Who's the geekiest of them all, Joss Whedon or J.J Abrams? If you were in Comic-Con's Hall H Thursday for "The Visionaries" panel with the rest of capacity crowd as the pair traded war stories to determine the King of the Geeks, you'd have learned—it's pretty much a tie. And would we really want it any other way?
"When I was a kid I would send fan letters to people I love," Abrams explained at the Entertainment Weekly-sponsored event. "Usually they were not actors or directors, they were usually the make-up people. So I would send letters to like Tom Savini and Dick Smith, and Dick Smith did The Exorcist, and he sent me the tongue from The Exorcist. I was like 14 and I opened up this box and there was a tongue with a hand-written note. [It] said 'put some peanut butter in it and stick it in [your mouth].' My mom was like, 'what the f--k is that?'"
Whedon deferred to his co-panelist, but admitted that one particular work experience netted him a unique if hard-won keepsake. "There's no way I can top the tongue," Whedon said. "I have an Alien egg, but I had to bury the franchise in order to get it."
Sadly, Abrams and Whedon offered only sparse details about their upcoming projects, including Whedon's big-screen Avengers adaptation and Abrams' Super-8 and highly-anticipated follow-up to Star Trek. But Whedon officially announced his participation in making that film, and said that he'd been a fan of The Avengers for many, many years.
"Can I make that an official thing? Because I am directing The Avengers," he said emphatically. "It's just a gig, you know. They were one of the first books," he said of his childhood collection. "When George Perez was drawing them, [that] was a big deal to me. Squadron Supreme, yeah!"
Indeed, Whedon said that some of his earliest inspirations were comic books, and he still retains strong memories about books that influenced him. "My dad was head writer of The Electric Company," he revealed. "They were going to do Spidey [Super] Stories, so he brought home old Spider-Man comics when I was about nine. It was, sure, hand your son meth! The Avengers Annual and The Thing Two-in-One Annual that Jim Starlin did with the death of Morlock, that was the beginning of my love for comics. That was the most underrated, overlooked piece in all of the Marvel Universe."
As for what he has in store for The Avengers? Whedon declined to provide specifics, but he indicated the direction he's taking the material: "I'm still in that stage of reworking, reworking, reworking it, but I will say that the thing that made me excited to do it is how completely counterintuitive it is," he explained. "It makes no sense, they should not even be in the same room, let alone the same team. And that to me is the definition of family."
Meanwhile, Abrams said one of his earliest jobs was at a comic-book store, but he eventually got a big opportunity from none other than Steven Spielberg, the patron saint of cinematic dreamers whose work has clearly inspired Abrams.
"When I was 16 years old, Matt Reeves and I did a Super-8 film festival in LA," Abrams remembered. "The LA Times wrote a story about it that came out the next day, and we got a phone call that day from Steven Spielberg's assistant, who at the time was Kathleen Kennedy." He explained that Spielberg wanted the duo to repair some of his childhood films whose splices had fallen into disrepair over the years.
"We said, we've got finals, but we could probably make time to repair Steven Spielberg's movies. So we repaired the movies and they gave us $300, which was when I knew why they got us to do it."
Abrams said that his upcoming project seemed exceptionally well-suited for Spielberg's participation, which is why he eventually approached the director about working together. "A couple of years ago, I called Steven and I had an idea for a movie called Super-8 and I pitched it to him and he was very excited about it, which I knew having in a weird way working on those movies. I had a sense what he had done as a kid."
Although he clarified that he hasn't shot any actual footage fro the film, Abrams said that Super-8 is both an homage to Spielberg and something deeply personal to himself. "It's impossible to work with him and not constantly reference the work he has done," Abrams said of the work they have done thus far. "You don't want to sound like a sycophant, but it's been incredible. Constantly referencing Spielberg's work. He's been beyond helpful, and movie is very much in the spirit of those Amblin films.
"It is a dream come true and I couldn't imagine something more sort of personal and also kind of hyper-real," he continued. "It's not like the movie is some kind of autobiography, but there's a lot of stuff in it that feels very personal."
But ultimately, Abrams suggested that his filmmaking career is an extension of his own sillier—and geekier—impulses to entertain. "I was and I guess still am the idiot who loved to do magic tricks for my relatives," he said self-deprecatingly. "It was I guess that feeling of creating an illusion and making people believe in something was real they didn't expect. Since I didn't want to become a professional magician, although I'm certainly debating it still, the idea of writing seemed like a natural progression from that."
Whedon conceded that he too saw the creative path forged from his geeky influences as not only his preferred but perhaps only way build a career. "I've always wanted to be a storyteller," he said. "I didn't know what format that would take, but I just knew I couldn't make an honest living—because that seemed hard. Writing is and always will be the thing by which I define myself."