For a lot of people, Comic-Con is completely incidental to why they come to Comic-Con. As a for instance, I ran into a guy while I was grabbing lunch today, and he and his friends had driven down from San Francisco, hoping to buy some badges on the spot. That is, of course, impossible in this era of gigantiCon, but they didn’t really mind, even though they got in at 3 a.m. last night and couldn’t really find anywhere to sleep. They were here to drink in the atmosphere and see if they could find some cool video game stuff. They hadn’t quite realized just how big the thing was, scalpers were charging far too much, and they were content to just wander around downtown, taking in some of the free stuff. Comic-Con is about nerd culture still, but it’s also about bringing a whole mass of people to downtown San Diego and turning them loose to party. It doesn’t matter if they know the first thing about nerd culture. They’re here to put on a costume, try to bullshit their way into Hollywood parties, and look for stars.
Or, as a 20-something girl in a random costume with a green wig said, when pointing to a bunch of people holding light sabers, “Look! It’s the guys from G.I. Joe!”
To me, this is the first year that everything surrounding Comic-Con seems as big as the Con itself. Yes, there are still lots of people wandering around downtown San Diego who have badges on, but there are almost as many who seem happy to just chill out and watch humanity roll by while sitting at one of the many little bars and restaurants that line the streets of the Gaslamp District. There’s enough free stuff crowding those streets now—from mini-conventions that have sprung up in the big one’s shadow to “movie in a box” fake theme park rides like the Godzilla and Ender’s Game experiences—that someone who can find somewhere to crash for the weekend—or doesn’t mind commuting from LA—can have a reasonably good time just hanging out and seeing what’s going on.
There’s a simple reason for this: At its base, like all other conventions, Comic-Con remains a social occasion. It’s taken me a while to get the hang of this aspect of the con, because the people I tend to spend my time with—fellow journalists—are all people I see at other events throughout the year, instead of just this one time. But look around a little more closely, and you’ll see that the Con is filled with people who get this one weekend together during the year and otherwise hang out online, or people who are just meeting for the first time. (One of the standbys for the volunteers getting attendees to squeeze together in crowded panels is, “Make a new friend!” and there are plenty of fast friendships formed while waiting for panels to begin or, in particular, while waiting in line.) My friend Kate and I are sitting in the Orphan Black panel when a woman sits down next to us and asks Kate who her favorite clone is, and it’s easy enough to imagine this spinning off into something that spills over into hanging out after the panel and promises to keep in touch via Facebook or e-mail later.
There’s also this weird sexual undercurrent, and I’m not just talking about the uncomfortable way that some male attendees will gawk… and gawk… and gawk at an attractive woman in a sexy costume. There are, of course, couples and families who attend, and it’s not uncommon to see two people strolling along the show floor or in the Gaslamp, hand in hand, simply enjoying their own private geekery. (That or having to shepherd their kid around to things said kid is interested in.) But the vast majority of attendees range from about 18-35, and enough of them are still single that there’s this air of anticipation constantly hanging over the proceedings. Enough relationships have started at Comic-Con that you simply never know if you’re going to round a corner on the show floor and find The One. Friendship is nice; everlasting love would be better.
It helps, of course, that the Gaslamp is there, ready to vacuum up all your money when you’re ready to start drinking and hit the dance floor. But the signs are there at the Con itself. Sit and watch a group of new friends for a bit, and the fissure lines of who likes whom will become apparent. There’s something sweetly desperate to it, too. There are only these four days in which to find someone, convince them you’re a match, then exchange personal information. It is, in a weird way, like summer camp: Suddenly, you’re surrounded with people who share your interests and might, indeed, find you attractive, but that’s all going to be ripped away at a moment’s notice.
The social aspect of the Con is hard to write about without turning everything into a cutesy little story about how two people got married in Hall H or something similar. (So far as I know, this has never happened, but it sort of surprises me that it hasn’t.) It’s also hard to write about because of that other aspect—people who come here as friends, either from online or from real life, then see this as a way to spend time hanging out with friends. Friendships like this come with their own languages, and while there’s something fascinating about people who’ve met at the Con and become friends over the years and years they’ve kept going back (and, indeed, this is still the highlight of the social calendar for many), it also requires a particular kind of decoder ring, one I don’t yet possess.
I drop by the Geek & Sundry festivities (one of those aforementioned mini-conventions burbling along beneath the main one) because I’m interviewing Felicia Day (for a piece that will appear in a few weeks), but before I speak with her, I spend time wandering the surprisingly spacious area—particularly when one considers that it’s all ensconced on the second story of a local bar. There’s a place to get drinks and snacks. There are tables and couches set up everywhere. There’s a swag table. And everywhere there are games. Attendees are encouraged to rent out board games, find some new friends, and pulverize them at the Star Trek version of Settlers Of Catan (which, I have to say, looks really fun). In another room, video gamers fire away in various multi-player matches. The tables will clear easily away from the main floor to make it a dancefloor at a moment’s notice. Day and her company have essentially engineered a mini-con designed entirely around the big Con’s social aspects. It’s a place to hang out, make some new friends, and just have fun. I wish I had just stayed there and played some Ticket To Ride.
Really, this is the theme of so many of the mini-cons. My friend Mike (whom you may remember from Nerd Curious fame) is running a session of his Atomic Robo RPG at something called Gamer-Con, which invites Comic-Con attendees to drop by and have a few tabletop sessions. Somewhere in the city, Zachary Levi’s Nerd Machine is hosting an event called Nerd HQ that features some of the same panels as Comic-Con—it’s where Orphan Black makes its San Diego debut earlier on Friday. And there’s also Trickster, sort of the Slamdance to Comic-Con’s Sundance, putting the focus squarely on comics in the belief that Comic-Con has succumbed to the hype (which, honestly, it has). All of these events are free to enter. Not a one of them would work without the big Con, all of which they leech off of in various ways.
That’s the thing: Corner Day or Levi or Mike, and they’d all tell you that these events wouldn’t work without the big Con there as a feeder system for attendees. But they also need the big Con there to play off of as what they’re attempting to be the opposite of. And what’s interesting to me is that every single one of these events has arrived at the same answer for what the big Con is missing via independent means: social interaction. All of these are designed to put people who have like-minded interests together in the same room and see if they can’t form connections with some social lubricants like alcohol or board games or a shared interest in Chuck. There’s an unspoken subtext here, too: The big Con has gotten so big that it’s harder and harder to make new friends there. Better, then, to go looking for friendship or even romance at one of these mini-cons. Nerding out is more fun when it’s shared.
The problem, of course, is that the convention center looms over everything else, and it’s always going to be the place where most people (or, at least, most people with badges) spend the bulk of their time. For a while, I thought about just spending Friday wandering from mini-con to mini-con, seeing what they were all about, but would that be Comic-Con coverage, particularly when they’re all set up in direct opposition to the main event? After all, there are so many different facets of Comic-Con itself that most attendees never even explore—there’s a Comic-Con international film festival occurring over in the Marriott, for God’s sake. Comic-Con is so huge that it would seem to thwart friendships and romances, yet in every corner of it, they’re springing up nonetheless.
For instance, I start my day at a panel for comics based on the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs. I can’t really tell you that the panel sold me on checking out any of these comics, but it reminded me how much of Comic-Con is about the crusade to keep the pop culture you love alive, sometimes against all odds. Burroughs isn’t exactly having an easy time of it in the cultural sphere as of late—though one suspects Tarzan will be a character people have heard of for at least a few more decades—but this collection of mostly graying white men had gathered to do something about that. The whole thing ended with footage from a new Tarzan movie—in 3D!—and it looked hideous, with horrible computer animated models and bad, bad voice work. Yet I left the panel charmed in spite of myself. It was, functionally, no different from Legendary and Warner Brothers trying to resurrect Godzilla, but it had this handmade, DIY quality that created a weird bond between all of us in the room. The panel’s title was optimistic, proclaiming 100 more years of adventure for Burroughs and his characters. But these things can never really die as long as events like this are bringing people together to form friendships based on that which they love and carrying that torch forward.
All of which brings me back to Orphan Black. Those of you who read these articles know that I try not to go to TV panels because I cover that usually, and I’m about to go to two weeks of the TCA press tour. But the cult show had been put in a room that was obviously too small for it—one that held less than 500 people, no less—and I wandered by while considering dropping in on a Superman panel and Pogo panel, only to see the line was already starting to expand and mutate, three hours before the thing even started. To be sure, there was a Star Wars roundtable and a panel where Max Brooks held sway for a good long while immediately prior, and both had their adherents. But it was obvious this was an Orphan Black line, and I wanted to see where this particular example of poor planning on the part of the Con was going to end up. I got in line.
Here’s the thing: For as much as waiting in line sucks, and for as much as you can lose a whole day waiting for one particular thing you don’t even get into, the times when you do get in have this air of palpable excitement to them that’s unlike anything else I’ve experienced in pop culture. It’s really fun to be part of a Comic-Con madhouse, particularly as space in the room dwindles. I managed to get in shortly before the Star Wars thing, and I sat near the back. Every time the volunteers would open the door to admit another person, it would be like that scene in Spielberg’s War Of The Worlds where everybody’s trying to get on the ferry. When Brooks took the stage for a panel where he basically just fielded our questions about zombies for an hour (and during which he took his invited guests and put them up on stage with him to open up more seats for Con attendees), he very quickly realized the place was an Orphan Black room, and he build up several amusing comic riffs on that subject. By the time the cult show about clones was on stage, everybody was ready, and everybody felt lucky just to be there.
If you’re ever at Comic-Con, and you find yourself with the opportunity to see a cult show in its first season at Comic-Con, go. There’s an electricity to it that’s unlike anything else, and for as tightly packed and warm and close as that room could be, it was worth it all for the moment when the cast and crew of the show came out, Tatiana Maslany and Jordan Gavaris becoming the new queen and king of the geeks then and there in that moment. It all becomes almost buoyant—the personnel from the show being so pleased and surprised to see this giant wave of adoration; the fans of it still in the thrall of first love, not yet soured on it thanks to the moments when it will inevitably disappoint. Everyone in that room is borne up by the hum in the air, the anticipation of great things to come, the impossibility of anything awful. (Since I won’t get to work them in anywhere else, here are some Orphan Black notes: More clones in season two, maybe. No Beth flashback episode until at least season three. Season two debuts in April 2014. Maslany listens to show tunes to get in character as Alison.)
That’s what the mini-cons still can’t capture. There’s a connection that runs through each and every person in a room like that, a line that runs from Maslany to them, a sense that everybody’s bound up in the same crazy experience, and it’s only magnified by the size of the event, the difficulty of getting into the room, the intensity of the whole thing. There was a guy standing outside the convention center today holding a sign saying that fans shouldn’t get comic-conned, their lives were not fiction, they needed to repent to Jesus. He was part of the ever-present Christian group trying to proselytize to Comic-Con attendees (and mostly getting mocked for it), but I sort of get why he feels so threatened all the same. When you’re in that room, when it’s all really happening, you have this intense sense of connection to everybody else there. They become, for a few minutes, at least, your best friends in the world. And maybe that carries over after. Maybe you make a new friend. Maybe you fall in love. But even without that, in the moment, you are swept away on a current of connection. It feels like going to church, only so much more fun.
Tomorrow: Comic-Con is all about the night life, too. I’ll go in search of some crazy experiences. Also: Some thoughts on costumes.