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'Mad' Dad’s-eye View From Comic-Con: Kids’ Stuff Saves It

zack.travis | Digitaria
By Tom Siebert , VP of Communications | @TomSiebert
Jul 19, 2012

After yesterday’s stylistically distinct, infectiously exuberant love letter to Hollywood at Comic-Con, we wanted to capture another side. Like any event that draws a quarter million people, there are many facets to Comic-Con, and Hollywood’s immaculately groomed dog and pony show is a more recent blockbuster addition.  There are others.

My initial Comic-Con experiences this year were not that great, because I barely got to any panels and had to work on Thursday and Friday, as Digitaria created and handed out 2,000 promotional T-Shirts. I was able to break away some, but my only attempt to get into massive Hall H, for the “Firefly” reunion, failed miserably – showing up only two hours early for that panel pegged me as a poseur – and all the corporate sponsorships and commoditization of my childhood’s beloved characters were poking at my most cynical sensibilities.

It didn’t help either when the one thing debuting at Comic-Con that I was genuinely excited about and made a beeline to acquire during the limited opening Preview Wednesday night – the third and final volume in Alan Moore’s recent Century-spanning exploits of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen -- turned out to be a bitter and nasty bit of work, a brilliantly bilious broadside against modern popular entertainment culture and product, lamenting and lampooning the very creative forces that have made Comic-Con such a blockbuster barometer for and of the corporatist media conglomerates’ plans.

So going into Saturday, I was very down on Comic-Con. And another chip got added to my shoulder when I found that two panels I was really looking forward to were in no way appropriate for my children, who would be coming with me on Saturday and Sunday.

So, like any at least moderately decent dad would do, even one with a couple chips on his shoulder, we did what my son and daughter wanted to do at Comic-Con. Fortunately, this turned out to be a fantastic idea.

Saturday morning, we went to the Disney panel for Phineas & Ferb, one of the funniest shows on TV for several years now and a rare good-hearted contemporary cartoon that everybody in the family can enjoy.  Clever and endlessly inventive, full of distinct and memorable characters – genius stepbrothers, suspicious older sister, multinational rainbow of lovably oddball friends, mad evil scientist with endless backstory, pet platypus that’s also secretly the nation’s greatest spy, etc., etc. -- Phineas & Ferb consistently delivers laughs and a genuine sense of joyous whimsy that’s rare in any narrative form. It’s the best non-Pixar product coming out of Disney right now, and the hall was deservedly packed.

The panel for the show was moderated by Damon Lindorff, one of the key Lost writers (which ran on Disney’s ABC network, donchaknow), and included the two former Simpson’s writers, Dan Povenmire and “Swampy” Marsh, who created the show and provide a few of its voices, as well as the voice talent for several other characters.

We all got Perry the Platypus masks and vouchers for a free download of the latest season’s cliffhanger finale, saw some new material, heard everybody do the voices and laughed a lot.

But the most newsworthy moment, which thrilled my children but quickened my pulse mostly because of the newsworthiness of the corporate synergy implications, was the announcement that there would be a special hour-long Avengers/Phineas & Ferb team-up special in summer 2013.

That makes it the most overt crossover between the Marvel and Disney brands since the latter acquired the former for $4 billion three summers ago. A few Marvel heroes have since had cartoon series on Disney XD, which is aimed at boys, and I noticed my son, who plays on Disney’s game-centric social site Club Penguin, was recently able to dress penguin characters in Avenger outfits.

But the fictitious worlds have never crossed corporate boundaries before, and this will be the first, as a handful of Marvel heroes end up in the boys’ neighborhood without their powers, pursued by the usual villainous suspects.  I’m wary but hopeful; the Phineas & Ferb guys haven’t missed a step; still, the degree of difficulty here is much higher.

After the Phineas & Ferb panel, I let my 13-year-old daughter convince me to go to the Mad Magazine panel, which I was totally ambivalent about (for reasons I can’t really understand, now that I’m looking back on it), but turned out to be the highlight of the entire Comic-Con week for me. It was absolutely hilarious.

The panel was dominated by editor and moderator John Ficarra, but his material, timing and delivery were expert.  I was dubious at first, when he started talking, straightforward and earnest, about how Mad likes a good laugh but is also patriotic, and if this was the first Mad Comic-Con panel we’d attended (which is was), we might not be aware that Mad started each year by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

My daughter and I cast a surprised look at each other, but then Picarra continued with something like: "This year, though, because the country is in such dire financial straits, the U.S. government has sold product placement spots inside the pledge, so please join us in this new version”:

iPod Allegra, Tootsie Fab, Dove United Franco-American. Banana Republic, Ford Chicklets Vans, One Nathan's, Wonder Bra, Disney Vagisil, Wisk Listerine, Ban Jergens Hormel.

Now, to a marketing guy, that’s really funny. And smart.  My daughter was shocked and delighted, which pleased me to no end.

After that, Piccarra went on to plug the new Mad 60th Anniversary book and its daily blog, highlighting stuff from both, which was interesting when recounting history and funny when showing material.  Piccarra recounted the long, oft-appealed lawsuit by Irving Berlin that Mad ultimately won, and tidbits about the annual international excursion for the entire staff that founder/publisher Bill Gaines led for years (but no more).

They also showed classic material through the years from the book, as well as immediate material from the previous week or so from their blog, The Idiotical; both book and blog contained work from all the guys on the panel, “the usual gang of idiots,” including the legendary writer/artist Sergio Aragonés (now on a cane but sharp as ever), and editors Sam Viviano and Ryan Flanders and artists Angelo Torres, Tom Richmond, and Peter Kuper.

I remembered and nostalgically enjoyed a lot of the earlier material, since I read Mad for about a decade from the age of 8 and then sporadically afterward, but I was most pleased and impressed by how Mad’s blog and latest material is just as timely and funny. Lots of topical political end entertainment humor, and they’ve still got the balls to push it maybe just a little too far.

After that, we walked the floor for a while, picking up tchotchkes for the kids, and then around the Gaslamp District, which was peaking in full madness.  Will Ferrell and Zack Galifianakis made an appearance in the street. Costumes galore.  A Butterfinger-branded truck appeared out of nowhere and stopped in the middle of the street and started tossing candy and men’s briefs by the armload to a crazy swarm of humanity. We ended up with five candy bars and four sets of the briefs, in a variety of sizes, all reading “Barmageddon” “The End is Near” on front and back.

The next day, I got up earlier to take my son to the LEGO “Ninjago” panel, while my daughter took a comic drawing class.  Comic-Con did not plan an appropriate room for the Ninjago fans; I got an inkling early when I headed down to the front desk at my apartment to pick up that day’s newspapers and ran into a neighbor who was leaving at 7:30 to get in line for the Ninjago panel at 10:30.  We weren’t nearly so diligent, got there about a half hour early, and literally ended up with the last seat in the house, having to share the chair with my 10-year old son on my lap, who, at nearly 90 pounds of mostly muscle, is no longer a joy to hold for any length of time.

I don’t watch “Ninjago” with my son, though I’ve seen parts of it. I don’t think  it’s anything special, and I don’t like the toy/television tie-in, because it seems to me like LEGO  is best when children embrace their imagination to create their own things freely, not get locked into pre-determined builds through characters like Star Wars and Batman, who have very successful LEGO products and video games.  But LEGO knows a winner when they cash the checks for one, and thus Ninjago, featuring LEGO Corporate created characters, meaning no messy sharing of profits with George Lucas or DC Comics.

With unseen footage, teases for the coming season, and backstories for the characters and their creation, my son was rapt, while I found more revealing of how research and marketing drives what our children see today. The panelists from the series and the toy making divison said LEGO did tons of research talking to kids about what they wanted to see, and Ninjas topped the list.  They tested villains, outfits, supporting character types, equipment, weapons, vehicles, and found out what the late single-digit age groups wanted to see and gave it to them. As a result, Ninjago is the most successful LEGO property ever, the panel told us.

So that could’ve been a drag for me to sit through, but the magnetic interest of all the kids in the audience made it okay. There was a long line of questions from pre-tweens, and those are always fun to hear, particularly when it’s from some youngster who has an incredible memory of the show’s mythology and asks some deeply obscure question.

After the Ninjago panel, we hooked back up with my daughter and went to the Cartoon Voices panel, which was packed with kids eager for fun...but a complete flop:  inappropriate, full of Hollywood glad-handing, and, worst of all, boring.  Panelists cursing, making all kinds of sex jokes and comments, at one point the almost surreally self-involved Rob Paulson – who showed up late -- gave a shoutout to a woman in the audience who just took his room key, telling her he was looking forward to her coming over later, which raised a bunch of eyebrows on the parents around me.

The panelists also weaved effusive tributes to each other and the legends of voice talent, living and dead, and it went on and on and on and on and I was bored but prepared to suffer through it, when my son said, “This is boring. Can we get out of here?” and we left my daughter, who told us at the end they did a funny version of Snow White in all different voices, so I probably missed the one thing that might’ve made it worth seeing.

My son went home, but my daughter and I stuck around to catch one of the last official events at Comic-Con – the musical episode of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” complete with audience sing-along. She was not particularly impressed, but said “It’s probably because I’m not really familiar with any of the characters.”  That’s something we’ll change.  Just not yet.