Comic-Con, Day 4: So long, Comic-Con

Comic-Con, Day 4: So long, Comic-Con

I think I’m done with Comic-Con.

Let me stress something here: If you’ve ever thought you should maybe go to Comic-Con, even if you’ve had that thought for only a fleeting moment before thinking the crowds sound just awful, you should probably go, even if only for a day. It’s the sort of thing every pop-culture fan and every geek should experience at least once, and if you can find reasonable accommodations and don’t mind eating at Subway or bringing your own lunch, you can do so for a surprisingly small amount of money. Just be flexible about what you want to do, be cool about not getting into things you might want to attend, and be ready to try out something weird at a moment’s notice, and you’ll be fine.

But me? I’ve been going for five years, and this was by far the worst year yet.

As some of you have pointed out in the comments, I’ve done very little writing about panels this year, and there’s a reason for that. Part of it is wanting to shift my focus a bit to the event beyond just the convention center, but a lot of it was the fact that I just couldn’t get into many panels this year. One of the great joys of Comic-Con is stumbling into a panel that you’d never attend normally and having the time of your life, but even those were pretty well closed off. (The closest experience to that I had this year was the Max Brooks panel that preceded Orphan Black.) I wandered by a panel for a celebration of Snoopy, and there were about 30 people in line who’d been shut out of it. Snoopy!

I’m really trying my best here not to complain, because I get into Comic-Con for free, and it’s the sort of thing that people who fail to receive badges year after year would likely bristle at. And there are still moments at the Con that are absolutely amazing, like the way that Tatiana Maslany’s eyes just about popped out of her head when she saw that Orphan Black room or hanging out in line for Breaking Bad this morning (I didn’t get in) with people and shooting the shit about when various shows took a turn for the worse. (For the record, guys, season five of The West Wing is awful, and there were good seasons of The Office after Jim and Pam got together, and nothing you can say will dissuade me.)

What’s more, the convention itself is really well run. The lines moved as quickly and efficiently as lines that sometimes contained 10,000 people can possibly move, and the volunteers have gotten better at crowd management with every year I’ve been there. There are shitty volunteers, of course—like the one who gave my colleague Dan Fienberg a hard time about charging his computer in the back of Ballroom 20—but for the most part, this is a very well-run convention, and it’s gotten much, much better even in the short time I’ve been attending at accommodating the wants and needs of geeks of all genders, races, and creeds. It’s a friendly place, and it’s rare to see the sorts of altercations that might lead to violence or even cross words.

But Jesus Christ is this thing too big, particularly now that seemingly everyone with half an interest in the event floods into downtown San Diego each year. The place I always have the most fun every year is out on the show floor, but I usually wait until Sunday to go, simply because Sunday is traditionally the least attended day of the Con, and it’s also the day when one can find the best deals. (It’s also family day, and there’s very little frustrating about the Con that can’t be solved by seeing a tired but smiling dad carrying his sleeping son, who’s dressed as Superman.) But when I headed down to the show floor after ditching the Breaking Bad line, I couldn’t even move. I headed over to Katie Cook’s booth, and the line stretched back well down the aisle. Cook draws the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic comic, so if it was just her, that would make sense, but so far as I could tell, there were lines all over Artist’s Alley, a place that was so moribund just a few years ago that it made me kind of sad about the increasing commercialization of the Con.

On the one hand, this is completely awesome. Great artists are having their work supported and making money, and that’s always nice to see. On the other hand, when the show floor is a complete madhouse on even the least attended day of the Con, something has to give. Last year in my coverage, I spent all of Saturday—the most-attended day—on the show floor, and it was rarely as bad as it was Sunday. And that crush of people was doing weird things to the retailers as well. More and more of them were unable to run credit cards, thanks to the lack of bandwidth on the wireless network. That problem hadn’t come up in previous years very often, because the bandwidth had always been more than enough. Now, with so many crowding onto the network together—and the related Comic-Con networks—the whole system seemed to be crumbling from the feet up. I stopped to buy Chris Ware’s Building Stories (at a 50 percent discount!) and watched as the guy running cards fruitlessly swiped and swiped and swiped again, hoping this would be the time the message finally got through the noise.

The wi-fi was bad enough, but cell phone reception in downtown San Diego also wasn’t up to the task of however many people crowded into the Gaslamp. I could never get a stable connection, and sending a routine text message would sometimes take over a minute. I talked with many others who had the same problem, and while in and of itself it wasn’t the worst thing in the world, it was just another headache to go along with the dozens of other headaches the weekend introduced. And the problem is that Comic-Con itself can’t really do much about this, perhaps short of limiting the number of four-day passes it sells (something it is unlikely to do). It is completely unable to do anything about the way the Gaslamp turns into a barrage of marketing and the way that people from all over descend on the area, even if they don’t have badges. At one point over the weekend, I had to wander out into the street to keep walking because Geico, of all companies, was hosting a reality show-esque competition for the best amateur superhero out of a local bar, and a semi-circle of people 12 deep at its thickest had gathered to watch.

These clusters pop up more and more, and the Gaslamp, in many ways, was much worse than the already crowded convention center. Inside the convention center, traffic generally kept moving at least (though it slowed, as it always does, around the most popular booths on the show floor). In the Gaslamp, the sheer crush of people was so difficult to deal with that there would be long moments when a large clump of us would end up simply frozen for 5 to 10 minutes at a time on one of the sidewalks, waiting for things to edge forward as we tried to move around someone with an elaborate costume or another promotional stunt that had drawn a fair amount of gawkers. I am not someone who minds crowds all that much, but I hate being unable to move, and the stop-and-start nature of Comic-Con’s long lines has moved to everything else about the event.

It’s also entirely possible I’m just too old for the event now. There was a time when I would have camped out no problem for Hall H or Ballroom 20 overnight, getting in line at 8 p.m. and rising at 6 a.m. to begin the process of getting ready to shuffle inside, but now, the thought of it is something I’m simply no longer interested in. And here’s the thing: Getting in line way ahead of time is increasingly the new normal at Comic-Con. When the convention had to shut down both the Hannibal and Orphan Black lines two hours before the panels even began, there’s simply no way to combat that problem. Fandom is too often a question of absolute devotion, and there will almost always be someone who is more devoted than you. The way so many of them show up at Comic-Con increasingly turns the event into one of sitting and waiting and seeing what comes next.

To be fair, this applies more to the movie and TV panels than it does the comics ones. I could have walked right into a discussion of the new directions DC is taking with Superman at any time. But the festival’s programmers continue to give DC and Marvel place of pride—which makes sense but also leaves the rooms their panels are in frequently filled with empty seats. At the same time, indie comics authors and artists, along with newspaper cartoonists and webcomics artists, are consigned to the smaller rooms that seemed to fill up more and more quickly this year. Of course, I was unable to do an exhaustive list of every panel at the Con, and I’m sure there were plenty of things I’d have loved to attend if I just ended up in the right place at the right time (and it was my own fault for breaking my usual rule of not standing or sitting in line for more than a half-hour). But the lines extended to the bathrooms, to the concessions carts, to the simple act of trying to get into downtown businesses.

There are still wonderful, personal stories I’d love to tell at the Con. I meet great people there every year, and I love seeing my favorite comics artists or spotting celebrities walking the show floor. If I had my druthers, I’d go back every year and find fun and fresh new angles to talk about. There are whole corners of the show I haven’t even begun to explore (like the film festival or the rooms set aside entirely to watching anime or…), and in general, I remain quite high on the whole event, the people who run it, and the attendees. I had a good experience overall in 2013, but it also left me absolutely exhausted and tired of having to deal with other human beings, which is never how I’ve left the Con before.

In the past, I’ve usually spent some portion of a write-up on the last day musing on whether Comic-Con is even worth press coverage. Couldn’t the news announced by the various studios and networks here be just as easily announced via press release? Almost certainly. I find the Con’s insistence that press not receive special treatment admirable, but at some point, not being able to get into anything interferes with my ability to do my job. And that’s completely fine! Me being able to do my job is in no way what Comic-Con is hoping to accomplish, even if it leads to more rambling than usual on my part. But it’s uniquely frustrating and tiring in a way I’m no longer all that excited about dealing with.

It’s here that I should probably offer advice on how to improve Comic-Con. But that’s the thing: I don’t have any. One of you said in comments on my first post this year that Comic-Con sounds like it would be absolutely amazing with only 500 people attending, and that’s more or less it. There’s been talk about how moving the event to Anaheim or Los Angeles or Las Vegas would help deal with the congestion, or about how San Diego could expand the convention center to accommodate more of a crowd, but I don’t really think that’s the case. Comic-Con will keep scaling up and up and up. For every person who tried to get a badge this year, there were at least two more who tried, almost certainly, and even a run of 500,000 badges would likely sell out. (Plus, removing the Con from San Diego would take away one of its chief attractions—being right there on the ocean.) For better or worse, Comic-Con is what it is, but what it is has gotten bigger and bigger and bigger, until it’s simply so ungainly that it becomes impossible to do much of anything. As a social event and as people watching, Comic-Con is still first-rate. As a place to get anything else, however, it gets worse and worse by the year, and there’s simply nothing that can be done about it.