The annual San Diego Comic Con is said to play host to over 130,000 attendees. In 2016, I was one of them. (As proof I offer this picture, wearing the ‘We’re Werewolves not Swear Wolves’ T-shirt – a line from What We Do in the Shadows – which I picked up from Steam Crow).
For those wondering how I scored a ticket, I did it the usual way – I submitted a request, got up at oh-dear-god o’clock in the morning for the lottery, and purchased my entry to whatever days were available when, by good fortune, my name was in the ticket pool for the crucial 15 minute window.
Comic Con was scheduled for the middle week of my three week visit to California – I’m still in the USA as I write and Comic Con ended five days ago. So I’ve had five days to think about my experiences, and to recover a little from the buzz and exhaustion of the event.
San Diego Comic Con: Population shock
The San Diego Comic Con is one of many cons of its type, but currently the largest. It’s getting so big that there are occasional articles in the press about whether it would be better moved to a city with bigger facilities. The organisers are committed to San Diego for a while yet, I understand, but there’s no mistaking that this convention is a great big animal, a leviathan of a convention. A many-headed beast that in part devours itself even as it grows.
The convention starts on the Wednesday night with preview events. I didn’t get a ticket to this, but rocked up once the registration opened so I’d have my badge ready for the morrow. (Americans signing up get their badges posted to them: those of us coming from overseas have to collect them in person.) I did at least get to see the most adorable little Rey, who’d come as Princess Leia the previous year (her mother told me).
Those who know me know that I’m an extrovert, a real people person. My reaction to being at the San Diego Convention Center with THOUSANDS of people either collecting badges or queuing for preview events? To whimper a bit and try to withdraw, snail-like, into a non-existant shell, and then to escape as quickly as possible to a location where I could relax again. Man, oh man, that number of people in one location was a bit of a shock! It was like sharing space in a single building with the entire population of Darwin or most of Cairns.
The Festival of Queuing
The next day I screwed my courage to the sticking place and went once more into the breach, dear friends. I’d heard that Comic Con was a place of very many people and many long queues, so it wasn’t like I hadn’t been warned.
Thursday in the end was a lot more sensible and less confronting than I’d feared. Yes, there were people everywhere, but since we were no longer lining up to get to the registration desk, the bodies were more widely spaced. The convention center is huge, and while it was always busy, I never found it too congested to move.
My first panel was an industry panel – How to Get News Coverage – with small press comics publishers talking about how they get word out. I was looking from a small book press/writer perspective and was able to confirm some things I was doing right as well as getting new ideas.
Things came a cropper with the next panel I wanted to see – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has written a novel about Mycroft Holmes and here was launching a comic, but despite queuing for half an hour, I just couldn’t get in the room. I abandoned the line about 20 minutes after the panel began – I was surrounded by people queuing an hour ahead to get into that room’s wrestling panel – and sought sustenance before trying the next panels on my list.
Those turned out to be 1986: There Can Be Only One, a discussion of the best film of 1986, and then The Most Dangerous Women at Comic-Con: To Bechdel or Not to Bechdel, which included several fabulous women and a fabulous man talking about the Bechdel Test (do two women have a conversation that is not about a man?) and related tests (the Sexy Lamp Test – can your female character be replaced with a sexy lamp without changing the story? – and the Mako Mori test – does your female character have her own story arc that does not exist to support a male character’s story arc?).
Industry and analysis panels were generally very easy to get into – no queuing, no fuss. No need to show up three panels in advance to stake your claim to a chair, and then hang on for dear life through panels that are not of especial interest just so you can see one panel that appeals.
It was a different story, as you may gather from that last comment, for the pop culture panels relating to TV shows and films, where people might wait in line for 90 minutes (or much, much more) to get into a room three panels ahead of their desired panel.
The lines were well managed, on the whole, even when they got so long they had to be redirected to outside terraces. Tents were set up to shield us from the summer sun, along with chains to keep the attendees in the line. Being a singleton in this situation was challenging – no loo breaks – but many folks waited with groups of friends. Some had brought little foldable stools, or picnics…
Exhibitors Hall: the wait goes on
Another big draw of Comic Con is the massive – and I mean MASSIVE – exhibitor’s hall. The big studios have exhibits here, often with giveaways for those fortunate enough to reach the front of the line. Often, the big companies have special edition action figures and other memorabilia only available at the giant US conventions.
This results not only in queues, but in queues for the queues. Sometimes you have to line up to get a ticket that will enable you to line up again for a chance to buy the thing you want. You might be there for an hour or more. On later days, you didn’t need a ticket but sometimes you still had to wait in a queue to join the queue. Sometimes the second queue was capped because it was so big, so you were sent off to browse elsewhere and try your luck again later.
Again, that’s a lot of time spent in lines, this time to buy something instead of seeing something.
But all is not lost – if you have more freewheeling tastes, there are plenty of opportunities to pick up something special with practically no waiting. That’s how I got my Werewolves not Swearwolves shirt, offered by a smaller company with much more unusual designs. I also had a lovely chat with the woman selling the shirts about What We Do in the Shadows and how much we both loved it, and how excited we are that there’s talk of a sequel all about those Not-Swearwolves in question.
Frankly, the exhibitor’s hall can be entertaining enough just to wander around to look at the goods, or at illustrators drawing at their tables, and, more fun still, the people who are cosplaying. You meet them everywhere, of course: in queues, in the halls, as well as here. Among my favourites were the genderswapped Rey and Kylo Ren.
Speaking of whom… did I wait in line for a special edition action figure? Hell, yes. I dithered about it for days, and figured that if the stars aligned I’d get it. I knew from talking to staff at Hasbro that they had ordered in a LOT of the Kylo Ren collectors’ edition figure, and every morning I checked to see if there were any left. Finally, on the last day, having just about determined that I didn’t really want one anyway, I arrived just as there was room at the end of the queue for the queue. The staff, who were used to seeing me moping about, chivvied me into the line I protested I’d given up on, and half an hour later I had my wee little sulky emo Kylo Ren special edition action figure, and I was pretty bloody happy with that.
All that queuing though: therein lies the basic tension of attending Comic-Con – the constant stress and weighing up of ‘do I wait in this line for a few hours to buy The Desired Object That I Cannot Buy Online, or to see the cast and previews of the upcoming season of That Show I Like, and miss out on smaller, less showy panels, or do I try to get to the smaller panels and catch up on That Show I Like when the panel is inevitably shown on YouTube later?’
The latter would seem like a logical decision, except that there really is a buzz about being in the same room as The People From That Show and all the fans, that never really communicates in a YouTube clip.
In the end, I did a bit of both. In a move that may surprise some people, I decided I wouldn’t do the lining-up-the-night-before to get a wrist band that would allow me to queue again the next morning for several hours in the hope of probably getting into Hall H to see the cast and creators of Sherlock talk about Season 4 (which is still being filmed as I write, and which would remain assiduously free of spoilers in any case). Doing so would mean missing out on other things. I just didn’t want my Comic Con to be memories of long lines and sore feet.
I did pay separately for a side event: SherlockeDCC, for Sherlock fans. I figured, knowing Comic Con’s reputation for queues, that this way I’d get to at least one thing that really appealed to me.
I met some lovely people, and was pleasantly surprised when an unexpected guest arrived to answer some questions and then mingle – Steven Moffatt, with his son Louis, who’d played young Sherlock in the last episode of the third season, His Last Vow.
But for Comic Con proper?
I saw several smaller industry, writing, and discussion panels. When I did wait in lines, I chatted to the people around me.
I went early into one room to wait for the American Gods panel and was treated to previews of two new comedies: People of Earth, about a support group for people who’ve been kidnapped by aliens, and Powerless, an office comedy that happens to be set in a DC Universe city where heroes and villains battle it out. Alan Tudyk is in that one, and Vanessa Hudgens. Both shows look heaps of fun!
American Gods, by the way, looks brilliant in both casting and execution and I can’t wait.
I also waited in line for ages to slip in early for the end of the Grimm panel so I’d be there for the Supergirl and then Legends of Tomorrow shows. Ballroom 20 is huge (and is the room used for the Saturday night masquerade) so unless you’re up the front, most attendees watch the trailers and the panel itself on screens. But yes, the buzz was there, and it was cool to see new cast members introduced – Tyler Hoechlin (Teen Wolf) for Supergirl and John Barrowman (among others) in Legends of Tomorrow.
I would have stayed for The Flash panel – another show that I love, even if it doesn’t understand time travel or causality any better than Legends of Tomorrow – but I had a date with an old love.
Buckaroo Banzai: Getting the Band Back Together had a queue all right, full of people who know and love that crazy ol’ film from 1984. But within 15 minutes that room was stuffed to the gills to watch four of the old supporting cast talk about the film and the recent developments.
There’s been a lot of excitement recently because Kevin Smith has said he’s making a new TV series based on it. This Blue Blaze Irregular (code name Wookie) is thrilled to pieces and hopes it comes to pass.
On the panel were (left to right in the picture) musician Gerald Peterson (Rug Sucker, a mostly nonspeaking role, but who told me he’d once played for Renee Gayer’s band in Australia), Damon Hines (Scooter Lindley – he now has a PhD), Billy Vera (Pinky Carruthers in the film, and also a musician) and Pepe Serna (Reno Nevada – one of the Hong Kong Cavaliers).
They told stories of making the film, their careers, and that Kevin Smith has confirmed the series is being made and would like to have cast from the film make appearances if he can.
Finally, and very much worth the wait, was John Barrowman’s own Anything Goes with John Barrowman. He started his one-man chat with a crowded room by striding out in a little Star-Trekish miniskirt and white boots, proceeded to change the boots to white pumps and sang and danced a little of the song Anything Goes, then told outrageous, ribald stories, giggled with manic charm and generally schmoozed the audience that adored him.
The vibe in the room was fantastic, especially when he had to put on a fluffy rainbow skirt because his knickers were showing. There’s a reason he’s beloved, and his naughty exuberance was just the note to finish on – because it was indeed my last panel of the convention. I left in high spirits, a temperament Barrowman had shared with the whole room.
Comic Con, crowd control and accessibility
A word here for the comic con volunteers and staff, who were marvellous in the execution of their duties. They kept lines moving, they kept corridors clear – a particularly important point for general safety but also to ensure that con-goers with mobility issues could navigate more easily. There were special queues for people in wheelchairs and those with hearing difficulties, and plenty of space for mobility devices to move throughout the centre. Not using them myself I can’t speak absolutely for the ease of access, but I often saw people in wheelchairs, mobility scooters, on sticks etc, getting about fairly freely.
Some people got a little bossy by the last day – they were no doubt as exhausted as the rest of us – but on the whole everyone, from attendees to staff, were good natured.
Comic-Con: Worth going?
There’s no doubt that the San Diego Comic Con International is worth attending. If you can snag a ticket, you should go at least once in your life. It’s fantastic if you’re a big fan of pop culture – especially any pop culture related to comics or to the big film franchises like Star Trek.
Be prepared. Go over the program and use the scheduling tool to select the panels you’d like to see. Mix and match so you don’t spend most of the con queuing, but also select which panels are worth queuing for, for you. If possible, go with a friend so you can give each other loo breaks while waiting and generally have fun together.
Cosplay if you want to, but it’s as much fun to talk to the cosplayers and take photos. They’ve put in a lot of effort and appreciate people appreciating them. The little kids are adorable, but I always asked parents if it was okay to take and post pics – then I usually gave them my card so they could look me up on Twitter later to get copies for themselves if they wanted.
I don’t know if I’ll ever do it again. The sheer numbers can be overwhelming and exhausting. The stress of constantly trying to find that balance of whether it’s worth queuing for hours is wearing, too.
But I did it this once, and I’m glad I did.
Perhaps next time I can get in as a creator and avoid all the queues…