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
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
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.