My first experience at San Diego Comic Con was almost overwhelming. And I mean that in a literal sense: there were many times when I felt an almost irresistible temptation to “take a knee” and call a time-out on the crowds and whole energy of the convention floor, which spilled liberally out into the Gaslamp district in downtown San Diego. An experience like that needs to be broken down into smaller parts to be comprehensible, and I think that’s what my mind has been doing since I got back here to Vancouver (which, ironically, has been sunnier and warmer than San Diego this July).
Each day had its own character, but like everyone else I was bright-eyed and bushy tailed on the Thursday morning, cheerfully submitting to lineups in order to see the Battlestar Galactica panel hosted by “Apollo” Richard Hatch. I was impressed by the way Hatch took the stage, with no preamble or introduction, just casually walked out and picked up a mic and said, “Hey guys,” before showing a brief clip about the history of the franchise. The familiarity with which he addressed the crowd set a nice tone for Comic Con, as he proceeded to explain how he was trying to gauge what fans wanted for the future of the franchise and after inviting up such luminaries as Jane Espenson to join him, they took suggestions from the floor. Espenson was a welcome counterpoint to Hatch’s fan-friendly geniality, presenting more of a professional writer’s perspective on the show. When one fan suggested an alternate timeline based on string theory, Espenson rolled her eyes and said, “You mean, go the full JJ?” (a reference to JJ Abrams’ Star Trek reboot). It’s important to be reminded, sometimes, that the fans don’t necessarily know “what they want”.
Thursday was also my first flurry of visiting comics creator tables, warmly meeting artists Roc Upchurch and Matt Roberts, whose books Rat Queens and Manifest Destiny I regularly discuss here on Sequart. The ease with which I was able to converse with comics creators, particularly ones newer to the industry, stood in stark contrast to the challenge of meeting a more “famous” celebrity figure. There were many at the Con, of course, but it seemed that the more well-known they were, the more frighteningly militaristic the security became. When, for example, a group of actors or creators from a show like Archer or American Dad were brought out to the signing booth in the middle of the convention floor, rather than being given the opportunity to snap a photo or wave, dozens of security guards took to the floor, barking “keep moving!!” as we filed past the very thing many people had to come to San Diego to see. I understood the necessity of keeping foot traffic moving, but as the Con went on, the almost fascistic security attitude wore on me more and more. I don’t like having orders barked at me by someone with the plastic badge, and didn’t expect to encounter that kind of energy at Comic Con. There were additional signs outside the convention floor in the centre warning delegates not to sit or rest on the floor, which again seemed rather inhuman. Exhausted and overwhelmed, socially awkward people (and I suspect there were more than a few of those at a geek gathering this big) need a quiet place to sit and think for five or ten minutes sometimes, not constant harassment.
The effective survival strategy came to be, stick to small comics creators, who are happy to chat in a relaxed manner, expect a long lineup if you would like to see a panel and if you need to take a break, leave the convention centre and its security forces. There were plenty of great restaurants in the Gaslamp district (I particularly liked the Indian buffet, which was quiet, uncrowded and tasty as hell), and if you were lucky enough, like we at Sequart were, to have a table, that became a bit of a haven as well.
Thursday was also the day when I submitted to the lineup for the famous “Hall H”, where the truly big announcements were made. Extending outside and inspiring people to camp out for all three days, I was glad to not have to wait out in the hot sun for long before being ushered into the giant, dark, cavernous hall. Sitting there in the pitch black as opposed to the bright Southern California day outside, in a hall that seemed to go on forever, it was almost like being in the crowd for Charles Foster Kane’s campaign speech. The darkness and the immensity of the crowd gave it a truly surreal quality. I was taking all of this in when a guy dressed in a complete 1966-era Batman costume sat down beside me and proceeded to check Facebook on his iPhone. I tried not to stare, but that was a true “Comic Con” moment in my experience, and doubly amusing since the panel we were awaiting was for the announcement of the release of Batman 1966 on blu-ray after many years of delay. Ralph Garman, well-known radio broadcaster, podcaster, party animal and Batman fan, took the stage as many in the crowd chanted his bar-room rallying cry, “Garmy! Garmy!” He quickly turned things over to the clip featuring the opening credits for Batman and I suspect many in the audience were as excited by those familiar “nah nah nah nah”’s in the theme song as they had ever been. Burt Ward, Adam West and Catwoman Julie Newmar took the stage shortly thereafter. Ward and West are Comic Con staples, but it was wonderful to see the still-flirty and dare I say, “catlike” Newmar up on the panel with the men. Clearly having health issues, the 80-year-old Newmar responded with style, having two fellows dressed in complete “Catwoman henchmen” costumes from the original series help her to and from her seat, where she proceeded to flirt shamelessly with Adam West, who responded in kind. (“I feel a bulge in my utility belt…” he intoned in his famous voice.) It was a fun panel about a show that never took itself very seriously and provided the right amount of escapism
Friday was the day for unsuccessful panel attendance, as I had mentally put a limit on how long I was willing to stand in lines. But there were small highlights aplenty, such as passing by the Troma Films booth to be greeted by the irrepressible Lloyd Kaufman, director of such legendary films as The Toxic Avenger. Probably the highlight of Friday for me was meeting Mark A. Altman, the writer of Free Enterprise, a film celebrating nerd culture far ahead of its time. The panel celebrating the 15h Anniversary was crashed by well-known voice actor Phil Lamarr (Futurama), who played a small role in the movie and was the only appearing cast member. The small, friendly, informal panel was a welcome contrast to the carefully stage-managed celebrity events, and it was exciting to hear about the new Free Enterprise Kickstarter, to bring it to TV as a series. It’s worth investigating.
Friday also became my “Kevin Smith” day, waiting through some quite uninteresting panels in Hall H (but at least seated, out of the sun) to see him discuss the new Star Wars (he walked on the new Millennium Falcon set and cried), his abiding love for heavy metal and whether he will ever make a children’s movie. He then introduced the trailer for his new horror film, Tusk, which looks extremely creepy and extremely interesting. Supposedly it will be first in a trilogy of horror films set in Canada, the next two being Yoga Hosers and the grand finale Moose Jaws (“It’s Jaws with a moose!” Kevin explained). Seeing Smith do his act (let’s admit at this point that it is a bit of an act) was a highlight, but an expected one, as I have seen “Evening with Kevin Smith” videos on many an occasion. Later that evening, when I saw him record “Hollywood Babble-On” at the San Diego House of Blues with his compatriot Ralph Garman, it was slightly disappointing though not unexpected that he told many of the same stories and made many of the same jokes. He even showed the Tusk trailer again.
Saturday I decided to take things easy, and ran into David Lloyd as he was setting up his table. Lloyd, famous from V for Vendetta, is never shy with his views on the comics industry and told me all about how he’s not interested in playing the “big label” game anymore and is enjoying his own web-based publishing with Aces Weekly. I also made my one and only “valuable comics” purchase, an original 1977 printing of American Splendor #2, which contains the “Harvey Pekar Name Story” I discussed recently. It wasn’t as valuable as the Action Comics #1 I saw, sealed in a glass container, listed at $175000, but I was happy to own a piece of Harvey Pekar’s legacy. I later joined some of the rest of the Sequart crew for some of the local flavour (as a Canadian, I am as astonished as anyone else to be admitting publicly that yes, some American beers are good). Bumping into Brent Spiner at a local brewery was a strange, random highlight, as was almost literally bumping into Matt Kindt on the way back to my shuttle bus much later. But the discussions we had about history, Superman movies (sorry, Zack Snyder, but your reputation did not fare well) and plenty of other subjects reminded me why the writing and analysis on this site is so good.
And then it was all over. Sunday was thinner in terms of celebrities, but had a definite feeling of “last day of camp”. When the time came to disassemble the Sequart display, we were ready to go home. But I’m glad, on balance, that I came to San Diego Comic Con, if only for the opportunity to meet my fellow Sequart writers and crew. So close to the event, I’m not sure I’m super keen to go back to that huge crowd and tough security next year, but I’m certainly glad I was there for SDCC 2014.