Recently, Denise Dorman, the wife of the great Star Wars artist, Dave Dorman, posted a blog where she described the financial difficulties faced by many of the comics creators who attend conventions. Hers was a sobering account, honest and sincere, but she wound up having to walk it back a few days later. The problem? In her original piece, she vented about the carnival-like atmosphere of modern conventions and wondered whether many of the cosplayers knew or cared about the creators whose work had inspired such conventions in the first place. In reading the blog, it seemed pretty clear that Dorman’s real point was to talk about financial strains on creators, but the Internet community, with its typical grasp of nuance and perspective, exploded. It was yet another reminder of how inept we often seem to be when it comes to listening to one another. Take William Shatner’s appearance at Nashville’s Comic Con last weekend. Now if you’ve followed the entertainment news sites, you’ve probably seen the screaming headlines about Shatner returning to star in Star Trek 3. This is why I don’t like gossip sites. I was shocked when I saw all the headlines—some of them even from mainstream news sites like ABC and USA Today. But I was even more shocked when I realized they were all citing Shatner’s panel in Nashville. You see, I was in the room when Shatner discussed Star Trek 3 and it never would’ve dawned on me to lead with that as part of a news story. What did Shatner actually say? Basically that J. J. Abrams called him, he returned the call, they chatted about Star Trek 3, and that the director, Robert Orci, has suggested that he might be interested in using Shatner in an upcoming film if they could figure out a good way to do it. The whole thing was very sketchy—even by Hollywood standards—and Shatner expressed his own doubts that anyone could write a plausible scenario that would work. That was it. But somehow that turned into screaming headlines. What’s particularly troubling though isn’t that this incident was wildly exaggerated, but rather that focusing on such a non-story meant that the real story from the Shatner panel never got covered. There was something from his appearance that day that was genuinely significant, powerful, and newsworthy, though I’m willing to bet you haven’t heard it. To set it up properly, I need to tell you a little story. I grew up in rural Arkansas—what we used to call “the sticks”—where the idea of attending a comic book convention was about as likely being invited to sit in the President’s box for the State of the Union. I thought that might change a few years ago when I moved to Nashville, but it wasn’t until last year when Wizard World added Nashville to their Comic Con schedule that I finally attended my first real comic book convention. Sadly, I didn’t enjoy it. The panels were nice, but something about being on the main floor with all the vendors, celebrity autograph booths, and creator tables in Artist Alley left me feeling depressed. All these talented people seemed desperate for people to buy their wares, their books, their prints, or their autographed pictures, and most of them were being ignored—including most of the celebrities. I hadn’t intended to pay for any celebrity encounters, but when I saw Henry Winkler I couldn’t help myself. Happy Days had been my favorite show as a kid, and Fonzie was my childhood role model. (He was also a type of superhero, but that’s another column.) So despite feeling a little silly, I counted out my $30 and walked up to his booth to ask for a picture. After blubbering incoherently about what his work meant to me, I carefully placed the $30 on the table directly in front of his assistant. That’s when Winkler reached forward, grabbed the bills, and stuffed them in his pants pocket. Let me be clear. Henry Winkler didn’t do anything wrong. He was great—friendly and polite the entire time—and if his assistant had put the money in a metal cash box I would’ve been fine. But I just wasn’t prepared to see my childhood hero stuff money in his pocket. It seemed … pitiful. So I left that convention as depressed as Charlie Brown at Christmastime. I had hopes that this year would be different. But after walking the main floor for a couple of hours, all I could see, once again, was the obsession with money. I was beginning to feel like Karl Marx touring the New York Stock Exchange, so I headed for the safety of the panels instead. All of which brings me back to William Shatner. He was the headliner for this year’s convention, and I am an unabashed, hardcore Shatner fan. I’ve used cuts from his albums in my classes and I’ve watched The Andersonville Trial at least a half-dozen times. His panel was great. He came on stage, told a couple of funny stories, and then started fielding questions. Some of them were good and some were awkward, but Shatner gamely answered all, occasionally trying to make larger, more philosophical points. For example, when asked about his death scene in Star Trek: Generations, Shatner talked about people dying like they lived. He said he always saw Kirk as someone who approached the world with what he called “awe and wonder,” and he stressed the need for all of us to see our world the same way. Shortly thereafter, when he turned to the microphone on his left for the next question, he noticed that the fan was a young boy. Shatner suddenly came alive. “How old are you?” “Eleven.” “Wow,” he said, “I’m filled with awe and wonder.” But after getting his laugh, the celebrity raconteur gave way to the former talk show host and Shatner decided to ask more questions of this boy. “What’s it like to be eleven? Do you go to school with … anticipation? Like you’re looking forward to it? When you go to school, do you look at everything with awe and wonder?” “No.” The boy’s comic timing was impeccable, but Shatner wouldn’t let it go. “What would you rather be doing?” “Probably be in Star Trek.” “You’d rather be in Star Trek?” Then Shatner drew the microphone close to his mouth and whispered with intense desperation, “So would I.” The crowd roared, but even from a distance I could see the 83-year-old actor turning things over in his head, his energy rising. It was like that moment in The Wrath of Khan where Captain Kirk stands on the damaged bridge of the Enterprise, stalling Khan for a couple of minutes while Spock looks up the Reliant’s prefix code. Like Kirk, Shatner was getting an idea. “There are no podcasts for kids who are eleven … From nine to twelve, there’s no one expressing themselves and engaging other eleven-year-olds in conversation.” The more Shatner talked about this gap in the media, the more his ideas seemed to come together. He proposed that someone like this boy should be asking other eleven-year-olds about their lives, and about why they would rather be in Star Trek than in school. Soon his words were pouring out with the speed and intensity of a Shakespearian monologue:
It’s what’s wrong with our schools, by the way, because at eleven, you should just be … wondering—“The moons around Jupiter are revolving!” and “Why are they there?” and “What is Jupiter?” and “How do we get there?” And all that … excitement is at school and you’re not a party to it, and it’s not your fault; it’s our fault!
He then issued a challenge to the young fan: “I would love to hear you in a podcast talking about why school is not interesting to you and why you’d rather do something else.” For anyone looking for a “moment” from the convention, this was it. It was spontaneous, it was poignant, it had far reaching social implications, and it left both the boy and the whole audience with a new charge—one that didn’t involve Visa or MasterCard. Normally I tend to be jaded and a little cynical, but as I left the ballroom, I felt … moved—even inspired. I had gone into the panel feeling depressed and detached, but when I returned to the main floor I was determined to see things with what Shatner would call awe and wonder. So what did I do? I spent much of the rest of the day taking pictures of cosplayers. It’s a remarkable thing. In the midst of the most commercial, money-driven environment imaginable, here were people who simply chose … to play. That’s the right word isn’t it? It’s what we used to call it—dressing up in costume, pretending to be someone else. These people had come to play. Now don’t get me wrong. I know that many of the cosplayers compete for cash prizes, and I actually had a couple of people give me their cosplayer business cards and ask for tweets. Clearly the “play” gets tainted. But I opted to feign ignorance about all that. Columnist’s prerogative. Because as I marveled at a ten-foot Groot and blinked at a four-foot weeping angel, I had two feelings—awe and wonder—and they felt pretty good.