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SAN DIEGO – There’s vampires to the left, zombies to the right, and superheroes and sci-fi characters everywhere. It can only be the San Diego Comic-Con. What started decades ago as a mere comic book convention has become a massive Hollywood promo blitz for the hottest science fiction, fantasy and super hero properties in film and television. Actual comic books seem to be more of an afterthought to many, although there’s still plenty of comic book action in the panels and on the convention center floor for those with the interest.


Has Comic-Con become way overcrowded with over 100,000 attendees? Yes. Can it be agonizingly difficult to get into the primo panels? Yes again. But the combination of the costumed revelry with the chance to see some of your favorite media stars promoting their work still makes for a unique and potentially intoxicating event.


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Comic-Con International 2012

(12 Jul 2012: San Diego Convention Center — San Diego, CA)

The lines for nearly every panel are a challenge to overcome and attendees have to be skillful in deciding whether to spend hours in line for one panel, or try to navigate around with a combination of alternate strategies like Jedi mind tricks, scoring re-entry tickets from those leaving a room, or just having perfect timing. It all makes for a roller coaster experience where exhilarating highs mix with disappointing lows. A Buddhist attitude of detachment from desire goes a long way. But if you played your cards right, there was certainly some pop culture fulfillment to be had.


The Walking Dead Escape


Zombies were a big theme all weekend, especially with “The Walking Dead Escape” presenting what was probably the most unique event in Comic-Con history. For $75, the general public could sign on to “live the apocalypse” and run a zombie obstacle course inside the San Diego Padres’ Petco Park. Fans of the immensely popular Image comic book and AMC smash TV hit The Walking Dead also had the chance to sign on to be one of the zombies, with the show’s makeup artists turning fans into the zombies that populated the ball park. The price may have seemed a bit steep at first glance, but for the going cost of an arena level concert fans had a chance to be completely immersed in a zombie apocalypse experience that amounted to the scariest house of horrors ever. Others acted as FEMA personnel, urging “survivors” to keep going and directing them through the course, adding yet another element of gritty realism to the scene.


Running the course proved to be an intense experience, both exhilarating and grueling. Jesse Eisenberg’s “Columbus” character was on point in 2009’s Zombieland when he deemed rule number one in a zombie apocalypse to be cardio. Rule number 18, limber up, was also advisable. Survivors were quickly put to the test, running a gauntlet through the corridors of Petco Park with a near constant onslaught of zombies to elude. If you wanted to get through without getting infected (grabbed by the zombies who had some sort of black light substance on their hands and bodies), you had to move quickly and stay nimble. Survivors soon found out that this was more challenging than it first appeared.


There were several areas where the zombies were on both sides of a passageway, and getting through unscathed was tricky. Many survivors discovered that they were lacking in the cardio department, and the few break areas were a most welcome and needed chance to catch one’s breath. Course designers wisely anticipated this and even had a medic with an oxygen tank at one of the break points, which several survivors needed, while many others were certainly tempted. A couple of younger fans said they ran the course in 11 minutes, but the going rate was closer to half an hour.


If you were over 30-years-old and failed to observe the limber up rule, you probably had sore legs for the rest of the weekend. The survival instinct takes over, as you are possessed to get past the zombies and make it to the end without being infected. When survivors reached the end, the FEMA personnel warned that they had to be checked for infection (with a black light to see what level of contamination might have been picked up.) The experience was downright exhausting for many, as a true zombie apocalypse surely would be, and the designers have to be commended for creating such a uniquely realistic experience.


The Con also included a number of zombie themed panels, all of which were very difficult to get into. There was Zombie Survival 101 (oddly offered on Sunday after “The Walking Dead Escape” was over), History of the Modern Zombie, Zombies, Vampires and Werewolves on Trial, and of course a panel with the cast and crew of The Walking Dead. Zombie mania was also a theme in Thursday’s opening night “Dawn of the Con” party hosted by Rob Zombie, also at Petco Park. Mr. Zombie and a friend merely played DJ though, and it was only too bad that he didn’t convene his band White Zombie to play an actual set. But fans did have the chance to obtain free posters and T-shirts, while a festive mood pervaded.


Archer: Screening and Q&A


One of the weekend’s most popular panels proved to be Thursday’s 5 pm session for F/X’s animated half-hour spy comedy, Archer. With a unique mix of espionage adventure, sexual hijinks, ribald humor and lots of alcohol, the show has grown in popularity each year, now heading into season three. If you were trying to show up and get in right before the panel started, you were going to be out of luck as convention personnel said there were some 2,000 people in a line that stretched through two levels of the Bayfront Hilton next to the convention center. This is where a Jedi mind trick was necessary and feasible if you could blend yourself into the line of people coming from the escalator into the front part of the line about to enter the Indigo Ballroom. If you’re the type of person that’s been whipping up Manhattans to drink along with Archer and his mom while watching the show on Thursday nights, you might have had the mojo to pull this off.


The panel was preceded by a new episode from the upcoming season, in which Sterling Archer gets involved in yet another hilarious mission involving some illegal aliens along the Mexican border. Panelists included voice actors H. Jon Benjamin (Sterling Archer), Aisha Tyler (Lana Kane), Chris Parnell (Cyril Figgis), Judy Greer (Cheryl Tunt), Amber Nash (Pam Poovey) and series creator Adam Reed. Discussion of which actors the cast might choose for their characters if there was a live action Archer movie led to a couple of amusing moments when the crowd suggested that Parnell would be perfect to play himself. Tyler also insisted that she would fight for the role to play herself. One audience member suggested an Archer drinking game and it was only too bad that mini-bottles of whiskey weren’t being passed out as swag.


Wikia Hero Complex Party


Comic-Con doesn’t have nearly as many parties going on as say the annual South by Southwest Music Convention in Austin, but there were a few here and there. Wikia.com held a soiree in conjunction with the LA Times’ Hero Complex at the Hard Rock Hotel’s Bar 207 on Thursday evening, devoted to celebrating the phenomenon of “comic geekdom”. Wikia hosts thousands of multi-media wikis that enable fans to help cover just about everything in pop culture, providing one of the largest pop culture resources on the web.


The party featured themed cocktails such as the Wiki Sour, the Rum Zombie (oddly made with Midori) and the Hulk Smash. There were also some tasty mini fajitas, tacos and sliders, all of which created a festive mood for attendees. Fans had a chance to pose for pictures with a variety of sci-fi props, where lightsaber battles seemed to be the most popular item.


Long lines, really long lines and capped lines


One of the convention’s main events was surely the Warner Brothers session in the main Hall H on Saturday afternoon featuring a preview of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey with director Peter Jackson. Fans were apparently waiting since the dawn for the 2:30 pm panel and if you didn’t have the dedication to show up several hours early you probably weren’t getting in. Fans could still register for a chance to win a trip to Middle Earth (aka New Zealand) for the premiere of the film thanks to a contest held by Weta and Air New Zealand, where winners will fly to witness the premiere in November and visit the Hobbiton set. Fans could also take a picture at the Weta booth with lifesize cave trolls from The Lord of the Rings.


One panel that you could walk right into was Saturday’s 2:45 pm session with Marvel Comics, featuring discussion of The Avengers vs. X-Men mini-series. The room was still pretty packed though, as fans listened to a panel of creatives talk about creating the storyline that matches two of Marvel’s most beloved superhero teams against each other. One panelist asked the audience who they were rooting for in this epic clash, which seemed an odd question. It’s almost like asking a parent which is their favorite child, and the question didn’t gain much traction.


A Wrinkle in Time sounded like an intriguing panel, with a number of prominent sci-fi authors discussing the creative process for writing stories involving time travel. But this panel proved overly popular as well, and was closed off while there were still some 50 more people hoping to get in. This was after the EPIX Originals:William Shatner and Roger Corman panel had been closed off for being full as well, leaving a number of disappointed Trekkies.


True Blood Panel and Q&A session


Ballroom 20 was filled to capacity with some 4,000 fans on hand to see almost all of the cast of HBO’s massively popular True Blood. This included a very pregnant Anna Paquin (Sookie Stackhouse) and her castmates discussing life in Bon Temps, Louisiana and fielding questions from starstruck fans. There was a genuine electricity in the air as fans thrilled to see their favorite vampire and supernatural characters live and in the flesh.


Series creator and executive producer Alan Ball used the occasion to announce that this season would be his last, as he is stepping down and turning the creative reigns over to others. This led to a poignant moment at the end, where actor Stephen Moyer (vampire Bill Compton) praised Ball’s efforts, leading Ball to shed a few tears. Ball said he’d do “eleventy-hundred” more episodes if he wasn’t so old and beat up, paying tribute to the incomparable Bilbo Baggins while indicating what a toll it must take to head such an ambitious creative venture.


Moyer was also praised by the cast for the dedication he displayed in directing the upcoming episode eight, while also continuing on in his regular acting duties. Most fans know that Moyer is English, but many were surprised when Ryan Kwanten (Jason Stackhouse) revealed an English accent of his own during the Q&A. Kwanten went on to provide one of Comic-Con’s most dynamic moments when a fellow cast member suggested he do a hand stand, after which Kwanten not only performed the hand stand but walked across the stage in hand stand formation, to huge cheers. Attendees were given swag tickets which won them a True Blood swag bag that was a mini-backpack holding a t-shirt, book, notebook, a recipe for Bon Temps pecan pie and a stress ball in the shape of a blood drop.


Marvel Studios: Iron Man 3


Hall H must have cleared out some after The Hobbit panel, because if you went straight there from the True Blood panel you could walk right in to attend the panel for Iron Man 3. Another of Comic-Con’s most electrifying moments occurred when Tony Stark – aka Robert Downey Jr. – appeared in dramatic fashion to help kick off the panel. It was one of those unique moments of cognitive dissonance were you weren’t quite sure if the audience was going wild more for Downey or for Stark, as the talented actor and the cocky yet loveable playboy superhero he plays onscreen seem to possess much of the same mojo. Downey was most definitely in character and the audience ate up every minute.


The surreal level of fan mania displayed seemed almost Beatle-esque. But Downey is without doubt one of his generation’s finest actors and he’s brought Tony Stark to life in a way that no other Marvel film character has achieved. Stark’s transformation in the first film from arrogant weapons manufacturer to socially conscious superhero is what Marvel Comics has always been about, a mix of compelling action and adventure with thought provoking character arcs about what it really means to be a hero in this crazy world. This in turn helps explain the popularity of Comic-Con, for nowhere else are so many of pop culture’s greatest heroes brought together in one place.


There was also some compelling preview footage from the film, played at near cataclysmic volume for extra effect. Producer Kevin Feige indicated that the film features a story that really gets into the inner world of Tony Stark, and it certainly looks like another winner. Jon Favreau, who directed the first two Iron Man films, was also on hand. He explained what a unique feeling it was to step back and merely serve as executive producer and actor in the third film, which is being directed by Shane Black, who was also on the panel. Favreau’s character Happy Hogan takes on a larger role in the film, which Favreau intriguingly described as sort of like his character from 1995’s Gen-X classic Swingers at age 40.


Devil’s Playground Star Wars Burlesque show at The Ruby Room


Comic-Con’s main Saturday night closing event is generally Kevin Smith hosting a Q&A in Hall H. But there was another compelling event taking place at The Ruby Room over in the Hillcrest district, where the Devil’s Playground Burlesque troop was billed to be performing a Star Wars themed show. The flyer featured one of sci-fi’s ultimate pop culture touchstones, with a lady dressed in the uber-sexy Princess Leia slavegirl outfit from Return of the Jedi.


The performance was unfortunately mixed in with a lot of sub par hip-hop acts, testing the patience of fans who were there for the burlesque show. But if you’re into Star Wars and burlesque, you’re going to want to catch this Los Angeles-based group at some point. Courtney Cruz and her “Sci-Fi Sirens” are available for private parties and events and feature sexy ladies dancing and stripping as various Star Wars characters – Princess Leia, stormtrooper, a feminine Boba Fett, etc. They’re also known to dabble in the realm of Star Trek and superheroes. San Diego’s own Geezer also performed, a trio of guys dressed as old men performing hits by Weezer and the Beastie Boys. They crushed the Beasties Boys material in impression fashion and any Beasties fan who laments that they will never get to see the group again due to MCA’s untimely departure from the planet earlier this year is advised to check out Geezer.


The last day of Comic-Con was a bit anti-climactic since the biggest panels were all on Saturday, and Sunday is considered sort of a wind down day. Still, that Zombie Survival 101 panel at 2 pm was completely filled and many fans were left disappointed as they were unable to get in.


Drawing with Jim Lee


One of the greatest artists in comic book history, Jim Lee presented a workshop on how to draw like he does. Lee came to fame for many with his brilliant run on Marvel’s X-Men in the mid-90s, where his fabulous artwork had fans salivating for each new issue. He’s now one of the top dogs at the rival DC Comics though. When he asked who he should draw, several fans immediately called out for the X-Men’s Gambit, to which Lee joked that he could no longer draw Marvel characters. He went on to draw Wonder Woman and Batman, with the drawings raffled off to attendees.


One could no more draw like Jim Lee just from watching this session than they could play guitar like Eddie Van Halen from simply witnessing one of his concerts. But it was certainly interesting to have a chance to watch a virtuoso like Lee in action, offering pointers on his style. He also proved to be a congenial personality, happy to share his insights, in contrast to some of the Hollywood types who seemed to be on Comic-Con panels more out of promotional obligation than genuine desire to interact with the fans that make their careers possible.


The convention center floor was quite a scene as Comic-Con 2012 wound down in its final hour from 4-5 pm. Fans were frantically looking for last minute bargains, while many vendors were indeed lowering prices in the effort to clear stock. If you were hoping to score that “Zombies vs. Cheerleaders” graphic novel from Moonstone that you had spied earlier in the weekend, you waited too long because they were sold out. The Zombie Defense Network still had posters, patches and dog-tags for sale however.


In the end, it wasn’t necessarily about how many panels you got into, but rather that you enjoyed the scene. One of the most enjoyable aspects of Comic-Con is simply the people watching. This was frequently more interesting than the panels themselves, as many fans took it upon themselves to be the entertainment. That, in the end, may be the key to a successful Comic-Con.


Greg M. Schwartz has covered music and pop culture for PopMatters since 2006. He focuses on events coverage with a preference for guitar-driven rock 'n' roll, but has eclectic tastes for the golden age of sound that is the 21st century music scene. He has a soft spot for music with a socially conscious flavor and is also an award-winning investigative reporter. Follow him on Twitter at @gms111, where he's always looking for tips on new bands or under the radar news items.


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