The first time I went to Comic-Con the name on my badge was Debra. A friend of mine had convinced me to go and told me that I could borrow his Mom’s badge. This was back in 1999, and the smiling people at the doors didn’t even give a second glance to the borrowed pass I sheepishly offered. A cool blast of the Convention Center’s climate control bathed me as I beheld what seemed at the time to be a strange and wonderful nirvana. Shops covered the floor, everything from demos to small vendors and the big publishers of the day – DC, Marvel, Dark Horse and Image. Comics, obviously, were inescapable. Booths filled with shelf after shelf of them were abundant. On a far side obscure anime and sweet loot from Japan made itself available in a (more or less) pre-internet age. Tables were arranged on the floor to teach kids how to play Pokemon, and interested spectators gathered around a massive Games Workshop demo to see fantasy battles be waged with dice and tape measures. Within minutes I’d camouflaged the not-me name on my pass with a black bordered Camel.
My friend and I walked and wandered until our feet hurt, and then went from panel to panel for a few minutes at a time before seeing Paul Dini talk to a halfway empty auditorium about Batman Beyond and what would become Static Shock. I still remember pieces of that that day. I remember learning to play the Star Wars TCG on the floor with one of the designers of the game. He promised to keep my badge based subterfuge a secret even as his Jedi treated my Imperials to a running series of spectacular beatdowns. Afterwards, because I eventually became bored from looking at all of the amazing things that I couldn’t afford I found myself sitting in the dark watching anime. In one afternoon I saw Vash the Stampede become the coolest dork in the universe, and Excel Saga become something that people needed in their life. Late into the night we went. We saw Klingons put on a show, and then witnessed some of the best bad cartoons ever, which gave me the awful lines that I still quote in impolite company.
That first Comic-Con seemed to me like a place where you could just find yourself in interesting situations. Either there was something wonderful to buy, or a panel to watch or some new lovely thing to see every minute. And I did. When I stepped through the doors that first time with my assumed name, I felt like an impostor. I didn’t know much about anything there and didn’t know Barry Allen from Ben Grimm. But looking around and seeing all of these people around me so obviously and unabashedly loving what they cared about, it made me feel okay to do it too. If cosmic rays created the Fantastic Four, then exposure to that first day at Comic-Con turned me into the nerd that I am now.
The following day I showed up and purchased my own badge. I walked up the stairs, right to the counter and gave the friendly cashier lady a crumpled $20. She smiled as she handed me my change and a badge still warm from the printer. As I walked through the doors, flashing a grin as I flashed my badge, it all seemed like a perfect thing that I never, ever wanted to change. But then, like most things, it did.
2003 : Limited Edition
I don’t think it was exactly a million degrees inside the Convention Center that year, but it certainly felt like it. I’m not going to lie and say that stuffing 70,000 people inside 1 massive space is ever going to be great; but there’s something about the stale smell of sweat and food grease that lingers in the air. I remember that the summer of 2003 was probably the last of the Comic-Cons that was most like my first.
This was the year that even more of the Convention Center was opened up, and attendance began to increase exponentially. When I first came, the Con had 40,000 attendees, and in just 4 years that had grown to 70,000 and before continuing to spiral ever higher. In the 2003 incarnation the massive and mythical Hall H was not being used yet, so all of the mass was combined into the areas of the floor and panel rooms. The pressure inside the convention was palpable, and the blazing San Diego sun did its part to make parts of the convention feel oppressive.
But if anything, 2003 was Comic-Con turned up to 11, and that had everything to do with what was happening in the greater nerd culture. In 2000 a relatively unknown director had released a modestly budgeted film called X-Men, which turned into be a massive success. Now comic book movies became the thing that studios would fashion into summer blockbusters. But movies take time to make, and it turns out that the entire production pipeline of a comic book movie is about 2 years. So in 2003, the greater entertainment world had just come off of the high of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and was about to become privy to the hotly anticipated X2: X-Men United. But that wasn’t all, because also coming out in 2003 was the final installments of the super geek fantasies The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings.
It was, for lack of less cliched terms – a perfect storm in the zeitgeist and Comic-Con became the epicenter of it all. The movie studios and comic companies brought their best for the first time, and movie stars became the draw. People could see famous people, and get their autographs and watch them talk about their newest projects. There were always actors at Comic-Con, but these were bona fide movie stars. The feeling in the place was electric because it was all new. I waited and watched friends of mine wait in line to get autographs and exchange pleasantries with Angelina Jolie, and others. The organizers hadn’t expected anything like this, and it lent an intimate and ad hoc feel to everything.
Of course in 2003 it somehow became cool to like superheroes and the greater nerd fandom. Coincidentally something like SDCC was the place to be, which spiked attendance and led to the stopping of badge sales once the Fire Marshal was called in. But you could feel the change in the air. Before Comic-Con was an expression of a fandom’s love for things, then 2003 was the year that it subtly shifted to being an expression of advertising. Instead of being about something that you did love, it was about hearing about the upcoming things you would love. The blockbuster culture of 2003 cast a small ripple that would reverberate outwards and become a tidal wave in the years to come.
Around the Con, this influx of people and star power seemed to have very little effect on the whole. If anything in certain places it was less crowded while the attendees were even more varied than normal. So there I was sitting across the table from 2 voice actors, and we were playing in a 2 Headed Giant Magic tournament. We spent most of the time cracking jokes and fucking around before I asked, “Why are you here though?”
“Oh, well you see,” the one on the left said, “We’re supposed to be here to talk about our new show.”
“Yeah, what voices do you do on it?” I asked, playing my cards.
“Most of them,” he nodded. “But the network wanted us here so that we could do a panel.”
“How’d it go?” I asked, drawing a card and scowling.
“Eh?” the other voice actor said, in a timbre I never could figure out. “It was cool. It would’ve been more cool if more people showed up, but the ones that were there like, knew more about the characters and universe than I do, and I get to read scripts. And, we attack for 6.”
“Could you kill that?” I asked my partner, who obliged.
“What do you think about Comic-Con this year?” the first voice actor asked. “With all the actors and stuff.”
“This was fine,” I said. “If people want to go see things for movies, good for them. I’m happy for them. I still get to do all of the things I like about Comic-Con, so what difference does it make?”
“I dunno,” he said. “If that’s the thing people are coming for, we’re the ones that are in their way, aren’t we? Maybe in a few years, even fewer people will even care that we’re here.”
2008 : The Con in Not Enough
“Fuck Twilight,” he said and took a drag from his cigarette, black coat inky in the sunlight. “Fuck them right in their sparkly vampire asses. Look at ’em all just sitting there in that line. They’ve been there for days now just camping out. It’s fuckin’ stupid.”
We stood and stared at the gathered lines that snaked off towards the bay away from Hall H. A tent village had more or less appeared in the last few days. The earliest ones had set up shop a full 3 days before the Con was even supposed to open, and the rest had appeared like mushrooms overnight. Their stated goal was to be as close to Cedric Diggory née Robert Pattinson as possible, and to a lesser extent, the other people.
“I dunno,” a bubbly girl in a Harley Quinn get up said, “I think the book is pretty good.”
“Is that so?” I asked, having no reason to subject myself to it at the time.
“Yeah it’s good. I like it. And if they want to buy a ticket and spend all of their time sitting outside, then what does it matter?”
“If you say so,” the smoking man said, “I don’t even know why the fuck Twilight is even here. This is the shit that is going to ruin Comic-Con.”
I smiled and took another long sip of my Gatorade. That was the year that my friend Ginger had the idea to bring Gatorade bottles that were 1 part thirst quenching electrolytes and 1 part Russian grain alcohol – a heady mixture he had dubbed Faderade. Already Comic-Con was a place where is it exceptionally easy to talk to people about whatever, and now as I wandered from place to place I found that conversations just like this are happening to me over and over again. Many of them are about the normal things that you can expect to see at the Con. There were new movies coming out, although according to the “experts” both Superman Returns and the new X-Men looked like shit. But for the most part, the conversations inevitably turn to the people camped out in the makeshift tent city.
To a certain extent, the folks that saw what Twilight brought to Comic-Con were not wrong. There had always been a feeling among the Con goers that SDCC was really all about geeky based endeavors. Comics obviously had a place there, along with collectibles. Gaming had worked its way in as well, and once upon a time people griped that since those weren’t “Comic Adjacent” that they had no place there either. But gaming had managed to stay since the Venn Diagram for gamers and comic book readers is almost a perfect circle. But Twilight had a tenuous connection to the proceedings at best. Technically it was a genre film, but the crowd that showed up and built the squatters camp outside of Hall H seemingly had very little overlap with what the rest of the Con was about. Worse, at the time there were whispers that these people in the line were simply going to leave once the panel was over, and that they had somehow bamboozled the rightful badge holder of their SDCC experience.
That’s because 2008 was the first time that attendance was not increased for the Con. There were 126,000 people there, and inside on the floor it became a running joke when you were lucky if you could see a piece of the carpet. If 2003 seemed full, 2008 felt as if it was bursting. Attendance was capped because there was no more place for people to be. Even when 6000 people were encamped outside to see disinterested actors talk about whatever, even that number was too small to be noticed. Of course for every person that got in, there was probably another that couldn’t. This led to 2008 being the first year where people would ask in astonishment, “You got into Comic-Con!?” You could feel that you were doing something special, if only because you knew how many other people could no longer be there.
The large tables and demos that had once littered the floor had become increasingly uncommon, and in 2008 they were exceedingly rare. After all, how could you justify devoting that much floor space when movie studios want to have buy in too? As I stumbled from booth to booth, it seemed to me that there were fewer and fewer interesting things to do, replaced instead by interesting things to buy. So I continued to drink my Gatorade and found myself wanting to wander from panel to panel. So upstairs I went, past the cosplayers on the escalators, trying my best to focus on the crafting that went into building the costumes, and not the bodies that were barely concealed beneath. I failed. I sipped. At the top I discovered the doors to the panels closed, and the single points of entry were guarded by stern looking individuals in matching red polo shirts – the fuzz. Past them, often in small bunches, and just as often in long lines, were people that had gathered to get into the panels.
The way it mostly worked in the past you could just show up and walk into a panel. There you could learn about something, or get a preview of an upcoming comic, or watch a spotlight on the work of comic book royalty. Basically there was nothing that most people would want to sit through. With nothing else to do, and very little money left in my pocket since keeping “hydrated” can be pricey, I queued up. The dude next to me was dressed as Sub-Zero, but the heat had encouraged him to go sans mask. I gulped the rest of my frosty refreshment, and pulled a replacement from my trusty messenger bag.
“So, like, what’s the deal with the lines? I didn’t realize that Cup o’ Joe Quesada was such a draw,” I said, cool buzz slowly transforming into slurred vowels.
“I dunno,” he said. “I think it’s because people get in the rooms and wait around for their thing to start.” He leaned to see if anybody was moving in the line. They weren’t, and the people in front were just sitting.
“You saying that they don’t give a shit about Cup ‘o Joe?” I asked. In past years these things were usually at like 80% capacity on a good day.
“I don’t think anybody really does. Maybe he just gets a spot because he’s an editor at Marvel. But they’re not clearing the rooms in between panels. Like I want to get into the Mortal Kombat vs DC panel coming up, but I don’t think that I can. There’s all these people who want to watch the next thing. It’s so stupid.”
We chatted and invented fatalities for the DC characters while we wait. We hit a wall when we try to figure out what Lobo would do that wouldn’t end in some sort of dismemberment, and whether or not Batman should just have a Brutality instead. Then the line moved forwards 50 feet when Joe Quesada was all done talking about whatever it was that we didn’t see. Of course, we were both sitting at the 75 foot mark, and we don’t get inside. My waiting buddy along with many others all left the line in disgust and abject annoyance. Echoes of, “what a waste of time,” and “this is bullshit” waft off of them, heads down and shoulders slumped. I shrugged, and took another long drink. Hydration, as they say, is key.
Since at this point in my day I was more twisted than a crazy straw, strange notions filtered through my head. Yes, I thought, maybe I would like to dress up as a stormtrooper. Oh, another Catwoman. Hello there. What’s this? Combat outside? I wonder if they would let me play. Probably not without the armor. I’ll tell them I’ll just dodge. Drunken Boxing for the win. Then I saw somebody take a ferocious blow to the helmet that dropped them to an armored knee, and even the vodka couldn’t have made that a good life decision.
I shuffled by a thousand steampunks getting their retro-future pictures taken with camera phones, and the crew of the Zissou having a smoke in the midday sun before I inevitably found myself where I would probably always have found myself, given my morbid curiosity and saturated BAC. The Twilight line stood before me, thousands of people chatting and talking and trying to stay out of the brutal sunlight, lest they burn instead of sparkle.
They serve alcohol at parties because it makes it really easy to talk to people. It has the same effect out in the real world too, which is how I found myself in a conversation with a collection of the so called “Twi-hards.” Wracking my soaked brain for useful information to get me past the casual annoyance of the line campers, I managed, “So, Team Jacob or Team Edward?” Turns out, asking that particular question in the company of fans is like asking Trekkies whether Kirk or Picard is the best captain (for the record – it’s Sisko).
“Oh my god,” said one whose makeup had melted, been reapplied, and melted again. “Edward is such a creep. It’s clearly Jacob.”
“Maybe you’re right,” chimed in another woman. “But Edward is her true love. Jacob is the third wheel.”
“Yeah, he is totally friendzone,” another girl said with a nod of her head, which was meant to lend gravitas to her opinion on a fictional teen relationship involving a werewolf.
“How long have you guys been standing in line?” I ask, remembering my mild disappointment after standing in line for a mere 30 minutes.
“We’ve been here since Tuesday,” the girl in the makeup said. “It’s not so bad, we get to hang out together, and then we’ll get to see Robert.” The crowd within earshot all nodded and purred in approval. When I asked if they wanted to go into the Con proper, I was pleasantly surprised by the answers.
“Well, yeah. Of course we’re going into the Con. We don’t just stand in line all day, and it’s like, Comic-Con. We have a system.”
“Yeah,” I said with a smile. “So do I,” and took another sip.
To this day many Comic-Con goers will repeat the phrase, “Twilight ruined Comic-Con,” but I don’t think that is true at all. What is true is that camping in line to get into Hall H became a requirement, it wasn’t Twilight’s fault. If it wasn’t them it would have been something else. The open panels of yesterday were gone. You couldn’t just wander around and walk into something anymore. Now you had to plan what you wanted to see and build your entire day around it.
This in turn would change the entire rhythm of the Con. Either you wait for things, or you do things, but you don’t do both. Before you could walk the floor, see the sights, maybe get a few autographs and then go see a panel when you were tired. Now you walked until you were exhausted, and left to go relax somewhere else. If you wanted to see multiple panels that were in different rooms, well, you’re just shit out of luck.
2010 – Scott Pilgrim Vs The Con
The Comic-Con in the summer of 2010 seemed like it was going to be something special. Star Trek had just rebooted, Watchmen had come out after 300 blew up the box office and the Marvel Cinematic Universe was in full swing. When it came to culture, Nerd Culture had come to dominate, and we of the Comic-Con class felt as if we were the masters of the cultural universe. New things had begun to appear at the Con in recent years. Of course TV shows had to appear before us, we were the taste makers and we all believed that something would live or die based on the response it got within the walls of Comic-Con. It truly felt like you were walking less into a Comic Book convention and more like stepping into the nexus of the entertainment world.
Online sites were treating SDCC like it was something newsworthy. News vans were outside and reporters crowded into the halls to get the hot scoops of whatever new entertainment projects were on the docket. People were interviewed, and cosplayers posed for television cameras with photogenic smiles. Even so called civilians who had never been to any convention now looked on in awe of the people who had the good fortune to go. And high above plastered on the hotels and standing 30 stories high was Scott Pilgrim. Based on the indie comic, he was a geek playing a bass guitar, fighting for the affections of his true love over his own base instincts (and 7 Evil Exes). He was all of us, a symbol of conquest, our id literally writ large across the skyline.
This spreading of nerd-dom’s cultural supremacy flooded out into the streets. No longer was SDCC contained within the walls of the Convention Center. No, companies wanting to show off their best ideas and their fanciest IP bought out local businesses and radically altered them in set dressing. Late into the night the casual restaurant atmosphere of the Gaslamp Quarter had transformed into parties and special events. This had the effect of making Comic-Con inescapable. Even when you left the guarded glass doors of the Con, you had just entered another part of it.
To a certain extent, this re-created some of the old magic of exploration. You could step outside and find companies wanting to demo things, or show off some niche product that I didn’t realize that I needed before I saw it. The fact that many of these things happened in bars began to transform my time at the Con into an increasingly glossy image of the real world. In 2010, with the lines to see the panels being so long, and the floor becoming more and more of an afterthought, it just encouraged many of us to go outside, to where the real people were. From culture to tech to politics we were living on the bleeding edge of the zeitgeist and it turns out that when there is nothing left for the nerds to conquer – we throw a party.
In retrospect, we should have known that culture is fickle, and soon enough it would all come crashing down. But fuck it, we were the cool kids now. The Avengers were going to be amazing, and nobody knew what a key lime colored disaster Green Lantern was going to be yet. It didn’t matter. None of it mattered. It was a world where we, the nerds, got to share what we love and for the first time we were applauded for it. We were the ultimate hipsters that liked all of modern culture before it was cool.
But we were comics fans, so we should have known better. A hero’s greatest weakness is just his strength turned against them. Peter Parker’s weakness is his responsibility. Banner’s weakness is his rage. Our weakness was our love, and we thought that if our love was strong enough and our support loud enough, we could do anything. And not only did we think so, but everybody else did too. We were winning, but when we remember back to those days and really let ourselves feel it, we know that somewhere along the way it stopped being ours.
We had become the culture, but then it took what it wanted and moved on without us. It didn’t all happen at Comic-Con. One of the great highlights of the convention was when Edgar Wright showed off his newest film – Scott Pilgrim vs The World. He hosted a preview that was well received and had a great panel, but there was a secret in store. Once the panel was over he asked, with a puckish grin on his face, who was excited to see Scott Pilgrim, and the crowd erupted into cheers. Then he said, “Okay, let’s go see it then,” and walked off of the stage and beckoned the audience to follow. Like a Pied Piper he led the bewildered audience to a special theater where they were all treated to a special sneak preview of the entire movie.
The internet, as it does, went orgasmic. Preview reviews popped up, and the massive buzz surrounding Scott Pilgrim was almost deafening. The press who had seen it were effluent in their praise of a film that wasn’t even out yet. This was going to be the thing that proved that it’s not just our IP that made the Comic-Con crowd so powerful, but us. We could make something happen if we just loved it enough.
Then the other shoe dropped. Scott Pilgrim showed that we weren’t quite the force that we had thought we were. The movie, in spite of glowing reviews was a massive box office failure. Even though it had done so well, and had made many “Best of Comic-Con” lists, that praise didn’t translate into ticket sales. Comic-Con was a captive audience, yes, but not one whose reach extended too far outside the walls of Hall H.
Slowly but surely, Comic-Con became less of a place where the unknown became the next big thing. Instead it transformed into a showcase of the biggest media properties. These were things that already had a devoted audience, and whose audience flocked to SDCC in an effort to see their favorite stars, 400 yards away on a stage. These would be the fans that would camp outside for such a chance to see something that they already knew that they would love, and slowly at first but then suddenly, the truly niche things could no longer compete, and were gone.
2013 – Final Print Run
I’m running. It’s 90 degrees and I’m running and sweating and I don’t exactly understand how things came to this. My messenger bag slams against my side as the wife pants and whimpers behind me. A shuttle bus, the Red Line, or as I have come to think of it these last few moments -The Crimson Corsair, pulls into the shuttle stop another 50 yards distant. The driver, whose face I never see, holds up 2 fingers and takes two souls aboard for destinations strange and possibly wonderful. There isn’t enough space for the rest of us, who are left sweating and broken in the radiant San Diego sun.
I play on my phone and think about the upcoming day, feet still sore from the night before. I realize, baking in the already too hot morning sunlight, that the SDCC is slowly but inexorably becoming a slog instead of a pilgrimage. Every year I find that we are becoming progressively more jaded as we try ever harder to keep hold of a childhood that is increasingly sold back to us. To get that next glorious high junk junkies need ever more mixed and remixed versions of things we know to remain entertained. Steampunk Batman! Zombie Rainbow Bright! My Little Dr. Who! Needing ever more potent mixes just to get past the cynicism and get more than the basest of “ehs?”
Nowhere else is this put into harsher relief than the first minutes of Preview Night. It’s the place where nerds get to be, if only for a little while, the 1%. Further it is here where the conflict between those who love and those who make a living re-selling nostalgia is at its most explicit.
At the start, everybody is almost equal, lined up like cattle at a Wal-Mart on the blackest of Fridays, held back at the doors by security personnel who know no backup is coming. Then, the gates are open and the runners are off. It’s a maddening race between the collectors and nostalgia junkies that actually want these fetish objects for themselves and the re-sellers that need to make rent by selling those same objects for a massive markup.
In the end it’s just a farcical game. The vendors have been in line since dawn broke and have secured the best positions and the highest ground. Maybe a few consumers made it through no man’s land, but the majority were cut down by circumstance and the Con-going hordes and walked away with nothing but disappointment for their efforts.
When I asked one of the lucky few who had managed to procure their objects when they got in line they said, “Honestly? I got in line like, at 1:00. So I was in line for like, 5 hours. But I did pre-sell it online already for $500, so that’s pretty good.” As he walked away lugging his goods I felt a swell of annoyance. Since now, finally, along with the panels and the discovery, even the ability to purchase things faded away.
Thursday is a different sort of animal. There’s a direct injection of fresh blood and money onto the floor. It contrasts sharply with the jaded elites from the night before and there’s a feeling that maybe, anything is possible again. That first few hours is a siren’s song to the enthusiasts of all stripes, and the vendors are on their best behavior because on this day, nobody is buying or selling anything. That’s what we call a rookie mistake. But the weird truth of it is that everybody knows this, so if Wednesday night is an orgy of consumerism and those consumed by the past, then Thursday is almost a populist nerd utopia.
Another person stood in line with a hard to buy Comic-Con exclusive under her arm. I asked if getting it was worth the effort. “Yeah, totally. I get to feel superior for like, 5 minutes before it’s up on the internet.”
Meanwhile outside Hall H a massive line had begun to form sometime around Tuesday afternoon, a full day before the Convention would even open. Across the street music pumps out of converted fine dining establishments, and the people in line look like pros. So I asked why they would do such a thing, and they answered with, “I don’t know. We do this every year. It’s like a tradition.” Above them in parties they weren’t invited to, are people that look down on them from the balconies and private bars in the surrounding hotels. There they talk about plans for the future, and what the campers will sleep outside for in years to come.
Saturday is, in many ways, the highlight of the week. At the very least it’s the day where Comic-Con is at its most Comic-Con-esque. It’s the day with the nerds dressed in their finest of consumes and fanciest of threads. If Friday was the appropriation of the festival for the professionals and the hangers on, then Saturday is the day that belongs to the people there the most. It’s at its most crowded, and crazy, and alive on Saturday. Sunday is only a half day, almost a vestigial tail hanging from Saturday’s shapely Wonder Woman ass, and the con-goers know, to varying levels of awareness, that this is it.
Because of that, Saturday feels like the last of the hurrahs for Comic-Con.
It’s overcast and thundering Sunday with a thickly oppressive and omnipresent humidity that is distinctly foreign in San Diego. The feel is different today, different than the pure excitement of yesterday, more like the sharp consumerism of the Wednesday that feels so distant now. So I found myself on the floor, walking around aimlessly and seemingly without any clear goal, until I found myself in the webcomics section of the floor.
I’d seen some posts online about how this was to be the last year that Penny Arcade would be at the convention. It had struck me as something that was deeply sad. I remember once, years previous when I was an indie game developer, I had inquired about booth space at PAX, and discovered that it is considerably above what could be managed on a shoestring budget. So at that year’s SDCC, I had talked to them about it, since they just would just sort of hang out in their booth.
“Have you guys ever considered adding a space for tiny indie games at PAX? You could feature really obscure stuff by startup devs. You know?”
“We have the PAX 10,” Jerry offered.
“Yeah, but, only 10 games in all of what indie developers are doing? What about a space they can share?”
“Honestly,it has to do with space mostly. The Seattle Convention center isn’t nearly this huge. But, yeah. Maybe,” he said with the look of somebody thinking about something. The next year the PAX Indie Showcase was born. I am in no way taking credit, but I like to think that our conversation got some thoughts going which led to something else. I flatter myself that I was the butterfly wings that started a hurricane, but that conversation was one of my favorite to ever come from Comic-Con. Discovering that the Penny Arcade crew would not be attending made me sad. They were a feature, a fixture even, and so I made a point to say goodbye.
“Hey, so like, why are you guys calling it quits?” I asked.
What Jerry said struck me as truth. “It used to be kind of edge and weird and strange, and now it’s gotten much more mainstream.” I nodded and looked around, the WB booth large in the distance. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that, I mean in our culture you either get big or you die.”
That was when Mike looked up from his sketchbook.”Yeah, that and we get a lot more interest and our fan base at our shows.” He looked around with a wary eye, “I don’t even know what Comic-Con is supposed to even be.”
2016 – Splash Panel
When I left 2013, I had no intention of returning to Comic-Con. On my way home I considered what I enjoyed going to Comic-Con for, and how increasingly the things that I enjoyed the most seemed even more impossible than the year before. Apparently this happens eventually for many people that go to SDCC. We like to pretend that we are regulars, and somehow our track record of “I’ve been going for X years” means something to our pride. But I realized that after more than a decade, I simply was no longer having fun at the convention anymore. It had become work- something that I did out of some sense of duty, but not because I really wanted to be there.
But in 2016 something strange and wonderful happened. I decided to go for a few days, and my friend Tali, who had never been to Comic-Con, said that she would like to go. Yes, I thought, this might be fun again.
So off we went and to a certain extent, 2016 was very much like 2013. The same rough feeling of being overwhelmed persisted, but this time I didn’t feel like I was part of it. A sense of cold detachment separated me from the floor, and the disappointment of not seeing the panels. I was there to show her around, I reasoned, and little else.
But something odd began to happen as I hung out with somebody that had never seen the terrible majesty that Comic-Con had become – I was having a lot of fun. I didn’t look at every single thing and consider all that had been lost. Instead I saw that people were there because of the love they share. A thousand corporate sponsors could throw a million corporate dollars at SDCC, but at the end the fans were going to have a great time and celebrate what they felt in their hearts.
We sat in panels for things that I never knew could fill a room, and I got to show her the things that in some way made the Con special to me. It was in many ways just as crowded and terrible as it had been for years, but we weren’t purely focused on the things that I wanted to do. There were educational panels about comics, and we hunted obscure big headed tchotkes on the floor. Whenever I felt the sadness that it wasn’t the same, Tali would flash a smile and want to go do something else I had never even heard of. Soon I began to wonder if this Comic-Con was turning into something for her as special as my first had been.
This is how I found myself on Saturday night waiting in line to get into a party. These Comic-Con parties were always something that seemed foreign and cool, like an otaku girlfriend. But my friend had heard about them and was immediately in on the idea.
So we stood in line, practicing syllables to the secret password through slurred speech, when 2 girls got in line behind us. It turns out that the math of 3 girls + 2 high proof drinks = 1 talkative me. Which led me to strike up a conversation.
The first girl wore her dark hair in a ponytail and glasses upon her freckled nose. She said her name was Michelle, and within a few minutes our extroverted nature sparked into robust conversation. We talked about the cool things we had seen, and the stories that we had found ourselves a part of. If Comic-Con is nothing else, it is a great source of anecdotes. We chatted and/or awkwardly flirted for 20 minutes before I realized that we had never introduced ourselves.
“Oh, wow. I’ve noticed that this happens a lot,” she said with a laugh. “Like, I’ll be talking with somebody at Comic-Con for 15 minutes and be like, wait, I don’t know what your name is.”
“Right?” I said with a smile. “I think it’s because of what this place is. If you’re talking with somebody it’s because you both like the same stuff.”
“Yeah yeah,” she said. “And then I know what their favorite season of Next Gen is, but I don’t know what their first name is.”
“A New Hope is my favorite season of Next Generation,” Tali quipped, and gestured to her R2 dress. We laughed, and introduced ourselves. Michelle was with her long time friend whose name I remember only based on the dress she wore – Zelda; and then got down to the serious business of whether it was season 3,4 or 7.
As a group we practiced the awkward phrasing of the secret internet password, and watched as the line slowly filled with people stretching around the block. As the night dragged us ever closer to showtime we chatted and laughed, and I remembered the thing that really makes Comic-Con worth dealing with – the people. Nowhere else can you find a collection of people so happy to talk to you about whatever nerdy thing you are into. The words come easy, even for the most shy of that cohort it is easy to strike up a conversation. Of everything that SDCC has lost over the years, this is the true heart, and it still beats with a fantastic pulse.
Once the doors opened, we were quickly through, and our well practiced password got us past the bouncer. Inside a cold blue light filled the room and the sub-woofers thumped against our chests. The glass floor shone with unseen lights and neon cast shadows at odd angles into the corners. The beat of the music was a force that you could feel in your bones. The room didn’t just want to make the hairs on your neck stand up, no, it wanted them to dance too.
We sat in the VIP Lounge and drank Martinis and felt like the cool kids, if only for one night. We took ill-lit selfies to mark the occasion, and forgot about them as soon as the flash’s afterimage cleared from our vision. Then we giggled, and talked about nonsense over the increasing volume and laughed at our fortune.
“You know,” Zelda said. “This is the one thing at Comic-Con that has gone exactly right.”
“How so?” I asked.
“Everything else,” she said, “either had a line or sucked. This,” and she gestured with her Rum and Coke, “This is everything I wanted it to be,” and we clinked our glasses in a toast.
Tali and I finished our drinks, and left our new Comic-Con friends in the VIP to head towards the dance floor. She was hoping to see people dancing like weirdos, but instead had to settle for my own flailing to the beat. Soon though, we had forgotten all about that too, and we were just dancing. The set list was customized for this particular crowd, we knew. Somewhere between a techno remix of Tetris and the dubstep Minecraft title music they played a house version of the theme from Space Jam, and Tali straight lost her shit in a moment of pure exultation.
I didn’t know exactly what was going on, but she was there under the misty lights and the music pumped and we danced. Around us were hundreds of other Con goers and each of us was happy in the moment as the thick bass bounced across our hearts and the strobes cast stars in our eyes. We danced and she looked at me with mischievous eyes and I felt that if everything else fell apart, we would have that moment under those neon house lights.
Tali had never been to Comic Con before, and I realized in that moment that she would never feel the loss of what SDCC had been, and she had only ever known what it was today. Maybe there were old timers who saw what it had become back when I took my first tentative steps into this great big nerdy world, and lamented that it wasn’t held in a ballroom anymore.
I screamed and threw my hands into the smoky air and reveled in everything we had lost. I smiled and cried an elegy and let the feeling of now overtake my senses. The Comic-Con that I fell in love with, and whatever Comic-Con that people felt was the ”best,” was never going to come back. Forces that are well outside of our control have slowly but inexorably changed everything and we cannot turn back that clock.
Whatever Comic-Con is now is still important. The people that filled the halls hoping to glimpse whatever they loved are the driving force now. It didn’t matter if I understood or not. SDCC is still in some way the core of the Cultural World, and I felt that if I no longer understood, that it was my fault. If we had owned the culture before, it had since moved on without us. But we didn’t love it any less. And we danced and we smiled, and I realized that somehow, Comic-Con would always be different depending on when you first walked that floor, and graced those halls. It may not mean the same thing, but it will always mean something.
So next year I’ll see you there. Make sure you bring a “gatorade” and don’t buy shit until Sunday. I’ll be the one with the press badge that has a worn Camel stuck inside, and I will tell you a story about what this crazy thing used to be, and we will talk about what it will be next.