Things I learned Moderating My First Panel

ECCCThe phrase, “This seemed like a good idea at the time” echoed through my head as I stood in front of the crowd at Seattle’s Emerald City Comicon.  Next to me on the stage were some of the biggest names in comics.  This was everything I had hoped for.  So why was I quaking?

Rewind several months to a dark morning in Portland.  I was out for my morning jog, and my mind was desperately trying to find something to distract myself from the fact that my lungs felt like they were going to burst.  Comics seemed like the natural place to distract myself.  I started thinking about Kelly Sue Deconnick’s experience as “Smurfette” on a comic panel at New York Comic Con.  It got me thinking about what kind of panel I would put together if I were to organize one for a comic convention.  By the end of my five mile run I had it planned out.

A couple days later I saw the call for panel proposals from Emerald City Comicon.  My mind flashed back to my morning run and I thought, “What the heck?”  I shot off an email to the organizers and included all my ideas.  The panel would focus on self-publishing and would feature some of the biggest names in comics.  The panel would be a balance of male and female creators and would be about why they self-publish instead of how to self-publish.  And, as an afterthought, I tossed in the fact that I would be “happy” to moderate the panel if asked.

Months went by.  I was surprised when I received an email from ECCC informing me that my pane had been approved!  All that needed to happen was for me to contact all my proposed participants, secure their participation, and come up with questions for moderating the panel!  Piece of cake?

I had only ever had contact with one of the panelists (Jeff Smith) so most of my emails to these creators were going to be cold calls.  Luckily every one of them was more than happy to be a part of the panel!  I emailed the organizers again with the news that the panel was good to go.

Then I began to panic.

I get up in front of groups every day.  I ask questions and guide conversations.  It is what I do.  I’m a teacher.  I have even interviewed dozens of comic pros over the years. So why was I so nervous about moderating this panel?  Simply put, I was in over my head.  There is a big difference between planning out a panel and actually pulling one off.

The day of the panel arrived and, after a minor hiccup or two, we were ready to go.  I started to read from my prepared opening, and immediately flubbed the words.  Not a great start.  I really should have spent some time practicing in front of a mirror and printed the script out in a larger font so it would have been easier to read.  But I managed to recover and made it through the introductions without too many other missteps.

Then came the questions.   The best panels are the ones where the moderator asks a question and the panelists just go from there, building their conversation on the comments of the person who spoke before them.  That was not this panel.

I asked a question.  It got answered.  Then silence.  I asked another question.  It got answered.  Then silence.  Within the first ten minutes of the panel I had blown through almost all of my prepared questions.  It was then that I realized the second mistake I had made.  In my desire to create the ultimate panel, I had linked these creators together in my mind.  However, none of these creators knew each other personally nor had they had any interaction with each other.  This meant that there was no built-in chemistry on the panel and no natural links and connections.  The flow of conversation was going to be forced, not naturally flowing.

Luckily people in the audience had questions and were more than happy to ask them.

And that is when I realized the third major mistake I had made. I had failed to properly frame the context of the conversation.  I had assumed that everyone in attendance had read the panel description and were prepared to ask in-depth questions about the philosophies of the panelists.  I was wrong.

The first questions focused on manga and anime.  The next person asked for a “brief, four bullet point guide” to getting his daughter’s original graphic novel published and distributed.  This was not going according to plan.

Luckily the panelists were good sports and plowed through.  We made it to the end of the panel, there was applause, and everyone left to enjoy the rest of the con.

So now I sit and reflect.  I love the idea of organizing another panel.  But, before I do I need to make sure that I have learned from the mistakes I made on this panel and build on the successes.  I have already started thinking about the next panel I want to put together.  Rose City Comic Con is in the fall, giving me plenty of time to iron out the kinks.  Seems like a good idea to me!

Want to see the panel for yourself?  Click here.


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