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Sunday at the Con With Mark

Charles Kochman

Charles Kochman
Photo by Bruce Guthrie

The photo above is from this year's Jack Kirby Tribute Panel at Comic-Con and the guy in it is Charlie Kochman, editorial director at Harry N. Abrams Books. Charlie is my friend and editor — two designations that do not always go together — and he's showing a mock-up of that new book I assembled for his firm, The Art of the Simon and Kirby Studio. As I've said, I'll write more about it when we're closer to its release date.

I always enjoy the Sunday morn Kirby panel at the convention.  This year's featured along with Charlie, Len Wein, Scott Shaw! and a gent named Paul S. Levine, who is the attorney for Lisa Kirby, trustee of the Rosalind Kirby Trust. We sat and talked of Jack for 75 minutes, which is always fun.

Following those 75 minutes, I had to scurry over to Room 6A, which is one of the big ones, to do Cartoon Voices II, and I need to explain something here. As Moderator of many panels, I have many duties. You can kinda figure out what I do in terms of introducing panelists and posing questions to them…but as I tell people who ask, the two toughest parts of my job there are (a) getting the panel to start on time and (b) getting the panel to end on time. The latter is pretty simple: You just watch the clock, know when you're supposed to be outta there and start wrapping things up when you're within about five minutes of that moment.

Starting on time is tougher. Panelists may be late. There may be some set-up that takes time. (At Quick Draw!, we have to place and configure those projectors that put what the artists draw onto the big screens.) And then there's the most likely problem, especially in the big rooms: The panel before may just not care about finishing on time. Or they may think (wrongly) that just because they somehow started ten minutes late that they're entitled to go ten minutes into the next panel's time. I have occasionally had to get nasty about this…which is rare for me. I almost never get nasty about anything but I do it for having my panels start more or less on time. One year, I had to threaten to cancel Quick Draw! and blame them to get the preceding panel to vacate the stage.

So as I entered 6A, someone on the con staff says to me, "They're going to go over," referring the the preceding panel which was still going on. I didn't know what the panel was but I said, "No, they aren't." I didn't care what it was or why but I was steeling myself to get nasty and to demand they finish on time. And then I saw what the panel was…

It was Cookie Monster.

On the stage were three Muppeteers from Sesame Street — Eric Jacobson, who was operating Grover; Joey Mazzarino who does Murray Monster and David Rudman, the current operator of Cookie Monster. The moderator was Chris Hardwick, who hosts the @midnight show on Comedy Central — all folks I think are terrific. I met Eric on the set of a Muppets taping back in 2008 and told him how good I thought he was. I wrote about that here.

Well, I don't know about you but I don't have the heart to throw Cookie Monster off a stage, especially a stage on which he and Grover are entertaining a roomful of very young children and their parents. I'd throw DC Comics or Marvel or Lucasfilm or even one of my own employers off…but not Cookie Monster. I decided that just this once, maybe my panel didn't have to start on time.

They had a couple of kids waiting at the audience microphone to ask questions and I figured to let them finish. Before they could, a lady who worked for the con in that room, ran up and began doing her job. Perhaps because she knew how militant I was about panels finishing on time, she grabbed the mike and told them there wasn't time for the people who'd been waiting in line, probably for quite some time, to ask their questions. The audience groaned and booed…and I yelled out that they could go over.

Chris Hardwick announced from the stage that the next panel had generously agreed to allow them to finish and there was a big cheer. And then Chris did something wise and classy. In a non-condescending way, he reminded the kids present that the lady they'd booed didn't deserve that; that she was just doing her job and enforcing the rules. I thought that was very smart of him, turning the moment into a teachable one, perhaps helping the children present learn something about following the rules and about cooperation. Anyway, it just felt nice to me.

The last questions were answered. The last one was a young man who wanted to know when there'd be a transgender Muppet — which is what I always thought Ms. Piggy was — and then it was over. I wish I'd seen all of that panel because what I did see was wonderful.

In the curtained-off backstage area, someone from Sesame Street thanked me and I introduced myself to David Rudman. I really think he and Eric are amazing. It's tough enough to just do an impression of someone as gifted as Frank Oz — to sound enough like him that it won't jar when they intersperse newly-recorded segments with his old ones, as they do on Sesame Street. Just the match is impressive. But then the new guy has to also give a performance in someone else's skin, being funny and (in this case) ad-libbing in character without losing that match. That is very difficult and Messrs. Rudman and Jacobson are amazing at it.

As I was speaking to David, a photographer started snapping photos of us. Instinctively, I guess, he brought up the Cookie Monster puppet to get into the shot and Eric came over and added Grover to the mix. Here's the photo of me, two of my favorite characters and two superb puppet performers. I was a lot happier about this than I appear to be in this picture. (Like I told you earlier, I was exhausted for the entire convention.)

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Photo by Bruce Guthrie

Within moments, they were gone and I had to set up for Cartoon Voices II. I host two Cartoon Voices panels at each Comic-Con and I've been doing this long enough to lose count. The following statement is selfless because I am not the reason but they have all been good and some have been outstanding. This one, I think, was the best. The panelists were Gregg Berger, Vanessa Marshall, Fred Tatasciore, Debra Wilson, Robin Atkin Downes and the surprise addition, late in the proceedings, of Bill Farmer. And by that, I mean it was not just a surprise to the audience that I brought up the voice of Goofy. It was a surprise to Bill, too. I saw him seated in the front row and decided our reading of the story of "Snow White" could use an extra performer.

For the last umpteen Cartoon Voice panels, including the one the day before, I have the panelists read (and enhance with their performances) this lame script of "Snow White" I found. I announced at the outset of Sunday's reading that this would be the last-ever time I'd use that script and as it turned out, I'm not sure I can use it again. When you see the video, you'll know why. Everyone on the panel was brilliant but I'm sure the others won't mind if I single out a stellar performance by Debra Wilson in the title role.

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That's Gregg Berger and the two ladies next to him are Vanessa Marshall (top) and Debra Wilson (below). I'm in the back, Bill Farmer's in the front and then we have Robin Atkin Downes and Fred Tatasciore. Yet another photo by Bruce Guthrie.

Debra drove down to the con that day on her motorcycle and hit some freakish California weather, en route. After three thunderstorms, she was drenched to the skin but like a good trouper, she still took the stage, wet and shivering. Other panelists and several audience members donated articles of clothing and she pressed on, delivering a stunning and hilarious display of talent. The other folks had been on my panels before so we knew how good they were. Debra, on her first panel, was a delightful discovery.

There are some partial videos of the panel on YouTube. They were shot with handheld Smartphones and have weak audio and I suggest you not watch them as they don't do the panel justice. I know of a good one that's coming and I'll embed it when it's there. Trust me on this.

And I have to go get some stuff done so I'll tell you more about Sunday in the next posting.