Interrobang: Understanding Comic-Con

When she saw me take out my camera, the pretty girl dressed as a Green Lantern held her ring out toward the direction of a giant, plastic model of a Green Lantern battery. I thanked her and took a picture, and turned around to see a small child waddle up dressed as a Lego robot. I had to capture that, too. I made my way down the hall, slowly taking in the overwhelming colorful spectacle, and was cut off by Pacman being chased by 3 ghosts. I almost bumped into Domo-kun.

"Sorry," I said to the giant brown-furred box with gnashing teeth. I don't know if the thing inside could even hear me. I continued on, through the Chun-Lis, through the Iron Men, through the Pikachus, and of course, through the Stormtroopers.

Always Stormtroopers. There was the signature, vanilla kind, as ubiquitous as air. There were the ones with red stripes, the ones with blue stripes, the ones with battle damage, the ones for desert environments. Stormtroopers are the default costume. In this trail mix of crazy, I don't even bat an eye when a soldier of the evil empire takes the urinal next to me.

It's part of the reason why I've always loved the yearly trip to San Diego Comic-Con International. Every year, a hundred thousand people descend unto beautiful downtown San Diego to ruin it with the sheer impossibility of their collective mass. They come dressed up, or dressed down, to celebrate the act of being a fan of something. Not only is it unlike any other convention, but it is unlike any other thing.

For comics die-hards, the overwhelming spectacle and popularity of the show is a detriment. I can see their point. It is getting to the point of being unmanageable. But ultimately it's a trade-off. We have plenty of smaller, comics-centric events to seek sanctuary, but there is only one San Diego Comic Con.

Have you ever wondered what it was like to be insane? San Diego Comic-Con can show you. Because it is the only place on earth where you're walking, and walking, and then you see Xena interiewing Sarah Palin. Or Simon Pegg, waving from G4's recording platform. Or Voltron. Comic-Con is a thing that doesn't make sense, and that is why I love it. It is righteously defiant of reality in favor of the love of escapist fiction. It is a middle finger to the rational universe.

It's not just the collection of costumes, although it is definitely a large part of the mind melt. Like walking down Las Vegas Boulevard, it is bursting with sensory overload. Each booth, especially the larger corporate ones, are their own little contained universe, with dozens of things to look at, news to absorb, products to try, and of course, free swag to collect in your oversized, floor-dragging tote bag. This past year's convention was my 3rd one, and I still haven't gotten over that first two hour buzz of walking the floor for the first time. Your eyes are drawn to every single sound and light, every person walking by, and you are afraid your mind might be bleeding. But that's okay. Because there's a dude with a really crazy War Machine costume, complete with rotating chain gun barrel.

You don't even necessarily have to be a fan of comic books at all to enjoy comic con. The convention has grown to such absurd size, into the sextuple digits, that it has, by necessity, become more mainstream. It is now more accurately a popular culture hysteria, complete with PR and panels for shit that not only has nothing to do with comics, but isn't even geeky or escapist. Do you think people will care about the movie, Salt within a year? Will this be a lasting part of pop culture? Most likely no; but there is a panel and Q & A in the gigantic Hall H anyway.

Panels, by the way, are the meat of the experience. Good ones can make your comic-con a wonderful experience, bad ones can ruin it. If you care about something enough, if you're a big enough fan, there is a tangible energy to being in the same room as the people who made it. Theoretically, they are there for you to talk to, to impart wisdom and anecdotes, and, hopefully, make you laugh. Despite being in a room with a hundred people, the panel format always manages to feel intimate.

Here's how I would explain the magic of the panel: I'm an aspiring writer, and I read a lot of comics. For me, the extent of my participation of this hobby is limited to reading the books and reading the latest news/interviews. Except at panels, because now I get to see what Grant Morrison looks like, or hear Greg Rucka make jokes, or hear Gail Simone answer questions. These are people I know by name and by the art they produce, and to have them all in the same room, engaging in conversation with each other and with me, these writers whose work I have loved - it's exciting.

If you love a band, you can see them perform live and reach your hands to the sky from the front row. If you love a writer, you can go to a panel and laugh at their banter. A good panel is effectively a concert for non-musicians.

The Comic-Con is not without its flaws. Most of it comes from how powerful the convention has become out of its size. It is too big and unwieldy for its own good. It has also become, in large part, a tool for publicists and movie producers to continue to shove their forgettable action movie down a hundred thousand throats. Because Race to Witch Mountain gets a panel because Disney is a mega huge corporation and they get to throw whatever crap movie they want in to get a little bit more buzz. In reality, movies like that and Salt and Balls of Fury are the farthest thing from the point of fan conventions, in that 1) They have nothing to do with comics or geek hobbies and, more importantly, 2) They do not have any fans.

There is a tendency for the Hollywood hype machines to treat people like cattle at comic con. Line up here, shuffle here, stand here for hours, become a zombie here. To the wranglers of totally groundbreaking films like Good Luck Chuck, you are just bodies to fill in space to make their movie look buzz worthy. Even if you were the biggest fan of movies involving Luck and Chuck, the dehumanizing aspect of being shepherded and kept waiting only to be met with disappointment may not be worth it.

That's why San Diego Comic-Con works best when you look at its human side, in all it's dressed up, booth-crazy glory. When you leave reality for a day or two and revel in the absurdity and breathe in the chaos. It is hard not to grin when living in a vortex of pop culture and gleeful fan worship.