San Diego Comic Con, Tragedy, and the Family of Fans: A Handful of Thoughts

On Thursday night I stood in line outside the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, TX, two and a half hours before the midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises. A girl in a Suicide Squad Harley Quinn costume was handing out free promotional Batman: Earth One comics, and there was a Burton-style Batmobile parked right by the theatre’s front door. The Batmobile’s stereo was playing music from the Burton Batman films on a loop, which meant that I ended up hearing “Batdance” about a dozen times before they finally let us into the theatre.

The familiarity of the scenario was unmistakable: the outlandishness of the hour (out on a school night for a movie that wouldn’t be over until 3:00 AM!), the long lines of people who were actually happy to be in line, because at the other end of it was something exciting that they’d been looking forward to for days, weeks, months. There was a guy dressed as Ra’s Al Ghul in a natty black suit, his beard trimmed just so. Another guy showed up in a Bane mask, and a woman in a Julie Newmar Catwoman costume strutted by. People wore their Batman t-shirts, and some had donned capes and cowls and masks. It was as if San Diego Comic-Con had come back to Austin with me.

This essay started out as something about San Diego Comic-Con. It has since been overtaken by events.

Like a lot of people, I spent most of Friday feeling pretty fragile. Also, apparently, a little melodramatic. It being human nature to look for patterns in events, even where no true pattern actually exists—apophenia, as William Gibson would say—SDCC 2012 was suddenly bookended in my mind by death.

Many of us felt a chill when Gisela G. was struck and killed by a car on the Tuesday morning before the con, allegedly while crossing Harbor Drive against the light in a hurry to get back to “Camp Twilight”. There have been accidents at SDCC before, but the fact that Gisela’s death was perceived by many as being directly related to her status as a fan gave the tragedy extra significance.

Some of the more cynical among us—myself included, I admit without pride—were gloomily unsurprised as well; we’ve watched the crowds and the camp-outs got bigger every year, and some of us side-eye Twilight in particular on this count. There was grief and genuine sympathy for Gisela’s family and friends, but also, in some circles, a sense of tragic inevitability. It wasn’t easily forgotten, either; when you passed through the Hall H line, you would pass a floral tribute left there under the tents. You would feel sorry and sad, offer a quiet salute, perhaps.

So then the convention happened. I had about 1200 words cranked up for you about the way SDCC has changed since my first trip there in 2005, when you could just breeze in to Hall H a half hour or so before the V For Vendetta panel. I was also going to agree with Jeph Jacques about how SDCC has become its own fandom, with its own self-selected group of rabid regulars who are there as much for the sheer experience of the con itself as for any specific thing they see there, and how that’s fundamentally altered the nature of what SDCC is and what it accomplishes for the professionals who are there to get their work out in front of an audience.

I’d planned to write about my chagrin at the shifting, in some cases decreasing, value of SDCC attendance for comics artists who aren’t there under the imprimatur of the Big Two or another publisher with some weight to throw around. Also about how, on the other hand, I actually really enjoy the diversity of the all-you-can-eat media buffet on display—I’ll take a salad plate of TV panels, a meat-and-two-veg of movies and comics, and a dessert of Masquerade and Gaslamp celebrity-spotting, thanks!

But it was a busy four days and it took me a while to recover from the thing and I kept putting off finishing that piece, and then the Dark Knight Rises mini-con experience ate up my Thursday evening, and then I woke up on Friday. You know what the first thing was that I heard on NPR when the alarm went off.

Over at Badass Digest on Friday, Devin Faraci wrote, “Even when it comes to a film as mainstream and popular as The Dark Knight Rises, you have to be a real movie lover to get in line for a midnight show. These were our people, and every single one of us should feel the pain of their loss.”

I’ve been avoiding cable news, but I can still tell that the rising tide of shouting that inevitably follows a tragedy like this is picking up predictable levels of force. I glimpsed references on Twitter to suggestions that theatres disallow people from cosplaying for movies, and talking heads who think that midnight showings should be stopped. There are a lot of reasons why I think those discussions are exactly the wrong things we need to be talking about right now, but I’m not writing this particular piece to talk about the politics of gun control.

Maybe it’s apophenia again, but it seems to me that Gisela G., the 125,000 people at SDCC, and the dead and wounded of Aurora are on some level all part of the confederation of nerds and geeks and fans, we with our irrational enthusiasms and willingness to do ridiculous things to be close to and to experience the things that we love. At the Doctor Who panel on Sunday morning, Matt Smith declared, “If the world was a bit more like Comic-Con it would be a better place, right?”

At the time, I scoffed. Sure, Matt—tell that to the big film studios bringing their marketing poledances to the con, and the crowd of paparazzi and fame-seekers swarming around a movie star the moment he shows up in the small press aisle. Can you really say that with a straight face when you have people all but fighting over cheap cardboard tat because it’s got the logo of some film on it?

“It would certainly be a world with more medieval weapons in it,” Chris Hardwick replied. “And a lack of cynicism,” Smith said. And that, they agreed, was the best thing about SDCC: the fact that it’s a place where you can go crazy about the nerdy things you love and not be judged. Leaving aside the fact that I’m pretty sure some fandoms do get judged more than others, they’ve got a point.

I’ll be honest with you: there were a lot of times last weekend where I was feeling pretty ambivalent about SDCC. When I couldn’t get to Alison Bechdel’s spotlight because it took me nearly half an hour just to get out of Hall H; when I had to line up at the crack of sparrowfart just to go to one panel, because the audience demand for movie and TV publicity is throwing the management of the convention out of balance; when I was trying to get to a booth on the other side of the expo floor and literally could not move through the crowd in places. This is getting too huge and too out of control for me to handle anymore, I thought. It’s jumped the shark, man. I liked them before they got cool.

But in a way, this vast confederation, this community, is like a blood family; I will tell you all the things that are wrong with my second cousins and half-siblings until the cows come home. But the minute you raise a hand—or a gun—to them—it’s on, you bastard. You hurt my people, and I won’t stand for it.

So we pull together, ducking our heads under the news cycle crossfire to donate blood and funds to help the victims and their families, and we mourn. Amidst all this we need to remember the best qualities of these stories we love: the generosity, compassion, heroism, loyalty, love—”intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism”, to quote Craig Ferguson.

The disturbed individuals who take all the wrong messages don’t change the fact that these are the stories we have told each other to keep the darkness at bay, the big damn heroes we have created, that we aspire to be. Everything else aside, that’s the best part about being a fan. We need to keep telling these stories, even at times like this—especially at times like this. Those better angels of our nature must burn all the more brightly against the dark.


Karin Kross lives and writes in Austin, TX. She would like to thank Emily Asher-Perrin for her help and advice with this.

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