Five Things about SDCC 2010

We are back from SDCC. The run-up to the con was challenging; I came down with episodic vertigo about two weeks before the show, and Chad’s had a crazy work schedule. We weren’t able to come hang out with you guys on the blog, but we’re here now, I have some vacation time, and I’m starting the SDCC recap posts with five things about the first day of the con.

1. The con is better if you’re hydrated.

I know, everyone says this in all the con survival guides. They’re really not joking.

Ten days or so prior to the con, my ENT gave me some new medication and noted that I would have to drink a LOT of water and Gatorade every day to stave off annoying side effects. This was the last thing I wanted to hear, but Chad and I sucked it up, hit REI, and brought home this sexy engine of hydration:

The 2010 Camelbak Lobo

Not quite a Fremen stillsuit, but it'll do.

That’s a Camelbak Lobo, 2010 edition. Three-liter capacity, slim form factor. Best $75 I’ve ever dropped on con prep, no joke.

And yes, I named it “Rescue.” You were expecting something else?

Once you’ve sunk the initial cash on a hydration pack that will last you for several con seasons, it’s easier, cheaper, and better for the environment than it is to keep getting overpriced bottles of water at Mrs. Fields or Starbucks inside the hall. You won’t have to interrupt your con experience to go on a quest for fluids. If you’re close with your friends, they’ll appreciate the occasional hit off the supply.

Plus, Jeff Bridges wants you to stop using disposable plastic bottles. You so don’t want to upset the Dude. Or Obadiah Stane.

2. That Jeff Bridges seems like a nice guy, really.

We ran into him for five seconds outside the Flynn’s Arcade replica in the Gaslamp on Thursday morning. He said hi; he seemed fantastically happy to be at the con hanging out.

3. We really like Cliff Chiang; we especially like paying his rent, it seems.

Thursday morning’s other two big scores were a signed copy of Joshua Dysart and Cliff Chiang’s adaptation of Neil Young’s album “Greendale,” and, for my supervisor at work, one of Cliff’s awesome Every Night I Have the Same Dream, Issue 3 shirts from the new Threadless comics collection.

Cliff’s not only a fantastic artist, he is the nicest guy you’ll ever meet on the con floor. You should check out his work and give him money. We can’t meet all his expenses alone, no matter how hard Chad’s been trying the last couple years.

4. You should go to w00tstock.

The Department’s main obligation to the con and related events was Thursday night’s w00tstock 2.4 performance at the 4th and B; we had arranged with w00tstock Dungeon Master Liz Smith to work the merch table and assist with anything else that came up. (Thanks again, Liz! We’re glad we could help.)

Adam Savage sang “I Will Survive” in Gollum’s voice, accompanied by a Wookiee on a guitar (video by k8greenisageek on YouTube). There was a Parry Gripp video, that, well, here:

Marian Call accompanied herself on a manual typewriter (and was incredibly great to me while I worked her end of the merch table). Molly Lewis had to be escorted into and out of the venue for her performance by security because she’s not yet 21– and graciously performed an awesome all-request ninja gig outside the venue for all the other under-21 folks who were screwed by the local liquor laws. Behold these videos from Kevin Savino-Riker, who was reporting for GeekyPleasures:

Len Peralta of Geek a Week fame drew an entire concert poster in four hours from the stage:

Official w00tstock San Diego Poster

(If you have mad geek art lust, Len’s taking orders on the poster until Friday. Details are on his Flickr page; he’s also on Twitter as jawboneradio. Len and his wife Nora are completely awesome people, and they were a real pleasure to work with at the show– support them!)

Bad Astronomer Phil Plait showed us every single schlong-shaped celestial object he could think of, and then dropped a bombshell of a trailer for his new Discovery Channel show, “Phil Plait’s Bad Universe:”

That? That there is some high-end science porn, kids. You want that. Three episodes, coming this fall.

And that was, uh, about a quarter of the awesome things that went on all night. Paul and Storm, Adam Savage, and Wil Wheaton serve as the w00tstock ringleaders and assemble a crew of performers for every concert; this one was particularly epic owing to everyone having shown up for SDCC in the first place. We were on our feet and on the move from 2pm until 3:30am, and we’d do it again in a heartbeat.

“But,” you say, “that’s not much comics content, for an ensemble performance at a comics convention. Aren’t you guys comics bloggers?”

Well…

5. Matt Fraction speaks for the comics tribe at w00tstock.

Matt Fraction thinks about process and inspiration a great deal. He presented his spoken-word piece “The Batman Dreams of Hieronymus Machines” at the Portland w00tstock earlier this year, and he did it at SDCC twice– once at w00tstock, and once as a spotlight panel at the con proper.

Unfortunately, his wife, Kelly Sue DeConnick (hey, she’s writing a new book about Norman Osborn! Buy that!), has never been able to make it to one of these presentations. She’s never seen Matt bust out a bunch of raunchy jokes about Stilt-Man’s taint in front of a screaming crowd.

We had to fix that. Fortunately for you guys, the Department acquired new iPhones prior to the con, and Chad shot the following video of Matt’s “The Batman Dreams of Hieronymus Machines.” The HD master went to Kelly Sue, and this one is up for everyone else’s delectation:

We know the angle is suboptimal– the rule at w00tstock is “record all you want, but don’t annoy other guests,” so we shot from the side. If you need a version of the talk that is slightly different in content and has a better view of the slide show, but not as much of a view of Matt himself, Laura Hudson at Comics Alliance recorded the SDCC spotlight panel.

Watch both recordings; they have different things to offer, but Matt is saying a lot of inspirational and important things about comics here. Can we get this man a speaking gig at TED?

Tomorrow, depending on how my morning goes: Isaiah Mustafa hits the con floor; a young man from Chad’s alma mater writes a book about historical badassery; Fraction and I get in trouble on the throne of Allfather Odin, and more.

LA Times Festival of Books: New Media Meets Publishing

The second panel we attended at the LA Times Festival of Books, “#book: New Media Meets Publishing,” wasn’t overtly a comics panel. That being said, folks with an interest in process and digital publication will probably want to read my recap anyhow– the processes and networks that allow guys like Wil Wheaton to self-publish are the kinds of things that can be adapted to comics work as well. The panel moderator was LA Times blogger Carolyn Kellogg, who’s covered the publishing industry for the Times since 2008. The panelists were:

First observation: Carolyn speaks LOLcat. Pretty fluently. In addition, she encouraged audience members to tweet from the panel using the “#latfob” hashtag, which was a nice touch. The Times kept that hashtag front and center throughout the Festival; placards posted in vendor areas mentioned it prominently, and every panel we attended made a point of telling us how to tag any tweets we made. That’s good message discipline, and hopefully something other festivals, conventions, BarCamps, and the like will emulate.

The panel opened with Wheaton briefly explaining that he’d come to Twitter after the urging of LA ubergeek Sean Bonner (founder of the Crash Space hackerspace in Culver City, CA), but didn’t really embrace its potential until Warren Ellis directed him to the pithy, pun-filled tweets of Diesel Sweeties cartoonist Rich Stevens. Kellogg then asked Dana about teenagers’ Twitter habits, which, well… it turns out that “teens don’t Tweet,” which is pretty much the attitude my 22-to-25-year-old coworkers display about the service too.

What teens do, though, is write, as Dana Goodyear found out while covering Japan’s keitai shousetsu (cellphone novel) subculture for the New Yorker. Most of the early authors of cellphone novels were teenaged girls in the rural districts of Japan (roughly, “anything outside of Tokyo proper” if you’re a Tokyo resident); these young writers captured their experiences via text message and gained an audience of over 12 million readers. Conventional publishing caught on, and the dead-tree versions of cellphone novels sold well to eager audiences looking for souvenirs of their reading experience. (You can read Goodyear’s original article, “Letter from Japan: I ♥ NOVELS,” here.) Inspired by this experience, Goodyear went on to start Figment, a Web platform where teenagers will be given the tools to express themselves without restrictions on form or content. (Figment will launch later this year; you can check out the prelaunch site now, though.)

Pablo Defendini envisioned a similar community for science fiction and fantasy fans at Tor.com. Instead of being a puff site for Macmillan’s SF imprint, Tor|Forge, Tor.com was designed to be as accessible as possible to people at all levels of interest in science fiction publishing. It’s equal parts group blog and SF/F magazine, open to content from readers, writers, publishers, and editors alike. “Access to guys like Wil Wheaton and Neil Gaiman is easy now,” Defendini said. “[Publishers] need to engage and listen to the readers… and leverage that knowledge with bookstore buyers to get our books on the shelves. The Internet hates middlemen.”

Wheaton concurred entirely with Defendini’s assessment, detailing his own experience with both his content and the works of others. Both Wheaton and Defendini spoke admiringly of author Scott Sigler (Ancestor, Earthcore), who releases multiple editions of his novels in differing formats. The hardcover version of a Sigler novel might have tipped-in additional content, while the paperback has a different plot; Sigler’s audiobooks are released as free, serialized podcasts via Podiobooks. In much the same way as Sigler approaches each narrative as mutable, Goodyear noted, the authors of cellphone novels often take suggestions from their readership as they write; the narrative, delivered in 70-to-100-word installments, becomes a dialog between the author and his or her fanbase.

Like Sigler’s audiobooks and Tor.com’s free PDFs of SF novels, the cellphone novel is given away freely– but free content isn’t the defining feature of digital publishing, Wheaton pointed out, going on to note that digital publication offered new avenues of consumption and interaction for audiences and authors. Defendini likened these new avenues to a Balkanization of publishing, where large houses would eventually fragment into smaller publishing services that catered to and were deeply invested in very specific interests. Wheaton also noted that in such a market, print-on-demand or self-publication should no longer be a taboo topic, unlike pay-to-publish vanity press scams. He emphasized that a book should look and feel good; to that end, aspiring POD/ self-published authors should utilize their personal connections and hire competent, talented people in order to create a professional product.

Of course, that might be a bit easier for Wheaton than for others– he mentioned that, among others, comics artist D’Israeli and White Wolf game designer Jesse Heinig had assisted him with production work on his books. When asked what he would do if he ever needed a translator for his works, Wheaton unflinchingly replied that he’d go to his blog and Twitter and ask for applications from his one-million strong reading audience. Still, even folks less famous than Wheaton can apply that strategy to their interactions with like-minded creators; Kellogg half-jokingly noted that with the current state of the print publishing industry, authors could easily “hire the laid-off” to work production roles on their titles.

When it got down to nuts-and-bolts discussion of best practices for ebook production, though, Wheaton and Defendini brought out their geek A-game; Goodyear was visibly impressed with the amount of work each of them had put into thinking about digital publication. Wheaton called for publishers to standardize on an open ebook format and “take [proprietary formats] out behind the barn.” Defendini agreed, and mentioned that he found PDF an inflexible format for ebooks because “text needs to be more accommodating” to different reading devices; he prefers the open EPUB standard. Goodyear concurred, noting that teenagers are platform-agnostic as long as the reading experience isn’t jarringly different from phone to laptop to digital reader. When asked for specific tips on creating EPUB content, Defendini noted that generating EPUB can be a dirty, hands-on coding process requiring knowledge of XML. Wheaton jumped in to assure the somewhat frightened audience member that “it’s really easy,” while also recommending the ebook formatting services provided by SmashWords and other layout houses.

Defendini further recommended the open-source EPUB creator Sigil as a good starting point for the timid. When asked about covering all the possible format bases, Wheaton mentioned that he avoided some formats (like the Kindle) because the terms of use weren’t beneficial to his bottom line. Defendini reinforced the notion of selectivity with the observation that when you have an idea, the presentation should be chosen explicitly to suit the idea itself– does it work best as a book? as a Twitter feed of crafted content? as an iPad app?– and urged people to pick their shots accordingly.

Certainly, Goodyear, Defendini, and Wheaton are presenting a paradigm for thinking about digital publication that will ruffle some feathers in traditional publishing. I’ve already seen one recap of this same panel that, er, didn’t resemble what I got out of it at all, and I doubt that’s the last one I’ll see. I know, specifically in the comics field, that I’ve seen several creators be quite open about their lack of digital publishing know-how during public appearances– and, well, a guy like Mike Mignola knows that Hellboy fans would buy Hellboy on stone tablets if that were the only distribution channel, so, arguably, he’s perfectly correct in not giving a shit.

Most of the rest of us don’t have Mignola’s considerable professional leverage, which is why we should be listening to folks like Defendini, Goodyear, and Wheaton. They’ve been over this ground. They are working out the paradigms in which many of us will work in the years to come; it would be stupid not to take heed now. If we want to move from “aspiring” creators to creators, we must know our markets. We need to move towards laying out cold, hard cash to like-minded artists to create the most appropriate and attractive packages for our ideas. We need to engage openly and honestly with our audiences… and we need to have the kind of content that compels those audiences to listen.

Paul & Storm & Jonathan Coulton, February 21, 2010

I was a big fan of Dr. Demento growing up. The one station that played his show back in Ft. Lauderdale in the 80’s only ran it on Sunday night, well after bedtime. I would go to great lengths to listen, either pretending to sleep or rigging the tape deck on my stereo to record as much of it as possible. I was time-shifting well ahead of the curve there; adolescent me would have a complete cow if I showed him my RadioShark.

My affection for novelty music didn’t start there, though. I had several relics that, at least from my perspective, had always been in my collection. “Shaving Cream” by Benny Bell and “Beep, Beep” by the Playmates? Had them both, on 45. I’ve got a copy of “Shaddup You Face” by Joe Dolce around here somewhere, too- there’s an item that probably has to go with my Bill Dana LP’s as “comedy that would never happen in a million years now.” Needless to say I was primed for this sort of thing long before Weird Al came along.

There was a long time, however, where it seemed like Weird Al was suddenly the only game in town. I know intellectually that this probably wasn’t true, that it was the whims of my own musical taste pulling me in different directions. Most novelty music had been shunted to the realm of wacky morning radio shows, and much of that fell to the wayside, smashed against a wave of Howard Stern and the like, so maybe it’s not entirely me.

It’s from that place that I must shamefully admit that I knew absolutely nothing about Paul & Storm when we decided at the last minute to go to w00tstock 1.1 last October. While I’m ashamed of that fact, I think it’s also for the best as well. I use the term “novelty music” in reference to the acts of my past, but using it now for these guys pains me on some level. Like I’m sequestering them to the Archie McPhee circle of musical hell, though I suppose they might not take that as an insult.

I mainly feel bad using the term for them because they skip over the Dr. Demento part of my childhood and take me one level beyond all that. Instead the place where I’m hiding under the covers with my tape player listening to Barnes & Barnes, it’s a few years later, and now it’s my copies of Steve Martin’s Let’s Get Small and Wild and Crazy Guy. I was years away from understanding half the jokes, but it was all still funny because Steve was funny. And, man, can that guy play a banjo.

I laughed so hard at w00tstock my throat was wrecked for days after. When P&S announced a show at Largo again, this time with bonus Jonathan Coulton, it was an easy sell.

It was an awesome show. I was worried I’d be let down after the pulse of raw energy that was w00tstock, but I wasn’t. We had a fun opening act from Chris Hardwick where we learned some creative new profanity, and Chris was attacked by some of Coulton’s gear. I would have loved to of seen more of Hard & Phirm, but that will possibly have to wait for w00tstock 2.x. Then, Paul and Storm came on.

The thing that strikes me the most about the duo is how in tune they are with each other on stage. It really is part vaudeville act, Storm’s unflappable straight man to Paul’s lovable geek goof. Their timing is dead on, and nowhere is that more obvious than “Nun Fight,” where they put down the instruments and go a cappella. I’ve seen them do it live twice now and their preternatural synchrony has yet to diminish in raw talent or humor.

They ended their set, of course, with “The Captain’s Wife’s Lament.” I was again worried that it wouldn’t compare to the seemingly never-ending barrage of funny that was the w00tstock performance, where they had Wil Wheaton and Adam Savage on stage with them. I really need to stop being worried by things like this, though, because it was just as much fun the second time around. (I’ve now discovered that the many rounds of ‘ARRRRRR!’ required for this song are what dooms my voice, though. Also, apologies to Wil, as I think I led the charge on ‘Wesley CrushARRRRRRRRRR!’ It couldn’t be helped.)

Speaking of Wil Wheaton, he opened things up after the intermission with a round of unfunny jokes. Only they were funny. Or he was funny. Or the finger-guns were funny. Or all three. Kew kew kew.

Now, as I implied earlier, I bought the tickets pretty much for Paul & Storm. I realize this might be a little outside the norm, what with Jonathan Coulton being relatively huge and all. Even I, who had let this sub-genre of music slip between my mental cracks, knew who he was prior to w00tstock. I like “Ikea,” and who didn’t love “Still Alive” from Portal. Where the entirety of w00tstock was an unknown to me, though, JoCo was the unknown for me here, and he certainly didn’t disappoint. I got “Still Alive” and a bunch of other enjoyable songs. Thinking about it now, a week later, I still have to say he had the best energy on stage when he was backed by Paul and Storm for songs like “Tom Cruise Crazy.” Whether that’s P&S elevating things on their own or just a byproduct of their obvious friendship, I’m not sure. I’m not saying Jonathan Coulton’s show was bad by any stretch of the imagination, far from it. But, save one exception, I had the best time in his set when everyone was on stage.

That one exception? “Mr. Fancy Pants.” (The video below is, obviously, not from our show, but it’s close enough.) When Jonathan put down the guitar and picked up his Zendrum (the object that had attacked Chris Hardwick at the start of the show), it was six or seven minutes of pure earwormy joy. We were singing bits of it around the Department for days.

After the show we hung around and managed to talk to some of the guys; they have the endearing habit of meeting folks after the show. We got a few minutes to talk to Wil, where I got to thank him for his inspirational part in us setting up this blog and talk to him about his upcoming second appearance on The Big Bang Theory. I got to take a picture of a bunch of people with Paul and Storm, because, hey, I studied cinematography, and I got to compliment Storm on his awesome Tron/Harley Davidson shirt. (Which, we would later sadly discover, was permanently discontinued by ThinkGeek.) We also managed to catch up with Josh Cagan– who had his own act, the Zapruder Thirty, at w00tstock 1.1- and his wife Kayla, whom we’ve been goofing off with on Twitter.  All in all, a most excellent way to spend a Sunday night.

As an aside, how much do we love Largo? We’ve been to w00tstock there, this show, and two Patton Oswalt shows, and Flanny and the gang at Largo just deliver one of the best live venue experiences in LA. If you’re in LA or planning to be here, check them out.

Watching all these guys perform and hanging around Largo has made me nostalgic for my theater tech days. Every time I go to their shows, I come out with an incredible urge to be a stage hand again. If anyone planning w00tstock 2.x finds this, we’re already working out how to hit Seattle and Portland for the shows. I would gleefully volunteer a strong back and a black tshirt to help you guys make magic.