We arrived at the Prairieland Park convention centre just a little while after the doors of SaskExpo were open to the public. The media table was easy to find, and after a quick sign-in we had our passes and were on our way to the show floor. It was barely 11:00 a.m. and already the convention centre was packed with cosplayers and convention goers.
At first it was difficult finding our way to the panels we wanted to attended because although there were only two rooms assigned to panels, neither of them were marked or had any identifying signage. That was frustrating at first, but we quickly got used to it. Being a huge fan of Rat Queens, the ongoing fantasy series for Image Comics, our first stop was a panel with what was supposed to be writer Kurtis Wiebe and artist Roc Upchurch. Unfortunately, as we learned when we arrived, Roc Upchurch was unable to attend the convention due to passport issues, but thankfully Wiebe, who is originally from Saskatoon, was more than able to handle the session by himself (with the help of a con-appointed moderator, whose name I can't remember and didn't write down).
Wiebe's panel was full of the sarcastic, irreverent humor that Rat Queens is known for. After having him roll a D20, the panel mod had Wiebe do some quick word association. Here is how that went:
Mod: Gary Gygax
Mod: H.P. Lovecraft
KW: Haven't used 'em yet in Rat Queens
KW: Everyone should try them once
Mod: The store bought grocery kind?
KW: The kind you trip out and hallucinate on.
Mod: Peter Panzerfaust
KW: Ending soon
And so it went. Wiebe talked at length about his writing process (“a whole lot of procrastination”), the inspiration for his characters, how he got into comics, and his generally indifferent attitude towards Marvel/DC. He also talked about the influence of his wife on Rat Queens, how she swears like a sailor, and it generally seems like the Kurtis Wiebe who wrote the depressing Green Wake is doing pretty well. I asked him about the future of the Peter Panzerfaust TV series (which the BBC optioned last year), and he basically told me that he didn't have a lot of involvement, and the producers don't really seem to “get it.” Lady Gaga was mentioned as a possibility for the theme song, so don't get your hopes up there, Panzer-fans.
Our next stop was the panel of my dreams, or nightmares, with Freddy Krueger himself, Robert Englund. Moderated by Phil LaMarr, Robert Englund delivered what I can only describe as a masterful performance in showmanship and crowd control to a packed audience of curious onlookers and hardcore Nightmare on Elm Street Fans, dozens of which were dressed up as Freddy (keep in mind that this is Saskatoon, so a dozen is actually a lot). LaMarr vetted questions from the crowd before Englund showed up, so there was barely a wasted moment throughout the whole session.
Englund was on fire. Full of enthusiasm and clearly excited to be in Saskatoon, he answered many questions about his life and career. He talked at length about the unrealized Freddy Vs. Jason Vs. Ash project, about being roomates with Mark Hamill (he claims to have auditioned for both Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, before telling his roommate Mark that he should go audition for the part of Luke), and he was effusive in his praise of the films and TV shows he's been enjoying lately. Guardians of the Galaxy and Penny Dreadful (Eva Green's performance in particular) seemed to be what he's enjoying the most lately, although he also mentioned the French vampire film The Afflicted as something that horror fans should eat up right away.
The personal anecdotes came one after another and they were always entertaining. While Freddy seems these days like a long lost icon of the heydey of 80s and 90s horror, it's easy to see why Robert Englund became such an icon. His personality itself seems to embody the intimidating persona and wisecracking humor that are associated with the Freddy character. When asked what it's like being a person who audiences both fear and idolize, he was both funny and honest. “Well, I get a lot of free drinks. For real though, it opened the door for me to work abroad. I'm chasing a girl who looks like Penelope Cruz around in a Spanish castle. I could be chasing Linsday Lohan around in Santa Cruz. So life is pretty good.” Seeing Robert Englund was easily the highlight of the conference, and of my year so far.
We had some time to kill before the next session we wanted to attend, so we went off in search of lunch. Unfortunately, food options at SaskExpo were extremely limited and way too expensive, so we briefly left the convention centre in search of food. We came back with Subway. Call it a draw. After lunch we decided to explore the rest of the convention, as we'd basically spent the whole morning and early afternoon in panel sessions. The convention itself was split up into 3 major sections, one main hall near the entrance that included Artist's Alley, a hall to the left where fans could get autographs and photo ops, and also lead to the panel session rooms, and a hall to the right that contained all the merchandise vendors and trade show booths. After spending some time in Artist's Alley and checking out some local independent artists, we went to the vendor showfloor to check out the merch. While there was more merchandise there than any convention I'd been to previously, I can't say there was anything that really interested me. None of the toys were convention exclusive, and most seemed to marked up well beyond what you'd pay at your LCS. There were however several craft vendors selling homemade geek apparel, costume accessories, handbags, swords, armor, and the like, that I did appreciate, and my wife enjoyed even more. She had a very difficult time deciding what to buy, and thankfully, most of the DIY merchandise vendors weren't as overpriced as the people selling stuff you can get out of a Diamond catalog.
After milling about the convention center for a while, we went on to see our next panel: Lance Henriksen. I am a huge Henriksen fan, and I was looking forward to seeing him even more than Robert Englund, which is why it was a bit of letdown when his panel wasn't really that good. Henriksen showed up about 15-20 minutes late for the panel, and before he even began mentioned that he was suffering from jetlag due to his flight. The panel was less than half full, and Henriksen seemed kind of annoyed by LaMarr's moderation of the panel. He kept giving LaMarr this look like, “Hey man, I can handle this myself,” which was sort of disappointing as LaMarr seemed just as starstruck by Lance's presence as I was.
Once he got going, Henriksen talked about his career and how it got started, about his illiteracy (apparently he couldn't read until age 30), his Terminator audition story, and when asked, he discussed at length the process of becoming Frank Black of TV's Millenium. This was kind of funny too, as while he clearly thought a lot about the character, it's clear that he had issues with the script and especially the dialogue. “You wouldn't believe some of the shit they had me saying.” That sort of thing. I asked him a question about what he did to prepare for the role of Jesse Custer in Near Dark, my favorite role of his, and he talked a bit about his take on what he thinks being a vampire on the road would be like. Scott Snyder would have loved that part of the panel. Eventually someone asked him a question about Pirahna II: The Spawning and he broke down laughing before he could answer. Unfortunately, no one asked him about The Visitor. There was an awkward moment when he started talking back and forth with Phil LaMarr in a Jamaican accent, seemingly not knowing that LaMarr played Hermes Conrad in Futurama. With very little to say before the end, Henriksen just sort of ended the session 15 minutes before it was supposed to end. While it was amazing getting to see the man in person, I'll admit I was a little letdown by his general lack of giving a shit. At that point, our feet were tired and we decided to call it a day and head back to the hotel.
I'm going to perfectly honest here, we slept in on Sunday and missed most of what the morning had to offer. That was sort of okay though, because the only panel I really wanted to see was the session featuring Tyler Mane, the actor who played Sabretooth in the first two X-Men films and Michael Myers in Rob Zombie's Halloween films. A missed opportunity, but there you go. We might have had more reason to wake up earlier, but unfortunately comedian Dino Stamatopolous (aka “Starburns” from TV's Community) had to cancel at the last minute, and I just wasn't that into a panel on “Steampunk/Parasol Dueling” or “Convention Safe Weapon Smithing.” I'm also not a Trekkie, so the panel with Nana Visitor (of Star Trek Voyager) wasn't for me either. In fact, most of Sunday was spent out on the convention floor, checking out the merchandise, admiring the costumes, and talking to people at Artist's Alley (including Elaine M. Will, a local artist who's been doing some great work recently. My wife recommends her graphic novel, Look Straight Ahead). We did pop into a few other panels, but until later in the day there wasn't anything really worth mentioning. John Barrowman of Torchwood fame also had a packed panel, but neither of us are Whovians so that panel held little interest.
Finally, after a few hours of hanging around the convention and shopping for merch, we attended the last panel of the convention, with none other than Phil LaMarr himself. Now, I've been a fan since Mad TV began and for as long as Futurama has been going on, but I had no idea just extensive LaMarr's voice work has been, and he consistently managed to surprise me with what he's been involved with. For example, I had no idea that he was the voice of the character Vulgrim in THQ's post-apocalyptic fantasy RPG, Darksiders, which was one of my favorite games of the last generation. He was also the voice of Samurai Jack, another cartoon I loved back in my college days but had no idea he was a part of. LaMarr's panel was easily the highlight of Sunday, but it was also a contender with Englund's for Best of the Show.
Although he's got an IMDB profile that can go toe to toe with anyone's, LaMarr has this everyman charm and generally seems thrilled to meet the fans and entertain people with his incredible range of impressions and character voices. In addition to doing Hermes' voice from Futurama, he also did impressions of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mako's introduction to Conan the Barbarian, Mr. T, Chris Rock, Vamp (from the Metal Gear Solid series), John Stewart (the Green Lantern one, not the Daily Show one), Danny Glover, and more. He fielded his own questions from the audience, and never missed an opportunity to give the fans what they wanted. One poignant moment came when a fan asked about how he became involved with Static Shock, and he talked candidly about his frustration and anger about how it was cancelled in spite of its fantastic ratings, all because the WB didn't believe a cartoon starring a black teenager could sell toys. LaMarr also talked at length about the creation of one of his most beloved characters from Mad TV, the UPS Guy, and basically did a whole stand up bit for the audience involving the character. LaMarr embodied a perfect mix of a fan's enthusiasm and an entertainer's performance. He was a real joy to watch onstage, and a great way to end our convention experience. My wife and I left the convention, determined to return next year in the hopes that we'll get to relive this awesome experience again.
This minion declares SaskExpo to be a huge success!