the accent and the bow down pat. I swallowed my shyness and agreed to Beng’s prodding to have my picture taken with Wonder Woman (one of them, anyway). We were unabashed fans for the weekend, and enjoying ourselves, although we had to squat on the floor and eat our lunch sandwiches, like hundreds of others, for lack of seats at the San Diego Convention Center.

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That’s because almost all the seats were in the meetings rooms and halls upstairs. The SDCC is a lot like the Mall of Asia’s SMX, only larger, with a huge exhibition hall downstairs and meeting spaces of various sizes for the convention itself upstairs. While the ground floor had hundreds of booths exhibiting everything from collector comics (I saw one, All-Star Comics No. 8 from December 1941which introduces Wonder Woman, selling for $75,000) to what happens in a Hollywood make-up studio, on the second floor were endless queues of fans who had come for the four days of panels. If downstairs was merchandise, upstairs was talk—and lots of it.

It’s at these one-hour panels, running in parallel sessions all over, that fans can actually meet the stars, who just might let some spoiler slip about a show’s forthcoming season (the Game of Thrones panel, hosted by Hodor, ended with a snippet about Melisandre) or give a definitive answer to some lingering mystery (was Bladerunner’s Deckard a replicant? Harrison Ford remained evasive). Most other panels are smaller and more practical, with titles like “Career Paths into Game Development,” How to Color Comic Art,” “Basic Star Wars Robotics,” and “Villains: Creating the Perfect Antagonist.” I wish I could say I attended even one of these, but the long lines quickly drove us back downstairs.

The biggest panels take place at Hall H, which can accommodate 6,500 people. A Comic-Con badge is far from a guarantee of entry into this cavernous space, for which the queue spills out to the yard and street outside—beginning days before; Demi’s brother-in-law Ray had planned on standing in line for his daughter Mia for the Stranger Things panel on Saturday, but had to give up when he learned that the line had begun forming on Thursday.

Madness, indeed—but of a happy kind, especially for host San Diego, which stood to gain $150 million in revenues from the July 20-23 convention. More on Comic-Con next week, including the highlights of my interview with Pinoy comics icon Alex Niño.

For more of my Comic-Con 2017 pics, click here.

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Penman No. 211: From Fantasy to Reality: Comic-Con (2)

IMG_8346.jpgPenman for Monday, August 8, 2016

 

THE SAN Diego Convention Center’s ground-level exhibit hall covers more than half a million square feet—about the same acreage as the SMX Convention Center at the Mall of Asia—and Comic-Con occupied every inch of this territory and more, spilling over to more meeting rooms upstairs and to the adjacent hotels.

The throngs of attendees and kibitzers also fill up the streets and parks outside the venue, all the way to San Diego’s picturesque Gaslamp district, which turns into party town at night after the convention—a mammoth “Star Wars” bar scene, with throngs of costumed characters downing tequilas and exotic cocktails whipped up just for the occasion. You can have your pick of convention specials like the Katniss Kiss at Bang Bang (gin, honey, ginger, rose water), the Kryptonite Martini at Spike Africa’s (Svedka vodka, pepperoncini peppers, olive brine), or the Walking Dead at Searsucker (Hamilton’s Jamaican rum, Bacardi Light, pineapple juice, cinnamon simple syrup, Fee Brother’s bitters, fresh lime, Lemonhart 151, topped with ginger beer).

And you can choose to have that drink with Chewbacca or Captain Kirk, because Comic-Con’s strongest and most colorful attraction is, of course, cosplay, that not-too-subtle subterfuge by which anyone can be a superhero or super-villain for a day.

In this regard, Comic-Con 2016 more than met our expectations. There were Storm Troopers, Trekkies, Ghostbusters, and Batmen galore on the convention floor, even a Hulk, a Dumbledore, and a Silver Surfer or two. And as a couple of plus-size Supergirls demonstrated, you didn’t even need the prescribed physique to indulge your fantasy—just the costume, which the wearers had more than likely sewn up themselves, with a little help from suppliers like BuyCostumes.com (where you could be Spiderman for $44.99, or Queen Arwen for $59.99—Darth Vader will cost you more, with just the mask selling for $149.99). A day before Comic-Con opened, Demi’s nephew Matt was still busy preparing his costume and homemade weapon as the Soldier:76 character from “Overwatch,” with key components being shipped in by express courier from Hong Kong.

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If you didn’t care to dress up as a Sith Lord but had always wanted one to park behind your bar, you could take a life-sized Darth Vader home for about $7,000, for a tenth of which you could get a silicone mask of the Ice King from “Game of Thrones.”

Comic-Con, in other words, was merchandise mania, and it wasn’t uncommon to see hardcore fans staggering out of the venue with huge boxes and bags of souvenirs. Some may have addictions that will seem very peculiar to you and me—like the people who line up at midnight for special editions of the bobble-head Funko figurines—but beyond being a passion, it’s also a business that can see a Funko character that nominally sells for $15 be worth ten times that much on eBay the morning after (more on this later).

In a corner devoted to comic-book auctions, the cover art for an August 1977 issue of Conan the Barbarian had a pre-auction estimate of $12,000—a bargain compared to $20,000 for a Watchmen page. Being oldies and cheapskates, all Beng and I could sport were our black Star Wars T-shirts, which Demi had snapped at a sale (there wasn’t much demand, predictably, for T-shirts that invited you to “Join the Dark Side!”).

 

It’s all about fads and fashions, and those preferences are set on a screen somewhere—the movies, TV, the Internet, the mobile phone, the vast global domain of popular culture (which is to say, still largely Hollywood). The biggest draws this year included “Game of Thrones,” “The Walking Dead,” “Wonder Woman,” “Teen Wolf,” “Snowden,” “Suicide Squad,” “Aliens” (marking its 30th anniversary), “Supergirl,” “The Flash,” “Guardians of the Galaxy,” and “Star Trek Beyond,” but there’s never a lack of fans (and merchandise) for perennials like “Superman,” “Batman,” “Star Wars,” “Harry Potter,” and “Ghostbusters.”

But all these blockbusters begin with a writer and an artist—a “creator,” in industry parlance, along the lines of Marvel’s legendary Stan Lee—and as another main feature of Comic-Con, these creative geniuses were gathered at the far end of the hall in the Artists’ Alley. Tipped off by my younger friends at Philmug (who were attending Comic-Con vicariously through their former chairman), I made a beeline for the booth of Whilce Portacio, one of the most accomplished Filipino-Americans in the comic-book industry.

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Born a Navy brat in Sangley Point, Whilce had moved to the States as a baby and had grown up in Hawaii, where his artistic talent was nurtured by supportive teachers. He came home in 1978 and studied Fine Arts at Philippine Women’s University under Ibarra de la Rosa. Not speaking Tagalog and feeling very much alone, Whilce spent the time honing his craft, and by the time he flew back to the US a few years later, he was ready for his big break—where else but at Comic-Con, which was then a much smaller event but already the place to be if you were a gifted young artist with a portfolio to show.

A Marvel editor named Carl Potts (who also had some Filipino blood) took Whilce under his wing and from there on, there was no turning back. Whilce (a shortening of William Joyce) would go on to work on Punisher, X-Factor, Uncanny X-Men, Iron Man, Wetworks, and Spawn, among many other major projects, moving up from basic inking and penciling to becoming a creator himself of such characters as Bishop in X-Men and the Pinoy superhero Grail in Wetworks.

Following in the footsteps of such Filipino comics pioneers in the US as Alex Niño (who also had a booth at Comic-Con, but hadn’t checked in yet when I was there), Whilce sees himself as part of a series of waves of Filipinos who’ve excelled in the global industry. In 1995, he returned to the Philippines to set up a studio on Balete Drive, where he discovered and trained the next wave, which now includes such standouts as Leinil Yu and Philip Tan.

Indeed, another booth at Comic-Con featured the works of Philip Tan, Jay Anacleto, Stephen Segovia, and Carlo Pagulayan. While it took lucky breaks and personal contacts for people like him to succeed, Whilce says that “Today, with the Internet, young artists can introduce themselves. The bridges are now connected. The process and pipeline are now set for everybody.” (I know I promised to report on my long and very interesting interview with Whilce, but it would be a pity to summarize, so I’ll save that for another time. Better yet, come and see him in person when he flies in to Manila to grace our version of Comic-Con—the AsiaPOP Comicon, which will happen on August 26-28 at the SMX Convention Center, with tickets starting at just P550 for a one-day pass.)

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To cap my Comic-Con 2016 experience, and by another stroke of luck, our daughter Demi conjured a special pass to a live taping of Conan O’Brien’s show at the historic Spreckels Theater downtown (Conan has been a Comic-Con regular for some years now). Did I want to go? The featured guests were a surprise—the cast and crew of “Game of Thrones,” with Hodor, killed off in Season 6, getting the warmest applause. I’d have to admit that being a documentary and car-show freak, I’ve never been a fan of the series. But I had a great time watching Conan, the total pro, and every member of that audience left the theater with a Funko Conan Storm Trooper doll, which touts tried to buy at the door for a paltry $8.

Were they kidding? The dolls showed up on eBay the next day for as much as $300. I gave mine to Demi, which was the least her Tatay could do thank her for the treat of a lifetime.

 

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Penman No. 210: From Fantasy to Reality: Comic-Con (1)

 

IMG_8370.JPGPenman for Monday, August 1, 2016

 

 

IT WAS a millennial geek’s fantasy come true, except that it happened to a doddering senior with the good luck to be in the right place at the right time. As I reported last week, Beng and I were in the US last month to attend the launch of the foundation behind the prospective American Museum of Philippine Art (AMPA) in Los Angeles, and also to visit our unica hija Demi in nearby San Diego, where she’s been living and working with her husband Jerry for the past nine years.

We save up for these visits, which usually take place every year sometime in October during what used to be our semestral breaks. But with the shift in our academic calendar to the international (okay, the US) model, we timed this year’s trip for July in conjunction with the AMPA event, the sum of which was that we found ourselves in Southern California during the third week of July.

And what’s so special about that week—one marked by 90-degree-plus temperatures, water shortages, and brush fires in California’s sunbaked hinterlands? Well, as every pop-culture-savvy 30-year-old from Pandacan to Pasadena knows, it’s the time when Comics Convention International—better known as Comic-Con—takes place in San Diego, where it began 46 years ago.

So what exactly is Comic-Con, and what’s all the fuss about this annual pilgrimage attended by hordes of Earthlings, as well as presumptive superheroes and extraterrestials? It’s an exhibition, a convention, an academic conference, a parade, a pageant, a marketplace, and a film festival all at once—the world’s largest and best-known pop-cultural mecca.

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You might say that at 62, I had no right to be there at all, and I wouldn’t have argued, even if I’d been a staunch DC Comics fan in the ’60s who battled the Marvel masses in lunchtime chalk fights. I could easily think of half a dozen people just in my department in UP who would’ve given their right arms to be in my place, having followed every twist and turn of “Game of Thrones” and having memorized the names of every Jedi Master and Sith Lord in the Star Wars universes (the official and the expanded). These guys (and gals) take their fantasy seriously, and some of them go on from buying every issue of Batman to writing ponderous academic essays for such tomes as It Happens at Comic-Con: Ethnographic Essays on a Pop Culture Phenomenon, edited by Ben Bolling and Matthew J. Smith (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2014).

In his foreword to that book, Matthew Pustz would recall that “When I got off the trolley in downtown San Diego, I knew just how to find it: follow the guy in the Green Lantern t-shirt. After a short walk, there it was—Comic-Con International, with the huge convention center sitting in the sun. Waiting to enter were tens of thousands of fans—all with their own strategies for making the most of what has become one of the largest popular culture events in the world. This was the summer of 2007, and I had traveled to San Diego all the way from Boston to attend something that I had dreamed about for a long time. I had attended comic book conventions before, in Chicago, Columbus, Ohio, and St. Louis. But San Diego was different, bigger, more important. This was San Diego—the Super Bowl of comic book conventions—and I was on the comic book fan’s holy pilgrimage, the trip that all fans must make at least once in their lives. This was the Gathering of the Nerd Tribes, Fanboy Woodstock.”

“Comic-Con is a fan event, but it is also a money-making extravaganza where all manner of creators, artists, and corporate owners of media products can sell and promote them to their exact target market. And this target market is one that can be virtually guaranteed to take the ‘buzz’ of Comic-Con back with them to to Iowa or Boston or Tokyo so they can ‘sell’ those products to their friends back home. Comic-Con is the ultimate merging of culture and commerce, and that makes it the perfect place to study how popular culture works in the twenty-first century.”

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While there are many other fantasy and pop-culture conventions—Dragon Con, for example, is a big cosplay event that takes place every year in Atlanta, Georgia on Labor Day weekend—Comic-Con is a San Diego original, run by “a nonprofit educational corporation dedicated to creating awareness of, and appreciation for, comics and related popular artforms, primarily through the presentation of conventions and events that celebrate the historic and ongoing contribution of comics to art and culture.” WonderCon, a comic-book-focused event, is held in Los Angeles.

The first Comic-Con—then known as the Golden State Comic Book Convention—was held in August 1970 at the US Grant Hotel (the grande dame of San Diego hotels, where our daughter Demi works), but it’s since moved on to the sprawling San Diego Convention Center (where Hall H alone, reserved for the biggest events, fills up its 6,000 seats) and to nearby hotels.

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Over its four-day run, Comic-Con 2016 was projected to draw 130,000 attendees from all over the world (and the galaxy), each of whom was also likely to spend at least $1,000 in San Diego, making it the city’s top annual grosser. Movie stars fly in to promote their projects and some celebrities like Conan O’Brien have made Comic-Con a regular item on their calendar.

Getting into Comic-Con used to be a matter of flying into San Diego and walking in through the convention door, but not anymore. According to the organizers, “Although we strive to make attending our show as easy as possible, obtaining a Comic-Con badge can require the persistence of Superman, the patience of a Watcher, the ingenuity of Tony Stark, and the readiness of Batman.” It’s hard to think of any other conference where the rules include the following:

  • All costume props and weapons must conform to state and federal law.
  • Projectile costume props and weapons must be rendered inoperable. Functional (real) arrows must have their tips removed and be bundled and zip-tied to a quiver.

Tickets to Comic-Con were sold out months ago, as were all hotel rooms in San Diego, at peak prices (“Comic-Con attendees book their rooms for next year before they leave,” Demi told us.) You don’t really buy a Comic-Con ticket but a “badge,” and to get a badge you have to pre-register online for a membership ID, with which you can then apply for a badge using a code that entitles you to a slot—well, you get the idea.

So how exactly did we get in? All I’ll say is, it pays to have a daughter in a hotel in San Diego in July. It wasn’t really in our vacation plans, but Demi decided to give a pair of seniors a special treat one morning by announcing that she could get the three of us into Comic-Con. Were we interested? You bet we were!

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