I’m all about organizations with heart. Places that make you feel at home. And while the San Diego Comic Con is phenomenal and offers many amazing experiences, it can also be overwhelming and make you feel a bit like you’re just one of many ants in the ant farm, toiling slowly along towards your next goal.
That’s why I’ve said before and I’ll say again that Nerd HQ is a great alternative place to go and get your geek on when you’re feeling a little burnt out on the crowds of SDCC. Not only that, but the fact that its creators, Zachary Levi and Dave Coleman, built it from scratch and maintain a hands-on approach to running it as it grows (among other things, Zac hosts almost every Conversation and Dave keeps things running behind the scenes); and that all proceeds go to the charity of Operation Smile, give Nerd HQ a great cozy, almost familial vibe. And, of course, it’s a plain fact (that I can confirm, having had the pleasure of interviewing him on a couple of occasions) that Zac Levi is just a really solidly nice dude with a lot of heart. And I think that intangible quality can be felt in everything he’s built.
Last year, I was a big fan of the change in venue of Nerd HQ to The New Children’s Museum. The layout and fun backdrop complemented Nerd HQ’s offerings and all of the various interactive activities they provided, as well as the Conversations for a Cause. This year, with the addition, as Dave Coleman had noted in our Nerd HQ preview interview, of e.g. risers and extra air conditioning in the panel rooms, the venue was even better; and although there were many things to see, Nerd HQ still managed not to feel overcrowded.
Some of the cool things on offer this year were:
- Gaming – Nerd HQ always offers the opportunity to hang out and play upcoming cool video games, which this year included Battlefield 1, Gears of War 4, and Titanfall 2. And although I didn’t have much time to spare for a session, every time I was over at the HQ, the consoles were all taken and the gaming crowd looked like they were having a blast.
- On top of being able to play games, Nerd HQ provides cool gaming-related stuff to do. One of my favorites was the Xbox green-screen pictures you could take, which put you into scenes from games like Dead Rising, ReCore, and Titanfall 2. Another was the Xbox wall of custom controllers, with computers set up to allow you to design your own controllers right there. Sure, you can also do this from home; but it was weirdly addictively fun to design them while hanging out at HQ. (I personally designed a Deadpool and Bob set and a Little Prince and his rose set before I stopped.)
- The photo booths! One fun part of these, of course, is that during the Smiles for Smiles sessions you could get your photo with celebrities by donating to Operation Smile (and I was very happy to get a picture with Joss Whedon. Yay!) But you could also just take pictures with your friends (or yourself and props) – and that was really fun as well. Plus, the tech-savvy setup automatically emailed you a photo if you scanned your RFID bracelet, as well as printing one on the spot. And this year, if you downloaded the Johnson & Johnson Donate a Photo app and used it to post a photo, not only does J&J give a dollar to Operation Smile (or whatever charity you choose from among those listed) for each day you post a photo; but at Nerd HQ you were also given a box of Avengers-themed Band-aids for posting. And boy, was I glad about that – because they saved my feet from some terrible, terrible blisters.
- Free foooooood! This year, Kellogg’s was one of the sponsors for Nerd HQ, which was cool for two reasons. 1) They brought in comics artist Francis Manapul to do themed paintings with Kellogg’s Krave. They were all pretty rad and it was fun to watch them being created; and I got a picture of my favorite, this excellent warrior woman. 2) They also had a cereal bar set up with regular, double chocolate, and mixed Krave cereal and several different choices of milk. Let me tell you, that cereal is gooooood; and being able to easily sit down nearby and have a bowl saved me from fainting from hunger due to being generally too busy at cons to stop for food. (Nerd HQ saved me from a lot of things this year. Nerd HQ, you’re my heeeero!) And on top of all of that, they were giving away entire free boxes of cereal. Kellogg’s, I approve! (Note: at various times Nerd HQ was also passing out free lemonade and coconut water from different sponsors. Also awesome!)
- Shopping! Nerd HQ had some great stuff for sale – from these excellent Presidential posters to nifty collectibles (and sneak preview items) from Hallmark. The Itty Bitty Yoda was one of the cutest.
- Chill space. Sometimes, it’s nice just to have a place to sit and breathe. Along with the little outdoor area where I had a nice bowl of Krave cereal (and made a new table friend who let me share her table), Nerd HQ also has an indoor chill area and an outdoor patio; and nobody bothering you or telling you to move along. Sometimes when taking a break from all the madness, that’s just what we need.
- The fan parties! Okay, so I actually missed the Nerd HQ parties this year, alas – but I heard from several friends that they rocked as hard as last year’s, which I did make it to. And as with last year, all you needed to get in was your HQ wristband. Rock on with your inclusive parties, Nerd HQ!
Of course, along with all of these excellent things, one of the best parts of Nerd HQ is the Conversations – smaller panels of about 200-250 which generally feature a chat between Zac Levi and the featured guest(s). They had a slew of fantastic guests this year, and I personally got to see some really neat panels.
- The Con Man cast, who I saw first, were great, and shared funny stories about filming (particularly hilarious were the stories about working with Alan Tudyk, who wasn’t at the panel, and faces he makes while directing) and about what we can expect from the new season. On top of that, Nathan Fillion, as usual, had brought some weird, random, but ultimately still cool stuff to auction off for charity. My favorite was a small Swiss Army knife that his parents had given him for high school graduation (!). And how he kept emphasizing that it had a little loop so you could put it on your keychain, “or if you’re a girl, wear it around your neck!” Way to know your female fanbase, Nathan.
- The Scott Bakula panel was pretty much My Favorite Thing Ever, because Scott Bakula and Quantum Leap have been, since childhood, among my Favorite Things Ever. I had not previously gotten to see him on a panel (although I did see him in Shenandoah at Ford’s Theatre ten years ago, which was amazing). So this was really cool; and even better was the fact that Zac Levi, hosting, is also good friends with Scott via their work together on Chuck, where Scott played Zac’s dad. The panel was hilarious, with Scott making running jokes at his own expense, but also heartfelt, with Zac talking about how Scott helped him through the stresses of playing a lead role in a TV show. In conclusion: Scott Bakula.
- The Orphan Black panel was rad, and I especially enjoyed hearing about how Tatiana Maslany has dealt with playing so many different clones (and it was cool that her stunt double was featured on the panel, as well. An important job that most people probably don’t think about while watching the show). I also loved that an audience member gave Kristian Bruun a “Free Donnie” t-shirt, which he put on right there.
- The Tom Hiddleston panel started with a hilarious little dance by Tom and Zac as Tom came onstage. This was a cool panel where Tom talked a good bit about his acting process. Meanwhile, I was trying to reconcile his friendly red-haired self with the sly and frequently evil Loki. It’s a credit to his acting ability that I was having a hard time of it!
- The Joss Whedon panel was, as usual with a Joss Q&A, a thoughtful, insightful panel. He was up there by himself because Zac was having a much-needed rest (by Saturday Zac’s voice was fading, and I heard he was pretty exhausted by Sunday, although you couldn’t tell from his enthusiastic hosting). But Joss Whedon doesn’t really need a host to keep the conversation going, and pretty much the whole panel was quotable.
I’d quote some of it for you, but I don’t have to! Because along with livestreaming all of the Conversations for the people at home so they could feel like they were right there with us (very cool!) you can now watch all of them on YouTube as well; an experience I highly recommend.
And while you’re doing that, feel free to poke through my SDCC photo collection for more Nerd HQ goodness; and also check out my previous con coverage of the SDCC Her Universe Fashion Show, the Animaniacs Live! panel, the Kings of Con, American Gods, and Nick Animation.
And until next time, Servo Lectio!