San Diego Comic-Con Day Zero: Image Expo and Preview Night

Time was, you’d arrive in San Diego on Wednesday morning before Comic-Con and have plenty of time to recover from your flight, maybe head over to the zoo for a bit—you know, relax. And my first experience of Preview Night in the mid-2000s exists in my memory as a relatively leisurely affair where you could actually get close to the goodies on display.

Not so much anymore. Everyone says it every year, but San Diego Comic-Con is so big and sprawling as to be unwieldy, and regardless of the annual “has Hollywood abandoned SDCC?” thinkpieces making the rounds now, the pace shows relatively little sign of slackening.

Nowadays Comic-Con practically starts the second you step off the plane in San Diego. The airport was literally plastered with ads for the forthcoming Legends, with Sean Bean’s face all over the escalators and the walkway to the taxi stand—though I have to give it to them; the hashtag #DontKillSeanBean is pretty funny. (You don’t get to pick what you’re famous for, but it must be a bit odd to be known as the guy who gets killed all the time.) There’s Guardians of the Galaxy pictures on every street lamp, ads on every bus.

Arrive in the Gaslamp District and you’ll hear power drills and staple guns everywhere as the outside-con events are being set up. Just a few blocks from my hotel is the Assassin’s Creed: Unity obstacle course and—is that an ad-hoc barbershop with the lounge chairs and the mocked-up guillotines? Yes, it would seem so. Nearer the convention center, there’s a giant poster of Matt Ryan as John Constantine, in front of a big blue dome covered with runes. If Hollywood is stepping out, TV and games are happy to step into the gap.

Comics aren’t going away either. On to the Image Expo, the general admission passes for which were snapped up within seconds when they were made available last Friday. The Expo is a showcase for new Image projects, a chance for the creators to say a few words about what they’re doing and show off some previews of their work. Publisher Eric Stephenson led off with a forceful keynote, reiterating Image’s commitment to greater creative diversity and creator-owned comics and making a strong case for these factors being the key to Image’s success. Considering that the company’s market share has steadily risen over the last few years, and that its sales are up while the general comics industry’s sales gently decline, he’s probably on to something.

Image’s new array of projects continues the publisher’s commitment to a wide-ranging mix of genres and styles. There’s a lot of science fiction, including Becky Cloonan and Andy Belanger’s Southern Cross, the story of a woman traveling to Titan to collect her late sister’s body, which Cloonan described as starting out something like Agatha Christie that then “gets a little weird”; there’s also Ivan Brandon and Nic Klein’s Drifter, a space frontier story about “the dirty hands it takes to build a future.” Kurt Busiek and Ben Dewey previewed Tooth and Claw, a high fantasy story about a world of beast-people and the waning of magic in their world. And Warren Ellis joined in via Skype in his inimitable fashion (sample quote: “I cut the Red Bull out; I just drink the adrenaline from children”) to talk about Supreme: Blue Rose with Tula Lotay and the upcoming Injection with his current Moon Knight collaborator Declan Shalvey.

A good number of women crossed the stage, including the three-woman team of Claire Gibson, Marian Churchland, and Sloane Leong with their fantasy adventure From Under Mountains. Stephenson’s emphasis on diversity is welcome, even common-sense to many of us—actively working against “an industry status quo … that ensured comics were primarily read by young, white men, and that resulted in a talent pool that consisted, by and large, of young, white men”—but it was hard not to notice that the majority of the creators present were still largely white men, and in the “I is for Image” featurette, Kelly Sue DeConnick was the only woman prominently featured. Nevertheless, in terms of percentages, Image probably has a better diversity record than either Marvel or DC, and that’s certainly significant and good to see.

And after that: Preview Night. Oh, Preview Night. It used to be that buying a four-day pass got you into Preview Night by default; then they had to start limiting the number of Preview Night passes. They may not be limiting them enough. The density of the crowds is nearly as bad as your average SDCC Saturday afternoon, particularly in the central maelstrom around Hasbro, Mattel, Lucasfilm, and LEGO. Never mind “previewing” anything; you’ll never be able to get close to any of the display cases for all the lines around the booths. There’s some respite on the ends of the floor, near Artist’s Alley on one hand and around various smaller publishers on the other, but overall it’s a sweaty, crowded experience that—if you’re being optimistic—should be treated as a training ground for the next four days to come.

There’s one reason for this: exclusives. Hallmark ornaments. Action figures. My Little Ponies. These days, when you can get just about any toy you like online, the merchants at Comic-Con have to show up with something you can only get there, and those things have now accrued their own consumer cult. At the Humanoids booth (where, okay, I was buying José Ladrönn’s Final Incal tarot cards that were their con exclusive; I never said I was immune), I overheard an incredulous comment that there were booths that had hundreds of people already lined up for their exclusives—as many as a thousand in one case.

You’ll see some people leave with handfuls of massive bags, filled with whatever specials that Mattel, BBC America, or Marvel has brought along (and you’ll probably get kneecapped by some of those bags too). Frankly, it’s exhausting to be around. These days, if you’re not invested in the exclusives, Preview Night may not be all that worthwhile a use of your time.

Thursday—today—the convention gets started in earnest. The lines for Hall H were already forming last night. Over the next few days I’ll be reporting in as I can, posting major breaking news as I get it, and writing up the panels I see as I can. Wish me luck.

Karin Kross lives and writes in Austin, TX. She can be found elsewhere on Tumblr and Twitter.


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