“If you’re frightened of [Comic-Con], and you’re holding on, you’ll see devils tearing your life away. If you’ve made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the Earth.”
Ah, San Diego Comic-Con. The 800-pound gorilla of the Pop Culture world, despite the fact that image might be better associated with its sister convention, APE. Comic-Con is the BIG ONE, and any geek blog of any substance will either have a presence there, or at least fake one by talking about it a lot.
Now, while I’m not claiming we here at the Satellite Show are big on substance, I figured at least one member of the clambake should make the obligatory pre-Con “survival guide” post. But rather than repeating the oft mentioned (and really, rather obvious) items such as noshing on your own food where possible, or not refilling your water bottle from San Diego harbor, I instead shall take you deeper. I intend to take you upon a journey of the soul.
For CCI is no longer just a convention, dear readers. Oh no. CCI has moved beyond that mere mortal concept. CCI has its own gravitational field, warping everything near it, including the laws of reality. Nerds roam the streets in huge flocks, spouting our crazy moon man talk as we push aside anything in our way through sheer weight of momentum. Cabs line up, clamoring for the coin of the sweaty, spandex-bursting cadre flagging them down. Otherwise respectable businesses make their waiters and waitresses dress up in superhero costumes in hopes you… yes, you, the pimply one with the glasses… will grace their establishment with your presence.
You’ve probably heard someone, somewhere make the statement that in this modern age, the geeks have taken over. Although it might make geeks like us feel fleetingly like all the wedgies and laughter we endured were worth it, in the end that’s just words. That is, until you see it become absolute fact for five days in July down in the heart of San Diego. And is San Diego rightly terrified of this annual convergence? This yearly subjugation of the fundamental, universal principle that the geek is ever to be a shunned minority?
Well, no, actually, they’re terrified that the convention might move. It’s gotten that big. If giant, nerd-eating mutant spiders were discovered nesting near the Gaslamp District, I expect some more urbane version of Mayor Vaughn would be there to remind Chief Brody (or whatever the Police Chief down there is named) that “San Diego depends on Comic-Con dollars”. Also, despite the whole “devoured alive” issue, we’d probably just want to pose for photo-ops with the spiders, anyhow.
Comic-Con didn’t get this way overnight. It took decades to grow from a few hundred attendees and professionals hanging out in a hotel lobby, to a sprawling, convention hall busting fire marshal’s nightmare. And it’s not until the last ten years or so that it really exploded, as Hollywood and the gaming industry moved in to add their drawing power, along with their elaborate displays and publicity stunts. Was I there to watch as it all happened? Hell no, I wasn’t even born when the Con started, and I was a relative latecomer to the whole thing. My friends were regular attendees, but I never bothered until I met my then-girlfriend, now-wife in 2003.
Dawn had been attending by hook or crook for years, but by the time we had gotten to know each other well enough for her to ask me about it, it was too late to order tickets online. However, 2003 happened to be back when they were still selling tickets on-site, so I gave in and drove her down to San Diego for a Saturday visit. No big deal, right?
We waited in that goddamn Saturday line for over three hours, in blazing Summer heat, for the privilege of those tickets. The queue for them was like one of those bread lines from the Great Depression, although arguably much more cheerful on account of none of us facing starvation. It was literally thousands of feet long, looping through the entire neighboring Seaport Village area. Really quite epic, when I think back on it.
This was back when there were a mere 70,000 attendees for the whole run. Amazingly, it still took CCI another five years before they stopped on-site registration. And yet, despite the wait and the massive sunburn I ended up with, I had a great time. It was like no other comics convention I’d ever been to. This sucker was BIG. And FUN. And the swag… oh, the amazing swag. Not just buttons and stickers, but posters and entire comics being given away for free. I was hooked.
That was the last time I ever underestimated Comic-Con. Every year since we’ve pre-ordered our passes and made our hotel reservations earlier and earlier, culminating this last year when we had both those things locked in for 2010 before CCI 2009 had ended. Madness, you say? I say, how long do you wait to make your reservations to be in Las Vegas for New Year’s Eve? Or to be in New Orleans for Mardi Gras?
As I stated before, CCI is no longer a comic convention. It has become Nerdi Gras. It is a multi-day party that spills into the streets around the Convention Center, rocking into the wee hours, letting geeks cast off any shackles of day-to-day shyness and normalcy and be around others who Understand, and those who might not Understand but are still perfectly willing to seat you in their fancy restaurant even though you might be mostly naked with tentacles on your head.
Now, I know there is bitterness. There are many who wish Comic-Con would go back to the (relatively) modest gathering of comic book fans and creators that it once was. They pray yearly for the convention to collapse under its own weight, and perhaps one of these years it will, and people will claim it as an act of Divine Wrath akin to the earthquake that struck Port Royale in 1692, casting all the Hollywood moguls and video gamers and TwiTards into the deeps. But in the meantime, they’re clinging on to a Comic-Con that no longer exists, and it’s killing their souls.
Yes, passes and hotels have become a matter of good planning and anticipation. Yes, you can no longer just casually pick up and decide to “check the show out for a day”. Yes, even the most obscure panel on “How to draw nosehair the Dark Horse way” is filled to capacity with non-nosehair-adoring philistines either desperate to get into anything or waiting for the Adult Swim panel immediately following. And yes, comics are now only a portion of the pop culture celebration, and arguably not the portion a lot of attendees are showing up for.
You have three ways of dealing with this. The first is just not to go at all, which is fair. It’s not what you want, and there’s plenty of other, smaller conventions around that can provide the atmosphere you crave. This is a perfectly mature, acceptable option. Of course, it also might have just been your only option if you waited too long. Newcomers have an excuse, much as I should be excused for my stupidity in 2003 thinking it wouldn’t be that big of a line. People who have been attending over the past few years should have smelled it on the wind, even over the con funk of the exhibit floor. First came the year the badges for all days finally sold out. Then, due to the crowding, there was no more on-site registration. After that, you have to expect the passes, especially passes for all the days, are going to start selling out earlier and earlier. You may not like it, but if you want to go, you need to account for it.
That brings us to the second option. You got your passes, either as an attendee, pro, or press, but you obtained them grudgingly. You’re going, but you hate what Comic-Con has become. You hate all the newcomers getting up in your grill and clogging the works, all those people who don’t have the refined appreciation of comics (or perhaps, nosehair) that you do. The tightly focused schedule you made up as soon as the panel times were published has turned out to be impossible to follow, because the lines for the next one are closed off before your current one ends. God help you if you wanted in on a Saturday Hall H presentation and didn’t factor in camping out beforehand–no really, the missus and I showed up over two hours early for Iron Man 2 last year and still didn’t get in–but then again, that’s a movie, right? Surely you didn’t come to Comic-Con for anything as vulgar as Hollywood?
I understand. It’s disappointing. It can be marginalizing. Bill Willingham does have a point when he’s upset that most of the people in his Fables panel are dressed as the Monarch and Dr. Girlfriend and just saving their spots early for Venture Bros. I had nothing to show for Iron Man 2 but another sunburn, but honestly that’s because Dawn and I made a rare break in our evolved Comic-Con philosophy for the last couple of years. It had no real name until this blog, but now I have decided to christen it “The Jacob’s Ladder Method”, after the 1990 psychological thriller Jacob’s Ladder. In particular, one line from that movie, arguably the crux and theme of the whole film, which I quoted at the very beginning of the article.
Jacob’s Ladder is, ultimately, a movie about accepting death. Comic-Con is not death, but death (as anyone who liberally interprets the Tarot so as to not scare off their client knows) is as much about change as it is any literal cessation of life. If you’re clinging to the Comic-Con you remember, frightened of what it has become, then you’ll be like the film’s protagonist Jacob Singer, able to interpret your experiences only in terms of loss, horror and strife. And, naturally, you’re going to have a really shitty time of things.
Option number three, then, as you might guess, is to make your peace with Comic-Con. Toss out the meticulous schedule you have no hope of meeting. Walk on by that line stretching beyond your vision, where you might waste hours of time only to be cut off in the end from your promised land. Wander free and unfettered by expectation, through streets where it’s entirely safe to be out after dark dressed like Sephiroth. Let the strange magic of Nerdi Gras lift you away, and take you places you never dreamed you would end up.
Now those of you with professional obligations still need to meet them, no question about that. And if there’s a certain panel you just really, really must see, then sure, plan for it… but don’t let it shatter you if those plans fall through. This is the upside of Comic-Con being so big… there are always, always alternatives. Miss the panel you wanted? Check out the art show and score an original print, sculpture, or clothing item for a handful of dollars. Too late for that autograph signing at the DC booth? Wander across the street to the lobby of a neighboring hotel, where you might bump into Ray Harryhausen and get his John Hancock instead.
That latter example happened. I watched it happen. Comic-Con exists in this strange transitory area where paradoxically, because it’s gotten so big, only the biggest A-listers (and in this case, I mean mostly film stars) are walking around with a permanent security detail. You can still meet some of your greatest heroes and inspirations by complete accident, in the most random places, just by virtue of the fact that they’re not *quite* as recognizable and (currently) famous as Jessica Alba. Also because of that phenomenon, they tend to be incredibly flattered and talky when you do recognize them. My wife and I found Peter S. Beagle biding time in Artist’s Alley, with no one else around, and talked to him for almost half an hour, at the end of which he invited us to come back again if we wanted to. Do you not recognize that name? Well we sure did, and in another setting he might have had a book signing line a block long. Another year, Dawn cosplayed as a character from the Lucifer comic series, and no one recognized her aside from the guy who stepped up next to us while we were buying some Copic markers. The conversation went something like this:
Guy: “Oh hey! You’re Mazikeen!”
Dawn: “Yes! Wow, you’re the first person who’s known who I was dressed up as…”
Guy: “Well, I should know. I drew her.”
The gentleman turned out to be Peter Gross, lead penciller for Lucifer, and he took us back to his table and drew us a free autographed sketch on the spot.
Let’s talk a moment about the swag. Again, this is a direct effect of the sheer amounts of promotional money being poured into Comic-Con. You will get handed free merchandise that you can’t get anywhere else, except perhaps on E-bay later when people are auctioning them off for 100% profit (we’ve done this ourselves, figuring we could use the cash more than a second ECTO-1 license plate). Action figures, t-shirts, comics, CDs, beta keys to new MMOs… there’s just no comparison in terms of the sheer amount, variety, and sometimes even quality of what you can get ahold of. Some people run themselves ragged grabbing as much of this as possible, but that strays dangerously close to being unfun. Get what you can, where you can, but don’t endanger your body and soul trying. And if you miss Item X, there’s always Item Y and Z to look forwards to.
Finally, a phenomenon that only recently started, so far as I can tell, is the open promotional party. I don’t know if there’ll be more of them this year, but man I hope so… and the only way you’ll know is to keep your eyes and ears open for the opportunities. What am I talking about? Well, let me tell you about Comic-Con 2009.
Dawn and I were making the rounds of Preview Night, an hour or two after the initial mad rush of swag grabbing had subsided. We are huge fans of Tim Schafer‘s games, and so were naturally drawn to the booth showcasing his latest creation, a Heavy Metal inspired head-trip called Brutal Legend. The booth babe on duty handed us fliers advertising a promo party for the following night, to be held at a Gaslamp District nightclub. No cover charge, just your valid Comic-Con badge. Demos of Brutal Legend, open bar, several bands will play sets. Open bar? Yeah, right. Sure. And let’s see what cut rate bands are playing… yeah, never heard of them… them either… oh, GWAR.
Wait, what the fuck. GWAR? Motherfucking GWAR is playing this party, for free?! I mean, they’re no Metallica, but any metal geek knows about GWAR. There’s no way Tim Schafer is just going to let us wander in off the street, see a free GWAR concert in a small venue, and drink up all his booze.
But that’s exactly what happened on Thursday night. They said open bar and they meant open bar. All night. I finished a drink and held out my hand for another, and that hand was filled with more drink. Then I stood there not twenty feet away as Tim Schafer introduced GWAR, and GWAR pissed green and red food coloring all over us from a giant fake phallus and played an hour’s worth of… well, I won’t precisely call them songs, but you don’t go see GWAR for their eloquent lyricism.
On top of all that, at the end of the night they handed out free Brutal Legend t-shirts to everyone leaving.
Anyhow, fluke, right? Or perhaps having the Blood (and other fluids) of GWAR raining upon you does not go into your ‘This is awesome’ column? (we must agree to disagree). Well, two days later the HBO series True Blood had their own promo party, again open to pretty much anyone who knew about it. This, too, had an open bar all night long, along with pumping music, go-go dancers, and exclusive swag. All free. Well, I don’t think the go-go dancers were free, but they were free to watch.
So just to make this clear, in both cases these parties were not invite-only affairs where some bouncer was checking a VIP guest list, they just required you to know they were happening (we RSVP’ed online for the Brutal Legend party but I don’t think it made a lick of difference in practice). Common attendee schlubs, being fed alcohol and prizes all night long, because they were in the right place at the right time.
Nerdi Gras, ladies and gentlemen. Let go of your fear, embrace it, and the angels will guide you to the heights.