San Diego Comic-Con is many things, one might say, if many actually meant the collision of two worlds; the small, intimate world of comic related art and those who relish in it and the massive commercial machine spearheaded by Hollywood and the major toy companies.
You’ve probably heard it all before from people like me, or other journalists, who have ventured to San Diego on more than a few occasions – Comic-Con has changed, we say. It used to be better. Maybe so, but the beast that is Comic-Con shows little sign of slowing down, much less shrinking in size.
Yet, if you long for the not quite lost days of the intimate experience, they’re there for you to search out. Sure, it might not be front and center on the Con floor. No, that is reserved for Hasbro and the untold legions swarming to grab and re-sell My Little Pony limited edition memorabilia. But the intimate experience is still there, if you know which corners to look in.
I arrived in San Diego pretty late in comparison to other years. I didn’t get my badge until about 1:30 or 2:00 pm on Thursday, while many of my colleagues had been here nearly a full day ahead of me. Yet in just a few hours, I managed to experience both faces of the Comic-Con beast.
The Intimate Experience
Fully admitting to the inherent irony that’s about to come in using a film company as an example of an “intimate experience” at Comic-Con, I’m going to stand by it as it’s a fan friendly genre producing Con visiting company: Full Moon Features, the creators of such classics as Puppet Masters, Trancers, and Prehysteria! I was visiting the booth to score a copy of their newest feature: Unlucky Charms in a collectible cereal box. Prize in hand, I was invited to spin a wheel offering up a chance at winning some prizes. The disc come to a stop on “Buy One, Get One” and I was informed that if I purchased something else, I’d get a second item of equal or lesser value for the same price.
Already owning the gigantic Full Moon Collector’s Set, I asked the guy working the booth for some recommendations. He handed me a sexy looking DVD, covered in scantily clad women soaked in blood and clutching weapons, or in chains. The title? Blood of 1000 Virgins. It was like he knew me already. He gave me a quick run down on the title, told me it was awesome, and described how it was a clip show and told me about all the greatness therein. He then admitted to being partial to the film, as he was the writer and editor, Leroy Patterson. Leroy convinced me to buy that disc and recommended me a second, equally sexy looking disc that this time was not authored in any way by him.
You may have heard me tell this story on a recent Broken Projector podcast – I love it. I think it’s great. I think it shows the smaller, more intimate nature of Comic Con. Here I am at one of the biggest gatherings in the media world, surrounded by the biggest companies in entertainment, and I’m shooting the shit with the guy who wrote this movie. That’s great. There are tons of examples of this, too — plenty of creator-owned comics have booths here where you can get their graphic novels and have them signed. Small. Intimate. Wonderful.
The Multiheaded Beast
Crash to three hours later and I’m standing in a pig pen of strangers. I’ve arrived next to the red carpet for the Comic-Con premiere of Escape Plan starring two of the biggest movie stars of the last 30 years – Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. The red carpet itself is lined with reporters, some on-line press clutching tiny recorders, some local news with massive camera rigs and make-up kits. On the other side of the metal barriers are a wide selection of random people. One guy looks homeless and is chain smoking. Another old man is wheeling a small cart around, handing out flyers advertising his artwork. We all wear orange bracelets and most of us clutch far too many tickets for the theater’s capacity.
It’s a crapshoot as to whether or not everyone is going to get in – most do, or at least I think so. All of the people near me made it in, though often forced to split groups and fill in the random smattering of seats still available. Pretty much on time, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone appear to say a few words to the excited crowd, who eat up every joke. And just like that they’re gone, the house lights go down and the movie comes up.
Was it cool? Sure, Arnold Schwarzenegger is one of my idols and Stallone is one of my favorite actors. Seeing them was great, but the whole experience was definitely a bit impersonal and had the pervasive feeling of being handled like cattle. The people handling the check-in weren’t interested in anything you had to see – if you had what was required, you got your wrist band and pushed into the corral. “Is this the right place?” you might ask, only to be answered with a shrug from the security guard. “If I have a ticket, will I get in?” The security guard thinks so, but there isn’t a line, just a big corral of people pushing back and forth, jockeying to get a better position to hold their phones, iPhones, tablets, and cameras above their heads, taking shakey and zoomed in photos of what might be Schwarzenegger, but might just be a well dressed tree.
The Beast With Two Backs
I’m pretty sure that’s what the Kama Sutra refers to sex as and I just really wanted to make a sexual reference before signing off. But really, in just a scant few hours I had gone from the most intimate of settings, talking to a creator about his work on an individual level, as equals, to being pushed around a crowded pen that was seemingly drawn by lottery from the hundreds of thousands of visitors to San Diego, and a few people from off the street to boot.
Plenty of people complain about San Diego Comic-Con and how large it’s gotten. Hey, I’ve been one of them on occasion. but really, I do still enjoy it here. It’s easy to be cynical. It’s easy to get lost in the long lines, the shoving, the random smells, and to lose sight of what’s really going on here. While the biggest companies most definitely do absorb most of the space, the outskirts of the Con are still very much available to creators – granted, they have to pay a lot more than they used to to get an even smaller space, but they’re there and you can support them, talk to them, relate to them. And while there are thousands of douche-bags who are there for whatever reason, likely because now it’s just cool to go to Con, there are tens of thousands of people there who love the media being represented. You don’t paint yourself blue or spend all month crafting the perfect sword and armor set if you don’t love the art.
I do find myself wishing for the clock to be rolled back a few years, scaling down the influence of the major studios, but on the other hand, as an avid movie fan, I’m always excited to see the newest related properties – keyword related. When Salt was here, or any other only loosely related title, I find it as annoying as anyone. But let us not cast stones at the giants for trying to give us more of what we want. Certainly there could be a better balance, but we as attendees are the ones who ultimately dictate what is popular and what is not. So if you want to complain about the size and scope of the Con, you should be supporting the smaller creators.
As it stands, San Diego’s Comic-Con is a very large, multifaceted beast and, ultimately, a choose your own adventure story — and I learned all that in just six hours.