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Education Matters: The Comic-Con extravaganza

Marsha Sutton

To say Comic-Con is a spectacle would be a massive understatement.

The Exhibit Hall is sensory overload for adults (I couldn’t begin to imagine how the 3- and 4-year-olds in the crowd — and I do mean crowd — were coping), the lines were enormous, the noise deafening, the parking (even the walking) was insane, the costumes outrageous.

And the fun? Over-the-top to the extreme.

With everything from “Peanuts” and SpongeBob to “The Walking Dead” and “The Vampire Diaries,” fans showed their love en masse.

Adoration for the macabre and grotesque gave me the creeps (although I did rather like the zombie Lyft drivers), but fortunately there was much more than gory horror to excite the senses.

Comic-Con had it all: science fiction, fantasy, adventure, animation, comic books, games (from Pokemon to Warcraft), Steampunk (I learned what that is by making my own gear-themed bracelet), magic (love for all things Harry Potter is alive and well), cosplay, anime, cards, posters, buttons, dolls, T-shirts … the list is endless.

Muppets and “Game of Thrones” might not seem to go together, but somehow it works at Comic-Con, where a delicate fairy princess can stand next to a vengeful vampire for a friendly photo taken by a “Star Wars” stormtrooper.

For the uninitiated, adults dressing up in costumes — and acting the part — can seem a little “out there.” So can listening to a panel of grown-ups talking seriously about Harry Potter and the “Potterverse,” unicorns, wizards, a Severus Snape fan club (really?), and the International Quidditch Association (which has 150 college teams and just concluded its eighth World Cup).

But the weirdness is contagious, and soon you get caught up in the circus-like atmosphere, so eventually seeing men in tights and capes and dozens of curvy women in Wonder Woman outfits becomes sort of ho-hum.

I confess to being new to geekdom: My friends were dumbstruck when I admitted I didn’t know what the Millennium Falcon was in the Starship Smackdown panel.

In my youth I was devoted to Archie Comics and MAD Magazine, and that was pretty much the extent of it. Looney Tunes were the cartoons of the day, and I still remember them fondly.

But my love for “Star Trek,” “Star Wars” (despite not knowing the name of the ship piloted by Han Solo), “Ghostbusters,” “Lord of the Rings,” Harry Potter, “Jurassic Park” and “Twilight” (I even have some trading cards, a gift from a friend and fellow “Twilight” groupie), now qualifies me, I suppose, as at least a baby geek, a title I wear proudly.

In one panel, titled “2015: The Greatest Geek Year Ever?” panelists declared it to be true.

Whether the word “geek” is derogatory or a label to be proud of was debated at a panel titled “The Geek Shall Inherit: A Look at the Evolution of Geek Culture.” But there was little debate.

Eight panelists, including four psychologists, basically skipped right over that question with a “what, are you kidding?” dismissal. Self-proclaimed geeks all, they wore their label as a badge of honor.

How it all began was with comic books, but the seismic shift happened when comics took over the movies, according to one panelist, who proclaimed the original “Batman” movie in 1989, starring Michael Keaton, the start of a revolution in Hollywood, as producers began to jump on the superhero theme.

Others credited the first “Star Wars” movie, in 1977, as the defining moment when “geek” became OK. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs helped improve the image further.

Panelist Jenna Busch, host and founder of the Legion of Leia website, had a different benchmark. “The line for the ladies room at Comic-Con is now a lot longer,” she said, thrilled that there are more “girl geeks” roaming the halls.

The serious side of Comic-Con

Besides the fandom experience, which gets the most publicity, there were dozens of educational opportunities for teachers, librarians, parents, young children, teens and adults interested in the more cerebral aspects of the Comic-Con extravaganza.

Intriguing educational themes included how to use comics and graphic novels to enhance reading and learning, making science exciting and accessible, acceptance of differences, and portrayals of women and minorities in comics, games, television and film.

A wide range of tutorials engaged audiences on techniques in graphics design, animation, 3-D technology, special effects, board game development, universe creation, adventure and horror writing, character development and how to get published.

For a sampler, check out the titles of these panels that focused on learning:

•“Comics Make Kids Smarter: Exploring Data-Driven Success in the Comics Classroom” — Research shows that comics and graphic novels are motivating, support struggling readers, enrich the skills of accomplished readers, and are a highly effective tool for teaching challenging material.

•“Comics in the Classroom: Real-World Ideas for Engaging Students with Comics” —Comics are more than just great entertainment; they’re an incredible tool for learning.

•“Middle Grade Spectacular” — Exploring the world of middle school fiction.

•“What’s Hot in Young Adult Fiction” — Strong protagonists, engrossing romance, humor, action and angst.

•“Comics for Impact: STEM Education”

•“The Nerd in the Classroom: Sci-Fi as an Educational Tool” — Topics include using comics to convey complex information.

•“NASA: Turning Science Fiction into Science Fact” — NASA has been inspired by science fiction and conversely has influenced it.

•“Who’s the Muse? Science or Science Fiction” — How much do science fiction and science influence each other?

•“Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” — A Q&A with the show’s executive producer, Seth MacFarlane, and renowned astrophysicist and host Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

•“Future Toys: How AI, Robotics, Sensors and Mobile Are Changing Play”

•“Let’s Renaissance Again: Adding Science and Math into Art” – Why and how we need to add science and math into learning art.

•“Kids Draw Superheroes” — Guiding kids to create and draw their own superhero.

•“Writing Engaging Nonfiction Comics” — Nonfiction comics are a wide and blossoming field, which can include biographies and history lessons.

•“MARCH with Congressman John Lewis” — The legendary civil rights icon, U.S. congressmember, and author John Lewis shares memories of sit-ins, freedom rides, the march on Washington, Selma, and the vital power of transformative nonviolence in the world today.

Educational panels also focused heavily on diversity, tolerance and changing attitudes about female stereotypes:

•“Comics Are for Everyone: Helping Every Student See Themselves in the Medium” —Minorities, women and the LGBT community have only recently begun to see an increase in representation in mainstream comics.

•“Push Boundaries Forward: Gender, Diversity, and Representation in Comic Books.”

•“Comics and the Real World: Using Graphic Novels as Tools for Tolerance” — How graphic novels can be used to teach and empower students to feel, access and comprehend historical and cultural events, as well as more fully understand diverse figures in history and fiction, and even grasp concepts in science and math.

•“Kids’ Graphic Novel Burgeoning Frontier: Kids with Disabilities” — Graphic novels are beginning to tell stories about kids with disabilities, illness and handicaps.

•“Why Are Diverse Books Banned?” — The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund asks what is it about diversity that seems to encourage censorship.

•“Diversity: We Demand Diverse Books” — Ethnic, religious, gender, racial, physical ability, and sexual diversity are underrepresented in science fiction and fantasy, but times are changing.

•“End Bullying! Responding to Cruelty in Our Culture” — Topics include cyber/geek-bullying, misogyny, racism, LGBT/gender-bullying, equality, and heroism. It’s about overcoming hate and creating a world of inclusivity.

•“Nobody’s Damsel: Writing for Tomorrow’s Women” — A discussion of the complexities of modern female characters in the media.

•“You Do What!?: Women Working in Film Production”

•“Building the Modern (Super)Heroine” — What do creators and fans want out of a powerful female protagonist?

•“Women Who Kick Ass” — A discussion among fierce, fearless actresses who open up about the power and privilege of playing women who redefine the rules and refuse to yield.

The options for those interested in K-12 education issues were overwhelming. These were just a few of the topics for two of the four days of the convention.

Next week, read what Comic-Con experts said about child-geeks, obsession with fantasy, breaking stereotypes, diversity, empowerment for women and minorities, and coping with bullying and sexual harassment.

Marsha Sutton can be reached at suttonmarsha@gmail.com.


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