Wednesday 29 May 2013

A Scottish Barbarian in Arizona: Phoenix Comicon, Day 1

So this marks the second year I've attended the Phoenix Comicon. I feel much more comfortable this year, it isn't such a Strange New World to me, and I feel like I've gotten to know the place a bit better. In this report, I discuss comics, books, artists, and finally reveal the secret of Melville.

This little chap is my mascot, and has been since I was a lad. I bought him at the McLean Museum a long time ago, naturally named for the author of Moby Dick and proud beard-owner Herman Melville. Now, back when I was in Primary School, all the children in Primary 7 were treated to a trip to Paris. I was a very shy and retiring child, so I never took pictures with myself in the photo: I just took snaps of the Eiffel Tower, Sacré-Cœur, Champs-Élysées, and so forth, with no sign of me, the other children, or the teachers. When I came home, my family was perplexed: why would you take pictures of the places without yourself? To them, the whole point of holiday photos was to prove you were there: pictures of the monuments can be found anywhere, but a picture of you outside Notre Dame was unique. That revelation troubled me: how, then, could I find a way to prove I was present on holiday without actually putting myself in photographs?

Melville was the answer. Every time I took a picture, I made sure that Melville was somewhere in the frame. He might just be moseying about a corner, looking off into the horizon, or pride of place in the centre. Melville has been all over the world: Florida, France, Spain, Majorca, Corsica, Italy, and now Arizona, and soon Texas. As I grew more comfortable having my photograph taken, I still took photos with Melville for traditional purposes. There was a period prior to the First Scottish Invasion where Melville disappeared: I was most distressed, but figured he was somewhere in the house. I used to joke with the folks he was off on some adventure or top-secret mission, though in reality it turned out he was in my bedroom all those years. And so, after much ado, Melville will finally make his Cross Plains debut, and at last be photographed at the Howard House like I initially hoped.

But that's still a while away: for now, I'm a Scottish Barbarian in Arizona, and Melville's come along to his first convention!

I had a fantastic time at the con. Only bought one little Transformer and one book on the first day, though it's only a matter of time...  Melville was a smash hit, girls were melting over him (hehehe, just as planned...), and made a nice disarming prop.  At least one young man seemed comfortable enough with me to ask me to retrieve his phone from his pocket; he was dressed as an Anime character, and the PVC was so tight and his pocket so deep that reconnaissance required assistance. You could probably understand my reluctance to fish into a gentleman's pocket at the best of times, let alone when they're dressed in faux-leather, but I persevered and after much tugging and pulling and praying I didn't accidentally pull a part of him which would cause him a great deal of discomfort, the phone was free. I guess I'm just that approachable.

I didn't take many photos yet, but I was comfortable walking around alone.  I considered starting to take pictures with Melville, since he seemed very popular.  Perhaps they initially thought he was an actual live tortoise as opposed to a toy - indeed, security came over on three occasions to make sure he was not, in fact, a living turtle!  Gran and the Aunties were well-behaved, though of course people gravitated towards them: some even took pictures. One appeared to be a professional, with dozens of cameras festooned around his neck like tribal totems, as if they were gory prizes from fallen foes.

I also made a friend! Or more specifically, he made friends with me.  This gentleman was a Dutch-Dane (or Dane-Dutch?) who came for the Babylon 5 festivities: I've only been here one day, and already someone's beaten me in the "how far did you come to visit" sweepstakes!  I was sitting upstairs, waiting for the big exhibition hall to open, and he just came over and started chatting. He was a bit older than me, and loved Babylon 5 like I love dinosaurs.  I was in awe of the breadth of his knowledge, but not just wee technical details, the metaphysical and literary influences. I was never that knowledgeable about Babylon 5: I've seen the series and have a great appreciation for it, especially the Arthurian stuff and the fact that the aliens were truly alien (the Vorlons are some of my favourite aliens in any science fiction) but it wasn't until I met Jan that I realised how little I really knew about it.  Wonder if this is how people feel when I talk about subjects I'm knowledgeable about?  He showed me photographs he took from China: excellent quality, I'd say good enough for professional.  Here's his website, where you can find his musings on Babylon 5 and some of his fantastic photographs:

I decided early on that I wouldn't be adventurous with my food: the last thing I wanted was some sort of malady for such an event. I resolved to keep it simple: chicken salad, bottle of purified water, box of fresh fruit. After I found somewhere to eat, I had a wander about. And the exhibition hall is huge. Cavernous. Cyclopean. Brobdignagian. So it would be easy to get lost - luckily, I had the foresight to write down the numbers of booths and stalls I wanted to go to. First up was Half Price Books, mostly because they give out free bags with purchase - very handy, and to my delight, I think they remembered me from last year.

But it was also a really interesting coincidence: last year I asked another book store at the convention (which I couldn't find this year, I hope everything's alright with them) if they had any Gordy Dickson books. They had only one: Earth Man's Burden, written by Dickson and Poul Anderson, a combination I never thought I'd see. It was a very worthwhile gamble (well, for only $2 it couldn't be anything but a win), as it's one of the funniest books I've read in ages. So it was with Dickson in mind that I decided to bring one of his books along on the journey here, the only book I allowed myself to take: in this case, The Dragon Knight, the second of the Dragon Knight saga. I had The Dragon and the George a long time ago, but to my dismay I could never find it again, so I made do with the sequel, and the knowledge I could read "St. Dragon and the George" online. Thus, imagine my delight when I found none other than a copy of The Dragon and the George on the shelves of Half Price Books!

So, off to a good start, I continued my wanderings. Next stop, I saunter to Val Hochberg's table. Val is an artist who was one of the first faces that "stayed" with me afterwards: she was part of a Women in Comics panel, and her infectious giggle and unassuming nature drew me in. Her big thing at the moment is Mystery Babylon, a webcomic (obviously) heavily inspired by the Book of Revelations, though I can (possibly) see a bit of Good Omens and classic post-Apocalyptic science-fiction sprinkled in too, particularly A Canticle for Leibowitz in the neo-Medieval setting. It has a very "webcomic" artstyle, a sort of Euro-Manga, and it is a very funny series, but it also has a lot of very dark and sombre elements befitting the subject matter. What can I say, I enjoy it: it's very different from what I usually read, but perhaps that underlying post-apocalyptic neo-medieval biblical-allusions-galore setting won me over. So when I found Val, I told her I enjoyed Mystery Babylon, and she was very happy to hear it.

I also caught up with Michael Stackpole, and finally found a copy of his Conan the Barbarian movie novelisation for him to sign, and he was kind enough to do so.  He remembered me from last year too.  I talked with Peter David too, author of Star Trek: New Frontiers. I've always maintained that the captain of the U.S.S. Excalibur, Mackenzie Calhoun, had to have been inspired on some level by Conan: both were dark-haired, scarred, bronze-skinned warriors with strong personal codes of honour and no deference to authority, both had unusual eyes (fierce blue in Conan's case, violet in Calhoun's), both were proficient swordsmen who kept a weapon close at hand, both were "barbarian" leaders who overthrew oppressive regimes (Conan played a part in the expulsion of the Aquilonians from Cimmeria, Calhoun drove the Danteri from his homeworld), both killed their first foe at an early age, both became kings by conquest (Conan conquered Aquilonia, Calhoun conquered all of Xenex), both became ship captains, both adapt to command in more advanced/civilised organisations while still being considered "savage."

His mirror universe counterpart even has the black mane.

However, Mr. David was very adamant that Conan wasn't an inspiration, since he wasn't a fan of Robert E. Howard. I was momentarily disappointed and somewhat perplexed as to why I saw so much of Conan in Calhoun, but Mr David then went on to say that his primary inspiration was William Wallace: then it all fell into place! Conan himself bears more than a few similarities to the Scottish hero, as well as Robert the Bruce (especially in The Hour of the Dragon, where Conan's exile and return was extremely similar to Bruce's flight and return in the lead up to Bannockburn). Calhoun may not have been directly inspired by Conan, but I like the idea that they share a common inspiration in Scottish history - Conan as Calhoun's cousin, rather than ancestor, as it were.

Still, this isn't the first time we've seen a thematic convergence between Star Trek and Conan -
and by Crom, it won't be the last...

Before coming to Phoenix, I wrote an itinerary of panels I planned on attending - though I only ended up actually seeing some of them, due to the many new pals I made this weekend. The first panel I did attend was The World of Sketch Cards, which I went to specifically because Val would be there and I wanted to support a friendly face.  She was joined by Benjamin Glendenning, Denae Frazier, and David Harrigan. For some ungodly reason - I can only assume something mega-popular was happening at the same time - there were very few people in attendance at the panel.* So after a brief introduction and some words about what sketch cards actually are, it was decided that since there were only about a dozen or so of us, the panel invited us all up onto the stage to have a closer look at their own work. It was a great idea, as everyone got engaged in conversation with the panelists, and of course got a much better look at the art in question.

I had no idea what sketch cards were, so the panel was obviously helpful in shedding light upon that mystery. It turns out that it's exactly the sort of thing I'd enjoy doing: small scale but very detailed work. Mortifying confession time: I used to make pogs. Yes, pogs. I was still a lad during the 1990s Pog domination of the earth, so you're damned right I got in on it. I must've made scores of them: dinosaur pogs, monster pogs, comic pogs, Star Trek pogs, Simpsons pogs. I also occassionally collected trading cards - again, usually of the dinosaur persuasion. Sketch cards, then, segue nicely into my appreciation for drawing on a small scale - and these can actually be profitable! So I learned a lot, all while marvelling over the quality of the sketch cards on display - most fully coloured, and leaving me feeling thoroughly depressed.

But what was most remarkable about that panel was my conversation with Denae Frazier.  She's an artist who exclusively uses coloured pencils, and the effect is stunning: it's so remarkably different from the usual digital/ink colouring.  Really cool. All through the day, I'd been walking past these stalls with immensely talented artists, suffering the usual sense of inadequacy: how could I, how dare I, have delusions of art when there are people this talented and successful?  I offhandedly-mentioned this to her, and we had a great conversation that lifted my spirits immensely. Lots of "put on this earth for a reason" stuff, and it made me more convinced than ever about Bannockburn. She was so kind, accomodating, and eager to help, that I couldn't help but cheer up. Totally fell in love with her.  Luckily she's married, so that makes things much easier!  Her husband's definitely her Ellie Frazetta: he organises commissions, finances, advertising, everything.  She's lucky to have him!  She's such a lovely, lovely woman, so engaging and enabling, and I think we understood each other on a very deep level. Here's her page:

So long after the panel ended I kept talking with the panelists, mostly Val and Denae, but I had a final tour around the place. I'm a lot more confident, at least for the moment.  I feel fairly safe, though my wallet's terrified.  I organised a photo op with Mr Barrowman with Les Girls on Sunday.  Tomorrow's Nichelle Nichols and the premiere of Star Trek Continues, which looks like great fun.  I've written out an itinerary for the weekend.  I had difficulty choosing between Nichelle Nichols' talk and Val's other panel: I eventually decided that Val would understand.

Whee, been great fun so far. Tune in tomorrow for the next part of my adventures at Comicon!

*including a gentleman with an incredibly interesting southern accent by the name of Ray, some other sketch card aficionados, and a lady with the most beautiful butterfly-wing makeup which she graciously allowed me to photograph


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  2. Don't call him sir!

    (he has to work for a living)