San Diego Comic-Con is at a tipping point.
This was my second year at Comic-Con, so I’m by no means an expert, but I don’t think anyone would argue with me when I say that SDCC has become bloated, unwieldy, daunting and to be honest, kind of miserable, at times. It’s exhausting, insane and becoming less worth it by the year. There’s enough programming, panels and events to fit over a whole month: if that happened, the result would be much like The Hunger Games. But instead, it’s all squeezed from Wednesday night to Sunday night.
This year, there were innumerable moments when I wished I was in bed and wondering why I was operating on 2 hours sleep to hear god awful fan questions (“Can I hear your Bones laugh, Emily?” THERE ARE 189 EPISODES OF BONES TO REFER TO, WOMAN), and this time I didn’t have to set up or break down a booth and work for months before the event to prepare. It was just me, and what I wanted to do. That should be enough, except it’s impossible to do exactly what you want to do at Comic-Con.
It certainly feels like Comic-Con could very well collapse in on itself, that we’re fast approaching a Ragnarokian implosion, something that might be necessary to bring the event under control. Hollywood loves a good reboot, right?
Comic-Con bills itself as for the fans, but I think that’s a naive way of looking at it. Comic-Con is a massive money-making scheme; it’s not for the fans. It’s for the studios that are using Comic-Con and us to do the marketing and word of mouth for them, taking advantage of our passion and love for these characters. Comic-Con can make or break movies. We are killing ourselves waiting in line to watch trailers a few months before we can pay 17 dollars to see them in theaters, or watch them online for free. It’s pretty silly, yet we keep doing it year after year, and feel like we got a show.
Comic-Con has become a place where Playboy has a Bates Motel-themed party. You can’t get in unless you’re somebody, and San Diego’s Gas Lamp quarter is filled with these parties with exclusive guest lists, open bars and/or covers throughout the week. Unless you’re high ranking press or a celebrity, or you’re lucky enough to win a contest, you’re not cool enough to get in, exactly the kind of thing you’d think Comic-Con shouldn’t be about.
Bless Zachary Levi and NerdHQ, who hosted a free-for-all dance party on Thursday night, and hold panels with the benefits going to a good cause. Felicia Day’s Geek & Sundry turned Jolt ‘n Joes into a lounge and party through Wednesday and Friday, open to anybody. These are the kinds of events that Comic-Con should be about, and the equivalent of Slamdance to Comic-Con’s Sundance. Every year, more and more people flock to NerdHQ instead of the Convention Center, to the point where their panels featuring Nathan Fillion, Stephen Amell and Tatiana Maslany sell out in minutes (so maybe it’s not that accessible, but at least your money goes to Operation Smile rather than 20th Century FOX). This is the future of Comic-Con.
If you asked A., who came all the way from Moscow, her face would light up, as she promised to come back to San Diego again as soon as she could afford it. She got to meet Jamie Bamber of Battlestar Galactica, happy to pay his signing fee (even knowing it was irresponsible), and raved nonstop about John Barrowman’s hilarious panel. She also got to walk in to Hall H to see the hunks of Supernatural on Sunday, when many of us were too tired to give a fuck.
Al. flew all the way from Kitchener, Canada, and spent Friday night in line just to see The Hobbit panel, and left before Marvel and the rest of the fanfare. She came with her Mom and sister, who were happy to sleep in the hotel. I got the sense that she was drawn to San Diego for the experience, and wanted to live it, rather than needing to be in Hall H, or obsessed with the shows and movies many of us spent hours talking about while we waited.
D. has been going to Comic-Con for 8 years straight, ever since she moved to San Diego. She lives and breathes it, and coordinates line waiting with her friends, and was in Hall H every night save Thursday, when she only got in line at 5 AM before the 10 AM panels.
If there’s one upside to the lines, its making friends with who you’re stuck with. You meet people from all over the world, people who share many of the same interests as you, and will also pound mercilessly at you for the shows and movies you haven’t seen (do I really have to watch The 100?). Everyone’s different, but we’re all the same, wondering incessantly if we’re going to get into Ballroom 20 or Hall H, and debating how many in the cast will show up for the panel. Many complained, but still others accepted their fate, and were happy to camp outside.
Everyone is going to have a different experience and that is part of the beauty that remains of Comic-Con. Some people camped out to get into Hall H all four nights, and will do the same until they have crippling back injuries, and that’s worth it to them (many I think do it out of imaginary obligation, wanting to prove how much they care about a movie or show or movie star; the longer you wait in line, the bigger Walking Dead fan you are). Some actually go to San Diego to see their favorite comic book writers and artists. Whoa. Many just like to dress up, as Cosplay is an industry and sub-society on its own (and it’s wonderful). Others just want to take in the spectacle, to be where the party’s at. I wonder how many even get in; there were these two elderly women who somehow got seats in Hall H on Saturday, and looked blankly at me when I told them Marvel was up next (“What’s that?”). Seriously?
I love catching the various pilots, months before they come out, discovering the next hit shows before everyone else. The 12 year old who still resides in me who discovered Kevin Smith movies was delighted to see the man himself rejuvenated creatively, and talking excitedly about his next trilogy of movies. I got goosebumps and teary eyed watching and singing along to Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s “Once More With Feeling” in a jam-packed room of Whedon worshipers, as Nicholas Brendon ran up to the stage to sing Xander’s songs with the rest of us, something he’s done for the past four years. That is the power and magic of Comic-Con, that still lives and breathes in corners of the Convention Center. You just have to know where to look for it.
Look, I love this stuff. I check EW, io9, Deadline, Variety, et all, ALL DAY, to the detriment of everything else I should be doing. I love following pop culture news, whether it’s casting, sequels, new films, what brand of shoes Oliver Queen will be wearing. But sometimes, enough is enough, and the negative outweighs the positive, and I think that’s what has transpired with Comic-Con.
I love the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it’s emphasis on the overarching story, and the end credit sequences, and WHAT COMES NEXT, while addictive and something I’m so hard for, puts the onus on release dates, future events, with the story and content in the actual movies almost an after thought, the entree when we prefer the appetizers, dessert and Easter eggs. To be clear, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the best film in the entire MCU (or right up there with Iron Man and Avengers), and it’s the most recent, but once we’ve seen the end credits, our discussion inevitably leads to what’s coming next, rather than what we just saw. That is Comic-Con in a nutshell; it feels like we’re James Woods perpetually scurrying after another piece of candy.
We’re paying tons of money for advertising. We’re waiting in line to see cast and crew promise vague greatness (“No show is like _____,” “Anything can happen on ______,” “Nobody is safe on ______”) or worse, pat their backs for a season well done (“Oh my god, can we talk about _____?”). We’re dooming our legs to a perpetual state of falling asleep so we can hear everyone toe the line when it comes to spoilers or providing any sort of useful information. “You know as much as I do [nothing],” “That’s up to the writers/producers/conglomerates to share,” “I can’t answer that, can I?” or “You’ll have to tune in to find out.” or “Insert masturbatory phrasing here.” The whole thing is decidedly masturbatory.
There’s the bizarre “we just started shooting/haven’t started shooting yet so we don’t really have any footage” dance that is played at EVERY panel, which is followed by groans and cries of protest, like we actually believe them, every time, until Zack Snyder/whomever relents, smiles/winks and says…”BUT here’s a little something.” Then we freak out, clap and are ready for what’s next, rinse, repeat.
The exhibit hall is a paradise, but that paradise has become overrun, like a Heaven with no standards, as you jostle through crowds to buy overpriced Comic-Con exclusives and things you don’t need, while hoping you don’t piss off Lou Ferrigno. It’s nerd Christmas, if everyone was trying to get their hands on the Turbo Man doll. You can meet Evangeline Lily, but you’ll have to sacrifice the entire day to do it.
George Miller and the Mad Max series is great (and Fury Road looks AWESOME), but his arrival into Hall H, and the reboot of Mad Max was marketed and promoted as something that we owed him for, that we needed to worship this legendary man making his first Comic-Con appearance. Even The Hobbit panel, which rightfully celebrated Peter Jackson and company’s extraordinary achievements with LOTR and The Hobbit trilogy, reeked of self-congratulation.
To get into Hall H on Saturday so I could see George Miller, Peter Jackson and the WB, Legendary and Marvel’s panels, I had to get in line at 9:15 PM the night before. And I barely got in, limping into the auditorium five minutes before the first panel, so I can watch these actors on the big screen (I have a better view of baseball players from the Upper Deck than the actors on the stage, oftentimes), no different than if I was watching the panels in the Playback room later on in the day.
It’s impossible to live up to the hype, to be worth the wait. Forget even the 13 hour over night wait. Many of us have been waiting all year for this, setting up impossible expectations. What do we even want to see? My imagination runs rampant for the entire month preceding it, dreaming up wild scenarios where a CGI’d James Spader struts onstage as Ultron, and if not Benedict Cumberbatch or Joaquin Phoenix as Dr. Strange, that I walk up in the red cloak, announced as the new Sorcerer Supreme. Short of Black Panther, Doctor Strange and Ms. Marvel green-lit, with the stars announced and in person/costume, a small part of me was going to be disappointed by whatever Marvel does, and they consistently put on the best show of all. I was astounded by the awesome Avengers: Age of Ultron footage we did see, and loved seeing the cast of Avengers together on stage, as excited as we all were. It truly is a treasure to see your favorite actors in person, to see how funny, charming, cute, nervous and real they are, to see the other side of a character you consider family and friend. But aside from a Guardians of the Galaxy 2 announcement that hardly felt surprising, the whole proceedings were short on news.
Plus, almost all of the sneak peaks, trailers, gag reels and previews are online as soon as we see it. There’s something to be said for seeing it first in an unparalleled atmosphere, with the stars present, surrounded by people who love and cherish these things as much as you do, but I couldn’t help but feel miffed that I could’ve watched everything save the Avengers footage from the comfort of my bedroom. And even the latter could be seen if I wanted to support the scumbags who record grainy footage on their phone/camera and post it on YouTube. I realize I sound like a cranky old man, especially to those who have never been to Comic-Con, but sometimes the fiction is better than the reality.
But I’m a sucker, and if I’m lucky enough to get press access again next year, I’ll be doing this stressful dance again, because I still feel like I’ll be missing something if I don’t. But will I? Even so, I’m going to do it a lot differently. I think I can say goodbye to Hall H, and follow along on Twitter and YouTube like the rest of the world, while getting to see some of the smaller movies and TV shows before they get into Hall H, like Sleepy Hollow, Orphan Black, Intruders, Vikings and Outlander the past couple of years. Or maybe I’ll even go to some comic book panels. What a radical idea.