“No!” the cabbie shouts at my friend Vlada Gelman (of TV Line) and me. “We are not going downtown! There is too much traffic! It is too crowded! I am not taking you down there!” He sounds like he’s just emerged from a war zone.
We’ve gotten off at the Santa Fe train station near downtown San Diego. It’s about a one-mile hike from the convention center, where Comic-Con is based, and normally, I suspect we’d both be game to make that trek (even knowing that in the days to come, our feet are going to get so sick of walking they may stage a mutiny). But we both have a fair amount of luggage, and we’d rather split cab fare than hoof it. Yet the first cab driver we stop—after exiting the long line near the train station and crossing the street—says the above. A musclebound frat-boy type in a Dodgers cap calls out to a cabbie across the street about going downtown, and he just shakes his head. When Mr. Dodgers gets another cab to pull over, he, too, just isn’t interested in going anywhere near the convention center.
It’s our first sign that things have gone horribly off-kilter.
Comic-Con is always big, and it’s always unwieldy. Even in the years of the recession, when you’d expect an event like this to taper off just a bit, the thing was still filled to capacity. But it felt like a switch was flipped last year, and suddenly, there were just more people everywhere, crowding into the sorts of panels and events they hadn’t before and generally making it difficult to do much of anything. The Nerd State Fair remains alive and well, but it increasingly seems like the ungainly behemoth of mythic Comic-Cons past and less like a huge, friendly gathering of like-minded nerds.
This isn’t entirely a bad thing. Comic-Con succeeds because of its gigantism, not in spite of it. To be lost in the swirl of Comic-Con is to encounter all sorts of people you’d never have met, folks who are fans of the same thing you are and like to talk about it almost as much as you do. Both the Orphan Black and Hannibal panels are in rooms far too small for their fan bases, so I don't have a prayer of getting into either. But I kind of want to just sit in line with fans and just talk about those shows. That might be even more fun than hearing what the cast and crew of each program has to say.
But that gigantism has a cost, of course, and the cost is exhaustion. With every year, downtown San Diego looks a little more like the scene in a disaster movie where the audience sees an ever-growing mass of people running from some calamity that’s just behind them—crashing waves, alien spaceships, zombies. It’s often shot from a helicopter, and as the crowd gains mass and size, it becomes an organism unto itself. Sometimes, being at Comic-Con can feel like being part of a school of fish you didn’t even agree to sign up for, constantly tugged in directions you’re not sure you want to go.
And it seems likely 2013 is bigger than ever. Wednesday is supposed to be the quiet day that gets things started, the preview night where those who’ve bought four-day passes—and the press and professionals who attend for free—wander the show floor and get a sense of what’s happening this year. I almost always have a lot of fun on this night, taking time on the show floor, having dinner with a friend or two, and wrapping things up with the annual HitFix gathering, where entertainment journalists have a drink together and take a deep breath before the plunge. Every other year I’ve attended, I’ve strolled right into the convention center and collected my press badge. This year, I had to wait 20 minutes in a line that stretched a quarter mile. (The line moved so quickly because of great work from Comic-Con volunteers, who kept everything flowing, seemingly against all odds.)
I’m not complaining. I can stand in a line for 20 minutes, and I already get in for free. I’m simply stating that this year feels bigger and more exhausting already. Downtown is already packed. The HitFix party attracted actual famous people. From my hotel room window, those giant crowds of people look more and more like the disaster movie, racing one step ahead of the wave that will engulf them all.
Buried in all of this somewhere is the constant Comic-Con question: Just what is this convention going to be anyway? I spend some time on the show floor after collecting my badge before heading out to dinner with Noel Murray, and the middle of the show floor—where the movie studios, TV networks, and major comics publishers set up shop—is as crowded as I’ve ever seen it, as bad as it was when I made the mistake of trying to walk the show floor’s perimeter on Saturday (the most crowded day of the con) last year. It’s so crazy a girl walking in front of me eventually screams, lowers her head, and charges through a rapidly closing gap, just so she can keep moving. (I’ve been there, friend.) And then the wave breaks and I’m outside of it. I’ve come over to the indie-comics area to meet Noel, and there are very few people here. Every booth has some browsers and customers, but it’s nowhere near the level of commotion from people shooting cell-phone camera photos of My Little Pony figurines or Star Wars stuff or what-have-you. This is, of course, usually the case, but the other sections of the floor—the ones less pitched at big studio commercial product—have robust communities of their own. This year, based on a limited sample, admittedly, the gap between the two halves of the con—big and glossy and little and scrappy—seems bigger than ever.
As always, I’ll be wandering the con and talking about some of the things I see and some of the people I run into. I’ll be talking tomorrow about how the con can reconnect us with the things we love the most, and I’ll be talking later in the week about how the city of San Diego deals with this onslaught of people (not always gracefully but surprisingly well for a city with such limited infrastructure). And I’m sure we’ll play many rounds of “redesign Comic-Con,” as we do every year.
But most of all, I want to hear what you want me to check out, the things that you want me to see. Every year, you direct me to weird, wild, and wonderful things, pieces of the con that exist from its earliest days as a comics trade show and are still fun to check out. Give me tips. I’m listening.
Vlada and I finally decide to stop waiting for a pedi-cab that won’t come and take the trolley. We’ll have to wait another 15 minutes, but we’ve already waited so long that it doesn’t seem that much more of a hassle. When the trolley we’re taking finally rolls up, the door slides open, and we’re confronted with a solid wall of people, one that we and our luggage can barely squeeze through. If it’s this bad on Wednesday, what the hell is Saturday going to look like? I hope you’ll join me to find out.