Tod Goldberg on zombies and star encounters at Comic-Con
It’s been about 20 years since I last attended a “con” of any kind not directly related to books. That last con was for the late, great Starlog Magazine. It was held at the Anaheim Convention Center and was filled with entire families wearing "V" costumes, Spock ears and Buckaroo Banzai headbands. The other notable aspect was that I caught chicken pox at the con and thus am, literally, scarred from the experience. Subsequently, I’ve gone to book cons like BookExpo and Bouchercon and Left Coast Crime, and the combined effect is that generally I go home with a lot of free books, a murder of bookmarks and a true sense of how desperate self-published authors are — but nothing of real sociological value.
Attending my first Comic-Con, however, has proven to be a most fascinating affair. You see, there’s a lot you can learn about the world by watching everything from the 13-year-old boys taking provocative photos with scantily clad vixens covered in open wounds, dried blood and dramatic gore (or, alternately, blood and spandex clothing so tight you can actually see the spleen at work) to the clear distinction between the expensive (and explosively loud) Hollywood displays of star power promoting films and television shows and the rather staid and relaxed portion of the floor devoted to actual, you know, comics.
Though maybe the most prevalent initial issue with Comic-Con is how long it actually takes one to get into the San Diego Convention Center. I arrived at 8:00 a.m. and spent the next hour in a mass of people that reminded me more of the Jewish diaspora than just your average queue, provided the diaspora featured thousands of Harry Potters and Slut Aliens (this is not a real character, just a personal fashion choice) and men unironically wearing porkpie hats. The line stretched around the block, through the marina, across the Hoth planet, over Tatooine and then dead-ended next to a spot that smelled a lot like urine. Lovely.
Everyone stayed in a nice mood up until the convention center was actually in sight and then the people in front of us began complaining about all the “new people ruining it." They had badges from the last three years around their necks, which to me is a little like wearing the old tour shirt of the band you’re seeing in concert, and couldn’t have been more than 19, or at least old enough to buy clove cigarettes apparently without issue. There was some shouting, some decrying, some cursing (actual cursing -- one of the Potters had her wand out and was shaking it at the red-shirted security staff) but eventually everyone got in and all problems were solved.
The convention hall was filled end-to-end with fans, and also with huge displays for properties large and small. Everyone seemed to head directly for the enormous "District 9" display or the crushingly loud booth for "Twilight," both of which featured some of the most beautiful men and women ever extolling the properties while handing out free stuff. "Stuff" is actually pretty descriptive here since it’s not anything you’d actually keep, but which seems oddly important while you’re on the convention floor. A pink Styrofoam hammer for a movie called "Red Velvet." A shot-sized bottle of an energy drink called Gamer in honor of the upcoming movie of the same name. 800 posters for movies you will never see (I don’t see my wife and I heading off to see the horror movie "Sorority Row," but I have five posters for sale on EBay now). And if you were willing to wait in line for an hour, free and exceptionally cheap T-shirts were in the offering at several booths too. Plenty of people, it turns out, had time on their hands as lines for free tees stretched for yards and yards. Likewise, if you wanted to get one of the coveted spots for top-shelf panels, like the 1:45 panel "The Twilight Saga: 'New Moon," you had to get in line as soon as the doors opened in the morning, though something tells me the 5:30 p.m. panel "Graphic Novels in Libraries" was available for open seating.
Costumed people were certainly the norm, though I was hoping to see more actual comic-inspired people -- a Funky Winkerbean would have been nice, maybe Beetle Bailey or those darling Family Circus scamps too -- but it seemed as though the prevailing costumes were mostly from movies and pop culture with the occasional handsome sprinkling of manga. There were plenty of Potter people, a great sum of Star Wars folks and a tremendous number of vampires and zombies. It was the zombie issue that brought forth the sociologist in me. Countless women covered in knife wounds and in advanced stages of decomposition happily posed with men (and boys ... lots and lots of boys). The booth for "The Blood Factory" -- Danny DeVito’s home of short splatter films ... which is to say, films with lots of sex and lots of knife wounds, often concurrently -- featured two smiling and bloodied hotties wielding chainsaws who posed and vamped for children of all ages. The sexualization of violence was not something I was prepared for even knowing well how undead vampires have become romance heroes in print and film. Sex was certainly in play without violence too -- apparently selling any kind of video game is easier if there’s a vacant-eyed woman wearing a Wonder Woman costume in the booth -- and in a way it’s nothing new for these kinds of gatherings since even Renaissance fairs use women as objects, but usually those women aren’t covered in open wounds. I’m no prude per se, but it was nonetheless odd to see young boys getting their cheeks pecked by buxom undead women. Maybe not as odd as the gentleman dressed like Bob’s Big Boy, burger and all, but odd no less.
One place where it appeared art was being sold just as art was the east end of the hall where the actual comics were being sold. It was also far more quiet, missing the shock and awe of the major studio promotional machines in favor of people holding up signs noting the deals being made on different comics. People quietly browsed, bartered and talked about their finds and overheard conversations were less about star sightings (plenty of actors and writers and such milled freely in the crowd -- I literally bumped into half of the cast of Dexter during the day) and more about the thousands of comics and graphic novels for sale throughout. It was also great fun to see graphic artists creating work right where they sat to the considerable delight of the fans.
My own considerable delight came toward the end of the day when I bumped into Michael Hogan, who played Col. Tigh on "Battlestar Galactica." I try not to get overly excited about actors since they are just people with jobs, just like the rest of us, but, you see, "Battlestar Galactica," uh, well, you see, I think, you know ... well, here was the conversation:
Me: Oh, uh, Col. T...
Michael Hogan: Hi, how are you?
Me: It’s a real, uh, god, you know, I just think...
Michael Hogan: What’s your name?
Michael Hogan: [Smiling, possibly pondering getting security]
Me: I’m Tod.
Michael Hogan: Michael Hogan. [He extends his hand; I shake it. I hold on for too long. I’m touching Tigh!]
Me: Uh, yeah, I just, really, uh, the show, it’s a pleasure and, uh, just, thanks.
Michael Hogan: You’re welcome. I appreciate it.
Me: Yeah, I just, uh, I really loved, uh...
Michael: Take care!
Me: You, too. You, too!
It was a moment of unmitigated fanboyness on my part and it reminded me of what made me love sci-fi and fantasy when I was 13 -- it’s an incredibly inclusive genre where intense fandom is totally accepted and geekiness is considered at least contextually cool. That Comic Con itself has grown far beyond its original concept and seems more like a louder, weirder ShoWest now can be traced to the mainstream success of properties like "X-Men," "Iron Man," "Batman" and, to a lesser extent, "Hellboy" which have turned what were once the provenance of boys in their basements to the general public as a whole. That the result is hundreds of thousands of people appreciating art in all its various forms in an outdated convention center in San Diego is truly an inspiring thing ... though, so was eating lunch next to a guy dressed as a deranged Easter Bunny.
-- Tod Goldberg
Photo: Fans dressed as Manga characters at 2009's Comic-Con. Credit: Denis Poroy / Associated Press