Joe Simon and the Great American Hero

Before Captain America was the star of last summer’s blockbuster movie, he was a comic book superhero. The man who co-created the character over 70 years ago, comic book writer and artist Joe Simon, passed away this past Wednesday in New York.

Two months earlier, Simon spoke at New York Comic Con, a convention for fans of comic books and popular culture. It was three days after Simon’s 98th birthday, and as he entered the meeting room at the Javits Center, the enthusiastic crowd sang “Happy Birthday” to the comic hero creator.

The cover of the first issue of Captain America shows the character and his side-kick Bucky fighting Nazis, with the Captain himself socking Adolf Hitler on the jaw. Looking at the illustration now, it’s easy to write it off as typical American wartime propaganda.

But look closely at the issue date. Newsstand comics were routinely dated two or three months later than their actual publication date (so issues that lingered on the shelves unsold wouldn’t appear to be outdated). With a cover date of March 1941, that first issue of Captain America was likely created in late 1940 or early 1941. The U.S. entry into the Second World War was nearly a year in the future.

When Simon and partner Jack Kirby were looking for a villain for their new comic book, they didn’t have to venture into the realm of fantasy – there was horror enough arising in Europe. Concluding that the best comics were the ones with the best villains, Simon thought, “Let’s get a real live villain.” Hitler was the obvious choice. As Simon wrote in his autobiography, Joe Simon: My Life in Comics, “We knew what was happening in Europe, and were outraged by the Nazis – totally outraged. We thought it was a good time for a patriotic hero.” And thus Captain America was created to go up against the rising Nazi threat.

Simon and Kirby did give Captain America a fantastical opponent — the Red Skull, the idea for which came to Simon as he watched hot fudge dripping down the ice cream on a sundae. Simon was struck by how the pattern of the fudge looked like arms and legs, and he began to imagine a new villain – one who oozed all over the place and could be called Hot Fudge. He quickly rejected that idea. He then realized the cherry on top of the sundae resembled a skull and thought, “Red Skull … that sounds good.” And Captain America’s arch-villain was born.

In creating Captain America, Simon sought to devise something different from the spate of superhero characters that appeared following the success of Superman in 1938. “Comics used to be right out of a mold,” he told the audience at New York Comic Con. At industry leader DC Comics, Simon said, “You put all the ingredients in a cake, shake it, twist it around — and out would come a DC comic…. We came out with something different. Jack Kirby’s great artwork was totally different from anything that DC was putting out.”

Simon went on to create other remarkable heroes and villains, many in conjunction with Kirby. The team developed the Sandman, the Blue Bolt, the Newsboy Legion, the Boy Commandos, Manhunter, and many others. The pair also worked in a wide range of genres beyond superheroes, including titles focused on crime, war, romance, western adventure, horror, and humor.

Throughout his long career, Simon worked with many of the major figures in the industry. Stan Lee, the longtime Marvel Comics writer and editor – and one of the best known and most influential people in the industry – began his career working with Simon as, in Simon’s words, his “assistant and gopher.” Speaking at New York Comic Con, Simon said, “[Stan Lee] is a good guy. I like Stan.” He then jokingly added, “I made him what he is today.”

Simon was one of a number of early comic book creators who later fought for the rights to their earlier work. As Captain America continued to generate revenue through comic books and other forms of popular entertainment, Simon sought to reclaim the copyright to the character. His legal battle with Marvel over Captain America was eventually settled out of court.

Throughout his career Simon seemed intrigued by what makes someone a hero. It was a fascination that began early in his life.

At New York Comic Con, Simon relayed the story of an old veteran from the Civil War who visited his school when he was eight or nine years old. The man proudly held an old 35-star U.S. flag and burst into song, “Ah, the old flag never touched the ground, boys. The dear old flag was never down….” He shook the hand of each student declaring, “Shake the hand that shook the hand of Abraham Lincoln!”

A key moment in the tale was Simon’s account of the difference in the reaction of the teacher and the students to the old soldier. As the man rambled on, at one point the teacher, standing behind him, twirled her finger around while pointing at her head. In her view, the old man was a bit loony. Simon and the young students, however, saw something different. “None of us agreed with her,” Simon told the Comic Con audience. “We thought this guy was a great, great American hero.”

It was clearly a story that made an impact on Simon. It serves as the preface to his autobiography published in 2011, in which Simon wrote, “I would always remember the odd little fighting man as I continued in my life-long quest for the great American Hero. Eventually I would find him … and more.”

The version of the story Simon spun at New York Comic Con was long and rambling, often skipping around from point to point. But, even if his narrative did meander, his memory of the event – after close to a century – was clear and sharp. To the admiring audience, he must have seemed much like the character in his own story: aged – even a bit doddering – yet still an icon of an earlier era of heroism.

Update [December 19, 2011]: A version of this article is also published in Knowledge@Wharton.

The image from Captain America includes fictional, copyrighted characters and a copyrighted publication. It is believed that the use of a web-resolution image for identification and critical commentary qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law.

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The Legacy of Jerry Robinson

Jerry Robinson

Batman is now big business. The character starred in motion pictures that generated the highest domestic box office grosses in two separate years: 1989 (Batman) and 2008 (The Dark Knight). Batman has been reinterpreted over the decades — from Adam West’s campy portrayal in the 1960s television series to the dark and gritty interpretations of writer/illustrator Frank Miller and filmmaker Christopher Nolan. Yet, throughout the years, the mythology of Batman has remained a cornerstone of popular culture.

Artist and illustrator Jerry Robinson, who died this past Wednesday at age 89, was there at the beginning. He was instrumental in developing the mythos and iconography of Batman. His legacy, however, extends far beyond the catalog of his artwork.

Robinson created many of the characters in the Batman comic books and gave life to many others through his illustrations. While there is some dispute over the origins of Batman’s archvillain the Joker, most comic book historians credit Robinson as the primary creator of the character. Robinson also gave birth to many other heroes and villains in the Batman lexicon, including sidekick Robin, loyal butler Alfred, and villains like Two-Face.

Robinson began his professional career at the dawn of the modern comic book era. At age 17, he met artist Bob Kane and began to illustrate Batman, the first major superhero to follow in the wake of the runaway success of Superman. At the time, comic books were viewed as trite — even disreputable — entertainment for children. Now, decades later, Warner Bros. Pictures is hoping The Dark Knight Rises – with an estimated production budget of  $250,000,000 – will be the blockbuster hit of 2012.

Beyond his own work, Robinson taught and inspired other creative artists. He was an early faculty member at the School of Visual Arts in New York. There he taught, among others, artist Steve Ditko who went on to co-create with Stan Lee the characters of Spider-Man and Dr. Strange.

When I spoke with Robinson at San Diego Comic Con last July, I asked whether he was still in touch with the famously reclusive Ditko. He indicated that he hadn’t seen him recently, but quickly added “I taught him, you know.” He was obviously pleased with the accomplishment.

Robinson was also a pioneer in working for creators’ rights. Much of Robinson’s early work was done without attribution (which was a more common practice then than now). His artwork on Batman would be submitted to Bob Kane who would add his signature to the opening splash page and submit the work to the publisher under his own name.

Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster reportedly sold the rights to Superman for $130. Decades later, when the big-budget Superman movie was being filmed, the pair were nearly destitute and largely forgotten. Robinson (along with fellow artist Neal Adams) instigated a public campaign to support the two creators, which eventually convinced Warner Communications to provide them a small stipend and, perhaps equally important, give them credit for their creation. Siegel and Shuster’s victory, modest though it was, became the first shot in the series of legal battles that continues to this day.

Robinson leaves behind a large body of artwork and a rich catalog of fictional characters, but his legacy extends much further — to all the people he touched and the causes he championed. He was witness to — and an active participant in — the entire history of the superhero in comic books and popular culture. His impact continues to live on in the industry he helped to create.

Jerry Robinson Jerry Robinson and Gro Bagn Robinson Jerry Robinson Jerry Robinson and John Romita Sr. Jerry Robinson

Update [December 12, 2011]: A few related comments on Jerry Robinson appear in this article in Knowledge@Wharton: The Serious Legacy of Jerry Robinson, Creator of Batman’s Joker.

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‘Margin Call’: Quiet Desperation

This commentary on the film Margin Call contains significant details about its plot. You may want to see the film before reading it.

Economic thriller Margin Call is, in many ways, a difficult film to like — and that’s what makes it worth seeing. The movie’s uncompromising look at desperate men (and one woman) in the throes of a moral crisis finds no happy ending. And that can be both grueling and fascinating to watch.

Written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker J. C. Chandor, Margin Call takes place in a large investment firm over the course of two days and one very long night during the economic meltdown of 2008. In the middle of that night, the company realizes its highly leveraged mortgage-backed securities are more sensitive to volatile market conditions than was previously thought, and recent market movements have already passed the threshold that their models predicted. Their investment scheme and the financial products on which it is based are unraveling. When it’s determined that the company’s financial exposure exceeds its market capitalization, the corporate officers are faced with a fateful decision: sell the soon-to-be worthless assets — and, in the process, harm not only their customers but their own reputations (both as individuals and as a firm) — or let the company go under. The movie follows several employees as they come to grips with the ramifications of this dilemma.

The strength of the film — which is also what makes it difficult to like — is that all of the characters’ actions are unpalatable. This is not a story of good guys versus bad guys, merely people making seemingly rational, if terrible, choices.

Despite our desire for someone to make a noble gesture of defiant righteousness, Margin Call doesn’t give us that cathartic satisfaction. There’s no Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon) in the China Syndrome shutting himself inside the nuclear power control room to prevent the reactor from being restarted, no Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) working with the Feds to snare Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) in Wall Street. There are just people making desperate choices.

While some characters — such as Kevin Spacey’s morally conflicted Sam Rogers — are more sympathetic than others, when faced with the film’s crisis, each makes essentially the same loathsome choice. Their reasons differ: It’s the only choice they believe they have, they are serving a greater good, or they simply need the money. Some are motivated by political machinations, some by weakness, and some by fear, but in the end, they all feel they have no option other than the choice each eventually makes.

Well acted and well directed, the film moves at a crisp pace as the crisis mounts and pulls more people into its orbit, yet the movie isn’t afraid to pause for a momentous silence at several points. There is a harrowing power in the lack histrionics in the characters’ actions. The soft tones of everyone’s oh-so-professional demeanor make several scenes particularly chilling. The personnel officer utters well-rehearsed answers to any possible question as Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) is being let go from the firm. When Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore) tells Jared Cohen (Simon Baker) that if they are going down, he knows that they’ll both go down together, Baker icily responds, ”I’m not sure that I do know that.”

Margin Call is a closely-observed study of motivations — all of which differ, but all of which ultimately lead to essentially the same devastating outcome.

 

Update [November 8, 2011]: A slightly expanded version of this commentary is published in Knowledge@Wharton. See: “The Movie ‘Margin Call’: No Happy Ending.”

The image from Margin Call is from a copyrighted film, the copyright for which is most likely owned by the studio which produced the film and possibly also by any actors appearing in the image. It is believed that the use of a web-resolution screenshot for identification and critical commentary on the film and its contents qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law.

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New York Comic Con 2011 in Photos

Photos from New York Comic Con 2011

The Javits Center became the center of the pop culture universe this past weekend when more than 100,000 fans of science fiction, fantasy, and superhero movies, television, and comic books descended on the Big Apple for New York Comic Con 2011. Because of its proximity to the heart of the comic book industry in Manhattan, New York Comic Con (run by ReedPOP, a division of Reed Exhibitions and Reed Elsevier) has the reputation of being focused on the show’s historical roots in comic books more than its West Coast cousin, San Diego Comic-Comic (run by Comic-Con International).

And, indeed, the full history of comic books was on display at the New York event, including a panel session with Captain America co-creator Joe Simon (just three days past his 98th birthday), a session on ”Will Eisner’s The Spirit and Bob Kane’s The Batman,” and an announcement of a new comic book series from famed comic book impresario Stan Lee.

Yet Hollywood was in full force at New York Comic Con as well, with a session with the stars of Joss Whedon’s forthcoming Avengers movie, and panel sessions on television shows including “The Walking Dead,” “Nikita,” and “Terra Nova.”

Here is New York Comic Con 2011 from my perspective in 200 photos. Separate sets for selected highlights include:

'The Avengers' panel at New York Comic Con

“The Avengers”: Mark Ruffalo, Clark Gregg, Cobie Smulders, Tom Hiddleston, Chris Evans, Kevin Feige, and Chris Hardwick.

The Avengers panel with actors Mark Ruffalo, Clark Gregg, Cobie Smulders, Tom Hiddleston and Chris Evans; Marvel Studios President of Production Kevin Feige; and moderator Chris Hardwick.

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'The Walking Dead' at New York Comic Con

“The Walking Dead”: Robert Kirkman, Jon Bernthal, Laurie Holden, Steven Yeun, Lauren Cohan, Chandler Riggs, Norman Reedus, Gale Anne Hurd, and Greg Nicotero.

The session on AMC’s “The Walking Dead” with writer/producer Robert Kirkman, producer  Gale Anne Hurd, special effects and makeup supervisor  Greg Nicotero, and actors Jon Bernthal, Laurie Holden, Steven Yeun, Lauren Cohan, Chandler Riggs and Norman Reedus.

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'Nikita' panel at New York Comic Con 2011

“Nikita”: Maggie Q, Shane West, and Albert Kim.

Actors Maggie Q and Shane West along with and writer and co-producer Albert Kim on the “Nikita” panel, moderated by IGN’s Eric Goldman.

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'Terra Nova' panel at New York Comic Con 2011

“Terra Nova”: Stephen Lang, Jason O’Mara, and Brannon Braga.

The “Terra Nova” panel with actors Stephen Lang and Jason O’Mara, and Executive Producer Brannon Braga.

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Joe Simon at New York Comic Con 2011

Joe Simon

Joe Simon, co-creator of Captain America, in conversation with Steve Saffel.

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'Will Eisner and Bob Kane' panel at New York Comic Con 2011

“Will Eisner and Bob Kane”:  N. C. Christopher Couch,  Paul Levitz, Dennis O’Neil, Michael Uslan, and Danny Fingeroth.

The panel session on “Will Eisner’s The Spirit and Bob Kane’s The Batman” with N. C. Christopher Couch,  Paul Levitz, Dennis O’Neil, Michael Uslan, and moderator Danny Fingeroth.

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Stan Lee at New York Comic Con 2011

Stan Lee

Stan Lee announcing “Stan Lee’s Kids Universe” from 1821 Comics.

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Comic book creators at New York Comic Con 2011

Comic Book Creators

Comic book artists, writers, and editors.

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Cosplay at New York Comic Con 2011

Cosplay

And, of course, cosplay: comic book fans who attended the conference in the attire of the favorite superhero or villain.

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Life Lessons from Bret Maverick — and My Father

James Garner as Bret Maverick

Real life never seems as clever as the world of motion pictures and television. Fictional characters always look better and speak with more eloquence than the people in our daily lives. As a child of the television generation, I often lamented that my life wasn’t as colorful as that of the characters I saw on the TV screen — not just in regard to the big, exciting occurrences but, as well, the small, charming moments I saw on TV and in the movies.

I remember being particularly captivated by the witticisms of Bret Maverick, as portrayed by James Garner in the ABC television series that ran from 1957 to 1962. Garner’s character would toss off homespun aphorisms he had learned from his father, Beauregard “Pappy” Maverick. They would always begin, “As my Pappy used to say…” and then include some pithy bit of wisdom about playing poker or whatever — although the messages always seemed to have a larger meaning.

“As my Pappy used to say, ‘Never hold a kicker and never draw to an inside straight,’” Maverick would say. Or, “Never play in a rigged game, unless you rig it yourself.” And so on.

As a young boy, I wondered why my father didn’t utter clever bits of wisdom like this to guide me through my life’s journey. Years later I realized that, perhaps unintentionally, he did.

I have a clear recollection of one particular evening as a young boy playing Scrabble with my parents. (Yes, believe it or not, in the olden days families would occasionally get together to play board games like Scrabble.)

My Scrabble skills were less than stellar. When holding a Scrabble tile with a high point value, such as a Z (10 points), I would contemplate how to extract the maximum value from the piece. I was reluctant use the tile in a simple play like “zoo” (12 points) or even “fez” (15 points). If only I could get the tile on a premium square, it would be worth so much more. If I could just play the Z on a double-letter square, “fez” would give me 25 points. If I could play “fez” on a triple-word square, I would attain a whopping 45 points.

If I had another move — even with fewer points — I would sometimes hold the high-value tile for the chance of getting more points in a later move.

This strategy, of course, seldom worked as intended. I’d eventually play the tile making the same or, often, fewer points than the earlier move would have accomplished. Or, worse yet, I’d get stuck holding the tile at the end of the game when its value would be deducted from my final score. (Oh, the bitter irony!)

At the end of one such game, I explained to my dad that I had been saving the tile in the hope of making a killer play. He casually suggested, “Always make your best move.” Don’t save a valuable tile for later. Make the play now and move on.

My father didn’t intend this to be a life lesson. He meant it merely has a basic strategy for playing Scrabble. Yet, for some reason, I’ve never forgotten this comment. I think of it often in situations that have nothing to do with Scrabble: “Always make your best move.”

And, thanks to Bret Maverick, I also never draw to an inside straight.

The image from “Maverick” is from a copyrighted television program, the copyright for which is most likely owned by the studio which produced the program and possibly also by the actor appearing in the image. It is believed that the use of a web-resolution screenshot for identification and critical commentary on the program and its contents qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law.

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‘Resurrect Dead’: Photos, Reviews, and Ongoing Mysteries

Toynbee Tile

Toynbee tile at 34th and Chestnut streets, Philadelphia, PA. Photo: Kendall Whitehouse

Jon Foy’s fascinating documentary film, Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles, recently ended its inaugural Philadelphia run, playing to capacity crowds. Due to the success of the initial screenings, a sixth show was added to the originally-planned five shows at Philadelphia’s International House. The movie now moves on to additional screenings across the U.S.

Resurrect Dead: Philadelphia Premiere. Photos: Kendall Whitehouse

Resurrect Dead follows the exploits of a trio of amateur sleuths seeking to uncover the secrets of the Toynbee tiles — linoleum signs embedded in roadways across the eastern United States and in a few cities in South America. Many of these tiles contain the message:

TOYNBEE IDEA
IN MOVIE 2001
RESURRECT DEAD
ON PLANET JUPITER

The meaning of the cryptic tiles — and the person behind them — have long remained a mystery. The investigators in Foy’s film doggedly pursue an increasingly bizarre trail of clues: an old newspaper article, a perplexing radio play by David Mamet, and rumors of  pirate radio broadcasts. The movie takes the audience along with the protagonists’ journey as they move ever closer to the center of the mystery.

Resurrect Dead: Second Philadelphia Show. Photos: Kendall Whitehouse

I’ve now attended three four five screenings of the film — an early press screening in New York on February 9, 2011, the Philadelphia premiere on September 8, 2011, the second Philadelphia showing on September 10, 2011, a screening at the Trocadero Theatre in Philadelphia on February 6, 2012, and a showing at the County Theater in Doylestown on March 21, 2012 — and each viewing has provided new insights and engendered a greater appreciation for how cleverly Foy has structured the film.

In its brief 85 minutes, the film weaves together three narrative threads: the search for the identity of the tiler, an explication of the meaning of the tiles,  and — perhaps most notably — the tale of the film’s main protagonist and lead investigator, Justin Duerr.

Resurrect Dead has generally garnered positive reviews — including from the New York Times and Roger Ebert. (The New York Post, however, took a somewhat different view.) My own — very positive — review is here: On Technology and Media: “Uncovering What Lies Beneath.”

My interview with the film’s writer/director Jon Foy appears in Knowledge@Wharton: “Building a Mystery: The Toynbee Tiles and Jon Foy’s Filmmaking Quest.”

Photographs from the Philadelphia premiere on September 8, 2011, the second Philadelphia showing on September 10, screenings at the Trocadero Theatre in Philadelphia on February 6, 2012, and the County Theater in Doylestown on March 21, 2012,  along with the early press screening on February 9, 2011, are in my Flickr account. Several of my photos are also featured on the film’s official website and Facebook page.

Photos of some of the Toynbee tiles I’ve encountered are in my Flickr account as well. The Toynbee Tiles group in Flickr contains a much larger collection of tile photos, including many early tiles that have long been paved over or destroyed — including the famed “manifesto tile” with its wild, paranoid rant that offers a unique insight into the mind of the elusive tiler.

Meanwhile, new tiles continue to appear. It remains unclear which, if any, are being created by the original tiler.

[Update 1:]  Link to photos from the screening at the Trocadero added.

[Update 2:] Link to photos from the screening at the County Theater added.

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San Diego Comic-Con 2011 in Photos

Notes from San Diego Comic-Con 2011

Each July, more than 125,000 people descend on San Diego — many sporting a costume of their favorite comic book or movie character — to attend panel sessions, participate in social activities, and see and be seen at the San Diego Convention Center and around town. It’s impossible for any individual to capture the full experience of Comic-Con. Here are highlights of the event from my viewpoint: 345 photos taken over five days.

Separate sets are available for some of the major sessions and activities, including:

The Evolution of Web Series: Felicia Day, Peter Winther, Doug Jones, and Mark Darrah

The panel session “The Evolution of Web Series: The Guild to Dragon Age” with Felicia Day, Peter Winther, Doug Jones, and Mark Darrah.

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20th Century Fox: Damon Lindelof, Charlize Theron, Justin Timberlake, Amanda Seyfried, and Andy Serkis

Damon Lindelof hosts the 20th Century Fox presentation featuring  Charlize Theron, Justin Timberlake, Amanda Seyfried, and Andy Serkis.

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The Adventures of Tintin: Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson

Director Steven Spielberg and producer Peter Jackson discuss Paramount Pictures’ The Adventures of Tintin.

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Relativity Media: Channing Tatum, Gina Carano, Steven Soderbergh, John Cusack, Alice Eve, Luke Evans, and James McTeigue

Relativity Media panels on Haywire with Channing Tatum, Gina Carano and Steven Soderbergh; and Raven with John Cusack, Alice Eve, Luke Evans, and James McTeigue.

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Underworld Awakening: Kate Beckinsale, Michael Ealy, Theo James, Len Wiseman, Mans Marlind, and Bjorn Stein

Screen Gems’ Underworld Awakening panel with actors Kate Beckinsale, Michael Ealy, and Theo James; producer Len Wiseman; directors Mans Marlind and Bjorn Stein; and moderator Chris Gore.

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Knights of Badassdom: Summer Glau, Peter Dinklage, Margarita Levieva, Ryan Kwanten, Jimmi Simpson, Danny Pudi, Michael Gladis, and Joe Lynch

IndieVest Pictures’ Knights of Badassdom panel with actors Summer Glau, Peter Dinklage, Margarita Levieva, Ryan Kwanten, Jimmi Simpson, Danny Pudi, and Michael Gladis along with director Joe Lynch.

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Snow White and the Huntsman: Kristen Stewart, Charlize Theron, Chris Hemsworth, and Sam Claflin

Kristen Stewart, Charlize Theron, Chris Hemsworth, and Sam Claflin discuss Universal Pictures’ Snow White and the Huntsman.

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Watchmen: Dave Gibbons, John Higgins, and Len Wein

Watchmen” artist Dave Gibbons, colorist John Higgins, and editor Len Wein discuss the legacy of the revolutionary comic book series.

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Comic Book Artists and Creators

Comic book artists and creators.

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Cosplay

And, of course, cosplay: attendees in the costumes of their favorite characters.

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Comic-Con Movies: From Tentpole to Shoestring

Actor Rainn Wilson and Director James Gunn discussing their indie film 'Super' at WonderCon 2011

Notes from WonderCon 2011

Although the name “comic-con” is based on the event’s origins as a convention for comic book fans, the comic-con has morphed into a broad survey of popular culture. Fans flock to these conventions in San Diego, New York, San Francisco and elsewhere, not just to complete their comic book collections or strut around sporting the costume of their favorite superhero, but also to see clips and attend panel sessions on forthcoming movies and television shows. This year’s WonderCon in San Francisco included the debut of an extended nine-minute sequence from The Green Lantern and clips from Hanna, Priest, and many of the other big budget summer movies.

While crowds mob into the large auditoriums at the comic-cons (such as the famed Hall H at the San Diego event) to uncover new details about their favorite television series or see a trailer from a forthcoming film, elsewhere, in the smaller meeting rooms, are discussions of more modest productions — independent films from up-and-coming directors and works-in-progress from first-time filmmakers.

At this year’s WonderCon, the middle ground between the big summer blockbusters and the low-budget entry-level works was exemplified by James Gunn’s Super. In a panel session director Gunn and actor Rainn Wilson (Dwight Shrute from “The Office”) talked about their radical reinterpretation of the superhero ethos, which is at turns outrageously funny and shockingly disturbing.

Gunn asserted that today “all studios care about is the opening weekend. So all that matters is the trailer.” Wilson lamented the difference from “the old days, in which ET could build an audience over several weeks.” He also pointed out that every studio is trying to release a “four quadrant” film, that is, one that appeals alike to young and old, male and female.

Gunn, however, is targeting a smaller, niche audience. His film’s odd tone and disturbing violence made the movie ineligible for an ‘R’ rating, so Gunn released the picture without an MPAA rating.

Gunn and Wilson were promoting a screening of Super in town that evening, imploring the audience members to come out to see the film “and bring your friends.” Wilson mentioned that each week he reviews spreadsheets showing  the ticket sales from each theater. For a movie of this scale, whether or not you bring a few friends makes a difference.

'What's Next in Indie Sci-Fi' Panel at WonderCon 2011

In an even smaller meeting room, a panel session on “What’s Next in Indie Sci-Fi” included an assortment of “do it yourself” filmmakers working to complete their own independent projects. Clips of works-in-progress and trailers without final music or sound effects provided insights into the process of creating a feature film on a shoe-string budget. A number of these efforts are using fan-funding campaigns through sites such as Kickstarter in hopes of securing the resources to complete their work.

Some of these potential films look promising. Others less so. Here are the filmmakers and the works they discussed on that panel. Take a look and judge for yourself:

Henry Barrial, Pig: http://thepigpicture.com/

Kip Rasmussen, The 95ers: http://95ers.com/

DJ Bad Vegan, In-World War: http://www.inworldwar.com/

Vincent Cortez, Roamer: http://filmmaker-cortez.blogspot.com/2011/02/roamer-trailer-and-status-update.html

It’s encouraging that in addition to the mass-market, “tentpole” productions that are pulling out all the stops to garner a large turnout for that critical opening weekend, comic-cons also provide a platform for indie filmmakers like Gunn and lesser-known aspirants working to express their personal vision on the big screen.

The next time you attend a comic-con — whether San Francisco’s WonderCon, the huge San Diego Comic-Con, or the other similar regional conventions — take some time away from blockbuster panels in the huge auditoriums. You’ll see all of these films as soon as they’re released anyway. Rather than hang out in Hall H in the San Diego Convention Center all day, venture into the smaller meeting rooms on the fringes of the conference and seek out the small, independent productions to discover what gems may be hiding there.

 

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WonderCon 2011 in Photos

Notes from WonderCon 2011

Photos from WonderCon 2011 are available in my Flickr photostream — 241 photos covering all three days from the opening on Friday through the close on Sunday afternoon.

Separate sets are available for some of the major panel sessions, including:

Immortals: Tarsem Singh, Henry Cavill, Luke Evans, Isabel Lucas, and Mark Canton

Immortals, with director Tarsem Singh; actors Henry Cavill (also cast as Superman in Zack Snyder’s forthcoming film, Man of Steel), Luke Evans, and Isabel Lucas;  and producer Mark Canton.

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Hanna: Joe Wright and Saoirse Ronan

Hanna, with director Joe Wright and actor Saoirse Ronan.

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Priest: Scott Stewart, Paul Bettany, Lily Collins, Cam Gigandet, and Min-Woo Hyung

Priest, with director Scott Stewart; actors Paul Bettany, Lily Collins and Cam Gigandet; and artist Min-Woo Hyung.

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Super: James Gunn and Rainn Wilson

Super, with director James Gunn and actor Rainn Wilson.

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Dr. Who: Toby Haynes, Mark Sheppard, and Neil Gaiman

Dr. Who,” with director Toby Haynes, actor Mark Sheppard, and writer Neil Gaiman.

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V: Marc Singer, Elizabeth Mitchell, and Scott Rosenbaum

V,” with actors Marc Singer and Elizabeth Mitchell, and executive producer Scott Rosenbaum.

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Green Lantern: Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively

Green Lantern, with actors Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively.

 

 

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And, of course, there are all the attendees who came in costume. There is also a set documenting an intriguing transmedia ad campaign for Acura and Marvel Studios’ Thor that I described in a previous post.

 

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Advertising as Entertainment

Mysterious images appear on the television in my hotel room. Look closely and you may spot Thor's hammer and an Acura automobile.

Notes from WonderCon 2011

The San Francisco version of Comic-Con, known as WonderCon, is a combination convention, festival, and weekend-long party for fans of comic books, superheroes, science fiction, and other genres of popular entertainment. It’s an opportunity for fans to see clips from forthcoming sci-fi and fantasy movies and television shows, meet celebrities, and shop for comic books, action figures, and similar fare. It also may provide a glimpse of the future of marketing.

One of the ad campaigns at this year’s WonderCon was a transmedia event jointly promoting Marvel Studios’ upcoming film Thor and the Acura automobile. Acura is apparently the official automobile of S.H.I.E.L.D., the fictional spy agency in the Marvel universe. According to Variety, this is the first film partnership for the luxury car company, for which advertising agency RPA has crafted a multifaceted marketing campaign — one that came knocking on my hotel door the first morning of the conference.

When I answered the door I was handed a card that stated, “You have been selected. Report to channel 72. Your official debriefing begins now.”

“Channel 72? On the TV?” I wondered. I turned on the television and switched to channel 72.

A series of mysterious images rapidly flashed across the screen. “Media Confiscation. Record number: 34857.” The image of a meteor crater. A governmental-looking logo.

On multiple viewings I could spot flashes of Thor’s hammer and quick — one might even say subliminal — shots of a car: an Acura.

The video asks, “Do you accept?” The spot ends with a web address: JoinSHIELD.com.

I went online to JoinSHIELD.com. The single page on the site thanked me for “considering global employment opportunities at Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division” and asked for my email address. I obediently entered it.

After leaving the hotel and heading toward WonderCon at the Moscone Convention Center, I encountered a tent guarded by a figure in a SWAT-like military costume patrolling a line entering the tent.

A sign proclaimed, “S.H.I.E.L.D. ID Badge Line Starts Here” A sleek black Acura was on display.

I asked a young woman who has just received her S.H.I.E.L.D. ID what the card would do for her. She wasn’t too sure, saying “They’ll send you viral stuff or something.”

Perhaps it’s not surprising to see young fans lined up to participate in marketing campaigns at WonderCon. Many of the presentations at Comic-Cons are, in fact, largely promotional events hosted by major movie and television studios.

While WonderCon hosted a number of sessions on the creative, historical, and sociological aspects of comic books and popular entertainment (“Breaking into Comics the Marvel Way,” “Goal-Setting for Creative Types,” “The Evolution of Comics in the Transmedia Space,” etc.), the largest events were those sponsored by the studios in the Moscone Center’s 5,000-seat Esplanade Ballroom. The marketing bent of these presentations was quite evident. Many sessions opened with the trailer for a forthcoming film or TV show. Near the end of one session the host shouted, “Wouldn’t you like to see that trailer again?” The crowd roared and then sat through the extended commercial for the second time.

For their rapt attention at these infomercials, the fans receive special rewards. They are the first to see nine minutes of footage from The Green Lantern staring Ryan Reynolds. They view the first publicly-shown footage from Tarsem Singh’s The Immortals. They may have the opportunity to ask a question of one of their favorite stars during one of the panel sessions. The fans trade their time and attention for bragging rights and logo-themed T-shirts. As entertainer Chris Hardwick characterized the appeal at one of the panels, “I have a thing you don’t have, other nerds. So you lose!”

I, too, waited on line for my S.H.I.E.L.D. ID. I don’t know why. Nonetheless, I filled out the form, entered my name and address, and checked a box agreeing that, “Yes, I would like to receive more infromation from S.H.I.E.L.D. and Acura.”

I now have my S.H.I.E.L.D. ID. I await the “cool viral stuff or something” that may ensue.

In a world cluttered with commercials trying to reach this key demographic of avid movie, TV, and pop culture fans, at WonderCon they wait in line to surrender their contact information in order to receive additional advertising. Welcome to the future of marketing: advertising as entertainment.

The screenshots and marketing collateral in this article may be copyrighted materials, the copyright for which is most likely owned by the production companies or the advertising agencies which created them. It is believed that the use of a limited number of web-resolution screenshots and scanned images for identification and critical commentary on this material qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law.

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