You can smell it in the air, that heady mix of musty comics, Mrs. Fields’ cookies, new carpeting, and forklift exhaust fumes. It can only mean one thing: it’s almost time for the San Diego Comic-Con. God help us all.
Usually in this space around this time every year I give you my tips for surviving the show, and this year is no exception. This may sound familiar for you long-time readers, but bear with me for the sake of the newbies among us.
First off, try to remember: Comic-Con is supposed to be fun. And it still is, as long as you approach it from the proper perspective. Mark Evanier has made a good point about Comic-Con, that it’s gotten so big now it’s more like multiple conventions, and the key to having a good time is to make it into the convention you want to attend. And that takes work on your part, and the right frame of mind. (And bear in mind, that also means letting a few things go.) Accordingly, that brings us to Rule the First:
Take a deep breath. You’re supposed to be having fun. Comic-Con is just too big these days to possibly see everything that’s out there, so remember to slow down, take in the sights, and really enjoy the wonders and weirdness arrayed before you. The manic confusion and total chaos is part of the experience. If you miss something you wanted to see, remember: there’s always next year’s show, at which time you won’t remotely recall that thing you missed last time. Live in the now, and don’t be afraid to let some things go if you’re enjoying what you’re doing. Which brings us to Rule the Second:
2. Try to keep a little perspective.
Remember that in today’s Internet-driven news bubble, what seems like the most important thing in the world to see today is yesterday’s papers within a month. And also, let’s be honest — almost everything of note will eventually wind up on the Internet. This has become more and more true with each passing year. So if you don’t get into, say, the CAPTAIN AMERICA: WINTER SOLDIER panel, don’t worry about it. Anything they show in there you’re gonna see on YouTube or Ain’t It Cool by August. In fact, it might not even be worth waiting in that two-hour line to see, and that could be two hours you spend on something you might never see again, like an interview with a favorite writer or artist, or a once-in-a-lifetime panel discussion. The movie stuff is ephemeral — the hot preview clip you see from a trailer will eventually be on the DVD you buy 18 months later, and the hours you lost waiting in line to see it is gone forever. Case in point: a few years back I missed the MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 panel, because I was having dinner with friends and enjoying the evening and I knew I’d never get that time back. And guess what: the entire panel was made available on the next MST3K DVD box set six months later. Not much chance of me ever getting that dinner back if I had missed it. In the words of the immortal Ferris Bueller, Life is short, kids. Sometimes you got to stick with the important stuff.
3. Be flexible.
It’s impossible to really predict what’s going to happen at the show from year to year in terms of crowds. (That is, other than there being lots.) A few years ago, the TWILIGHT fanatics camped out in Hall H all day to see their beloved sparkly vampires, resulting in a much more crowded floor due to the extra couple thousand folks who couldn’t get in to the Big Room. But at the same time, last year the Exhibit Hall was at its absolute most crowded during Wednesday’s Preview Night. Last year, con organizers wisely put the TWILIGHT panel first up on Thursday to prevent the Twi-hards from camping in the big room all day. But you never know what’s going to create a traffic snarl or be unexpectedly popular. So most definitely have yourself a plan, but don’t be afraid to alter it. Have backups for your backups — it’s the one convention around where there’s easily enough programming to triple-book.
4. Think ahead.
You know what happens every night in San Diego during Comic-Con week? Eleventy thousand people hit the Gaslamp Quarter at the same time and try to get a table at a restaurant. If there are a couple places where you really want to eat, do yourself a favor and make reservations. Nothing’s better than enjoying a steak and a cocktail while you watch dozens of hungry Stormtroopers noisily trudge by looking for dinner options. Every year, people write in and ask me why I don’t recommend my favorite places to eat. The answer? Because I’d like to be able to get reservations myself, thank you very much…
Also, don’t be afraid to make some concrete plans. Everyone wants to be free to get into parties and whatnot, but it’s nice to have options in place, and every year there’s more great events going on in the evenings. This year alone, W00tstock, Kevin Smith & Ralph Garman’s Hollywood Babble-On and Chris Hardwick’s The Nerdist will all put on shows in the Gaslamp Quarter with tickets still available. And if a better offer comes along, no harm, no foul.
5. Don’t give in to the hype.
Those exclusive action figures you want? There will be enough to go around. And even if by some chance you miss out on one, within a matter of months you’ll see them on eBay for the same price they were going for at the show. Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t wait in line for the items you want most, but maybe skip the two-hour-long line at the Hasbro booth on Friday and try the 20-minute wait on Sunday instead. And definitely don’t brave the crazed mobs on Preview Night for exclusives. (In fact, every year I get more tempted to skip it entirely. What was once a nice treat for passholders has now become an avalanche of badge-wearing toy-hungry maniacs. Not worth the hassle.) Last year, I myself held off until Sunday to make my Hasbro purchases, and walked away with a mountain of stuff. They’ve got plenty. Chill.
6. For god’s sake, get some air.
I’ve been as guilty of this as anyone in years past, but you absolutely must leave the Convention Center for a while. San Diego’s a beautiful town, and there’s so much to see, so trade the zoo of sweaty humanity for an actual Zoo, or at least get out and sit by the pool for an hour or so. And especially if you’re accompanied by a significant other who’s not really a fan and is accompanying you out of the goodness of his/her heart? (A status now known in the geek community as a “Dr. Girlfriend,” by the way.) Go take them to a nice restaurant on the other side of town and earn some good karma for yourself.
7. Go and check out Artist’s Alley.
Lots of folks skip this area every year, and they are missing out. Not only is there fantastic artwork available for sale at surprisingly reasonable prices (and I can’t think of a better way to spend your money at Comic-Con than on original artwork), but it’s just a great opportunity to meet some of the folks who draw some of your favorite comics you read all year long. Comics are the reason for the show, as much as the Hollywood folks would like you to forget it. Go celebrate them by shaking your favorite artist’s hand, or even better, putting some money into it and walking away with a beautiful piece of artwork. And be generous. Most of those artists count on paying for their con experience with the profits they make from the show, so buy as many sketchbooks and prints as your own budget will allow. Better to buy one less action figure that’ll sit on a shelf and go home with four sketchbooks.
8. Play against the clock.
Don’t even think about trying to get in when the place opens at 9:30. Give yourself a break and go in at 10:30, when you can stroll right in. Pack a snack in with you, and have your lunch at 2 p.m. This sounds like basic, dumbass advice, but you have no idea how much of a difference it can make when 100,000 people all decide to get lunch at noon.
9. The Red Line is your friend.
Getting a decent hotel becomes trickier and trickier every year, thanks to Comic-Con’s resoundingly incompetent travel agent and their new “you’ll get what we give you and like it” lottery system. If you’re one of these unfortunates stuck on the other side of Horton Plaza, check out how close you are to a Red Line trolley stop. A couple of years back, I discovered to my delight there was a station next door to my hotel, and my 12-block walk suddenly became a low-stress, $3 five-minute train ride. By Day 3 of the show, it was the best Comic-Con discovery ever.
10. Be kind to cosplayers.
Some folks like to make fun of the costumed folks roaming the aisles, the Klingons and Stormtroopers and Jokers and Rorschachs. But if you ask me, the folks who love this stuff enough to spend hours working on a costume and then spend their entire convention day posing for photographs with everyone who asks? That seems to me to be the purest form of fandom there is, and I wouldn’t want to go to a Comic-Con without ’em. They’re the best.
11. Know when to retreat.
Saturday midday tends to be the absolute worst time to be on the Exhibit Hall floor. Get out for a long lunch, take a walk in the Gaslamp, go back to the hotel and nap or hit the pool, be anywhere other than center aisle between 11 am and 2 pm.
12. Don’t go home.
At least not right away. If you’re not too pinched for cash and vacation days, I highly recommend staying an extra day after the show is over to decompress. It’s much easier to enjoy Sunday night knowing you’re not going to be fighting that godawful traffic snarl up the Interstate 5 getting out of town, and a leisurely day by the pool or at the mall on Monday is the perfect antidote for the “Con fatigue/flu” that’s bound to hit you after four days (or for some of us poor bastards, seven) cooped up in the Convention Center.
For an insanely expansive guide to everything you need to know to survive and thrive in the Comic-Con experience, I highly recommend Tom Spurgeon’s excellent and always growing manifesto on the subjectover at his Web site, The Comics Reporter.
And I’d like to end on a direct quote from Mr. Spurgeon, because it bears repeating:
A woman with the intention of attending Comic-Con died last year after running into traffic and being struck by a car during the time she spent in a line that formed in advance of the show. Her name was Gisela Gagliardi. She was a fan, and a lot like you and me in at least that way. She didn’t think she was going to die when she got up that morning.
Please, please be careful. Don’t do anything because you’re at a show and in a different headspace you wouldn’t do and wouldn’t invite your family to do with you at the same time back home. Remember that San Diego is a city, and not some strange city from a fantasy book but a real-life city with all that entails. It’s okay to complain about the police officers and what they have you do as far as crossing streets and waiting for trains, but do it anyway; they have your best interests in mind. Even the security inside has a job to do and your day will go just fine making their days go a little easier by doing what they ask. You look after you. None of what follows is important at all if you don’t come out of it on the other side healthier and happier and in a position to enjoy all of the potential fun that may await you.
As my dad always says, “eyes open.” Have fun, stay safe, and enjoy Comic-Con.
I’ll see you on the other side.