Comic-Con: Voice-over artists find money and meaning at cartoon conventions

“San Diego, USA – July 15, 2012: Attendees arrive at the conference center in San Diego for the last day of Comic Con International 2012”

Christian Potenza was a broke single parent stuck in the suburbs, trying to figure out how to make ends meet. A voiceover actor with (at the time) over six cartoons series under his belt, the work wasn’t coming in and he needed a plan. “So, I sat down in my living room, pulled out all my work swag and started rehearsing the dog and pony show, right down to the swagger in my walk.

I had a system worked out and I quickly learned that I could make more money at these conventions than doing three cartoons in a year.

I looked at it as a business and worked really hard.” He backtracks, “Around 2010, I went to my first convention. It was an accident, a fluke. In 2007, Total Drama Island is huge. In 2008, YouTube starts becoming a thing and, by 2009, a 12-year-old kid from Pennsylvania starts impersonating me on social media. He was threatening to give secrets about the show and was creating contests about it. So, I get pulled into Nelvana (the production company) to answer for this. I call the kid and ask him to take down the site. He says, ‘No, I want a Canadian passport and a part on the show.’”  We both laugh. Who doesn’t want that? Christian continues, “So I start a YouTube channel of my own and bring a camera into the recording studio.” He was the first voiceover actor to do this. And it got him noticed on social media, so he was asked to attend Comic-Con. The offers just kept coming.

Toby Proctor, of Sailor Moon, has been to over a dozen Comic-Cons. He tells how he first got into voice work. “Tracey Moore was teaching a microphone technique course at Nelvana and she took me aside and said, ‘If you work on your reading (I’m dyslexic), you could make a career as a voiceover actor. A week later I auditioned for my first voice gig and I got it. Tracey Moore was the director and it was for a lead on Sailor Moon.” (Just to put Sailor Moon into perspective for those of you who aren’t anime fans, it has over 3,000,000 fan websites, is dubbed worldwide and is a 25-year-old production. It has legs. Long ones.) Toby continues, “That same week, I also land the lead role in Flash Gordon. In one week, I go from never doing voice work to playing leads in two (massive) series.”

Katie Griffen, also of Sailor Moon fame, talks about her first convention. “It was a complete fluke. It was before the Sailor Moon insanity happened. A friend suggested I go to Fan Expo because there were a ton of voiceover actors and the fans wanted to see who was voicing the characters. If anyone had told me, a hundred years ago, when I was dubbing Sailor Moon, my first show, my absolute first series, at 20 years old, that this show would become what it became worldwide… it’s life-changing. I spent five years playing Sailor Mars.”

Vancouver, Canada – November 12, 2015: A figurine of Rei Hino, also known as Sailor Mars, from the Sailor Moon animated TV series. The figurine is made by Banpresto.

Griffen continues, “It sounds trite, but don’t ever disregard what you’re doing, because even though it’s work, and we go to these conventions (and some of them are more work than others…), as a result, every show I go work on now, I have a different perspective. You never know who the show is reaching or how important it is to someone. You don’t know what is going to resonate with a person. And for all the complaining that we can do, I just don’t take it for granted anymore.”

“Each convention is quite different, depending on who produces them,” says Toby. “They’re kind of like the circus. They roll into town, set up shop and everyone shakes hands. The fans come in and try to interact with you. It’s an interesting scenario.” Toby first got into the convention world because of Sailor Moon around 1996. “My agent called and said, ‘There’s a Comic-Con in San Jose, California, and they want to have you.’ And I’m like, I don’t know what that is — is it like a Star Trek convention? I wasn’t really interested. It was early in the game. It was before people got dressed up and did Cos Play (Costume Play). It was weird if you did get dressed up back then and now it’s weird if you don’t. I’ve been to maybe 20 conventions. Actually, I could go to one a month. All the convention runners speak to each other and if they find out someone is really good with the fans — talking and interacting with them, instead of sitting in a chair and acting cool — they want you. You’re really trying to put on a show. You have to be available to the fans and answer questions.” Toby pauses, “We’re lucky enough to have gotten the jobs in the first place.”

A typical convention day starts in the morning where the actors will sign autographs and interact with the fans. “There are thousands produced a year,” says Toby. “Some are small, and others are huge. I prefer the smaller ones because I get to spend time with individuals as opposed to dealing with a mob crowd. I went to L.A. Expo and there were 280,000 fans. And our panel had about 1,000 people in the room. It’s ridiculous!” Toby continues, “It’s the New World Order! Many of these shows have a Comic-Con component because it’s really the outreach for the fan base… At Fan Expo, about six years ago, we were invited for a Sailor Moon cast reunion. There are millions of people wandering around and there are people lined up to go listen to the different panels. Our cast is going up the escalator and I said to Linda Ballantyne (who played Sailor Moon), who is that line-up for? It’s fantastic. And it ended up to be for our panel of Sailor Moon. There were over 1,000 people waiting to hear us!” “It was an incredible experience!” agrees Katie.

Performers get asked the usual questions, like what was their favourite episode, but they do get unusual requests. Toby was “asked for my hand in marriage. Twice! I had the chance to toast a young woman and her fiancé for their upcoming nuptials, 20 years after I was asked to call her for her birthday when she was a kid! It’s so great!”

Katie has been asked to sign ‘Sailor Mars’ and her autograph in sharpie pen, so the person could have it tattooed. “Lots of tattoos, we see a lot of tattoos and get lots of art. I keep it all! I have a shrine,” she says with a mischievous smile. “I have two boys who don’t care at all. My entire house could be decorated with all Sailor Moon stuff. My boys are totally unimpressed with me!”

Christian had fans watermark their art, then he numbered and printed them, sold them and paid the artists, giving the fan/artists a platform for their art. Christian explains how he would get invited to the conventions. “A year after the cartoon is recorded, it comes out and I’d be on my YouTube channel or Facebook, interacting with the fans about the episode, and they’d ask if I was coming to their town for the convention. Then I’d get the invite. The best part about these cartoons is that the fans started watching them when they were, like, 12. Now they’re 25 or 30 and they’re like, ‘Dude, you were a part of my childhood. You were there for me.’ That’s why they pay 60 bucks for an autograph and to have their picture taken with you. They want their childhood back,” says Christian. “You are the voice of my childhood.”

All three actors hear that at all of the conventions they’ve ever been to. “Because it was a dubbing show we did 25 years ago,” says Katie, “it’s all about the nostalgia. It’s much more of a personal thing. People are coming to Comic-Con to meet the cast they grew up with.”

But there is a darker side to the conventions. Police patrol in plain clothes and in costume; freaks will take photos of individuals dressed in risqué anime outfits to put on questionable websites. And, with so many children attending, it can attract the underbelly of the lowest of the low. Christian has handlers when he goes to the bigger conventions, specifically because he’s representing children’s cartoons. He’s dealt with a stalker who traveled across Canada until the police had to intervene. On the other hand, there is a side that’s moving and encouraging. All three actors told stories of inspiration that drew tears, stories that will no doubt sit with them for their entire lives. Many of the fans talk of how their characters would get them through difficult times.

“It’s profound to have someone tell you that you saved their life,” says Katie “Or your character got them through some really tough times. I wouldn’t have known that had I not gone to the conventions. In what other job will someone come up to you and say:

‘I raced home after school because I was bullied, I was abused, but I’d escape watching your show.’ That’s a big part of the narrative for these fans: bullying and abuse.

People would tell you their stories of abuse in front of these panels because they felt safe. ‘My dad would beat or molest me and I’d come home at 3:30 and I had a friend in Sailor Moon.’ All of us cry on these panels,” says Katie. “I’ve been in other shows where fans will come up and say, ‘I love it,’ and it ends there. But Sailor Moon had a deeper connection with fans. And that’s the rewarding part. I mean, I could just say I’m going to Comic-Con for a vacation with my voice-over buddies, but at the end of the day, each and every one of us has a story that is brought to us.”

Christian tells his story, “I’d been involved with the Make A Wish Foundation and I got to spend time with a terminally ill boy who came up from the States to hang out with me.”  His voice starts to break, “It was awesome. About a year later, his parents came to the Toronto Convention Centre to let me know that he had passed. They said they had to come up because, before their son had died, he created some fan art and made his parents promise they would bring it to me.” Christian needs a moment before he can continue. “I’m like, ‘Oh my God.’ I had to leave after that.

That’s the kind of impact we can make. I mean, yeah, we’re actors and we hope to get recognized by our industry and peers, get awards and all that stuff, but at the end of the day, the connection we make with the rest of the world… they don’t train you for this.”

Toby has stories too personal to mention that bring tears.

They do a fair amount of charity work for organizations such as Sick Kids. “Many of the kids are shut-ins, kids in hospitals,” says Christian. “They’ve been bedridden all their teenage years. And the only thing that makes them feel better is the cartoons.”

“I could take a $20.00 Sailor Moon backpack that production gave me, sign it and auction it off for $600.00!  It’s really neat,” says Toby.

Surprisingly, the convention world hasn’t really affected their individual voiceover careers. Toby still acts but is currently filming a documentary about the international program Princess Diana created to ban landmines. Katie still does voiceover work and sings but is more choosy about the convention gigs. “I was doing a ton of conventions,” she says, “Which is wall-to-wall talking. I had a bunch of voice gigs that I had to use my higher pitch range for those characters. I ended up with voice nodules. But it hasn’t helped my career. It’s not like I’m at a Comic-Con and producers are like, ‘We have to get her for this show.’ Absolutely not.”

“I’m following the season of my career,” says Christian. “And the conventions are evolving. We’re asked to go on cruise ships now, which I’m not into. I did a convention with Toby in the Yukon, the best place I ever went for a convention,” he adds. “I’m going back there to teach the Indigenous kids how to do voice work. These microphones, they connect these kids in isolated places. We’re only separated by a piece of glass. You want my autograph, cool; make a donation, but I want to make a difference now. I want to promote my Switchboard Sessions and teach people how to do this.”

“It’s all one big love fest,” says Katie. “The impact of this show is something I never would have expected. At every single convention, someone will say, ‘Sailor Moon saved my life.’ It’s the craziest thing, oh my God, I’m getting emotional…There is such a camaraderie and a sisterhood and taking care of each other. It’s all the love and compassion. I’ve been very lucky.”

“It has changed my life in a lot of ways,” Toby says. “There are fans I will never forget and I’ve connected with on a much deeper level than I would have assumed. There are people who escaped from really horrific experiences and these people were able to survive through our work. Any time I get ahead of myself, I’m like, slow down. And I really do think, going back to my struggle (with dyslexia), that I am proof you can do anything if you actually try.”

Christian leaves me with this:

“If you’re in the booth and you’re voicing a character on a kids’ cartoon, just know that what you’re doing is beyond your talents, it’s beyond the performance. It has such gravity, the craft of voice acting.

Doing cartoon work, you’re only having one side of a conversation; you don’t think about the fans. It’s all about the performance. But the conventions allow us to see firsthand what it’s really about. They tell you their story about the one time that you made a difference in their lives. If you’re voicing a character on a cartoon, conventions will let you know, it’s not about you.”

  Joy Tanner is the Editor of Performers Online, Performers magazine, and Performers on Set. She has voiced Candy Kong in Donkey Kong.