Peter G. writes for Bleeding Cool:
Well, Wizard World Chicago 2015 is officially in the books. And thank Torvalds for that. I'm just glad I'm done paying tolls for a while — a few times, the coins I threw missed the receptacle completely (for those of you wondering why I didn't just open my car door and pick them up, it is actually an Illinois law that any coins that fall to the pavement in toll areas automatically belong to the toll authority. And yes, people have been arrested for this sh*t). Not to mention that Gordian Knot when you get off 294, where it took me over a half hour to go from the toll spot to the turnoff for convention parking (they cannot finish that bridge to O'Hare soon enough). But I've got a convention report for you to read, so let's kick this derp into overdrive.
FLOORED AGAIN — Back in March, Wizard decided to try the Bruce Campbell Horror Fest. Wasn't sure what to make of it, but it was in March, leaving August to the Flashback Weekend, an indie horror con run by great people and with fantastic guests. But something went awry, and the fest was moved to the same weekend as Wizard World proper (Flashback was a couple of weeks before Wizard, so at least it wasn't in direct competition).
Hearing this actually made some sense to me. As everyone knows, me, artist alley people, and vendors have been complaining about the split floor layout, dividing the show between Halls A through D on one side, Hall F on the other, and the ticket booths in the middle. I figured the layout would actually work like this — the Horror Fest in Hall F, the show proper in A-D. Instead of a single audience split between two areas, you'd have two focuses that could filter between the two.
Welp, that didn't happen. The show proper was still divided like last year, with autographs and general merch in Hall F and the show proper in A through D (dealers and vendors were calling Hall F "the fleamarket"). The Horror Fest actually went on in Hall G, which is upstairs from Hall F, along with the space for the photo ops. So the show was actually split between three areas this year, not two.
SHUT 'ER DOWN, CLANCY, SHE'S A-PUMPIN' MUD! — There didn't seem a whole lot of middle ground for how people made out at the con this year. There were people who did fantastic, like one vendor who claimed he did more business on Thursday than he did the whole weekend the previous year. Some managed to cover table and expenses, although it took a while, with one vendor crossing the line about an hour after opening Sunday morning. But a lot of people bombed out, logging it as their poorest haul at WWC ever.
How bad was it? Blind item time, I'm sworn to secrecy as to who this is. But there was a rock star artist in the Artist Alley. Big name, in demand. And he actually saw a drop of about 33% in sales from the previous year. And this isn't some nobody publishing his books with lunch money, this guy is big. Most artists who made table did so by doing commissions, prints and such weren't as in demand.
There seemed to be a distinct air of "no confidence" in the Artist Alley. Running through it on Friday, there was a significant number of tables with no one there and no one set up. Every aisle had at least a few. More were staked out on Saturday, and some just blew off Sunday, but when you pay $450 non-refundable for a table and, as I believe the expression goes, you just can't be arsed, something's wrong.
The traffic flow was again the most commonly cited problem — even people in Hall F were complaining that people were being funneled to the autograph area instead of circulating around. And the complaints about the attendance and autograph prices soaking up the disposable income continued to abound. But a new consideration popped up — the number of Wizard shows has gotten too big. One vendor told me that people don't snap things up right away as they know there's another show around the corner and they'll just pick it up then when it's more convenient.
Saturday saw the halls packed to capacity, but the other days felt underattended. Last year, Wizard sold out of their four day passes a little over a month before the show went down. This year? They sold out about a week before.
Thursday seemed to be the bellwether for how your fortunes would run. Those who did great on Thursday moved stuff all weekend. Those that bombed on Thursday bombed out the whole show.
I BELIEVE THE PROPER TERM IS "OUTPOST" — Zenescope was all set for the weekend. They were going to have their booth in the main area and give out maps to all the talent in the Artist Alley so people could buy books and get sigs.
Instead, Zenescope wound up being put in the autograph area of Hall F while the talent was in the regular hall. That is soooooo Wizard.
NO NO NO, THIS IS AN "OUTPOST" — On Friday, as I headed for the panel rooms, I could swear that I saw Doug Walker and the cast of Nostalgia Critic in one of the little cubby holes opposite the doors. I was running late so I didn't have time to check, and when I got out twenty minutes later, whoever I saw there was gone. Repeated expeditions to the area over the weekend failed to turn up another appearance, like something out of Ghost Hunters. If I did see him, I have no idea why he was tucked away where you wouldn't find him unless you knew exactly where he was.
DID YOU ENJOY THE PLAY, MRS. LINCOLN? — So, the Bruce Campbell Horror Fest. How was it?
Ironically, the horror section was the most relaxed place in the con.
Hall G didn't have a lot in it, so it was actually pretty open and airy. There was a recreation of the cabin from The Evil Dead, as well as a "magic tunnel" and two zombie lazer tag arenas. Lots of hearses on the floor, and for $10, you could get a picture of yourself lying in a coffin (I scoured the convention floor in hopes of finding an Abby Scutto cosplayer to bribe to do it, but no luck). Even on Saturday, when the lobby was almost wall to wall humanity, the Horror Fest area, while busy, was never chaotic. It became my favorite place to chill during the weekend.
BLAST FROM THE PAST — We ALL have stories. Each and every one of us.
Among the places set up there was DeVry University, one of the biggest schools for tech in the country. They had little displays to introduce kids to the joys of electronics and get people interested in enrolling. And among the things they had was a set of automated fighting robots — no manual controls, just sensors to make them go at it. Obviously, this was relevant to my interests, and I talked with the guy, going back a ways about technology and how I could prove my bonafides as a geek because I still had my first video game (a Sears pong unit) and my first computer (Timex/Sinclair 1000).
"Hey, I got someone you've got to meet!" he said. And he brought over a fellow by the name of John Pasierb.
Pasierb was there for the video revolution, when video games supplanted electromechanical games in arcades around the world. He was the head of engineering at Midway, the Chicago-based video game company owned by Bally Entertainment. And he saw the change happen, how the machines evolved from a simple collection of circuits to codable microprocessors, circuit boards roughly two feet square for a basic driving game to the limits of 8 bit technology and beyond.
Pasierb was there until Bally decided it wanted out of video games and sold Midway to Chicago-based Williams Ellectronics. Pasierb worked on video slots and video poker machines for a while, then eventually moved on. He is currently a professor at DeVry University.
I don't know how long we talked. All I know is we both geeked out, marveling at technology that has gone from ENIAC to an MP3 player you can run Linux on, how even the most basic cell phone today can do more than the computer system that put man on the moon. And all of this done in less than half a century. We talked about the future of Occulus Rift and the shape of things to come.
It's a beautiful thing when two people have such passion for common ground, and the results are pure magic. If you are on DeVry's Tinley Park campus, be sure to show Professor Pasierb some love.
RAW THRILLS, INDEED — So, readers of last year's WWC report will recall my quest to meet Mr. Eugene Jarvis. Jarvis started out playing with technology and eventually wound up working at Atari's pinball division in the 1970's. Eventually, Jarvis came to Chicago to work for Williams Entertainment. Williams was primarily known for pinball machines, but they wanted in on the burgeoning video game scene, and Jarvis was given the task of designing it. Jarvis came up with a game intended to be hostile, to punish gamers, to break them. The game was called Defender, and it became a legend.
Jarvis continued to work his magic for Williams. He souped up the Defender formula for the sequel Stargate. He designed Joust and the twin stick shooter Robotron 2084. He then went on to found Whiz Kidz, continuing to create games like Blaster. He is currently the president of Raw Thrills, one of the few companies left making arcade video games. I mean, real games, not gambling trainers like coin pushers or Stacker rip-off machines. If you ever run across a Dirty Drivin' machine, you owe it to yourself to play it at least once, it is a blast.
Jarvis was listed on the guest list for WWC last year, and I enlisted Wizard PR rep Jerry Milani into helping me locate him so I could ask him some questions for BC and get a couple of games signed. We turned up nothing. A helpful reader on BC pointed out that Jarvis was only there for a panel, and after that, he split. Knife to the heart.
New year, and about two weeks before the con, Jarvis' name popped up on the guest list again. Remembering the lesson of last year, I eagerly awaited the arrival of the programming schedule. There, on Friday, was Jarvis participating in a panel. Thanks to an assist by Mr. Milani, I managed to snag a short time to interview him after the panel as he went to the booth of panel coordinator Genese Davis.
I started off by asking Jarvis about how Raw Thrills is pretty much it for making actual arcade games. How tough is it to survive in this environment? Really tough. But, "I really think we could be heading for a new Golden Age. We have some awesome graphical technologies, big screen technologies, and we have all these tools. So we are making some cool cool stuff for the arcades. We getting super immersive cabinets, and VR's coming up. So I think the future's bright." I mentioned the Star Wars Battlepod game, with a sit-in cabinet in front of a domed screen that was so immersive it could actually induce motion sickness (this is the voice of experience talking here). We both agreed it was one of the most amazing creations out there now.
As someone who had seen the entire video game scene from the beginning, I wondered what he thought of how homogenized the field had become, with endless first person shooters or simulators. Does he see diversity returning? He already does. "In the app world, we had that revolution since the beginnings of iPhones and iPads. It's really just a cornucopia of old 2D stuff. It's amazing when you empower millions of developers as opposed to tens of developers or hundreds of thousands of developers. There's so many cool, different takes on platformers, all kinds of genres in the app world. Because it's a smaller world, lower budget, even a single guy can create a very nice game. There's so many of them out there, there's probably a thousand amazing games that nobody knows about. It's such a deluge of content that discoverability of the content becomes very difficult. But it is out there, we just have to go in there. I don't know if there's time, though! There's, like, two million apps!"
Does Jarvis have any regrets about staying with the arcade side of games as opposed to moving to the home market? "The cool thing of, say, PC gaming is it opens up the format. The arcade, you're kind of locked into a 3 to 5 minute game. There's kind of a rush, a short burst of coolness. And there's only so many genres you can squeeze that out of. So I get jealous from time to time, but it's such a specialized craft today. It's like when Michael Jordan decided he wanted to play baseball — you kind of are what you are and you can't overnight decide you're going to be Spielberg or Lucas or make the next World Of Warcraft. I do play and enjoy those games — sometimes it's more fun to play those games than to have to design them! If you design the game, you probably hate it so much that you really can't enjoy playing it. I love when somebody else kills themselves so I could have fun."
He also signed my games for me, which are now sitting in the Crown Jewels section of my library. Great, great guy, I'm proud and honored to have met him.
WHERE LEGENDS GET SKEWERED — One of the most exciting names to turn up as a guest at WWC was the legendary JJ Sedelmaier. Sedelmaier got his start as an in between artist on Strawberry Shortcake In Big Apple City (and when I casually mentioned this during one of his panels, he reacted like, "Oh, my God, I forgot about that"). He eventually started his own animation company for making ads, and he runs it with his wife. They occasionally branch out into doing regular shows, such as producing the early seasons of Bevis And Butthead. But they really don't want to be a big house and invariably scale back after a while. He did the pilot for Harvey Birdman Attorney At Law and the Capt. Linger shorts for Cartoon Network.
But where Sedelmaier became a part of pop culture history happened back in the 1990's. Dana Carvey had just gotten his own sketch comedy show on ABC to run during prime time. Carvey is no dummy, and recruited talent to make it the best show it could be. Among the people in the cast was a young Stephen Colbert. But most telling was hiring Robert Smigel, a vet from Saturday Night Live behind some of their classic bits (like William Shatner's "Get a life!" sketch), as head writer.
Smigel and Sedelmaier had collaborated before. One day, Sedelmaier gets a script from Smigel of a piece he wanted to do on the Dana Carvey Show called The Ambiguously Gay Duo. Sedelmaier read it in his office and couldn't take it — he was laughing so loud and so hard, his staff probably thought he was losing it. Realizing this was a chance to do something that hadn't been done on television before, Sedelmaier got to work with Smigel designing the characters and refining the short. And the world witnessed the debut of Ace and Gary.
Since then, Sedelmaier has done a lot of other things. He's done a lot of commercials, including a riff on Speed Racer for Volkswagen, and the Tek Janssen series on The Colbert Report. He had a panel every day, and even agreed to let me ask him some questions. If you want a crash course in creating comedy, this is who you talk with.
One of his panels featured the final AGD, where they become real life characters played by John Hamm and Jimmy Fallon. Sedelmaier praised Hamm, saying no one could play the role better. I personally suspect the buttslap when they head for the roof was improvised during the shoot, as the camera isn't in position to frame it properly. No one can say they didn't go out on top.
I had one big burning question. Ace and Gary became mainstays on SNL, where the show's reputation let them get away with just about anything. But the first short appeared on The Dana Carvey Show. My question: how the hell did AGD get on ABC primetime? His short answer? "Remember how Dana Carvey only lasted six episodes?"
It's been a while since we've seen an Ace and Gary cartoon, and I wondered if maybe, thanks to the advancements in gay rights and how people are a lot more apathetic about it nowadays, if maybe the days of AGD had passed, or will there always be an undercurrent to give them a place in the world where people will still look at them askance. "It's a good question, because, certainly, the sort of stuff that's risque can almost seem old now. I think, if Ace and Gary were to continue on, Robert, doing all the writing, would certainly work up a script around the kind of currency of the way things are thought of now, because the basic sort of "They're gay and it makes me uncomfortable" thing is old, and that doesn't really have the same effect. You'd have to absolutely keep it updated, but there's still a homophobic attitude. Maybe most of the episodes would take place down south or in the Bible Belt."
One of my favorite bits that appeared on TV Funhouse was Heteroy, about a superhero preacher who can turn gay men straight. There was only one of them, and I thought it had such potential. Was there a chance for more Heteroy cartoons, or did he think the one was enough? "The one was probably enough. Ace and Gary kind of fill that void just fine. And the Heteroy cartoon was fun because we took, instead of taking Filmation or Hannah-Barberra stuff as inspiration, we used the Bakshi Spider-Man cartoons with the watercolory backgrounds and even the narration was inspired by it."
Anyone who saw the last AGD short, where they became live action, remembers it ended with a title card saying a movie might be coming "Summer 2015." Obviously, that has not come to pass. Have any creations like Ace and Gary been talked about for expanding beyond their cartoon short origins, or would they be unable to survive more than the quick hit, get the joke told delivery of the shorts? "There was a discussion starting around 2002 about a live action feature. Even up to the Jon Hamm and Jimmy Fallon episode (the live action bit — G), there was active discussion about making it a feature. But it just never went further than that. And frankly, I don't know how it works as a live action feature, because there's something about accepting the whole premise in the animated form, especially in that very kind of naive style, that seemed to work really nice in terms of the marriage of the visual style and the whole idea of the cartoon. And I don't know, an hour, hour and a half of that might get old. And I think they were talking to everybody from Jim Carrey at one point to other names…it was going to be a big film. But thankfully, it kind of evaporated."
Sedelmaier was saying that he was trying to arrange it so that, next year at WWC, he could run all of the AGD shorts. That would just be too cool. A great guy, anyone can learn a lot from him.