Return to Geek Mecca: Comic-Con 2014

In the 44 years since its humble origins in the basement of the U.S. Grant Hotel, San Diego Comic-Con has evolved into a pop culture Mecca, a sacred pilgrimage every geek worth his or her popcorn salt feels obligated to make at least once, even if it means enduring hellaciously long lines and exorbitantly priced con-exclusive merchandise. The event, a gargantuan four-day celebration of the popular arts (comic books, video games, movies, toys and other collectables), typically attracts upwards of 130,000 fans from every corner of the globe. Last month marked my third visit to this fortress of fandom. What follows is a retrospective of my favorite experiences from Comic-Con 2014.

Cos for applause: This year’s San Diego Comic-Con attracted more than 130,000 fans, including this merry band of cosplayers. – Landon McDonald | Daily Trojan

Cos for applause: This year’s San Diego Comic-Con attracted more than 130,000 fans, including this merry band of cosplayers. – Landon McDonald | Daily Trojan

Thursday, July 24

My first stop of the day was the Penguins of Madagascar press conference with co-director Eric Darnell and voice talents Benedict Cumberbatch and John Malkovich, the latter two making their Comic-Con debuts. A spin-off of the popular Madagascar trilogy, Penguins follows the mercenary fowl as they join forces with the North Wind, an all-animal spy network led by Agent Classified (Cumberbatch), to thwart the megalomaniacal aspirations of Dr. Octavius Brine (Malkovich). During the Hall H panel that followed, Cumberbatch admitted that he and Malkovich had only met in person once before, lamenting the fact that their voice-over sessions had to be recorded separately.

“I was really gutted about that, because I was really looking forward to working with the penguins and John,” the Sherlock star said. “That’s the hardest thing: You don’t have the usual camaraderie you do in most other mediums.”

Next up was the panel for Phillip Noyce’s forthcoming big-screen translation of Lois Lowry’s beloved YA novel The Giver, starring Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep and Brenton Thwaites. Bridges, who plays the Giver character, revealed he had spent the better part of two decades trying to give the book, a parable of emotional repression that in many ways presages The Hunger Games and its pop-dystopian ilk, the adaptation he felt it deserved.

“It was a terrific children’s book, but also I enjoyed it so much as an adult and loved its themes and poetry,” Bridges, who was initially hoping to cast his now-deceased father Lloyd Bridges in the title role, said. “I tried to get it made for 18, 19 years, and it proved to be difficult because it was controversial… That controversy scared some financiers away, but it inspired some, and I am so glad the Weinstein Company and Walden [Media] had the courage to put this out.”

From there, I crossed the border into Bat Country with the “Legends of the Dark Knight” panel, one of many events commemorating the seventy-fifth anniversary of the creation of Batman by Bob Kane and the great but unheralded Bill Finger. The panel boasted what was perhaps the single greatest lineup of comics writers ever assembled, including Denny O’Neil (the traumatic “A Death in the Family”), Neal Adams (the mind-bending “Batman: Odyssey”), Frank Miller (the legendary “Batman: Year One” and “The Dark Knight Returns”), Jim Lee (“Batman: Hush”), Grant Morrison (“Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth”), Scott Snyder (“The Court of Owls”) and Geoff Johns (“Batman: Earth One”). Watching this pantheon of geek gods analyze the troubled psyche of Bruce Wayne and ponder the character’s enduring cultural import was a Bat-fan’s dream come true.

I rounded off my first day at the con with a visit to Hall H to watch Adam West, Burt Ward and the mischievous, vivacious Julie Newmar preview the long-awaited Bluray of the 1960s Batman TV series, moderated with barely restrained giddiness by radio personality and super-fan Ralph Garman. The highly influential series, which finally hits stores on November 11 after decades of being denied a home video release due to rights issues, boasts crystal-clear high-definition transfers for all 120 episodes and a bevy of special features.

West and his “old chums” chatted up the crowd, telling surprisingly racy behind-the-scenes stories – West reported that seeing Newmar in her tight-fitting costume caused “curious stirrings” in his utility belt – and taking questions from the audience. The trio also made time for an extremely classy shout-out to another Catwoman, the still-lovely Lee Meriwether from 1966’s Batman: The Movie, who was watching from the crowd. The only thing missing was an impromptu Batusi dance-off.

Friday, July 25

The Hilton Bayfront Ballroom played host to a number of off-property events, including the raucous panel for Rick and Morty, the disturbingly imaginative cartoon that just finished its critically acclaimed first season on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim block. The show, which follows the metaphysical misadventures of a deranged inventor and his dim-witted grandson, is one of the funniest, most wildly original ‘toons to grace the small screen in recent years. Co-creators Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland, the latter of whom provides the voices for both Rick and Morty, were on hand to hear from fans and preview clips – mostly rough animatics – from the upcoming second season.

Daniel Radcliffe spent his twenty-fifth birthday in Hall H promoting director Alexandre Aja’s pitch-black comedy Horns, an adaptation of the Joe Hill novel about Ig (Radcliffe), a social misfit mourning the death of his girlfriend who awakens one day to discover he has sprouted devil horns and can now literally bring out the worst in people. Radcliffe, who’s been hounded by journalists since childhood thanks to his Harry Potter fame, said he took no small pleasure in shooting a scene where Ig commands a gaggle of reporters to fight to the death for the privilege of interviewing him.

Just as the din over the Boy Who Lived faded from Hall H, fans applauded the arrival of another geek icon: Pan’s Labyrinth and Pacific Rim director Guillermo del Toro, who was there to hype Jorge Gutierrez’s The Book of Life, an upcoming children’s animated movie based on the rich traditions of Mexican folklore, specifically the Day of the Dead. The film, which features the voices of Channing Tatum, Christina Applegate and del Toro regular Ron Perlman, follows the story of Manolo (Diego Luna), a young man who travels to three fantasy worlds in order to conquer his fears and woo the girl of his dreams. The footage shown was funny and visually splendid, but the audience seemed far more curious about the current state of del Toro’s production schedule, specifically Hellboy 3 and his oft-delayed adaption of H.P. Lovecraft’s seminal horror tale At the Mountains of Madness.

Then, as he does every year, Kevin Smith held court in Hall H for a nearly two-hour address that might as well be titled the State of the Fandom. The Clerks director tearfully recounted his recent visit to the London set of Star Wars: Episode VII, where he shed tears of pure nerd joy aboard Millenium Falcon, and previewed his insane-looking new film Tusk, a horror comedy starring the great character actor Michael Parks as a mad scientist bent on transforming a hapless podcaster (Justin Long) into a grotesque human-walrus hybrid. Think of a stoner-friendly version of The Human Centipede and you’ll be in the right ballpark. Haley Joel Osment, the Sixth Sense wunderkind who’s been off the radar since Secondhand Lions, and Genesis Rodriguez co-star as Long’s podcasting partner and girlfriend, respectively.

The Bat-mania continued with the Batman: Assault on Arkham panel, featuring the legendary Kevin Conroy (the definitive voice of Caped Crusader for over two decades, including the Arkham video games and Batman: The Animated Series), Troy Baker from The Last of Us, John DiMaggio from Futurama and Adventure Time and the finest voice director in the business, Andrea Romano, who has lent her magic touch to everything from Bruce Timm’s Justice League to Adult Swim’s The Boondocks.

The film, the latest animated effort from DC Entertainment, tracks the Dark Knight (Conroy) as he attempts to find and defuse a dirty bomb planted by the Joker (Baker, paying maniacal homage to the work of Mark Hamill) while dealing with interference from the Suicide Squad, a motley gang of supervillains conscripted into service under pain of death by the U.S. Government, represented by the glowering, proudly unscrupulous Amanda Waller (C.C.H. Pounder). The highlight of the panel was listening to voice-over virtuosos Baker and DiMaggio compare Joker laughs.

Saturday, July 26

In addition to the squeaky-voiced adorableness of actress Kimmy Robertson, who earned a special place in the coffee-and-pie-clogged hearts of David Lynch fans as the perpetually befuddled police receptionist Lucy Moran, this year’s Twin Peaks panel mainly revolved around the fully restored “Log Lady” episode introductions and nearly 90 minutes of newly uncovered deleted scenes from Fire Walk with Me, many of them featuring much-loved characters from the show (Special Agent Dale Cooper, Sheriff Harry S. Truman) who were either short-shrifted or conspicuously absent from the theatrical cut. The real draw, however, is the high-def transfer of the show itself, which helped pave the way for later triumphs of long-form narration such as Breaking Bad and True Detective.

Next up was director David Fincher, who was there to add some cinematic gravitas to author Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club panel, which began with the exciting revelation that a graphic novel sequel to the nihilistic odyssey is currently in the works. Cameron Stewart, best known for his work on DC’s “Catwoman” and “Batman and Robin,” is set to provide illustrations for the 10-issue max-series, which is scheduled for release in April 2015. It should be noted that both Fincher and Palahniuk technically violated the first two rules of Fight Club simply by agreeing to talk about it in the first place.

Sunday, July 27

Quentin Tarantino brought the house down when he arrived to promote Dynamite’s Django/Zorro, a six-issue comic that serves as an indirect follow-up to his blood-and-irony revisionist slavery epic Django Unchained. The series, co-scripted with comics legend Matt Wagner, follows the slave-turned-bounty hunter as he rides to the Southwest to help Mexican folk hero Zorro take down a villainous land baron. The writer-director also confirmed he’s hard at work on the ensemble western The Hateful Eight, which will be shot entirely on 70mm film, adding that he hopes to one day mount a quasi-remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers where the audience is encouraged to root for the pod people.

The best moment, however, would have to wait until the end of the panel, when Tarantino dropped a bombshell more powerful than the Five-Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique: the full, uncut version of Kill Bill – commonly referred to as The Whole Bloody Affair – is finally being released, complete with the colorized version of the House of Blue Leaves showdown and an all-new O-Ren Ishii anime sequence courtesy of Production IG, the same company behind the acclaimed Ghost in the Shell series. A Bluray boxed set and a limited theatrical run are both expected sometime next year.

Well, that’s all he wrote from Comic-Con 2014. Hope to see you around the exhibit hall next year!