Con Job, Part 1


This past weekend, I had the opportunity to spend four days as a guest and panelist at Arisia, a well-known Boston-area independent sci fi/fantasy/gaming convention. A fine time was had, but more importantly it afforded me – a relative newcomer to “official” participation in such things – to give my loyal readers/viewers a (hopefully) entertaining peek into how your fan convention sausage gets made, day-by-day and panel-by-panel.

NOTE: I did not have the capability or permission to record all of the panels/events I took part in, so these will be general summaries as opposed to transcriptions.


My travelling companion and I arrived a few hours early (my first panel wasn’t until 5:30pm) to check in and settle down in our suite. The convention is being held at the Westin Boston Waterfront Hotel – which, incidentally, is connected to the venue that houses PAX East. With the various panels and screenings being scattered across said hotel’s myriad conference rooms, the hotel lobby has already been co-opted into an open-air staging ground for the cosplay crowd.

Every year, gamer culture’s infiltration of the broader nerd culture gets more pronounced – the first thing I see is a four-foot tall Minecraft Creeper, mounted on an RC car chassis sitting ominously in the corner. I wonder what all this looks like to the “normal” tourists and businessmen who’re staying there for more conventional reasons – “Yeah, Harry? I’ll have those figures over in just a sec. Hey, while I’ve got you here, do you have any idea what a ‘Dalek’ is? Cause there’s one here and I’m not sure how I should react to that.”

First panel up for me was “E.T. at 30″ (ye gods, don’t I feel old), moderated by my friend and fellow film-critic Dan Kimmel. Dan’s not a huge fan of either Spielberg or E.T., but I and the other panelists see it more favorably – as does a lot of the audience. This made for some lively discussion, quickly branching out from E.T. itself and into the broader questions of youth-oriented sci fi and Spielberg’s broader oeuvre. This is also the first time I’ll find some fans of my show(s) here and elsewhere in the audience – an always-pleasant experience that would repeat itself at almost every panel throughout the weekend. Dan Kimmel, incidentally, is the author of the very amusing and interesting book Jar-Jar Binks Must Die!, which movie fans would do well to take a look at.

No rest time for me today, as my next appearance directly follows this one: “The Future of Bioethics as Portrayed in Film.” Heavy stuff, to be sure, though the fact that in this context it allows for free-flowing references to cloning jokes and references to everything from Blade Runner to Mimic keeps things light and fast-paced. Somehow, I manage to neglect getting in a plug for Splice, which I’ll be kicking myself for over pizza later.

Fifteen minutes of free time – about seven of which are spent traversing the lobby, though admittedly a lot of that was pausing to gawk at a cosplayer pulling off an impressive Arkham-style Poison Ivy. Appropriate, since my destination was “Batman Through the Ages,” an ever-popular convention mainstay that winds up being a lot of fun. Fellow panelist Dan Miller – IP lawyer and MAD Magazine megafan – impresses the crowd with a vintage Sergio Aragonnes Batman parody comic, while I take note of an interesting trend: The tide has seriously turned on Frank Miller in recent years. For a few decades, fandom has tended to treat “his” Batman as definitive, but the near-universal disdain for his “All-Star” book and large number of folks agreeing when a brave audience member calls Dark Knight Returns “overrated” surprises me. I wonder how much of this turnaround can be attributed to the rising generation of comic critics like Linkara.

And just like that, I realize it’s nearly midnight and I’ve neglected to eat anything. A quick call to pizza delivery fixes that – after I’m done recovering from the shock of seeing Room Service prices for the first time in a few months – and then it’s time for bed.

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A friend and I spend an early morning fruitlessly searching for an open convenience store in the surrounding city, hoping to bypass hotel water/snack prices for the rest of the trip. The one we find is closed, because Boston likes to forget that it’s a 21st Century metropolis on the weekends (I will later discover a 7/11 “hidden” across the street from the hotel, because I am a dumbass when it comes to spatial orientation.)

Breakfast? Yeah, right – I’ve got a 10:00am panel to moderate “Gender and Video Games.” I’m still mystified as to how I got tagged to moderate this one, but I’ve got a good group assembled: Adam Lipkin from Publishers Weekly, game reviewer Maddy Myers, Caroline VanEseltine from Harmonix, and sci fi/fantasy artist Brianna Wu. Discussing gender or race issues at cons can often be a dicey prospect, but this turned out to be one of the better experiences for me this year – smart discourse, great questions/comments from the audience, and lots of diverse ground to cover. Interestingly, for this particular audience it seemed that the gender problems of gamer culture (sexual harassment on Xbox Live, for example) are seen as a much more immediate and bothersome problem than the more widely-publicized issues like hypersexualized character designs or the subtext of Other M. I’m also thrilled that the parallel issues of the transgendered gaming community got an encouraging amount of support.

Next on the docket: Once more taking up the moderator’s baton for “Monsters in Motion: Ray Harryhausen at Work” – the panel to attend for fans of oldschool film buffs geeking out over stop-motion monster movies, and the only place you’re likely to see a panel of grown men universally agree that while Raquel Welch in a deer-skin bikini was nice, we’d have preferred she get out of the way so we could see more dinosaurs. (Besides, the sequel is much better.)

“If You Liked Part I…” came next, a discussion of sequels that inevitably segued into the evergreen grousefests about remakes of classics and the Star Wars prequels. Indie producer E.F. Morrill – who likes to goose the crowd by introducing himself as “the last Goldwater Republican in fandom” (or other variations thereof) – sends things in an interesting direction, and I end up explaining to an audience member for what will be the first of five or six times that weekend that Warner Bros. still talking about Green Lantern 2 doesn’t actually mean there’s going to be a Green Lantern 2.

After that, at last, comes a break in my appearance schedule – time to once again peruse the free-range cosplayers (a pair of Sucker Punch gals could’ve passed for professionals promoting the movie) and meet up with a buddy for some higher-end neighborhood pizza. Oh, yeah – incoming PAX East-attendees take note: Once you’ve got the lay of the land down, Boston is one of the great “Foodie Cities.”

By 10:00pm I’ve been at this for well over fifteen hours more or less nonstop, but no time for sleeping; “The Death of PC Gaming May Be Greatly Exaggerated” awaits! Bill Levay – executive producer of Civilization III – is steering the ship, with me and Maddy Myers as the supporting players. For obvious reasons, this probably had the largest (relatively) number of fans/viewers of my Escapist shows in attendance – or, at least, the audience that most widely recognized my name. It was a big crowd for a night panel (and even wound up on UStream for a bit) but much more civil than you’d expect such a charged subject to be. It helps, of course, that no one on the panel seemed to actually think the medium was dead, though I maintained that the question is largely moot now that almost every media device was a PC in one form or another.

Sleep came quickly and decisively soon after, two days done and gone.

NEXT WEEK: The stunning (or maybe “agreeable” at least) conclusion – featuring Wonder Woman, Star Wars, Mystery Science Theater and more!

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Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.