SDCC: Training Day at Comic Con

I didn’t expect my first post on the website to be about Comic Con, but I didn’t get a chance to post sooner, and Comic Con in San Diego is something I can’t not write about.

I’ve been going to science fiction and fantasy conventions–as well as other cons–for, I shudder to admit it–forty years. Of course, I was a small child (okay, I was in college) when I attended my first Lunacon in New York, in 1968. I’ve been to bigger events  than Comic Con, notably the Frankfurt (Germany) International Book Fair, which attracts more than 350,000 people.

But Comic Con is different. I’d been warned; I’d heard talk; I’d seen figures, pictures, the faces of Comic Con veterans. Huge, packed, the evidence all said; unlike anything else. And yesterday I discovered that it’s all true. In Frankfurt, the 350,000 people are spread over ten buildings, big buildings. If you go to the German building (or “Halle”), where the German attendees of the  book fair, the “Buch Messe” can see new German popular fiction and non-fiction, it’s crowded, and that’s probably as close as I’ve ever seen to what I experienced last night at Comic Con in San Diego’s convention center. But in Frankfurt, the German Hall (actually, one of two huge buildings with German publishers’ booths; the other is occupied by booths of German scientific publishers, a whole other universe) is open to the teeming throngs for only three of the five main days of the Fair. The other days, only professionals are allowed in the hall. At Comic Con, there are hours when the public doesn’t come in, but from what I saw last night, just three hours, from 6 PM to 9 PM, Comic Con is much more intense than Frankfurt.

I could have played it safe; I could have stayed at the Tor/Seven Seas booth. We’re not right in the middle of the fray; we’re near the back wall, and there are not a lot of huge giveaway or “special-to-Comic-Con” hot-ticket items right near us. So it wasn’t nearly so crazy at our booth as it was at, say, the Warner Bros. booth. But I was on a mission. A friend of a friend asked Madison, Wisconsin fans (yes, I work for Tor but I live and work in Madison) if anyone was going to Comic Con and, if so, could they possibly pick up a certain action figure for him. I figured that with any luck I would have a chance to do this for him last night, so I went to Mattel’s booth, where the action figure was to be on sale. I went there at 4:15, because I’d heard they might open as early as 5PM; After a half-hour I was told to come back at 6 PM. So I went back at 5:15, and was at the front of the line that grew to only perhaps thirty people by 6, when the public address announced that booths could open. But…but when they opened, the action figure was listed as “sold out,” a confusing term to apply to something that hadn’t yet gone on sale.  Apparently, it was one of a few items that simply didn’t get from the loading dock to the booth in time to be sold last night. So this morning I will go back, get in line as early as I can bear, and try again.

My downfall came when I saw a friend, Jeff Mariotte, in the booth, just hanging out. Jeff and I go back a long way, all the way back to 1978 or ’79, the year lost in the mists of memory now. I hadn’t seen him in more than five years, and went to say, Hi.” One thing led to another, and Jeff got a call on his mobile phone from his wife, MaryElizabeth Hart, who was waiting in line a few yards away for another action figure from Mattel. She asked if he could get her a big Warner Bros. bag while she was getting her booty from Mattel. So I went with Jeff…and that’s when I realized what Comic Con could be like. As we walked toward the Warner booth, the crowd around us became progressively, alarmingly thicker. It took thirty seconds to walk a hundred feet; five minutes to go another three hundred feet. And as we got to the Warner booth we saw that a huge–I mean huge, three feet deep, three feet square by my reckoning–wooden box that had  been filled with big, honkin’ bags with a picture of Wonder Woman emblazoned on them, had just been completely emptied.

But wait! A Warner person right in front of us announced that there were more bags on the other side of the  booth, “…but they’re going fast!” So we went around to the far side of the booth, and there it was. Another box, the twin of the other one, and there were still at least a foot and a half of bags in it. The crowd around the box was about ten deep on all sides, but they were indeed handing out bags fast and furiously. I sped up a little, and suddenly found myself close to the  box o’ bags, because five or more people in front of me were leaving with bags as I approached. The space between me and the bags got smaller and smaller as people in front of me got their bags and left. Suddenly I was there, and when a Warner person reached for a few bags, I reached forward to take one she was offering to me and probably six other people. There was someone in  a wheelchair not more than three feet from me; I hope he survived. I honestly don’t know. I wasn’t about to check. I didn’t touch that person, but I had a moment, as I was about to grab for a bag, when I wondered what might happen to this poor person in the sea of reaching, grabbing people. Then I became one of them. I just wanted to get my bag and go. So I got one and was about to turn to leave, when another Warner person with a bunch of bags started waving them near me. Jeff was still probably ten feet and fifty people behind me. I never hesitated. I grabbed another bag, this one for him and MaryElizabeth, and turned around to let him know I had it.

He saw me, saw I had the bag in my hand. I lifted the bag up and leaned over to try and hand it to him…but a guy who was standing between us suddenly reached out to try and grab the bag from me, as if he thought I was distributing bags to the crowd, though I was no longer at the source of the bags. I thought of trying to toss the bag to Jeff, but the look on this guy’s face said, “Toss it and I’ll grab it.” So I hugged it close, navigated away, and handed it to Jeff a minute later.

It was an experience unlike any I’ve ever had at any convention of this sort. I’ve been a Book Expo America conventions, where there are some prime items given away by publishers, and many people attending who want the items–be they book bags, dolls, or any of the many other promotional giveaways at such events–that are being offered. But I’ve never seen a crowd so hungry for the stuff as I saw last night. It was unnerving. And the bag wasn’t nearly the best item to be had. I later saw some much cooler items that people had already captured, as well as various items bought at various booths, many of which were definitely exclusive to Comic Con.

I went back to the Tor booth and worked the booth for the next two hours or so. It was nice. All we have are a few different books (all already published) for sale, and some freebies that promote this website,–buttons in at least 9 designs; post cards; bookmarks; a few other things. A lot of people came by, some bought books…but it was nothing remotely like what I had experienced in the much busier middle of the floor.

I’ve known about San Diego Comic Con for decades, and had always wanted to attend. But the reality is something that redefines the term “fan-run convention” for me. There are panels, a lot of panels, and I’ll attend a couple when I’m not helping mind the booth or meeting with authors or film people I’ll meet to talk about tie-in books. But most fan-run conventions have dealers rooms–hucksters rooms–that are one part of a much larger convention. World SF conventions have big hucksters’ rooms. But none of them come close to the size and importance of the room where I spent my evening yesterday. This “hucksters’ room” was filled with major entertainment corporations dealing in film, television, comics, toys, T-shirts, models…oh, yes, and comics, graphic novels, manga and anime, too. There’s nothing else like it. New York Comic Con has grown by leaps and bounds in just a few years, but isn’t yet nearly the size of San Diego’s bash. Maybe New York will get this big, and even bigger. I don’t know. All I know is that today, I’ll be a bit smarter about staying away from the big, busy booths except if I can’t manage to avoid it. I know people who attended San Diego Comic Con when it was a relatively small or only somewhat large convention. But it’s not small or “somewhat large” anymore. Now, it’s huge. And it’s a jungle out there.

[Photo by Flickr user gudlyf; licensed under Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution Generic.]


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