Guest writer Adam Zalonis AKA Fory-san brings us San Diego Comic Con 2012!
“With Great Power, Comes a Great Convention: A Fan’s Tale of San Diego Comic Con 2012”
By Adam “Fory-san” Zalonis
The colossal event collectively known as San Diego Comic Con began life in 1969 with just over 350 people crammed in the basement level of the El Cortez Hotel. Back then, the roster of guests included such luminaries as Ray Bradbury, comic legend Jack Kirby, and fan numero uno, Forrest J. Ackerman. Growing steadily the following years, its maximum capacity is now over 150,000 fans of much more than comic books. Its glasses-wearing gaze also looks to the hottest video games, movies, television, toys, and everything in between. Though primary events take place at the sprawling San Diego Convention Center, it is the entire portion of downtown that is transformed into one big advertising fair. With this in mind, I must admit when given the opportunity to write this piece, there was a hesitant feeling of intimidation; to try describing the monstrosity is indeed a huge undertaking. Conveying every sight, sound, or feeling of awe I experienced that weekend in July would take several articles. My journey to the marvelous spectacle begins very boring, I am afraid. However, I feel it is the best starting point to harbinger the jam packed weekend to follow. So, put on your Spock ears and Iron Man underoos kids, because this is my exclusive report for this year’s San Diego Comic Con!
Wednesday, July 11th
It was a much needed break from the horrible weather my home region was experiencing. For almost two weeks, its conditions swung between 100+ heat indexes and sticky-tornado producing thunderstorms. At this ungodly hour in the morning, I found myself trudging through the pouring rain as I constantly adjusted the cardboard poster tube strapped to my shoulder and tried to not have my entire hand ripped clean from my body as I tugged along my rolling suitcase. The flight to Atlanta was booked to take off at around 5AM. From there, I would face off with an additional four hours to San Diego International Airport where the landing was estimated at 10AM. Needless to say, I was in for a long travel.
A sufferer of vertigo, a small pill promises to relieve me of any nausea I experience during this sort of travel. Its tranquilizing haze is a welcome to one who still has a haunting fear that they will be the next poor victim of a violent and fiery crash. This was not totally forgotten, as the Norfolk plane’s infernal turbulence brought back a long forgotten and pathetic feeling that we could die at any moment, harmonizing “Nearer My God to Thee” as our passenger jet dove straight into the ground below. The rude stewardesses did little to calm this fear, save for one who offered me water, no doubt to subdue me so she would not be forced to take me out with her mystical martial arts. Up and down the 757 went, being knocked about as if we–the fearful tourists–were being tossed about by a giant tantrum-throwing child. But lo, despite the invisible toddler’s fondling of the Delta, the landing was quick and painless as your light headed author staggered like a newborn giraffe. For once, we offered a virgin sacrifice to the travel gods that Hartfield Airport managed to actually do something right for a change in seeing our craft was right on time. Approximately an hour later, the somnolent commuters were hobbled onto the metal eagle in rows, no hint that there was a narration from Morgan Freeman.
Behold! The wondering eyes of the brain dead travelers beheld a joyous sight! It was a three rowed flight, leg room to spare! Like waiting in line for a morsel of bread in the Old Country, we waddled to our respective seats. It was time for another visit to Bonine’s enchanted dream world after the hot stewardess on the TVs before us warned of the consequences for smoking on board the craft at any time. Our punishment would no doubt involve being sent to the bulbous underbelly to battle the TSA’s pet Rancor. But out like a light I went, snuggling the small blanket in our chair. At this point, Jefferson Starship’s “White Rabbit” blared into my weary brain, the high only periodically interrupted to see how far we were from sunny California. Before I knew it, the Indiana Jones map showed us that the plane was approaching Tulsa. My excitement could only be expressed this early in the morning by a drooling, worn-down “Yay”. As soon as I hobbled off the plane at the airport, framed posters touting SyFy’s newest series Revolution jumped out from the mosaic patterned wall; a shop had a display exclusively selling the companion book to the documentary, Comic-Con: Episode IV-A Fan’s Hope; and legions of attendees stuck out like sore thumbs as they wore worn t-shirts of their favorite superheroes.
Rise and shine! We’re at grandma’s! After renting our car, I was met with the beautiful bay front of San Diego. I had lived around this area for six years of my childhood before my father’s 29 year stint in the Navy transferred my family to the East Coast. Each time I have returned, I relive my childhood all over again. It was equally enchanting in that for the first time in awhile, I was experiencing summer weather that wasn’t the Kellogg’s Raisin Bran commercial from hell. Mr. Sun would not pelt me with his two scoops of raisins this time! Even when clouds moved in throughout the weekend, it was still a gorgeous 75 degrees and breezy. Their idea of what is humidity is laughable compared to the swampy thickness of Virginia air. But the motion drug had done its job well, and mixed with the jet lag, I just wanted to get to the hotel and crash. Unfortunately, our room would not be available until 2PM, so it was a visit with my grandmother and cousins from my father’s side of the family. 1:30PM came around and we braved the winding highways to finally find refuge at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, just 45 minutes from the Convention Center. It was a heavenly paradise as the central portion of the inn was open with beautiful trees and grotto. Even they were into the Comic Con spirit as their sign cheerfully welcomed all guests to their comfortable abode. The room keys themselves were (surprise!) promotional nuggets for the aforementioned “Revolution” and the CW Network’s newest DC enterprise, “Arrow”. A slip of this into the door slot and the air conditioned, two bedroom suite summoned us into its colorful chamber. Bags were thrown down and shoes kicked off before I parked my medicated zombie carcass in the cool, comfortable sheets of my bedding. I had planned on picking up my four day pre-registration badge that day, but I was much too exhausted. Instead, I decided to take a much needed nap to clear my pounding head.
After the siesta, I looked over at the clock to see it was around 6PM. Feeling much more alert, I decided to ride to the Town and Country Inn located down the street just to see how long the lines were. As the sun was setting on the horizon, we drove into the parking lot to witness, much to our surprise, people literally going in and out, fresh with badge, program books, and bag in hand. There was practically no wait as I simply walked up with my printed receipt, was scanned into their registration system and picked up my guides and coffee-table sized carrier. Now, at other conventions, you receive a meager plastic bag containing all that you need to get around for the weekend. Ho-ho, dear fans! Not at Comic Con! For the third year in a row, Warner Brothers issued their own vinyl sacks blazoned with one of their TV or movies. Seriously, these glorified totes are large enough to smuggle a human body! They are also an incredible pain in the ass. By Thursday afternoon, my arm felt like it was going to fall off. Tossing it all in the back seat of the Prius, it was back to the hotel.
Thursday, July 12, 2012
The Sandman was gracious enough to bless me with 8 hours of sleep. Bright-eyed and bushy tailed, I jumped into the car and it was off to wait in line at the Center. Despite California’s reputation for being warm, the early morning hours drop into the 60’s. You can imagine how chilly I was as I paced back and forth in front of the Marriott, waiting for my friend Tori. When she got there, we were able to snag a reasonable place in line at the garden path betwixt the Marriott and Center. By 7AM, masses snaked past the Harbor and beyond. Around 8AM, the doors were opened as we were quickly filed into the building. No sooner as I turned the corner, my friend and I were separated. Meanwhile, I was made to run the gauntlet of clusterfuck to the entrance marked “E”. And should there be any doubt where I was, a banner summoned me into the enchanted realm of Comic-Con International. I followed the mob onto an escalator, a moving stairway to the heavenly host that awaited my eyes. My overwhelmed mind was blank save for these thoughts: “I am yours to own, gracious Comic Con; for I am your vessel to steer into nerdom’s womb. I am your youngling and you are my father. Erect me! Erect me, father!”
Once off the holy lift, I made my way into the brightly lit atrium known as the Sails Pavilion. On the far right, fans who failed to buy their badges the day before were held in an assembly line of computers and program bags. Upon the western plane, able bodies waited for the doors to open for the Exhibit Halls. Placing myself near the center of the mass, I lingered for a good hour until, alas! The portals swung outward! The line slithered quickly in rows down stairwell and escalator through two gateways of the rapturous bazaar! This magnificent land holds the key to every fan’s desire. As soon as you step into its wondrous hold, you are right there in the middle of the action. This is the beating heart and fiery soul of the convention itself; the underbelly of weird and fantastic dreams; Willy Wonka’s world of pure imagination. To paraphrase a wise cartoon scholar, “That’s what Comic Con is all about, Charlie Brown!”
Every square inch is property to massive corporations loudly hawking their licenses with booming music, commercials, and annoying emcees. It is an endless frontier of toy builders, whose-its and whats-its galore at every turn. Optimus Prime stood proudly in front of Hasbro Toys. Mattel constructed a miniaturized entrance to Castle Greyskull where booth babes costumed as She-Ra and female He-Man (She-Man?) modeled for the affection of slobbering fanboys. Plasma screens hanging from the ceiling flashed footage of cartoons, recent movie trailers, and upcoming Blu-Ray releases. Publishers such as DC and Marvel practically take up the center of the floor with monoliths of Joker, Batman, and the Hulk. Sideshow Collectibles’ display of intricately crafted statuettes was enough to make the average fan’s wallet cry. Another attraction in this jam-packed mini-metropolis (not surprisingly) belongs to Lucasfilm Limited. Here, treasures from both the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films could be gazed upon in large glass cases guarded by R2-D2 and C-3PO; but what these stations offer most to the fans are a wide range of exclusive merchandise. Sometimes, you can preorder these from their trusted company’s website, which is what I did for Sideshow’s own Hero Captain America figure. But you better be quick in your hunt. No sooner than the doors open, you have to make your way through the labyrinth as fast as possible. Otherwise, your chase risks ending in total failure. Most places have a limited number of items for sale each day of the show, so if you miss a chance the first time around, the following day is another opportunity; but you still must be fast on your feet and know exactly where you are going. Here, you are a lamb thrown to the lions—charging, acne ridden lions. Their ravenous hunger impels them to stampede from all sides into one sweaty and insanely awkward army. All demands for the pride not to run falls upon deaf ears as each dorky Olympian breaks the cheekbones of the ungodly, all in the name of useless paraphernalia. Here, it is either kill or be killed. Hasbro’s Derpy Hooves practically trotted out the door within minutes thanks to a line of wild Bronies, some of them picking up two or three at a time ( no doubt, to later be sold on Ebay for the highest bidder). Fortunately, I was able to collect all that was on my hit list this year, a haul that included Kotobukiya’s bishoujo Storm (“X-Men”), X-23, and Black Widow (“The Avengers”). I was also able to obtain Gentle Giant’s bust of the villainous Thanos, something that I initially missed out on Thursday morning.
Then there are the freebies—worthless trinkets offered by the presenters that are little more than wacky promotional gimmicks. This isn’t to say some aren’t pretty awesome—but just the obstacle course one has to go through to get just a foam Dalek hat or Mordecai pin from Cartoon Network’s “Regular Show” brings out the true devotion for the persistent fan. Yours truly braved the hot sun for an hour and a half on that Friday just to retrieve an “Avenger”s tee from the outside Norton Anti-Virus truck. Once within the vehicle, each person had to take an “official” SHIELD training program which was actually a thinly veiled interactive pop quiz for Norton’s protective software. Given the unparalleled success of Marvel’s motion picture, I seriously doubt anyone was there to be shanghaied for discounted installations. It was all about the t-shirt, poster, and movie themed rubix cube. The things I do for fandom…
Celebrity appearances are a main draw for many pilgrims, the largest are the media panels held in Hall H and Ballroom 20. These are the two amphitheaters that seat thousands at a time. Faithful line up outside in the ever changing elements sometimes a day or two before just to catch discussions with the cast and crew of hit movies and TV series. For many, this is the only way to even come close to seeing their favorite actors, writers, and directors live in person. It is also a chance to see special screenings of trailers and footage along with announcements for upcoming projects. With such red carpet-like affairs, there comes an incredibly annoying factor: because CCI does not empty their rooms, some devotees will “camp” in their respective seats all day until the one panel they want to see is over, no matter how late down the line it may be. The two largest draws were for the final Twilight film and a reunion of the central actors of Firefly. In fact, the latter had Browncoats lining up a day and a half in advance. Personally, I didn’t even touch Hall H or Ballroom 20 with a ten and a half foot pole.
Unfortunately, there was a tragic incident two days prior. Although the staff discourages gathering for Hall H or Ballroom 20 before setup is complete on Wednesday, some ignore this warning. On the Tuesday before, a grandmother waiting for Friday’s Twilight presentation was killed as she ran out in front of a truck because she had apparently heard rumor the queue was moving. Despite my disdain for Stephanie Meyers’ glorified fanfiction, I feel bad for the family she was there with and from my understanding, actors from the feature paid tribute to her before the live discussion. To quote comedian Patton Oswalt from his Twitter, “Nothing at Comic Con is worth dying for”.I could see some of these concerns, but honestly, I can tell you for a fact that it *still* is all about the comic collecting culture. The movie, TV, and video game companies loudly boasting their products are–in my opinion–simply window dressing. You take away the base of it, and it’s nothing. So with every exclusive toy given away and booth babe wishing to God they had chosen another gig, there’s still a rather large emphasis on comic books, strips, and fandom in general.
There has been some very vocal debate amongst long time fans on whether Comic Con is still worthy of its namesake. As the glitz and glamour of Hollywood has crashed the party, it has shifted its focus from comics and graphic art to more of a trade show for the major studios. With each successive year, the rows of comic book dealers seem to have shrunk as the mass media elite have taken up most of the floor. I could see some of these concerns, but honestly, I can tell you for a fact that it still is all about the comic collecting culture. The movie, TV, and video game companies noisily boasting their products are–in my opinion–simply window dressing. You take away the base of it, and it’s nothing. So with every toy given away and booth babe wishing to God they had chosen another gig, there’s still a rather large emphasis on comic books, strips, and fandom in general. Even more encouraging, I found out from several merchants that sales of comic books were beyond expectations. One explanation for this spike in sales can no doubt be traced to the string of big-screen blockbusters such as The Avengers and The Dark Knight trilogy. The summer superheroes have encouraged their audience to seek out the original source material. It was also comforting seeing massive lines for well-renowned artisans in the field rivaling those of the ticketed autographs from the cast of “The Big Bang Theory” and “Fringe”. Even as Scott Snyder’s Thursday morning autographs was cut off, the dedicated continued to hang on, hoping in vain to receive at least a glance at the idol of their affection (my success came later at the end of the Batman: Court of Owls panel). As for other guests, I had the great opportunity to shake hands with such personalities as “Tick” creator Ben Edlund; “Batman: The Animated Series’” Bruce Timm; Bill Tucci, Arthur Adams, and many, many more. Two random encounters were had with director John Landis and Anthony Bourdain of TLC’s “No Reservations”. Despite his gruff nature, I can profess that Bourdain is really an incredibly sweet, down-to-earth guy. Being a comic book collector himself, Bourdain was practically ogling through my autograph sketchbook, particularly being blown away by the signature given to me from the late great Jerry Robinson, the uncredited artist behind the Joker. He seemed more than happy to scribble his name among the pages of greatness, adding the words “Good eating!”. Such random run-ins are rare at other conventions these days, but Comic Con is a natural haven for them.
It is no exaggeration when I say that once a year, the largest convention in North America conquers that booming metropolis of Southern California. No matter where one drives down the various strips, they are met with one massive billboard. Every single street lamp on the district had small banners marked with the convention’s official logo along with advertisements for Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie and Wreck It Ralph. Even the local businesses get in on the act, promising exclusive deals to all attendees. Thursday night in particular was a festival to behold. Gothic street performers announced VH1’s own nighttime bash for congers called Dawn of the Con, presented by rocker Rob Zombie. NBC built an entire “experience” based around their fairy tale drama “Grimm”. Meanwhile, roaring sirens could periodically be heard from Petco Park Stadium followed by a grim warning of a “contamination”. Usually home to the Padres, this was now a massive zombie survival game sponsored by AMC’s “The Walking Dead”. One could pay a hefty $75 to escape the clutches of the undead. I considered taking part but passed due to finances. I think I made the right decision since I later saw a huge line circle around the stadium as I rode the bus back to my hotel. Speaking of the shuttles, the city graciously offered free 24 hour bus service to and from the con all weekend. Each color coded transport was assigned to stop at a list of hotel destinations. It was an extremely convenient way of getting back and forth.
There were other unusual sites other than the costumed patrons and over the top promotional attractions. A group of radical Christians protested the event with large yellow signs blazoned with Bible verses warning these evil denizens that we were all bound for El Diablo. One guy on the overpass carried a cross as he continuously yelled “HEAVEN? OR HELL?” into a megaphone (I answered “Applebees!”). Later, I found some of their pink tracts warned that a laundry list of “Satanic activities” could lead to demonic possession. The funniest of the debaucheries? VEGETARIANISM. So, Vegans are followers of Satan—I KNEW IT! Of course, there were the usual wisecrackers holding cardboard signs in counter protest. My favorite was one that read “Join the Dark Side” held respectively by a Darth Maul cosplayer. I admit getting in on the heckling a bit by having a group of scantily clad models for Spike TV pose for a picture in front of the zealots.
But crusading Christian soldiers were not the only extremists on hand. The following incident actually transpired on that Friday afternoon: Sometime before noon, I was heading to the shuttle stop where the appropriate pickup for my hotel would be when I passed by a camera crew. I felt a dark disturbance in the Force when I read who the crew was working for: FOX News. This was not a local affiliate mind you, but the Fox News, home to Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, and other pundits who hide under the facade of being legitimate reporters. “Aw, crap,” thought my then haggard and worn-out mind. Since I was right in their line of sight, I was immediately asked for an interview by a casually dressed gentleman(?) wearing a polo shirt and khaki dress pants. I could tell right away by his snarky grin and cocky demeanor that he was a prime candidate for a PG-rated version of a Howard Stern-wannabe. Though I was exhausted, I am certainly not feeble minded so I was more than ready for the challenge. The conversation started innocently enough. “So, tell us your name?”
“My name is Adam and I’m from Virginia.”
“Wow, that’s quite a ways!” Que dumb smile. He no doubt had found his victim. “What brought you to this year’s Comic-Con?”
“Well, I have been a fan of science fiction, fantasy, and comics since I was a kid and wanted to go to the largest of them in the U.S..” Now, he decided to go in for the kill. In a sarcastic tone he quipped, “So, who are you dressed as today?” Keep in mind I was not wearing any sort of costume; just my regular light brown cargo shorts and green Hulk shirt, my tired shoulder painfully carrying a heavy backpack by its sling. There was no doubt: this guy wanted to make me look like an idiot for whatever sound bite he could salvage. I quickly turned the tables in my favor. As he pushed the foam covered microphone into my face, I calmly and matter of factually answered…
“Not a hack comedian working for the Republican party.”
His world of Lou Dobbs and Shepard Smith had just crumbled right then and there. Evidently pissed off, he and his cameraman swooped away without further questions and I was off to the bus stop. I was later more properly interviewed by a local NBC chapter who were professional as can be. It shows how ridiculous these clowns are when they are reduced to hiring chuckling trolls to do their coverage of such a large event.
Outside the festivities, I had the chance to meet up with several close friends of mine who reside in the area. In fact, it all closed with me that Sunday dining at a Japanese restaurant with a couple I’ve had the privilege of knowing for quite a long time. After another quick trip to see my grandmother, it was full speed to the airport for an all night trip back home that left me feeling like I had been run ragged. Due to a number of factors—namely the nearly impossible task of obtaining tickets–this second journey to Comic Con International will probably be my last for a very long time. But just as I begin feeling a little down, I take a moment to remember everything I experienced that weekend in July. It was a wild time full of twists, turns, and ups and downs; it was feasting with beloved friends, visits with family, and general fawning over all the things I hold so dear. But most of all, I carried back a busload of memories larger than any of those bulky grab bags could ever hold. I encourage everyone to give it all a shot at least once. My advice is not to wait in line all day for major panels or the masquerade. Just walk around, watch anime, shop for collectibles, and maybe just take in the beauty that Southern California has to offer. I guarantee you will have just as much fun and excitement as I did. To me, that is the true adventure of Comic Con.