There was little trepidation. I had been to big technology shows before: CES and Comdex both sprawled across the vastness of Las Vegas. And as expected, Comic-Con was a more contained event, a more intimate venue, despite its propensity to spill into the streets of San Diego. Comic-Con is not small by any means, but except for a few moments when celebrities without costumes were lead escorted to their signing venues by black-t-shirted security personnel, Comic-Con never felt too big or too inaccessible.
I tried to do it all but failed. I chose to eschew San Diego heat and keep mostly to the air-conditioned venues. I didn’t spend much time exploring the Wired robots, the Simpsons amusement or chowing down at the Blacklist themed café. I did leave the comfort of the convention center long enough to wait in line for my free subway sandwich, complements of Yahoo’s push for Community awareness on its upstart online network.
I rode each day from my outskirts hotel in Old Town, via the trolley, to the convention center, new riders increased the bizarreness of the carriage stop-by-stop until most locals had abandoned all hope. One morning people in all white stood along the tracks reminding us we were the leftovers. We were not the leftovers. We were the pioneers. The people on my train left earth long before the rapture.
Leaving the train the first day, a few people gathered to tell us about Jesus and to save our souls. The next day they were joined with people sharing Godzilla Saves signs and other alternative religious iconography meant not to compete, but to make the everyday Savior seem quaint and out of place.
The Panel Problem and Working the Edge
But access is an issue. The Con’s most famous venue, the venerated Hall-H, along with some of the lesser meeting locations, require stalwart fans to camp just for access. Entrance can’t be timed to any particular show, panel or announcement. Waiting for Hall-H requires a moment of Zen when one finds him or herself, costumed in tune for their favorite show, only to find themselves still waiting in line while the panel they prepared for starts and ends without them. Attending panels in the big halls is an adventure unto itself, a quest and a journey that requires its own mindset.
Hall-H serves the purpose of industry echo chamber. It is the place where new shows launch, where stars become aligned with roles, where the popular come to bask in their popularity. It is a ritual, but I’m not sure how well it serves the studios that clamor for its large, yet constrained space. Comic-Con, for all of the social media that spews from the phones and tablets of attendees, professionals and PR agencies attached to it, the show remains a decidedly pre-Internet experience.
Schedules were available on the Internet in a very disconnected way, but nothing streamed from any of the panels. Exclusive footage, though often purportedly restricted to those in the room for now or forever, was often leaked or purposefully posted moments after the panelists retreated to wherever they retreated. The point is Hall-H could become an inclusive bull-horn for the industry rather than an anachronistic and coddled tradition. Comic-Con brings in enough money that the San Diego Convention Center could install televisions to simulcast the biggest events, and the pervasive tablets and phones could help ameliorate fans that didn’t make it into the hall for the crowning of the latest Marvel or DC cast.
Regardless if Hall-H opens up of the messages associated, the each panel or event will still be able to create its own memorable experience in-room experience for those lucky enough to beam-in or crash through the doors. Given that Comic-Con is such a large event (now over 130K people) perhaps the organizers can figure out a better system for allocating the limited seats available.
The Bullied Say STOP
Comic-Con, despite coverage on entertainment television programs, is much more than movie and television announcement, pre Blu-ray launch panels and celebrities. The heart of Comic-Con lives on the floor, in the smaller, more sparsely attended rooms where they cover academic topics like the future of comics, copyright and trademark law, screen writing and bullying.
Over the last several years Star Trek’s Chase Masterson has encouraged a conversation, and social action, to help eliminate bullying, and help those being bullied find strategies for dealing with it at school and in their lives.
The well-attended session included co-founding of the Anti-bullying Coalition Carrie Goldman (Harper Collins’ Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear) along with panelists Bettina Hausmann (President, United Nations Association, San Diego), Brad Bell (Executive Producer and Star, Husbands), author Anthony Breznican (St. Martin’s Press Brutal Youth; Senior Writer, Entertainment Weekly), Ashley Eckstein (Her Universe; Star Wars: The Clone Wars), Jane Espenson (Executive Producer, Husbands), Dr. Andrea Letamendi (The Arkham Sessions), Alice Cahn (VP Social Responsibility, Cartoon Network), Tina Malka (Associate Regional Director, Anti-Defamation League, San Diego) and Masterson (Star Trek: DS9; Doctor Who: Big Finish).
This session produced a poignant moment when a high school girl shared her experiences with bullying and the failure of the school administration to acknowledge it. I think the audience reacted to her because she brought back memories for many, and the former bullied student in adult guise need to help, and make things right. The panelist and many attendees gathered around the young lady after the panel to offer their advice, their encouragement and their assistance.
This is an important movement because with bigger than life events, the people who make these events what they are, the real people who buy tickets, t-shirts and comicbooks remain outside of mainstream even as mainstream steams toward some uneasy alignment with science fiction and fantasy. Comicbook collectors, science fiction fans and fantasy aficionados, it seems, have matured into a community that is now figuring out that the best way to be different and survive is to stand up for your own.
The End of the Fan Movie
It was an honor to be invited to the Star Trek Axanar event, Prelude to Axanar premiere. This was a “fan made’ movie only because it was made by fans. In terms of production values, level of on-screen talent and special effects, it would be difficult to tell this from a professional production of CBS/Paramount. But Axanar is a not-for-profit. Besides creating a platform that provides the pure joy of being associated with a Star Trek movie for the production crew and actors, the team is trying to make it clear to CBS/Paramount that Star Trek needs to return to the small screen and put into the hands of people who love the show.
Perhaps on a bigger level, Prelude to Axanar has, at least for Star Trek, set such a high bar for “fan made” movies that in the futures the term “independent” would be more appropriate than “fan,” though as noted above, those are far from mutually exclusive terms.
Attendees and the Bubble
My Listening to the Future co-author, and author of Comic Con and the Business of Pop Culture, saw in the 2014 Comic-Con a bubble, and I can’t disagree. There is a huge amount of money being pumped into Comic-Con from large entertainment companies, which now own all of the properties. They have taken the pages and made them bigger than life, and the conference dedicated to the pages, has grown along with that infusion.
How much life remains in this bubble remains to be seen. It may be a lot, but the conference has seemingly lost focus, if it really ever had any. As a small conference run by passionate fans, anything related to the fandom works to reinforce the passion. As a large event, the segmentation of audience and vendors starts to become apparent. There are clearly people who attended Comic-Con and E3 as game enthusiasts for whom the comicbook offer little value. And to old school comicbook collectors, Nintendo games likewise offer little of interest.
My analysis of the event ended up with the following classes of attendees:
• Comicbook readers and collectors
• Science fiction fans
• Fantasy fans
• People into role-playing
• Movie fans
• Genre movie fans
• Television fans
• Genre television fans
• Star watchers
• Genre collectors
• Individual thing fans (e.g., one show, one character, one actor)
• Toy collectors
• Event fans, which include gawkers on the inside and gawkers on the outside without a badge
• Comic-Con fans
• Peter Pans (people, who, like myself, refuse to grow up)
In many cases, individual conferences exist for these audiences. There are Star Trek conventions, Star Wars conventions, Wizard conventions and Harry Potter conventions. The list goes on and on. The bubble is an industry bubble, not a show bubble. The question is how long this self-reinforcing set of creation an consumption can maintain its momentum. Does a bad holiday season or a weak economy suck the air out of a Comic-Con like Smaug taking a deep breath? Does Comic-Con remain forever, what it seems to have become, the accidental glue that holds the genre mediums together, the one place where everything makes sense, feeds off of itself and perhaps, even exchanges enough digital and physical genetic material to maintain its evolutionary momentum?
As a scenario planner, one steeped in uncertainty and never seeking the deterministic answer, I have to admit I don’t know how Comic-Con will evolve, if it will some day find air escaping from a previously unexploited missing scale, or if it will be maintained by the magic that pervades so many of its stories.
Regardless of how Comic-Con eventually evolves, it is currently an edifice to consumption. Lines wound around the floor for show specials, unique cover variants of comicbook covers created their own demand and above the floor, near the unsteady heights set by the big networks, were massive walls of t-shirts and robes, costumes and hats, and a few things for the baby or the dog. Buying $50 or more in T-shirts and merchandise at some venues yielded lucky buyers a child-sized bag (meaning a child could easily fit into it.) I asked one man what she planned to do with the bag when he got home and he said his mother cut them apart and made shirts out of them for the kids. With big prints in, that might be something we see on a future Paris runway.
To some degree, any comicbook convention is about buying and selling. The origin was a place to buy or trade comics. Then it became a place to buy and trade comic-related materials and eventually, a place for artists to offer their art, and to some degree, sell themselves to publishers. In that way it aligns well with business-to-business shows like CES.
But this buying and selling was always on a small scale, individual to individual. With the big media companies, toy companies and others involved, the consumption level has become one of things that really have no relationship to the product. A show special bobble head of Captain Kirk is not the same as a piece of 35mm film directly from the show. The former is a created artifact, the later, a real artifact derived from the process of filmmaking.
Seemingly, the majority of Comic-Con attendees are driven by created artifacts, some that will be cherished I’m sure.
Eating the Eisners
The press was invited to attend the venerated Eisner awards. Like many award shows there were tables for the celebrities, areas cordoned off for press and nominees for second tier awards (like comicbook shop owners) and then another tier of seating for Comic-Con attendees just along for the observation.
I arrived slightly better dressed than on the floor, over dressed to some and overly nerdy to others, and under dressed to some of the better dressed attendees. I said I was with the press and was told where to stand. After 30 minutes of so of geographical and do-you-know-who banter, I went back to the press handler and was told, “sorry, I guess that isn’t the right line. Just get in line behind these people.” So I entered the main line. I arrived at check-in, showed my credentials and was promptly told: “no, this isn’t your line.” The press entrance is at the back door.
I give all of this as background to the observation that this is still a fan run, volunteer conference that has been co-opted by big media. I have been to big media events. They tell the press where to go (especially after they read their reviews ☺) and hire professionals to wrangle us. Not so at Comic-Con. Although frustrating, it was a bit charming that people who looked like they should know what they were doing turned out to be volunteers who had just been told something, then told something else and eventually something else yet again.
The miscommunication and lack of information did not stop with my entrance into the ballroom. As I entered I asked, “so, does the press get to eat?” The response, “only if you get in line.” The nice woman ushering me into the door pointed to the buffet line. So joined the t-shirted and the tuxedoed and starting filling my plate with lettuce. I turned to a member of the wait staff, informed her I was with the press, sitting in the seats, not at the tables, and that I needed silverware and a napkin. I was informed that they only were allowed enough silverware for those seated at the tables as no one else was to be served (this conversation was taking place simultaneously among a number of non-VIP event attendees). A manager arrived, reinforced the message, and told use since we were in line we were welcome to what we had taken, but that no silverware or napkins would be forthcoming.
So I then went to finger food, which resulted in my meal for the Eisner Awards consisting of undressed lettuce and a corn muffin. I ate with my fingers and eventually placed my crumbs and plate beneath my seat with silence and discretion.
The awards themselves were a mix of the Oscars, the Emmy’s and a corporate sales award event, but like the charming disorganization at the events start, they were filled with real people trying to make a real difference through their art and their words.
And the awards demonstrated how far comics had come, yet how closely they retained their roots in the urban settings from which they sprang, with titles like David Aja’s Hawkeye, and how artists and writers still found time children with Vader’s Little Princess and Itty Bitty Hellboy. Titles like the Hernandez brothers collaboration, Love and Rockets, and The Fifth Beatle by Tiwary, Robinson and Baker show just how far the medium has evolved—not to mention Faith Erin Hicks take on girl power in The Adventures of Superhero Girl.
At the end of the night, even though I sat and fed near the periphery, I still felt like I had been witness to a true gathering of appreciation and honor, of respect and reflection. I hope the big media companies, who now sponsor the awards, never decide to broadcast them live, which would force changes in both organization and atmosphere. I do hope they are recorded and placed on the web so that the charisma and the insight can be shared more broadly.
And perhaps if I write well enough about the industry, I will be at a table and offered silverware and a napkin and a table before I feast on the energy of the artists themselves.
Singing My Way Out of San Diego
The Anti-bullying Coalition event was late the last day, and it overlapped slightly with an event that will become my go-to end of Comic-Con for as long as it runs, The Buffy The Vampire Slayer Sing-a-Long” features season 6 episode number 7, Once More With Feeling.
It was absolutely amazing to see a huge room filled with people all singing along to the Wedoned tones of Sarah Michelle Geller, Michelle Trachtenberg, Amber Benson, Alyson Hannigan, James Marsters and many others. When Geller sang “Walk through the Fire” people held up their phones and filled the room with waving LED light (though one guy near me actually held up a lighter). I had years in my eyes, not because of the emotional roller coaster of multiple breakups and one significant unhealthy coping moment at the end, but because of the near tangible waves of good will emanating from the audience.
Here we are, at the end of a weird and magical weekend, sharing a moment of lyric vampirism together, asserting a last gasps of their collective nerdiness ahead of the final bell.
And from there, I walked out, with thousands of others, from the cool artificial breezes of the convention center into the hot dry of a late Sunday San Diego afternoon. It was like waking to a dream too early. The sky was too bright, the colors too sharp. The surreal blur was lifting and it was time to return to the real world. Two days after Comic-Con I gave a speech on the future of libraries at the WiLSWorld Conference in Madison, WI. I proudly presented with my Star Trek Delta Shield earring still in place. Fantasy and science fiction teach us after all, that reality is what we make of it.