On the Saturday night of Con I was walking back from the Hilton Bayfront to the Manchester Grand Hyatt and happened upon the end of a line of campers. While once the madness of Hall H—where the biggest show biz spectacles are held—fell poignantly silent on Sunday, now it was a titanic blockbuster—Sunday’s line-up included the final appearance of Breaking Bad, the final appearance of Matt Smith as Doctor Who and the appearance of Supernatural in the fulsomeness of its midlife.
I hadn’t taken this particular route at night before, and so was stunned to see the size of the tent city of overnight campers for the Hall H activities the next day. It extended as far as the eye could see, halfway down the marina. People were lounging on concrete walls, some as well prepared as Edmund Hillary with sleeping bags, pillows, Nooks, and snacks. Some were just winging it, clad in jeans and shirts, Con badges hanging around their necks. It was only midnight and they had six hours on the chilly concrete to go, only their thoughts and their linemates to see them through the darkest hours.
As I like to do, I struck up a conversation with the fellow at the end of the line. I wish I’d grabbed his name, as he wasn’t what I was expecting—a 17-year-con going veteran who had a clear-eyed view of what he was doing and why. Let’s call him Bill. He explained that he was there for all of the Hall H activities the next day. Despite being camped out 12 hours ahead of time, he wasn’t even certain that he would get in to Hall H although based on where he’d camped last year it was looking good.
“Why camp out, though?” I asked.
“It’s how it is,” he replied. “Twilight ruined Comic-Con.”
Of course, that ruffled my feathers, as this seems to have become the watchword of the anti “geek girl” faction at Con. “Hey they’re fans too!” I protested.
“That’s not what I mean,” Bill explained. “They were the first ones who were so rabid you had to camp out. Before you might have to wait but it wasn’t this crazy. Now everyone is afraid of missing out, so they line up as early as they can.”
“But if it wasn’t Twilight, it would have been Doctor Who,” I offered.
“But if it wasn’t for Twilight they wouldn’t have brought Doctor Who to Comic-Con,” he countered.
At this I just sighed. For the first time, I began to understand why so many protested Twilight—it wasn’t just the demographics of the fandom but the rabid devotion to the source material that had made the lines longer and earlier, a fandom so devoted that last year a woman died for it.
Just at this moment, a security guard came up and announced that a line move was under way. Backpacks and gear were shouldered, and the Army of the North was on the march. I tried to keep up with my new friends but they were a fast moving, though orderly bunch. On we went past Min Rimmon and Eisenach, otherwise known as the special services VIP tent behind Hall H, the Pirate ship—”I heard it was a disappointment,” one woman scoffed—past the TV Guide Yacht and the Freeman portal, halfway to the Marriott, where finally this section of the line settled in for the long night of waiting.
“This looks good, I think we’ll get in,” said Bill, getting out his sleeping bag. I looked at the hundreds or possibly thousands of people out on the concrete and imagined them all waking groggy in the dawn to file in to Hall H, unshowered, brushing of the teeth maybe a finger and toothpaste or some Dentyne. Many people at the Con had mentioned to me that the bathrooms of Hall H are a horrible mess by the end of the day and given the outdoorsy nature of the inhabitants, I could understand why.
“So tomorrow Hall H will be full of 6000 unshowered people?”I asked Bill.
“No, there’s a lot of line waiters here,” he said.
“Isn’t that against the rules?”
“It is but we all do it. I have a wife and two kids, but I wouldn’t want them to go through this.”
Some generations of men brought home the bacon for their families, others fought wars to keep them safe. And now they hold their spot in the Hall H line.
I may be thick, but I finally was getting it. This wasn’t about celebrities. It was about adventure. It was about a shared experience. As I left he line I chatted up the security guard tasked to keep watch over the end of it. He had a smile on his face at the ludicrous nature of what was happening. “These people are crazy?” I suggested. “No argument with that,” he laughed. “Job security for me.”
As I left the eerily quiet line, I wondered again, could Hall H possibly be worth it? When you can read it live tweeted and reblogged and even on video much of the time?
I haven’t been into Hall H since the year of Scott Pilgrim. The year after that I got to moderate a panel in the big Indigo Ballroom—the Legendary comics panel of 2011. And here’s what I can tell you: the presentations in the big rooms are getting more and more theatrical. Producers and performers know that they are on stage and aim to present something that is live and in person that no one will forget.
Marvel—who else—has become a master of this. In 2013 it was Tom Hiddleston as Loki. Let’s think about this for a moment. Did Hiddleston just happen to have his Loki costume in his bag and decide it would be fun to come out? Even though the fast paced, chaotic nature of Con makes everything seem spontaneous, obviously it was all planned well in advance. Whoever did it, knew what they were doing. (When I moderated the Legendary panel we had a meeting, a pre-meeting meeting, and I think a pre-meeting pre-meeting.) Likewise Andrew Garfield and his Spidey costume, and Bryan Cranston and his Heisenberg mask. I dunno if actors now get a “comic-con promotion clause” in their contracts, but I wouldn’t be surprised.
From what I’ve heard and read, Hall H/Ballroom 20 and the Indigo Ballroom are not natural environments for many actors. Appearing in front of 6000 people is a bigger crowd than they might ever have been in front of, (the theater where the Oscars are held holds only 3,401 people.) It’s clear the stakes of the big panels have been drilled into them all.
But reading the details of the stars’ interactions and outbursts, you can see why Being There is still something that can never be replicated. For instance, the ultra-star studded debut of the X-Men Days of Future Past cast, with multiple Oscar winning and nominated actors. And this when Hugh Jackman—who is absolutely without question one of the most charismatic and obliging stars around—was asked, as he always is, if Wolverine would ever sing:
After the cheering died down, he sang, “I’m gonna slice her! I’m gonna dice her!” to wild applause.
Who wouldn’t want to be there for that? Or to be with 6500 of your fellow Game of Thrones fans to see the “Boys 2 Men” tribute video for the first time?
Or to see nearly the entire Dexter cast—even those long dead—together live one more time?
I mean, it’s obvious. This is the crowning moment of fandom. It’s fellowship with your peers and the dreammakers themselves.
Now, I do believe, as someone who is, as Jonathan Ross said of Neil Gaiman, “comics through and through,” that it is far better to walk up to Chris Claremont, or Len Wein or Herb Trimpe or even John Byrne or Scott Lobdell—let alone Mike Mignola, Geoff Darrow, Jill Thompson or any other IP mastermind— and be able to have a civil, one on one conversation with them, perhaps buy them a drink in the bar later. A true experience. At this year’s Comic-Con you could have met Kazuo Koike or Dave McKean or Bob Burden or Steven Grant. You could meet just about anyone who ever cerated something a comic book movie was based on who is still alive except Neil Gaiman or Mark Millar, who have different levels of access. But yeah, accessibility. We have it. Hall H-ers don’t…unless they get into Hall H.
So yeah, I get it. It’s important for those of us who are jaded by experience and access not to shit on the lawns of those who are just trying to have an adventure.
I don’t think Bill is right. I think even if Twilight hadn’t ratcheted up the stakes, some other property would have. And I don’t think the lines will ever get shorter.
(BTW I know the above is old news to those who go to Comic-Con for Hall H, but I am writing from he perspective of one who remembers the COMIC in Comic-Con.)
I formulated a few other theories about “Who attends Comic-Con?” and I came up with a few broad categories:
* Hall H-ers—fans of the material who are looking to get as close as they can. At the high end they may crash a party or know someone who can get them in.
* Tchtchke Fanatics—I know these folks cross over with the above, but I got the feeling that they were what Hall H-ers become when they get too old to sleep on cold concrete for three nights. Standing in line hours for a poster or a poster tube. Bitching when they aren’t as good as last year. They spend their time on the con floor.
* Collectors—these people are the lifeblood of Comic-Con as far as the original comics folks go. SDCC is still the greatest marketplace of the year for toys, prints and limited edition comics. People line up to buy them and to see their favorite artists. (I saw Brit chat show icon Jonathan Ross, unmolested on Sunday in Eton red trousers, standing at an art dealers going over the choicest offerings.) These people are into pop culture on an artistic level and are interested in comics…or maybe comics are their primary interest. These guys are A-okay and spend a ton of money and make Comic-Con okay for the rest of us. And shopping is a key Comic-Con experience—the last hour of the show on Sunday was a frantic scramble and the show floor was packed well after the 5 pm deadline.
* Cosplayers. Might be any of the above groups when not in war paint. Noticeably fewer this year, alas.
• Lookie-loos and douchebags—locals without badges and Hollywood types who come down to party or hang out and get autographs. Kind of part of the same eco-system , DNA wise.
Of the above groups, I think the first two are the most motivated to attend Comic-Con. I hate to say it but Hall H seems to be a life-changing experience for a lot of people. Although I’ve seen reports on this year’s Con that sales were good, and business was booming, I think that’s a far more problematic statement than in past years. Yes, Top Shelf sold more copies of Rep. John Lewis’s memoir March than any book they ever brought to Comic-Con before. Yes IDW sold out of everything. Yes, Fanta sold out and D&Q had strong sales. But elsewhere I heard too many times that crowds were smaller and sales were down. A lot of people mentioned that panels were not jammed, even for Marvel or DC. Whether it was just people stuck in lines for poster tubes, or people outside visiting the interactive Adult Swim house of horrors, these people were not on the show floor. The video game pavilion was moved to Hall A to improve traffic flow but I think people know what they want and know where to go to get it. I think it’s just harder for comics fans to get in to Comic-Con any more, and many have just given up trying.
There was a lot of talk from different parts of the floor about the low traffic. I think there were lots of collectors who were willing to pay for the new offerings like March and get it signed by a legend alike Lewis, but the casual con goer is not at the show any more.
Comics aren’t leaving Comic-Con of course. but their presentation will continue to evolve. That’s proven by all the companies that made their announcements ahead of con like Image and Dynamite, as well. It isn’t a PR lollapalooza for everyone, not when Hugh Jackman is crooning and Loki is declaiming.
One thing that did cross my mind though: the long planned for expansion of the convention center just means that instead of having 130,000 people standing in line for poster tubes it will have 160,000 people standing in line for posters tubes. The con will still sell out in minutes, thousands will still sleep out for Hall H. It will allow more exhibit space and net the show more money and that is a good thing, however, there aren’t any attendee “problems” that will be solved by it. When you consider that the price of the expansion is the charming wasteland at the back of the Hilton Bayfront, it seems a high cost, but so it goes.
A few more observations:
OFFSITES: Offsites have of course been getting bigger and bigger over the last few years. I didn’t get to go to all of them this year, but the ones I did see were genuinely impressive. I’ve written about the Godzilla Experience—an interview with the head designer Barnaby Legg reveals that it took between 50 and 100 people to set up (and I heard elsewhere it took three weeks). For all that effort, you couldn’t help but think it was the dry run for a Universal ride, esp. since Legendary Pictures is now set up at Universal.
Barnaby the experience guy, is probably as key a person at Comic-Con as any. As he told me, “I’ve done several experiences,” while remaining coy about them. I’d be very interested in following an “experience” from brainstorm to execution if any PR people out there want to make that story happen.
I never got to see the Vikings but the Teen Titans balloons from Warner Bros. impressed me as did the Lego hobbits. Last year’s Warner’s area outside the Hilton was kind of gloomy and Batmanesque; this was more life affirming and I liked it. Sadly the grassy knoll where this display is set up will fall prey to the planned convention center expansion so next year it will all be a memory.
I do think there were more people than ever at Comic-Con for several reasons. At the end of each day, the townies looked wan and sweaty, that glossy look that only the truly exhausted can achieve. And on Sunday I did the same thing I’ve done every Sunday at con for the last 10 years or so–had dinner in the Gaslamp and walked to Bob Chapman’s Dead Dog party. But never before on this journey did I have a packed restaurant or did I see people with their badges on staggering down the street at 9 pm on a Sunday. Con had come to stay.
NERD HQ: One thing that did impress me this year was Nerd HQ, the minicon organized by Chuck star Zack Levi. It’s gradually been creeping closer and closer to the con itself —this year it was held in Petco Park, and it offered interactive areas for sponsors like cars and drinks, a FREE lounge where you could see, in the hour I was there, the director and minor cast members of Kick-Ass 2, and a ticketed room to see stars like Joss Whedon, Nathan Fillion, Evangeline Lilly and again in the hour I was there, True Blood/Magic Mike’s Joe Manganiello. Holy shit, that guy is hot. Of Nerd HQ I can only say that it seemed quite chill. (I was there late in the day, however.) Drinks were ballpark prices—$9.50 for a beer—so no one was hanging out to get drunk, and most importantly…everyone had a ticket. Selling tickets to individual Nerd HQ events remains as much of a meltdown as Comic-Con badges itself, so it’s actually a lottery, but the fact that everyone who was going knew they were going without additional lines or anxieties created a relatively mellow vibe very different from other parts of the show. The zen of the attendees was not achieved by the PR people, who seemed totally exhausted with the glassy look alluded to above. Maybe I just arrived at a slow moment, but it seemed like a pretty good time.
TR!CKSTER: and here is where my tale becomes sad. Each year Nerd HQ gets closer and closer to the con. Each year Tr!ckster, the indie comics pavilion, gets farther and farther away. Although some people told me it was just fine this year, several people I talked to mentioned sparse crowds and a listless environment. Also, I was told by several credible sources that Tr!ckster and the Con don’t exactly get along, and that’s part of the reason why it keeps getting less and less desirable locations. I think Comic-Con badly needs a “SlamCon” that is comics and not a fun time for nerdlebrities who can’t get into the EW party. Tr!ckster this year did minimal PR and seemed to be coasting on previous goodwill, not a good combination. Don’t get me wrong, I want it to succeed, but the first two years it was the go to place, this time it wasn’t.
THE OLD CON’S COELACANTH: Now here is an oddity. For those of you who want to go back to con the way it was, the good old days, there is a living fossil right on the con floor, which I hadn’t really noticed before. The area around the DC booth is known as Old Con—mostly publishers and self-publishers of the Spirits era—people drop out but only upon death or retirement and its been mostly the same folks for many many years. There’s the DC booth and next to it Slave Labor in a prime spot they’ve held for 20 years, back when Comic-Con was all about comics. Dan Vado may not be publishing many comics these days but he runs a local bookstore and he knows that giving up this spot would be deadly.
But there across the hall lies the living throwback, the New England Comics booth. On set-up night I was standing with a few people chatting near the DC booth, and without the rush of the fans it was evident just what a throwback the NEC booth is. Indeed, it IS the exact same booth that was set up 15 years ago or so. Talking to a booth worker it was explained that the booth is stored locally in San Diego and brought out, in the fashion of a box of Christmas ornaments, every year. Breakage will inevitably cause some freshening up of the Christmas tree and perhaps New England Comics should take a cue from it. They’ve been offered money to give up their booth—and after talking to a few people, a rumor emerged that it’s considered an “eye sore”. Which it is. Why on earth would you hold one of the most valuable pieces of real estate in the biggest pop culture event of the year and resist updating or improving it? It was the 25th anniversary of The Tick, the only comic anyone has ever heard of that NEC published, and even with this marquee event, the booth remained unupdated except for an out of date QR code on a sign that looked 15 years old. It is a puzzlement.
BAR-CON: I stayed at the Hyatt this year which I was dreading but I though at least I’d be in the bar every night with pals. To my surprise the hotel rooms were the highlight—great update!—but the bar kinda sucked. (Okay I saw a bunch of people I adore there every night, so it wasn’t a total loss.) After years of people saying they didn’t want to hang out at the Hyatt, they actually did it. The Hilton Bayfront was the new bar of choice for most folks, but the one night I hung out there (the one night that the Hyatt was the highlight, natch) it was marred by horrible loud music to make people drink more and ghastly prices. Don’t get me wrong, next year I’ll pitch a tent there, but there was no there there for BarCon this year.
Thursday’s Scholastic and CBLDF parties were the only times that I saw a lot of comics people in that crazy “ohmigod you’re here!” way. They were great bashes, as always. I somehow got invited to the Kick-Ass 2/Playboy party and it was pretty wild and decadent and fun, and I got to hang out with Rob Liefeld there, but I missed my comic-con buddies there, even with all the incredibly strong top shelf drinks.
OKEE DOKE there is a lot more I could say about Marvel and DC and retailers and tea and panels and blah blah, but I’ve made my 4000 word minimum. I want to give a HUGE HUGE SHOUT OUT to sometimes Beat writer
who produced the PW Comics World podcast while Calvin and I were on the road, and most importantly, packed four individual bags of trail mix for the con. I cannot tell you how many times racing here or there I reached into these bags and didn’t collapse in hunger and low blood sugar. They were literal lifesavers, and Kate saved my con.
Also, wow what can you say about
OHMIGOD, Steve did a better job running the news during con than I ever did. This guy is a star people. Someone HIRE THIS MAN.
Also, the Beat’s writing crew—Henry Barajas, Bob Calhoun, Bruce Lidl, Shannon O’Leary, Carolina Cooksey, Nicholas Estey, Dave Nieves, Benjamin Villarreal, and the wonderful photographer Megan Byrd—did an amazing job. Seriously, I could not have asked for a better crew, and you’ll (i hope) be seeing more of them here and elsewhere.
Thanks to Ben, Mike Geszel, Christiana, Zena, Neal Pozner, Josh Frankel, Calvin and Jody, Alexa, Tom Spurgeon for moderating the blogging panel, Graeme and Albert, all the great folks on my Library panel, Chip, Alex, and the Comic-Con staffers David Glanzer, Eddie Ibrahim and Karen Mayugba. All of these people helped out endlessly and I am extremely, incredibly grateful for their help and generosity.
A couple of links and we’re out:
Rob Salkowitz, who wrote the book on Comic-Con, thinks it jumped the Sharknado this year.
Maybe I am jaded, but much of Comic-Con 2013 seemed like, at best, an incremental step forward from 2011 and 2012. Having maxed out the carrying capacity of both the Convention Center and the Gaslamp District, Comic-Con no longer has room to grow exponentially in scale; it can only grow in intensity, like the contents of a pressure cooker. And I’m not sure it did this year.
Things I heard comic-con compared to: a yearly wedding, the Superbowl ads, and my own image: a video game.
I’ll leave the final final word to Tony Isabella, who returned to Comic-Con after a decade and had the time of his life. Because that’s what you do or try to do.
I cannot and will not speak to the business end of Comic-Con. It’s not my area of expertise. Just as a rule of thumb, I’m sure there will always be room for improvement in Comic-Con…just as there is room for improvement in, well, everything else.
However, speaking as a guest and a fan myself, I loved Comic-Con so much that we should probably get a room. I saw the con through the eyes of my loved ones and those eyes were ridiculously wide with astonishment and excitement. Mine were, too.