INTERVIEW: Steve Wozniak Blends Pop Culture and Tech with Silicon Valley Comic Con

As the co-founder of Apple and one of the most influential figures in modern computing, Steve Wozniak has a pretty impressive resume as is. Yet though he hasn't been actively involved in Apple for decades, he's stayed busy with a variety of projects -- and his latest is Silicon Valley Comic Con, a new convention debuting this weekend in San Jose.

Silicon Valley Comic Con aims to, well, "think different" in its approach to comic conventions. Though the hallmarks are there -- comics creators including Bill Sienkiewicz, Ryan Sook and Barbara Kesel, media guests like Nathan Fillion and William Shatner -- the con, unsurprisingly given its location and founder, has a heavy focus on science and technology. Along with the expected Artist Alley, the show will have an "App Alley," with developers showing off new apps. Big names in the science world such as Astro Teller and Janna Levin are scheduled to appear as part of the convention's programming, which includes fairly heady panels like "Space Exploration: Moving Towards Reusability & Beyond Chemical Rockets" and "Marvel's Ant-Man, Doctor Strange and the Quantum Realm."

Announced in April of last year with Marvel Comics legend Stan Lee as the first name other than Wozniak advertised for the show, the convention still aims to retain an appropriately comic book-y quotient. While it doesn't have the comics-heavy programming of fellow spring shows like C2E2, WonderCon and Emerald City Comicon, it acquired San Jose's Big Wow Comicfest last year, and has incorporated that show as Silicon Valley Comic Con's "Big Wow Comic Pavilion." The team behind the show (Woz included) aren't stopping here, either, having already announced a Tokyo Comic Con for December of this year.

CBR News sat down with both Wozniak and Silicon Valley Comic Con CEO Trip Hunter to talk in-depth about the show's goals, balancing technology and pop culture, Stan Lee's appearance and Wozniak's own history of fandom.

CBR News: Steve, Trip, there are a lot of comic conventions across the country each year, and they're all, to a certain point, fairly similar. This feels like an active attempt to do something different, mainly with the addition of a tech aspect. What opportunity did both of you see in putting this show together, and entering a crowded marketplace?

Steve Wozniak: I like to do things that are a little different. Why do the same things as everyone else? Then you're on equal footing. Try to think of something a little special, a little different. Specialness is what a lot of comic books are about -- superheroes, abilities. These things that interest us in life; from the movie industry to our technology that we use.

We're in Silicon Valley! It's the heart of technology, it's got that reputation. So why don't we include some? And we see a commonality -- a lot of the tech people in Silicon Valley also like popular culture. Why not be the first? I like to be first to things. [Laughs]

What was the process like in finding ways to marry tech and pop culture together, with things like App Alley? Was it easy to find tech people who were excited to reach a little bit of a different audience?

Trip Hunter: I think there's a challenge with tech companies, because the mindset is, "We don't really belong here."

Wozniak: They have their own shows all over.

Hunter: I think we'll see expansion and knowledge that this actually is a place where they belong. Year two, we'll probably see a tremendous uplift in that kind of support. We really wanted to put a stake in the ground around VR technology -- we don't want a bunch of storage companies showing up, necessarily. Our stake was around VR. That was the technology that Woz thought it best going to fit this crossover between tech and pop culture.

Wozniak: What could be closer?

Hunter: That's where we are this year. Next year we might be able to grow that.

Steve, obviously your history with tech is very well known, but in terms of pop culture. how much of a fan are you? And how much did that influence putting this together?

Wozniak: I have a busy life right now, I did not remain heavy duty in pop culture, but when I was young, I would drive 400 miles from my home to get to a convention where the "Star Trek" people were going to be. It was obviously a big part of setting the direction and inspiration in life for me. I just love reading science-fiction. Superheroes, too -- I don't think you can find one person who doesn't admire stories of people who fly and see through walls.

"Oh my gosh, is it possible to make a jet pack to make a person that can fly? Is it possible to see through a wall like Superman?" Some of the superhero categories are what we all want to be. "I have super-strength, I can put on a metal thing, and I move my arm, and I've got more strength as a robot." And we've built these things now.

Right, there's often a straight line from technology to ideas from science fiction.

Wozniak: You wake up from a dream, or you watch a movie or read a comic, you have thoughts in your mind that are not real products. And every once in a while, if you're close to technology, you say, "I wonder if that's possible to actually do, or do a part of it." That's what we love to do. We wake up with dreams of products, and we turn them into something real. But the dreaming is the important part. It's really having just weird ideas, and every once in a while sitting down and saying, "I think this might be possible. I'm going to try." The people in technology that create it are very used to that -- the first inspiration is just like any cartoon, superhero or movie. "I don't even know if that's possible, but what if it were?" That's where a lot of our things start.

And in turn, that pushes people who create pop culture further, as these things become reality.

Wozniak: We grew up with the Dick Tracy phone on the wrist! And now, of course, we've got it.

Hunter: That was kind of the reason behind App Alley. The justification that we could have these start-up companies there, and maybe have one of them hit. We can provide a base where small companies can grow -- it's pretty cool.

Given that this is aiming to be a different type of convention, do you see a different type of target audience than a traditional convention? Who are you looking to get in the doors?

Hunter: I think in Silicon Valley you're obviously going to draw a different audience -- probably a little more high-tech audience. We're trying to cater to that -- if you look at some of the science guests that we have, we have astrophysicists, we have quantum physicists, we have tech leaders; Astro Teller. We're trying to pull in so that audience will want to be a part of this, too.

But I think the audiences are pretty similar. The people who are doing the programming during the week are the guys that go to the comic cons on the weekends. We're just trying to appeal to more than one of their interests.

Wozniak: Plus, the most popular TV show has to be "The Big Bang Theory," and that promotes the whole idea of comic con.

Hunter: And they're coming now!

Wozniak: Yeah, the writers are coming. And they called us, by the way, not vice versa. They wanted to be a part.

Steve, along with yourself, the first person announced to be at the show was Stan Lee. For a large part of the world, Stan Lee is the human embodiment of comic books -- how important was it to have him on board as a guest?

Wozniak: Totally critical. Stan Lee and I were part of it before any other personality or person or company or exhibit that was in here -- there was nothing. Just the two of us saying, "We want to do it."

How did that come about? How did the two of you start talking?

Wozniak: We met once, and we just hit it off, like we've known each other for forever. They couldn't stop us from talking. We agreed we'd get together sometime and do something.

Hunter: It was at a [Fusion-io] party [in Las Vegas], our last tech company.

Have you both had experiences at other cons that helped shape this one? Lessons learned? Things that inspired you, things you wanted to avoid?

Wozniak: We have people who were with other people who had established other comic cons; set them up and knew what the procedures were, so the day-to-day organization, logistics and all that, is [handled by] people who knew their business. [Laughs] We didn't sit there saying, "How will we create one out of nothing?" I did that once with a big rock concert, US Festival -- because we had to build it, the cost of building it and making it the first time, we lost a lot of money. That's not the intent here.

Hunter: I come from a marketing background. For me, creating an event that has people walk away going, "that was an amazing brand experience," is what our team is really focused on trying to do. Some of the comic cons I've been to have been phenomenally well organized, and some have not been very well organized. We're trying to be on the phenomenally well organized side of that.

Wozniak: The success will be really judged by how many people go the second year, I think. When they pass the word, if it's good or bad, that really makes you. But you better do a good job or they won't be back.

How are advance sales looking good so far?

Hunter: Sales are good. From what we forecasted early on, we're headed for that number. The convention center holds 30,000 people, and we should be close to bumping up against that.

Wozniak: Every booth sold out. All the VIP tickets are gone.

It feels like Northern California had a need for a big convention like this -- WonderCon has been in Southern California for five years now.

Wozniak: That's part of what led us to it. You feel a vacuum by living there more than knowing. It also got us on to thinking, since we're doing technology/popular culture mix, where's another technology center? We're doing the comic con also in Tokyo, in December.

I'm curious to hear a bit more about the planning of that -- it's an interesting prospect, because the Japanese pop culture market is huge, but also very different than the North American market. Still, it feels like there's likely an opportunity there, to bring a bit of the western convention experience over there.

Wozniak: We're just starting on that one, but we're very aware of the cultural differences in the way these shows are done.

Hunter: We're trying to find the right balance. You don't want to go in there and be like, "Here's what we do." I don't think they'll appreciate that.

There are some notable guests at the convention -- Michael J. Fox, Jeremy Renner. What are you both most personally excited about in the programming?

Wozniak: From the geek viewpoint, ["The Martian" author] Andy Weir is going to be there. The book is so much more than the movie, the way they're doing all these calculations in their head and figuring things out -- I'm a mathematical type, looking forward to that.

I think the most interesting panel that I've got to attend, Astro Teller and his wife, Danielle, are going to be arguing the greatest threat to mankind -- superbabies or artificial intelligence. We in the technology business are so looking at, "Where's artificial intelligence going? What are the goods, what are the bads? What are the threats?" That's a very big one to us. The biggest competition to artificial intelligence might be superbabies; modifying genes.

Hunter: Janna Levin, who's an astrophysicist at Columbia, she's launching her book, "Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space," at our event. I think that's a pretty cool one. Laetitia Garriott de Cayeux, who's the CEO of a company called Escape Dynamics, is researching alternative propulsion methods outside of chemical rocket engines, to microwave technology -- that's pretty cutting-edge! I'm excited to hear what she's got to say.

Wozniak: William Shatner is so entertaining. Whatever he does. I hope he does some of his poetry, even. [Laughs] I actually want to attend some of the sessions on cosplay experts talking about it.

There's a lot going on, but it's still Silicon Valley "Comic" Con. Comics fans are naturally skeptical about comic conventions without a lot of comics content. How important were comic books themselves in putting this show together?

Wozniak: Well, remember, Stan Lee is [a guest]. If you look at the list of the number of comics artists we're going to have...

Hunter: That was the nucleus of our show, it was built around purchasing Big Wow. That's how we got started. Big Wow -- that's what they are. One whole hall of the conventions center is called the Big Wow Pavilion, and everybody who was attending Big Wow is attending this event. It's a cornerstone of our event. It was very important to us.

Looking at the show's website, it has a very spelled out harassment policy. Harassment at conventions has been a big topic of discussion in the industry -- how important is that policy to this show?

Hunter: It was so important that I wrote it myself. It was very important to us.

To wrap up, in terms of the user experience for the convention, what do you see as what's really going to make this experience different than a lot of the other conventions out there?

Hunter: For me, it's that it will be an active experience and not a passive one. I think that is really going to be key across everything that you can do at our event.

Wozniak: To me, I would just say things you'd say about any conference -- if you feel like it, do it. If you want to be around people who are thinking the same way as you, that have similar interests, and all that. And also, if you want to get a little bit of the science background in the seminars, you'll get some interesting ones.

If you read a comic book the right way, you get into it. It becomes your reality for that time. We have a VR zone -- VR's going to be very big -- and VR makes an imaginary world very real for you. Not artificial.

Silicon Valley Comic Con takes place March 18 to March 20 at the San Jose Convention Center.

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