San Diego Comic Con, Day 0: July 23, 2008

San Diego Comic Con, Day 0: July 23, 2008

"Has Comic-Con Become A Beast?" That's the question asked by a story in today's USA Today. The article's preemptive answer: Probably. An event that once drew 400 now draws 125,000. My answer: I don't know yet. I just got here. Also, I should probably finish reading the story since I couldn't make that much of it out over the shoulder of the balding man carrying a Spider-Man backpack on my flight to San Diego.

I first attended Comic-Con in 2005 and have been back every year since except for last year—a friend's wedding kept me away, blasted friend. That first year I wrote—and I was far from the first or the last to make this observation—about how geek culture had grown virtually indistinguishable from mainstream culture. Inside the massive San Diego Convention Center, people bought Batman comics. Outside they lined up for Batman Begins. Walking around inside sometimes meant stepping over attendees hunched over copies of the newly released Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince. Outside, people were able to read it in their own homes. There was a wall between the two worlds, but the wall was growing thinner.

It feels like it's grown thinner ever since. Where Con-goers used to be fairly easy to spot from a distance, I can't say definitively if the man wearing a faded Captain America t-shirt on my flight was a dyed-in-the-wool geek or just a Target shopper drawn to the image in their stack of retro T's. Comic book movies fill the multiplex. Plenty of viewers tune in to Heroes each week. (Or at least they used to.)

This year is drawing everyone from Keanu Reeves to Mark Wahlberg to Sarah Silverman, all courting the devoted and influential fans who make the trek out here each year. Also attending: Al Jaffee, the 87-year-old artist behind Mad Magazine's fold-ins. And Bill Sienkiewicz, who brought the painterly avant-garde into mainstream comics in the 1980s. And Rutu Modan, the Israeli writer and artist behind Exit Wounds. Like I said, it's a big convention center and while the size of the building stays the same, it feels like it has to house a more diverse offering each year. (Though rumors persist about the con growing too big for this town.)

I'll be blogging from Comic-Con through Saturday. Sunday's usually a snooze so I'm skipping out. Of course, the Wednesday "Preview Night," limited to four-day passholders is usually a snooze, too. But not this year. For one, it's home to the high-profile premiere of the pilot episode of Fringe, J.J. Abrams' new supernatural-themed series. (Well, it's the premiere if you don't count Internet leaks.) But that alone doesn't crowd waiting at the San Diego Convention Center, the likes of which I'd previously only seen on the con's famously busy Saturdays. So let's shift into the blog-honored timestamp format and get into San Diego Comic Con 2008.

4:55 P.M.: I join a press line that stretches well outside the building. In the past, being part of the press has meant breezing past the masses and being ushered over to a table where my press credentials were quickly confirmed then scooting through to a mostly empty convention floor. The rules have clearly changed. After waiting in line for a few minutes another press veteran swings by and asks, "What the hell happened?" My thoughts exactly.

5:30 P.M.: The line still hasn't moved and I find myself being forced to listen to a man a few yards behind me loudly, confidently, and carefully explain why J.J. Abrams' forthcoming Star Trek revamp will suck. (Something about Uhura and McCoy not actually being on the Enterprise when Kirk took command.) He then shifts into a detailed explanation as to why Jack Nicholson made a better Joker than Heath Ledger. (Something about Ledger not taking enough joy in the performance.)

Another man behind me ends the torture by introducing himself. Turns out it's Scott Bowles, the USA Today writer responsible for the Comic-Con article I referenced above. We pass the time trading war stories.

6:35 P.M.: Finally in. And this place is crowded. Two years ago, Preview Night was so sleepy I was able to hold substantial conversations with Mark Waid, Len Wein, and Peter David. Now it's already madness. At the Dark Horse booth, I witness a few people signing up to get the autograph of a man behind a table. I ask the woman at the end of the line who's signing. She doesn't know. When she reaches the front, the man asks if she knows who he is. Nope. He signs anyway. (I'm not sure who he was either.)

7:25 P.M.: I file into one of the largest conference rooms for the Fringe pilot. Anticipation is high. We're greeted by a taped message from Abrams. Anticipation gets higher, and a chilling opening scene set aboard a plane ride that goes terribly awry suggests it's all warranted. Clearly this is the right show at the right time and in the right place.

9:00 P.M.: Or not. 82 minutes later Fringe is revealed as more solid than groundbreaking. A jumble of silly pseudo-science, mystery-of-the-week procedural, and an overarching conspiracy ala Abrams' Alias, the pilot is hampered by a frequently dull lead (Australian actress Anna Torv) and concepts that seem more silly than gripping. (No spoilers here, but let's just say the casting of Altered States cast member Blair Brown isn't a coincidence.) But it's got a lot going for it, too, specifically a fun turn by Joshua Jackson as a genius high school dropout and John Noble as his estranged, largely insane, mad scientist dad. (Nice to see The Wire's Lance Reddick again, too.) This could go somewhere. But past Abrams shows like Alias and Lost arrived already there.

And that wraps up Day 0. I'm semi-exhausted already and this thing hasn't even officially begun yet.

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