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Anything-goes Comikaze expo has its serious side

Stormtroopers, the Joker, Gandalf the Grey, Data from “Star Trek” — no, this wasn’t West Hollywood on the night of Oct. 31, although it looked pretty similar. It was “Stan Lee’s Comikaze” — a sort of Comic-Con for Los Angeles, which recently held its fifth annual expo from Oct. 30 to Nov. 1 at the Los Angeles Convention Center, virtually assuring its attendees an early start and a late finish to Halloween.

Devotees — children and up — of comic books, sci-fi, fantasy, horror, video games and various corners of the pop culture world descended upon downtown Los Angeles dressed in cosplay that ranged from the hilarious to the revealing to the scary and downright bizarre.

There was even a weapons-check booth, and it wasn’t a joke. Attendees had to follow a strict “costume weapons policy,” which prohibited, for example, swords that could be removed from their sheaths. One official sign humorously informed parents that lost children would “be taken to the show office, and given to the goblin king.”

It also was, well, just a little bit Jewish — above and beyond the fact that Lee, the world’s most famous comic producer, is a Jew. In Sunday’s panels covering diversity in comics and entertainment, and also the religious bases behind some well-known heroes and villains, Jews, Christians, Muslims and atheists in the industry included Phil LaMarr (“Pulp Fiction,”  “Futurama”), Aly Mawji (“Silicon Valley”), David Sacks (“The Simpsons,” “Third Rock From the Sun”), Jeffrey Alan Schechter (ABC Family’s “Stitchers”) and moderator Jordan Gorfinkel, a Jewish comic book artist and cartoonist who managed the Batman franchise for DC Comics for nearly a decade.

During a panel titled “Heroes, Villains & Faith,” Gorfinkel kicked off the discussion by relating an experience where he was concerned that the dietary choices of one of his superheroes would make the character less relatable for
some readers.

“The idea behind these superheroes is that we want the maximum number of people to be able to relate to them,” Gorfinkel said, describing a situation in which a draft scene had Nightwing, from the Batman series, in a cave with Batman eating a pepperoni pizza. “I’d rather make it a vegetarian pizza, so that way, if somebody’s halal or kosher or vegetarian, they won’t feel like, ‘Oh, well, he eats salami on pizza. I can’t relate to that character anymore.’ ”

He added that agnosticism “seems to be the better approach” in order not to alienate any readers.

Mawji, who’s an Indian Muslim, when asked how he feels about being cast as a Muslim terrorist for any shows or films, said he feels “a lot of responsibility representing minorities in general on screen,” and that if he does agree to such a role — which he suggested would be a tough sell — he would need to try to “humanize” the character so that he’s not just a “cardboard cutout.”

He said he would have to weigh the impact that playing the role would have on him and his religious community against the benefit that the money would have for him and his family. 

“[A] million dollars is a lot of money but I don’t know if I could live with myself,” Mawji said. “Everybody has a price, and I’m no different, because we all have needs, and we all need to provide.”

In the previous panel, “Comics and Diversity,” the main issue, as Gorfinkel said, was whether the industry should pursue diverse casts and characters as an end, “because it reflects the real world more, because it’s what the audience demands on the business side,” or if the attitude should be a “post-racial” one that focuses solely on merit, even if “the most talented person that comes into the audition room happens to be white for 15 years in a row,” referring to a comment by Asian comic artist Joyce Chin, who said a well-known local comedy troupe hasn’t had one minority comic in its main company in 15 years.

“I know plenty of intentionally funny Asians,” Chin said. “There are lots of unintentionally funny Asians.”

“Do you feel, then, that there should be an enforced racial diversity?” Gorfinkel asked.

“Oh no, I don’t think it’s that,” Chin said. “I think they need to switch who’s doing the hiring or who’s doing the casting.”

LaMarr, an original cast member of “Mad TV” and the voice of Hermes Conrad on “Futurama,” said people could “eliminate the dynamic of racial issues” by not “identifying it as such an issue.” 

“It doesn’t have to be one,” LaMarr said.

Abdul H. Rashid, a graphic illustrator and Muslim who is Black, agreed that “it’s about the merit of the person, not the color of the skin,” then stopped himself and added as a joke, “I sound like a cliché after-school special.”

At Politicon, diversity and polarity make for entertaining (and loud) political fare

Partisan, political theater was on full display mid-afternoon on Oct. 10 at the Los Angeles Convention Center, as two of the panels at the inaugural Politicon conference overlapped.

In “Independence Hall,” a panel included Democratic strategists David Axelrod, James Carville and former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, while next door in “Freedom Hall,” right-wing firebrand Ann Coulter debated Cenk Uyger, a left-wing activist and commentator.

Some of the louder Democrats in the crowd chortled as Gingrich talked economics, and whooped when Axelrod defended President Obama’s economic record. Meanwhile it seemed Uyger and the standing-room only crowd next door couldn’t quite tell whether Coulter was serious when she said it would have been better had the United States dropped a nuclear weapon on Iraq instead of toppling Saddam Hussein and then withdrawing.

“ISIS, when they put somebody in a cage and burned him alive, we thought they were the worst monsters on earth. You say you’d like to do that on a grand scale, because that’s what a nuclear weapon does,” Uyger said to Coulter, to large applause. 

“In response to 9/11, yes,” Colter responded, “we should not have sent ground troops. We should have dropped…in retrospect, now that we know we’re in a country that can elect Barack Obama, instead of bothering to create a democracy in Iraq, which we did, and which was working beautifully,” she said, to boos. “Are we getting back to immigration, the topic of my book, and technically the topic of this panel?”

The two-day conference, which ran Oct. 9-10, attracted about 9,000 attendees, according to event organizers, and brought together some of the nation’s most recognizable figures in politics, media and entertainment, including “The Daily Show” host, Trevor Noah, who performed a stand-up routine followed up by a conversation with Carville, the political commentator who helped Bill Clinton win the presidency, as well as Paul Begala, former Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), John Avlon, editor in chief of the Daily Beast, with Edward Snowden, who became famous for leaking classified information from the NSA, appearing via live video from Russia.

Modeled after the wildly popular Comic-Con, Politicon’s first run was a sort of cholent for the political mind. There was the good – former Obama speechwriter, Jon Favreau, and Jay Leno-monologue writer and Democratic political consultant, Jon Macks on speechwriting; conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, broadcasting his show live and interviewing, via telephone, Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina. There was the bad – a woman who screamed out “bulls**t!” to one of Gingrich’s points and then bragged about it after the panel. And there was the weird – ranging from the “Beats, Rhymes and Justice” slam poetry session to the cleverly and thematically cosplay-dressed attendees who got in for free.

In “Democracy Village,” the physical proximity of booths from different organizations, despite their stark ideological contrasts, created a bit of a compromising, kumbaya feel. Local conservative radio station KRLA, for example, bumped shoulders with the LGBT Republican Log Cabin Republicans, while just a few feet away were a Teamsters Local Union booth, and one for the Los Angeles County Young Democrats.

“This is really the intersection of politics and entertainment,” said Macks, who, in addition to his comedy writing, has also done debate preparation sessions with Obama, Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, John Kerry, and has done speechwriting for Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and others. “When politics is entertainment, when 24 million people are watching Donald Trump debate, this is a chance for everyone from your political junkies to political nerds to your issue-oriented people to everyday citizens who are just interested in finding out and having some fun.”

Did Politicon, with its variety and diversity, change minds or create some ground for compromise? Probably not, but that wasn’t really its purpose. Like any convention – whether for comic books, fashion, politics or entertainment – many, maybe even most of the attendees, were those already passionate about, and probably set in, their political and ideological beliefs. But with commentators on opposite sides of the spectrum sharing a stage, and with activists from the left and the right schmoozing and working only a few feet apart, Politicon did deliver on its slogan, “Entertain Democracy.”

Harry Shearer returning to ‘The Simpsons’

Here's some good news in advance of The Simpsons' panel at Comic-Con.

Harry Shearer has signed a new deal to return to the Fox animated comedy, the network announced Tuesday. With the deal, all six principal voice actors are confirmed to return for the historic 27th and 28th seasons.

Read more at The Hollywood Reporter.