Comic Con or Bust! Or Not. Plus: Guardians!

Around this time of year, in “Nexus Graphicii” (how do you pluralize that?) past, I have tended to write up an Our-Man-In-Havana dispatch about the San Diego Comic Con, and what I may have seen or gleaned while there, since I generally go, and am up the road, a mere (but crowded) train ride or (very crowded and slow) car ride away.

However, I didn’t get to Comic Con this year.

I didn’t get to it last year, either. Then, I was in Israel. A trip that now seems half a lifetime away, given how radically the situation in the Mideast has changed (or how rapidly so many tamped down energies have come roaring fatally to the surface.)

This summer, I thought of going to the Con for a day or two, but my Ex turned out to be out-of-town (not at Comic Con!) the same time, and I was on “dad duty,” such as it still is, in these days of “emptying nests” in my life.

But there’s still chauffeuring that needs doing, and groceries to be gotten, and meals to be shared.

So, like you, I got my Comic Con news virtually, almost in real-time. The notion of how readily available so much of what had once been “exclusive” to the Con, has become, was encapsulated the night after the convention had wrapped up, and I was with eldest son to see a Guardians of the Galaxy screening (about which, more in a moment).

Behind us in line, as it turned out, was a late-arriving Chris Gore, the acerbic-yet-merry force behind FilmThreat. He arrived and asked his companions if they’d been at the Con, and the next two lines really summed it up:

Yeah, his pal allowed, but he’d only been to the actual “con” part — in the convention hall — once, briefly, over all the days he was there.

Gore agreed, saying that everything from “Hall H” — the hall where all the A-listy actors and directors panel up to introduce their clips or coming seasons — winds up online almost immediately, anyway.

Except, he allowed, some footage from the impending Avengers installment. That was supposed to be Con exclusive.

But you have already been deluged in Tweets, blog-and-Facebook posts, et al, about all of that. By the time I’d get around to writing up one of these columns about the Con, even if I stayed up all night — like Orson Welles’ finishing Joseph Cotten’s review of his wife’s singing, in Citizen Kane — to knock it out upon my return, there’d be little in it you couldn’t have already gleaned from the interwebs.

Hell, even “mainstream” news sites, IMDB’s front page, you name it, all have “Con correspondents” now.

It’s like the civilian version of the “upfronts” – those two weeks of panels run for TV critics (usually in late spring), so they can get personal-like actor and creator quotes, and tell what’s gonna be good this season (before cable TV screwed around so much with the longstanding idea of a “season.”) What the Con does is democratize access –kinda — to fan faves, and let’s the fan themselves — especially those willing to weather the Hall H queue — fill the “critics” seats.

The Con had already democratized access more or less, on the actual comics front — again, depending on your patience with lines — but the Con wasn’t really “news” until Hollywood got involved in a big way — coincident to so many of their recent “tentpoles” being, of course, derived from comics themselves.

Now a show barely even needs to qualify as “genre” — whatever that means in this age of the mash-up — to want a Con appearance.

With a “virtual Con” so readily available to all though, and tickets so hard to come by to the actual event, what’s it like if you actually go?

Well, it’s like the Tokyo subway at rush hour now, but with more costumes. Still, if you have a bit of art or writing to make the rounds with, or you’re from a place where meeting fellow comic (or other) creators in, ahem, “wetspace” is generally hard to do, well then, it might be worth sleeping seven to a Motel 6 room after all.

Whether being in the same physical room as celebrities makes it cool, I dunno. Last time I was there, en route to a press conference, I wound up in a hotel room next door to said conference (for “Hunger Games”) to find the Breaking Bad cast cutting up with each other (though Bryan Cranston is kind of intense), while making way for the Hobbit cast — who practically filed in in a single line, like the movie! — who were to be interviewed next.

It was kind of surreal, and made for a lively afternoon, but at the end of the day, no one’s fame, or lack of it, seems to have much effect on the weather.

I am hoping to actually be back there next year, if only for a day or two. I am also hoping to have some actual projects of my own to talk about, and maybe it’s just been too long since I’ve been at the Con with one of those.

As for the aforementioned Guardians, well, you don’t need me to review it, officially, either, since you’ve already seen it, or will imminently, and you’ve already logged infinite numbers of pixels on the subject.

But yes, it’s true, the movie is its own big ball of fun, shows us once again why we are in the age of the comic-book-movie: Rendering and visual effects are now so persuasive, that a talking raccoon and sentient tree are every bit as believable as the on-screen humans playing green-skinned space babes, and wounded Earth orphans masking-pain-with-humor (though the raccoon, as it turns out, is doing that too).

James Gunn directs and adapts with a deft hand, and I believe I liked the film as much as I did Avengers. I didn’t necessarily like it more than the Winter Solider installment of Captain America, but then being a child of the 60’s & 70’s, I am quite partial to political thrillers (we used to make them, kids, before everyone had given up entirely on politics as an avenue of meaningful change).

The other thing that Guardians reminds us of is that not only are comic characters themselves big box office, but comic-style storytelling has really taken over other media.

All the Marvel movies are, increasingly, so highly interrelated, that, as others have noted, they are more like a massive television show that’s unfolding — one with a really high per-episode budget — rather than a series of movies. Even James Bond films were never this interconnected, really. Bond could marry in one (the underrated On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) then his resultant widowhood (widowerhood?) wouldn’t really be addressed again, except for a brief pre-title scene in one of the later Roger Moore installments.

And there were never movies about the other OO’s (hey! There’s an idea!)

Sure, we’ve had trilogies, but not really movies that are multi-year “crossover” events. Of course, even TV has changed. Once, series just started and ended, without “finales.” There were no 8-episode novelistic runs like we saw on True Detective.

There were just weekly episodes.

Then again, even comics didn’t really develop that style of storytelling, in earnest, until the 70’s and then the 80’s — with mini series, the oft-abused “crossover” events, etc. There were recurring characters, obviously, and guest appearances and such before that, but not as much actual continuity hopscotching between titles, as there is now.

Ironic that on a meta-level, comics glean the “interconnectedness” of everything, just as our “real world” “leaders” seem more staggeringly oblivious to that lesson than ever before!

Comics will save us! (Especially if they can somehow sequester carbon…)

Meanwhile, as comic books are busy informing more of our news, and our sense of storytelling, I’ve been able to actually read a few.

The first of these is  How the World Was, A California Childhood, by French artist/writer Emmanuel Guibert. Published by First Second, it’s actually an “as told to” story from Alan Cope, who had worked with Guibert on an earlier volume, Alan’s War, about World War II (which I haven’t read).

Here, Cope talks of growing up in a very pre-Comic Con California, in the 20’s and 30’s, a California I still saw remnants of in my own 60’s-era childhood, but which increasingly has been redeveloped, bulldozed and sprawled into sedimentary layers of memory and anthropology.

It’s a pretty simply told tale, almost haphazard at times, as Pope recounts growing up in various Southern California locales, making two-day drives to the S.F. Bay Area, and more. There is one particular tragedy that marks his childhood, but this isn’t a “story,” as such, structured around it — it’s more like “the big thing that happened,” along with all the other stuff and observances we get along the way.

I loved it for the documentary feel, and the way it recreates a sense of childhood memory — with adult motives and emotions just glimpsed off-stage, usually in retrospect. If you have an affinity for that period in American history, or one for California history in particular, then this is for you. There are no “big reveals” — just the kind of “working epiphanies” (that sometimes strike us years later) as we cross the landscape of our lives.

For more traditional superhero action — and an interplanetary canvas — I can recommend the first four issues of Mark Millar’s Starlight, from Image Comics. Millar can sometimes be terrific (the Superman Red Son is a particular favorite) or wildly uneven-and-self-indulgent, like in the Kick Ass books.

Here, he’s in fine form (so far!), working with artist Goran Pavlov, in what the Hollywood Reporter correctly describes as “Moebius-meets-Alex Toth art.”

It’s the tale of an older, “Mr. Incredible”-like retired space hero — Flash Gordon hitting AARP-age (which happens, dear reader, much faster than you realize). Problem is, no one believes this particular “Flash” — here called Duke McQueen. Everyone assumes his tales about an interplanetary kidnapping while piloting — let alone the claim to have saved that planet from an evil tyrant — is delusional.

So McQueen lives quietly with his “delusions.” Until a personal loss leaves him vulnerable to a certain suggestion to reclaim some of his past.

I won’t say more than that, but this is engaging stuff, very comic-y in the best sense of issue-ending crescendos, call backs to classic SF tropes, and a continually intriguing array of characters.

I am waiting for issue #5. And like Kick Ass, this too is big-screen bound, having been rushed into development by 20th Century Fox. Presumably the comics will still get here faster than the movies, but since Fox is no longer home to Star Wars, they need to get something else going between X-Men installments…

And speaking of fistfuls of single-issues, I’ve revisited Afterlife With Archie. I wrote earlier about the single issue I’d read so far — #4. I’ve now read #’s 1 – 6, and since the 5th issue finishes “Book One,” and #6 launches another, I’m about to engage in a SOMEWHAT SPOILER-Y DISCUSSION.

Written with clear affinity for such dark (and morbidly humorous) doings, writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa teams up with Francesco Francavilla’s terrific pencils, to present another kind of “ending” in Riverdale (not to be confused with the recent news-making appearance of Life with Archie, where the earnest redhead takes an assassin’s bullet for his gay politco pal).

At first, you’re just wondering who they’re really willing to kill off — Jughead, after all, is “patient zero” in this case. And we have bits of Carrie and Night of the Living Dead and lots of other good sources to draw from. (Since Aguirre-Sacasa was a co-writer of “Carrie”s most recent screen incarnation, by the way, that particular wellspring is hardly surprising.) There are hints of sex (though the book works in PG-13 territory, rather than full-out R-rated zombie mode) and a lot of subtext gets to be exploded — especially between Veronica and Betty.

But ultimately (SPOILER-Y PART REALLY COMING NOW) once you destroy Riverdale, it turns out, narratively, there’s not a lot left you can do. After all, Walking Dead never lets its (surviving) protagonists stay in one place either — for there to be a story at the end-of-the-world, they’ve got to keep moving.

So while the first five “Afterlife” issues having a kind of mournful quality underlying things — two beloved dogs are lost, for Pete’s sake, to say nothing of family members, friends and teachers — six takes a huge left turn, or perhaps a five-sided turn, since we wind up away from Riverdale for the time being, into heavy supernatural horror.

Not the zombie kind of horror (for these are ultimately supernaturally -derived zombies, as opposed to the “science gone wrong” types), but the eldritch kind. The “Dreams in the Witch House” and “Carcosa” kind, if you get what I’m saying, and I think you do.

Indeed, in this installment we even see Sabrina “the teenage witch” again, after seeing her only briefly in the first issue. And it turns out — well, it turns out certain people have designs on those same, dark energies set in motion in Riverdale.

And things are happening to Sabrina that are not quite so perky and innocent.

We’ll leave it at that. It’s practically like a whole ‘nother series has started, with the same title, but I will be even more curious when the narrative swings around to connect this new strand of “unspeakable horror” with the flames engulfing Riverdale.

The Saturday morning Archie cartoon was never like this.

Which is too bad — because if it was, in some alternate world, they’d have their own panel at Comic-con, telling you all about it.