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How to learn to stop standing in line and love the con (the Margaret Atwood way)

The only way—the only way—to get through Comic-Con without wanting to slit your wrists is to decide just how much you care, then be comfortable with the fact that if you don’t care enough about Firefly to get in line for its reunion panel at 3 a.m., then you probably should be okay when you don’t get in after getting in line at 8 a.m., even though the thing is at noon. No matter how hardcore you think you are at Comic-Con, there is always someone who’s more hardcore. Like the two guys who’ve been hanging out in the line for Hall H since the first day of the Con, playing cards, seemingly biding their time for… I’m not sure what, exactly, but they’ll be first in line for whatever it is. If the only way you’re going to have a good experience here is to get into that Firefly reunion, then you’d better do everything in your power to make it happen. If, on the other hand, you can see alternate routes to enjoying yourself, take them at all costs.

It’s a lesson I forgot yesterday, when I structured my day around that RiffTrax panel, but it’s a lesson I re-apply on a Friday that I find much more leisurely and enjoyable than my first day here. I bop around between Spotlight panels (at which comics artists stand up in front of the crowd and just free associate with a doodle pad for an hour), academic panels filled with rousing defenses of Jack Kirby, and something that was seemingly created just so two former writers for FlashForward could explain what would have happened in a second season of FlashForward. I also spent a fair amount of time on the show floor and just took a couple of breathers to hang out and watch the world stream by. When people talk about how much fun it is to just hang out at the con, they’re usually talking about this sort of day. The only thing you have to do is give up on all of the reasons you probably came in the first place.

The only panel I’m shut out of all day is the Kate Beaton Spotlight panel, which is all right. I got the full Beaton the day before, and it was awesome. I do attend a Spotlight panel for For Better Or For Worse creator Lynn Johnston, mostly because some weird part of me thinks it would be hilarious to live-tweet it while the rest of the world is live-tweeting the Firefly panel I would have had to have been in line for at 3 a.m. to attend. But I end up getting weirdly engrossed in the Johnston panel, and I start to remember that there was a time when I was as engrossed in FBOFW as I have been in any serialized novel, that there was a time when the storyline where Lawrence, Michael’s friend, came out, and it was genuinely transgressive and daring. At her height in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Johnston was doing a newspaper comic strip that was a worthy successor to things like Gasoline Alley and the like, and if it fell off toward the end, when she seemed uncertain of how to wrap everything up, well, she was going through a lot of shit at the time.

Johnston’s a gregarious, surprisingly funny presence, with a dark sense of humor you wouldn’t expect, given what she’s most famous for. She discusses small town gossip about her ex-husband (who left her for a woman half his age) with a vengeful, silly gleam in her eye, and she carries on about her apparently lonely war to get a buttcrack into the nation's comics pages. The whole thing is literally just Johnston holding court and talking about fan mail she’s received and sketching FBOFW characters on the overhead projector, and although I mostly came in just to sit down, the room is eventually completely filled with people who are eating out of her hand. She’s like your cool aunt who lives in the big city, the one who lets you have a little wine over dinner, and she makes for a terrific guest. (And if you want to know more about this panel—and I know you do—I did, indeed, live-tweet it.)

Comic-Con—and the media coverage of same—is focused with such laser-like precision on promoting the movie and TV panels that it’s easy to get distracted by them and decide that attending them is the be-all and end-all of attending the event. But shutting yourself inside of Ballroom 20 all day so you can get to the panel you want and a bunch of kids get shut out of the Legend Of Korra panel is no way to experience everything that’s going on. I’ve been going here four years, and I continue to be surprised by the new people I’ll meet just wandering around, from Johnston, whom I bump into on the show floor, to a husband and wife team pitching a new graphic novel in the autograph area to anyone who will listen to novelist Patrick Rothfuss, who joins a few of us in line for a panel he’s on, just to see if he can piss off people who’ll think he’s cutting. The only reason to be frustrated about the con is if you narrow your focus so much that you can’t take in the world of stuff going on all around you.

The more I let go of the notion that I’m ever going to get into a TV or movie panel, the more the whole thing starts to become as weird and fun as it’s been in the past. Novelist Margaret Atwood is here, and her Twitter feed serves as a rough inspiration. All she seems to be doing is wandering around between signings and taking photos with people she thinks have cool costumes, and it’s almost like a weird rallying cry: If Margaret Atwood can be having this much fun—highly respected novelist Margaret Atwood, author of several of the best books of the last 50 years—then why do you let yourself get so worked up about all the stuff you think you’re missing out on. The con rebroadcasts Hall H and Ballroom 20 panels at night, if you really want to see them, still. Take a break. Hang out. Watch some guy harangue you for a while about how great Jack Kirby was, ending on a note meant to inspire triumphant applause that, instead, garners a handful of claps.

It’s a cliché to say it’s all in what you make of it, but it’s really the case here. This is a place where the difference between a good time and abject misery is often all about adjusting your expectations and setting those sights just a little bit lower.

I don't know what this is, but I want one.

For the second day in a row, I’m in a room when Deborah Ann Woll unexpectedly pops up on a panel. In this case, it’s something called “Girls Gone Genre” that I’m only half paying attention to because I’m trying to get some work done, but I look up, and there she is, talking about how her Dungeons & Dragons group has two girls in it. Woll is so seemingly omnipresent this year (at least in my experience) that I almost wonder if she senses Felicia Day’s weakness as the hot, red-haired geek girl and Comic-Con queen and is swooping in to scoop up her territory. She certainly seems to have all of the qualifications. We’ll have to see if Day will pop up on Sunday, TV On The Radio’s “DMZ” playing, as she gets up in Woll’s face and tells her to stay out of her territory.

I wrote kind of a despairing article after spending a little while in Artists Alley two years ago at my second convention. Since then, I’ve been impressed with how the little section—which took up a tiny fraction of the show floor two years ago—has slowly but surely expanded and expanded to take up more space. This is another case where webcomics (and Kickstarter) are helping artists who might not have had the cash to attend a few years ago carve out a little area for themselves at the con. The usual stalwarts are there—including almost all of the people I wrote about in that article two years ago—but they’ve been joined by more and more new folks, almost all of whom have something interesting to share. If you’re at the con and need to spend a half hour doing something that won’t inordinately stress you out or make you feel claustrophobic, the alley’s a great place to check out, and I’ll guarantee you’ll find something worth bringing home for a reasonable price.

Weirdest sight of the day: a mom in her late 30s, dressed as slave Leia and leading around three sons under 12, all dressed as Jedis. I’m just trying to imagine all the conversations leading up to that moment.

Here’s another one of those Comic-Con secrets not everybody will tell you. Power outlets are one of the most sought-after resources at the con, simply because most people are running low on cell phone or tablet battery by the midpoint of the day. (Or, if you’re in the press, you’re running low on laptop battery.) The problem is that the only outlets you can actually sit by are out in the hallways, nowhere near the action on the show floor or in the panels. The exception? Room 7AB, which boasts a long line of chairs against the back wall and at least three outlets, all of which are easily accessible to those sitting there. (It’s also a large enough room that the panels there tend to be at least mildly interesting, though it’s still small enough to be easy to get into most of the time.) This also creates a very, very odd situation where those lucky enough to get one of the six plugs then have to offer up USB ports to others looking to charge, creating weird, instant pods of new best friends, bound by electronics. All of which is to say that I have several new best friends, and it’s all thanks to 7AB.

I always like attending literary panels at Comic-Con, simply because I don’t get to spend a lot of time reading online about the best fantasy and science fiction novels of the year during the rest of the year. I also like that the writers on these panels are very generous with advice, usually treating the panels as an opportunity to share their own tricks and tips about writing genre fiction. The crowd almost always gobbles it up as well. I attended one panel for something called “Epic Fantasy War,” which turned out to be nothing more than a publishing house getting a bunch of its fantasy novelists together (including Rothfuss, Raymond E. Feist, Robin Hobb, and Christopher Paolini) and then having them compare notes. It broke out into a legitimately fascinating discussion among the panelists about just what was the best method for writing fantasy, including a lengthy, polite argument about whether research was necessary. Some of the writers—Rothfuss and Paolini included—like to do lots of research. Some—like Feist—only do it when they determine they can’t make it up. And some—like Brandon Sanderson—insert notations into their first drafts about stuff they’ll have to research later, lest they lose momentum in the initial writing process. (Sanderson says he leaves himself notes that say, “Be clever here,” and that sounds more or less like my process, only I forget to take the notes out.) I had to leave the panel early for an interview, but I was sad to. I always enjoy these writing advice panels, and hearing from people in corners of the geek universe that wouldn’t instantly be recognized on the street or cutting into line in front of you.

I was less enthralled by an io9 panel on “science fiction that will change your life.” The theme of the whole thing was weak, and even when it seemed to settle down into something about sci-fi books and films that are less heralded than others, the panelists (including some io9 writers and various sci-fi professionals from the literary and television fields) seemed to keep hitting the same two or three items. The site’s editor—Annalee Newitz—offered up a handful of suggestions I’d genuinely never heard of before, but the panel ended up being a little repetitious and poorly focused. Still, if you’re going to listen to people gab about the same things over and over, at least when it’s writers, the jokes are pretty funny.

After the surprisingly good time I had at Lynn Johnston’s panel, the most fun I had was at a panel convened by two FlashForward writers, in which they brought forth several of their TV writer friends to discuss the things that would have happened on their various canceled TV shows, had they run for additional seasons. Though the revelations for Firefly and Dollhouse were mostly minor, since the planned stories for both series were accelerated to fit into the film sequel and second season, respectively, the revelations for The Middleman and FlashForward were more wide-ranging and all-encompassing, including two completely separate versions of what would have happened on FlashForward. (The version preferred by original showrunner David S. Goyer—which involved escalaing flashforwards that culminated in one where only 17 people were left alive, and those 17 had just three days to avert the end of the world—would have sounded cool if I hadn’t seen the show it would have emerged from.)

This, again, is one of those “only at Comic-Con” type events, an hour of people still slightly angry about their shows being canceled letting it all hang out there. Did you know Inara on Firefly had a terminal illness? Or that the focus of Dollhouse would have shifted to Echo sending dolls out to help people in distress in the post-apocalyptic world established in “Epitaph One”? Or that Wendy from The Middleman’s father was a Middleman himself, who had been sent to another planet, and would return to be younger than her—and in need of her training him? Well, you do now, as well as knowing that Middleman creator Javier Grillo-Marxuach had hoped to make the season premiére of season two the resolution to a cliffhanger that was never set up.

With just nine minutes left, one of the panelists invited the audience to start bombarding them with whatever questions they had left, and it turned into a weird lightning round of aborted TV possibilities. In some alternate universe, there are panels for these shows that are dealing with the mind explosions caused by the best-possible versions of all of these storylines. In this universe, we only get to listen to what might have been, but that what might have been lives on at Comic-Con, where even the mention of what I had previously assumed to be the almost universally loathed FlashForward gets big cheers. I said yesterday that nothing ever dies at Comic-Con, but there’s an awful corollary to that: If nothing ever dies, then we all keep circling around in the past, even if that past never existed. The canceled show panel was fun—and let me make jokes about a FlashForward season two panel all day—and it was surprisingly big on revelations. But it also created the weird sense that sometimes, it’s best to just let go, even if that’s the hardest thing in the world.

My rough plan for today is to spend as much of the day on the show floor as I can. Tell me stuff to look for there, set me scavenger hunt-style challenges, and make it worth my while. Tomorrow will be TALES FROM THE SHOW FLOOR.

Since you were nice enough to read all of that, here’s a picture of Lynn Johnston with Luann artist/writer Greg Evans.

Remember: The A.V. Club meetup is tonight. More details will be forthcoming on my Twitter account, but we’re planning on meeting up probably around 8 and going for drinks at one of the gaslamp bars, assuming we can find one that’s not an utter terror. Let us know in comments or on Twitter if you’re hoping to come!