Rants And Raves: Comic-Con 2014
Highlights, Best Costumes, And Growing Pains
The 45th Comic-Con International just ended (sob, sob) and it’s 342 days until the next one (yay!).
Every time Comic-Con starts I get a rush of adrenaline that carries me through five intense days with little more than a few hours sleep a night. I often trek a couple miles per day, going from one side of the quarter-mile San Diego Convention Center floor to the other. I get to see people that I sometimes see only once a year, and I get immersed in a pop culture haven where saying “No matter where you go…” will get you the proper response of “There you are.” (For those of you who don’t understand that, it’s a line from “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai.”) It’s being around people who not only get your geekiness but partake equally in it. In other words, it’s the one time of the year I feel normal, don’t have to explain myself and have my geekiness appreciated. I did not cosplay (although I do enjoy costuming, but it’s hard when you are also working) but I had people take photos of my Yetee T-shirts of Godzilla and of my Death Star earrings and that made me happy. But when Comic-Con ends, I feel like a kid leaving summer camp and forced to say goodbye to dear friends and having to face the grind of going back to school and a dull real world.
Here are some quick observations about this year’s show:
Topping my highlights were the panels on “Fight Club” going from novel to film to comic (with director David Fincher and author Chuck Palahniuk in attendance) and on a documentary about Frederic Wertham (who many blame for the restrictive comics code). Palahniuk shared a great story about the writing process. He noted that his dad told him two things about sex, one being that you don’t dump someone until you have the next one lined up, that way you are never alone. Palahniuk applied this to writing by explaining that it’s not until he falls in love with the next project that he knows the previous one is done. Only then can he look back on it dispassionately enough to be critical and have the distance to revise it effectively. The Art of Fear panel also had some great advice to writers, the main gist being you have to keep writing and be disciplined about it.
It was great that Benedict Cumberbatch made his first appearance at the Con (although it should have been for "Sherlock" rather than an animated penguin movie) and that Marvel impressively brought almost the entire “Avengers 2” cast out. Media rumblings about how Hollywood was no longer interested in the Con seemed a bit premature. The amount of floor space movie and TV companies took over, the dollars they poured into swag and talent proves that for whatever reason, they still are very interested. But it should be noted that Joss Whedon is at the helm of the Avengers franchise and he is a longtime Con attendee (going back to “Buffy” and “Firefly”) and he gets the Con from both the point of view of a fan — which he is — and of someone marketing a product. So long as there are people like Whedon, Guillermo del Toro and Robert Rodriguez, there will always be a movie presence at the Con.
The new wristband system seemed to make people want to lineup earlier but then relax after receiving their wristbands, feeling like they could leave the line to eat, sleep or — mercifully — shower. People in line looked and smelled better than in the past. But now there’s a whole new market for selling wristbands and Hall H bathroom passes.
Personally, I am finding more and more cool original art in Artist Alley, plus swag seemed to be on the rise after a few years of studios cutting back. Cosplay continues to rise but with an increase in just clever costume ideas as opposed to elaborately impressive designs. Check out my photo gallery or the video above to see what I mean. I loved one couple’s riff on “The Shining” twins and a pair of dads who built great dragon and dinosaur rigs for their kids to wear. I also love the increased late-night programming.
My complaints are mostly about how programming lines up for a day and how that can result in no one getting into a panel they want to see because everyone in that panel is actually there for the panel that follows. On Thursday I went to see the WWE panel because the Soskas (the Canadian twins who made the elegantly disturbing “American Mary”) were there, and then stayed for the panel on psychoanalyzing serial killers in movies. After that was the “Adventure Time” panel so at least half the audience was in “Adventure Time” hats and sat talking or texting through the panels I wanted to see. I’m not sure how to fix this. Clearing the room after each panel might help, but would create a whole different set of problems.
Now Versus Then
When I started going to Comic-Con in the late 70s, my parents used to drop me off and I’d walk up, buy a ticket, and then head into Golden Hall. From the entrance to the hall I could see the entire dealer’s room floor. Things have certainly changed in the passing decades and in some ways this year the growing pains seemed more pronounced.
The size of Comic-Con is deceptive. Its massive size leads people to think it’s put on by some big corporation raking in money hand over fist. The fact is it’s a non-profit organization with just over a couple dozen full time staffers that run three conventions a year. Comic-Con is the biggest followed by Wondercon with APE (Alternative Press Expo) tiny (at a few thousand) by comparison. The people who run the convention are first and foremost fans and pop culture enthusiasts rather than corporate types. They seem a bit incredulous that their geeky little show has grown so big. They never aspired to grow to this size or had a business plan in place to expand at a steady rate but rather they simply wanted to put on the type of show that they themselves would like to attend. That’s why there are popular traditions of Quick Draw (cartoon improv) and Starship Smackdown (a March madness approach to finding one starship to rule them all).
But whether organizers like it or not their little geek fest has gone mainstream and with that has come some changes and challenges. Back in the day, Comic-Con had an intimate feel and although you didn’t actually know everyone who was there you felt that you did. You may not have known people by name but you knew you shared a geeky passion for pop culture – be it comics, “Star Trek,” “Star Wars,” “Twilight Zone,” or something else. You felt a sense of shared experiences, that other people there knew what it felt like to be the kid whose passion for something made them seem weird or who liked something on the fringes of mainstream that made it difficult to fit in with the more popular kids at school. Comic-Con was the place you could go and feel at home, where having seen “Star Wars” 18 times wasn’t something to be proud of and not embarrassed about (unless it was because the number was too low!).
For quite a few years Comic-Con maintained its cozy feel. It was like a small village where everyone was friendly even though they might argue passionately about “Star Trek” minutia or debate the particulars of a superhero’s powers. But going from a gathering of thousands to one of tens of thousands is a dramatic change. Comic-Con can no longer fit in one building. For the past few years it has been busting at the seams of the convention center, spilling out into the surrounding space and sprawling out into the Gaslamp district. When everything was under a single roof, it was easier for Comic-Con to control things. But now at 135,000 plus attendees it is like a city and control is increasingly difficult.
Loss of Innocence
A couple of things that the media has focused on has caused me to think that Comic-Con has experienced something of a loss of innocence. Going into the convention the media focused on cosplayers and sexual harassment, and then during the convention a second wave of media frenzy focused on an injury that occurred during the annual Zombie Walk San Diego (not associated with Comic-Con).
As Comic-Con has spread out into a large campus, it makes it difficult to just maintain the Comic-Con brand. People often assume that everything going on downtown is part of Comic-Con, and that perception is intensified by the fact that everyone doing something near the Convention Center tries to brand themselves as Comic-Con even if they are not. It was probably hard for people to realize that the Assassin’s Creed Experience and Gotham Zipline were Comic-Con sanctioned, but the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles pizza thrower, GamerCon, and Nintendo Game Lounge [correction: Nintendo was also a Comic-Con activation] were not.
Comic-Con insists on family friendly fare (booths with more adult content need to clear it with Comic-Con and panels are not supposed to show anything that might be considered R rated), and doesn’t allow alcohol at its event. But events not sanctioned by Comic-Con do not have to follows these rules or guidelines. So a decade or so ago, Con-goers really only had two choices of what to do after the dealers room closed: go to the all night film room or try to find a place to eat or sleep.
Now there are an excess of parties and bars, and there’s a Gaslamp weekend crowd that has its own agenda separate from that of Comic-Con. And now the two groups are mingling. Which brings us back to the two issues I raised earlier. Comic-Con has a sexual harassment policy in place and if someone does not adhere to that policy they can be ejected from the convention and have their badge removed. But Comic-Con’s ability to enforce this ends at the convention center doors. Plus it is difficult with limited security to monitor everyone’s behavior. Comic-Con, as it grows to the size of a city, is finding that it is increasingly facing the same problems of a small city and may need more staff to address everyone’s concerns.
The Zombie Walk, which occurs during the convention but is not a Comic-Con sanctioned event, used to draw hundreds, now it draws thousands. The incident that occurred on Saturday involved a car hitting a woman. Zombie Walk organizers, through their social media, have said none of their zombies were involved. A video posted on the Zombie Walk Facebook page shows a car trying to inch through the slow moving crowd of zombies and at some point the driver seems to panic and accelerates, at which time a male pedestrian jumps on the hood of the car and punches the windshield. Some media outlets were quick to sensationalize the event with headlines ranging from “Woman Injured By Driver Fleeing Angry Zombie Walk Members” to “Revellers dressed as zombies attacked black sedan smashing window." The video shows something different but it’s a shame that people got hurt at an event that is usually nothing but fun.
I have covered the San Diego Zombie Walk in the past and they have very clear rules about zombie interaction and non-interaction with onlookers. These walks in the past have always been very enjoyable and well behaved. Last year I filmed the walk and I saw parents and their kids, couples, seniors in wheelchairs, a diverse array of people dressed as zombies and all shambling very slowly down the street (since the instructions at least back then were that they be Romero zombies, which means no running).
After Saturday’s incident, the event organizers have cancelled their usual October walk and have, according to their Facebook page, decided to reconsider if they will ever do another walk and if they do how they might handle it differently. That's sad news for zombie fans who have enjoyed this event over the years.
Comic-Con Has Become A City
The incident highlights a few thing. One, the crowds everywhere around the convention have just gotten ridiculously large and hard to manage; two, more non-Con attendees are intermingling with Con-goers; and three, there seems to be more people who have been drinking. That’s a mix of things that can lead to problems for both Comic-Con and for any person or group doing events during Comic-Con on its expanded campus.
These are growing pains and are things that we wish didn’t require being dealt with because we rather spend time on the fun things. Comic-Con organizers have proven resourceful in coming up with ways to deal with everything from limited space to costume weapons check after 9/11. Those of us who have been going for decades like to be nostalgic about what we perceive as a simpler, more innocent time decades ago. But the truth is, Comic-Con has been and continues to be a haven, mecca, paradise -- whatever you want to call it – for geeks. If Hollywood grows weary of comic book adaptations and if the mainstream decides geek is no longer chic, that’s fine. The core attendees who have been going since they were teenagers will always attend because no matter how big or unruly it gets, Comic-Con is home.