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There and Back: A Student’s Tale

Stephanie DePrez | Thursday, August 26, 2010

Walking around San Diego during the last weekend of July, I was greeted by lamp posts bearing the banner of a character from the movie “Tron: Legacy,” which will come out later this year. Underneath the omnipresent ads are the words, “Celebrating Pop Culture and the Arts.”

This is Comic-Con? I thought the San Diego Comic Convention was a gathering of 40-year-old-men in sweaty Star Wars t-shirts, trading Spiderman comics and Lord of the Rings movie trivia. Instead, it’s more than a mile of the most cutting-edge new products in movies, television, video games and comics (I actually bought some!).

In-between unending rows of venders peddling everything from anime hats to artist-interpretation Tolkien jewelry were booths devoted to cult internet web-series like “The Guild” and network promotion sites for the likes of Square Enix Games, WB and Fox. Posters from horror films and viral fan videos I’ve never heard of ran alongside lines of giddy fans, male and female, aged 10 to 80, clutching comics or cameras, waiting eagerly to see the writer/artist/actor who they will tell you changed their life (and who you most likely won’t recognize).

The only way to survive is to keep moving through the mosh of people, each experiencing their own nirvana, and to make sure not to stop too long to take a picture of that fabulous Wonder Woman/Iron Man/Slave Leia costume walking by. And is that Joss Whedon?

Be still my beating heart.

This is the man who got me here. Sort of.

I have been a fan of Joss Whedon shows (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Firefly,” “Dollhouse”) since fellow Notre Dame student and Scene writer Ellie Hall showed me them freshmen year. Our nights spent diving into these cult TV shows eventually led to us both majoring in Film, Television and Theater (FTT) at Notre Dame. We ultimately wrote two grant proposals, asking this fine university for the funds to study Whedon as a writer, director, and fan influencer.

Thus we found ourselves at Comic-Con, video camera in hand and thesis questions at the ready, willing to talk to anyone and everyone who claims to be a member of the BuffyVerse. Which was quite easy, seeing as we were at the Mecca of superfans, surrounded by people who spend a year meticulously sewing the most authentic replication of Malcolm Reynold’s (“Firefly”) iconic brown coat possible. After all, “Firefly” fans do lovingly call themselves Browncoats.

Our journey began at 3 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, getting up in order to get in line for Hall H, the 6,500 person seating hall that quickly became a parade of top Hollywood A-listers.

In order to secure our seats for the Joss Whedon/J.J. Abrams (the producer behind the new “Star Trek” movie and “Lost”) panel, we were forced to sit through a long slog of people like Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, Angelina Jolie, Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren, Jeff Bridges, Olivia Wilde and Aaron Eckhart.

After popping my eyeballs back into my head, Whedon finally took the stage to crack wise about Buffy, 3D and his undying love of the new movie “Star Trek” (which made Mr. Abrams blush very red indeed). But this wasn’t just play – no, no – for it was all captured on my camera, to be edited and transcribed for a university-funded documentary and thesis.

Tuesday began in the line for Ballroom 20, capacity 1,200, in order to see the “Joss Whedon Experience” panel (because apparently we’re not the only ones who love this guy). After sitting through a panel on “Stargate: Universe” (of which I had previously known nothing) we followed the ghost of an opportunity onto the exhibition floor that turned out to be a dead end. Frustrated but determined, we explored our options, for we simply could not miss the panel on the man whose works we’re here to study, and decided to plead our case at the Dark Horse Comics booth, the comic book company that produces the tie-in comic books for all things Whedon.

After asking around, we were handed off to a senior editor. A firm case was made for our work, for the credit we were to receive and for the academic impact we hoped to make with our respective projects. See, this is the kicker. Because we were in San Diego as students, and not just fans, doors opened to us that we would have never imagined. VIP passes in hand, we skipped up to the entry doors to make our way in.

But who should we pass? The man himself, Whedon, about to go backstage. I frantically joined the mass of cameras surrounding him, getting over my raging inner fan in order to keep the camera steady and take in the action of Whedon signing an autograph for a fan in a wheelchair. In fact, over the weekend, we spent so much time tailing Whedon that his regular entourage became accustomed to us and stopped trying to wedge my camera out.

As fate would have it, we sat behind Whedon’s go-to costume designer, who agreed to do an interview. After that, we hooked up with the Browncoat booth, and interviewed many of the biggest movers and shakers in the Can’t Stop the Serenity charity movement (grown out of the “Firefly” cinematic continuation from 2005, “Serenity”). Soon word got out about our quest for knowledge, and we even had the producer and the star of an upcoming fan film for charity offer to be interviewed.

This was all in between our scheduled interviews with mainstay Whedon show writers like Steven DeKnight and Jane Espenson, who now develop and write for shows such as “Spartacus: Blood and Sand” and “Battlestar Galactica.” Had we not been at Comic-Con, our pleas for contact would probably have gone unanswered, but since we were able to catch them during their moments of down-time, we were able to gain a massive array of authoritative information from people whose careers began on Whedon shows.

But what about the final contact, the Holy Grail of interviews our fangirlsquee had been waiting for all week? It was not to be, but not without an exhaust of every avenue possible.

The golden moment came when Whedon was leaving his “Dollhouse” comic book signing. I had stood their filming intermittently the whole time, so he assumed I wasn’t going to attack. When he walked by, I held out our contact card, hoping he would grab it as he passed. He not only took it, but he stood there, looking at me expectantly. “Five minutes – for our thesis – we’re doing it on you – if you have any sort of time – I know you’re busy –”

 “Well, I actually have to run to an Avengers thing right now, but if I have time I’ll let you know.”

Alas, “time” he did not have. But that “Avengers thing” turned out to be the Hall H extravaganza that introduced the whole cast of the upcoming film Whedon is currently penning and will direct, complete with appearances by Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson and Mark Ruffalo. I suppose I’ll forgive him.

After four days of double-take worthy costumes, endless lines, brief encounters with destiny and enough swag to merit another checked bag, we headed to the airport, beaming with success. Armed with the badge of academia, we whittled our way into the upper echelon of Browncoat company. We talked our way into a closed panel. We connected with a couple of today’s most successful television writers. And eventually, we made contact with the subject of our study.

The moral of the story? Pursue your passion. If you want to study it, there is a way. If you love it enough, you will run into people who want to help. Ask your professors, your dean, and the endless array of funding opportunities on this campus. When you get somewhere, don’t be shy. Impress people with how confident Notre Dame students are. Surprise them with your knowledge and quest for answers. Who knows? You might just end up at Comic-Con.

Contact Stephanie Deprez at sdeprez@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.