By Ben Coleman

However overwhelming the SDCC show floor can be, it’s nothing compared to what happens to the city of San Diego afterwards. As the big industry events wrap up and the exhibitors run out of merch a seemingly endless flow of bobbing cat ears and baseball caps spews out of the convention center’s various orifices. The sea of humanity surges up Broadway, most of which is closed to car traffic, and only the insistent hoot of the local trolley exerts any kind of influence on the tide. It’s as though Mardi Gras, Fleet Week, and Halloween formed a throuple, threw an orgy, and 100,000 Starfleet officers beamed in for it. This is a party, a parade, and a hangover-in-the-making all crammed into a fairly small section of historic downtown real estate.

Doomsday prophets bleat fire and brimstone proclamations through cheap megaphones, couples fight, children and adults alike throw little tantrums. Cab drivers and innocent bystanders watch immobilized as people surge around their cars, flies trapped in human amber. There are few booth babes in the con anymore but that’s not the case outside it. The statuesque servers of a hooters knockoff have donned their nerdiest booty shorts and stand in a cluster popping gum and sizing up the crowd. They look like fashion models but in this one case they are hopelessly outclassed by the outlandish fashions on display tonight. A medieval procession of zombie rats threads the crowd banging gongs and brandishing what I hope are foam scythes. A guy in Joker makeup performs sleight of hand for a circle of spectators. For his next trick he needs a 20 dollar bill, anyone have a spare $20? It’s not always easy to tell who’s having a genuine existential crisis and who’s just dressed that way, although the guys dressed as Pickle Rick do give the game away a bit.

Nerds of very stripe and denomination amble herd-like up the main drag, splitting off into tributaries destined for the trendy gastropubs and greasy kebab houses that line the street. Most of these bars and restaurants have outdoor seating on one or both sides of the sidewalk, which means passing through corridors of outlandishly dressed dinner patrons and gawking people-watchers. At one table John Hammond and Dr. Ellie Sattler nibble on apps, Hammond’s signature cane sticking rakishly out of an umbrella stand. Industry professionals in chunky glasses and business casual wardrobes with a little spring of nerdy flair talk shop over light beers, and well-groomed tech bros performatively order surf and turf like they’re background extras in a deleted scene from The Menu. An evil clown fumbles for her ID trying to get into a bar called The Tipsy Crow before her friend, who I think is just a guy with an undercut, reminds her where she stashed it. IDing people can be fraught when they’re wearing three layers of face paint, but the bouncers here are old hands at this.

There’s an old convention saying: “three people can easily make dinner plans if two of them are dead.” Low blood sugar, unfamiliar geography, and wildly different and sometimes contradictory cuisine preferences result in some truly bizarre logic chains that can end up with two dozen Harley Quinns asking for separate checks at The Old Spaghetti Factory. There can be no perfection in consensus, but sometimes there’s linguini. If the servers are a bit brisk it’s because there’s a lot of people to process within a finite amount of time, but the locals I talked to seemed to thrive on the chaos. A trio of valets stationed in front of a posh hotel told me that despite the anarchic atmosphere this wasn’t even close to as crowded as it usually gets. Big conventions feed the economy here, and the sudden influx of big spenders and cheap thrills represents a kind of harvest season. The locals are also incredibly good at spotting convention-goers, to a degree I find kind of spooky. It’s a way of life down here, and even the neighborhood watering holes outside convention center radius regard the spectacle with a kind of detached bemusement.

The pack thins dramatically 8 or 9 blocks north of the convention center and three or four blocks east and west. This is California, after all, and there’s only so much walking anyone wants to do, especially in Black Widow heels. Individual moments of beautiful humanity resolve themselves out of the mix. A pair of Spider-Man dads walk hand-in-hand with their Spider-Son into a fondue place. In a dive bar off the main drag a guy in bright orange power armor sinks three pool shots in a row. He tells me his costume is a  pastiche of three different franchises and hands me a flier for his rock band composed of fellow exoskeleton enthusiasts. San Diego is a town where people form groups like this. In a quiet Irish bar a few blocks in the other direction a pair of Ghostbusters in Bahama shirts slam whiskey shots and black and tans. Upon closer inspection one of their proton packs sports a light-up airplane bottle of Jameson and both of them waft synthetic smoke at the press of a button. They’re part of a ghostbusting reenactment society and have variant rigs to switch between depending on the vibe. They mostly do cons, one of them tells me, “But sometimes we go bowling together.”

Later in the evening a blonde 20-something dressed like a pompadoured punk rock space wizard and her mom, who is dressed like a mom, line up at the rail for cocktails. They tell me they’ve made the drive out from Arizona every year since the 20-something was a pre-teen. They’re veteran Hall H acolytes but weren’t going to break with tradition just because there’s nothing much going in Hall H this year. Instead, they explored some of the smaller panels and walked the show floor and had a perfectly lovely time. These are fans in the purest sense of the word, often dismissed by the nerdy elite because their enthusiasm is directed at properties like Supernatural and Doctor Who. But if fandom isn’t driving 300 miles to sit on convention carpet for who knows how many hours I’m not sure what would be. Dismiss con moms at your peril, they’ve got the keys to the minivan.

As dinner hours peter out the twilight deepens, the neon pedicabs come out and thumping EDM fills the air. Sausage hawkers set up tiny grills on the sidewalks and the smell of sizzling onions and peppers and mysterious meat products is pervasive. Some people stay in costume, some people don club gear, and the Psylockes of the world don’t have to choose. Enormous bald men in sharkskin suits march through the crowd discussing portentous matters through the corners of their mouths. Lines for the trendy clubs start wrapping around the block, and the ambient chatter about comics and movies and video games shifts to who’s going to what bar and who else is going to be there. Nerds who don’t drink much during the rest of the year start to wobble a bit, while the glamorous LA types look like they just walked out of a salon and onto a red carpet.

If SDCC is a fantasy come to life then the after-con is a more porous blending of fantasy and reality. A pass, some cash, and a lot of persistence can get you pretty far on the show floor. But outside the clubs have bouncers and the industry parties have guest lists and your friend Darren only has 2 free seats in his hatchback. It’s much more of a Vegas atmosphere out here, with winners and losers and a lot of people somewhere in between. You can snag a book deal under the right circumstances, or hook up with your con crush, or slam shots with your childhood idol. You can also barf on the wrong person’s shoes and get 86ed from every In-N-Out in Southern California. It’s high risk, high reward, and you can chase the dragon from preview night to Monday morning and become nothing but several grand poorer at the end of it. But people will still show up next year, and the year after, because there’s nothing else quite like it. And thankfully, at least for our collective wallets and livers, it only happens once a year.

Miss any of our earlier SDCC ’23 coverage? Find it all here!