Comic-Con, Day 4: Why cover Comic-Con?
No, really. Why?
- On ball-jointed dolls and the dream of a geek supercontinent
- How the con's show floor is like finding a mystic portal into a British children's novel
- How to learn to stop standing in line and love the con (the Margaret Atwood way)
- Where the ghosts of your childhood entertainments live
- Another year at the Nerd State Fair
Sons of Anarchy and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia: I plan to spend only an hour on the show floor, but I end up spending nearly three. Just walking around and talking to people - like the creator of my favorite webcomic, Axe Cop - ends up being a lot of fun. I always forget just how approachable most everyone is at the Con, and even though my feet are killing me (note to self: better shoes if we go again), I can't stop. I briefly consider spending the rest of the day there but remember I'm supposed to meet friends for the Glee panel and would like to see what's up with Sons of Anarchy, one of my favorite shows, anyway.
The line for Glee, of course, is long. Naturally, I don't get in. (It sounds like I didn't miss much, what with a 22-minute clip reel that made little-to-no sense and a frequently self-contradictory panel. See you in September, Glee!) At this point, I've learned to let go and love the lines, and talking with the other folks in line - who are, in a heartening turn, there to see the FX shows - is fun. We hear the last shrieks of excitement for the Glee cast, and the line, lurchingly, starts forward again, seeming to disappear into a restroom but actually disappearing into Ballroom 20, where the final few panels of the Con will be held. It's family day at the Con, and it's also the least attended day of the Con. I've liked Sunday the best of the four days I've been at the Con both years I've gone, and I think that has something to do with the slightly lessened crowds and the many small children wandering with their parents, who break up all the slow-building rage that can calcify while sitting in line after line.
We get inside, where I talk with colleagues and meet up with my friends. It's surprising how many people have filed in to see the cast and crew of two FX shows that have a fraction of the ratings of most of the shows that have filled Ballroom 20, to say nothing of the show immediately preceding them. The Sons of Anarchy panel is a little light on actual information - creator Kurt Sutter offers a few teases of season three (there will be three prospects!), but he and the actors answer most questions with some variation on, "Gotta wait for the episodes, guys" - though the season three trailer is compelling but sparse. This is more like the Community panel the day before, where the cast and crew got to be surprised by the level of love for the show among Con attendees. And I love the way all four panelists and moderator Alan Sepinwall laugh after the first questioner points out the similarities between the season two finale and The Empire Strikes Back.
It's the It's Always Sunny panel that ends up being the surprise. We're shown a completely new episode from the upcoming sixth season of the show, one that won't air for several months. FX tried the same tack with Archer, and it resulted in good buzz out of that panel, so perhaps they scrambled to throw this one together. Or maybe this was always the plan, and FX was smart to ride it to two panels filled with big buzz. I saw a guy dressed as Greenman while waiting in line, so I'm fairly certain that this crowd is full of Sunny fans. At the end of the row I'm sitting in, there's a guy who is so ecstatic about seeing a new episode of the show that he keeps vocally cheering and throwing his hands excitedly in the air.
It's a good episode, honestly. I won't spoil in this report, but there's a central question that requires the guys to think back to a night when they were very, very drunk, and it's an It's Always Sunny spin on one of my very favorite sitcom episode types: the "everybody remembers things differently" episode. As the story told in the first flashback slowly morphs into something more and more ridiculous and off-the-wall, the episode grows funnier and funnier, and then there's a great, great sick joke that goes so far that it completely stunned the whole room into silence. (All I will say is that the joke I and about 5,000 other people made after the episode ended was that the episode seemed grossly inappropriate for family day until it became grossly appropriate.) The episode is followed by a too-short Q&A, which is what happens when you screen a full episode. At least the entire cast - and Mary Elizabeth Ellis - is there, and they invite David Hornsby (who plays Cricket) up on stage after a fan asks a question about him. Inflexibility is Comic-Con's greatest strength - as it keeps a massive, massive event mostly running on time - and its greatest weakness - as it has a tendency to cut things short just when they're getting going. Another 15 minutes with the It's Always Sunny gang would have been great, but then the Buffy musical would have started short on time. Maybe the show will get its own panel next year and won't have to share, which would help.
At the end of this, my friends and I head down to the show floor again to see if the rumors of crazy deals in the last hour of the Con are true. They certainly appear to be, but we mostly end up just taking in the sights and talking to folks. The swag collectors have a gleam in their eye, a gleam like they know a good thing is about to end and they're desperate to grab more stuff. Even Artists' Alley is packed, filled with people picking up a last minute item or a last minute gift. It's like the end of summer camp. I try to buy a few bumper stickers from the Axe Cop booth (book out in December), where I yet again run into Felicia Day, and they're just pressed on me, all the better to not have to take them home, I guess. Ethan Nicolle, the illustrator and co-author of the comic, seems a little overwhelmed by the response to his comic, but he's still jovial even as the minutes tick down.
Finally, the ever-prevalent Comic-Con Magic Voice says it's time to go. I'm in the midst of buying a piece of original Peanuts art I found for a song, and my other friends are trying to figure out if they have enough to buy a Duck Amuck still. The transaction completed, we're swept out of the room, so all can close down and pack up their wares, waiting for another year, perhaps one of the last ever in San Diego. Outside, the crowd streams slowly across the street, like something out of The Ten Commandments, and we head for the car, glad to return home and step out of the weird sphere of Comic-Con, where Tron is the most important thing ever and all anyone cares about is who's going to play Bruce Banner.
Why cover Comic-Con?: Honestly, I don't want to talk myself out of a job next summer or anything, since I've greatly enjoyed attending the Con and doing these write-ups, but I'm increasingly less convinced that the Con is worth serious news coverage. The people and personalities that attend the Con are certainly fun, and the rush of the whole thing is so overwhelming that all pop culture heads should probably go for at least one day, like everyone should at least drive by the Vegas strip at least once in their lives. But the vast majority of the news that comes out of the Con can be covered as well by Sean O'Neal sitting in Austin and posting links to press releases and other reports as it can be by someone sitting in Hall H. Perhaps telling is that the number of reporters who spent yesterday digging to the bottom of the Hall H "stabbing" story - even as they couldn't leave the hall! - was absolutely dwarfed by the number who wrote variations on the same report about Harrison Ford making his first Comic-Con appearance.
Now, business reporters, of course, cover big corporate announcements and product introductions. Video game writers cover the E3 conference, which is very similar to Comic-Con. So it's not as though we entertainment writers are the only people who do this. But business reporters usually get their hands on prototypes of the products introduced, and video game writers are able to try out nearly every game on the E3 show floor. By necessity, the studios and networks control the message much, much more easily at Comic-Con than other companies are able to at comparable events. The only thing someone sitting in Hall H can provide that Sean can't sitting in Austin is a description of the footage shown and a rough opinion based on that footage. It's the Comic-Con equivalent of the hands-on tryout of a game on the E3 floor.
But here's the thing: It's ridiculously easy for a studio or network to control what's shown in the "sizzle reel." Networks will often show entire pilots, but it's rare that you'll see a screening of an entire movie. There's just not enough time. Thus, every panel becomes a way to announce a few pre-selected tidbits of news, which the press then reports on and the fans cheer. The press reports all follow roughly the same patterns, and the studios completely control the flow of information. The whole thing is, in essence, a press release in motion. The goal of the media is generally to be skeptical. The greatest success of institutions like corporations and the government in the 20th and 21st centuries has been to figure out ways to work around that skepticism.
I'm not criticizing media coverage of Comic-Con. I eagerly lapped up the live-blogs the folks over at Hitfix did on the Hall H movie panels. I enjoy hearing about this stuff as much as anyone. And, honestly, I'm happy to go to these events and provide that kind of coverage, as I did with The Walking Dead. But at the same time, if I really think about it, that event is specifically created to allow for the minimum amount of skepticism. The clips in the trailer are carefully chosen for maximum impact. The room is stacked with people who are predisposed to like what they're about to see. And the whole thing is presented as unprecedented and historical. Nobody in Grant Park on the night of Obama's election was saying, "But can he successfully wrangle a public option through the Senate?" Nobody even wanted to think about that.
I'm not trying to argue myself out of a job or anything, but I do wonder if the amount of ink spilled on Comic-Con is truly necessary. This is an event created to specifically keep people from saying, "Oh, hey, maybe this won't be good, huh?" Aside from all of the big, obvious problems - the long lines, the inability to stop thinking like a small convention when this is one of the biggest conventions out there, the ridiculously overpriced concessions, the fact that the whole thing may move to Anaheim, LA, or Vegas - no one really talks about whether news organizations should even be sending people like me to cover this stuff. Comic-Con started out for the fans, and then Hollywood got involved and tried to make all of the attendees fans of everything it could possibly get them to consume. And now, the event is such a big deal within the entertainment media that it sometimes seems as though the studios are using it to sneak a virus out to the public at large, just another bit of marketing in the long march toward a big opening weekend, but a form of marketing that we haven't yet built up a resistance to, like billboards or TV commercials.
Again, I think the media coverage of Comic-Con is mostly good. I'm just not immediately sure that there's a point to the media covering the event in the first place. Maybe there was a time when Comic-Con was a small convention where news arose organically, but it long ago crossed over to a point where the news was stage-managed. And yet, I really did want to know who was going to play Bruce Banner, at the end of the day, and I really did want someone to describe the Sucker Punch footage to me. I'm not as pure as my argument. There's definitely a place for media coverage of Comic-Con - and it's here that I should mention that, obviously, it's a terrific place for entertainment writers, including myself, to hook up with interview subjects to discuss any number of topics - but I do wonder if the rush to "break" news that is already being broken in a carefully considered fashion isn't something that we should all take a more careful look at next time.
Oh, who am I kidding? Next summer? There's gonna be more BATMAN. Awesome. Can't wait.