Where the ghosts of your childhood entertainments live
It’s when somebody dressed as Axe-Cop removes his mustache and hat to reveal that “he’s” actually True Blood star Deborah Ann Woll that I realize that everything about Comic-Con starts to sound like a crazy dream if you describe it long enough. Nothing ever really dies at Comic-Con, to the point where there's a panel for a '70s TV version of Shazam that I've never even heard of. But that also means that everything you could ever possibly think of is here and wandering around, all the ghosts of your childhood entertainments live and in the flesh. Today, I stood in line with a Snork and saw a sexy Tom Servo. And those are among the more easily understandable costume choices. Everything about wandering around here has that feel of when you fall asleep after being awake too long and your brain starts rummaging its own couch cushions for spare change.
This is all elaborate preamble to saying that today was one of the most frustrating days I've ever had at the con, but by the end of it, it seemed as if it had all worked out. Things are often like that at Comic-Con. You think you've got your heart set on one thing, and then you have to head for something else entirely. But by the time you're there, you realize it was what you wanted all along.
In the past, I've come to realize that the best things to pursue at Comic-Con are the sorts of experiences you could only have here. I can tell you lots of stuff about the Berkeley Breathed panel I attended a couple of years ago or the voice-over actors panel I attended last year, where an assortment of cartoon voice greats gave life to an old-time radio script. I'm not so sure I could tell you a damn thing about, say, the Fringe panel I attended last year. That's not a slight against Fringe, which I very much enjoy. It's just the fact that you pretty much know what's going to happen once you get people from movies and TV shows up in front of this audience. They're going to avoid spoilers, they're going to speak in platitudes about how great the "fans" are, and they're going to make a handful of jokes. That's about it. You don't always know what's going to happen when it's some lesser known geek treasure.
So since today's schedule was a little light on things I wanted to see, I decided to build my day toward a live RiffTrax event. Mystery Science Theater 3000 was a touchstone of my childhood and adolescence, and though I haven't liked every RiffTrax commentary I've listened to, I've liked enough of them to think seeing one live could be fun. Plus, c'mon. It was the guys who made me laugh myself sick as a kid. Even I'm not immune to nostalgia. I figured even a weak performance by the crew would be worth it, if only to see them performing live.
The problem is that a lot of people had the same experience as me and wanted to see RiffTrax as well. There's nothing wrong with this—it's good to have shared interests with fellow fans—but it does mean that getting to see RiffTrax meant sacrificing a bunch of other stuff I might have wanted to see and standing in line for two hours. (At least we all got to stand by the ocean, one of those value-adds that really makes me hope this event never decamps for Las Vegas as occasionally threatened.)
Every year, I come to Comic-Con, and I'm stunned anew by the size and scale of the thing. Every year, it seems to get bigger. This year, however, the volunteer staff often seems as discombobulated as everybody else. This hasn't been the case in the past years I've been here, but over the course of the first day, I've been sent to the entirely wrong place by three different staff members. There would be nothing wrong with this if I were asking these volunteers questions they had no idea of the answer to, but in all cases, I was looking for the end of a line that volunteer was ostensibly monitoring. I always got to the right place in the end, but usually at the cost of something else I might have seen.
A case in point: Immediately prior to RiffTrax was a panel for Archer. While I try to avoid TV panels here, I love Archer, and the show almost always brings an unaired episode to the con. I figured sitting through Jon Benjamin cracking wise would be a relatively painless way to wait for RiffTrax. But despite getting in line for the event almost 90 minutes beforehand, I didn't get in, simply because I was initially sent to a weird holding area, where I and a bunch of other people milled around for a while before being told we couldn't get in line there and had to head outside. Had I been sent to the right place straight off, I would have gotten in. Instead, I stood around for a long time, and you don't get any Archer news. And I am not the only person who was frustrated by this. I wandered by the guy who was first in line for Hall H. He was going to get to see the panel he wanted to see. And he was yelling, absolutely furiously, about Twilight or something, at the volunteer in charge of letting people into Hall H . Having to sit and wait and slowly pick your way forward can be a horrible experience, but there is simply no way around it for the con.
I'm really trying not to whine here. Thinking about ways to redesign the con is one of my favorite pastimes while I'm here (I have weird pastimes), but the more I check out the sheer bulk of it, the less I think there's any way to fix it. The city of San Diego isn't structurally built to handle a crowd of this size. It has a very nice downtown district, and the convention center is a perfect venue for this sort of thing, but the city itself lacks the kinds of robust parking and mass transit options that would help funnel people in and out of downtown quickly. (Indeed, the Fashion Valley Mall, formerly a popular Comic-Con parking spot, thanks to its proximity to a trolley stop that leads directly to the convention center, has shut down all Comic-Con parking, leaving more and more people with nowhere to park that doesn’t cost $20 or more.) As such, the most common refrain for how to fix the con is to move it from San Diego. But I doubt that would work at all if the con suddenly lit out for Vegas or Anaheim or Los Angeles. Every year, thousands are turned away, and every year, just as many can’t find affordable housing and have to make the trek from Mission Valley or Coronado or Poway. The event might scale up to 200,000 or 250,000, but that would almost certainly only make it feel more crowded and troublesome, not less. Plus, standing in line is almost a vital part of the con now. Almost all of the people I have met at Comic-Con, people whom I greet with a smile when I see them again, were met in line. And everywhere I go, I see similar situations, where friends greet each other as they pass in line. This thing is about more than just the panels. The people surrounding the event matter, too.
Gregory Ellwood, who writes for Hitfix.com, tweeted this evening that it feels almost as if a bunch of people have decided to just check out the con this year, even if they don’t have any real interest in it. He compared it to Sundance in 2003, and it’s an interesting comparison, since this year, a number of “shadow” cons have sprung up in San Diego’s downtown, including one run by Ms. Comic-Con herself, Felicia Day, for her Geek & Sundry YouTube channel. This roughly tracks with how the growing popularity of Sundance made way for things like Slamdance and even smaller festivals, how there’s a constant attempt to keep the heart of what people originally loved pure by coming up with newer, smaller nuggets.
I don’t know if Ellwood is correct, but this year certainly feels busier. I only got into three panels—one the RiffTrax thing—and that was largely because two of them I stumbled into since no one was there. One was for the New Crusaders, an iPad-only comic from Archie Comics imprint Red Circle that revives a series that has long lain dormant. It was sparsely attended (though those there seemed really into what was going on, and more power to them), for fairly obvious reasons.
On the other hand, I have no idea why nobody was attending a panel featuring Kate Beaton and Allison Bechdel, but I’m amazed by how skillfully Kate Beaton succeeds at being exactly whom you would expect Kate Beaton to be. I’m a huge fan of her work, and seeing that she’s exactly as witty and sardonic as her work would have led me to believe. This panel—on what it’s like to be a “graphic novelist” in an age where mass-market bookstores are gradually giving way to Kindles—was a big highlight, and there were some great stories from all of the participants about just how hard it is to get bookstores to figure out what, exactly, a graphic novel is. (At one point, Bechdel lamented how her stuff always ends up in the gay and lesbian section, while many of her colleagues’ stuff is slotted into the humor section, while Beaton talked about finding her book in the “teen” section and opening it immediately to something no parent would want their teenager reading.) I had merely stumbled into the panel because I couldn’t get into something about dystopian science fiction—featuring Paolo Baciagalupi—but I found the whole thing rewarding. On the other hand, that fiction panel would have been a cinch to get into even just last year. The con gets busier and busier, and everything gets fuller and fuller.
This year, the staff has mostly been forced to cope with this by having to get pedantic about things. It’s literally the only thing the con can do to hopefully manage the giant beast of traffic, and it’s lead to things like “entrance” and “exit” doors for the convention center, which aren’t really necessary but are now in place for some reason. At the same time, the organizers simply gave up trying to enforce a fire marshal edict that visitors can’t sit or stand against the walls of the convention center. The con tried to placate those who need a seat with a few dozen chairs on the main floor, but quickly realized this wasn’t going to work. After a Wednesday night in which volunteers seemed to do nothing but tell people who’d plopped down on the floor to stand, Thursday was comfortingly full of people sprawling out wherever they could up against the walls.
It’s bigger and it’s messier and it’s much more frustrating, yes, but it’s still Comic-Con. It’s still the sort of place where wild and unexpected things can happen. All of which brings us back to Deborah Ann Woll revealing herself underneath her Axe-Cop get-up. Woll has become somewhat famous in recent years for her elaborate costumes, which allow her to stroll the show floor unrecognized, and this costume was impeccable, right down to the fake axe. She’d strolled on stage to “guest judge” a movie pitch “contest” the RiffTrax guys were holding, in which they asked panel attendees to offer up the worst movie pitch they could think of, in order to win a prize. (Most participants utterly misunderstood the game, but everybody got a prize—an awful DVD—for participating.) Woll, it turns out, is a big fan of Mystery Science Theater, as well as RiffTrax, and knows the guys behind it well enough to get called in for a favor. (She was also promoting her boyfriend’s plan of running marathons blindfolded for charity.) It was so out of nowhere and bizarre and amazing that it ended up making the whole day. In that one instant, everything washed away, and I was delighted to be where I was, seeing what I was seeing. The RiffTrax live riff had been fun—particularly once it got going and the guys were making jokes about the ridiculous short itself, instead of lame pop culture gags—but this was something else entirely, the sort of thing you’d never see anywhere else.
On the way out of the Hilton ballroom where the RiffTrax panel had been held, it was possible to hear a man who’d positioned himself with a megaphone of some sort on a walkway leading across the way to Petco Park. He lectured the throngs on their immorality, on how sinners would not get into Heaven, even if he went off Biblical script to wrap in any number of sinners who aren’t listed in the passage he was quoting but probably struck him as equally important in the moment. With every new person ignoring him—thousands upon thousands—his voice got a little louder. He punctuated each paragraph of his rant with an endless refrain of “Heaven? Or Hell? Heaven? Or Hell?” And while I could see what he was trying to do and could understand the frenzy he was in at all of these people elevating mere pop culture above his god, I also wanted to climb up to him and ask him if he couldn’t see that this? This was both.
Hey, if you’re at San Diego Comic-Con, we’re planning an A.V. Club meet-up for Saturday night. I’m here. Noel Murray’s here. Oliver Sava’s here. Caroline Framke’s here. Let’s make this happen, and let’s get some dinner and/or drinks. More details will be forthcoming via my Twitter account. Please comment or tweet at me if you’re interested in meeting up.
And since you read all of that, here's your reward: my favorite costume I saw all day.