Comic-Con 2008 – Nell Minow reports

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On a panel at Comic-Con, actress Eliza Dushku explained that her new series began when she was was having dinner with her friend, Joss Whedon (of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Firefly”). She was complaining to him about not being given a chance to show all of the range of characters she could do. “Staring into the eyes of the woman, seeing all of the things she could be, I realized I’d have to do it,” Whedon said. “So, I created a girl who has every personality in the world except her own.” The result was the new series, “Dollhouse,” with Dushku as Echo, one of a group of men and women who are imprinted with different personalities for different assignments.

Comic-Con is the Iowa caucuses of pop culture. It began 29 years ago with about 300 comic collectors getting together to swap comic books and talk to some of the writers and artists who created them. Now it takes up the San Diego Convention Center for four days every July and has expanded to cover the full range of “popular arts,” including movies, television, books, music, and games. All 125,000 tickets were sold long before opening night last Wednesday. At any given moment all 30 convention center rooms, holding 100-8000 people, were filled with panels, demonstrations, and interviews of writers, directors, artists, and performers. Everyone from Deepak Chopra to Paris Hilton came to Comic-Con to promote products or just to enjoy the pageantry — many of the attendees dress up and the highlight of each year’s event is the Saturday night “Masquerade,” a costume competition. The core comic book audience is important for three reasons. First, just about every major movie or television show is now “multi-platform.” A movie will have comic book/graphic novel, game, and music tie-ins. Second, the comic book buyers represent a tiny fraction of entertainment industry revenues but they are hugely influential in other media because they are utterly fearless — they embrace the new without waiting to see what experts and trend-setters say about it — and utterly passionate — when they like something, they get the word out. And the third reason? Well, have you noticed the box office for “Iron Man,” “The Hulk,” “Hellboy 2,” and “The Dark Knight?”

While Comic-Con featured — both on the attendee and presenter side — a lot of the usual spandex-clad action babes, Dushku and others made the case that these strong and demanding parts for women were empowering and satisfying. “Yeah, vengance!” said Rose McGowan on a panel with Robert Rodriguez about the 2010 release, “Red Sonja.” Like Dushku, she complained about being sent nothing but “girlfriend” roles. She loved the “Red Sonja” script and asked Rodriguez for his advice. He demonstrated for the crowd the spit-take that was his response. Robert E. Howard (the author who created Red Sonja and Conan the Barbarian) was hugely influential for him as a child. So, he took on the project as producer (he cannot direct a studio film because he is no longer in the Director’s Guild following the dispute over sharing directing credit on “Sin City”). They have not yet started filming but have made some important decisions. “No mullet!” promised McGowan, referring to the 1985 film starring Brigitte Nielsen. The crowd cheered appreciatively.

Long-time Comic-Con enthusiast Kevin Smith moderated (if that term can be used) a Spike TV panel on women in action/horror/fantasy/sci-fi with Jamie King (whose mother named her after the Bionic Woman), “Xena’s” Lucy Lawless, producer Gale Anne Hurd, and comic book artist Pia Guerra. Hurd explained how she got the studio to back action films with women at the center of the story — one was a sequel about the only person left alive after the first one (“Aliens”) and in another she used a little misdirection by naming the movie after the bad guy (“Terminator”). “Feist, fury, and some funny,” was the way Dushku described Whedon’s scripts. It is also a description of the Comic-Con appearances of the women in front of and behind the camera and the characters they create and portray.

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