Joe Strike attends the first New York Comic-Con, reporting back on an event that hopes to become a sci-fi, comics and fantasy Mecca with an east coast flavor.
Hello Comic-Con New York!
The speaker is Keanu Reeves, or at least a video projected image of him. Not quite a real-life image either more like a surreal, dreamlike Waking Life image. Keanu is greeting a roomful of fans who have gathered to learn more about his starring role in Richard Linklaters adaptation of Philip K. Dicks A Scanner Darkly.
Keanu and the filmmakers whipped up their surprise for New York Citys first Comic-Con literally days before the event, working 35 hours non-stop to create the stars 27-second greeting in the same style as the upcoming film itself.
However, the biggest surprise of the convention weekend may have been the unexpected, overwhelming turnout for the mega-sized gathering. On Saturday alone, upwards of 20,000 New York area fans and professionals crowded into the Javits Convention Center on Manhattans west side. Fire marshals were forced to close the building and turn away hundreds who had purchased tickets ahead of time not to mention about 1,000 more who arrived planning to pay their way in.
The organizers should have seen it coming. New York City had never hosted a major comics or sci-fi convention beyond one-day affairs (or the occasional weekend) that filled a hotel ballroom or two. Genre entertainment has gone mainstream in a big way in recent years, with graphic novels, anime and cartoons breaking out of the fan/geek ghettos that originally nurtured them. The Comic-Con conducted an extensive advertising campaign, and was showered with an unexpected degree of coverage from the local media. Reed Exhibitions, the conventions organizer knew they were filling a vacuum, but no one guessed how huge that vacuum was.
While the weekends many panels and sessions attracted respectable attendance, the exhibit hall was literally filled beyond capacity. Once in the building, many con-goers had to wait an additional hour for their opportunity to purchase comics, manga and the latest anime DVDs.
Exhibitors included anime distributors, mainstream comics heavyweights DC, Marvel and Dark Horse, smaller independent publishers as well as movie art and collectibles dealers. Near the halls entrance stood an impressive array of comics and cartoon memorabilia that werent for sale, including a framed, three-foot tall black-and-white portrait of a 1930s superhero drawn by his co-creator, and original maquettes from Walt Disneys Fantasia. Inside a tightly locked glass showcase, a near-mint copy of Action Comics first issue was on display, featuring the debut of the above referenced hero on its cover, a fellow by the name of Superman.
The invaluable items were the property of Steve Geppi, owner of Diamond Book Distributors, the countrys reigning distributor of comics. This summer they will be traveling to their soon-to-open new home in Baltimores Camden Yards, Geppis Entertainment Museum. Its a journey through American pop culture, from the end of the 1700s through the present day, enthused Dr. Arnold T. Blumberg, the museums curator. Steve has dreamed of this museum for 30 years. It will mostly be from Steves own collection, but therell be items on loan as well. Were trying to make it a destination for people, and an opportunity for academic and educational studies.
Halfway down the hall sat Sean Wang, whose tongue-in-cheek sci-fi adventure comic Runners was translated into a six-and-a-half-minute CGI featurette by Orlandos DAVE School of computer animation. I met some people from the school at the San Diego Comic-Con this summer, Wang explained. They saw the book and wanted to adapt it as a class project. It was a tradeoff no money changed hands and we both got something out of it. For the school and its students, it was an opportunity to polish their chops and add to their reels; for Wang it was a slick-looking CGI short that may give him a leg up selling Runners to film or TV. There is some interest, Wang allowed. Well see how it pans out. (Runners and other DAVE School productions can be viewed on the schools site.)
Back in the animation big time, DreamWorks screened trailers for the upcoming CGI features Over the Hedge and Flushed Away, Nickelodeon presented a handful of new shorts and Lions Gate Films held a screening of Ultimate Avengers, Marvel Comics first direct-to-video release.
Anime distributors Viz, ADV, Central Park Media and FUNimation were all on hand to promote their wares. ADV co-founder Matt Greenfeld hosted a session about his companys upcoming releases, including a subtitled-only Perpetual Earth (abouta phone company trying to take over Earth one prefecture at a time) and a first-time, English language release of the original Macross TV series (previously only seen in the U.S. as heavily re-edited Robotech episodes). Greenfeld said ADVs release schedule of between 17 and 18 titles a month makes the company the fourth or fifth largest video distributor in North America. In order keep ADV ahead of the game and cultivate its audience, the company operates an Anime Advocates program that recommends TV-14 and below titles to schools and libraries.
Speaking of phone companies, Greenfeld spent a good amount of time talking about ADVs popular Anime Network, including its mobile-phone availability via Zoovision.com for a $9.99 monthly fee. The networks $6.95 subscription on demand service buys cable subscribers 35 hours of monthly content, with edgier, free on demand content available via Time Warner Cable and Direct TV. He said the success of the Anime Networks video on demand service, actually slowed down its roll-out. We set records and broke down servers, we completely re-wrote the rules. The companies were skeptical until they saw the numbers.
Greenfeld opened the session to questions. He told one fan who wanted to see more of Battle Angel Alita that the rights were tied up by James Cameron who intended to make a live-action feature. He described iTunes-type distribution as still off in the future, dependent on a format that would address the Japanese producers concerns about unauthorized duplication, while observing that, I cant imagine anyone sitting at home watching on a cell phone.
Greenfeld cited the possibility of a future three-way DVD format war (between conventional, blue-ray and HD discs) as one reason were trying to expand beyond bricks-and-mortar distribution. In terms of releasing programming to new, higher-definition formats, he said that older, film-based shows transfer best. A good 16mm print is still higher resolution than current high definition, but 10-year-old shows produced on video are iffy. All the recent releases are high definition-ready, although you probably wont get the full benefit of the 1080i format itll be more like 720 lines.
Greenfeld spoke of ADV as a producer, putting their own money into shows in order to have a creative voice in their production, or helping Japanese studios transform American videogames like Lady Death into anime. ADVs most ambitious effort to date may be its own production of a live-action version of Neon Genesis Evangelion. The production design is coming from [Peter Jacksons special effects shop] WETA its getting more Internet buzz than Lord of the Rings. Without naming names, Greenfeld said three A-list directors had come to the studio expressing interest in helming the project.
Over at the Viz Media booth, pr director Evelyn Dubocq pointed to the labels current release of Kamikaze Girls. The hugely successful live-action film won Yokohama Awards (the Japanese equivalent of the Oscars) for best picture, director and actress and features several animated dream sequences. Other current Viz titles include the second volume of Hikaru No Go, based on the manga tale of a boy mentored by the spirit of a Go master in mastering the ancient Japanese game, and an ongoing release of the American TV edits of Naruto. Dubocq promised a release of the original uncut episodes in July and December for the fanatic otaku market, as well as a summer release of the Inuyasha IV theatrical feature.
At a later Viz panel director of sales Gonzalo Ferreyra (assisted by marketing director Anthony Jiwa and svp Liza Coppola) ran through a litany of additional Viz releases, including a dual language release of the pop-singer fantasy Full Moon and a Saikano OVA due out May that will explore the title characters backstory a schoolgirl transformed into a high-tech living weapon.
New York-based Central Park Medias titles for 06 include an ultra-deluxe first DVD release of all 52 episodes of Votoms, a 1980s giant robot/mecha series. Completists will be able to keep all four volumes of the release plus a guidebook and a bonus disc in a metal ammo can. According to CPMs md John ODonnell, the package will be available for a $100 pre-order versus a $1,000 price tag in Japan for the same material. ODonnell also highlighted Central Parks DVD of Embracing Love, the first film to come out of the Yaoi genre of manga male gay romances read by Japanese girls.
Adam Sheehan, brand manager for FUNimation Entertainment, emphasized his companys close relationship with Japans Studio Gonzo. Sheehan listed Desert Punk, Trinity Blade, Basilisk and Speed Grapher as his companys strongest releases for 2006. His plans for the year include theatrical runs of popular FUNimation titles like Fullmetal Alchemist, Dragon Ball Z and Samurai 7 (also due for airing on the Independent Film Channel), as well as the launch of Funimations own 24/7 anime channel.
Kappa Mikey may be the only anime series produced in New York City on West 37th Street in Manhattan, just a few blocks away from the convention center as a matter of fact. Series creator Larry Schwarz and a good portion of his creative team were on hand to promote their shows Nicktoons premiere, coincidently taking place the Saturday evening of the convention.
Kappa Mikey has the potential to become the funniest fish out of water animated series since Futurama with its story of an American actor who becomes an anime star in Japan. Its a culture clash symbolized by the contrasting looks of Mikey (flat colors and thick black outlines) and his Japanese co-stars who are rendered in dead-accurate anime style.
Three separate teams work on the Flash-animated show. One group focuses on Mikey, done in traditional Flash animation as a symbol-based character, explained lead animator Stephen Moverley. A second team creates the anime footage via keyframes while a third group creates 3D backgrounds, props and vehicles.
Theres more than a touch of Futuramas Fry in Mikeys well-meaning obliviousness, but the show also owes a debt to Family Guys non-stop visual non-sequiturs and cutaway throwaway gags. The jokes are punched out with rat-a-tat timing and send-ups of anime visual clichés abound, many of which may be lost on Nicktoons largely kid audience. The over-their-heads factor kind of doesnt matter, according to Mikeys voice actor Michael Sinterniklass, as long as it makes sense emotionally for kids. Schwarz referred to the show as, an homage, not a parody and said he chose to go with Nicktoons in spite of offers from the more widely seen Disney Channel and Cartoon Network because, it needed a special home in the beginning.
The panel for Comics and Hollywood: The Crossover Continues included Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, former comics publisher and chairman of Platinum Studios, and Jeremy Love of the animation/illustration studio Gettosake Ent. Love, who is developing animation properties for Disney TV animation and 20th Century Fox, commented, its a good thing that all animators read comics since it opens them up to comics-based ideas. He added that, the strength of a comic artist pitching to animation executives is that they want to see it (the idea in visual form) in front of them.
Rosenberg took a different tack, suggesting that an overly eager producer might burn the property by pitching it strictly as a comic. His advice was to spend 15 or 20 minutes outlining the story beat by beat, then if theyre interested show them the comic. He talked about agents who dont know whats in their clients heads when they send childrens animation writers his way to pitch ideas that turned out to be dark gothic horror tales.
Execs from Comedy Central screened a 2-1/2-minute episode of the made-for-mobile micro-series, Samurai Love God, along with Eric Mahoney, the shows creator and its producer Tom Akel. Mahoney described the Love God cartoons as, like a Saturday Night Live sketch, only shorter, while Akel spoke of extremely conservative mobile service providers who refuse to carry TV-M content, restricting Comedy Centrals mobile offerings to TV-14 and under. The Love God episode shown, a mock-PSA about the dangers of Internet dating cannibalism, was perhaps appropriate given that Akel described mobile viewing as a snacking type of medium. With most of Love God s limited budget eaten up by voice talent (Daily Show s Ed Helms voices the Love God and Jenna Jameson is his arch-enemy P-Whip), the series is Flash-animated in Jordan, a nation not previously known as an animation resource.
After its mobile run, Samurai Love God moves over to Comedy Centrals ambitious MotherLoad broadband service (available on Comedy Centralsite). Dan Powell, the channels manager of original programming and development, outlined several animated series being produced for MotherLoad, including Meet the Creeps, Shadow Rock (from alternative cartoonist Max Cannon) and 11 original Odd Todd shorts from stick-figure cartoonist Todd Rosenberg. In addition, Comedy Centrals shorts compilation Jump Cuts is now on MotherLoad too.
Powell referred to Comedy Central as, a brand of comedy, not just a channel, and MotherLoad as a laboratory for projects that might evolve into shows for the cable channel the brands bread and butter itself. He pointed to new episodes South Park episodes airing in March and a third season of Drawn Together for 2007 before unveiling Freak Show,Comedy Centrals latest animated series. Powell described the show from comedian David Cross and due to air later this year or early 07 as the exploits of a group of really shitty superheroes theyre the B or C team. The show is animated by Radical Access, the same studio responsible for Adult Swims cult fave Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Powell also speculated that Comedy Centrals alternative brand of humor might eventually expand to original theatrical releases (including animated features), not unlike Viacom sibling MTV.
Saturday night rolled around, and with it the A Scanner Darklys session. Producer Tommy Pallotta and lead animator Sterling Allen were on hand to discuss director Richard Linklaters second foray into animation following 2001s Waking Life. After Reevess introduction, the opening 25 minutes of the film were screened, leaving one eager to see the completed movie, current awaiting a July release. The film is the latest of late sci-fi author Philip K. Dicks work to be translated to film. We approached his estate and offered them less money than is usual, Pallotta said. They gave us rights to adapt it because we promised to be as faithful as possible to the book.
Like Waking Life, Scanner was shot on digital video then turned into animation via interpolated rotoscoping software, a combination of Flash and Illustrator. Reeves stars as an undercover narcotics cop pursuing users of Substance D. The cover hes under is a scramble suit that keeps changing his appearance to the outside world in a never-ending piecemeal fashion, with portions of three different peoples features sweeping across his face at any given moment. According to Allen, 18 animators worked on the scramble suit and kept sneaking familiar faces into its scenes, from SpongeBob SquarePants (who was caught and removed), to all the Incredibles, fellow animators and Philip K. Dick himself.
Considering the films amazing, hallucinatory visuals, its $8.5 million total price tag is nothing short of amazing in its own right. Even more amazing is the fact its 50-person Austin, Texas-based crew came aboard with no experience and learned their craft at the same time they were making the film. (While Pallotta had an art degree and was painting in his spare time, he was working at an Eckerd photo-developing counter just prior to joining the production.) Allen said that a 900-frame shot would require between seven and eight days to animate, while a 60-frame talking head shot might take a day and a half. It might have been possible (with the aid of an enormous budget) to create an equivalent live-action film, but for Pallottas money animation was a more effective approach to portray the altered, druggy world the characters inhabit. Allen added that trying to create the scramble suit in photo-realistic CGI might have come off looking goofy rather than convincing.
While Allen acknowledged that any film as complex as A Scanner Darkly had to cope with more than its share of unexpected challenges, he slammed a recent Wired Magazine article on supposed chaos in its post-production as absolutely untrue and little more than internet hearsay.
On Sunday the convention organizers, in an effort to avoid Saturdays chaos, stopped selling single-day tickets. Across from the exhibit hall, J.J. Sedelmaier screened an assortment of his studios work focusing on tongue-in-cheek superheroes, including, of course, Saturday Night Lives Ambiguously Gay Duo.
Sedelmaier shared his thoughts on the by now eternal 2D vs. CGI debate (computer animation has been around long enough for there to be shitty CGI films as well) and the just for kids mentality that is still hobbling the medium. He speculated that CGIs hold on younger audiences might stem from its videogame ubiquity, while baby boomers who grew up on 2D animation can appreciate parodies of their childhood favorites. Sedelmaier admitted he and creator Robert Smigel could never do their Saturday Night Live spoofs without NBCs umbrella of indemnification over their heads. Id love to do a parody based on its looking like CGI, he said near the end of his session, with the characters imprisoned in their style but theres got to be a good reason for using it.
In its debut year, the New York Comic-Con might be described as a catastrophic success. We learned a tough lesson, acknowledged Greg Topalian, the shows manager and vp with Reed Exhibitions, the organization that backed the Comic-Con. Youre on the thin branches whenever you launch a new show. Usually the issue is not enough people show up.
In spite of the overwhelming turnout, attendance at the New York Comic-Con was still a fraction of the long-established San Diego gathering. However, New Yorks advantages as a world media capital and the center of the publishing industry may, in a few years, change all that. People in publishing dont know about comics, but they come because its here, says Vizs Dubocq, referring to the convention itself. They want to know what its all about. Ive heard people say that in five to seven years, this will be the one everyone will go to.
Joe Strike lives in New York City and writes for and about animation; hes this close to finishing his childrens novel.