For a lot of people - myself included - Comic-Con is about seeing old friends again. I didn't manage to make it down to San Diego until about 7 p.m., then spent an hour looking for parking and picking up my badge, which left me with only an hour to spend hanging out at the Con itself. But the experience - shortened though it was - wasn't wholly worthless. There's always this sense in the first few moments of the event that this will be the Comic-Con where the good geek vibes overwhelm the fact that, well, this event has gotten way, way too big, way, way too scattered, and way, way too predictable. There's basically no spontaneity to anything at Comic-Con anymore. It's all about carefully managed moments, designed to make people think they're having a good time, like a Disneyland ride where Angelina Jolie and the kids from Glee are the animatronic figures.
And yet, as I sank into yet another year of madness, I realized that parts of me were really looking forward to what was to happen this year. I was seeing people I met last year and talking with other journalists here to cover the show and hanging out with some old friends. But perhaps more importantly, there was a sense that every single one of us was here because, at some level, we shared a common purpose. We were here to embrace, let's face it, some pretty silly pop culture, but we were here because, well, sometimes that's all you've got. The thing that makes Comic-Con keep getting bigger and bigger is not the fact that it attracts big MOVIE STARS (though that helps), it's the fact that it packs 100,000 kindred spirits into the same building for the same day and turns them loose on each other.
But those good feelings can only go so far. Since all I had to do tonight was wander the show floor, basically, I hooked up with some friends and we did just that. And, honestly, after the thirteenth or fourteenth time when traffic stopped dead so a mob of slack-jawed mouth-breathers could take a picture of a movie prop or a giant robot suit, I was pretty much ready to kill everyone who's here. I'm not so good with not being able to move freely. I'm sure you can see where this would be an issue. But then things would start moving again, and there'd be a booth with amusing T-shirts or interesting art or classic romance comics from the '50s, and all would be well again. The show floor is all that's good and bad about Comic-Con, condensed into an experience you can have in just under an hour. Indeed, if you came here and just did that, you'd pretty much get everything the show has to offer.
Weirdly, this year seems like the year the recession came to Comic-Con. The show is just as packed as ever - maybe even more so - but the show floor seems more than a little desperate. There are much more open direct pleas to nerd sexuality, what with erotica booths that would have been a little more secretive about their wares last year. The prices seem a little lower, as well, and I'd wager that there aren't as many of the smaller retailers here showing their stuff off. And I know for a fact that many of the smaller publishers don't have as large of booths as they did last year.
The best parts of the show floor are, as always, those at either end of the giant hall. Off to the right, as you enter the hall, you gradually filter past the movie studios, TV networks, and big comics publishers and hit first the smaller comics publishers (where I was pleased to see Boom! have such a large presence), then the webcomics folks (who are out in full force on the show floor this year), then the books publishers, then the purveyors of specialty merchandise. This is the stuff I live for, where you can find assorted comics and other book titles that you haven't seen in an actual book store in ages or check out what, say, Fantagraphics is up to. (Whatever it is, it involves a vaguely creepy dude in a Snoopy costume, who was led around the show floor on what looked like a leash by a handler, as though he were some sort of deadly CIA beagle.)
Head over to the other end, and you'll work your way toward video game publishers - where MTV Games was showing off Rock Band 3, though no one appeared gutsy enough to brave the keyboards on the demo version - and, finally, through artist's alley, the tiny core of the massive, massive pustule that is Comic-Con 2010. This is where the show started, for the most part, the thing that brought all of these people together in the first place, and now, it's shunted off to the side and forgotten (no, look at that photo I took above; quality's terrible, but you can see just how little anyone wants to visit, which is sad). I mean, don't get me wrong. I like to see a Master Chief made entirely of Legos too, but there's something sad, at the same time, about how commerce so consistently beats the hell out of art. There's some cool artwork over at this end of the floor, and most people never bother to even find it.
So, yes, art. But also advertising. Everywhere. Handouts and flyers and pictures and girls in skimpy clothing covered in logos and everywhere people snapping photos of the latest new doodad and pretty face. When I was a kid, we always went to the state fair at the end of the summer, and I'd always spend a morning with my father, checking out the latest farm equipment, walking around it and kicking the tires as other farmers did the same. The early morning sun burned its way through the dew, and the air carried a hint of fall. In a lot of ways, Comic-Con reminds me of the geek state fair. The companies of Hollywood (and the various smaller companies that aspire to be them) bring their wares to us, and we are asked to kick the tires and come up with instant judgments. The old man in the seed corn cap was trying to sell my dad a tractor; the people at today's panel are going to try to sell me on Scott Pilgrim. It's all the same game, just pitched at different interests.
But that schizophrenic nature to the whole event is compelling in its own way. After walking the length of the show floor and examining all it had to offer, my friends and I headed into the unseasonably cool San Diego night air, where a mist was gathering around the city and threatening to turn into rain. While waiting for some idea of which direction we were heading, we noticed a freight train that had chosen that moment to try and make its way through downtown San Diego, mournfully blowing a long note as oceans of nerds passed before it. It would be a while before enough would clear for it to chug forward.
"How long do you think that train is?" one of my friends asked, not honestly expecting any of us to know.
The man standing just off to the side said he figured it was about 6,000 feet, though we didn't think to ask him how he knew this.
While pondering just how we might get past the train to the other side, I jokingly suggested we launch ourselves over the couplers between cars. "You don't wanna do that," said train knowledge man. He then explained that we'd, likely as not, miss, and the train wouldn't stop until they "scraped your body off in Barstow."
"And how do you know?"
He worked for the railroad. Then, the coup de grace: He's killed three people in his line of work.
My friend takes a long sidestep away from him. He laughs. Assures us it was all accidental. It's clear he's just trying to look the badass in front of his girl, trying to while away the night with a few of us kindred spirits.
"So who's your favorite superhero?" I ask, trying to nonchalantly direct the conversation away from hobo splatter.
He muses for a long moment. "Oh, the Punisher." And then he rattles off information about how he's a normal man with lots and lots of guns.
We're gone then, pressing on to other commitments, since the night is, after all, young. But the alternately funny and unsettling conversation sticks with me, part of a night filled with people who aren't quite sure what to do with being surrounded by just this many people who are, sort of, just like them. Would I have had this conversation with this guy under other circumstances? Doubtful. But we did, and it was fascinating and more than a little weird. If nothing else, Comic-Con makes moments like that possible, moments when the world seems like one big collage of people from varied backgrounds, all of whom want to tell you about just how much they like the Punisher.
Tomorrow: Probably the lightest day in terms of stuff you guys want me to take in. I'm going to hit the Scott Pilgrim panel, since that came up quite a bit, and I have a late afternoon interview. But other than that, I'm free to do pretty much whatever. Stan Freberg, here I come!