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San Diego Comic-Con Special Edition was very special

Special Edition brought a lot of special memories about a very special place.

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I don’t think there will ever be anything like San Diego Comic-Con Special Edition again. For one thing, I doubt anyone will ever try to throw a “big” convention over Thanksgiving weekend again. For the locals, the idea of zipping off to a fan event was certainly doable, but last minute air travel was prohibitively expensive for outtatowners. The result was a strange weekend filled with nostalgia that was like a trip back in time to a smaller, kinder con. 

Before I go on, for a concise business-oriented writeup of the show, I refer you to Rob Salkowitz’s piece for ICv2. Rob and I talked a lot during the show and I definitely endorse his findings. 

As we gradually return to our pre pandemic lives, our rituals and celebrations come back one at a time. If NYCC was an emotional reunion with the people we missed, San Diego’s Special Edition was a reunion not with a person, but a place that has changed us all. On a Saturday night at this Comic-Con, there were no roaring crowds at the remodeled Hyatt bar, no celebrities parading at the Solamar. There were no activations and zip lines and Ferris wheels and carnivals. 

Nearly 20 years ago I wrote my first long form essay about San Diego, and developed my theory of the layers of fandom buried within it, various invasions of types of fandom from comics to Twilight to Funko Pops. Comic-Con is tradition. Whether it’s the Masquerade on Saturday night or the Blood Drive or Scott Shaw’s Oddball Comics panel. Those are traditions that go back to the roots of Comic-Con…and many made it through COVID to this one. Some didn’t, like sleeping out overnight. 

Although “selective about its audience”, Special Edition was far from a flop. There were a lot of people there. CCI isn’t releasing attendance, but there were lines and crowds – although mostly for collectibles. I didn’t spend a lot of time examining the floor but most of the exhibitors were toys, and figures and even back issues. And people seemed to want them, based on the lines I saw.  

As a “Comic-Con Lite” SDCCSE had familiar stuff — costumes and panels and a surprise celebrity appearance — but in numbers that harkened back to the olden days. Everyone felt this was a “throwback” to the late ’90s/early ’00s shows, before Hollywood took over. 

And to be honest…it was very pleasant. The hectic marathon of Comic-Con was just another memory. Instead of the usual clumps of people sprawled out on the floor in exhaustion, I actually overheard someone say “We can go to that, but I’m in no hurry.” I spotted lots of families, and the general vibe was that people who had always wanted to go to Comic-Con but missed the ticket lottery had been able to get in and were very happy about that. 

But let me back up a bit. I arrived on Thanksgiving morning after a 6:30 a.m. flight. I don’t remember much about that. After a nap I ventured out to Lani Coffee for some Kona cold brew and a açai bowl…and thankfully, it was still there post-COVID. The streets of San Diego had the kind of heavy, deserted silence that only a major holiday can bring, and it was genuinely eerie to wander outside the convention center and see nothing but empty sidewalks. Not running into someone I know every 30 seconds was weird. I sat by the pool at my hotel (The Marriott Marquis) and ate my açai bowl in perfect tranquility…not a word I often associate with San Diego. 

Without the fans and lookieloos and clamor, it was clear what regular folks see in San Diego – a beautiful city in a beautiful oceanside setting. I haven’t been to California in the “winter” in many, many years, and it was sunny during the day and cool at night…just right. Later that day I enjoyed a “Friendsgiving” dinner outside…probably the only time I’ll ever have Thanksgiving dinner by the ocean (okay a bay). It was delightful. 

Friday kicked off with the mayor of San Diego doing a ribbon cutting for the new Comic-Con Museum. Mayor Todd Gloria is well-spoken and energetic — I’m told he’s a longtime supporter of the con, and that was evident in his remarks. Unfortunately I didn’t get to tour the museum afterwards (I asked, but they weren’t really doing press tours.) I did go inside in 2019 for that big Batman event, but I imagine a lot has changed since then. 

2019! It took some effort for me to go to Special Edition and give up a potential family gathering but I had to do it. I can’t describe it any better than saying I felt the call to be there. Like monarchs to Mexico, salmon to their spawning ground and swallows to Capistrano: I had to answer this call. 

If I had waited to go to the 2022 show it would have been three years since I saw San Diego, and that was too much time. I wasn’t alone in this. Whenever I met up with my comics tribe at NYCC or Baltimore, everyone asked me one thing: “Are you going to Special Edition?” The glamour of Comic-Con is a powerful spell for us comics folks. I think a lot more creators and industry folks would have gone except for the turkey timing. 

As it happened, there wasn’t a huge pro turnout. Bar Con was almost nonexistent (some will say “Good!”) — it was more like one of those hotel shows where you hang out with the same people every night, not the swirling carnival of the Hyatt bar (but see below). 

A handful of publishers showed up, including Aftershock, Aspen, Top Cow, Scout and Z2. It was weird to see Z2 set up where Rebellion usually is. “I’m standing here but where’s Mike Molcher???” I kept thinking. I had no idea where anyone was so I had to use the program to find people. Artist Alley had a bare handful of familiar faces .

I skipped all the panels and signings, which were all well attended,  I heard. Sales were good, I think. 

I did hear some complaints from artists and vendors about the fact that con-goers could only buy three-day passes. If there had been-single day tickets, more people with flexible schedules might have shown up. As it was everyone came Friday and bought stuff, but the other two days it was the same people and sales dwindled. 

This was brought up several times at the traditional “Con Talk Back” panel on Sunday. CCI’s director of marketing David Glanzer said that the decision to only sell three-day tickets was a financial one. Every company in the event space has taken a huge hit in these COVID times, and as a non-profit, CCI doesn’t have access to some of the money-making methods that for-profit companies do. He referenced several times that the organization needs to make money to put on WonderCon and SDCC ’22 — which is already sold out, as tickets for 2020 will be honored. I imagine there will be dropouts, but this also means no ticket income for 2022. So you can see why putting on another event and maximizing income was a priority. 

Just one more thing about the Thanksgiving dates for the show. Although (as you will read below) I had a great time at this smaller, kinder Comic-Con, if making money was the goal, any other dates would have been better. If the mayor and business groups love Comic-Con and the money it brings in, it’s a shame that someone at the Convention Center didn’t look at the dates for all the shows at the facility and reserve one for Comic-Con that wasn’t hampered by the need to roast a turkey with family members. LA Comic Con and ECCC were held the next weekend and seemed to have bigger turnouts among creators, at least based on my Instagram feeds. Of course the pandemic loomed over all of this, but I think it’s been shown that people are ready to mingle, masked, again. 

But that did not happen, and the result was kind of a mystical journey to the past. Two years ago, at the last big Comic-Con, the 50th Anniversary one, I started asking people about their favorite Comic-Con memories. As I reported at the time, novelist Audrey Niffenegger had the most perceptive description of the con: when to go there, we enter an alternate world where nothing has changed since the last time we were there a year ago. “It’s almost as if coming here is about you having a separate self, and the people here are the only ones who can see your separate self,” she told me. 

This time, a lot had changed in our lives. But the palm trees and sidewalks of San Diego were still there. 

Going to Comic-Con is always a time warp. You spend months prepping and primping and printing, and then suddenly there you are, standing in the same corner, talking to Mike Molcher, sitting in the same bar, walking down the same street as you have always done. It’s Brigadoon. Burning Man. Tradition. 

It’s a real life version of Richard McGuire’s Here, where the history of Earth is viewed in one spot and myriad panels. Only in this time the place was the same, but everything else was weird, like in the fantasy novel where a butterfly’s wing has killed the dinosaurs. 

Friday night I enjoyed a two and a half hour dinner (THAT NEVER HAPPENS AT REGULAR COMIC-CON) with Deb Aoki, Ruth Johnson and Kay B. It was wonderful. Then somehow we ran into John Layman and decided to walk back to the Marriott in search of a BarCon. 

How many times over the last 30 years I had walked from the Hyatt to the Marriott, always with a different cast of characters, but the sidewalks still the same? John and I started talking about how every corner of the con and the city held some memory…meeting an old friend, meeting someone you had never met but always wanted to, seeing some costume or activation you never dreamed of. A hall where I remember talking to Jack Kirby for the last time, a lobby where I shared a moment with Frank Miller, the table where I met Margaret Atwood. The time traffic stopped because a Canada goose was crossing the street. Comic-Con is so intense. You can have five life-changing moments in an hour, and it happens over and over for five days. 

Poor Ruth. It was her first Comic-Con and I kept mentioning it to people because there is nothing old timer Comic-connies love more than hearing what a newcomer thinks of it. She handled the attention with aplomb. But she was also forging her own memories, to be added to over the years. 

When she returns for the full force Comic-Con next year, she may be surprised by the number of activations. Special Edition had three – La Brea in the traditional Tin Fish setting, and Peacemaker by the Hilton Gaslamp. John Cena’s dogged devotion to appearing at the masquerade and the activation — the only “movie star” to show up — was reminiscent of past shows when an Arnold might be the lone nerdlebrity there to bravely promote a film. It was a nice lagniappe from a person who (by all accounts) gives his all. 

There was one other activation we discovered on a night time ramble: the lone Freak Brothers bus on the lawn of the Hilton Bayfront, which looked like some kind of sinister drug bus where you might be lured for a dangerous adventure. I kid — I’m sure it was all very groovy. 

“There used to be ziplines here! And roller coasters!” we kept yelling at Ruth. I’m not sure she believed us. 

Speaking of Peacemaker I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my visit to the activation on Saturday. I met up with Jordan Rennaert, the filmmaker/cinematographer who’s been shooting me for a decade in comics documentaries about Neil Gaiman and Image Comics. We wandered around the convention center remarking on the recontextualization of the familiar places — Jordan noted that he’d shot footage almost everywhere in the building. 

Jordan — and director Patrick Meaney — were also the main players in my “eating scraps” con recap from 2010, the year things blew up and we couldn’t find any food at the Wired Café and had to resort to eating Adam Egypt Mortimer’s leftovers when offered. At the time it seemed like an apt symbol for how movies were shoving aside comics at the show.

In 2021 we decided to go to the Peacemaker activation (which had a steady but not overwhelming line) and were actually invited by the nice PR people to get in line for some free food — hot dogs, tacos, zoodles! And free water. The wait was no more than 10 minutes. “Finally! We’ve come full circle!” I crowed. “No more eating scraps!” said Jordan. And all on HBO’s tab!  It took us a while, but we got the hang of this thing. 

Later Saturday, I went out back of the convention center and watched the sunset. It was quiet and beautiful, a California sunset, the sky all pink and lavender. I never did that before and will probably never do it again. 

I struck up a conversation with a woman sitting near me. She was a convention staffer who normally helps run events in Ballroom 20. This time she was doing smaller rooms and really enjoying it. “It’s just more human this time,” she said. A few minutes later I went back to Artist Alley and someone used almost the same words. “This show is more human to human.”

But not every memory made it. I heard that the old Horton Plaza shopping mall was being torn down. Sunday I went to see for myself…it’s not being torn down exactly, but it is being gutted and rebuilt. At my earliest Comic-Cons, Horton Plaza was the center of activity, from dinners at the Panda Inn to just wandering its crazy quilt of walkways and stairs. A marvel in its day, now it’s outmoded and being turned into offices and apartments. One of my greatest con memories was there, a post dinner group of Larry Marder, Scott and Ivy McCloud, maybe Rick Veitch, Liz Schiller and Derek McCulloch. For some reason, the way that crowd noises are made for movies had been brought up, (the technical name for this is walla) and so we tried it out. Half of us said “peas and carrots” and the other half said “rhubarb.” It worked and we couldn’t stop laughing. 

In 2021, a different group crossed over the bridge from the Gaslamp to the Hilton Bayfront (not built until 2008.) This time, Ruth and I sang some show tunes to honor the late Stephen Sondheim...although none of them were by Sondheim. 

That’s just what I do. I wait until the middle of the night in San Diego and sing show tunes as I walk from hotel to hotel. 

At Friendsgiving Jackie Estrada told me that she goes to Jazz Fest in New Orleans many years, and it’s the one event she compares to Comic-Con. A very specific place and gathering, and a specific art form that people enjoy. All this talk of moving Comic-Con to another city is just crap. You can never move Comic-Con. Whatever is this bond of humans and art and friendship, it is tied to this specific place. It’s like Alan Moore and Northampton. Richard McGuire and Here. Salmon, butterflies, swallows. The tribe must come together in this place for our ritual. 

The Return of Golden Ass, a Very Comic-Con Christmas and more…

A few more notes. 

• Over on a FB group devoted to Comic-Con attendees Special Edition got overwhelmingly positive reviews, with many calling for a regular smaller, fall/winter con. Everyone loved the less stressful, hectic nature of the event, although the lack of comics publishers was noted. This also came up at the Talk Back panel. Everyone was very, very grateful that the show had been put on, and people seemed to want a more tranquil Comic-Con on a regular basis. 

For those who want to go to a smaller, more laid back show, I’d say “Have you heard of WonderCon?” Anaheim has its own glamours and rituals, but a comics convention hasn’t yet taken hold there. I’d love for the Long Beach shows to come back and maybe fill the winter slot. And sure, it would be great if CCI could throw another show…just don’t do it Thanksgiving weekend. 

• The Hyatt Bar is back! After the shattering shuttering in 2019, the fully remodeled bar area has been open for a while. The new design has a larger bar and does away with all the annoying bottlenecks, allowing for a lot more flow of people once things get rolling. I mean, the wait for a drink will probably still be an hour, but you won’t get squashed as much, and the new area allows for spillover into the grand lobby for that “roar of a thousand wallas” sound that we once knew and loved. 

• Speaking of the Hyatt, it was done up in its Christmas décor, as were a few other places. Something I never thought I would see at Comic-Con and another kind of magical touch. I couldn’t help thinking about the potential in a movie called “A Very Comic-Con Christmas” and that is MY title, registered now, thank you very much. 

• Maybe this should have gone into the nostalgia section above, but while I was wondering around the small press area I ran into Golden A.S.S.! About 20 years ago, at a San Diego after party in LA at the Golden Apple, I met a young woman who billed herself as Golden A.S.S. She gave me her card and everyone once in a while I’d find it while I was cleaning up, but I never threw it out …because how could you? And now, here she was all these years later, in the flesh, immanent once more. With a whole line of comics and products that had been coming out steadily. (Golden A.S.S. the character is a super spy who…goes on bad dates.)  She still had a huge smile and going by her Instagram, the rest of her is in pert condition. She told me she’s been setting up at SDCC for a few years…I just never had the time to wander around she see her before. 

Perhaps someone with a sense of humor had laid out the rest of this aisle, because it had Birdwatcher Bernie in the middle, anchored by Golden A.S.S. at one end and Butts on Things at the other end. 

Why this is a business thing: it reminded me that a lot of exhibitors who have been on the regular SDCC waitlist got into Special Edition, and are now moved further up the list. Several told me that was the main reason they set up at Special Edition: to get a guaranteed booth at big SDCC. I hope it works out for them. 

• I know I said Comic-Con can never move, but one of my Lyft drivers told me the show was going to move to Las Vegas! He also told me that New York was going into lockdown over Omicron, so take it with a grain of salt.

It turns out I did go home for Thanksgiving.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Comic Con Special Edition made me feel all nostalgic for the small limited to only a 1000 attendee Con/Fusion back in 1991 – of which I recall was the last ‘official’ San Diego Comic Con held at the old convention center before switching to the new. The only people I remember running into that show were you and Steve Rude. I only managed to come down for Friday and thanks to missing that lousy first Amtrak in the morning by a paltry SEVEN minutes, I missed the museum dedication. However I did learn that taking the Metrolink from Union Station down to Oceanside and switching to The Coaster leaving from Oceanside to San Deigo is the cheapest way to travel other than a Greyhound. Like $20 cheaper. Good for future reference the next time I feel the need to romp and stomp through my old neighborhoods of North San Diego County.

    And that’s all I got.

    ~

    Coat

  2. No Sergio Aragones, my favorite, this year. That’s a good thing for his health, but he’s so special. My favorite cartoonist.

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