It was a girl named Katy who turned me onto The X-Files. She had a dry, raspy voice, and she was a cool kid from another town who was nice enough to let 14-year-old me call her my girlfriend because we talked on the phone every so often and generally hit it off. Much later, I would realize it was a joke her friends started to make fun of me, and she didn’t have the heart to inform me of that. One night when I was discussing my favorite TV shows with her—which were probably Picket Fences and reruns of The Mary Tyler Moore Show at the time—she said, “I love The X-Files. I think you would too.”
This was when the show was in its earliest days of being a cult hit, when it had yet to pop up on magazine covers but was buzzed about as one of TV’s best shows, if you were cool enough to be able to find it. Friday night TV wasn’t quite the wasteland it is now, but it was still a little-watched night, and the show was on the still fledgling Fox network. You had to want to find it to find it, and without the Internet, news of the show spread from one person to another, slowly but surely, a game of telephone working its way into the national zeitgeist.
I don’t know how to explain what The X-Files meant to me. When I would have a shitty time of things, it would be there for me. When I watched the immortal “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’” and heard the closing monologue, which ends with the lines, “For though we may not be alone in the universe, in our own separate ways on this planet, we are all alone,” I cried, something I never did, because Darin Morgan’s script (and Charles Nelson Reilly’s delivery) defined a part of myself I didn’t yet realize I needed to put into words. (I was so lonely, I concluded.) I met friends and girlfriends because of that show. I have this career because of that show. I memorized the names of everybody involved.
I was, in short, a fan. And the hardest thing to remember at Comic-Con is that for every single thing that’s here—no matter how stupid you or I think it is—there is somebody who feels that silly little piece of pop culture saved their life.
The guy telling us about Godzilla is someone who found that thing and clung to it until, surprisingly, it became a thing he could spin into a career. I’m on something called the “Godzilla Experience,” set up by Legendary Pictures in advance of next summer’s new Godzilla movie (starring Elizabeth Olsen and Bryan Cranston, but really starring the big scaly guy himself). The bigger Comic-Con gets, the more that it seems to spread, the convention center being the source of the infection but not its sole carrier anymore. Legendary and Warner Bros. will do the usual panel thing with Godzilla on Saturday morning, but this is another way to get fans psyched up for the film, to get them excited about the prospect of seeing another movie about a giant monster lizard on the big screen. The opening room of the “experience” is filled with old Godzilla memorabilia, items from the big guy’s success in Japan that show how fully he permeated every part of that culture. There are toys and DVDs and props and an actor pretending to read the newspaper in a café set so he, too, can be terrified when Godzilla inevitably begins to threaten us.
What happens is that alarms begin to sound and other actors rush out to tell us to move along, and the guy who’s feeding us full of Godzilla trivia does this: “Why don’t we come over here and check out some of these cool…” (Alarms begin to ring.) “Uh oh! We’d better get to safety!” To his credit, he sells it, but you can still almost hear his deflation in the moment when he has to send us along to the next part of the tour, which will offer us a look at the monster himself, albeit one that’s not footage from the film. (It is, instead, a test some of the visual effects guys threw together.) This is the first thing I’m doing at Comic-Con this year, and it encapsulates the event in a nutshell: Here are some cool artifacts from a property someone really enjoys, which they can explain to you in detail if you’re willing to listen; oh, look, someone is trying to make money off that property in the near future.
I’m making this sound worse than it was. The experience was rather charming. It was obviously an attempt to create a theme-park ride without, y’know, actually building a theme-park ride, and the big setpieces—all of us being ushered into an underground bunker to avoid the monster’s attack, an elevator that stalls out before it reaches the helipad from where we will escape, the actual appearance of the monster—are all quite a bit of fun. (In particular, the visual effects test, or whatever it is, has Godzilla look directly in the window of the office building we are purported to be hiding in, and it’s all grand, goofy fun.) Members of the press get a chance to go back out to the first area and explore the Godzilla artifacts to our heart’s content, and that’s where the most fun is. For all of the gadgetry and techno-wizardry, for all of the attempts to turn this upcoming film into something a person can actually live, the chief appeal is still the original, all the cool shit that grew up around the character from the beginning.
In the end, the whole thing tells us basically nothing about the film, except that Legendary seems to have its heart in the right place, which will hopefully be enough. And yet… seeing all of that original Godzilla stuff made me wish I was that guy leading the tour, expounding at length on obscure facts of the monster’s filmography. We’ve all got our thing, and seeing somebody talk about theirs can be infectious.
The further Comic-Con spreads into downtown San Diego, the more the city’s Gaslamp tourist district starts to feel like a free extension of it. Those who long for the Con experience without having to pay for it could easily enough bring some lawn chairs and sandwiches into the downtown area, plop down underneath an overhang, and watch the world wander by. I make several forays into the Gaslamp—finding meals, visiting Godzilla, attending evening events—and I keep seeing weird, amazing things, like two young women dressed as Tetris blocks (you might recognize them above), or two people dressed in full animal suits—furries, I suppose—who, at the end of a long, exhausting evening, have removed their masks and are carrying them under their arms, making it seem as if they’re toting around actual animal heads in the dim streetlight.
It’s easy enough to spot a Con-goer without a badge or costume, too. Simply put, they’ll be the ones with the Comic-Con Hobble. You do a lot of walking at Comic-Con, and even the most physically fit Con-goers will have very angry feet by the end of a day there (to say nothing of the entire weekend). I talk with one guy who got a pedometer to see how many steps he took during the Con, and without really leaving the immediate grounds of the convention until that evening, he was closing in on 20,000 steps. (The recommended amount of steps to take in a day to stay fit and healthy is about 10,000.) Over the course of the day, he had walked somewhere between eight and 10 miles.
It’s fair to say that the average Con-goer isn’t the absolute picture of physical health. I’m certainly not. But despite the stereotype that this is an event filled with neckbearded fat guys who haven’t exercised since the Clinton administration, Comic-Con is an event that inadvertently promotes physical fitness, especially the bigger and bigger it gets. And at the end of the night, it’s easy to spot the Con-goers by their distinctive staggering shuffle, their feet dragging them painfully back to their hotels.
I seem to say this every year, but 2013 is the year that confirms it: Where movies were once the evil Hollywood product that marginalized the comics in Comic-Con, television has now taken over the Con. Oh, sure. There are still plenty of movie panels, and the likes of Jennifer Lawrence and Robert Redford (possibly) will take over Hall H on Saturday. But the TV panels have proliferated like wildfire, and they’re pushing some of the other stuff into smaller and smaller rooms. (For instance, I usually go to a panel on writing fantasy and science fiction on the first day, because I always enjoy these sorts of “writers’ advice” panels; this year, the room was so small, I couldn’t get in. It would become a theme of the day, no matter how seemingly niche the topic.) The room Hannibal was in was so small that some in the show’s fanbase sat in it all day, the only way they could be absolutely certain they wouldn’t miss the panel they most wanted to see. That kind of dedication is often what’s needed at Comic-Con, where the single-issue fans are the ones that tend to get the worm.
More and more networks are capitalizing on this, too. TV Land, of all places, sent a bunch of the stars of its original sitcoms over Thursday morning to… talk about the shows of TV Land and promote Kirstie Alley’s new show, Kirstie. It’s hard to see the overlap between this and the Con’s audience, but Comic-Con seems to be taking all the TV panels it can find. The programming of those panels remains a sore spot—Game Of Thrones and Walking Dead get the Hall H treatment today, but Marvel’s Agents Of SHIELD, a surefire Comic-Con property if ever there was one, gets to go right up against Walking Dead in Ballroom 20 instead—but there are so many genre shows and so many cult shows on TV right now that Comic-Con is awash in the possibilities. And, indeed, TV is a more natural fit for the Con than movies ever were. Coming in July, when most TV shows are just getting back to work, Comic-Con provides the perfect bridge between the last time fans saw these characters and the next time they will.
Even PBS is getting in on the act. The network made its first ever Comic-Con appearance with Sherlock, and it managed to pack Ballroom 20 (the second largest space at the Con, for those of you who don’t follow this stuff religiously). The panel featured neither of the series’ stars and was primarily a way for Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss to dangle hints about what may or may not happen in season three—the third episode of which will begin filming later this month—and avoid answering many of the moderator’s questions about season three directly. (One senses that Moffat lives his life like one of his Doctor Who episodes, given how fond he is of dropping cryptic hints.)
Like most Comic-Con panels, the whole point was to bask in fans’ adoration and provide those fans with some degree of access. But I was also reminded of what these sorts of panels can offer that many others can’t when Moffat and company broke out a whole scene from the second episode of the third season. I won’t describe it, so as not to spoil you, but it was perfectly pitched, mordantly funny, and beautifully acted. When Watson said the word “love” in the general vicinity of Sherlock, Ballroom 20 dissolved into an ocean of tears and Tumblr posts. It was, in other words, very much of a piece with other Sherlock episodes, and that suggests the series has yet to miss a beat. (Also great: A videotaped hello from Benedict Cumberbatch played one of his long, endless games with the press during publicity for Star Trek Into Darkness by having him say he was just going to come out and tell us what happened in the second-season cliffhanger—which he proceeded to do, albeit in sped-up video without sound using two stuffed monkeys. Maybe you had to be there.) These sorts of panels can be torture in the wrong hands, but PBS and Sherlock put on a good show.
I was in Sherlock because what came next was The X-Files. I wanted, more than anything, to see X-Files at this Comic-Con, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I just wanted to feel like a fan again. I know so much about how the sausage is made now that while I have TV series I like, I don’t really have any properties I would count myself as a true fan of anymore. I wanted to get back to the purity of loving something unconditionally. I wanted to return to the kid who sought out that show and found so much in it. I wanted to feel what everybody around me feels for one tiny thing or another.
I’ll be honest: The panel was kind of a bust. It had so many people on it that it was doomed to fall apart unless all involved could establish chemistry very quickly, and that never happened. Glen Morgan gave a long, rambling answer about the infamous episode “Home” that included mallard duck gang rape, while many others struggled to recall details of specific episodes. (At one point, Chris Carter and James Wong got into a discussion about whether the pronunciation of Frohike had always been meant to be “Fro-hickey.”) Carter at times seemed as if he’d rather be anywhere else, and David Duchovny’s sly, sardonic persona was swallowed up by the massive room. Gillian Anderson was gloriously goofy (often riffing on how much she’d like to have a scene where Mulder and Scully have sex, but able to turn on a dime when asked about how important her character was to the development of female characters in genre TV), and the thing hit a bit of a stride once it moved on to audience questions, but as a Comic-Con panel, it was far from the best I’ve ever attended (though also not the worst).
But I loved it all the same. This is what brings people to Comic-Con, after all. These bits and pieces of pop culture are, ultimately, all rather pointless at the end of the day, but if they make your life a little better and if they make you forget about all the bullshit, well, isn’t that one of the most important things there is? Seeing these people who had meant so much to my life—who had put me on the path that brought me to this very moment—was weirdly, incredibly moving for me, and I was maintaining enough critical distance to be able to judge the thing as a panel. I can’t even imagine what it must have been like for the thousands of other fans packed into that room, giving themselves over to the whole thing.
The panel opened with the moderator introducing the many stellar writers who have become the show’s greatest legacy, and he then cued the famous title sequence, putting all of us in the headspace of what the show had been. Then, right as the theme song ended, two people came out from backstage holding flashlights, peering out into the gloom. On the one hand, it was David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, here to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the project that brought them fame. On the other hand, it was Mulder and Scully. To see them in that moment made all of the other things about Comic-Con—the explosion of people, the long lines, the hobble—make sense. For just an instant again, I was a lonely, confused kid who got turned onto something he needed more than anything at just the right time in his life. Comic-Con can’t always do that, and the moment always proves fleeting. But it arrives all the same, and it’s always magical.
Tomorrow: I’ll try my usual trick of bouncing around the Con, since I don’t have any panels I’ll be scheduling my day around. If you see something on the schedule that sounds cool, let me know! Also: Let me know if you’d like to try an A.V. Club meetup tonight. My schedule is too packed the other days, but there’s a possibility we can make one work tonight.