Monday, July 22, 2013

Report from the Front: Comic-Con Wrap-Up 2013

One of the wonders of Comic-Con is that it can make four days seem longer as the experience can nearly break you physically and fiscally if you let it. While I can’t comment on any breaking news that might have come out of Hall H or Ballroom 20, I can let you know that Comic-con is not for the weak.

Day 0 – aka Preview Night

After attending the Con every year, but one, since 2006, this was our first experience with Preview Night. Our hope had been that there was a certain exclusivity to the event. When buying tickets, the only way to get Preview Night was to already purchase a four day pass and then pay a little extra for Wednesday’s preview night. We got to the Convention Center’s Sails Pavilion at about 1:30, expecting that we wouldn’t be able to pick up badges before 3. I know that sounds excessive, but Lesson One: Comic-Con teaches that you can never be too early (this is a recurring theme we’ll come back to again and again.) However, instead of holding true to the posted start time for badge distribution, it was already in full swing by the time we got there. But not a problem, Lesson Two: Comic-Con teaches you to be flexible.

Even four and half hours early people are arriving.

For the next four and a half hours, we stood and sat in line waiting for admission to the exhibit hall. We were maybe in the seventh or eighth row and with maybe 75 people to a row, I was expecting there to be maybe, at most, 600 people ahead of us. (Yes, they arrived earlier than 1:30). And I was sadly mistaken. 

Waiting is the gift of time.
When we got to the floor, lines had already been formed and there were thousands of people already down there. WTF. Of course, many of them were exhibitors, who are notorious for getting in line for the Comic-Con exclusives. However, there were hundreds of people down there with Preview Night stickers and without badges who had to have been lined up somewhere other than the Sails Pavilion where the badge holders had been kept. (Again, WTF.)

Adventure Time was everywhere this time around.
There are several coveted Comic-Con exclusives and when the lines at Hasbro are capped and closed at 6:05 on preview night, it can be very frustrating. An hour, maybe, but we’re talking literally minutes after the floor opens and there are so many people in line that they’ve shut it down. Remember, we were supposed to be 600th or so on the floor that night. Lesson Three: Comic-Con teaches you to expect frustration.

We were at the SDCC from about 1:30 until 9 pm. After checking into the hotel, unloading the car and having dinner in Old Town, it was about midnight before we got to bed. And we were planning to get to Comic-Con at 6:00 the next morning to, what else, stand in line.

Day 1 – Thursday

There are many exhibitors with exclusives. Some, like comic books, are fairly easy to pick up, if not get gouged price-wise on. We were able to pick up pretty much everything we had our eyes on, which wasn’t too much, on Preview Night. Certain booths seem to generate lines and usually these are those geared towards toys and collectibles: Entertainment Earth, Mattel and Hasbro come to mind. In order to alleviate some of the chaos and frustration, some exhibitors have started doing pre-sales, so that like Mattel, you can order ahead and pick up at the show. Even Comic-Con itself, which has T-shirt merch, has taken to doing this. So, for the first time in seven attendances, I was actually able to get a t-shirt.

Inside the San Diego Convention Center.
But Hasbro, which offers perhaps the most items, is stuck in a crazy place and sucks the rest of us in with them. Every morning, Hasbro distributes tickets for admittance to the booth. These are time stamped so as to spread out the crush. But, like all things Comic-Con, you have to line up to get one of these coveted tickets. This means you have to arrive early to the Con to stand in line so you can get in to stand in line to get one of these tickets. The distribution time isn’t posted so it’s a best guess scenario all around. Well, six o’clock wasn’t early enough, which we found out after they let us in. At about seven, the Hasbro ticket line had been capped and closed. Nice way to start off the day both tired and frustrated and the doors don’t open yet for two and a half hours.

People who arrived before six am on Day one of Comic-Con.
Of course, our waiting time is nothing like those people who wait for Hall H. The line for that starts Tuesday with people sleeping out overnight for a couple of days. There are very few people I would be willing to spend a night or two in a sleeping bag to see. Those people are cray cray.

Facing towards the Exhibit Hall entrance. The backup to get in Day one.
And while we’re on the subject, I don’t cosplay, though my sons do. But overall, I didn’t see as much of that this year. Maybe it was there and I didn’t see it, but I was on the floor every day and I just didn’t see as many people dressing up for the Con. One requirement for cosplay is that the wearer be prepared to pose when asked for a photo. For the first time this year, I did see a cosplaying Wolverine ask for a tip after posing with someone’s child. The next day I noticed the same Wolverine posing with several cute girls; no request for a tip this time. (Hmm?!)

Someone cosplaying as Bumblebee.
This year we didn’t attend as many programs, as Comic-Con calls them, aka panels. I did attend three on Thursday all related to a project I’d been working on for a couple of years. My son, Paul, and I attended three about a project we’re working on, including one about moving from one side of the panel to the other, a pitch review and something called a Comic Creator Connection in which we pitched our idea to ten different artists supposedly looking for a writer. We met several we would be interested in working with, but we’ll have to wait to see how things progress.

Game of Thrones cosplayer.
The downside of the last program is that it ran from 7 to 9 at night, which made for a fairly long day. We didn’t get back to the hotel until after midnight and had to get ready for the next day. Since we’d brought things to sign, we had to repack the backpacks we were taking to the convention the next day. All said, it was after midnight again before we got to bed.

Day 2 – Friday

Today we got to Comic-Con at five AM and this time we were in time to line up for our Hasbro ticket. Having made it past the first security guard, the one who had stopped us the day before with the line capped, we felt certain that we were at least on time.

The people at the far left are lined up for Hall H. The line snakes around further back. They're cray cray.
If you’ve never been to the San Diego Convention Center, it sits on a hill next to the water. Our excitement faded as we made our way to the end of the line, past the Sails Pavilion, down to the Mezzanine level and we’re on the last stairway leading to the marina before we got in line.

Then we watched as other lines formed around us. Lines for Fox and Warner Bros. signings were set up and their tickets handed out. I’m not sure what the hang up on handing out tickets is, but Hasbro was the first line to set and the last to start moving. Ticket in hand, we joined the rest of our party in line, this time at the end of the first row to get in. And again, there must be some secret other line, since the floor was not deserted when we made it down.

These are the people behind us
to get tickets for the Hasbro booth.
Most of Friday was spent with looking around the floor and going to various signings. You do find out that there are several types of autograph sessions. There are the ones at publishers. The waiting for signatures can be up to thirty minutes, but usually you get several at once. There are some booth signings which are less organized and you can pretty much walk up and get the writer or artist to sign anytime they’re at their booth. This is especially true of Artist Alley, a section of the floor where various comic book artists and illustrators hold court at their table. They are usually happy to sign anything for free. Most of the people here are working artists, but they’ll still do sketches for a fee if you’d like. BTW, those really slow it down for everyone else.

Up in the Sails Pavilion there are also autograph signings. These can be groups, say the creator and voices for Gravity Falls. There are also limited signings, which means, yes you have to wait in line to get a ticket and then wait in line for the autograph. Warner Bros. and Fox do this as well, but their signings are at their giant booths on the exhibit floor.

And there are the individual signings. These come in two flavors as well. There are the free signatures, who, depending how long the line is, will sign whatever you bring them. These are usually the artists and writers of comic books, like John Romita Jr., J. Michael Straczynski and Adam Hughes.

One of the cool things is meeting people whose work you appreciate. Rikki Simons
 the voice of GIR from Invader Zim. With Paul (L) and Trevor (R).
Then there are the individuals who charge for signing and for posing with fans. These are usually, but not exclusively, has-beens like Cindy Morgan, of Tron and Caddyshack fame, who I must imagine travels the comic book convention circuit shilling for $35 autographs. Some charge for signing photographs they provide, while others will still sign anything you bring for free, though I think these are in the minority. I hate to say it, but there is a price point where it is not worth it. So when I see someone like John Ratzenberger wanting $40 to sign something, I have to get out of line.

Kevin Eastman of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fame.
Even if you’re paying them, you don’t always get their attention for even the few seconds you’re standing in front of them. (I mean you, Bruce Boxlietner from last year’s Comic-Con. Not only did he not speak to my sons, but he used a bad sharpie on the cover of the original Tron DVD slip, so his signature is fat and almost not recognizable. If you’re going to charge money for something at least pay attention to what you’re doing, Bruce.)

John Romita, Jr. comic book artist. 
A secret I learned this time is that if you want an autograph, all artists in this section are obligated to sign the official souvenir guide that everyone in attendance receives. Not quite as memorable as having that DVD slip signed, but it is an economical way of gathering autographs. As much time as I’m spending on this, doesn’t mean I’m really into collecting autographs personally, but I did spend a lot of time with those who are.

Dispicable Me 2 blimp flying outside over the Convention Center.
On Friday, we also did the Adventure Time Quest, which was a fun idea. Last year they had done something similar where you had a map, I believe, that you had to get stamped at something like six booths around the floor and you received a medal when you completed it. A real metal medal with ribbon to hang around your neck. This year Cartoon Network decided to high tech it, and the quest was more about sending and receiving about 39 text messages and going from booth to booth to look for the message you were supposed to text back. At the end of the quest, you’d get a text message that you could go to pick up your medal at Shifty Look Freeplay Arcade out on K Street. The downside is that telephone reception is a sometimes thing inside the convention center.

Instead, Paul found a list of the booths participating online the night before and he and Trevor went around to them all and wrote down the clues to text. We sat outside at lunch and ran through the quest together in about fifteen minutes. You had to show the text at Shifty Look, answer a few questions and then get your medal. Still metal. Still cool.

We did manage to get into the Hasbro line and even earlier than the after 2 on our ticket. You wonder what all the fuss is about with times then. And when it’s really slow they’ll let anyone in (which they would do on Sunday.) Get your act together, Hasbro.

After the floor closed down, we headed over to an Animation Domination party off site thrown by Fox. The feature attraction was an exclusive preview of an Axe Cop episode and there was also one for High School USA!, both of which are to be fixtures on Fox’s Saturday late night animation block. Fox hired out locally to provide free popcorn and pizza and they also provided free drinks. However, the execution left something to be desired. 

Fox had a big balloon for the Axe Cop preview.

First come was not first served. They started serving the first row and worked their way back. And while everyone got something to eat, they did run out of the popcorn and they had to substitute ice-cold sodas for room temperature water. But free is free and the pizza slice was good (who doesn’t like free pizza?).

The animation block, which based on the interstitials, seems to be aimed at people who are either high or getting there. Axe Cop, which is based on a webcomic of the same name, was originally the work of siblings, Ethan Nicolle, the artist and his way younger brother Malachai, who dreamed up the story at the age of 5. The TV show, while an adaptation of the webcomic, does seem to stay true to the original idea. The plot moves along the way the mind of a child works.

High School USA! does not have that same excuse. A take-off on the Archies, complete with the gang being in a band together (thank God they don’t sing “Sugar, Sugar”) seems to have been written by an adult with a child’s brain. These aren’t any high school students I’ve ever known or would want to.

After the showing, we went back to Old Town for dinner. Ironically, the restaurant gives you a photo of yourself eating there, sort of like they used to do at nightclubs in the 40’s and 50’s, but this is more of a reminder not to eat there again, than a keepsake about our wonderful meal.

Getting to sleep after midnight, but without the early morning curtain call hanging over our heads.

Day 3 - Saturday

Strolled into Comic-Con at 9:00 and I mean that literally. No lines to stand in, just walked in at street level through the front door.

Like Adventure Time, My Little Pony was pretty much everywhere.
Went to the only panel we were really interested in, Gravity Falls, which started at 10 am. Now the well-known secret is that panels about popular shows fill up fast. You can’t walk up at ten minutes to ten and get in. You have to either attend the panel beforehand or get there early to stand in line. (If you like to think about standing in line as the gift of time, then Comic-con gives you that gift in abundance.) Some of these rooms hold about 500 people and many who attended the previous panel, Urban Fantasy, stayed over to see Gravity Falls.

The good thing about doing that is that you can be exposed to new things, which so far has been very interesting. Last year, we were exposed to Steampunk author Gail Carriger as an example. This year, while we missed out on Urban Fantasy, we were in time to see the Gravity Falls panel and to receive the gift of Dipper caps, which if you’ve seen the show was pretty cool. We first became aware of Gravity Falls last year at another panel. The show had only been on the air for a couple of episodes then and there were already cosplayers. Freebies at panels is not the usual, though the big ones at Hall H are more likely to give away merch, which unfortunately has to be picked up at the hotel next door.

We spent a good deal of the day walking the floor and getting autographs. Walking around is one of the cool things to do, but at the same time the most tiring. Your feet will start to burn by the end of the day and we all found our toes ached. That we put down to all of the sudden starts and stops and maneuvering around people you have to do. Walking the exhibit floor is a little like being in a slow moving cattle stampede. People will suddenly stop to take a photo of a cosplayer or an interesting booth. And there are people pushing strollers, etc. And the ever-present security doesn’t want you to stop moving either.

Debi Derryberry, the voice of Jimmy Neutron.
Looking around you see that there are items being given away for free and there are items there selling for over a quarter of a million dollars, so there is something for everyone no matter how much you’re carrying. Freebies are one way exhibitors, which represent small and large presses, channels, etc., have to build loyalty and goodwill. And we’re talking freebie usually being a free bag or a free button. But some, like BBC America and Penguin get to be overly stingy with their items. You have to either jump through hoops or be at a certain spot at a certain time. While we were waiting in line to buy a t-shirt at BBC America, we asked about buttons we’d heard they were giving away. And the man we asked went to retrieve a bag of said buttons, who promptly gave it another member of the booth who disappeared into the crowd with it. I’m glad we thought to ask.

Mairghread Scott, writer on Transformers
 comics and Prime TV show.
While I like free stuff as much as the next guy, I’m not going to beg for it or wait in a long line for it either. It’s not like they’re giving away things of real value. A tote bag with Shout Factory’s name on it is nice, but it’ll probably end up in my trunk waiting to be used. But I left their booth feeling good about Shout Factory, at least for the rest of the Con.

Paul playing Ryse: Son of Rome on an Xbox One.
More signings and more walking around. We did attend an off-site, as in down at the docks at the back of the Convention Center thrown by Shonen Jump. For the past couple of years, the magazine has been giving away snacks. Last year it was ice cream novelties, this year it was energy drinks and soft drinks in cans and bottles labeled for characters featured in the online magazine. There was an additional and way longer line for t-shirts made onsite. While this is a nice gesture and all, these sort of lines are a huge time suck. And the t-shirts, these were to be silk screened, are usually done by people being trained on the job. They take a long time and based on the one I got years ago from Paramount, not always done very well. Again, what do you expect for nothing? But I’ve learned not to wait in line for them.

We left fifteen early at 6:45. The idea was to beat the crowd, which is an impossibility at Comic-Con. You can never beat the crowds. Instead of waiting 30 minutes for a table at the Old Spaghetti Factory it took 45 to an hour. Since LA no longer has an OSF, we try to hit the one in San Diego twice. The food is good, the service is good and the prices are reasonable.

San Diego's Gaslamp District gets a Comic-Con makeover.
After that we walked back to the Axe Cop site where all that was left was the free pizza being handed out of a truck to anyone who wanted it. Fox did this twice a day for four hours each time as part of the Animation Domination promotion. Following that we headed back to the Con, first to the hospitality lounge and then to Anime. While I guess the hospitality lounge has been around since the beginning we had never looked for it before. Mostly, we were curious what it is. After the convention closes, this room opens and stays open until two in the morning. There are plenty of tables and some food, though you wouldn’t get a real meal there. They had vegetables and dip, chips and salsa, M&Ms and sodas. You could definitely use the place for a meet up.

Downside is that it is off site in the Marriott next door, as are gaming lounges, merch pickup, the fulfillment rooms (remember the freebies from Hall H) and Anime. Three rooms with Anime in fact. 

While I look forward to it every year, I am sometimes so beat that I can’t really focus in on what we’re watching, which was sadly the case this year. Dead tired and the car is about a mile or so away and then there is the drive back to our hotel in Old Town. No rest for the weary.

Day 4 – Sunday

The realization that the Con is almost over is both thrilling and sad. The last day is a short one, over by 5, but with LA two to three hours away by car, you don’t want to wait too long to leave.

A fairly light day for us. We got the last of the autographs we were seeking, did a little bargain shopping, even went back to the Hasbro booth that was nearly out of everything. Met a new writer whose book I bought. Strange guy, even though we were standing in front of him, he insisted on using handwritten signs to communicate his spiel. We’ll see how the book reads, I guess.

When shopping at Comic-Con be aware that some of the stores sort of gouge you, especially the comic book stores. I think they’re praying on people who are interested in collecting old comics but don’t know much about them. Some of them will set prices at twice the going rate. They must think you’re cosplaying as a sucker.

The same is true with DVDs and Blu-rays. If you can check online prices before you buy something, then do that first. You might actually get a deal, but who knows if the price the exhibitor is rattling off is a good buy or not.

Even the tetriminos have a ready pose.
Tired of bringing in lunch, which we have every day so far, we went out into the wilds of San Diego looking for something to eat. And once again, Fox came through with their Animation Domination pizza giveaway; a hot, free lunch and not a day old Subway sandwich which we’d been eating for cost and convenience.

We left about three, walked back to the car and started to make plans for the next time.

Who doesn't like free Pizza?

Lessons Learned:

Besides the three I’ve already mentioned:

Lesson One: Comic-Con teaches that you can never be too early.

Lesson Two: Comic-Con teaches you to be flexible.

Lesson Three: Comic-Con teaches you to expect frustration.

Let’s add:

Lesson Four: Comic-Con teaches you can’t do everything you want to do. There is no way. There is literally too much to see and do and panels conflict with each other and signings, etc. We went in with a long list of things we wanted to do and we got to less than half.

Lesson Five: Comic-Con teaches you to trust and verify. If you can check online pricing before making a capricious purchase, do so. The downside is the wifi connection was sort of iffy for us, but if you can check out prices for the item elsewhere. Exhibitors tend to inflate prices to airport levels.

Shop with care. Prices are higher here.
Tips and Hints:

Plan ahead. You sort of have to anyway. But it helps to know what you want to do, where you’re going to stay, where you’re going to park, what you’re going to eat, etc. every day you’re at the Convention.

Use Coat Check if you have bulky items or sleeping bags. It’s cheap, two dollars an item, and you’d be surprised how much you can stuff into a bag. I saw a lot of people carrying huge items around the floor which is really no fun.

Go off site. There are a lot of events nearby that you might find fun, so don’t limit yourself to the panel rooms, exhibit floor and Sails Pavilion.

There was an interactive park nearby Comic-Con.
We parked in the garage behind the display.

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