Monday, August 06, 2007

The Comic-Con Experience, Chapter IV: The Autograph Paradox

I’ll never forget the time I saw Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band up at the Dee Events Center in Ogden back in 1999. it was incredible to think that the short fellow in sunglasses hopping around a stage a few yards away was a real, living Beatle. Even if it was just Ringo.

At the same time, it was kind of sobering. Instead of a face on an album cover or a figure in old footage from “Help” or “A Hard Days Night”, Ringo was suddenly mortal, a regular guy like me, only with a lot more money and much larger nose.

Meeting your heroes seems to be a mixed bag, and getting their autographs can be uncannily awkward. As my sister and I collected a few signatures at this year’s Comic-Con, this point was driven home loud and clear.

A large portion of the upstairs section of the San Diego Convention Center was partitioned off into little booths where various guests could camp out and wait for dedicated fans to seek them out. According to the conference program, each special guests was obligated to sign one attendee item free of charge. If the attendee chose, they could purchase an 8X10 glossy photo of the guests for them to sign as well.

This had a strange effect on the proceedings. Instead of just approach a celebrity and ask for an autograph—already an odd gesture now that I’m thirty years old—there was also an awkward moment where I made eye contact with the celebrity and had to pass on one of their glossy photographs, basically telling them that I enjoyed their work, but only as long as it was free.

In most cases, these celebrities are not hurting for money, at least as far as I know, but some of them are obscure enough I wondered if this is the only way they are milking out a profit from a long-passed career, and so my admiration became mixed with guilt.

This situation was enhanced by the extensive lines to get to certain celebrities, and the complete absence of fans clamoring to meet others. Given the age of most attendees, the hottest signatures are coming from celebrities who’s shows/movies/comic books are current, while the heroes of yesteryear sit quietly at their booths with an agent or a friend, stacks of 8X10’s in front of them, waiting for an interested customer.

Sadly for my conscience, but luckily for my feet, most of the people I wanted to meet fell into that latter category. While dozens of patient fans waited in line to meet “Spawn’s” Todd McFarlane, I walked right up to the guy that played “Boomer” on the old “Battlestar Galactica” and got his autograph in less than fifteen seconds.

I wondered for a moment whether to tell Mr. Jefferson that as I child “Galactica” was one of my favorite shows, and how in my infant ignorance I chose to refer to the show as “Battlestar Galac-alac-alaca.” I could have told him that at the age of five I decided to change my name to “Starbuck”, but that seemed asinine, so I gave him a sincere thank-you and moved on.

When I met Erin Moran—“Joanie” from “Happy Days”—I wondered whether I should ask her about Scott Baio, and see what she thought of his new VH-1 program “Scott Baio is 45 and Single”, but the question struck me as strangely too personal and I didn’t want to insult her, so instead I moved on and got the autograph of Cindy Morgan, who played the love interest in “Caddyshack” and “Tron”, barely getting in a “Thank you very much” before scurrying away quickly.

Elsewhere I met up with Irwin Keyes, who played “Wheezy Joe” in the Coen Brother’s film “Intolerable Cruelty”, and all I could really say was “Hey man, I loved you in ‘Intolerable Cruelty’.” I told myself that I didn’t have the money to spend $20 on each of these people for the sake of my conscience, but the truth is that even if I did have the money I don’t think I would have laid it down. These people were attached to bits of my youth, but they weren’t really my heroes. I approached them because they were familiar, and they were accessible. I almost felt ashamed asking them for their signatures.

Then I walked up to Brande Roderick, the former Playboy Playmate who famously dated “good Mormon boy” and ex-BYU placekicker Owen Pachmann, and got her autograph. I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to ask her if she was still dating good Mormon boys, but when I did, she didn’t get the joke, and now I don’t know whether I can say I was rejected by a Playboy Playmate. I didn’t hang around to ask her, or her two kids that were hanging around with her. It was just too weird.

Later in the day Katie and I went down to the expo floor in search of memento’s, and discovered through trial and error that if a celebrity is a guest of a vendor instead of the conference itself, you have to pay for any autograph at all, which is how I wound up spending $30 to have Darth Vader’s body (David Prowse) sign the cover of my program. When I found out that the signature on my program was not free, I was confronted with a choice: suck it up and move on, or stand around arguing with the guy that played Darth Vader’s body.

I moved on.

After the Prowse experience, Katie and I knew better than to impulsively ask LeVar “Geordi La Forge” Burton for his autograph. Instead Katie asked if we could get a photo with him, to which he replied, “Sure, it’s ten dollars.” This left Katie with a choice of her own: get the photo and cough up ten bucks, or tell Mr. Reading Rainbow that with all due respect, a photo with him wasn’t worth that much to her, and that he didn’t have to take her word for it, cause her brother didn’t think he was worth it, either.

But you know what? Katie and I are good people. Good, guilty people. So I hopped into the picture so we could split the cost, and the two of us helped LeVar pull a little more action out of his day in San Diego.

Ironically, I had to pass up the one autograph on the expo floor that I would have paid for: George “Mr. Sulu” Takei, who I spied earlier in the day as we were wandering the floor. I was recently miffed to find that the Red Iguana had taken down his autographed photo from their “Wall of Fame”, so a shot of my own would have been nice. But his line was too long, and we were pressed for time, so I took a clandestine photo paparazzi-style and cruised for the exit.

However, one of these encounters made the awkwardness of the others worth it. Scanning the list of guest signers, one jumped out above the others: Marc Singer. It was too ironic, too perfect. Only a month ago a group of friends and I had made our way through two “V” mini-series from the early 1980’s, both of which starred Singer as Mike Donovan, token hunk and leader of the human resistance to the alien invaders. Now here was I guy I really wanted to meet.

When Katie and I found his booth, he was just kicked back on his own while a line had formed to meet the “Blade Runner” producers a couple of booths over. With a big grin on my face, I strode over and stuck out my hand. He responded with an equally big grin and a firm handshake. Then I introduced my sister and chatted for a moment before pulling out my program for a complimentary signature.

But as I looked through my program at the free autographs I’d already collected, I realized that Marc Singer was different. Screw it, I thought, I can’t just get a free scribble on some random page from Marc Singer. This guy was the “Beastmaster”, for Pete’s sake.

I picked out the best “V” 8X10 he had, and was more than happy to hand over the $20 for his personalized signature. Well, actually Katie handed over the $20, because I was almost out of cash. Then both of us got photos with him and made small talk about whether there was going to be a new version of the mini-series coming out next year.

Looking back at it now, I wish I had hung around and shot the bull with him for a while longer. He was such a cool guy, I’m sure he wouldn’t have minded. Besides, he seemed to think my sister was cute, so I don’t know why I was so bent on hustling off to have another awkward moment somewhere else.

Coming face-to-face with a celebrity reveals in no uncertain terms that the hero in question is a real human being, for better or worse. This I understood going into the conference. What I didn’t understand was that I would feel a stark conflict of admiration and pity when I’d meet many of them.

Maybe I should have just approached the people I really admired, like Marc Singer. Maybe I should just skip the autograph thing altogether, because meeting someone is more meaningful than getting a signature on some picture. Maybe I should get famous myself and sit on the other side of the table for a while.

If I do, I hope I greet everyone with a smile and a handshake, free of charge.

Next chapter: The Pilgrimage.