Joe Strike attends year two of the New York Comic Con to find out if the event is growing to a must-attend level like other Cons or if it will fade away in a few years.
The organizers of New York's second annual Comic Con learned a few lessons from their 2006 premiere convention, when hundreds of ticket holders were left out in the cold in front of the packed-beyond-capacity Javits Convention Center. This year the Con cut back its advertising budget, while its website warned people way in advance that Saturday tickets for the events were completely sold out. The long line out in front moved slowly but steadily into the building, thanks to improved crowd control. The exhibit hall, formerly tucked in the building's lowest level, doubled both in size and the number of booths (from 300 to 600) from last year, and moved upstairs to the building's main exhibit space.
Most of Friday was given over to programs for the library, publishing and distribution trades as Reed Exhibitions, the convention's organizers made sure that players in those fields could meet, make deals and take advantage of the booming graphic novel, manga and anime market. Finally, at 5pm the public sessions began. As with any oversize gathering, the overlapping schedule of events made one long for the power of bi (or tri-) location.
The first animation program belonged to Bill Plympton, the best known and hardest working of New York's many independent animators. Plympton offered a brief recap of his career, from his childhood drawings done on second-hand butcher paper (where bloodstains became his characters' heads) to his stint as an editorial cartoonist ("where I learned how to draw fast"), to Your Face, his first hit cartoon. Plympton shrugged off the warped and often morbid aspect of his toons, claiming "I'm a normal guy. I do crazy artwork. The people who do normal artwork are crazy."
Plympton screened Kanye West's Heard 'em Say video, built around his last-minute animation, a replacement for Michel Gondry's expensive, high-concept piece that West had ditched. "Kanye thought Gondry's piece was too wimpy. He told me I had one week to do it and Gondry had spent all the money." Next came Al Yankovic's Don't Download this Song, tracking a teen's life of crime in the aftermath of his intellectual property theft. "Al said it was okay to download his song," Plympton assured his audience.
Editor's Note: Michel Gondry has requested we print his thoughts regarding his work on the Kanye West music video.
Kanye West begged me for two years before I finally accepted to do his video.
The "high concept" of the video is in fact a complete alteration of my original idea by Mr. West, who was concerned it may "alienate his audience" in the Chrismas period with a concept that was too hardcore for his tastes. He shot a second video because he was overwhelmed by his indecision. Lately he sent me a message expressing how he loves my video.
I don't do fanciful high budget concept videos for a living. In fact, Mr. Plympton, which I deeply respect, was seen regularly on MTV a decade before anyone ever heard of my name. I do videos with zero budgets much more often than videos with just a decent budget. Videos with a good budget come to me every five years.
I have never received a single MTV award in the U.S. -- in case you believe I am the establishment -- and my videos are hardly ever played on TV.
I came from directing small videos for my own non-selling band in Paris. It took me decades and constant renewing my ideas for you to hear about me. Please, don't dismiss my hard work to make the point you want in your article and look at the ensemble of my work, then give your judgment if you need to.
With respect,Michel Gondry
The animator screened excerpts from his in-progress feature Idiots and Angels (due out fall 2008 or early '09), focusing on a barroom bully who grows angel wings but remains an unrepentant jerk. "This is one of the fastest productions I've ever done. I can do 20 seconds a day, maybe 30 when I'm really cooking." He extolled the film's "overly worked, dark mysterious look" and its east European/David Lynch vibe.
Plympton unveiled Shut-eye Hotel, his latest short. The abbreviated murder mystery (with the most unlikely killer imaginable) featured the animator's first use of 3D (courtesy of a Maya-trained intern), which he described as "time consuming and expensive... some people didn't even notice it was there." The animator ended the session by extolling the virtues of self-distribution: "why sign a 10-year deal for $40,000 when I can make that back myself... the secret is animated shorts are extremely popular and do quite well; features are a little more difficult."
On Saturday morning, Tad Stones and Mike Mignola screened their second animated, direct-to-video Hellboy feature, Blood and Iron. Like the first, B&I was filled with satisfyingly strong violence and vulgar language, along with priceless lines like a paranormal expert's warning "there are things that modern man relegates to fairy tales and video games." The film's intriguing, Memento-like structure followed a straightforward, modern-day vampire hunt (based on the true story of 16th century blood-bather Erzebet Báthory) interwoven with flashbacks inserted in reverse chronological order.
Blood and Iron is due for an early March run on Cartoon Network, with a DVD release following in May. Stones told his audience Starz Home Ent. had greenlit the script for a third Hellboy DTV movie, which was already half-written. Although Starz has yet to give a production go-ahead, a tiny teaser for the film -- The Phantom Claw -- followed Blood and Iron. ("The film's full of Nazis and exploding heads," Stones gleefully told the crowd, and described it as an old-fashioned Universal, Son of Frankenstein-style adventure.) He and Mignola discussed the three parallel Hellboy continuities: the original comic and its novel adaptation, the live-action movie (and upcoming sequel) and the animated movies.
Mignola described himself as untroubled by how their details diverged in spots. "They exist in separate media: the comics and novel are my real Hellboy world, the animation is Tad's spin and the movie is Guillermo (del Toro)'s." Mignola acknowledged most people will consider the live-action Hellboy the "real" one, but looked at it as an opportunity for many of them to cross over and discover the other versions.
For inexplicable reasons, information about the convention's anime events was relegated to a single, detail-free page in the program book, far away from the lengthy descriptions of the rest of the convention's programming. The page lacked room numbers as well, leaving anime fans scrambling to discover where the events were being held. ("I wondered why the anime sessions were so sparsely attended," mused FUNimation's Scott McCarthy.)
ADV's Matt Greenfield screened the first episode of a show the company has high hopes for: Sgt. Frog, a long-running anime series (based on a likewise long running manga) about a battalion of frog-like, would-be conqueror aliens stranded on Earth and grown overly fond of otaku culture. While its premise is similar to the Nickelodeon cult favorite, the dark-toned Invader Zim, Frogs' (as it will be retitled) goofball, slapsticky humor may help it become more popular than the Nickelodeon series or the average anime import.
Greenfield talked of the company's commitment to serving and expanding the U.S. anime audience, with free streaming and downloads of the premiere episodes from its upcoming series, Coyote Ragtime, Le Chevalier D'Eon, Air Gear and Utawarerumono.
An Afro Samurai panel focused on the DVD release of Samuel L. Jackson's anime mini-series. FUNimation's Scott McCarthy, show exec Eric Calderon and character creator "Bob" Okazaki were on hand for the session. According to McCarthy, 15 minutes of footage have been added to the miniseries, the difference between its 26-minute Japanese running time and the 22-minute episodes that aired in the U.S. on the Spike cable channel. Other additions included, "a more mature relationship" between Jackson's title character and the Kelly Hu-voiced Okiku. "We let Sam be Sam," McCarthy said, referring to the re-insertion of Jackson's favorite mother-effing expletive into his dialog.
McCarthy also announced that FUNimation will be redubbing and distributing Tsubasa, an anime series based on a phenomenally popular manga from Studio Clamp, a four-woman studio that McCarthy compares to the Beatles in terms of sheer popularity in Japan. The manga and its anime version follow the princess Sakura and three accompanying warriors on an interdimensional search for her stolen memories.
Back in the exhibit hall, a videoscreen was the centerpiece of TOKYOPOP's booth, screening a music video of the Dollyrots performing Out of LA, superimposed over animation adapted from TOKYPOP's I Luv Heaven. The company's goal with the video and with similar efforts is to adapt their material into 2D and 3D animation for the rapidly growing mobile content market.
The smaller anime distributors were on hand as well, including Right Stuf, heralding its release of the post-apocalyptic The Third: The Girl with the Blue Eye. Central Park Media announced a collector's edition re-release of the 34-minute Cat Soup, described by one critic as "Hello Kitty on acid," as well as the princess-in-peril feature Fencer of Minerva: The Emergence.
Anime threw its own version of the Oscars the night before the real thing with Saturday's premiere presentation of the "American Anime Awards," held at a nearby midtown hotel. The big event's big winner was Full Metal Alchemist, snagging four of the 12 "Mechas" up for grabs, including best voice actor (Vic Mignogna as "Edward Elric" and as "Hikaru Ichijo" in Macross), as well as overall cast, package design and best long-running series.
Excelsior! In a panel that was as much love-fest as information session, convention guest of honor Stan Lee talked up Mosaic and The Condor, his pair of direct-to-video superhero films produced with Starz Home Media. The session skirted the thin edge of both farce and tragedy as Stan repeatedly tripped and nearly took a fall over some poorly placed cables while leaving the stage to view video clips projected overhead. (Stan ultimately earned a round of applause for avoiding a stumble at the final clip.) The two films were replete with familiar superhero motifs, including murdered parents, identity issues and a secret super-powered race of beings hiding in our midst, done in animation reminiscent of Marvel's many animated TV adaptations. Stan's big news: his third film with Starz, to be released at year's end will star ex-Beatle Ringo Starr.
The strangest -- and funniest -- session of the Con may have been the Venture Brothers' voice actors' panel, which began with a trailer for the April DVD release of the show's second season. Afterwards Steve Ratazzi ("Dr. Morpheus"), Michael Sinterniklass ("Dean Venture"), Jackson Publick ("Hank Venture"), Doc Hammer ("Dr. Girlfriend") and James Urbaniak ("Dr. Venture") indulged in non-sequitur conversations, insulted each other and feigned indignation over repeated questions regarding season II cliffhangers. "We're not Lost," one panelist assured the audience in mock exasperation, "we'll tell you what's going on." "All questions will be answered," added Doc Hammer, referring to the show's third season due to premiere in the spring of 2008, "and new questions will be asked." (A fourth season is also in the works.)
The quartet mercilessly ragged on their fellow Adult Swim series, few of which approach the visual or narrative polish of Venture Brothers. The crowd was told "next season we're going to have a 30-minute episode with a talking football and a mouse changing a tire, discussing whatever comes into their heads -- it's cheaper to produce that way." Playing "can you top this," Urbaniak suggested, "an ice cube and a nail, and at the end the ice cube melts" to which Sinterniklaas responded, "we'll shoot it on my cell phone, that'll save some money."
Black Ent. Television's panel on their upcoming animated series got off to a rocky start, thanks to an uncooperative DVD player. Once the technical issues were resolved, BET president Reggie Hudlin and svp of animation Denys Cowan played several impressive shorts that will be rolled into an afternoon block of short-form programming: Bid 'em In animated the rap-like patter of a 19th century slave auctioneer, while Cipha teased a sci-fi serial set in a world where hip-hop music is illegal. A third short, Read a Book skewered "gangsta" stereotypes in the service of black uplift.
A promised preview of Hannibal, a six-episode, Vin Diesel-starring and Diesel-produced series, due in 2008, consisted of little more than a handful of rough concept sketches. With Hudlin and Cowan announcing themselves wide open to pitches from aspiring black animators, one couldn't avoid the impression that BET's animation program is still in the process of ramping up.
Sunday got off to a strange start with Nickelodeon a no-show for its scheduled session promoting its Latino superhero El Tigre, and the Chiodo Brothers likewise failing to appear for their own stop-motion panel. J.J. Sedelmaier did make it, however, and spoke about animating the work of illustrators like Gary Baseman, Mad magazine's Don Martin and Doonesbury creator Gary Trudeau. "It's marvelous to watch an artist see their stuff translated into animation, and we make sure they have full input," Sedelmaier said.
He quoted cartoonist Elwood Smith's reaction to the sight of one of his characters taking a fall: "'I could never figure out how to draw the bottom of his shoes and I always wondered what they looked like.'" Sedelmaier attributed his success at working with non-animators to reaching out to artists whose work he admires, even if there's no immediate project for them to collaborate on. "Something might happen years later."
Sedelmaier's most recent work includes a Schoolhouse Rock parody for The Daily Show and the ongoing Tek Jansen segments for Stephen Colbert. (Colbert himself put in appearance earlier in the weekend to promote an upcoming comic based on his sci-fi alter ego.) Sedelmaier observed, "the low end, low budget style works for parody," and described the Jansen segments as an anime spoof reflecting Colbert's "pompous, self-inflated, self-important" persona.
It was now late Sunday afternoon. Moments after Sedelmaier's session ended the convention center crew was already breaking down the room even as he chatted with a few lingering fans. NYC's sci-fi, comics and cartoon enthusiasts will have to wait an extra two months for next year's Comic Con, now scheduled for April 2008. Once again, the exhibit area will double in size as the Con takes over the Javits' entire main floor.
Anime fans won't have to wait quite as long; Reed Exhibitions is already planning a new show to fill the gap: the New York Anime Festival, coming to the Javits on Dec. 7, 2007.
Joe Strike is a regular contributor to AWN. His animation articles also appear in the NY Daily News and the New York Press.