by Chris Tobias
It’s hard to believe it’s been over a month since the Wizard World Philadelphia Comic Con. I had meant to write this much sooner, but this was my first year as my town’s organizer for Can’t Stop the Serenity, and since our CSTS Serenity screening took place less than three weeks after my return from Wizard World Philly, I had to turn my attention to making sure that our CSTS event went off without any major problems. Now that that event is also behind me, Independence Day has already come and gone and the real fireflies have already started answering the beacon call of my car’s headlights when I pull up the driveway at night, I finally have a little more time to sit back and reflect on Wizard World Philadelphia and what it meant to me and to Take Back the Sky. So, I figured it was about time I shared some thoughts with you.
First of all, I can’t thank the organizers of Wizard World Philadelphia enough for being such great hosts and for taking a chance on two guys who had an idea to talk a billionaire into naming a spaceship. The fact that they invited Jeff and me, as well as our crew of assistants, to the con for four days so that we could bring the news of our idea to as many people as possible at an event that would attract those who would naturally be receptive to it cannot possibly be overemphasized. When I heard we would be given a table at the con, I was thrilled. Later on, when I realized that table would make us neighbors to the PA and NY Browncoats, I was even more excited. But when Jeff told me that we would be permitted to present a panel at the con, I was stunned, and perhaps even a bit scared, since I’d never before even attended a major con, let alone presented at one. Still, I took that development, as well as the fact that four members of the Firefly cast would be in attendance, as a sign from on high that I should not pass up the opportunity.
Shortly before heading to Philadelphia, we learned that our panel would be at 4PM on Thursday, which essentially meant that we would kick off the con. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel at least a little disappointed when I learned this. None of the Firefly cast members were scheduled to arrive until the weekend, and I thought most of those who arrived at the con on the first day wouldn’t be interested in attending a panel just one hour after the event had opened its doors. Still, we were determined to look on the bright side. Our panel was the very first thing featured on the schedule in the program book, which made it nearly impossible to miss, and the title we had chosen, One Small Step for Fans: Browncoats in Space, was likely to catch the attention of fans of both Firefly and space exploration. So, while we would have preferred a Saturday time slot, we were determined to make the most of the opportunity and turned our attention to presenting the best panel we could.
We arrived at the con around 2PM on Thursday, which gave us an hour to set up our table before the convention-goers would start arriving. Fortunately, that was more than enough time. Since there wasn’t really any space behind the table to hang any of the posters we’d brought, we simply replaced the generic banner the con had provided for us with our own custom banner and arranged the petition binders and letter-writing materials on the table. Matt Black of the PA Browncoats’ Philly contingent had been thoughtful enough to decorate the three Browncoats tables with red, orange and yellow table cloths so they looked like Jayne’s iconic hat when viewed together from a distance, and that went a long way towards dressing things up a bit. I had brought a stuffed koala bear wearing a “Jayne hat” that I had won at last year’s CSTS event in Pittsburgh and a couple of little Independents flags. Another member of our crew, Michael Flynn, had a few toy dinosaurs. Together we used those, along with a paper model of the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule that Jeff had put together, to give the table a little extra pizazz. Then Jeff and I headed off to the conference room to get ready for our panel, leaving Flynn and Ed Sauerland, my friend and fellow CSTS planner who had made the trip out with me, to work the table during the con’s first couple of hours.
As we headed to the room, I had two main thoughts. The first was that, to borrow a line from Ghostbusters, I was “…terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought,” not only that I’d mess up somehow, but also that the panel as a whole would not be well received and would fall flat. The second was that I only expected a couple of dozen people to show up to hear it at most. The latter thought had been nagging me for days, and I hadn’t wanted to tell Jeff because I didn’t want to bring him down. (He would confide in me much later that he and I had in fact shared this fear, but he hadn’t said anything to me for the exact same reason!) As soon as we walked through the door, though, I knew for a fact that both of these thoughts were completely unfounded. The room looked to be about two thirds of the way full, and it wasn’t even time for the panel to start yet! I was elated, not only because people had turned out to hear us and we wouldn’t be playing to an empty house, but also because the turnout gave me renewed confidence that people would be willing to get behind this idea, and that there were others out there who felt, as we do, that the US should have a manned spacecraft named Serenity. While Jeff hooked up the computer to the projector so we could present our power point, we made small talk with the crowd, and that helped me loosen up and find that zone where the butterflies in my stomach would at least be flying in formation. It was during this pre-panel chitchat that we learned that there were some in the audience that had come from as far away as Belgium! It was also then that I noticed that we had been provided with bottled water and little placards with our names on them in front of our microphones, just like I’d always seen the cons do for Joss and the cast at the many Firefly panels I’d watched on Youtube. Even though we’d be giving our talk from the podium rather than seated in front of the microphones at the table, I got a kick out of it anyway. For some reason it gave me a positive vibe as I prepared to kick off our presentation, as did seeing the familiar face of my friend and fellow Pittsburgh Browncoat Bob Averell among those in the crowd.
The plan was that I would start the panel off by explaining from a fan’s perspective why a US spaceship named Serenity made sense, and after I had touched on that, Jeff would close the presentation with a little hard science, some info about SpaceX and exactly how we were supposed to make this campaign work. Looking back on it now, I don’t think we could have asked for things to go any better than they did. Any concerns I had about speaking in front of the audience at the con were totally unnecessary. Once I started my talk, Chris Tobias the Browncoat simply stepped aside and let Herr Tobias the German teacher take over, and my nearly twenty years of experience at the front of a classroom made it seem like just another day at the office (though admittedly this was a lot more fun). I spoke about the long-standing relationship between science-fiction and hard science, called attention to some of the instances throughout American history when sci-fi fans have influenced and inspired those in the space industry, talked about what a US spacecraft named Serenity would mean to Browncoats the world over, explained how our efforts are like a love letter to Joss and the cast and crew, and perhaps most importantly, pointed out that the name Serenity would reflect positively on our nation because it evokes an image of peace, harmony and oneness with the universe rather than one of conquest, domination or exploitation. (For the slides that accompanied the presentation and my notes on my portion of it, check out the “weapons of misbehavior” we’ve included in the “activist’s toolkit” you’ll find in the “Resources” section of this site.) And then, just like that, I was turning things over to Jeff and joining the rest of the spectators as he delivered his portion of the panel and deftly brought the whole thing in for a landing. (I have to admit that part is kind of a blur to me now, though I do remember that we didn’t have time for questions, and much to my dismay, I forgot to snag the Wizard World placard with my name on it as a souvenir when we wrapped things up and exited the room.)
In the end we were very pleased with how the panel turned out. The audience seemed very engaged throughout the presentation. We saw plenty of smiles and heard laughter at appropriate moments, and I actually think there were points during Jeff’s portion of the presentation when the audience seemed to be hanging on his every word. Over the next few days there would be a number of people who would stop by our table and tell us that they had been in attendance and that they had really enjoyed the panel, and that made me feel pretty good, not only because it reinforced the idea that our goal of convincing Elon Musk to name SpaceX’s first manned Dragon Serenity is achievable, but also because it convinced me that we really had contributed something special to this con despite the fact that we had no real experience or background in the comics, sci-fi or entertainment industry.
With the stress of the panel now behind us, we were able to turn our attention to wooing the convention crowd at our table for the next three days while we took in the experience of a major comic con. I’ll talk about that in my next installment…