A Comic-Con Vet Has Mixed Emotions About the Annual Geek Gathering

San Diego Comic-Con begins July 17 — and is sure to bring expected levels of excitement, weirdness, and exhaustion

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Miguel Vasconcellos/The Orange County Register/ZUMAPRESS.com
Miguel Vasconcellos/The Orange County Register/ZUMAPRESS.com

Convention-goers relax outside the San Diego Convention Center for Comic-Con International 2012.

And suddenly, it’s that time of year again.

Every July, a geek army numbering in the hundreds of thousands flocks to the San Diego Convention Center for Comic-Con: a four-day celebration of nerd culture filled with celebrities of all stripes, from comic-book creators to movie stars. It’s an immersive and overwhelming experience that can, if you spend much time inside that bubble, make you forget that there’s such a thing as a real world at all. I want to say that I love it (and I do) — but there’s also a side of me that feels like a more appropriate response would simply be to quake silently and hope that I make it through to the end in one piece.

I’m exaggerating, of course, but as a multiple-year veteran of the show, I have to admit that at least once every single time I’ve visited, I find myself having to take a minute and remind myself that real life isn’t actually like this. Part of the problem is that I’ve never actually visited the show for fun; I’ve always been working in some form or another, whether covering the show as a reporter, or appearing as a panelist. It’s not even a case of being able to walk outside of the convention center and everything immediately turning back to normal; my strangest experience at Comic-Con would be the night that I was working through the night in the foyer of my hotel — deadlines, don’t you know — only to realize at some point that there was, quite literally. a party going on around me. It turned out that I was, somehow, in the middle of a gathering thrown by a well-known men’s magazine, a curiously uncomfortable mix that only got more awkward when emergency services arrived to take someone in one of the rooms away on a stretcher (a sad sight that paused the raucous  booty-shaking for all of forty-five seconds before bacchanal pursuits resumed).

Comic-Con isn’t just Comic-Con, you see. The official show is one thing, and it’s a massive thing that takes up an entire convention center as well as ballrooms in nearby hotels to fully accommodate the movies and comics and video games and television shows and toy lines that are being promoted. I don’t mean to sound snide, because there really is something thrilling about witnessing the passion from the fans, not to mention the effort and resources that goes into staging such an event. (There is really nothing like the feeling you get looking up at what looks like a near-life size replica of He-Man’s Castle Grayskull, I promise you, and that’s just one of the oversized attractions you might find in the main hall each year, some of which stagger description or explanation). But it’s also an exhausting proposition, because it feels like everything is Comic-Con after awhile.

Obviously, local businesses do their best to try and take advantage of the unstoppable hoards of visitors that are literally on their doorstep, which means that Comic-Con extends to nearby restaurants and cafes. But it also extends to the streets, where you’ll run into zombies advertising The Walking Dead  — the AMC zombie-horror series also takes over the nearby Petco Park for an undead assault course — and the various locations scheduled for “off-site events” for the duration of the show, with pop-up shops, museum and gallery exhibits and, unexpectedly, Adam Ant in concert (Well, if Metallica can get their own panel, then I guess Adam Ant can at least play a gig).

It’s exhausting, you see. I know, I know; that sounds like a humble-brag of a complaint — Look at me, I’m so tired by this amazing week that I’m going to have, oh no — but it’s not meant to. Comic-Con really is amazing and wonderful and everything positive that you’ve been told all this time, it’s true. It’s just that, Comic-Con is so large and so unstoppable that it’s also overwhelming and all-encompassing and occasionally, more than a little bit claustrophobic as a result. Resistance is futile, to adopt a particularly fitting reference.

2 comments
ThomasE.Reed
ThomasE.Reed

When I was making stupid money, I tried to go from Florida to Comic-Con every year. And then it dawned on me. The main reason for going there was the hope of finding something new, unique and precious there. And I always failed.

It started with being unable to get a hotel room within walking distance of the Convention Center. Having to travel from a distant hotel, accessible only by trolley or by expensive cab, for which I still paid too much money, was only the start. It came to a peak when it was clear that the megacorporations that make all of America's mass entertainment were using the conventioneers as cheap PR. They push the latest things they want the fanboys to talk about. They give a distant glimpse of some celebrities. They give a little information (not much) to people who want to know about their products, but prevent anyone from voicing anything but abject praise.

And no matter how many enjoyable eccentrics and true believers show up, San Diego is still a conservative Navy town. It's impossible to get a decent meal in a walk-up location after 9 PM. Once a friend and I went to a late panel, and could only eat dinner at a freaking 7-11. There isn't a freaking 24-hour McDonalds anywhere, but they have bail bondsmen on every corner - although you can't do anything in this right-wing town for which you'd need bail.

I won't find any big celebrities at the cons I attend in the Southeast, like Dragon*Con, Necronomicon, Oasis and Megacon. But I will find fans, a lot less hype, real food and real friends. And real thought and discussion about the mass media I still love, despite the megacorps trying to cheapen and betray it.