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Comic-Con 2008: Bigger Than Ever, But Does That Mean Better?

Marvel Select Skrull Elektra

Comic-Con 2008 was a long weekend of geeked-out bliss and a chance to rub elbows with everyone from tiny independent comic artists trying to sell their books to big Hollywood stars. But it also meant gigantic crowds and impossibly long lines.

Comic-Con 2008: Bigger Than Ever, But Does That Mean Better?

City: San Diego, CA
Venue: San Diego Convention Center
Date: 2008-07-23

Comic-Con International is one of San Diego's signature events. Although it started as a tiny gathering in a hotel basement back in 1970, it has gradually grown into the biggest pop culture gathering in North America. I first attended in 2003, possibly the last year before Comic-Con made the full jump to the behemoth event it is today. Attendance that year was healthy, somewhere in the neighborhood of 80,000 people. Ballroom 20 (seating capacity 4,000) was the main event room, holding panels for upcoming movies such as Van Helsing, The Return of the King, and Freddy vs. Jason. Halle Berry made an appearance to promote the since-forgotten Gothika, while Angelina Jolie was on hand to discuss the second Tomb Raider movie. The Jolie panel remains one of the most surreal events I've witnessed at Comic-Con, as multiple twittering fans, most of them female, professed their undying love and even proposed marriage to the poor woman during the Q&A portion of the panel. This year was my sixth consecutive Comic-Con, and although the organizers began capping attendance in 2007, the event now attracts somewhere between 125,000-130,000 people. The sheer number of bodies squeezing into the San Diego Convention Center (which is a huge, huge building), make it difficult to get around, and even more difficult to get into popular panels. Hollywood's ever-increasing presence at the convention makes the logistics of certain panels less-than-ideal. Besides the requisite big-studio movie panels, television has also carved out a niche in San Diego, to the point where even non-genre shows like The Office and Prison Break had panels this year. The large amount of television and movie-related events run smack-dab into their respective studios' reluctance to allow any of these panels to be scheduled on Sunday, the convention's final day. This resulted in many panels that should have been programmed into Ballroom 20 or the 3,000-seat Room 6CDEF being shoved into the 1,400-seat 6A or its twin, 6B. With demand far outpacing the supply of seats, the lines for these two mid-sized rooms stretched outside of the building and down the steps to the ocean for most of the weekend.


At Comic-Con, you can get a picture with famous people.

Or, robots that used to be famous.

Comic-Con officially begins on Thursday, but anyone who purchases a four-day pass to the convention is invited to Wednesday evening's Preview Night, a chance to wander the main exhibit hall for three hours seeing the sights, snapping up freebies, and buying merchandise. This year, some of the floor's big attractions included Warner Bros. bringing the full-size Owlship from the upcoming Watchmen film and Marvel showing up with full-size suits from Iron Man. Video games also have a presence on the floor, with Sony promoting Little Big Planet and Capcom showing Street Fighter IV, as well as dozens of other games from various companies. Hasbro Toys was a source of major consternation on Preview Night this year, as both of my toy-collecting buddies spent the bulk of their three hours waiting in line to purchase exclusive toys the company was offering, and apparently doling out very slowly. Warner Bros. Television offered Preview Night content for the first time, screening the pilot episode of J.J. Abrams' upcoming Fox show Fringe twice during the evening. Actually, they promoted Fringe heavily all weekend, with a panel on Saturday afternoon as well as more pilot screenings in one of the local movie theaters and another one on top of a parking garage.
Thursday got started for me in Ballroom 20, as I sat through the first panel of the day, a lively, amusing conversation between Marvel Comics legend Stan Lee and edgy writer Grant Morrison. Apparently both are doing work for Virgin Comics, but really, the reason we were there was to secure good seats for the Doctor Who and Torchwood panels that followed immediately afterward. In the 15-minute break before the Doctor Who panel got going, there was an impromptu photo shoot at the front of the room between a couple dozen people dressed up as various incarnations of the Doctor and members of Torchwood. Then executive producer Julie Gardner and writer/showrunner Stephen Moffat showed up and treated us to an hour of hilarious banter and a distinct lack of clues as to anything that will happen on the upcoming fifth season of Doctor Who. But although Moffat is taking over for Russell T. Davies, the man who revived the show, most fans seem to have complete confidence in him. Considering that Moffat has written roughly eight of the show's ten best episodes, the franchise is in excellent hands. As befitting with Torchwood's more adult, sexier edge, that panel was full of innuendo and bad jokes. The show's charismatic star John Barrowman was obviously excited to be onstage in front of a packed house, and he was full of energy for the entire hour. The highlight here came late in the hour, after Barrowman mentioned that he first met co-star Naoko Mori on a production of Miss Saigon. A fan asked if the two of them could sing something from the show for us, and, after a couple of false starts, they belted out a short rendition of... a song I didn't know because I've never seen the show. But it was impressive nonetheless. After Torchwood, I tried to make my way into the last half of the Marvel X-Men comic book panel in room 6B, and ran into the first of many difficulties with that room over the weekend. The line was long and the room was at capacity and closed. Fortunately, it was worth standing there because the next panel in the same room was for the Wizard's First Rule TV series adaptation of the Terry Goodkind fantasy novel. Goodkind was on hand to introduce the show, along with executive producers Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert. As a big fan of the series of novels, I was already full of apprehension about this adaptation, mostly due to Raimi and Tapert's insistence on using first-run syndication as their outlet. Syndication worked great for them in the '90s when they had success with Hercules and Xena, but the format has since all but died off and been replaced by original cable programming. Despite some glowing praise for each other by Goodkind and Raimi at the outset, my worst fears were quickly realized. The name is being changed from Wizard's First Rule to the more generic Legend of the Seeker. Rather than try to do a relatively straight adaptation of the first novel over 22 episodes, the producers will try to make the show as accessible to new viewers as possible, reducing the serialization to a bare minimum due to the "demands of the market (syndicated television)" and merely trying to hit the "high points" of the book. The moderator of the panel asked Raimi about how much of a budget they would have on the show, and his response was a five-minute ramble about how great the characters were. When the executive producer responds to a budget question by talking about characterization, you know they don't have a lot of money. They want to make a great fantasy show that somehow does justice to the original story while being completely accessible to allow new viewers to jump in at any time. It sounds like an extremely delicate balance, and I'm dubious that they can pull it off. The last stop on Thursday was the panel for HBO's True Blood. Coming off of the previous panel, this was like night and day. The presentation itself was a bit of a clunker, but there were a few nice clips from the show. Creator Alan Ball's (Six Feet Under) story of how he discovered the Charlaine Harris vampire novels the show is based on was entertaining, at least. Most telling, though, was the moderator's question about how serialized the show is going to be- "Can a new viewer jump in at episode seven and know what's going on?" Ball's response: "I would suggest that viewers start at episode one. This is going to be a pretty strict adaptation of the first book in the series, and you kind of need to be there from the beginning." The difference between having a supportive cable channel and trying to fight through the restrictions of syndication were immediately apparent.
Friday began in one of the smaller rooms for the Spotlight on Max Brooks. Brooks talked and took questions for an hour regarding his two zombie books, The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z. It was a highly entertaining hour that was highlighted by a lively Q&A and a few anecdotes from Brooks. His story of the "self-defense" lectures he gave to promote The Zombie Survival Guide was hilarious. When he reached the question and answer portion of his first lecture, the first person asked, in all seriousness, "So, if I get bitten on the arm, how much time do I have until I need to chop the arm off to save my life?" At that point he knew that there would always be a portion of his audience that took him completely at face value, no matter how goofy he thought the whole zombie thing actually was. After Brooks, it was off to Ballroom 20 to catch the second half of the three-hour Stargate/Stargate Atlantis panel. I would've preferred to go get in line for the 12:30 pm Spacedpanel featuring Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright, and Jessica Hynes, but that panel went until 1:15. With only 15 minutes between the end of Spaced and the beginning of Joss Whedon's Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog panel, I wouldn't have been able to get into the room for Whedon. Two or three years ago, this wouldn't have been a problem. But at Comic-Con 2008, not only did you have to make the tough choices between two or even three competing interesting panels, but you had to sacrifice other, earlier panels to make sure you got into the ones you had at the very top of your list.

Neil Patrick Harris, Nathan Fillion, and Joss Whedon

joke about Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog

Neil Patrick Harris, Nathan Fillion, and Joss Whedon brought out the entire main cast and his fellow writers for the Dr. Horrible panel. Whedon is often hilarious and always gregarious to his fans, and it's worth seeing him every year. Dr. Horrible has been a gigantic internet success in the two weeks since it was released, and the packed ballroom had clearly watched the 45-minute film. Whenever Nathan Fillion joins Whedon for a panel, the two become a sort of impromptu comedy duo, and this time was no exception. With the addition of Neil Patrick Harris to a Whedon panel for the first time, it turned into a three-way festival of banter. There wasn't a lot of new news given out, except that they were in the early planning stages of continuing the story, and that the DVD release would be packed with extras, including a musical, in-character commentary track. And that they would be taking the 10 best fan submitted video applications to join the Evil League of Evil and putting them on the DVD.

Joss Whedon introduces the cast and crew of Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog

Next up on Friday was a failed attempt to get into the World of Warcraft panel. The line for the 3,000-seat room 6CDEF was so large that it closed an entire hallway and shut out hundreds of fans. So it was back to room 6B at 4:00 pm to get in line for the 5:30 Venture Bros. panel. Getting there 90 minutes early turned out to be a good plan, as the line was massive. As I was standing it line, I was gradually joined by three of my friends. Line-jumping is generally discouraged at Comic-Con, but really, having a friend already in line is the only way to get in to some of the panels these days. Most of the other people in line won't make a big deal about it, especially if you chat with them while waiting. This time became a notable exception when a fourth friend attempted to join us -- he backed off and found something else to do rather than get into a big argument with the guy behind us. Nearly everybody has a few friends at the convention, though, and it's generally understood that buddies are welcome to sneak into the line. Even the omnipresent red-shirted Elite Security staff seem to look the other way on this practice most of the time. The Venture Bros. panel featured some of the best costumes I saw over the whole weekend. It also had a lot of in-character questions from some of these cosplayers, which led to some witty back-and-forth banter between the questioners and show creator Jackson Publick. After that, the Robot Chicken panel was a messy but fun 45 minutes featuring both old and new clips from the show. But the final panel of the day in 6B was the one we were really waiting for, The Mystery Science Theater 3000 20th Anniversary. Comedian and MST3k super-fan Patton Oswalt moderated the hour, which featured every major contributor in the history of the show. Seeing them all together was a treat, as was hearing them talk about the early days of the show and the worst movies they had ever seen. The only thing worse than Manos, the Hands of Fate was deemed Child Bride, described as "Appalachian kiddie porn from the '30s". It, mercifully, never made it onto the actual show.

If you want to get into Hall H at Comic-Con, be prepared to wait in line.

Saturday is traditionally Comic-Con's biggest day, so I set off early to meet my friends who were already waiting in line to get into Hall H, the convention's largest room (capacity 6,500). My friend Brian lives in San Diego and tries to get to the convention center before 6:00 am every day. This usually puts him near the front of whatever line he chooses for the day, allowing him to grab great seats in the first few rows of even the biggest rooms. On Saturday, Brian was several hundred people away from the front. The first two panels of the day in Hall H were for Heroes and Lost, and dozens of people had camped out overnight waiting to get in. Heroes was to be my only foray into Hall H for the entire 2008 convention. Generally Hall H gets all of the big movie studio panels for upcoming genre films, but this was a relatively weak year in those terms. For example, Paramount has Transformers 2, GI Joe, and the Star Trek reboot all scheduled for summer 2009, but they skipped the show entirely this year. And as interested as I am in director Zack Snyder's Watchmen film adapatation, Kevin Smith's Zack and Miri Make a Porno, and Benicio del Toro's turn as The Wolfman, none of that topped my interest in the various other panels they were scheduled against this year.

The cast of Heroes -- all 12 of them plus creator Tim Kring -- appears onstage.

Heroes creator Tim Kring was quoted about a month before this year's convention saying that he would like to screen the season three premiere at the show. He just wasn't sure they could get the episode finished in time to show it. Whether this was actually the case or something he was just saying to keep their presentation a mystery is unknown. Regardless, they managed to get it done and it was quite impressive. Kring even brought along his entire regular cast, all 13 of them, to thank the fans for sticking with the show. After the lackluster second season and declining ratings, the Heroes folks could really use the positive buzz this panel will probably generate. The rest of my Saturday was spent in room 6A and its twin, 6B, which were once again booked with panels that were far too popular for their sizes. First up was the writers from The Office, moderated by Rainn Wilson and featuring a lot of silly questions and not much inside info on the upcoming season five. We squatted in the room through the surprisingly interesting "Comics in Every Medium" panel to get to see the cast of Pushing Daisies. Supporting players Chi McBride and Kristin Chenoweth stole the show on this one. McBride followed his introduction by running across the entire first row of the room and slapping hands with the fans. He also seemed really happy to finally get the chance to do comedy after years of dramatic roles on shows like Boston Public and House. The Broadway-trained Chenoweth was asked by a young girl to sing something, so she belted out an impressive impromptu version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow". Writer J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5, Jeremiah) talked for an hour about his various projects and politely answered all questions at his panel. The highlight of this hour was his story about his screenplay for the upcoming Clint Eastwood-directed Changeling. Straczynski wrote his draft in 11 days, and was shocked that Eastwood didn't want to change anything about the script. The film is already generating Oscar buzz based on its Cannes premiere. It stars Angelina Jolie as a mother whose son is kidnapped, and is based on a true story. Apparently the police told her they had found her son after six months of searching, but when the boy was returned to her, she insisted that they had brought back the wrong child. And the police refused to believe that they had made a mistake, maintaining that she was confused and didn't know her own son. The story gets stranger from there, and it sounds fascinating.

The Mythbusters make their first Comic-Con appearance.

The day wrapped up with the Mythbusters making their first Comic-Con appearance. The crowd went nuts when Adam Savage showed pictures taken on the exhibit hall floor earlier that day, and revealed that it was him dressed up in a fantastic Hellboy costume. I would've liked to have seen this costume, but so much happens on Saturday at Comic-Con that I almost never set foot on the main floor. The panel was also highlighted by super slow-motion footage of Jamie Hyneman slapping Savage in the face with full force, as well as similar footage of a drunken Savage attempting, and failing, to run on a fast-moving treadmill. The duo revealed that they would be devoting an entire episode to "The moon landing was faked" myths, and that the spacesuit Savage was seen wearing in the preview trailer was something that he already owned prior to making the episode.

High-speed camera footage of Adam Savage of Mythbusters getting slapped

Our Saturday ended in downtown San Diego with one of the cool extracurriculars that often accompany Comic-Con weekend. Besides special advance screenings at the two downtown movie theaters, sometimes there are special Comic-Con-oriented shows in town. Hot on the heels of Friday's Mystery Science 3000 panel, show alums Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett presented Rifftrax Live at the Balboa Theater, a beautifully restored theater that has just recently re-opened. They sat onstage, to the side of the movie screen, and proceeded to make fun of "The Citizen Kane of bad movies", Plan 9 From Outer Space. Having never seen the film before that evening, the experience was hilarious.
Sunday is a weird day at Comic-Con. The convention wraps up at 5:00 pm and everybody is pretty much ready to go home. In the past there have been major panels on Sunday, but it's tough to draw a full crowd for anything. I think Firefly is the only Sunday panel I've ever attended in a big room that was absolutely packed. When the convention first started using Hall H, a few studios took the chance and did Sunday panels in there. But since Disney's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe panel played to a half-full house a few years back, none of the studios want to go near Sunday. That being said, Sunday is also kids' day, with many panels directed specifically at children. If I had wanted to, I could have taken in Disney's presentation for the direct-to-video The Little Mermaid: A New Beginning or Nick Jr.'s panel for The Backyardigans and NiHao, Kai-lan. But I don't like soulless direct-to-video junk and I don't have a toddler, so I passed on both. Instead I opted for one last swing through the exhibit hall to check for deals. A lot of the dealers in the hall offer great deals on comic books and graphic novels on Sunday because they don't want to lug all of that merchandise home with them. The problem is that the best stuff is mostly already gone by that time, so it's kind of a crapshoot as to whether you'll find anything interesting. This year, I pretty much found nothing. I did stop into the panel for the upcoming movie Hamlet 2, which featured some amusing clips but a lackluster panel discussion despite the presence of star Steve Coogan. I finished my Comic-Con 2008 experience at the Comic-Con Talkback panel, featuring the convention's director David Glanzer and a bunch of crabby attendees. With so little going on at the end of the day, Talkback is a great way to sort of get a "State of the Convention" assessment. This year there were a lot of compliments for the overall line management (which was a big improvement from previous years), and complaints about the length of the lines and the tendency to program big events in rooms that were just too small. Glanzer revealed that a lot of the time, the studios want their people in a smaller room, preferring to have 300-400 fans locked outside over a large room that's only 80% full. Apparently the studio executives think the egos of Hollywood stars and producers are so fragile that they only notice empty seats and not the size of the audience. This theory was also at work at the Heroes and Lost panels. In 2007, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of fans were shut out of Ballroom 20 for the Heroes panel while Rogue Pictures presented The Strangers to a half-empty Hall H. Despite that fiasco, the Con officials revealed that they had to press the studios very hard to put those panels in Hall H for this year. The studios' fears of empty were completely unfounded, naturally, as they ended up easily filling the big hall. And there were still hundreds of late arrivers to the line that didn't manage to get in. There were also complaints about the outdated hotel reservation system, which results in thousands of people calling and/or crashing servers online at the same time when the official rooms all go on sale at once in February. Attendees either have to be fast, lucky, or clever to get a room during Comic-Con. Otherwise they have to pay out the nose or stay miles away from downtown. San Diego fills up basically all of their rooms during the convention, so hotels tend to charge at least $250 a night for rooms outside of the official block. It's messes like this that have rumors swirling that Comic-Con will leave San Diego in favor of Las Vegas once the current contract expires after the 2012 show. It's an important event for the city, and the town itself bends over backwards to be accommodating to the invasion of geeks. But at its current size Comic-Con is starting to seem more and more like it has outgrown its hometown. It would be a shame to lose the great vibe and amazing weather that San Diego has during the convention. I'm not convinced, though, that even with another Convention Center expansion in the works, San Diego can hold onto to this iconic event.

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