How "The Final Countdown" Should've Went

So we’re watching The Final Countdown, and while I thought this movie was cool as a kid because it had airplanes, ships, and time travel, the ending of the movie is really quite lame, because it negates the previous 1.5 hrs of story. It leaves you wondering what the point of all of it was, if they were just going to reset everything exactly back to where it was at the beginning of the movie.
Here’s the way the movie should have ended: The Nimitz’s air wing successfully executes its mission to prevent the attack on Pearl Harbor and sinks the Japanese carrier fleet, effectively neutering Japan’s ambitions in the Pacific. The Nimitz travels through the time vortex and emerges into a world radically transformed from the one they left…
Since the Japanese never bombed Pearl Harbor and their carrier fleet was mysteriously wiped out, the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere collapsed, leaving them a significant power in the Pacific Rim, but not strong enough to force the US to capitulate its interests in the region. Their failure to bomb Pearl Harbor left Roosevelt with no real excuse to enter the War that the American people would accept and support.
Instead, he could only ratchet-up the lend-lease program to Britain and Russia, lending further credence to isolationist and Nazi sympathizer propaganda accusing Roosevelt (who had begun building up the Armed Forces in 1940) of spoiling for a war and actively trying to provoke the Germans into attacking American shipping, thus giving him an excuse to get the US embroiled in yet another European mistake.
Buoyed by German failures in the Soviet Union, the Republican opposition, led by Charles Lindbergh and his America First Committee, intensifies its opposition to Roosevelt’s policies, claiming that Germany obviously isn’t the threat its been made out to be, as Great Britain and the Soviet Union have effectively stymied German expansionism and will undoubtedly turn the tide. American opinion is solidly in the isolationist corner. America stays out of the war, but continues its lend-lease program.
In 1944, facing the collapse of its Eastern occupied territories due to Soviet advance, the Germans launch their V-1 and V-2 rockets at cities taken by the Soviets. Since neither Italy nor the West were invaded by the Allies (North Africa was still taken by the Brits, but they were repelled in Sicily and are presently consolidating and marshaling forces from around their Empire for a second invasion of Sicily), Germany has the full resources of France and support from Italy to form a defensive line in Poland to stop the Soviet advance cold. They succeed at holding the line long enough for German scientists to procure fissile materials and develop the atomic bomb, which is promptly used in the Ukraine as a practical test of the technology.
The Germans then deliver atomic bombs simultaneously to Moscow, Leningrad, Stalingrad, and London. The Germans threaten more such atomic attacks against the British and Soviets if they do not capitulate. Britain, suffering the total loss of its government and capital in one fell swoop, signs an armistice with Germany.
Stalin, already well-known for his bloodthirsty policies against his own people and unwillingness to surrender, has no such intentions. In response to Soviet intransigence, Germany begins indiscriminate atomic bombing of the Soviet Union as quickly as it can make bombs (it actually had a very low stockpile of atomic weapons due to shortages of available fissile material and what many people thought were actual atomic bombings were really just firebombings).
Stalin is finally killed in one of the atomic bombings near Tblisi, but despite desperate messages from the remaining Soviet leadership signalling a willingness to talk, Germany uses two more atomic weapons anyway before agreeing to meet with them.
Hitler demands unconditional surrender or he and his new Chinese allies will split the country amongst themselves (the China mention is merely a ploy, though Germany has had talks with the Chinese government, nothing has been formalized). The Soviets say they need some time to discuss it. Hitler tell them to take all the time they need. 30 minutes later, Sevastopol is obliterated in atomic fire.
The Soviet envoys rush back to Hitler, eager to agree to his terms. While there, Hitler receives a message that Murmansk has been annihilated as well. He then tells the envoys that if they do not immediately agree to unconditional surrender, Germany will execute its plan to completely obliterate the Soviet people from the face of the earth. They agree and the Soviet Union is no more. Germany is able to execute its original goals for the Slavs in the East and in 1946, it finally launches its amphibious invasion of Britain and succeeds in eliminating its final enemy.
Nazi Germany, triumphant, finally turns its eye to the US, which is woefully unprepared to check German aggression and is economically weak (it never inaugurated the military-industrial complex and while no longer in a Depression, the nation is in a protracted recession). Germany consolidates its holdings, successfully completes its Final Solution, and with Hitler dead in ’47, enters into a temporary inward-looking phase as a power-struggle ensues and Goering emerges as the new Fuhrer.
Goering holds a summit with President Lindbergh, agreeing to end German aggression as long as America agrees to limit the expansion of its military and vows never to develop atomic weapons. American companies, eager to do business with the German regime, also accompany Lindbergh to the summit and agree to become suppliers to German companies. Many American companies also receive licenses to operate plants in annexed regions.
The promise of slave labor motivates many corporations to build factories and warehouses in Europe, further weakening manufacturing and employment in the United States, which never experiences a post-war boom (baby or economic), nor a transformation from a mostly rural, farm-based population to a largely urban population.
Goering is assassinated in ’54 and replaced with a hard-line government looking to continue the True Fuhrer’s goal of German domination. Working with American companies in Europe, who are more interested in increasing shareholder value than quaint notions of patriotism or loyalty, Germany expands its Atlantic Fleet of ballistic missile submarines and battleships, as well as its fleet of Zeppelins and modest carrier force.
With a secret agreement with Mexico to start armed border intrusions in April of ’56 to distract the Americans, Germany launches its armada at the eastern seaboard of the US in May of that year, quickly establishing a beachhead in the Northeast. Canada, which was liberated from the Dominion when the British fell, agrees to stay out of the war and does nothing to hinder the Germans nor help the Americans. It doesn’t hurt that they are promised control of the Great Lakes by the Germans, either.
With the largest amphibious operation in history underway, the Germans quickly capture the Northeast, including NYC and Boston. The residents try their best to resist, but alas, since the US never became the largest manufacturer and exporter of weaponry, from small-arms to tanks, these brave patriots are completely outclassed by advanced German machinery, most of it built by Ford in its various slave-labor plants in France and the Ukraine.
The Germans, augmented by various contractors hired by American corporations heavily involved in Europe, eventually battle the Americans to a standstill along the Mississippi. The M-Line, as it will come to be called, holds steady as the combined forces of Western Canadians, Americans, and Mexicans (though initially sympathetic to the Germans, the Mexicans are easily convinced by the Americans that they will be nothing more than slave labor should the Germans succeed in eliminating the US) resist further German advance, while at the same time homegrown “terrorists” attack and harass the Germans in their occupied territories.
The Free Territory of the US seizes the North American assets of US corporate collaborators and starts a nascent militarization program using their factories and supply chains. The Chinese, seeing an opportunity for northward expansion into Siberia, launch their own invasion, spooking the Germans into stopping their advance and shuffling forces around to deal with the Chinese threat.
This is the world the Nimitz finds itself in, not back to 1980 where it began its strange voyage, but the winter of 1957. The crew of the Nimitz knows nothing of the events just described, but they quickly discover that Nazi Germany not only won WWII, but has cleaved the US in two and is the only country with nuclear weapons. They also realize that they are the most advanced warship in the world with the most advanced aircraft and technology, as well as the only other power with nuclear weapons. And they are their country’s last, best hope for victory. Roll credits, greenlight the sequel.

Comics: How to Kill the Past Without Aborting the Future?

So the new Batman #1 is vastly better than Detective Comics #1. It’s well-drawn and written, and it left me wanting to read the next issue. Also, I never would’ve read it had it not been available for sale through DC’s app on the iPad. Marvel really needs to listen up and take notes — digital is the way to go.
One of the problems with the comics industry is that they rely on a single distributor, Diamond, and rely on a single sales channel, comic book stores. They’ve painted themselves into a corner, growth-wise. DC and Marvel are not private, independent businesses; they are profit centers within larger media conglomerates who must show year-over-year growth to satisfy shareholders. You can’t do that with a single distribution and sales channel. Say what you will about aging demographics and shifting cultural tastes, if anything’s going to kill off comics, it’s that single means of distribution.
So here’s the challenge: how do you shift to “day-and-date” digital releases and grow that business without dissing your main source of revenue? Everyone knows digital is the future, yet it’s still nascent enough within the comics industry that if DC and Marvel seriously piss-off their current sales channel, it could kill their entire business. They have to placate the comic book stores and their aging clientele until digital overtakes physical in revenue.
But that’s the other half of the challenge — to mollify the comic book store owners, the publishers have to charge the same amount for a digital copy as they do for a physical book, so store owners don’t feel like they’re being cut loose like a sea anchor in the mad rush to go digital.
Now, anyone who has been over to Amazon has seen how some unscrupulous publishers charge the same amount for a digital book as a physical copy (because electrons cost so much to produce) — and they don’t even have to appease an entrenched, vitriolic sales channel. It’s just greed. The natural reaction is to either say, “Screw that!” or “Hello torrents!” People are likely to have the same reaction to digital comics prices, which folks have already been pirating for years on torrent sites anyway.
The comics publishers have a tough road to hoe. They have to gently kill the past without aborting the future. It’ll be interesting to watch, but I really hope they’re successful in transitioning to the future, as well as appealing to younger folks and a wider audience instead of being relegated to the ghetto of the comic book store and its rather limited customer base.

Remembering 9/11

Ten years ago this morning, my wife awoke me to say that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center in NYC. I had just got home from work an hour before and didn’t know why she was waking me up to tell me about some Cessna flying into a building. I grunted an acknowledgement and went back to sleep. A few moments later, she awoke me again to say that another plane had flown into the other tower. The tone of her voice, combined with the fact that the second tower had been hit made it abundantly clear that this was no accident.
I jumped out of bed and went downstairs to see an image of both towers billowing smoke from their top floors. What the hell had hit these buildings? A few seconds later, NBC replayed video of the second plane hitting the tower. It looked like a 757. Right off the bat, we knew it was Al Qaeda. They had attacked the WTC in the ’90s and continued with highly-coordinated and effective attacks in the following years, so it seemed safe to say that this was their handiwork.
While the images on TV were bad, the events they depicted were still remote until the local news broke in with a preliminary report of an explosion at the Pentagon, which was only 20 miles away from us. That’s when we really become worried. How many airplanes had the terrorists commandeered? We continued watching the news in New York, with the two towers still smoking. I remember thinking one of them looked like it was leaning a bit. I think my Dad called to see how we were doing while the towers were still standing, but sometime after that I saw the first tower fall. I was shocked. I thought, if anything, a portion of the building would break loose and fall down, but not the whole thing. At the time, we didn’t know how many people were in the towers, so I thought I’d just witnessed the death of tens of thousands. It was horrifying.
Another report came in that a third plane had hit the Pentagon, but there were no pictures yet. Then the second tower fell. I friend of mine from work came over and we decided that we should get back in uniform and go back to work, because every politician would be looking to bug out from D.C. and the quickest way out was on one of our planes. My wife went to pick-up our son from school as my friend and I left for Andrews Air Force Base.
One of the images that sticks with me from that day is driving up Route 5 and seeing the southbound lanes choked with traffic as a dark column of smoke from the Pentagon climbed into the sky. The northbound lanes were clear for the first time since we moved there. The news on the radio said there were still an unknown number of commercial planes unaccounted for as we pulled into the parking lot outside our hangar. I took a few furtive glances at the sky — the hangar housing the presidential 747s was the most distinct and visible building on the base and it was only a few hundred yards from were I was standing. At that moment, it wasn’t inconceivable that someone would be interested in taking a shot at it and I wasn’t too crazy about my proximity to it.
We went into the shop, where the guys were doing what everyone else in the nation was doing at that moment: watching TV. Our supervisor told us that all air traffic was grounded, even Special Air Missions, so there wasn’t much for us to do at the moment. The scumbag politicians looking to bug out would have to sit tight with the rest of us.
I went out to have a smoke. The base was quiet. There are few things more eerie or beautiful than a dead-quiet flight line. Normally there’s at least some piece of diesel-operated equipment thrumming away or the distant squawk of a radio, but there was nothing, not even the wind. It was like the base had died. One of the guys who worked dayshift pointed at the line of F-16s at the other side of the runway and wondered why they were all still sitting there. Why hadn’t any of them launched?
“Guard,” another said. “They wouldn’t know their ass from a hole in the ground.”
The rest of us nodded, finished our smokes and went back inside. One of the guys in the breakroom said that the fourth plane had crashed in Pennsylvania and the remaining commercial aircraft had been accounted for, so the worst was over for now. One of our supervisors came over to tell us that all air traffic was grounded for the rest of the day, so we should head back home.
We got back home and I hung out with my family for the rest of the day, trying to make sense of everything that happened. I was too wired to go back to sleep, so I stayed awake until I went back to work that afternoon.
It was surreal to be heading to work, knowing that we were in a war of some kind, yet everything still felt the same as it had before. Usually, if Saddam or somebody so much as sneezed in the middle-east, we’d deploy immediately. Even though I was currently in a non-deployable unit, I felt like I should at least feel the machinations of pre-deployment. But everything so far was weirdly normal.
I got into work a little before the President finally arrived home at the end of his magical mystery tour. A presidential arrival at the base was always pregnant with drama, but this time his arrival was heralded by F-16s orbiting above the aerodrome and Pavehawks circling the airfield. The retinue awaiting his arrival not only included the usual [things I can’t talk about] but also visible weaponry and an increased uniformed presence.
As we sat around the gazebo (our smoking area) that night, not doing much of anything, we talked about what the response would be. Some thought we’d lob a few cruise missiles and be done with it. Others thought we’d be invading someone before the year was out. The night was rife with rumor and misinformation. A couple of guys who had friends working the ‘line down at Langley said that one of the F-15s there had shot down the plane in Pennsylvania, which made sense. We all turned to hear a couple of F-16s from the Guard unit taking to the air, and counted the “rings” from their blue-orange afterburners as they thundered into the night sky.

The Inevitable Post Comic-Con Post

As we feared, Comic-Con didn’t distinguish itself very well this year. We knew there were would be long lines for everything (it’s not called “LineCon” for nothing), but all of the con’s failings were magnified to a degree I’ve never seen before. People waited in lines for up to eight hours just to see one panel in Ballroom 20. People lined up at 3:00AM just to be able to buy tickets for next year (a process that was accomplished in 10 minutes previously). People who waited outside in line all day for a TrueBlood panel were kicked out to make room for some actor’s entourage. I can’t say it wouldn’t have been much fun to be one of those people. Of course, the response by many people to this patently ridiculous situation is to succumb to a Stockholm-like Syndrome and view it as something not only to be expected, but actually valued.
I can’t be one of those people. I am not a happy, shiny person who only looks at the positive and papers over the negative with a shrug. If you accept mediocrity, then that’s all you’ll ever get. The SDCC organizers are masters of mediocrity and they have no impetus to change because they know people will not demand excellence of them–they will pay for whatever they’re given and wear it as a badge of pride. Such is life. Our response was to only buy tickets for two days next year and accept that it will take more alcohol than usual to take the edge off the con (and possibly start attending conventions like WonderCon that might be more chill and fun).
Okay, enough of the bad stuff, of which there was plenty. Here’s a quick rundown of the cool stuff from this year’s con:

  1. My son went crazy with the Gundam models. He picked up three Gundam models (two exclusives): a Mobile Suit ZZ, an MG Zaku, and an RX-78
  2. We got to play a PVP session of the upcoming Star Wars: The Old Republic MMO (we played as the Empire and won), which is still in closed beta. The game looks great. It’s a bit of a WoW clone, but it plays really well. I’ll definitely buy it when it’s released.
  3. We attended “The Captain’s” panel, featuring Shatner, Avery Brooks, and Scott Bakula (more well known for Quantum Leap). We’d never seen any of these guys in person before, so that was really fun. Avery Brooks is a real cool cat.
  4. We also attended a panel focused on J. Michael Straczynski, who I’ve been a fan of for years. He’s really witty and engaging in person. He spoke and answered questions for almost an hour straight, yet it seemed only a few minutes had passed. The panel was over way too soon.
  5. This outfit called Robe Factory was selling Star Trek-themed robes, which were basically robes that were done in the style of the original series’ tunics. They weren’t cheap crap, either. Very high quality and comfortable robes. We got a gold one and a red one.
  6. My son got a pretty cool messenger bag with Alex Ross artwork on it.
  7. We got some really good animation cels from the Star Trek animated series (which I’m apparently collecting now)
  8. We attended a DC comics “New 52” panel, where they were talking about the upcoming reboot of their entire comic line. I was always a Marvel kid, so I know that Marvel already did this and better (with their Ultimates series) without ruining their main line with a gimmick. Still, it’s a bold move for DC, which as a sub-division of a larger media conglomerate (WB), is tasked with increasing revenue with a product that caters to an ever-diminishing niche demographic. You can’t focus on aging Gen-X’ers forever and I hope they’re able to do something that actually appeals to kids and adolescents, but I’m doubtful.
  9.  The hullabaloo outside the convention was extremely impressive. I think it’s almost reached a point where you don’t even need to buy tickets to get the Comic-Con Experience™. Several companies are now running promotions that don’t require a badge to participate, and tons of convention attendees are always walking around, so you can have an enjoyable experience just by going down to the Gaslamp Quarter and hanging out for a few hours.
There you go – the good and the bad from our Comic-Con 2011 experience. We spent Sunday at the beach, which was a relaxing day to decompress and go someplace where we could sit down for more than two minutes without being hassled by some goon and didn’t have to wait in line to do something cool; namely, swimming in the Pacific Ocean.

The Maddening Crowd

Well, San Diego Comic-Con is only a couple of weeks away and the usual feelings of anxiety and dread well-up once more from the part of my psyche that really, truly hates crowds. Being around large groups of people exhausts me for some reason, and SDCC has crowds in spades. It’s no wonder that at the end of every day, when all I’ve really done is stand or sit most of the time and not physically exerted myself in the slightest, I am mentally and physically spent.

At Night, the Crowd Abandons the Convention Center and Goes to the Gaslamp
Ain't No Crowds At Night. They're at the Gaslamp Gettin' Their Drunk On

We usually attend preview night at the con, which is the night before the convention officially opens and the number of attendees is limited to around 15,000 people. There aren’t any panels or anything, but the floor is open to browse and buy things, if you want. The crowds are manageable and you can actually feel the convention floor’s immense 615, 701 square feet of space, unlike the following days when the crushing mass of humanity makes for a stifling, claustrophobic experience. If a sudden calamity befell the convention on preview night, I have no doubt we could make it out to safety. If we needed to make a quick escape on any other day, I think we would surely perish, if not from the emergency itself, then from being crushed or trampled to death by 125,000 panicked people trying to flee through a few exits at once.
Of the last few years we’ve attended, it seems like 2009 was the worst convention year for crowds. The number of people seemed to have jumped significantly from the previous year and the organizers appeared ill-prepared to deal with the sudden increase in volume. It seemed to be barely-organized chaos as poorly trained volunteers combined with knuckle-headed scheduling to produce a situation where the invisible hand of organization simply ceased to exist and disorder reigned supreme.
I wasn’t the only one with this impression. We escaped a few times to the quiet confines of the EA Gaming Lounge across the street from the convention center for some rest and relaxation from the ever-roiling chaos. While our son played betas of Battlefield: Bad Company 2 and Left for Dead 2, my wife and I sipped mixed drinks on comfortable couches in a peaceful courtyard under the sun. As we relaxed, we spoke to several people who had also found this quiet eddy amidst the turbulent torrent of humanity, many of whom were ten to twenty year veterans of the con. While many acknowledged the rapid increase in numbers over the previous few years had changed the character and tone of the convention, nearly all felt something had definitely changed between 2008 and 2009. A few dozen theories were offered, but no one could quite put their finger on what exactly had changed. These weren’t the usual suspects bitching about how the con had gotten away from it’s roots or any of that nonsense, but people genuinely perplexed by the con’s apparent takeover by its mirror-universe evil twin.
A lot of people in 2009 liked to blame that year’s terrible convention on Twilight, but that’s patently absurd. The only thing Twilight did was bring in some teeny-boppers and their creepy mothers. Oh yes, this sinister faction truly brought low a convention where pervs and unwashed sociopaths compete with each other to see who can creep-out and annoy the most people.
Batman, Well Known for His PR Skills, Addresses the Media
Batman, Well Known for His PR Skills, Addresses the Media

It wasn’t Twilight that ruined the con — it was piss poor preparation and planning. Twilight was just a single, hour-long panel in Hall H and despite what many publicists and over-caffeinated bloggers would like you to think, Hall H is not Comic-Con. It’s where the Bullshit Machine goes to peddle its wares. You could completely sever Hall H from the convention and send it into the Phantom Zone without sacrificing a single iota of the con’s character. It is essentially the Hollywood Adjunct to the convention (though that might actually change this year, we’ll see). The only real good thing about Hall H is that it keeps 6,000 suckers off the show floor and away from the other panels.
The failure of the 2009 convention can be attributed to three critical areas:

  1. Poorly trained and supervised staff/volunteers
  2. Poor scheduling
  3. Poor crowd control

The people staffing the 2009 con were some of the most uninformed, poorly prepared people I’ve seen before or since. They consistently looked lost, confused, and befuddled. Imagine if someone had plucked your mother from the mall, put her in a red polo shirt, and plopped her in the convention center with no training and a single instruction: do something with these people. I can’t blame them for how they reacted to their situation. Most fell back on the age-old strategy of simply making stuff up to get people to go away, while others succumbed to that hobgoblin of small minds and bureaucrats: strict adherence to instructions.

Please Superman Don't Hurt Them
I Just Like This Picture

A perfect example of both strategies in action occurred during the Burn Notice panel of that year. We’d just sat through a Women of Sci-Fi panel so we could see the Bruce Campbell (featuring Burn Notice) panel that immediately followed. A few of us needed to make use of the restroom during the break between panels, so we went to the exit and were handed a colored ticket for the Women of Sci-Fi panel. A few dozen people asked the woman passing out these tickets if these would be good to get back in and she said yes, the next panel didn’t start for another 10 minutes, so they would still be valid. Five minutes later, we leave the restroom and hand our tickets to the man at the entrance to Ballroom 20 and he says our tickets were for the last panel and were no longer valid. No amount of reasoning would change him from his course. He had been told by someone as clueless as him to accept only yellow tickets and by god, he would not deviate one millimeter from that instruction. So, we went around the corner to the exit and told the lady who handed us the bogus tickets about the situation and to please talk some sense into the man up front, but she quickly feigned ignorance and forswore any knowledge of the assurances she’d provided to dozens of people only minutes before. I imagine our bags and belongings enjoyed the panel immensely.
The effects of the poorly informed and supervised staff were exacerbated by the bizarre scheduling. I understand the organizers cater to the big media conglomerates, but sometimes I wonder whether the people who declare themselves the largest popular arts convention in the world are completely clueless about the relative popularity of the properties promoting themselves at the convention. For instance, last year they scheduled a Mega-Man panel attended by maybe a couple hundred people in the third largest room at the convention center, while at the same time massive crowds had to be turned away from a Walking Dead panel in a tiny room seating only 150-200 people. So, an old, cult video game series warrants a gigantic room while a highly anticipated TV adaptation of a hugely popular comic book series merits a glorified closet? You sometimes have to wonder whether the “juice” of larger companies is more important to convention organizers than fan appeal. That’s really the only way to explain how some no-name panels are able to snag larger rooms, while panels with huge fan appeal but representing smaller, indie entities are relegated to the broom closet.
Captain Bro-merica
Captain Bro-merica

Additionally, the scheduling is often so poor that they will have multiple “big draw” panels in a row, each catering to a different fan base, yet all attended in large part by people who only want to see one of the panels. Why? The convention does not clear rooms between panels, so people sit through panels they don’t care about to see the one panel that matters to them. Meanwhile, people who really want to see these panels are left out in the cold, because they didn’t go stand in a line three or four hours earlier than the people who got into the room. It’s an odd state of affairs when 3/4 of a person’s con experience is spent standing in line or sitting through boring panels just to witness one hour of programming. If the wacky scheduling wasn’t evidence enough of the organizers’ inability to keep attendee satisfaction utmost in mind, then the unwillingness to reduce the long lines — indeed, they embrace and encourage them! — should be proof enough.
It’s long past time the organizers started clearing the big rooms between panels and their stubborn refusal to do so reminds me of many Mom-and-Pop companies who experience rapid expansion, yet refuse to adapt practices and processes to accommodate their larger size simply because they don’t want to lose their peculiar culture and “go corporate.” The problem is, they’ve already gone corporate and whatever peculiar culture they once had exists only their minds. By refusing to adapt to changing conditions, they only make their employees lives’ unnecessarily difficult and screw themselves over in the long run. SDCC is in the same boat: the organizers like to boast about their size and prominence, yet at the same time they still run it like a little comics convention for 30,000 people. They refuse to change for fear of losing what they believe made them special, yet all they’ve really done is diminish everyone’s convention experience and made things worse than they really need to be. To have it within your power to make a more enjoyable experience for the attendees, yet refusing to do so out of misplaced nostalgia, is nothing more than pig-headed, selfish idiocy.
Yeah, You Know What to Say
Yeah, You Know What to Say

Finally, 2009 seemed like a year when the crowds finally overcame any serious attempt to control them. The meager resources devoted to crowd control were simply overwhelmed by the multitude. I can’t fault someone who, after running around all day plugging  little holes in the dyke, decided to pack it in after turning around and realizing that the sea had already broken through and completely flooded the countryside. I’d give up as well. The convention deployed too few resources to deal with the crowds, resulting in a situation that would have devolved into Mad Max-style, post-apocalyptic nightmare world where only the amoral and heavily-armed prevail, had not the overwhelming majority in attendance tended to avoid actual physical conflict at all costs.
These three factors were critical in the overall failure of the 2009 convention and except for the organizers’ tenacious resistance to proper scheduling and room clearing, they seemed to have been corrected in 2010. The crowds were definitely better managed due to extra security and the volunteers seemed far more prepared than the previous year. Hopefully, the gains made last year carry will over to this year and perhaps the organizers have miraculously learned how to actually compose a properly organized schedule. I guess we’ll see. If not, well, I hear the whale watching tours are a good time.

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 show up as 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 will be in line for the next three hours to watch an hour-long panel. That’s four hours of your day 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’ll be a long line snaking around the hallway full of 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 the’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.
Without fail, someone will think they were standing in the line for the trinket, only to find it morphed sometime during the past hour into the line for the Foam Hand. Since they’ve already devoted so much time in the line, they usually just go ahead and get the Foam Hand. So, after spending four hours upstairs and two hours downstairs on the convention floor, they now have a single panel and a foam hand reading “Live Long and Prosper” to show for their day.
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 had 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 didn’t get into, by the way) 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 for TV and movies 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 isn’t worth the time expended to see them.
Let’s 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 musty, dark, oppressive, 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

The Ballad of Roger Kowalski

(I wrote this in 2007 and I’m reposting it here)
I’m no stranger to sadness. I was given up for dead in the dank, putrid swamps of the Okefenokee and fended for myself until a kindly Indian chief took me to his lean-to and lashed me to a tree. The tree was about three feet from the water’s edge, and when I asked why he tied me there, he told me that I was bait for Roger Kowalski, the craftiest gator in the Florida swampland.
You see, the Chief had a grudge against this gator since it ravaged his village many moons ago. His people were attempting to build a nice, respectable casino out in the swamps to attract tourists. They had hoped it would one day be a major alternative to Orlando, but the lack of roads or navigable waterways stymied progress, leaving a tribe of forlorn Indians standing behind makeshift blackjack tables, as well as gift shops full of authentic Indian blankets saturated with authentic smallpox infections.
It was around this time that Roger Kowalski showed up. You see, Roger always had a snout for business and he knew a golden opportunity when he saw one. One day, he scooted up to a riverbank and ate a small child to get everyone’s attention. As the people raced to the riverbank, the Chief implored them to stay at their gaming tables, as a carload of wayward tourists from Poughkeepsie was bound to show up at any moment. Besides, he said, that gator ain’t never been anyone’s friend and you really shouldn’t trust anything that evolved over 200 million years ago. Nothing good ever came out of the Triassic, not the least of which was Roger Kowalski.
But the people would not listen to their Chief. They remembered the good old days, when they sat around complaining about how snobby the Seminole were and how they were too good for the swamp. Every now and then, a Seminole would come by in his flashy blue jeans and fancy ’74 El Camino to rub their faces in his tribe’s good fortune. They had a football team named after them, after all, and what higher plateau of success could anyone ever hope to achieve?
Roger Kowalski knew all about their resentment and used it to his advantage. He told the people that the reason their casino had failed was due to a lack of advertising. After all, how can anyone come out here if they don’t know you exist? Roger told the people that they needed to build a sign tall enough to be seen from the highway, which meant a huge tower needed to be erected right on this very spot.
The Chief warned the people not listen to the gator’s smooth words and pleasant promises, for his way led to ruin. After all, he reminded them, it was the gators who served as scouts and guides for the German army that conquered their ancestors and sold their powdered organs as aphrodisiacs on the Asian market. But the people would not listen. Seduced by dreams of neon and steel, they erected a huge tower and placed upon it a massive sign reading, “Indian Gaming!” A large arrow pointed downwards, just in case there was any doubt as to where the Indian gaming may be found.
The tourists did come and they did game. They brought with them their children and pets, their greedy land developers, their corporate sponsors, and their nudists. Roger Kowalski negotiated several important deals, including the development of hotels, restaurants, and a theme park. The Indians, though, increasingly felt left out of this newfound wealth. No one bought their blankets or misshapen pottery, nor was anyone dumping buckets of cash at their gaming tables.
Nope, everyone was flocking to the recently opened themed casino: Stalag Nights. With its cinder block walls and romantic guard towers, the casino attracted and delighted crowds with its hourly “Escape from Stalag Nights Extravaganza!” show, featuring an authentic simulated escape ending in a blazing gun battle, as the escapees crossed the wire and were blown to smithereens by the minefield before being finished off by rabid german shepherds. After the show, the entrants were treated to a unique experience seen nowhere else in the world: a spooky train ride inside cattle cars to the “depot” where they were “deloused” with pure, Columbian-grade cocaine and marched off to the gaming tables.
The Indians, though, were not happy. While everyone else seemed to be having a good time, they were still sitting in the swamp and whining about the Seminoles. They complained to the Chief, but he would have none of it. He told them that they would not listen to him before, so he would not speak to them now. The Indians then went to see Roger Kowalski, who thrice daily entertained crowds with tricks and amazing feats of feasting. As he sat in his multi-million dollar tank fashioned to look exactly like the swamp surrounding it, the people complained that they were not seeing any of the good fortune that the tourists had brought. Roger promised them that they had come at just the right time for an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime offer.
Since their casino wasn’t doing very well, he told them that he’d take pity on them, seeing as how they were old friends and all, and he’d buy it from them for a full 35% stake in Stalag Nights. This seemed like a good deal to the people, so they took it. There was only one condition: they had to agree to work in the casino for 30 days before they received their stake. That was a fair deal, considering Florida’s obscure labor laws, so the people agreed to Roger’s terms and readied themselves for the first full day of employment most of them had ever seen.
When they arrived, the casino handlers instructed them to remove their clothing and wear official Stalag Nights uniforms. Afterwards, they were told to wait in a holding area for their assignments, which would be forthcoming. After waiting for an hour, the people became unsettled, but one of the casino bosses finally appeared and directed them to face the door behind them. Once it opened, there were told to run out and enthusiastically greet the guests.
Afterwards, the german shepherds reported the Indians to be “tasty” and 9 out of 10 would recommend the dish to their friends and colleauges. Of course, they didn’t have much time to sit and quietly digest their meal, as the hourly explosions from the minefield over the past several months had unsettled the swampy foundations of the freakishly huge advertising tower until it finally relented in its contest against gravity. It groaned and squealed as stresses ran up and down its spindly frame before beginning its inexorable fall to the ground. The tourists’ screams were quickly silenced from tons of falling debris that choked the very breath out of them, while others barely escaped the catastrophe, only to find themselves forever lost in the endless wastes of the Everglades.
Roger Kowalski collected the insurance claims from the destroyed properties and sold the remains for scrap, leaving nothing of the casino megaplex’s existence behind except for a trail of crushed beer cans and broken promises. He slid back into the water, never to be seen again.
After the Chief told me his tale, I spotted two iridescent eyes glittering at the water’s edge. Consumed by fear, I pointed at the water. The Chief took a long, hard look and let out a belch of disgust. “That’s just Dean. No matter what he says, those damned car stereos are Sparkomatics, not JVCs.”
Soon after, I traded a used gum wrapper for my freedom and made it out of the swamp. I emerged onto a lone highway losing its battle against the invading kudzu. I headed north for the promised land of Tallahassee. But that’s a different story.