Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Wizard World St. Louis, Take 3!

2015 marked the third year of Wizard World St. Louis, and also my third year of attendance. The inaugural convention boasted such guests as Stan "The Man" Lee, James Marsters, Juliet Landau, Henry Winkler and Lou Ferrigno. The second had William Shatner, Matt Smith and Karen Gillan, Bruce Campbell and Jason David Frank. And this year had Michael Rooker, Hayley Atwell, Phil LaMarr, George A. Romero and Billy Boyd.

Unfortunately, this year's convention suffered from some poor planning. Conventions in Denver and Houston held the same day snatched up a lot of high-profile guests, including several who had previously committed to coming to St. Louis. There was also a much smaller roster of comic book creators and vendors, which I found especially disappointing. 

The turnout reflected the convention's issues, and was much smaller than in previous years. However, there were still plenty of die-hard fans and cosplayers running around, and if anything, cosplay was one aspect that seemed to have gotten better with each year.

Heading into my three-day weekend, I have to admit I was a little worried. The night before we left, I'd suffered chills, sweats and some alarming stomach flip-floppery, and I thought I might be coming down with the flu. It just figured I'd get sick THAT weekend of all weekends, but it seemed indicative of my typical luck. However, I nipped it in the bud with DayQuil, NyQuil, Gatorade, peanut butter crackers, an early bedtime and Imodium, and by Saturday morning, to my surprise, I felt like a million bucks.

I need to also give a shout-out to the awesome people who joined me on this grand nerdly undertaking. Mssrs. Ed Button and Brett "Stevens" Mattox are also third-year veterans of WWSTL, and although we took my car, Mr. Button took over driving duties halfway to St. Louis, and Mr. Mattox kept me supplied with medication and bought us pizza on Saturday. Then there's Mr. Tom Tillinger, our most gracious of hosts who offered up to us his home, his good towels, his moonshine and his XBox. My imaginary hat is off to you, sir. And then there's the always delightful Meghann Thoma, who was with us only a few short hours, but made those hours all the more enjoyable. Y'all are rock stars, yo.

Blue Steel! Blue Steel everywhere!

The first thing I did was run a quick lap around the Artist Alley area and collect signatures. The first one I got was Gerhard, the Cerebus creator who drew a variant of The Walking Dead #1 for the convention (I'll upload it tomorrow––was a little sidetracked today). From there, I moved on to Michael Golden and Jim Mahfood, who were kind enough to sign a comic that featured both of their work.

I thought it clever that Golden signed in golden ink, but
it doesn't show up very well against the cover's earthy tones. 

Another stop was at James O'Barr's table. O'Barr, for those who don't know, is the writer/artist of The Crow, and a friend of mine had entrusted me with her prized trade paperback of said book to get signed. Mr. O'Barr obliged, and he also sold me an art print which I brought home for my friend.

He scribbled on it in red marker to make it a "bloody" variant.

Next up was Ethan Van Sciver, one of DC's A-list artists best known for his work on Green Lantern. His teenaged son was helping him out at his table (re: convincing people to buy swag), and he was pretty darned good at it. He cut me deals on two prints Saturday, and two more on Sunday, and it became a running gag that every time I passed by their table, he'd say, "Excuse me, sir, but can I interest you in a print?"

The answer was always "yes." 

I had commissioned an epic Sinestro sketch from Ethan the previous year, and I wanted to get another sketch from him this year as well. I had two blank covers––an Avengers Arena and an All-New X-Factor––but while digging through my collection I found Zero Hour #0 from 1994, and it had a white cover as well. It occurred to me a Hal Jordan as Parallax sketch would look really good on that cover, so after handing Ethan my crisp $150, I relayed my suggestion. He grimaced, and told me he could try, but since it wasn't an actual sketch cover, it wouldn't hold the ink properly. I decided it wasn't worth it, and instead produced my All-New X-Factor book.

"I'll take an X-Factor-era Cyclops," I said.

He raised an eyebrow.

"Y'know, with the racing stripe on his hood and the buccaneer boots. Very '80s."

He shook his head, and I pulled up an image on my phone.

"Ah, okay," he said. "When do you need it by?"

"Tomorrow afternoon," I said. "So whenever."

He's a cool guy. 

I had him sign a couple of books, and then I went off for my first photo op, with Giancarlo Esposito, a.k.a. Gustavo Fring from Breaking Bad. Tom and I split that one. Mr. Esposito was super-nice and friendly, the polar opposite of his taciturn character on the show, but for the photo he assumed his icy facade.


Immediately afterward, Ed and I had our photo op with Atwell, and as soon as we walked in, Ed suddenly threw up his hands and squealed, "Oh my god! How are you?"

Atwell, in turn, threw up her hands and said, in her enchantingly British accent, "Oh my god, how are you?"

She was very sweet, very personable, and I couldn't resist teasing Ed for "fangirling" as we headed out to pick up our photos.

Not that I can blame him, of course.

We also ran into the radiant and wonderful Amber Carr, a friend of ours who was volunteering for the event. She and her mom are regulars at the con as well, and it was great seeing them.

We're also media personalities, repping TV, radio and print respectively. 

After that, we met up with Meghann, and went to a pizza place called Pi across the street from the convention center for lunch. It was dee-licious, and a nearby diner snapped a group photo for us.

What an awesome bunch'a nerds we are. 

Returning to the convention, we saw all manner of great cosplay from all different genres.

"Do you feel in control?"

Not too sure about fancy-lad Joker, but the others look good. 
If the '90s X-Men theme isn't playing in your head right now, I don't know
what to tell you ...
"Robin" here totally attacked me when I tried to take
this photo. Twice. Must've been that Damian Wayne version.

"Sey esaelp!"

Usagi Yojimbo!

Alas, poor Sektor, I knew him ...

"You know where they're holding that bratty prince's
birthday party?"

This IS the cosplay you're looking for. 
Those are REAL animals! She has a falconer's license. 

"ICE to see you!"
"We heard there was a Hobbit around here somewhere ..."

I'm guessing the ATM is also a Transformer. 
"Mama mia!"

Of course, the biggest highlight was meeting Rooker, and despite turning 60 this year, that man shows zero sign of slowing down. I mean, he was literally sprinting up and down the photo op line, shooting video of the gathered throng. 

That guy right there is pure cool. 

The moment he peeked out from behind the curtain, grinning impishly, the crowd went nuts, and rightly so. Rooker is a consummate showman, and was easily the most gregarious and bombastic personality to grace Wizard World St. Louis this year. 

While we were waiting in line, Meghann and I were geeking out pretty severely (the phrase "I literally can't!" was thrown out a lot), but when the moment came, he was pretty darned disarming. I shook his hand––TWICE––and voila, photo op gold! 


Afterward, I headed straight for Hayley Atwell's booth to get my convention-exclusive trading card signed. I had a decidedly Ed-like moment, though, wherein I was bedazzled by her beauty and accent and thanked her twice profusely for coming to St. Louis and then made my hasty, bashful exit.

Stunning! Hayley looks good, too. 

I also got my photo taken INSIDE Herbie the Love Bug, which for me was kind of a big deal. I absolutely LOVED the Herbie movies as a kid (aside from the Lindsay Lohan reboot, which we don't talk about), and I remember defacing my VW Hot Wheels cars as a kid to make them look more Herbielicious.

Herbie, I'm inside you! Wait, no, I didn't mean it like that ..."

Then there was the "Shaggin' Wagon" from Dumb and Dumber ...

Makes me laugh every time. 

After that, it was back to Tom's for "Cards against Humanity" and Fireball whiskey. I remember singing a lot. 

They were less excited about it than I was. 

Sunday was a much more leisurely day. I woke up at 7 feeling great once again, but, seeing the guys were still asleep, I sneaked into the kitchen, got my leftover Pi and returned from whence I came to eat two cold slices in silence and secrecy. 

Delicious, delicious secrecy ...

We got back to the convention center around noon, and the first thing I did was swing by Ethan's table. I was a bit alarmed to find he had not yet started, and I feared a repeat of last year might be on the cards (not that I'm complaining––even rushed, his Sinestro sketch turned out amazing). I informed the guys and they were a bit dismayed as well, and Ed mentioned we didn't have a whole lot of time to work with. So, after raiding a discounted bin and coming away with $50 in half-price comics, I headed over to Ethan's table and let him know I was a little pressed for time. However, not wanting to rush him (he was working on another commission) or cause him to half-ass it, I said I'd be willing to give him money for shipping. He immediately dropped what he was doing and asked, "Do you have thirty minutes?"

"Yes," I replied, but again, I was a little worried the quality might drop a bit in such a short timeframe. I needn't have worried. In ONE MINUTE FLAT, he had scribbled out the basic pencils, and they looked incredible. 

And I thought I could draw fast!

"Inking it's the hard part," he said, and I took that as a cue to wander off for a bit. I went around and visited my friend and fellow artist Ellis Ray III, and we talked comics and comic book movies for a good while before a passer-by caught Ellis' eye: prolific voice actor Phil LaMarr! Ellis got his attention and gave him a Static print he had drawn, and they chatted for a while. Before Phil left, though, I piped up:

"Hey, uh, Ellis here is a friend of mine, and I was wondering if I could get a photo of you two together."

Phil nodded and leaned in, and that's the story of how we got a FREE photo of Phil LaMarr. Cool guy! 

That's Ellis' Static print in the foreground. 

I got back to Ethan's booth just as he was putting the finishing touches on my Cyclops sketch, and I couldn't have been happier. He completely outdid himself, even under a short deadline, and provided me with the crown jewel of this year's con swag. It turned out so well, he even snapped a photo for himself! 

Seriously, it's good even by HIS standards. 
"'Cause I only have EYYYYYYES ... forrrr YOUUUUU ..." 

By the way, the soundtrack of the event was also topnotch. I heard a lot of disco, which was a pleasant surprise. While I was at Ethan's table, though, "Carry On, Wayward Son" came on. I'm not a big fan of Kansas, per se, but Ethan was clearly elated, and started singing along. "Don't you cry no more, Chris," he sang as he sketched. "Why are you still crying, Chris? What are you crying about, Chris?"

I settled my sternest gaze upon him.

"What am I crying about, Ethan? I'm 26 years old. I live with my parents in the middle of nowhere. I work for peanuts at a small-town newspaper. THAT'S what I'm crying about."

He considered that for a moment, then said, "Okay, you can keep crying."


Moving on ...

I also visited the table of Emmy-winner Bob Camp, who is best known for his work on The Ren and Stimpy Show. I had a copy of The Official Marvel Comics No-Prize Book, which Camp had drawn along with inker Vince Colletta.

It's every bit as glorious as it looks. 

Camp also shared the story of how he SAVED STAN LEE'S LIFE. Apparently they were at the same convention one time, and after shaking a fan's hand, Stan stepped backward and tripped over somebody's luggage. Camp immediately stood up, stuck out his arm and returned Stan to an upright position ("He weighed all of twelve pounds!"), at which point Stan, totally oblivious to what had just happened, turned around and shook his hand.


We also ran into another guy from West Plains, Preston Vandenbulcke, who had been selected by Weta Workshop to model their epic makeup work. Weta Workshop, based in New Zealand, is the effects company that did the makeup for "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit," and they made him up like an orc Saturday and a dwarf Sunday.

This is the "before" photo. 

As always, we were sad to leave, but we had a long journey ahead of us. Also our feet were killing us.

Womp-womp ...

Heading home, we made our annual bowel-destroying stop at White Castle. We were then caught in a thunderstorm, and before too terribly long we were back in good old West Plains, where we were greeted by ...

Which means ... two evil leprechauns to deal with.

I can't stress enough, I had a really good time (I always do), and even though this was a much smaller convention than last year, the change of pace was nice. I'm already planning ahead for next year, and I'm certainly looking forward to seeing my St. Louis people again! 

Until next time!

Friday, May 1, 2015

"No Strings Attached" –– My Avengers: Age of Ultron review

Remember when you saw the first Avengers movie, and you were just in awe of these larger-than-life, dynamic, and (most importantly) established characters all being epic together onscreen? Remember how great that felt?

Maybe it didn't feel so great for Loki ...

Flash forward two years to Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which showed you how much MORE awesome these already-awesome characters could be. Remember that? Cap in the elevator? Opening up myriad cans of whup-@$$?

Going down?

Avengers: Age Of Ultron is more of that. MUCH more of that. It's a total escalation, in both scale and stakes. And it is very, very good.

Let's start with the pacing. The Avengers was a cinematic masterpiece, and I gave it a 5/5 rating when it came out because, let's face it, it was all my childhood dreams come true. And don't get me wrong, I still love it dearly, but some of its flaws are evident after subsequent watchings. First and foremost, the exposition in the first third of the movie was VERY clunky. It tried to get the ball rolling quickly with Loki's arrival and the Avengers being gathered, but the fun doesn't start until everyone's on the Helicarrier. Age of Ultron, on the other hand, doesn't have to set anything up. We know the characters. We know what their powers are. We know what their motivations are. The film starts off with the Avengers storming Baron von Strucker's castle because mad science, and that's all you need. It's great. And it establishes Hulk as the Avengers' "nuclear option," the guy you only bring in when it's absolutely necessary. 

Sometimes a car just needs kicking. 

The tone is definitely darker than that of the first film, but there is plenty of humor to offset it. The most surprising example of this is Ultron himself, who has even more one-liners than Robert Downey, Jr.'s Tony Stark (even beating him to one). But a snarky villain is by no means a non-threatening villain, and it soon becomes clear that Tony's new peacekeeping A.I. is not going to play nicely with others. 

There are also plenty of Easter eggs to be found, some of which are obvious (vibranium, Wakanda, etc.) and some of which are not (when Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch meet Ultron for the first time, WHAT IS HE WEARING? Think about it ...). The movie is definitely a labor of love for longtime fans, and it's breathtaking to behold it all and let all the little details soak in. It certainly merits multiple viewings just for the sake of picking up on things you might have missed.  

Although there are some slow parts, they don't detract from the movie. The party at Tony's place (which has arguably the funniest Stan Lee cameo of them all) showcases the interpersonal developments between the characters, most notably the general sense of easygoing camaraderie amongst the team but also the budding romance between Black Widow and Bruce Banner (yeah, that one came outta left field). 

"I wanna get into those purple pants ..."

Don't let the slow moments fool you, though. There is a LOT going on in this movie, but rather than bog it down or degenerate into a mess like X-Men: The Last Stand, Whedon masterfully balances both plot points and characters, although there are a few rough jumps where it's obvious there was more material that got cut (I sincerely hope we get a director's cut DVD later). No stranger to large ensemble casts, Whedon gives everyone their due. He has a bit of fun at War Machine's expense, but we're laughing with him, not at him. Also, it's a relief to see Rhodey's dropped the Iron Patriot look, since in the comics the original Iron Patriot is THIS guy: 

Not gonna lie, though, I'd love to see him show up post-Civil War ... 

One of the biggest complaints the first movie got was the lack of focus on the two "normal" Avengers, Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye and Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow. The sequel remedies that, giving us a great look into Hawkeye's personal life (let's just say I won't be championing a Hawkeye/Mockingbird romance in the MCU anymore) and showing a Scarlet Witch-induced look into Black Widow's past (which leads to a heartbreaking confession to Banner). Hawkeye finally comes across like the cocky hothead he is in the comics, and gets his share of action scenes despite admitting he's just a guy with a bow and arrow. He also manages to get the drop on Scarlet Witch when she tries to mess with his head.

On the subject of ol' SW, let's talk about "the miracle twins." S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Maria Hill puts it best when she explains their powers to a confused Captain America: "He's fast and she's weird." 

VERY weird. 

Aaron Taylor-Johnson's Pietro Maximoff/Quicksilver definitely looks more like the comic version than Evan Peters' did in X-Men: Days of Future Past, and also has more of the moody, arrogant jerk vibe. Although Peters is the superior version overall in terms of effects and sheer entertainment value, Taylor-Johnson does a commendable job bringing the Avengers' version to life. His rivalry with Hawkeye is particularly amusing, and foreshadows a big moment later in the film. 

He didn't see that one coming. 

Elizabeth Olsen's Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch is a pleasant surprise. I didn't expect to like her. I didn't particularly want to like her (I'm an X-Men fan, and if you've read "House of M" you'll understand my dislike). But she's perfect. She nails the darkness and rage of the character, but also the softer side, and you really feel for her by the end, at which point she is finally a full-fledged Avenger. Her powers are ill-defined, but no worse than her comic counterpart's. And the film very subtly teases her eventual romantic relationship with one of her new teammates.

Ummm ... not this one. 

Hulk has a good showing as well, and it's becoming more and more obvious that despite Banner's insistence to the contrary, Hulk isn't "the other guy," but basically just a 'roid-raging Banner. Most of his problems stem directly from that denial, and it's interesting to see that when Scarlet Witch messes about with everyone's minds and causes them to see their worst fears, Hulk's perspective is the only one we don't get to see. Hmmm ... perhaps his secret isn't just "I'm always angry," but "I'm always Banner." 

Cap, too, is in top form here. He's still wistful about his position as a "man out of time," dealing with the fact that the only people who "get" him are octogenarians, but he finally acknowledges his place is as an Avenger. His straight-laced nature gets some good laughs ("Language!"––the running joke that kept on giving), but it also reveals a telling point about Tony Stark, who says he doesn't trust anyone who doesn't have a dark side. Cap really is THAT good ... THAT honest ... THAT brave, and it kind of freaks Tony out, and causes him to undermine Cap's leadership ... twice. The first time it doesn't go so well (hello, Ultron). The second time, it actually works out for the best. 

Hello, Vision!

At long last, Paul Bettany goes from voicing J.A.R.V.I.S. to playing the full-fledged Vision, and he kicks copious amounts of butt. His phasing ability is downplayed (and not explained at all), but he does utilize it against some Ultron drones. Bettany plays Vision as a kind, innocent character––the stark (pun intended) contrast to both his fathers (Tony and Ultron ... it's complicated but not as controversial as it sounds). But even though he doesn't want to hurt anyone, he's more than willing to throw down if the situation calls for it, and his final confrontation with Ultron is surprisingly poignant. He proves himself as a worthy member of the Avengers (in more ways than one), and definitely leaves the audience wanting more. 

Tony Stark/Iron Man has his usual share of witty one-liners, but this film also sets the stage for his role in Captain America: Civil War. His hubris, coupled with his desperation to save everyone––to fix everything––on top of his guilt/martyr complex, are what lead to Ultron's creation, and also what will inevitably lead him to support the Superhuman Registration Act. Alas, I'm getting ahead of myself there (the act hasn't been brought up yet, but I'm sure Hulk and Tony's little romp in Wakanda will be cited as an example of why it's "necessary"). Bottom line: ever since the battle for New York, Tony has been less and less of a team player, and more and more of a maverick, which was one of his more endearing qualities at first but is now ... less so. Contrast that with Steve's rigid devotion to the team, and things are going to get ugly. 

"Who ya gonna call? HULKBUSTER!!"

Although James Spader's Ultron doesn't top Tom Hiddleston in terms of scene-stealing, mustache-twirling villainy, he's delightfully quirky in he's delightfully quirky in his own way, and I applaud Whedon for not having Spader behave (dare I say it?) robotically. Ultron knows absolutely nothing about humanity save what he's gleaned from the internet, which causes him to surprise, horrify and embarrass himself at times. The scene with Ulysses Klaw (played by the wonderful Andy Serkis, in a non-CGI role for once) is a particularly funny-yet-gruesome example of this (anybody who's familiar with Klaw saw it coming), and Ultron comes across both shocked and apologetic. And yet ... he still fully intends to exterminate all humanity. Like, literally, in the form of a ginormous cataclysm. 

"You make it sound like I'm the bad guy or something ..."

I'm trying my best not to spoil too much, but the rumors are true: not every Avenger makes it home after the final battle with Ultron, and not all that do choose to remain with the team. But this isn't the end for the Avengers (since we all know The Infinity War is nigh), and the film ends on a hopeful note. 

Maybe not shawarma hopeful, but hopeful. 

By the way, Whedon wasn't kidding. Although there IS a mid-credits scene, there is NOT a post-credits scene, so you don't have to sit through ALL the credits. If you want a hint as to what the mid-credits scene is, though ... 

Caption this. 

Final rating: 5/5. It builds on the strengths and learns from the mistakes of its predecessor. Even though it doesn't replicate the excitement of seeing the Avengers onscreen together for the first time, it's chock-full of plenty of "OMG" moments of its own, and it sets up hopefully more greatness to come.