Notes from the 2014 San Diego Comic-Con

Written By: Paul Toth - Aug• 16•14

With the 2014 Comic-Con firmly in the rearview mirror, and thought I’d jot down a few impressions. Don’t expect a detailed rundown on the con, or a comprehensive photo gallery. There are plenty of blogs that provide such fare, and I’m way too lazy to do in depth reporting.

Costumes: What Was “In” for 2014

The most popular women’s costume by far was Daenerys Targaryen, from Game of Thrones. A platinum blond wig, rough-cut skirt, and a v-top that shows a bit of tummy, and a lady is ready rock the con. A medieval-ish dress in solids works too, since the character wears these later in the series. Wonder Woman continues to be a favorite.

As for the dudes—lots of Wolverines this year, and at least a half dozen Deadpools. Not as many videogame based characters as in years past. I suppose these things go in cycles.

Hall H

This isn’t really specific to 2014, but I thought I’d write a few words about the myth, the horror, the forbidden golden chalice that is Hall H. The most star-studded panels (such as the one for The Avengers) convene in Hall H—a mammoth space that seats somewhere around five thousand people. Despite its size, demand exceeds supply, resulting in a line that’s the stuff of legend. It starts out at the main entrance to the hall, winds around one of the major thoroughfares, and then extends outside the convention center. About a half mile worth of the queue curls back and forth beneath canvas awnings to the south of the convention center, and then snakes all the way down to the marina. How much of the shoreline it covers, I don’t know. It’s like one of those bottomless pits, with dimensions beyond human ken.

People often get in the line the night before, and are issued a limited number of bathroom passes. I assume there are porta-potties somewhere nearby, though I’m not sure where. Those that show up earliest come prepared to camp out, with provisions, ponchos, and folding furniture. Maybe illicit pee-jugs, too—it wouldn’t surprise me. There are probably rules that prohibit bringing your own generator.

No wonder one of the prominent t-shirt shops on the main floor sells garb emblazoned with various “I Survived Hall H” designs.

Writer’s Panels

Comic-con isn’t just for fans. Many pros and would-be pros attend, and there’s a slice of the con that caters to them. Panels featuring prominent artists (I attended one with Jim Lee, one of the giants) draw the biggest crowds, but there are also quite a few that focus on writing. I found one entitled “The Writer’s Room” particularly interesting. A half dozen television writers talked about the nature of writing for TV, and did so in startling depth. The stuff I learned really deserves its own blog article, and if there’s enough interest, I’ll write it. For now, it’ll suffice to say that the old system, which depended largely on freelancers, is largely dead, with a rigid, hierarchical, guild-like system in its place. Not at all what I would have imagined, and disappointing on some level.

Most Entertaining

The most entertaining panel was probably the one for Grimm. The interplay between the actors and creators was amusing, and at one point we were treated to the screening of an exclusive short that showed the show’s character’s reacting to the aftermath of the previous season closer. It was clever, and tongue-and-cheek—a great fit for the tone of the panel as a whole. As is often the case with Comic-con panels, the talent seemed genuinely pleased to be there, and eager to answer questions from members of the audience.

Kiefer Sutherland was there to promote the latest 24 DVDs, and the panel consisted entirely of him and the latest season’s director. Sutherland dove into a number of anecdotes, and they proved interesting and occasionally hilarious. Some television stars seem to lack charisma and presence in person, but Sutherland certainly doesn’t have this problem.

While waiting for Mythbusters (another terrifically entertaining panel, and probably deserving of its own article), we attended Person of Interest. I don’t watch the show (found the pilot asinine) but enjoyed the panel interesting nonetheless. I happened to be seated near the end of the riser occupied by Jewel Staite (of Firefly, along with Stargate Atlantis, and, more recently, The Killing). For anyone who’s wondering if she’s as jaw-droppingly gorgeous as you might think… um, yes. Lots of eye candy for the ladies as well, but for details you’ll have to read someone else’s blog. Sorry, my reporting is not balanced.

Entrepreneurs

The majority of the booths on the con’s immense ground floor are occupied by small businesses. They sell collectibles, memorabilia, costumes, wigs, miniatures (including incredible hand crafted pieces), magazines, comics (of course) and a thousand other items of interest to the geekazoid convention goer. The booths that really caught my eye were run by independent creators hawking their own comics. In most cases, these were modern, slickly produced products with high quality art—comics that would have looked right at home on the shelves of a heavily trafficked shop in midtown Manhattan. These people invested serious time, money, and effort in their creations.

Because there are some many well-known attractions, it’s difficult for these indies to get attention—there are usually only a handful of people at these booths, if that. I think the goal isn’t really to move product, it’s to draw the attention of established professionals that attend the con. These fledgling creators are out to woo the gatekeepers. I admire them a great. They’re hoping to find toeholds in an industry that is very, very difficult to break into (unless you’re connected) and are willing to bust their asses to do it. Kudos.

Now that I think of, this subject really requires its own article as well. Sadly, there are only so many hours in the day.

 

Autographs

Sadly, the way autographs are signed at Comic-Con has changed, and not for the better. In fact, I fear that the change in autographing may be a veritable canary in the coal mine, presaging a serious decline in the quality of the con.

I should probably start by saying that I’m not much for autographs. When I picked up a copy of the first Walking Dead compendium, Robert Kirkman was signing the books, but think that’s pretty much the only autograph I’ve ever asked for. I just never saw the point. That said, I think the way the con treats people who are into such things is important, because it’s emblematic of the organizational philosophy.

In years past, celebrity autographs were given out in a fairly ad-hoc manner. For instance, the stars of a TV show might take seats at a booth—typically just after their panel—and fans would cluster around the booth and form a sort of sloppy line. I never braved these clusters—I’m not really fond of being hip-to-hip in a sweaty mass of humanity, and, as I mentioned, not really into autographs anyway—but I found the joyous, frenetic mood infectious. When the Chuck cast gathered for one such session, I enjoyed getting a glimpse of the unbearably sexy Yvonne Strahovski—IMHO, one of the most luscious actresses ever to grace the small screen.

Now, things are different. There’s a single, large booth on the main floor where all autographs are signed, and pictures are taken. A schedule with the names of participating celebrities is posted ahead of time, along with a pricelist. X dollars for an autograph, Y for an autograph and a pic, etc. with the biggest celebs costing the most to access.

Yuck.

Not to be hating on the MBAs, but the whole thing stinks of business school short term profit optimization logic. Bowing to this sort of reasoning is a good way to cripple an organization, event, company, or brand, because it involves painfully simplistic thinking that ignores the nuances of cultural phenomena and human behavior. It ignores cool. Shame on you, Comic-Com organizers, for going down this path. By maximizing the monetization of access to celebrities, by erecting additional tollbooths that customers must traverse, the con is robbed of the egalitarian appeal at its core. What if every aspect of the con worked like this? Right now, access to hall H is, frankly, a matter of fanaticism, which makes sense, because Comic-Con is all about the fans (fanaticism, get it?) and that’s cool. Pathetically geeky, perhaps, but cool nonetheless. Comic-Con could easily improve Hall H monetization by charging people to get in line. There would be plenty of takers. Organizers could optimize further by selling very expensive VIP passes that let rich or especially fanatical individuals bypass the line altogether, and by adding another pricing tier above that for assigned seating in the front row. Don’t think that some MBA hasn’t already proposed this, and patted himself on the back for his “genius”.

Imagine, if you will, a perfectly monetized Comic-Con milieu, with the plum experiences carefully parceled out the wealthy, and to crazed celebrity worshippers willing to empty their 401Ks for a moment next to their idols. The con would go from epic cool to epic fail very, very quickly.

The X-Box Pavilion

Comic-con is ostensibly based in the San Diego convention center, but despite the SDCC’s impressive size, the convention long ago overflowed its banks. The con’s events and attractions have spilled out onto the acres of grassy fields across the train tracks and occupy many of the conference rooms in neighboring hotels such as the Marriott and Hyatt. This year, Microsoft took over a 20,000ish square foot space in the Marriott and dedicated it to promoting the X-Box, with dozens of consoles set up in comfortably spaced booths, a large stage, and a cushy lounge. Basically a con within a con. The whole space was redefined to suit the gamer persona—massive Halo wall decorations, custom lighting, actors in costume, you name it.

Pat, one of my long-time buds, was at the con with his thirteen year old son, Shawn. They spent much of their time in X-Box Land, checking out all the new games MS is promoting for the upcoming year. One of them is a dungeon crawl in which several players control adventurers in search of loot, and one controls the dungeon, trying to slay the adventurers by deploying tricks, traps, and monsters. The game was just out beta, which means the version being played was probably very close to the one that will eventually be released in stores. It was developed by a crew in the UK who had been flown out for the con. They were there both to promote the game and watch it being played by groups of likely customers.

Pat and Shawn turned out to be dungeon crawling virtuosos. Pat managed to wipe out an entire party of adventurers on the game’s first level, something the designers hand never seen done, and hadn’t believed possible. Shawn exposed a bug in the game, something that might have cost the company a huge amount of money to deal with if the product had gone to market without a fix. He was made an honorary member of the development team, given an exhibitor badge, and invited to work for them as an intern next summer (What are the child labor laws like in the UK? I have no idea.) Logistically, the idea isn’t as far-fetched as might be expected, as Shawn mother lives in England, not far from where the game development team is based (Surrey, I think).

I’ve included this anecdote to illustrate how wide-ranging the effect of Comic-con can be. It’s not just a place to ogle celebrities and purchase nerdy goods. Crazy, unexpected shit can and does happen, when enough geekiness is concentrated in one place. A critical mass is achieved, I think, and a sort of weapon of mass creation (WMC?) comes into being.

Will we be attending Comic-con next year? I’ll consult my Elven-language magic eight ball and let you know.

As soon as I learn Elven.

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