How the con's show floor is like finding a mystic portal into a British children's novel

How the con's show floor is like finding a mystic portal into a British children's novel

If you listen to the media coverage, then the center of the Comic-Con experience is found somewhere in Hall H, where movie studios screen footage from their upcoming films, as Warner Bros. did today with The Man Of Steel, Pacific Rim, and The Hobbit, and as Marvel did with Iron Man 3. I wouldn’t necessarily say the event has a center, but if I were forced to pick one, I wouldn’t place it in Hall H. I’d locate it somewhere on the show floor, which is a giant, gleaming collection of everything that makes Comic-Con great and awful all at once. It’s a giant mob of people, all moving aimlessly, but it’s also the world’s greatest, geekiest shopping mall. It’s a punishing experience involving standing and standing for hours on end, but it’s also a place where you can find just about anything you might be looking for when it comes to pop culture—and from sellers who are usually willing to negotiate, particularly if it’s Sunday, and they just don’t want to pack everything up.

It’s ridiculously hard to describe the show floor to someone who’s never been to Comic-Con, because the sheer scale of the thing is remarkable. It’s well over 450,000 square feet, and walking the length of it takes the better part of an hour when it’s full. Trying to see everything that’s present on the floor is all but impossible, and often, the best tactic is just to wander, letting your feet take you where they will (and ideally into a booth with plusher carpet than the barely-there rugs the con lines the concrete floors of the exhibit hall with). The basic setup is that of a flea market, with numerous retailers and other companies setting up booths where attendees can buy stuff or get free crap, but numerous booths are set up more like tiny stores, as with a rare books dealer, who’s managed to make his booth really feel as if you’ve stepped into a little store off a busy side-street in a major city.

The floor contains sections for comics, toys, gaming, film and TV, and assorted other things, but they’re not always as organized as they could be. For the most part, like is near like, so if you’re shopping for cheap comics from the many comics stores that come to the con, you can stay in the same corner of the room and root through white boxes to your heart’s content. But the books section goes on for a few aisles, ceases for no apparent reason, then picks up again in another few aisles, and while the video games section seems to be getting better than it had been in the past, it still feels as if the gaming companies are tossed onto the floor at random. (Curiously enough, there doesn’t seem to be a big presence for tabletop gaming at the con—perhaps because GenCon already fills that niche so neatly—but it’s possible I just haven’t stumbled upon that section of the floor yet.) But things are organized just enough to offer the occasional feel that the attendee is wandering through a particularly jumbled department store, except for in the aisles that specialize in clothing, which are tight and crowded and offer some of the feel of an open-air bazaar.

There’s also almost nowhere to sit. There are some tables and chairs near the back—where you can buy crappy, over-priced food if you’re feeling hungry—but for the most part, once you hit the floor, you’re hiking it back and forth all day long. It’s an easy place to get good exercise. (I’m far from the world’s healthiest person, and I almost always lose 5-10 pounds over the course of the weekend, just from all the walking I do.) The walking is further exacerbated by just how crowded things get, particularly in the middle of the show floor, where the large exhibits from the big corporate entities cluster. While attempting to make my way to Artists Alley, for instance, I got caught up in a scrum surrounding the Fox booth, consisting of fans trying to get photos of the stars of Glee, who were there signing. Extricating myself from the situation (which, admittedly, I was stupid enough to wander into) took some doing, but this is always happening. The larger booths try to create manageable lines, but it almost never works. They’re swamped by people trying to grab a photo of whatever star happens to be there. And it’s almost impossible to predict when one will break out—like the weather. You’ll be walking by a booth when you’re suddenly surrounded on all sides by people who are aiming for a glimpse of a TV star or simply a chance at a free T-shirt.

The best plan is to stick to the edges of the show floor, and perhaps skirt around the middle by exiting and re-entering in a later door. The edges hold most of the comics and art stuff anyway, so that’s where many of the best deals and coolest stuff can be found. Artists Alley, for instance, is all the way over in the southwestern corner of the show floor, while the webcomics and small press area tends to occupy a position on the northern end off toward the east. (Getting between these two areas—which would seem to be natural fits for each other—can be a trick.) You could probably be very happy here—and avoid most of the throngs—simply by taking in the far eastern third and the far western third and leaving the middle alone entirely.

But just describing the logistics of the space isn’t really all that helpful, because it doesn’t convey the hot, sweaty, frustrating, terrific experience of the whole thing. It’s a constant assault on the majority of your senses, with lights flashing and the smells of rotten hot dogs and the sounds of throbbing music and constant conversation and the feel of all those people jostling up against you. That’s to say nothing of the costumes, which always seem to be slightly more plentiful on the show floor than anywhere else. But the floor is also much more than just the constant sensory overload. At its best—and at its worst, come to think of it—the show floor is like one of those country houses that orphans and sickly children are always being sent to live at in British children’s novels. It’s filled with long passageways that seem to have little rhyme or reason to them. There are all sorts of things to see. And once you start to figure out the maze, new, hidden places open up to you. Wandering the show floor is like one of those novels’ protagonists making his or her way through that country house, turning a corner, and seeing something new and splendid.

I’ve been coming to Comic-Con for four years now, and I don’t think I’d ever been all the way to the floor’s far eastern edge, until I resolved to walk the complete perimeter of the show floor today. (I made two circuits of the floor, and it ate up around four hours, though it felt like eight.) Perhaps unsurprisingly, that far end is filled with a hodgepodge of dealers, including those who can appraise your non-sports cards (and why just the non-sports cards, I don’t know) and a few who are happy to help you sell your comics collection at an auction or on consignment. It’s a weird little section of the floor, almost like going to a strip mall and finding a dentist or lawyer sandwiched in between a rare coins store and a local deli, but it makes sense for them to be here all the same.

Another thing I’ve never really stumbled upon until I take the time to do so are the various bootleg DVD dealers here, all of whom are selling stuff that’s not readily available on DVD in the U.S. Most focus on films that aren’t available here—particularly anime—but I’m in Heaven once I discover a dealer who’s got almost all old TV shows that have never (and probably will never) be available on DVD, including a complete set of WKRP In Cincinnati with the original music (something that will never exist in a conventional physical format and may never be seen again). His prices are a little steep for my tastes, but there’s no way I’m not re-visiting him on Sunday to see if he’s willing to come down just a little bit on some of these. It’s entirely possible these are just rips he’s made from Internet files. There’s no real way to know the video or audio quality. But there’s something thrilling about seeing all of these shows that will never be available to me and holding them in my hands. (I have to imagine that’s why there’s a great crowd around the anime booths.) I have a similar experience when I stumble upon a booth that seems to simply be every single toy I had as a child, jumbled together in bins. The urge to buy is less strong here, but it is still a fascinating place to just browse.

But the surprises on the show floor also involve turning the corner and seeing someone you really love or somebody you’ve long been a fan of. For plenty of fans, that meant camping out by the Fox booth for the Glee kids to show up. For me, it meant abruptly realizing that Rick Geary had a booth, or stopping in again on one of my favorites, Katie Cook over in Artists Alley, to see if she could paint some pictures of my cats for my wife and I. (Yes, we’re those kinds of people.) The signings here are plentiful, and celebrities will pop up in the oddest of places, hanging out in some other booth or just wandering around on their own. Plus, there’s a real, personable quality to everybody here, a laid-back vibe that permeates nearly everything. It’s easy to have a brief discussion with the people you encounter here, to realize that the guy you bought a Peanuts comic from earlier also is involved with a comic about a cowboy who rides a bear, and doesn’t that sound awesome? Yeah, it’s still all about selling you stuff, but it’s much more friendly and direct than the Hollywood smoke and mirrors act.

It’s that good vibe that makes me think whatever’s going on on the show floor is closer to the center of the con than anything in Hall H. The more times I come to the convention, the more I realize that everybody’s too tired or blissed out to get too upset with each other. I’ve seen fights break out, and I’ve seen angry words yelled, but these events are in the distinct minority. (That’s one of the things that sets the extremely angry proselytizers who’ve set up camp all around the convention center this year stand out even more. As they glare at convention attendees and preach their words of supposed salvation, they just come off as hopelessly confrontational in a place that’s filled with people who do their best to avoid such things.) The show floor is a big, jostling mess, and it’s something that will always be a big, jostling mess. But it’s also a world of wonders and a giant space of surprises. And it’s extremely rare that anybody ever gets all that mad, because the second they nearly do, well, they turn the corner, and there’s that perfect gift, that perfect sketch, that book you’ve been looking for. And all is well again.

So this morning, as I was on my way back from an interview with the producers of American Dad (look for that closer to the show's new season, this happened. My favorite was the guy with the microphone casting an exhausted eye over at the kids (and they could not have been older than 20) holding up their signs.

I spent the bulk of my day on the show floor, but I did make it into three panels, all of which were hosted by the great Mark Evanier. The first was the long-recommended-to-me “Draw Something!” which was as fun as advertised, mostly for the presence of the famed MAD! magazine cartoonist Sergio Aragonés, who may be getting older but remains as sharp as ever when it comes to drawing witty gags quickly and efficiently. (The other two artists present—Scott Shaw of Simpsons comics and Keith Knight of The K Chronicles—are very funny as well.) The object of the game involves Evanier offering up prompts to three artists, who attempt to draw the funniest answer as quickly as possible. At times, Evanier solicits suggestions from the audience, as when he asks us to shout out two cartoon characters for an “if they mated” type of game. (Aragonés draws “Iron Man and Vampirella” and quickly slays the room by drawing a tiny robotic tyke with a bat on her finger—and two doctors straining and sweating to cut the umbilical cord with a saw.) “Draw Something!” is a holdover from the con’s earliest days, and it’s such a simple concept—get three funny artists to draw silly gag cartoons as quickly as possible—that it would be hard to screw up. Indeed, so long as Aragonés remains involved, the other two panelists could be people who possess no artistic talent whatsoever, and the whole thing would be fun.

I’m less enthused by Evanier’s “Cartoon Voices” panel. I’d tried to get into the Bryan Fuller panel at the same time but been shut out (by only three people!), so I figured I’d give “Cartoon Voices” another shot after enjoying it so much last year. Sadly, though, the whole thing is a touch too repetitive of that panel, with even the same script making the rounds. On the other hand, Evanier has gotten some true greats up on the panel, including Chuck McCann, whose work stretches back several decades. And he saves his best surprise for last, when he brings out Stan Freberg—whom he claims is the voice-over actor with the longest-running current career—who’s a living legend in humor circles and one of the last remaining links to the Warner Brothers Termite Terrace animation crew. (Among others, he was the voice of Baby Bear in the old Looney Tunes shorts.) By the time Evanier gets Freberg out, the panel is technically over, but no one’s going to silence him. Freberg holds on at some length, even as fans for the next panel—on Marvel’s X-Men Vs. Avengers event—keep filing in, often audibly wondering who the hell the old guy is. There’s something delightful about nobody having the temerity to stop Freberg, even if he’s rambling, and it makes the whole thing that much more memorable.

The final Evanier panel I attend is a quiet little memorial for Ray Bradbury, held in a spacious hotel ballroom that’s maybe only a quarter full. The event collects many of Bradbury’s friends and admirers—including Margaret Atwood and Joe Hill—and it’s surprisingly moving. Bradbury’s presence was always felt at Comic-Con, and he was to attend this year and make it his final appearance before his death in June. (Indeed, the panel was announced the day before he died.) Clips of Bradbury telling stories of how he decided to become a writer are played. The tributes are short but beautiful. (And, okay, Rachel Bloom performs her “Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury” song.) The whole thing is quiet, an oasis of thoughtfulness in an event that too often substitutes the loud for the meaningful. Of course, only a handful of people are there, but they all seem touched as they quietly file out at the end. It’s yet another reminder of how we have all of these last living links to things we take for granted—how the old men talking about their relationships with the great sci-fi authors of the early 20th century are our last real links to the pulps, as surely as Freberg is the last link to Termite Terrace. I keep saying that nothing dies at Comic-Con, and I really think that’s true. And as much as I sometimes wish people would let go of, say, a 10-year-old space western that was canceled (even if I love it, too), there’s something beautiful about the idea of these people carrying torches forward into the dark.

The second annual A.V. Club meetup was terrific fun and attended by 16 people in total (though not all stayed for the whole thing). Let’s do it again next year, yeah?

As has become tradition, here is my favorite costume of the day. The music played and everything!

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