What if I said that the San Diego Comic-Con International has nothing to do with comics? For anyone that has attended in the past 15 years, that’s probably not a shocking statement on the surface. But what if I told you that the much heralded Comic-Con didn’t exist as a cultural touchstone because of movies, television, art, anime, or even Star Wars cosplay? I’ve written reviews of my experiences at Comic-Con for over ten years and they all follow a similar pattern – I listen to very talented and passionate people talk about shows, books, and subjects that have evolved as my interests have evolved. I’ve created some great stories (many starting at the Tequila Bar) and I’ve heard my aging heroes talk about times past (Forrey Ackerman, Ray Bradbury, William Shatner).
You can read a thousand websites and hear what was said at the panels. The photographs litter social media of appearances of famous people surrounding by staring faces. I don’t want to write that review anymore. I arrived in San Diego this year, still excited but less prepared for the Con than I have since the days when we just showed up and bought tickets the day of the Con. It was while walking to the Convention Center on Thursday morning and being hit with the familiar sights and sounds (and smells) that I decided at age 49 to step back just a little and look at the Con. I’ll still talk about what was happening but I think we’ve been missing the point all these years.
Choose Star Trek. Choose Carl Barks. Choose the Stranger Things. Camp out for Hall H. Awaken the Force. Choose “The King” Kirby. Make Mine Marvel. Choose Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen. Go there and back again. Choose Ballroom 20. Choose your character. Choose your own adventure. Choose a fucking big television. Playstation. Be Batman. Choose Bernie Wrightson. Choose a breakfast burrito outside the Hilton. Choose a Baja Taco. Choose The Walking Dead. Choose Doctor Who. Choose a backpack that matches your cosplay. Choose to DIY your Steampunk outfit. Choose nerd. Choose geek.
Choose your future. Choose life.
Thursday starts with what used to be my finale of the Con. “Anything Goes With John Barrowman!” still belongs in that Saturday late-afternoon spot. John brings more energy than any four panels combined. John romped out in a Tardis dress to celebrate the new female Doctor. He’s not there to sell anything or debut any new footage. It’s strictly a wall-to-wall conversation with his fans. I love the respect and ease that he has with everyone. Not at anyone’s expense but you feel like you are in on all the jokes. He’s a master storyteller. I sat here observing his technique with admiration. He establishes a few key phrases that get more hilarious every time he falls back on them. His stories unfold on stage with him pantomiming the action. He will pause – this time to do a kick and then adjust his junk underneath the skirt – and then never forget where he left off with the story of his husband flashing the world on Facebook Live.
In one hour, I feel all the warmth and love that I have for this crazy endeavor. This place is our safe haven. You can be yourself and no one is going to make fun of you. Wear your sexuality on your sleeve, wear your full sleeve of tattoos on your sleeve. Dress as Sailor Moon, dude. Put on your BB-8 t-shirt or your Slave Leia outfit. For four days in San Diego you are completely accepted. Can’t wear that Wonder Woman body suit to work at Chipotle? You can wear it to the Teen Wolf panel.
I sat down for the Stan Against Evil panel because I loved John C. McGinley in Scrubs. After it was over. I considered watching the first season of this series before the second starts this fall. That’s the other thing that happens here every year. You should force yourself to sit through a few panels that you know nothing about. I have discovered books, authors, comics, and TV shows from parking myself in a chair waiting for something else. I can look back to shows like Lost and more recently Lucifer or panels that got me into reading Fables. This show looks on the surface as an homage to Evil Dead and Shaun of the Dead with a dash of the classic TV sitcom. This is a Con that celebrates curiosity. It’s hard to find something new if you are only attending the same Big Bang Theory panel each year.
That said, let me say just the opposite. Go to the same panels every year when you can. Find a few panels that you love and repeat from year to year. There’s a familiarity and comfort in keeping updated with your friends annually. One that I’m a huge fan of is the “Greatest Geek Year Ever” panel that started with 1982 six years ago. Each year a group of movie nerds discuss the popular genre movies of the featured year. This year was 1987. I don’t consider it to be that packed with goodness, but after lengthy discussions of Robocop, Lethal Weapon, The Princess Bride, and The Lost Boys, I could be talked into respecting it a little bit more. There have been subtle improvements on the panel over the years and it’s less chaotic. The impressive knowledge of the panel is what keeps me coming back. These aren’t all prepared responses and their ability to reference other movies by directors and actors on the fly is certainly entertaining.
I catch “The Black Panel” every Con for the same reason in general. This isn’t a panel that has much structure. From year to year, it’s going to be a free-form 90 minutes of chatting about current events and politics as much as the entertainment industry. Michael Davis, a creator of some of the Milestone properties, hosts this each year with a rotating crew of guests. Last year was mostly Trump talk and this year Michael held court with a rambling, sometimes hard-to-follow run of stories about police violence against black lives. It was a departure from the very uplifting nature of some of the previous panels. This was never a bitch fest about breaking into comics or the lack of black characters. It was a celebration of the people who have succeeded. This year had a little of that but veered off onto some really strange side tracks. You keep coming back because you learn something new each year and that’s another reward of your visits.
The San Diego Comic-Con plays out in the press as rooms full of TV and movie stars. As if Hall H, Indigo, Ballroom 20, and even 6BCF are the only rooms that attract attention. Head down the hallway a little further and you’ll find panels meant for the more fringe fandoms and people who want to actually learn something in the process. I sit in on at least two to three intellectual panels each time in town. The best place to find these efforts are under the umbrella of the “Comics Arts Conference”. This year it was the small sideroom of 26AB that hosted the 25th annual conference. The Con within the Con brings together scholars, critics, and historians to talk about comics as art and observe with a critical eye. I attended “Comics Auteurs: Kirby and Eisner at 100”. The panel’s most interesting element was the presentation by lawyer Marc Greenberg about Kirby and copyright law. While a pretty inside talk about copyright laws, it puts perspective on what was happening at the time that Disney bought Marvel. So many of the artists of his era didn’t fare well with their work for hire. This case came close to the Supreme Court and was settled in Kirby’s favor by Disney because they didn’t want to face the consequences with their other properties if they had lost.
This was followed by “It Came From the Pulps!”. I’ve always been fascinated with stories of the early days of comics. It’s my favorite time of American history – the 1910-1940 era. This discussion of the progression from the early pulps to the early comic books really caught my interest. The thing that you can’t recreate in a panel about Archer is the connection to history. Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson was part of this panel. She’s a known expert on pulp culture but she is also the granddaughter of DC Comics founder Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson. It’s hard to find a place to hear firsthand stories of the forming of one of the top comic-book companies of all time but here she was. It’s the same connection that I felt to history while listening to Ray Harryhausen and Ray Bradbury. There’s a single connection to history that seems so long ago. This Con doesn’t shy away from the history and science tie-in.
It’s not all unicorns and whiskey cakes at the Con. There are lots of people and they all want to do the things that you want to do. The Hall H dilemma. I want to see Twin Peaks but I don’t want to waste my whole day before that getting into Game of Thrones. The odds are that a majority of the 6,500 fans packing in for Thrones will pour out into the sunlight afterwards to find some Mt. Dew and hot dogs. I’m with friends in a line that puts us within sight of the door to Hall H. On cue, mothers and fathers of dragons stream out headed for other rooms. And. And. And. We don’t move. Thousands of empty seats inside and the panel starts. And. And. And. It ends with no movement. Really hard to explain what kept me outside under a smelly tent for the duration of the Twin Peaks panel while thousands of empty seats enjoyed the Showtime show. Was it the vast HBO plot to keep Showtime as the second network?
We arrived just as Preacher was starting. And I had quite an attitude at that point that was only assuaged by the humor and charm of the Preacher cast. I’ve seen them two years in a row and as long as the show is airing, I plan on giving them an hour of my time. Having a cast that loves each other isn’t something that you can fake in front of thousands of people. Over the years, I’ve been able to tell. When it works, it works.
Netflix has taken over the television and movie industry and has made quite the inroads into Comic-Con. Last year, I saw the Netflix Marvel previews of Luke Cage and Iron Fist from the slightly smaller Ballroom 20. This year they make the move to Hall H and the fans don’t seem to mind the bigger stage. The hits just keep on coming with Punisher and additional seasons of all the previous four shows. The next entry is The Defenders and we got a sneak peek of the whole first episode. That’s a rarity these days in the era of the “here’s a two-minute preview that will be shown on YouTube in a few minutes after you see it.” The show is just what I expected. I’m worried that if you don’t like Iron Fist in particular that this show won’t do much for you. For me, it’s going to be just the payoff I’ve wanted in television that only Netflix can deliver. The best part? You are in a room with probably 5,000 of your best friends but you got to see something a month before everyone else and you will talk about it for that month and hold it over them and feel like you are geek royalty for winning a ticket to the equivalent of the Wonka factory.
Let’s chat briefly about the tickets. Popularity is the worst enemy of the San Diego Comic-Con. They have to limit the amount of tickets. I can’t argue with that. The ability to get a ticket from year to year has become more and more of the chances of winning the lottery. Then try to get a hotel room within shouting distance of downtown. The experience can be challenging. The Con has expanded to at least three other venues for ticketed fans. But the outdoor activities have increased at a rate not even matched by that. There are displays and interactive experiences and food trucks that had longer lines all weekend than anything inside the Con. The experience isn’t one limited to just a Convention hall anymore. So what does that mean?
The Con is San Diego. San Diego is the Con. I spent more time than ever just enjoying the sights and sounds and smells of San Diego. I ate my favorite tacos. I drank my coffee listening to people who spent the night camping out in line talk about their love for The Walking Dead. I drank my bloody mary by the Marriott pool while talking to a mom who took time off work to bring her son to his first Comic-Con and couldn’t get a ticket so she’s hanging out only connected to the Con by his texts. I spent time with my best friends enjoying the unique breweries of the town. I saw PetCo Park filled with people who love a practical joke show. I listened to preachers condemn us all and watched everyone get a kick out of the whole absurdity of it.
It was 1963 and Jack Kirby and Stan Lee and Steve Ditko were creating the characters that adorn balloons and t-shirts and toys and five-year-old boys here at the 2017 Comic-Con. Fifty-four years later and there are four days in July that celebrate everything to do with popular culture. But it’s so much more. It’s about the freedom to be yourself. To feel and act like you did when you were ten years old. It’s about the timeless. It’s about the memories of waiting in line with your friends, getting to meet your heroes, and having a couple beers with your friends while you talk about your favorite TV shows.
Choose Escape from New York. Choose Sherlock. Choose Saturday morning cartoons. Choose to Fear the Walking Dead. Choose the Night of the Living Dead. Choose the Creature from the Black Lagoon.
Choose freedom. Choose acceptance. Choose San Diego.
Celebrate our differences.