Feb 9 2009 2:15pm

Revenge of the Tiny Panels

I am not a con-virgin. I have been to two teeny-tiny cons before this year, but in no way did they prepare me for the might and madness that is New York Comic Con. Truly, this is an awesome experience, and I’m glad that I walked among the gods and goddesses, famous or no. However, I am no fan of crowds, and I had few panels or booths or guests that I absolutely had to meet. This is due partially to my celebrity non-interaction policy but also due to a sense that I, while a fan, haven’t got it in me to deprive keener fans of a chance to see their idols. (Especially not when so many had dressed up as characters from the shows/movies/comics produced by the guest speakers or were wearing the affiliated merchandise.)

I was too busy chasing people down for pictures to stand in lines anyway.

As such, I decided to stick to panels that interested me for their subject rather than the celebrity status of the guests. The feminist in me immediately drifted towards Saturday’s “Representation of Women in Comics” panel run by the nonprofit Friends of Lulu. I anticipated some griping about the likes of Rob Liefeld (who I passed by on the main floor without laughing and pointing, which I consider a moral victory). Maybe some discussion of Chris Claremont’s work, with his compensating for traditional oversight with extraordinarily overpowered female characters. Maybe some discussion of manga’s influence, since it is clearly a marketing force with which to be reckoned and draws in the sort of female readership for which most American titles would kill. I wanted war stories from the mostly female panel and I wanted the outsider-looking-in, insider-looking-out perspective of the panel’s lone male voice. I would have been happy with anecdotes so long as they were stuffed with details.

(Not pictured: me rolling my eyes.)

I got vagaries. The moderator asked bland questions, and the panel gave equally tasteless answers: “What do you think about the representation of women in comics?”; “How do you represent women in comics?”; “What do readers think of your representations of women in comics?” I imagined the moderator as a coked-up rat constantly pressing the button marked “representation of women in comics” for another hit of that sweet, sweet vestige of respectability and intelligence while the rest of us looked on, fully aware that she had a problem. The panelists were little better. The cousin collaborators, Jillian and Mariko Tamaki, gamely noted that, being Asian, they wanted to insert more non-white people into comics. And once? They had to fight with an artist to make a character a little heavier! C.M. Butzer, the male panelist, was able to point to the 1980s as a decade full of problematic depictions of women in comics but didn’t name a single series, issue, artist, or writer who ever contributed one. (He also countered his own unspecific attack on the decadence of 1980s underground comics by saying there had also been any number of positive representations of women. For all that he went into detail, they could have been the same characters.) Robin Firth, who has been working on adapting Stephen King’s The Dark Tower into a comic serial, regaled us with the story of, prior to meeting her, British fans thought she was a man because Robin is a boy’s name in the UK. How fans’ perceptions of her work changed when they found out she was, in fact, a woman, is a mystery that will haunt me for the rest of my life. All the panelists agreed that having more women involved in the creation and publishing of comics would lead to a revolution in the way women were portrayed in them. None speculated on where that revolution was headed.

The sole redeeming question of the panel came from an audience member who could not disguise the irritation in her voice when she was called upon. Responding to a previous discussion where the panelists declared themselves pleased that roles for women in comics had expanded, specifically into “masculine” roles like the action hero, this audience member asked if that wasn’t sort of defeating the point and proving that the revolution was not so gloriously close at hand as the panelists claimed. Because they were still associating the role of an action character as being inherently “masculine,” the questioner asked if they weren’t really just putting boobs on a male character. Not surprisingly, since this view challenged the “Girls RAWK!” attitude that had prevailed thus far, her question got almost no traction. It didn’t help that almost none of the panelists worked on comics remotely associated with action series characters, but the fact that they could not explain what differentiated an action heroine from an action character that didn’t have to be male or female to be awesome, was the greatest damnation of all. The tedium induced by the panel collapsed into disappointment, which I felt most keenly for the fact that I missed snapping a picture of one attendee in a great Nurse-Joker costume.

Later on Saturday afternoon, I dropped into the ItsJustSomeRandomGuy panel. I was vaguely familiar with his “I’m a Marvel and I’m a DC” parodies and fairly tickled that an internets-famous person would be invited to host his own panel. I figured there wouldn’t be much competition for seating. I hadn’t anticipated that his in-person internet following already had one year’s head start on me. I ended up in the only line I waited in all day, excluding the one for the cafeteria. When ItsJustSomeRandomGuy (no known alias) walked in via the same pedestrian entrance as his fans, one immediately called out, “There he is!” as if he were Elvis, the Beatles, or Zombie Jesus. Before he could treat his audience to the stunning finale of his latest YouTube creation, he played a video that the audience knew to expect and called out for: the latest excuse from his girlfriend, ItsJustSomeRandomGirl, as to why she was absenting herself from the con. (Not by choice, as it turns out; she was feeling the lash of the whip from their executive produce, RandomCat.) This level of personal involvement, of expectations stoked and satisfied, spoke of a tender rapport approximating that of the affection held by fans of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The audience knew what they were in for, but the exact product would be a surprise.

(RandomGuy is all alone in this cruel, cruel world, with nary a tech in sight.)

Being internets-famous only takes one so far, apparently, as RandomGuy had to handle his own technology hook up. The stage was still littered with the coffee cups and other detritus from a much larger panel. Alone in a huge room, futilely asking for help from God and the men in red shirts (but not the ones from Star Trek), RandomGuy traded sarcastic comments with his enthusiastic fans as well as pleading for their patience. (“Do you suppose there is a remote? Something I can toggle?”) His lounge-act filler was interrupted by some more protests of technology and then it was on to the thrilling conclusion of his most recent parody, “Happy Hour.” And there was much rejoicing.

Throughout the Q-and-A, fan questions ranged from the predictable (“How did you come up for this idea?”) to the inane (there was a call-and-response to the lyrics of "My Humps") to the endlessly repetitive  (“When are you going to put in [fill in the name of questioner’s favorite comic book character]?”). RandomGirl answered questions via speakerphone, and what little there is that can be explained about one guy’s sense of humor was picked over down to the minutest level. (The reasoning behind the decision to switch which action figure was used to represent the Joker seemed to be of the utmost importance.) People wanted to know what DC’s response to the series was, as apparently the people at Marvel been good sports and taken the joke on the chin. One person—a man as it so happens—wanted to know if there was a “Ladies Night” (featuring the female action figures) in the offing. RandomGuy confessed an interest in doing just such a project but that he was constrained by the lack of heroines in the movies. (His series attempt to attract and appeal to viewers from both comic book loyalists and movie fans alike.) A bunch of comic fanboys clamoring for a video of Wonder Woman and Elektra complaining about how their movie counter-parts butcher their backstories said more about the state of women in comics today than the entire panel devoted to that topic.

All in all, small panels, like large ones, are entirely subject to the level of engagement and enthusiasm of the panelists. This gem of enlightenment surprises exactly no one.

Pablo Defendini
1. pablodefendini
I had the same issues as RandmGuy with my panel: the panel area was a mess of discarded cups and napkins, and nary a cleanup crew in sight. Worse yet, when I cleaned everything up myself (which isn't really a big deal, of course), there were no trash cans in the room (that is a big deal, imho)!

Additionally, we were missing an adapter for the projector, and asking a volunteer to look for a redshirt (calling a tech guy a "redshirt" is kinda asking for trouble, no?) got me no results. We had to do our panel without my shiny slides, and without being able to showcase the site on the projector, which you know, woulda been nice.
Marion Vitus
2. Marion Vitus
Zing! Sorry to disappoint you on the FoL panel there, Dayle! :-D

Most of the folks I've arranged panels for are getting a wee bit tired of retelling their war-stories, and some of the rising stars of the business haven't been offended enough yet to have war stories to tell... not that I'm eager for them to do battle, so I can't say I'm sorry on that account.

One thing I can say though: I'm always open to suggestions if you know of speakers you'd like to hear from! And topics you'd like them to talk about! Feel free to email me at the above address, or contact I'd love to put together a panel that would replace your feelings of tedium with something more invigorating. ;-)
Dayle McClintock
3. trinityvixen
@Pablo: When one's entire panel is dedicated to delivering a series finale to ones fans, it is easy to find the lack of tech support...disturbing.

@Marion: The major problem I had with the panel was that it was far too elementary. It read like a primer on comic book interpretations and representations of women instead of what it easily could have been: a deep analysis of what was wrong both with stories and the publishing world that was keeping those representations mired in the past.

A lot of the trouble seemed to be that the worst offenders as far as troubling representations of women were concerned weren't present. As I said, there weren't any action/super-hero comics folk really represented. They were lauded in absentia for their recent "progressive" work, but no one could point to any examples.

The lack of specifics, war stories or no, was what really killed the panel for me. I don't want just a bunch of ragging on other artists/writers, but I would like to know what troubles the panelists about other productions and how they wrote to either react to or compensate for those works. The questions skated over that and didn't place the panelists' works in the context of all comics, just on the terms of their work, end of story.

I didn't get to attend the later panel "Men are from Krypton, Women are from Paradise Island," so maybe more was discussed there, I can't say. I just left the earlier panel wondering why it skirted offense entirely when it purported to be looking in depth at a frequently thorny complication in modern comic publishing.

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