Doing Lines at Comic-Con

If the San Diego Comic-Con ever decided to change its logo, it could do no better than to change it from the All Seeing Eye to a long, snaking, broken line. It’s the defining feature of SDCC these days.

There are lines to get across the street to the convention center.
There are lines to get coffee.
There are lines to get into panels.
There are lines to get crap at booths.
There are lines to get autographs.
There are lines to get into other lines.

No Lines for Free Hugs, Though
No Lines for Free Hugs

Sometimes, it seems I’ve spent more time in line than actually doing anything enjoyable at the convention. I wonder how much I’ve missed by sitting against a wall and doing jack-all as the sun slowly traced its arc across the sky. It’s an unfortunate reality that if you want to see something that’s fairly popular, then you have to devote hours of time to see it. Do you want to see a panel in Ballroom 20 that starts at 1:00 PM? You better be there soon as the doors open and race up the escalators to get in there (or even camp-out overnight with the way things are going). If you don’t, you’ll be in line for the next three hours to watch an hour-long panel. That’s four hours of your day already gone.

Do you want to see something that you don’t think is particularly popular? Better check the program to make sure something popular isn’t scheduled to follow it one or two hours later, because everyone’s going to camp the room for the next three hours to see the panel that they really wanted to see. Oh, and there will be a long line snaking through the hallways filled with people who want to see the popular program, plus those that just wanted to see the actual panels that everyone else is camping through.

The worst thing is happening upon a short line and getting excited that you might actually, finally get into a room. Then someone points out that the line picks back up across the hallway and heads out the door to the outside, where it twists and turns around various corners until you finally see the end and someone is holding a sign reading “Line Closed.”

That’s Comic-Con in a nutshell.

What about the convention floor itself? Raw, undiluted chaos. Unlike the neat and orderly lines for the panels, the convention floor is a free-for-all as thousands of people attempt to navigate narrow lanes of traffic to get to where they want to go. Unlike the lines for the panels upstairs, which are manned and monitored by convention personnel, the lines on the floor tend to be left to the discretion of the booth owners, who pay only scant attention to the line, due to the limited number of people manning the booth who are trying to do ten things at once. As you can imagine, this leads to general confusion and shenanigans, as the line grows past the perimeter of the booth and juts out into one of the aisles, blocking traffic, or jumps to another booth that has its own line.

Pikachu Monitors From Above
Pikachu Monitors From Above

Every so often, convention security will come by and tell people to clear the aisle, but the people standing there have no place to go. The people behind them aren’t going to move backwards and the line sure as hell isn’t moving forwards, so they either have to give it up and leave, or hope that the collective mass of 5-7 bodies is sufficient to convince the implacable line members behind them to give up precious ground. Of course, as soon as security leaves, four or five jokers see a seemingly small line and stand in it, blocking the aisle once more and courting massive amounts of passive-aggressive angst from those who were shoved back to the other side of the aisle.

Things get even more interesting when a booth has multiple lines for different products. Let’s take a “hypothetical” Paramount booth promoting the new Star Trek movie’s release on DVD. They’ll start one line for exclusive Spock Foam Hands, another one to sit in Kirk’s Chair, and a third to purchase some limited edition trinket. All three lines maintain coherence for roughly five feet, or the line of sight of employees herding people the last few steps to their destination, whichever is shorter. Beyond that lay only frustration and tears as the three lines merge, split, and merge again.

Occasionally, the continuous maelstrom of scattering and reformation will create isolated offshoots of the line, like some ersatz Galapagos species, comprised of 13-15 people who realize that they’re no longer in the main line, but don’t want to move for fear of losing their spot.

A lot of the time, the people in the line aren’t quite sure if they’re in the right line or not. One person will tell you they’re in line for the trinket, the person immediately behind them will say they’re in line for the foam hand, and the person behind them thought they were in line for an autograph signing at the Dark Horse booth.

Achievement Unlocked: Bolus of Humanity
Achievement Unlocked: Bolus of Humanity

None of these lines take place in a vacuum, either. Swirling around them are thousands of people walking hither and yon, or stopping to check out the booth displays. As you reach the middle of the convention floor, the density of people increases exponentially due to the close proximity of the “big” booths for Warner Bros., Fox, Nickelodeon, Paramount, and Lucasfilm. It is here that you must clear through the massive bolus of humanity if you want to move from one side of the convention floor to the other.

Sometimes you seem to be floating along with your companions in the general direction you intended to go, only to find yourself suddenly thrust from the main river of humanity into a crowded tributary before being deposited along the far wall of the convention floor. Other times, you can’t tell the slow moving traffic from the slow moving lines. No joke, two years ago I thought I was slowly making my way down the center aisle only to find that I’d inadvertently entered a line and had been shuffling along in it for almost 10 minutes.

While walking the floor last year, I walked past a line of around 20 people that didn’t seem to lead anywhere. That wasn’t unusual in itself since the lines for some booths are so long that they need to be broken-up to allow foot traffic to pass. I asked the last guy what the line was for. He shrugged his shoulders and said he didn’t know. He simply saw a line, figured it must be for something cool, and decided to stand in it.

I then walked to the front of this line and tried to see where it picked back up, but I didn’t see anything across the aisle, nor around the booth. I asked the guy in the front of the line what he was waiting for. He said simply, “My wife.”  I pointed out the dozen or so people filed behind him. He let out a sharp laugh and walked away. The man behind him stepped up and each person in turn took a step forward. I didn’t stick around long enough to see whether the man’s wife would be flattered or horrified to see 19 men waiting their turn for her.

A Line in a Mystical Realm Known as "Outside"
A Line in a Mystical Realm Known as “Outside”

The same year, while waiting in line for the Burn Notice panel so I could see Bruce Campbell live and in the flesh, I actually heard some dork yell, with all of the gravitas he could muster, “We all have to do our time in the line!” I’m sure in his head he was Captain Picard, but it came out sounding like a screechy little door mouse.

Apparently, someone in front of him had four of their friends join the line with them after a good hour or so had already passed. Ensign Ricky took umbrage at this and bellowed his objection, believing that people were cutting the line. I suppose in a traditional sense this may have been true, but good lord, we’re at Comic-Con, buddy. These aren’t the usual mundanes who do this stuff because they don’t care about the rules and think they’re better than everyone else. These are our own kind, and if they want to spend two hours walking the show floor instead of gazing at the boats out in the harbor, then more power to them. To be fair, they did ask the people around them if it was cool if they hopped into line and everyone assented. It was only Ensign Ricky who was all in a huff about it. I could understand if he was upset, since there were now more people in front of him than he thought and there was a slight chance he might not get into the panel because of it, but that’s just how things go in the line.

His attitude about it was what really got under my skin. Two years prior, there wasn’t even a line to get into Ballroom 20. Sure, in the intervening period, the scheduling was such that we had to stand in line for these things, but that was just a necessity. Ensign Ricky not only thought it was something to be endured, but a requirement for admission. If you didn’t spend the entire time in line, then you shouldn’t be allowed into the promised land. I wouldn’t be surprised if he flailed his back nightly with a limited edition Spock Foam Hand.

Again, Never a Line for Free Hugs
Again, Never a Line for Free Hugs

All this isn’t to say that standing in line is always a bad thing. In fact, a line for a Rifftrax panel (which we never got into) was the highlight of the entire 2009 convention. We happened to fall-in with a bunch of Star Wars nerds. After the frustration and tears of the past couple of days, I had finally connected with my own tribe and we had a blast for 45 straight minutes. It was like being 9 years old again and joking about Star Wars, old Transformers toys, ’80s GI Joe, and all kinds of wacky stuff.

These weren’t hipster geeks with their ironic thick, black glasses and casual disdain for petty bourgeois sci-fi. These were OGs. Hell, there was even a guy dressed up like a Rebel Pilot from Star Wars who became our de facto leader and go-between with the convention volunteers, simply because he was dressed like a rebel pilot and was kind of tall. Those guys salvaged the con for me and I’ll never see them again.

That’s also Comic-Con in a nutshell.

Countdown to SDCC 2011

The Eye of Comic-Con
Nobody’s ever taken a picture of this.

Well, it’s June, so anticipation for our annual vacation to San Diego for Comic-Con is steadily ramping-up. This will be our fourth trip and my son is wondering whether a Trek-like curse applies to the con, with odd numbered years being less enjoyable than even numbered years, since both 2008 and 2010 were a lot of fun for us. 2009? Not so much.  I guess we’ll find out this year, but there’s already one bad omen: Twilight will be at the con again this year.

The general consensus in 2009 was that Twilight ruined SDCC, but I doubt it. There were dozens of other factors at play, but I’ll dive into that subject in another post.
This being our fourth go-around, we’ve learned a few lessons and found out what really appeals to us at the con, so hopefully we can use those to make it more enjoyable to us this year in spite of the crowds and various setbacks we’re sure to encounter. For me, the most important lesson is that the big presentations in Ballroom 20 and Hall H are largely a waste of time, and not nearly as enjoyable or fun as the smaller panels going on in the various rooms on the other side of the Sails Pavilion. The reasons are twofold: creators are often more interesting than actors and “sneak peaks” of footage for upcoming movies aren’t worth the time expended to see them.

Take Hall H, for example. This is the 6,000 seat auditorium hosting the big event movies that the large studios are marketing for release within the next year. People will sleep outside for up to 12 hours the night before  just to get a seat inside the auditorium when it opens, and then stay inside the entire day until the panel they want to see comes up (the con doesn’t clear the room between panels, so “camping” a room is common practice). No joke, people will spend the entire day seated on metal folding chairs within the black-walled dungeon of an auditorium just to witness a couple of minutes of footage that’ll be on YouTube ten minutes after the panel ends.

Hall H? It's a Trap!
Hall H? It’s a Trap!

My experience with Hall H begins and ends with Watchmen in 2008. I didn’t wait in a line to see the panel. I just walked right in and grabbed a seat. The director and actors were introduced and they played an extended trailer for the movie. There was a brief Q&A afterwards and just like that, it was over. I was not impressed, to say the least. The director, Zak Snyder, wasn’t the best conversationalist and it’s clear the actors were coached by a publicist beforehand, because they sounded like they were talking to some vapid entertainment reporter on Access Hollywood or something. They all gave very brief, forgettable answers to questions. The only highlight of the panel was Dave Gibbons, the artist for the original Watchmen comic, who provided a lot of insight into his creative process in drawing the comic, as well as his collaboration with Alan Moore, the author of the series.

I left Hall H and met up with my wife and son, who were giddy with excitement, having just left a Stargate panel in Ballroom 20. Apparently, the entire cast from Stargate SG-1 were present–even Richard Dean Anderson, who rarely does these sort of things. It was by all accounts a fun and enjoyable experience, and a good time was evidently had by all, judging by the smiles on everyone’s faces as they left Ballroom 20. I immediately kicked myself for missing it, seeing as how I was a huge fan of the series and this was likely the last ever Stargate panel since the show had been cancelled a couple months prior to the convention.

The difference between their experience and mine was striking. The cast of Stargate had a lot of experience doing cons, plus the natural rapport that comes from working together for so long lent itself to a free-wheeling, anything goes atmosphere full of jokes and funny stories, along with clever jabs at fellow cast mates. It was in stark contrast the dour, joyless panel I’d just attended for Watchmen, which upon further reflection was just a typical Hollywood marketing gimmick aimed more at the entertainment press than the fans. People were smiling and laughing as they left the Stargate panel. The people leaving the Watchmen panel looked like they’d just seen Schindler’s List.

Let us Gather Under the Purple Thing. There is Safety Under the Purple Thing
Let us go across the river of humanity and rest under the shade of the purple thing.

Combined with other experiences waiting in line for panels in Ballroom 20 and other rooms over the past three cons, I’ve figured out that I’d rather have a good time than waste time. Sitting in line or in a room for hours just to get a sneak peak at footage destined for the special features section of a future Blu-Ray release is a waste of time, as is seeing the actors from the film. Unless you’re sitting in the first couple of rows and can see them up close and personal, you’re just looking at them on giant video screens anyway, so you might as well skip it and watch it on YouTube later. Plus, unless someone has written something for them to say, actors usually aren’t all that interesting. They’re far better at reciting other people’s words than speaking their own.

There are exceptions, of course. Bruce Campbell is always a guaranteed good time, as is Torchwood’s John Barrowman. Plus, actors who have done a lot of cons and who know what works and what doesn’t are usually pretty fun as well. The key difference between these folks and the actors you see for the big marketing pushes in Hall H is that the former know they are there to entertain and have a good time with their fans, while the latter just view the whole thing as a contractual obligation to publicize a movie or TV show.

Through a series of happy accidents (usually sitting through one panel to see a following panel), I’ve found that I’ve had the most fun in panels dominated by authors, artists, and other creative types. Back in 2008, we sat through a Dean Koontz panel that turned out to be one of the more interesting we attended that year. Last year, we happened into a DC Comics panel featuring Geoff Johns, J. Michael Straczynski, and Grant Morrison. I don’t even know what that panel was about, but listening to those guys BS for half an hour was worth it. They’re prolific writers, so it shouldn’t have been a surprise. But without a doubt, the prize for best speaker so far is Steven Moffatt, who we saw at a Doctor Who panel in 2008. In addition to possessing preternatural comedic talent, he also had some interesting insights into the character of The Doctor, many of which have found their way into the series now that he’s the showrunner for it.

So this year, I think we’ll skip Hall H and Ballroom 20 in favor of the unheralded panels featuring potentially interesting people. Even better, why not skip any panel with a line and go to the ones where we can just walk right into the room? I don’t know if that’ll even happen or not, given the organizers’ relentless pursuit of poor scheduling, but we can give it an honest go. If not, well, it’s not like there’s a shortage of things to do in San Diego.

The Iron Monger Abides
Or I could just take 8 million more pictures of Iron Monger