Comic-Con Heroes: The Writer

Among the 12 profiles that are the core of my book Comic-Con Heroes: The Fans Who Make the Greatest Show on Earth, the one that follows offers the most interesting content for science fiction fans. The convention isn’t just about superheroes. Sci-fi is part of the core culture dating back to the very start during the 1970s, and it’s even stronger in the 2010s. Because what was niche more than 40 years ago is mainstream, and more, today.

This profile also introduces some valuable historical insight—if 10 years can be considered old, and measured by Internet time it most certainly is. Fans’response to a new sci-fi television show, and their torrenting it, kicked the pebbles eventually unleashing an avalanche of legitimately-available streamed TV programming. So-called video pirates of 2005 are indirectly responsible for there being Hulu, Netflix streaming, and Google’s purchase of newbie service YouTube. 

So, please, pay rapt attention, and if you missed them please also look back on the other profiles presented so far in this series: The Dark Knight, The Fighter, The Collectors, The Academic, and The Nerd Culturist. New segments publish every Saturday. On July 8, 2015, after my current commitment with Amazon KDP Select ends, I will release the book into the public domain.

With that introduction, let’s meet The Writer.

While waiting in line for a panel about writing for Hollywood, I meet Sean Bell. He’s not a cosplayer or otherwise costumed. He’s clean-cut with effervescent smile that evokes calm, confidence, and clarity. He is articulate, and his neat business-casual attire communicates as effectively. If not for the yellow-and-black Batman-symbol tie, he could be attending a convention for start-up entrepreneurs.

“I am dean of a massage-therapy college”, Bell reveals. “I am a massage therapist myself—I’ve been doing it for about three years now”. He was born in Jamaica, but raised in Florida, from where he traveled to attend the Con; his second year.

Bell’s girlfriend, a seven-year attendee, drew him to the convention. “She’s been doing it forever. She wanted to make me a part of it, so she brought me to Comic-Con—and it’s just phenomenal. It’s a lot energy, there’s a lot interesting. But personally, I get a lot out of it from all the creative people who are doing actually what I want to be doing when I’m all big and grown up. They’re here and willing to give their time and their advice, just to people who want to listen”.

To prove the point, Bell pulls out a book from his bag. On his walk to wait for the panel we attend, he saw author Tom King selling his first novel. The two men talked, and King offered advice, gave Bell a business card, and encouraged further contact. I laugh, because my prior panel was a how-to-write-a-superhero-novel workshop—with King.

These continuing coincidences with interviewees are eerie. What’s going on here?

King’s first novel, A Once Crowded Sky, illustrated by Tom Fowler, published the previous week. King, a former CIA counter-terrorism officer, spent a year writing the story about superheroes stripped of their powers—playing new roles. He told panel participants that “being a writer is not a magical experience…it’s no different than being a plumber”. He encouraged everyone to find time to write everyday, which for him typically is Midnight to 3 in the morning. Writing 500 words a day, a novel can be completed in as little as six months.

King inspires Bell, who wants to be a professional writer, and that would be “anything and everything—comics, TV shows. I’m big into the genre—give me my sci-fi, give me my action, give me my dragons…that’s what I’m into”.

I try to get clarity on his ambitions and ask what three TV shows he likes. Bell rephrases the question in his answer. “Three TV shows I cannot live without: One would have been ‘Battlestar Galactica’; ‘Burn Notice’ for its dialogue; and any and all of the Star Treks”.

In 2003, the Syfy Channel (then Sci-Fi) remade cheesy 1970s schlock space drama “Battlestar Galactica” into a tale of annihilation and conflict appropriate for the post-9/11 generation; first as a mini-series, then weekly drama. Many of the broader themes resonate with the United States’ “War on Terror”. Production values and storytelling give BSG an epic, cinematic feel. But at the close of the first season, Syfy bucked Hollywood attitudes about copyrights and piracy by taking a risk on fans.

Sky1, in the United Kingdom, co-produced “Battlestar Galactica” with Syfy and aired the series first (October 2004). Americans waited nearly three more months. Anticipation led to online piracy, as BSG appeared on BitTorrent within hours of the first UK broadcast.

“While you might assume the Sci-Fi Channel saw a significant drop-off in viewership as a result of this piracy, it appears to have had the reverse effect: the series is so good that the few tens of thousands of people who watched downloaded versions told their friends to tune in on January 14th, and see for themselves”, Mark Pesce writes for MindJack in May 2005.

“From its premiere, ‘Battlestar Galactica’ has been the most popular program ever to air on the Sci-Fi Channel, and its audiences have only grown throughout the first series”, he explains. “Piracy made it possible for ‘word-of-mouth’ to spread about ‘Battlestar Galactica’”.

NBC Universal and Syfy responded by streaming select “Battlestar Galactica” episodes, starting summer 2005. The approach broke with assumptions that free, online viewing would reduce legitimate TV broadcasts’ popularity and disrupt supporting advertising revenues. I watched the Season 1 finale from Syfy’s website in July of that year, which by itself was remarkable. Legally-distributed, commercially-produced video was tough to find online in early 2005. There was no YouTube, Hulu, iTunes TV shows, or HBO Go. Television networks streamed no programs. Coincidentally, YouTube beta debuted the same month the MindJack story published and opened to the public in November 2005. Apple started selling a handful of TV shows via iTunes a month earlier.

Google acquired YouTube in October 2006, iTunes offered more than 500 movies (in addition to TV shows) by April 2007, and Hulu opened for business in March 2008, after five months of limited-access testing. In 2013, streaming of TV programs is ubiquitous, and Americans can purchase or rent movies from online stores and watch them within minutes. Many movie and television studios actively engage fans across social networks, whether during broadcasts or content that is later streamed. The notable, first point of TV show streaming fan engagement began with “Battlestar Galactica” eight years earlier.

Coincidentally, or not, about the time Hollywood stepped up content streaming and using the Internet to engage fans, Comic-Con’s popularity ignited like a California wildfire. Increased Studio participation cannot be ignored as a spark. Fans flocked to the convention to see their favorite stars and get sneak peeks of upcoming TV shows and movies.

Among the attendee interviews, Bell is among the ardent fans but with a twist. He doesn’t want to just revel in the characters, he wants to create them. That harkens back to his quest to be a writer and his sense of storytelling.

I ask why “Battlestar Galactica” is a favorite program. “If BSG had been set in Afghanistan or Iraq, the same exact plot, same exact anything, it would have won so many awards it would have buried the show. The fact the BSG took place in space and the bad guys were robot people, gave it…things you would not be able to do with a domestic, real-time show, but at the same time actually turned off some people as to the quality of the show they were engaged in”.

Defining: “Just the way they present the characters, an ensemble cast that makes you care about every single person. You could have a ‘Star Trek’ where I care about the main people, but BSG had such a well-developed cast of main characters, you cared about everybody—even a minor character two seasons later, and you’re like ‘Oh my God, I’m going back and watch what this person was doing when they were in the background of the show’”.

Bell looks askance and decides to add a fourth TV show to his list. “‘Babylon 5’, for the same reasons as BSG”. Both choices reveal what aspect of storytelling matters most to him: Character development.

I ask which “Star Trek” series is his favorite. He divides them by broader themes:

  • The Original Series: “Your space adventure, with [Captain] Kirk kissing girls in body paint”.
  • The Next Generation: “It was philosophical, your politics, your sit down, and discussion…it was definitely more cerebral”.
  • Deep Space Nine: “That was your religious [Trek]. That became a huge element of the show”.
  • Voyager: “Your soap opera. You have a confined crew in space, and their interpersonal relationships is what you watch the show for”.
  • Enterprise: “Went back to the old-school ‘Here we are, we’re on a space adventure’”.

What about the two “Star Trek” movies directed by J.J. Abrams? Bell prefers the first to the second. “They’re a phenomenal way to go about the series, and they’re going to introduce the series to an entire new generation”.

In the 2009 film, history is changed such that Trek follows a new timeline, which opens many storytelling paths. “The person telling you that is someone from the original cast”, Bell observes. “Spock is telling you it’s not what you expect it to be, so there you go, fanboys. It’s canon. It’s written off. If it’s told to you by an original cast member, deal with it an enjoy it for what it is”.

From his synopsis of the Treks, Bell clearly has good sense of stories, so I ask what kind he would like to tell.

“The kind where you can’t put down the book, not because it’s a cliffhanger but because you’re in there”. I ask if he means more character-driven because of his fav TV shows. “I’m a big fan of the USA Television [slogan] ‘Characters Welcome’ they’ve been pushing for a few years. I personally think that characters drive the story. If you don’t give a damn about the character, I don’t imagine you can engage in the story. Maybe there are writers out there that can give me the situation that drives it…but for me it’s the characters’ response to that situation that really makes it human, or alien, or whatever you want to call it”.

Bell places importance on identifying with characters, no matter how removed they appear to be. He uses the example of a hero fighting a dragon, “but you equate that with the time you had to deal with an ex-wife or ex-husband, because that’s your dragon. It lets you draw parallels in your own life to this fantastical event, and let’s you know there’s magic in regular life. It can be high-sci-fi, and you can see amazing things going on in your own life”.

Nirvana: “When you take the book and you put it down and you go outside and you’re still thinking about it. That’s the kind of stories that I want to write”. Medium doesn’t matter to Bell. “I don’t care if they’re in a comic book, a novel or a TV screen or feature film—as long as that’s the experience people have when they walk away from it”.

I am unable to elicit from Bell the type of characters he would like to create. He circles back to character identification from another viewpoint. As a male he used to struggle to identify with female characters. “Perfect example is the Hunger Games stories. You have a strong female protagonist in that. There was a point in my life where I never would have been able to put myself to read that book, because I can’t be her. Therefore, I want to write lots of characters that lots of people can relate to through whatever means, so that people like me can get over that hump and put themselves in the character’s position”.

The conversation takes a surprising turn, to a movie with unusual characters: “Pacific Rim”, which primary protagonists are CGI (computer-generated imagery)-created robots. They’re not human by any means. But the Jaegers (robots) are so well “personified, when you see one of those things damaged you feel—you wince in pain. They’re completely artificial creations…but you care about them. They are fake machines, made fakely through technology, and you still care”.

I ask Bell where he wants to be in a year. “I want to be paying some of my bills with writing work. I might not be able to step away from what I’m doing completely, but I want to say: ‘My cell phone, I pay that with my writing’…I want to start realizing that I’m making more and more of my income through writing so that sometime I am inevitably paying all my bills with writing and everything else I’m doing is fun money”.