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The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword: More From San Diego Comic-Con
David Bax , July 24th, 2010 08:35

David Bax wanted a comic con and, for his sins, they gave him a comic con. Photographs by his mate Patrick

Preview Night

There's a certain allure in America, somewhat hackneyed at this point, of the open road. The wide open space between two cities is often filled with the mental projections of what awaits in the next destination. The drive between Los Angeles and San Diego in unique in this aspect. The suburbs of one city kind of fade into the next. The only hiccup on the journey is the marine base, Camp Pendleton, the sobering implications of which we do our best to push away as we travel from possibly the most shallow city on the planet to what is definitely the most shallow gathering.

San Diego Comic-Con International is a destination for fans only. The disregard with which the press is treated here is unprecedented and says a whole hell of a lot about what Comic-Con is. Namely, an annual gathering of rabid fans, divorced completely from the critical contemplation of what they are fans of. Over the next four days, we will worship at the altar of all that is nerdy, from comic books to movies to television shows to video games to fucking baseball cards or whatever.

Even though I have a press pass, it affords me very little in the way of access. Comic-Con is not for people who are looking for a story, a perspective or an insight. It is simply about tossing chum to the nerdy masses who are often more interested in the anticipation of the next big thing in their chosen genre of devotion than in the analysis of same.

Full disclosure - I love Comic-Con more than any other event in the world. But I am under no delusions as to what is represents and what it is for. It is simply meant to stoke the flames of nerd anticipation, a five-day trailer for all that is geeky in the next twelve months of American popular culture.

Wednesday night is Preview Night. There are no panels, no real stars to gawk at. No unreleased footage designed for titillation. It is possibly the only time that Comic-Con achieves a sort of purity. Nerds walk the convention floor, attempt to be the first to acquire exclusive action figures and comic books, and meet for the first time since last year.

The convention floor is a wonder to behold. Though it is jam-packed with nerds on Preview Night, it is nowhere near as crowded or as smelly as it will be over the next few days. An opportunity to take in the upcoming offerings of our corporate masters is the draw here, and the nerds fall quickly in line (literally) when they are called.

On Preview Night, and indeed, throughout the convention, it is not uncommon to find incomprehensibly long lines on the main convention floor. The sad and hilarious, though simultaneously heartwarming, truth is that, often, the people in these lines aren't entirely sure what it is they're lining up for. The line itself is reason enough. There are exclusive things to purchase and to gawk at and the exclusive is the holy grail in nerd culture.

People like me, who can report on Comic-Con without being the least bit beholden to it, are the lucky ones. We can snark without consequence while legitimate news organizations are forced to ponder over what they see and try to mold it into something comprehensible. There's no use. We are here to be nerds in our most honest state and news crews would be better served acting as anthropologists attempting to interpret our behavior than as wayward journalists, pointing cameras at things they don't understand.

Over the next few days, San Diego Comic-Con International will serve as host to the once-a-year dreams of those that society ignores 360 days a year. We will drink, we will screw, and we will exalt in the things that we, despite all reason, care deeply about. Some new films and television shows will establish fanbases. Some will be scoffed at and die early deaths. The normally respectable parts of San Diego will bend to our will. And all this will happen in the five days a year when we, the misunderstood, the laughed-at, the nerdy, have some semblance of power.

We will not be ignored.

Day One

Though I had a great number of drunken Comic-Con experiences last night, today was the proper beginning of the convention. Thursday is Day 1 and, like the rest of the convention, is markedly different from preview night.

Today was the beginning of the panels. For those not accustomed to conventions, panels are the things that happen apart from the convention floor, the booths, the scantily clad women trying fighting for attention from other vendors, the costumes. Though that's not to say that costumes are absent from the rooms one level above the convention floor.

There's a fun guessing game one can play every year, guessing which pop culture figures from the last twelve months will be celebrated by those who choose to attend Comic-Con as someone other than themselves. There are, of course, the evergreens; the storm troopers, the Boba Fetts, the whatever the fuck that guy's name is from Halo's. But then there are the zeitgeist crop, the people latching onto whatever the new big thing is and trying to make a splash by having the best representation of the most impacting character from the latest pop-cultural craze.

Two years ago, only a couple of weeks after the release of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, there were dozens of men, young and old, in nurse's uniforms and Joker make-up. This year, my prediction was that we'd see a lot of ponytailed nerds painted blue, in a depressing, real world approximation of James Cameron's Na'vi from Avatar. As it turns out, I missed the mark. I didn't foresee the astounding number of Mad Hatters I encountered today. As it turns out, the fact that a film is terrible does not detract from the average nerd's desire to dress up as it's protagonist. Tim Burton, even when even when he's at his most uninspired, holds a powerful sway over the geek community.

Meanwhile, as the nerds are doing their own, personalized form of ground-level advertising for the dumb movies they mistakenly think are cool, corporations are latching onto the eager swell of people into one place to promote their insipid ventures.

Nerds don't, as a rule, care about eating healthy and they are largely functioning on a shortage of sleep during Comic-Con, this being the only five days a year they can function socially without getting beat up. So what more perfect product than Perky Jerky, the world's first caffeinated beef jerky, to ply at Comic-Con. While this "food" is something the average person would chuck into the trash as soon as possible, to avoid contamination to the skin, the opned and discarded wrappers littered the floor today, suggesting that people were actually consuming it while waiting in line to see their favorite artists, actors and producers. Once again, it has been asserted and proved that Comic-Con is the world's largest focus group for incomprehensibly ridiculous shit.

After the conventions had ended for the day, I headed into San Diego's Gaslamp district for drinks and through sheer luck and bullshittery, got into a party thrown by the Showtime network on the rooftop of a local, hip hotel. This is the other side of Comic-Con, the even uglier side, where rich douchebags who all work in "online marketing" or some such thing, get together to trade business cards and lord over their pretend empires. Rich people are difficult enough in the daytime but, once they've have a few drinks, they are rampaging assholes, eager to discuss at length, the empty ventures they are sure will make them multi-millionares.

However, the view was nice.

In panel news, I saw movie composer Danny Elfman discuss his fruitful collaboration with Tim Burton (the only positive aspect of any Tim Burton film these days); I saw Stan Freberg (one of the original voices from Looney Tunes cartoons) unveil songs from his new comedy album; I saw Joss Whedon denigrate the recent resurgence of 3D and officially announce he will be directing the new Avengers movie; and I saw the panel for the new season of Dexter, in which they will no doubt struggle under the shadow of season four guest star John Lithgow and try to make something half as memorable as the last season.

Tomorrow, Day 2, will possibly include Syfy's Caprica and more Joss Whedon, but will more likely involve me drinking beer as a substitute for the panels I was unable to get into. See you then.

Day Two

Here's what happens to you at Comic-Con if you're not devoted enough a nerd. You drink too much, you sleep too late and you don't get in line early enough for the panel you want to see in the morning. In my case, it was for Syfy's Caprica but you can switch in whatever thing most of the world hasn't heard of and I guarantee that it happened to somebody. And the people who do get into your panel aren't even there to see it. They're camping out in the room for something that's happening later in the day.

So, after standing around in line for an hour, eavesdropping on conversations that made me feel superior for either not being that big a nerd or for having way more nerd cred, I decided to bail. I was frustrated but I consoled myself with the knowledge that I was about to go into other room two panels early and ruin somebody else's morning. Well, early afternoon at that point. I did stand around for an hour.

So it was off to Hall H and some big movie panels. These are the ones where the studios crack the whip and the actors, writers and directors obey by showing up and sitting on a stage for an hour, usually while the Q & A is centered on the one other person on the panel who was in a Star Trek movie or whatever.

I walked directly into Hall H with no waiting, which is practically unheard of, to find Nicolas Cage's huge, bearded face on the four screens throughout the room (it's a really big room) as he sat on stage and discussed a movie called Drive Angry 3D. I'd never heard of it either. It turns out it stars Cage, William Fichtner and something called an Amber Heard. The plot involved Cage's having escaped from hell for some reason and Fichtner being the devil and it doesn't really matter because the movie's about cool cars and shotguns and it's in 3D. Nicolas Cage shoots a guy and the shell pops out of the gun, toward the screen. So there you go. Pre-order your tickets now.

Next panel was for Skyline. I hadn't heard of this movie until two days previous, when I saw the giant poster for it on the side of the Marriott Marina. As it turns out, it's an alien invasion movie with a whole lot of visual effects made independently by two guys who own a VFX house with a crew of about 20 people. It's incredibly heartwarming and exciting to think that terrible, brainless blockbusters can now be made in a way John Cassavetes would approve of.

Then the panel I was actually there for: Super, the new film from James Gunn, the man who made awesome, creepy and hilarious genre mash-up Slither a few years ago. Some of the film's stars showed up, including an unannounced Ellen Page, fresh off the success of Inception, to introduce a trailer and one scene from the new movie. It did not disappoint. The film, about a man whose being left by his wife drives him to seek justice in the world by becoming a low rent superhero, looks very, very funny and brutally, disturbingly violent. You can't lose.

So, lunch, then. I met some other nerds at a place called the Tin Fish and I was wondering how quickly I could eat and get back to the convention. That's when the woman behind the counter warned me that there was a 45 minute wait for food. Well, that made up my mind real quick. In that case, I'll have the 32 oz. IPA and settle in for a long discussion about movies and a healthy dose of shit-talking about the people who write about them online. You don't realize you're standing in a glass house when you're throwing stones with so many other people.

After my fish tacos eventually showed up and were made short work of, I was riding high on a wave of not attending Comic-Con and decided to meet my girlfriend for more drinks and food. My girlfriend had decided months prior that five days of the convention was about two and a half too many so she was driving down today. And, no kidding, she picked Hooters as the place for lunch.

Comic-Con is estimated to bring about $65 million a year in revenue into San Diego. I'm sure the owners of businesses in the Gaslamp Quarter that lies next to the convention center look upon these five days with dollar signs in their eyes but the employees, the waitstaff, are often beside themselves with befuddlement as to why a group of people dressed like sexy Pokemon characters just walked in and started ordering drinks at noon on a weekday. And I would not exactly be uncovering a great secret by saying that the waitresses at Hooters are not hired for their brains. It took about four of them, one of which I had to get up and flag down myself, to organize two drinks and a salad.

The rest of the day was spent in a line that did manage to bear fruit, for a panel about a possible upcoming animated movie adaptation of comic book series The Goon (read it if you haven't). And then dinner and drinks, which is an egregiously brief way to sum up the next 7 hours but an honest one too.

A quick note on one of my beverage stops: Dick's Last Resort is a hugely popular haunt during Comic-Con even though it's the type of place most of the culturally discerning people who attend wouldn't touch with a stick the rest of the year. It's one of those exhaustingly stupid places where you're promised "service with an attitude" from waiters and waitresses who probably want to be actors but, ironically, aren't doing any acting at all when they behave like they don't care about you. It's a wonderful stand-off to which both sides are largely oblivious when the waitstaff and the patrons both assume they're better than each other.

Day Three

My plan was to get up early, do the committed nerd thing and wait for hours in line before seeing panels in Hall H for upcoming movies, including the next Harry Potter film. When my alarm went off, if I'd had the presence of mind to do so, I would have laughed at myself for being so foolish. It was back to sleep until such time as I could sit upright without my head trying to murder me for it.

I hadn't been on the convention floor since Preview Night and my girlfriend hadn't been at all so it was there we headed. The booths there contain much more than an outsider would imagine. Yes, the center of the massive exhibit hall floor is dominated by the huge movie studios, television networks and comic book companies. It is also, naturally clogged by the most people, trying to get a look at the battle suit from Avatar or to figure out why the fuck LL Cool J is being interviewed at the G4 network's booth in the middle of a comic book convention. As you move out to the sides of the hall, however, you will find more varied and fascinating, independent retailers and specialty sellers. If you want weapon replicas, food can labels from the 1920's or some new additions to your hentai collection, you can find it on the floor.

What we found, however, was a back door that, in five years of Comic-Con, I'd never noticed before. It spilled us out onto the terrace behind the convention center that overlooks the bay and was, at the moment, filled with people in medieval battle armor pretending to sword fight. It was surreal, even by the convention's standards and, frankly, it was kind of wonderful.

The reason we left via the back door was to walk along the bay to an event in small stretch of green park that juts out into the water. While Comic-Con itself offers more than enough to do over five days, that doesn't stop others from setting up myriad ancillary events to take advantage of the 160,000 or so attendees. This year, for the fifth year in a row, the comedy duo Tim & Eric (whom I've written about for this site previously) have a kind of a field day where fans can gather for free for wheelbarrow races, egg tosses, pinata-bashing and the like. It was all a lot of fun but, as in past years, it was clogged with comedy nerds, the people who consider themselves way cooler than the convention nerds but secretly wish they were as cool as the music nerds.

Lunchtime, and the first drink of the day, was lurking so we found a restaurant with a patio on the bay and ordered some fish and some wheat beers. There is a lot of talk about the convention moving out of San Diego after the contract with the convention center is up in 2012. Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Anaheim all have bigger centers that could hold more people and bring in more money. But you know what they don't have? A park that juts out into the bay and the possibility of beers while overlooking the water. That should be the end of the conversation.

Since I didn't do my duty and wait for hours in the Hall H line this morning, I decided to do it this afternoon, securing a seat for the big movie panels coming up. It took a couple hours but we got in to see the panel for Resident Evil: Afterlife in 3D. My reporting on the subject? The movie is going to suck but no one who cares that it sucks was gonna go see it anyway.

After that, it was time for the movie panels that I did care about. But the next panel was delayed because of a small incident in the hall. If you didn't hear about it, somebody got stabbed in the face with a pen.

This is not the kind of thing that normally happens at Comic-Con. It's the first incident of violence that I've even heard about in five years, which is notable for a yearly gathering of that many people crammed into one place. But when its only an hour till the panels for Captain America and Thor, and every row is one closer to where Natalie Portman is going to be, an argument over seats can get very out of hand very quickly. I mean, this is very important stuff.

When the crowd finally got back under control, lulled into comfort by a showing of the trailer for Robert Rodriguez's Machete, it was time to start the panels up again. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have teamed up with Superbad director Greg Mottola to make a film called Paul, about two nerds who find an alien while driving through the desert after leaving Comic-Con. If you think Steven Tyler gets a positive reaction by referencing the local highways when Aerosmith plays Oklahoma City, you should try showing 6,500 Comic-Con attendees footage of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost crossing Harbor Dr. into the convention center. The roof shook.

Next was Jon Favreau's new film, Cowboys & Aliens, which may sound like a dumb, Star Wars meets Westworld mashup but, based on the footage, could actually end up being an interesting twist on a traditional western premise. This panel was also notable for the fact that Harrison Ford showed up and, you know, he was Han Solo and everything. People who attend Comic-Con tend to be pretty into Han Solo.

Are you sick of me being positive about things? Yeah, me too. Luckily the aforementioned comic book movie panels are up next. I can be pretty nerdy about a lot of stuff but, to some extent, Comic-Con is a bit of cultural anthropology for me. Every year, I seem to gather some new, fascinating information about the way the hardcore geek's brain works. Did you know, for instance, that the designs of Captain America's costume and Thor's hammer are the single most important things about those movies, outweighing even whether the dialogue is good or the story satisfying? Why is that, you ask? I don't know. Maybe I'll figure it out next year.

Comic books are taken very seriously by their readers but seen as light fun at best by the masses of people who are going to have to buy a ticket if the movie's going to be successful. It's a difficult line to walk and the chances are very good that both these movies will end up disappointing the fanbase when they are released. But nothing gets a negative reception at Comic-Con. Would the stars of all these films, including those of the upcoming Avengers movie (Robert Downey Jr., Samuel L. Jackson and Scarlett Johannsen among them) come all the way here just to stand on a stage for two minutes if there was any chance they weren't going to be loved for it. These studios play Comic-Con like a GameBoy and I'm shocked how little people seem to notice.

Dinner tonight was at a local cafe that had been taken over by the Syfy network for the week and outfitted with screen showing an endless loop of trailers for upcoming television programs. Even the terminology of the menu had been changed. My cheeseburger was named after a character from Stargate: Universe or something. But it was just a cheeseburger. It didn't taste like it came from space or anything.

After that, it was time to celebrate my last night in San Diego for the year by drinking a whole lot. We parked on the patio of a bar called the Tivoli for most of the night, drinking beer from plastic cups, watching people in costume stroll up and down the street and talking about the things we had done and seen that year. Then the patio of the Gaslamp Hilton (I drink outside a lot at Comic-Con). After that, I guess I walked back to the hotel. My memory's not quite clear.

Day Four

Nothing happens at Comic-Con on Sunday.

I could almost leave it at that and be done but I figured this would be a good space for some final thoughts. Traditionally, the lamest panels are relegated to the Sunday wasteland and this year was, for the most part, no exception. There were a few good things scheduled, televison-wise. Namely, the panel for Glee, a show I will gladly admit to enjoying. But I didn't go to any of these. I don't go to panels on Sunday.

Sunday is for sleeping late, checking out of the hotel and doing some last minute shopping on the convention floor. I picked up some books, had a couple margaritas and watched the stragglers walk up and down 5th Ave. It gave me a chance to think about Comic-Con.

On Preview Night, a common way of saying goodbye before heading back to the hotel and resting up for the convention proper is to say, "Have a good con." This year, I did have a good con. I made new friends, drank enough beer to drown a team of oxen and made it into some wonderful panels that have filled me with hope and excitement for the next twelve months of genre film. I also saw some stuff that looked terrible and that I hope finds less of an audience than Vince Neil's solo work. I try not to dwell on that, though.

At the end of the con, I'm left with thoughts of what San Diego Comic-Con is about. It's essentially a place where 160,000 people who exist on the fringes of culture the rest of the year get to come and be themselves. We may be gawking at the celebrities who grace the stages in front of us but the truth is, we're the attraction. They come here because of us, not the other way around. The kind of people who get called "losers" and "fags" by our high school jock enemies, (even thought, at this point, they only really exist in our minds) get to command attention and respect from the industries we spend 11 months and 25 days out of every year supporting. It's a playground for the geeky and, as silly and ludicrous as it generally is, it is a heartwarming five days of fun.

Also, there are drink specials, so you can get a pitcher of beer pretty cheap.

You can keep up to date with David's thoughts on film by visiting his Battleship Pretension blog and podcast here