As he raised his four children, Joe Thordarson increasingly thought about the important roles that art and literature played in education.
Bailey Station Elementary fourth graders Pasha Ducey and Max Mendenhall, right, have a laugh with The Joker and Harley Quinn at Geek 101, part of the Memphis Comic and Fantasy Convention.
(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)
“I never felt art got the attention it deserved in a kid’s education, and any art you can encourage is good for their education,” he said. “Art and writing are so important and I wanted to encourage that.”
For the last four years, Thordarson, 47, has tried to raise awareness about the power of art, writing and film to Memphis-area children through the Memphis Comic and Fantasy Convention.
On Friday, Oct. 25, around 1,300 students from across the area packed the Kroc Center in Midtown for “Geek 101,” which featured comic book artists and characters, crafts people, a robotics professor from the University of Memphis and local filmmakers Rachel Taylor and Dan Baker of Timid Monster. The event was part of this year’s annual convention, which will take place Nov. 15-17 at Hilton Memphis.
“It’s cool because we bring up students and then we show them about lighting and camera moves and the elements that go into making films, all on a low budget,” Thordarson said. “We teach them affordable ways they can make their own movies.”
Baker said he was excited by the thought of showing kids they didn’t need a big studio or major financing to produce their own films, that it was a giant world open and accessible to them now.
“I wish more people came and taught me that when I was young,” Baker said. “Filmmaking is so much fun and it’s going to continue to be a major way we communicate in society and I love to show them that you can do this with a garage lamp and an iPhone.”
Like many kids, Thordarson grew up thumbing through the pages of comic books, attracted by the action, adventure and simple joy of storytelling.
“I always rushed home from school so I can see the animated ‘Spiderman’ show,” said Thordarson, who moved to Memphis from San Diego in 1994.
As he got older, Thordarson’s interest in comic books, which, at that stage in the late 1970s and early 1980s, were still somewhat campy, waned until the comic world was revolutionized by Frank Miller’s dark and gritty mini-series on Batman called “The Dark Knight Returns,” a much more graphic, adult take on the “Caped Crusader.”
“I always pictured Batman as a darker character, and I always thought it was interesting the psychology that drove him to do what he did and that really started happening in the late 1980s,” Thordarson said.
Thordarson wanted to bring his passion for art and fantasy to a broader audience, especially children, and launched the Memphis Comic and Fantasy Convention in 2010. It was a grassroots effort and Memphis’ second major comic and fantasy convention, following MidSouthCon.
Joe Thordarson addresses hundreds of elementary school students at Geek 101.
(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)
“There were only about 400 or 500 people there, but it seemed to have a lot of energy and people had a good time, so it gave us encouragement for the second year,” Thordarson said. “I learned a lot of things not to do. I think what I learned is the importance of promotion and getting the word out and not assuming people know about your event.”
Thordarson began by reaching out to area teachers to schedule field trips to the convention.
“I just started calling any teacher I knew and asked them to spread the word,” he said. “I contacted art teachers, and a lot of them were not sure what to make of it at first, but some thought it was cool and took a chance on it.”
Around 200 kids showed up for the first convention in 2010, but the number exploded to 2,500 children at last year’s convention and 1,300 for this year’s “Geek 101” event, and Thordarson hopes to reach hundreds or thousands more with in-school sessions.
And this year’s convention is chock-full of activities for children.
The convention’s guest of honor this year is Jess Harnell, a well-known television and movie voice actor and singer responsible for Wakko Warner on “Animaniacs” and a character in the “Transformers” film series. Harnell, the lead singer of the band Rock Sugar, will perform with local School of Rock students on Nov. 16.
This year’s convention features a Lego toy-based series called “Bricks and Heroes,” including a partnership with the Cub Scouts to produce Lego races fashioned after a pinewood derby race, where cars built of Lego toys will race around a donated pinewood derby track.
The convention will also present a live-action cartoon based on an original story created by a local fourth-grade student. The student’s character is called “Captain Currency” and he charges people for his superhero services.
“He’s a flawed character,” Thordarson said with a laugh, “but it turns out well in the end.”
For more information on the Memphis Comic and Fantasy Convention, visit memphiscfc.com.