Jul 10 2012 11:00am

The Four Questions Everyone Asks at Conventions

The Four Questions Everyone Asks at Conventions

With San Diego Comic Con starting this week, I thought it would be a good time to review the four questions that get asked at every question and answer event ever.

And while there are no bad questions, and yes, sometimes someone asks a question that falls outside these categories (which were thoroughly researched by me, of course), on the whole, most questions fall into these four types and everyone, fan and creator alike, should be prepared for them.


1. The Aspirant

The Four Questions Everyone Asks at Conventions

By far the most common question, and the most diversely asked, so you might not realize these are all the same question.

  • What did you read growing up?
  • What’s your work schedule like?
  • How did you get into comics (or writing, or painting, or whatever the field is)?
  • How do you deal with writer’s block?
  • Are there any special tools you use?
  • How did you get your first job?
  • What’s it like working with so and so?
  • How do you deal with rejection?
  • Where do you get your ideas?

There are a lot of different questions like that, but they all boil down to the same basic desire, “I want to be like you, tell me how to be you.”

Which is completely understandable. If you’re at a Q and A, you’re not just a fan of the work, but of the creator him or herself. And you see someone making art you love, and seemingly having a good time and making money doing it, and you want to see if you can do it yourself.

The only problem with these questions is that the answers are almost always sadly mundane. Most artists, in any field, studied and trained for a long time, then worked for many years in obscurity, but they made some friends and because they were talented and they worked hard they caught a lucky break and here we are. And while there are stories of the writers who make a bestseller on their first book, unless they’re a one-hit wonder, they also work hard every day to continue to make art.

Neil Gaiman said he wished the answer to “Where do you get your ideas?” was “From a little ideas shop in Bognor Regis,” and Gary Larson says he imagines an elegant book entitled “Five Thousand and One Weird Cartoon Ideas.” But for the most part creators read a lot, and research a lot, and they see something and think about it and it sparks something in their brain. Charlie Stross has a good post about it.

So you can ask your question, but be prepared to hear “if you want to be a writer you write,” and “if you want to be a painter you paint,” and you do it and you do it and you keep doing it, and you hope that one day someone pays you to do it.


2. The Historian

This is possibly the most mocked question at a nerd convention. It’s the one that starts “In issue #212 of Green Lantern, volume 2...” or “in the director’s cut of episode 2.03...” and is answered by “A wizard did it.” This person has found a particular plot point that was never resolved, or creates a continuity problem, or was interesting but never mentioned again. And they want the creator to address it, right now, in front of everyone.

The problem isn’t that no one else in the room cares about this topic as much as you do (or, that isn’t the only problem). The problem is that you’re going to run into the devastating realization that the creators themselves don’t care. Or, at least, they don’t care as much. The work that is a world and a lifestyle for you is just a job for them. Maybe you’re lucky, maybe you’re a Firefly fan and the actors and writers are all as excited to have worked on that show as you are to have seen it, but that’s rarely going to be the case.

And even if it is, and they are as excited as you are, if you have a question about minutia, maybe it’s best asked one on one with the creator after the panel. Because, really, not all of us read that issue.


3. The Tangent

This one is personally my favorite. It’s when someone gets up and, for whatever reason, asks a question just barely related to the topic at hand. Maybe they know about a secret hobby of the creator. Maybe they’re working on a particular project and it consumes their thoughts. Maybe they have a hammer and the world is their nail. But you end up with some funky ass questions like “How do you think your book about feudal lords relates to the current health care debate?” “Do you think Superman is a Mets fan?” “Does ‘barbecue’ mean cow or pig?”

On the one hand, if you’ve misfired, and the panelist has no idea what you’re talking about, they will basically skip over the question. On the other hand, if it’s something they know anything about, they will leap at the chance to answer your question, expound with great volume and animation, because this is the first and possibly last time today they’ll get to talk about anything other than their own work.


4. The Jackass

The Four Questions Everyone Asks at Conventions

Okay, remember when I said there were no bad questions? That was a lie. There is one bad question, and it starts this way:

“Yeah, I have a question. Two questions actually. And one of them is more of a comment...”

And the comment boils down to “You’re wrong.” And the question is “How do you respond to being proved wrong, here, in front of your adoring crowd?”

This, ladies and gentlemen, is a dick move. I know, I know, it seems like maybe this young man—and it’s always a young man—is a brave contrarian just speaking truth to power.

But this is not a brave truth warrior. This is someone trying to show how much smarter he is than the beloved creators standing in front of him. He is starting from the premise they are wrong and he is right, and there is no response they could have that will prove him wrong. Especially since any answer they give will by necessity come off as defensive and aggressive.

There are real issues that should be talked about at Comic Con this year. I expect creator rights to be a major issue, as well as ongoing debates about a larger role for women and people of color as writers and artists. I want people to ask questions about these things, and for the creators involved to know that the audience cares, and is looking for answers. And the way to do that at a Q and A panel is to ask questions you actually expect the creators involved to be able to answer.


And that basically goes for all questions you want to ask at a panel. Think about not just what you want to say, but what you want to hear, and what you could reasonably expect to hear. This is not a performance, for you or for them, you don’t need to ask questions that focuses the attention on yourself or has a life changing answer. Just try to have a normal conversation with them. You’re human. They’re human. I’m sure you’ll find you actually have a lot in common.

Steven Padnick is a freelance writer and editor. By day. You can find more of his writing and funny pictures at padnick.tumblr.com.

James Whitehead
1. KatoCrossesTheCourtyard
I would've thought that the SNL skit with Shatner & Kevin Nealon/Dana Carvey would've encouraged option #2 from happening much anymore.

Eugene R.
2. Eugene R.
Wonderful advice for convention goers, Mr. Padnick, particularly the sentiment about making the Q-and-A into a conversation, which brings to mind one other type of audience ploy: the Non-Question.

The Non-Question is the sustained rant delivered to the panel about something (perhaps related to the panelist's work, perhaps not), which is sometimes question-ized by tacking on a perfunctory "Don't you agree?" at the end, the end that is sooo long in coming.

Brevity is the soul of convention questions.
Steven Padnick
3. padnick
Hmm, perhaps The Jackass is actually a variant of the Non-Question, because yeah, it's basically the same phenomenon.
Eugene R.
4. AJD
“Yeah, I have a question. Two questions actually. And one of them is more of a comment...”
I see what you did there...
Steven Padnick
5. padnick
I think maybe twenty people would have gotten what I meant if I called it the DB.
Eugene R.
6. Andrew G
#3 can be pretty fun, and a chance to learn something new about the panelist. I remember being at a Star Trek convention in the 90s, and someone in the audience asked Brent Spiner recurring role as "
Bob Wheeler" on Night Court. It was fun seeing him light up and talk a little about the fun he had in a non-Trek role.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
7. tnh
Sometimes an audience member really does know something significant and interesting that the panelist isn't aware of. What I noticed many years ago was that really smart people like Chip Delany or Joanna Russ or John M. Ford weren't fazed by it. If someone had a genuinely good point, their reactions were more like "Oh, that's interesting -- this is the first I've heard about it. Go on?" or "Oooh. Talk to me after the panel."

(I won't say it happened very often. Noticeably bad questions are commoner than noticeably good ones.)

A panel is a conversation. So is an interview. The best audience interpolations respect and build on that. Interrupting or breaking it in order to demonstrate the importance of one's own opinions, without considering how they'll fit into the conversation, just comes off looking clueless.

For a real ten-car pileup, though, nothing beats a panel where one of the panelists keeps breaking the conversation that way because he or she can't follow the discussion or isn't comfortable with it. Those are awful.

(Useful tip: if you ever find yourself on a panel where you're in over your head, or you just have nothing to say, the trick is to listen alertly while doing unobtrusive reaction shots to what the other panelists are saying. It makes you look like you're in command of the material and part of the conversation, and in the meantime gives you something to do so you don't nod off.)
Karin L Kross
8. KarinKross
Is "The Thesis Question" a variant of "The Historian"? This is the one where the questioner attempts to demonstrate their Deep Understanding of the artist by asking a lengthy thesis-abstract-style question about "themes they've noticed" in the artist's work. (Several years back I saw a particularly full-of-itself Thesis Question get shot down by the artist at whom it was directed with a very succinct "No.")

To Andrew G's point above: my first con was a Star Trek convention at which Marina Sirtis was the guest. I was a very young nerd of about 14 who was also a big fan of Sherlock Holmes, and so I asked her some question about her appearance in the Granada adaptation of "The Six Napoleons" and whether she was doing any others. Her response: "Wow, we've got a real fan here; give her a hand!"

In hindsight I'm a bit embarrassed on behalf of my 14-year-old self, but honestly, that kind of made my day.
Sky Thibedeau
9. SkylarkThibedeau
Artists really like it when you discuss the broad tapestry of their works. I had a nice conversation with Richard Hatch at a con about 'All My Children" (I was hoping he'd have a picture of himself as Philip Brent to autograph) and his work with the great Karl Malden on "Streets of San Francisco" after replacing Michael Douglas. I believe he'd not have talked as long if it had been the usual 'Battlestar Babble".
Bethany Pratt
10. LiC
I was at the Star Wars Celebration II IndyCon years ago, and attended nearly every book related panel. One in particular was with some of the writers/editors working on the Star Wars Tales comic book series - you might remember them from the Boba Fett Fight Club issue. I asked if since TPM had the aliens from ET making a cameo in it, couldn't they take that license and do a story about them?

Sadly, nothing came of it. But they definitely paused and thought about it for a minute.
Eugene R.
12. Tom Y. Galloway
Not quite a question, but an all too common way of "asking" one. The audience member starts out by thanking the person/group for being there (this may seem polite, but at about the 3 in a row doing this, it's a "I get it already" feeling) then goes into some detail about how they first encountered the person/work/show, why the person/work/show means *so* much to their life/how it relates to their having grown up on a farm/in a city/being orphaned/going to school/whatever, then how the people up there have so much in common with them, etc. Eventually, an actual question may be asked. But the bulk is a combo of "let me tell you about myself" and "if you think about what I'm saying, I bet we could be really good friends, call me?"

As Tom Spurgeon's guide to Comic-Con says, questions are interrogative statements that end with a question mark, and if your question is too long for a tweet, you may want to reconsider it.
Eugene R.
13. NickM
A great 'to the extreme' example of #3 came in a "Family Guy" episode from a few years ago. Can't remember the title, but 1/2 the ep's story came from Stewie buying Transporter blueprints at a "Star Trek" convention.

He goes to a TNG actors panel discussion and gets annoyed when the fans ask questions about household problems and the like. This spurs him to use the blueprints to build a Transporter and kidnap all of the actors.

A photo from the final scene, after he is tired of putting up with them for a couple days, has become my 'tote around to conventions to collect autographs' souvenir.
Eugene R.
14. AlBrown
Very astute observation, Steven, I think you pretty much hit the nail on the head. Hopefully, your observations can help increase the quality of the discourse at future events!
Levi Stribling
15. WhiteAsianMagic
Love the dude in the red shirt. You can't get enough of those guys.

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