Editorials

The Case for Panels

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The Case for Panels

There is no wrong way to con:

Each person who goes to HeroesCon, or one of the myriad other conventions across the country, has his or her own way of experiencing the comic convention.  No two convention experiences are exactly alike.

Some people go primarily to talk with writers and get autographs. Others go to cosplay. I have friends who spend countless hours excavating dollar boxes for that one key issue to complete their run.  Some folks simply people watch. Personally, I love to collect art – either commissions or original art.  I’ve found this to be a fulfilling, albeit expensive, habit.

When I’m not getting my art fix, however, one of my favorite pastimes of HeroesCon is attending some of the many stellar panels that are put on each year.  Unfortunately, over the last few years, I’ve noticed that my passion for panels is not one shared by everyone else.

It seems, indeed, that there are fewer and fewer attendees per panel each year.  I certainly don’t have the data to back this up, and it may be nothing more than confirmation bias on my part, but it appears to me that people aren’t taking advantage of the excellent opportunity to hear, and learn from, some of the great known and unknown talent surrounding the comic industry.  

 

Why I love panels (and think you should, too):

Although I’ve been attending comic conventions like Heroes for nearly a decade, I’ve never gotten over the nerves of speaking with the writers and artists.  I’m awed by my friends who have always been at ease speaking with the legends of the field, but I’m never able to maintain a conversation without feeling like I’m bumbling towards oblivion.  

The Case for Panels

When I’m buying art or getting a commission done (like this Tank Girl by Jason Shawn Alexander), I grow a little more comfortable, but I can never get past (undoubtedly self-induced) gnawing feeling that the artist is just being friendly.  

With a panel, that uncomfortable feeling dissipates.

In the audience, I can fall into the role of observer, watching people who are, ideally, more comfortable taking on the interviewer role as the artists and writers discuss their craft, often around a specific topic.

 

Types of Panels

There are a variety of types of panels to attend, so going to multiple panels in a day doesn’t get stale.  This lends people the opportunity to learn more about a specific genre of comics that they might be passionate about, a particular theme, a historical figure in comics, comic book company, or even a specific comic book.  

Over the years, I’ve learned which artists give a good panel.  In particular, I rarely miss a Chip Zdarsky or Jason Latour driven panel because they are both master oral and written storytellers who can take the truth, some fictional elements, and craft something that is simultaneously entertaining and profound. Both writer and artists also have a tendency to push the boundaries of what is acceptable, but do an amazing job of doing it in a self-aware and respectful way.  In particular, if you get a chance to check out a Southern Bastards panel with Latour and Jason Aaron, go see it.  Both men offer insight not only on the comic itself, but also their love/hate relationship with the South and all it has to offer.

Probably my favorite panel this year was one entitled “Comics Aren’t Real”.  Put on by one of the better moderators that I have seen at a panel, Gregg Schigiel, and starring Ryan Browne, Alan Davis, Ulises Farinas, Megan Levens and Joey Weiser, the panel explored the unreality of comics. I’ve long been passionate about comics as being among the best mediums of art for meta-narrative, and Alan Davis is one of the reasons that I got into comics as a teenager and back into comics as an adult, so this panel is right up my alley.  

When I’ve attended panels in the past involving legendary writers, however, I’ve often been let down as the real version of them failed to live up to my idolized version. Here, that was, fortunately, not the case.  Alan Davis elevated the panel with his careful insight and clever anecdotes about his 40+ years in the comic book field.  Rather than just making it about Davis, however, Schigiel made sure to give each of the other panelists as close to even speaking time as he could without cutting anyone off.  I was particularly impressed with indy writer/artist Farinas, who I believe to be one of the up and coming stars in comics.

Similarly, the Archer television show panel does a phenomenal job of teaching the ins and outs of creating animation, as well as exploring the brilliant mind of show creator Adam Reed through the eyes of the artists who make his vision go from the written word to screen.    

Not all panels, however, are writer and artist driven.  I’ve attended several panels put on by superfans, college professors who teach comics, and people who have written books on the field. This year, as part of the Mega-Panel Series Ben Towle, Jennie Law and Craig Fischer put together a series of panels to celebrate the 100th birthdays of two giants in the field of comics, Will Eisner and Jack Kirby.  Part of the panel was a more traditional artist-run panel which included the Hernadez brothers and Erik Larsen, but a large portion of it was dedicated to insight by comic book scholars who had written heavily about the lives and work of both men.  

 

Call and Response:

The Case for PanelsMost panels end with a question and answer session.  This is a great opportunity for people, like me, who are not always comfortable maintaining a longer conversation with writers/and artists to have time to come up with, and ask, well-thought out questions.  With carefully crafted questions, this can be the best part of the panel. Too often, however, it is awkward and takes away from the overall experience.  

With that in mind, I’d like to offer up some questioning technique etiquette.

  • Write your question down before you raise your hand and practice asking the question out loud in your mind. In addition, keep it short and to the point (no more than 25 words). There is nothing more painful than sitting through a rambling three-minute question only to have someone on the panel have to ask, “can you repeat that?” or “I’m not sure what you are asking.”
  • Limit yourself to one question per panel (unless there are only five people in the audience). You are not moderating the panel.  Other people have questions as well.  In addition, limiting yourself to a single question ensures that you ask something that you are truly passionate about.
  • Similarly, don’t ask follow up questions and don’t get frustrated if the answers that the panelists give aren’t the ones you were looking for.  Allow the panelists the space to answer your question.  You might find that they take it to fascinating and insightful places.
  • Avoid gotcha questions.  Don’t be the guy asking the “On panel 5 of page 6 of issue 12 of ____ comic, ____ character is wearing a purple outfit, but two panels later it looks blue. Did you mean to do that?”  The goal is not to point out the flaws of the writers/artists, nor is it to show the rest of the audience how intelligent you are.
  • Keep things positive.  Avoid questions that put the talent in the awkward position of potentially having to put down someone else in the field or certain publishers, even if they have already done so.  This can quickly sour the panel and these types of questions tend to be infectious.  

 

Final Thoughts:

Panels are the educational parts of conventions. The better they are attended, and the more the audience is interactive, the more pleasurable the experience it is for everyone involved.  If you’ve never attended a panel before, then make it a goal to pick one or two to go to next year. If the first one isn’t the experience you wanted, then feel free to quietly get up and leave and find one more to your liking.  The right panel, however, will grow your love and knowledge of the field.  


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About the author

Stuart Ringwalt

Stuart Ringwalt teaches English/Language Arts at Walter Williams High School in Burlington, NC. In his free time, Stuart likes to read novels and comics, go on walks, play frisbee and video games and watch more television than he cares to admit.

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