“Thank you for attending Comic Con International 2009,” the voice booms over the speaker Sunday, at 5:00 PM sharp. “We’ll see you next year.” There are cheers on the floor, and for moment, as I’m halfway through my last interview of the weekend, I’m confronted with a strange feeling accompanying the customary relief that rolls in at the close of the seemingly endless four day gauntlet–for a moment, I wish it weren’t over.
Such a feeling is fleeting, of course, and after the floor has largely cleared out, save for a few overzealous stragglers, and one has gone through to a few key booths to wish some final farewells to those brothers and sisters in arms who won’t be joining you on the flight home, the adrenaline rush is tapped and every extremity sends signals to the brain confirming that, though it was fun while it lasted, it’s going to take the better part of the next 360 days to fully recover from the experience.
But that tendency toward regret, it seems, isn’t entirely off-base. It’s a momentary acknowledgement that, while the last four days have been amongst the longest of the year, running from booth to booth and hotel to hotel, there weren’t enough hours in any of said days to tackle half of those events one might have, given an open-ended schedule and clearer walkways.
My own scheduling is at least somewhat to blame for this reaction, of course. I flew in on Thursday, got it at one in the afternoon, taking a cab out to the section of the San Diego known as Old Town, a tiny and ancient city on a hill, marked by plaque on a mostly torn down wall at its entrance reading, “The Birthplace of California,” just adjacent to a Shell Station, one of the few structures in district that stubbornly refuses to embrace the tourist-friendly draw of 19th century architecture–heck, even the Arco directly across the street is housed in an a faux adobe structure. Down at the end of my hotel’s block is the Whaley House, Southern California’s first brick structure, according to a plaque on the outside. It’s also apparently haunted, according to a friend who took a field trip to the house in the fourth grade.
In the great hotel land rush, I booked an hour and a half late, and wound up in an this area, cozy and quaint and nice, with five authentic Mexican restaurants on every block, a fact that wafts back in ever time you open the door to your hotel room and let the smell of fresh back tortillas waft in from down the hill–but the whole thing is a $15 cab ride away from the sprawling monument to late 20th century architecture that is the San Diego Convention Center. And at roughly four rides a day, I quickly become an expert at the art of cabby banter, discussing the 100,000 or maybe 125,000 people attending the show each day, and the impact such a deluge of out-of-towners has on the local economy, and how maybe the show won’t be back next year because it’s going to LA or Long Beach or maybe Las Vegas, and how the Convention Center is looking to expand its square footage, in order to keep Comic Con in San Diego.
It’s hard to overstate the con’s impact on the city, and while, for many people, it’s easy enough to avoid the throngs of costumed convention goers who, during daylight hours tend to confine themselves to a ten square block radius bordered on one-side by the Padre’s Petco. Park and on another by the city’s gorgeous harbor, for one week the seemingly ever-enlarging pop-cultural event truly does infiltrate nearly every aspect of San Diegan life–at least those visible to an outside, from the banners on nearly every street pole in city, to welcome signs in nearly every store and restaurant, to the constant overblown happenings on every street corner, to the endless stream of coverage on the local news.
Clearly the local stations have struck some manner of deal with convention organizers, scoring some rather impressive media access, and while many locals no doubt have their fill of the whole spectacle after even a few hours, there’s surely some value in the opportunity to catch a glimpse (however sensationalistic it may be) into those activities unfolding on the other side of the convention center walls. It’s an odd phenomenon in certain respects–as San Diego further embraces the convention, the convention pulls away from the locals. Before an interview, I casually asked Jordan Crane how business had been thus far, in front of a backdrop of stunning screenprints by himself, Johnny Ryan, Jaime Hernandez, and a slew of others.
Not great. There hadn’t been many walk-ins off the street. Passes to the show had sold out so early as to discourage casually curious San Diegans from popping in for an afternoon. That means that the bulk of those who did roam the halls were hardcore fans of some form or another. They knew what they wanted from such a show, and, more often that not, their list didn’t include a handed-printed posted of a Johnny Ryan pig orgy, leaving the ranks of attendees who were truly willing to discover some new art to be fewer and further between than past years. A crowd saturated by fanboys and -girls also has little interest in waiting in line at the Fantagraphics booth for Hernandez and his two brothers all appearing simulatenously for a signing.
I arrived in San Diego a couple of hours ahead of the Best Western’s 3:00 PM check-in, so, unshowered and disconnected, I head to the Convention Center–in all, a rather appropriate bit of foreshadowing for the weekend to come. By early Thursday afternoon, the lunatics already have full control over the assignment, and upon entering through the door of the Convention Center, Laura Hudson is huddled on the floor clutching a bottle of water and a laptop, banging out some deadlined piece. Flights were cancelled, things got crazy. Welcome to San Diego.
I get my badge and we head to the press room, bumping, thankfully, into Douglas Wolk along the way, who points us in the right direction around the second floor labyrinth to an unmarked room. Inside there are big editing machines and we arrive just in time for a closed circuit stream of the Twilight panel, a surreal experience of sorts–one I’m glad I was able to watch from the safety of the second floor. Star struck fans walk up to microphones in character to ask the cast questions. One woman sings out her question, Aretha Franklin-style.
“What was it like to do that scene without a shirt?” one attendee who can’t be more than 15 asks a male cast member.
“It was cold,” he answers, as screams erupt from the audience.
I run into Heidi MacDonald upstairs, on my way to my first appointment of the show. She was there at the press preview the night before. “They lined up all night,” she tells me. Two miles of teen- and tweenage vampire fans braved the San Diego night, battling rats and cockroaches for a chance to make it into what, much to the chagrin of many a vocal fan boy, would prove the most popular panel of the show.
I have to get to press room 1B for an interview. It’s a big room bisected by velvet curtains where famous attendees are grilled by members of the press shortly before going onstage for a panel. Behind the curtains, an 86-year-old Stan Lee is hunched over a round table. At first glance, Lee seems slight, not surprising, at his age, especially in light this industry’s tendency to beat down many of its most-beloved creators. When it comes time to shake hands and speak, however, Lee lights up like the billboards around Times Square. Over the past five or six decades, Lee has learned to talk up projects with the hyperbolic enthusiasm of some mid-century superhero serial narrator.
He’s genuinely funny and warm during our interview, and while he doesn’t seem to precisely grasp the intricacies of the Disney “electronic comic book” he helped to produced, he speaks of the project with a downright viral sense of enthusiasm. I ask him he reads comics and he answers, “no.” He just can’t find the time these days. He pulls out his cell phone. Says that one day he’ll learn how to send messages on the thing. Oh, and he bought himself an iPhone, too, but he doesn’t know how to use it. It’s perfect material for the PCMag name on my badge, which paid for me to come out to this coast. Before he’s finished talking about the alien gadget, I’ve got my headline “Stan Lee Has an iPhone.”
We say “thanks” and he tells us he’ll see us later, and one reporter present hands him the copy of Giant Size X-Men #1 which has been sitting directly in front of him for the duration of the interview, asking the legendary writer to sign it, a request to which Lee happily complies. Then we’re shuffled to the other side of the dividing wall, where Species star Natasha Henstridge is sitting in a reflective top being interview by a TV crew about Lee‘s project for which she proved a voice, and as we begin to speak to the artist and writer of the book, we’re told that she won’t get around to us. It’s the first of several moments that week when it becomes painfully clear just how important it is to have an expensive looking camera rig with you, if you want media relations to take you seriously.
I snap a quick shot of the actress, after someone tells me to “be quick,” and then it’s time to step foot on the showroom floor for the first time.
It’s a short rather trip, all said. The XD card for my D-SLR is still packed in my suitcase sitting in the luggage room of my hotel lobby. I’m tired, it’s past check-in, I’ve got a slew of Stan Lee quotes, and it just doesn’t make sense to venture to far into the eye of the storm with my cheap little point-and-shoot. Twenty minutes is plenty of time to experience the pulsating intensity inside, and tomorrow I will be up to my eye in it.
It’s back to the hotel to check in and shower and eat and file my first news stories of the show. In a couple of hours, it’s time to head over to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund party on the roof of the Westgate Hotel, with a clear shot of downtown San Diego on a characteristically clear Southern California night. There’s a drawing table toward the entrance and a shallow pool, running lengthwise down the center of the deck. On either side of the balcony, tuxedoed man serve slightly overpriced alcoholic spirits.
Having missed preview night for work-related reasons, it’s my first chance to see a number of those who’ve flown into the city for the extended weekend. Charles Brownstein from the CBLDF is there, of course, along with. Jeff Newelt, who can’t stop talking about Harvey Pekar; Joe Keatinge from Image; Chris and Brett and Leigh from Top Shelf; Kiel Phegley; Jacq Cohen from Dark Horse, a ball of pure energy sporting a Rubik’s Cube handbag, which, after a few drinks on Sunday, I hassle her for not having solved. A parade of artists pops by as well, of course, splitting their time between socializing and the aforemention “Live Art Jam” by the entrance. Larry Marder, Jeffery Brown, Molly Crabapple, and John Leavitt all do their time with a pile of papers and a black Sharpie. Everyone discusses their plans for the week with a mixture of excitement and dread.
Ben McCool shows up later nervous about the following day’s announcement of Choker, a new series with Australian phenom, Ben Templesmith. He’s so nervous, in fact, that he plans to call it a night before midnight, much to the surprise of all those within earshot. After the slightest among of prodding, however, the Bens, Comic Book Insider’s Jimmy Aquino, and myself hop in a cab bound for the Hyatt.
Beyond pure geographical proximity to the Convention Center, why that hotel has become something of a default destination for certain parties is something of a mystery to me. The lobby’s high ceiling and marble floors are a few slot machine short of passing for a Vegas hotel, or perhaps a city museum, without any of the expensive artifacts. They echo and squeak with the sound of shoes as guest spill out onto them from the narrow bar area.
I tell myself that tonight is the night I go to bed early. I’m tired, I’m jet lagged, I’m three hours ahead. I have yet to really dive into the showroom floor. I got roughly two hours of sleep the night before, waking and worrying about flight schedules, hotel rooms, and airport traffic. And Friday is an early morning. A comic book interview with Fox News of all people—the ideological antithesis of interview I’d done for NPR the day prior to heading out to the show, an interview, which, as it turned out would be bumped tomorrow morning in favor of California budget news. The Cross Hatch, it seems, will have to find another way to break in with the New Yorker crowd.
My plan to arrive at the show close to the 9:30 floor opening the next is foiled by a faulty XD card, which took its own life halfway through the prior night’s rooftop party. My cabbie—who has a son living in New York, studying musical theater—drops me off at a shopping center a few blocks away from the Convention Center, where I wait with a group of three others outside a Ritz Camera. We all flood in as the manager flips around the “Open” sign at 9:57. Two young men are asleep on park benches outside the store with badges around their necks. It’s hard to tell whether they spent the night there. Maybe they were Twilight fans who lost their way. I wait in a small line to buy my card.
It’s a weekend of lines—for everything. Soon enough it just becomes a fact of life—like Disneyland, only everything is a ride. On the second floor of the Convention Center, they’ve hired volunteers to stop the flow of hallway traffic, like crossing guards, as they herd antsy convention-goers into cavernous meeting halls. The sidewalks outside the building are a constant flood of people, slowly shuffling to their destinations. Moving between any two points requires a fairly lengthy headstart—you never know when there’s going to be a giveaway at the Twilight booth.
I hit a few key booths that morning, glad handing old friends and confirming interview times—and asking where the hell the Paramount booth is. No one seems to know. I’m supposed to meet a Fox and Friends co-host there for an 11:00 interview. The booth, it turns out, is on the opposite side of the floor—it’s surrounded by other major studios and seems fairly small by comparison, though a long line of fans is already wrapped around its circumference, waiting to take a picture on a mock up of an Enterprise captain’s chair, surrounded by attractive young women in Star Trek uniforms, bare skin covered in a thin layer of shiny green paint.
It’s directly in front of the chair that I wait, through the arrival of some tardy crew members and a slew of technical difficulties that bump my appearance down to five minutes. A parade of happy mutants smile for the camera, and directly behind me, on the wrong side of a velvet rope, a couple with movie-grade Batman and Catwoman costumes happily pose through countless photo ops. Throughout the hour, the woman maintains a rather strong commitment to her character, doing everything but sinking her claws into a kink in Batman’s armor. “The Joker must not be feeding you well,” she’s says with a vaguely European accent to a young girl dressed as Harley Quinn. “You’re so small.”
The minute the cameras finally begin to roll, I summon a small pocket of energy and wax about the commercialization of the show, blah, blah, blah. “It really shouldn’t be called Comic Con anymore,” I tell the host, fairly certain that I also used that line on NPR, and pretty sure that no one will notice. I blank on a question about James Cameron’s Avatar, make some blue joke about leaving the booth covered in green body paint, and like that it’s over and I’m finally free to take a touch more time on the floor and task myself with the unenviable job of scheduling several last minute interviews with several publishers.
Also on the to-do list is the task of combing the show for tech angles. My dayjob, after all, has paid my way, so all Cross Hatch coverage, sadly, will have to take a backseat. Marvel and DC both have a formidable gaming presence—that will do nicley, at least until Capcom comes out with a Love & Rockets fighting game. Gear creator Doug TenNapel sitting in his own booth adjacent to Fantagraphics and Top Shelf also affords an opportunity to talk video games, happy to discuss the genesis of Earthworm Jim and his subsequent entanglements with that industry. “They’ll have to come to me,” TenNapel tells me.
A conversation with the art director of Behemoth Games offers some insight into one of the few American companies still doing aggressively creative work in the field, with games like Castle Crashers, which employs a combination of Kid Robot-styled characters and genuinely engaging gameplay. A trip to the Dark Horse in hopes of reaching Stan Sakai before he runs off yields an impromptu conversation with Mass Effect 2’s lead writer, talking up a comic book adaptation, and, like TenNapel, attempting to convince me that, in certain respects, making video games and making comics aren’t all that different. On Saturday my game talk requirements are happily met by interviews with Jim Lee and Marv Wolfman who discuss DC Universe Online. The term “MMO” is tossed around a lot by both industry veterans.
As I emerge from the Dark Horse press area alongside Gerard Way (accidentally, mind you, but don’t tell all of the big-eyed female fans in the vicinity), Brian Talbot is signing various selections from his own diverse portfolio. The Alice in Sunderland creator happily agrees to an interview for the Cross Hatch. We discuss, among other things, the forthcoming Tim Burton Lewis Carroll adaptation. Talbot seems cautiously excited and largely optimistic from a visual standpoint.
In front of the First-Second booth, I am finally introduced to Tom Spurgeon, an imposing presence even on the Comic Con floor. We discuss coverage plans for the show, and I reveal my true con passion—taking pictures of costume characters doing normal, every day activities. “I’ve got a great shot of Rorschach talking on his cell phone,” I say. He has to run to a panel he’s moderating featuring Lewis Trondheim, Bryan Lee O’Malley, Seth, Gene Yang , Jason Lutes, and Derek Kirk Kim. You win again, Spurge.
My first off-site interview is scheduled for the nearby Marriott, another maze of the hotel, where I wait for members of the Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters to show, in order to discuss the sorts of things PCMag fans like to read. When they arrive, jetlagged, most the discussion keeps circling back to Jamie Hyneman’s frequent assertion that, though there’s no acting involved, the success of the show is based around their own characters. He does not smile or take off his beret for the duration. Adam Savage, on the other hand, decked out in a Donnie Darko t-shirt, excitedly moves to the end of the couch in his hotel suite when I turn the conversation toward comics.
Friday afternoon, it’s back to 1B for a follow up on my three minute interview with The Mighty Boosh. This time around the full cast of the brilliant BBC series yields a litany of consistently hilarious insight into fandom, comics, and the US (“everyone here is like [sole American cast member and resident loudmouth Rich Fulcher,” quips Noel Fielding”]. Also, much to the delight of those members of the press sitting around the table, there is dancing.
Full disclosure: I skipped the Eisners. I have never been, but I have heard horror stories—nothing but them, in fact. Besides, I have several stories to file, and can’t really spend the next three hours sitting through the award for best lettering (congrats, by the way, Chris Ware). Banging out stories in my hotel room, I read the sporadic updates via Twitter, completely regretting my decision when Whitney Mattheson and Heidi MacDonald reveal Nate’s Powell’s award for Best Graphic Album and the subsequently adorable freakout by Powell’s mother. You can paint quite the picture in 140 characters, fortunately, and this story about Star Trek cologne isn’t going to write itself.
Figuring I’m on a roll, I skip out on the post Eisner festivities, holing up in an Old Town Tequila bar with a friend native to the city—it was that or the Old Town Saloon down the street with is blaring the Notorious BIG into the night. The east coast/west coast rap war has been peacefully ended by a bunch of overly tan backwards baseball capped San Diegans. It’s tonight, also that the Whaley House is haunted, a fact driven home by the light that has been left on by someone in a second floor window. The next day I ask a couple standing on the house’s porch in Victorian dress why it hadn’t be shut off. “We leave it on for the children,” the woman answers. “They’re afraid of the dark.”
Much of Saturday is devoted to waiting. Waiting for interviews, waiting in line. I get plenty of time to explore the floor and collect stories for my dayjob. I also spend five of the weekend’s most surreal moments with Leonard Nimoy. What begins as a casual conversation about his attendance of cons devolves fairly quickly into the actor screaming for security. “Somebody call the police,” he shouts, with a half-smile. The moral of the story here is simple. Don’t ever tell an old Vulcan that you work for PC Magazine.
That afternoon is the complete antithesis of Saturday morning’s relative leisure, with four interviews scheduled in a two-hour period. First its Lee/Wolfman, then the cast of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, followed by Seth, and then Lewis Trondheim. The first two are set for hotels on complete opposite sides of the Convention Center. Arriving at the first, I’m told that Lee is late, so I run sweatily to meet the Always Sunny cast—and interview that gets repeatedly pushed back as armies of camera crews arrive and get pushed to the end of the line.
For their part, the castmembers are incredibly friendly. Asked what kind of comics he likes, Rob McElhenney manages to squeeze the name Spider-man a dozen times into the same sentence.
I meet Seth at the Drawn & Quarterly booth and for lack of a more secluded spot, we settle on a flight of stairs in front of the Convention Center. The Canadian artist, clad as always, in a three piece suit, doesn’t flinch about having a seat on the concrete steps. I’m genuinely surprised when he tells me that he wouldn’t mind seeing a cinematic adaptation of any of his films, Wimbledon Green being the obvious front-runner.
We shake hands and its off to meet Trondheim at the Fantagraphics booth. “He’s already gone,” Eric Reynolds breaks the news. The French artist, it seems, couldn’t get out of there quickly enough. When, during his signing, someone asked Trondheim if he was enjoying the show, he answered, simply, “no,” without a smile. No one can tell when Lewis Trondheim is kidding. When I first met him earlier in the day at the First-Second booth, a fan mentioned casually that her favorite character from the Joann Sfar collaboration Dungeon was Marvin the Dragon. She loved the way he burped fire. Trondheim quickly pulled out a disposable lighter from his pocket and proceeded to torch the title page of the book he had just signed. Again, not even the slightest hint of a smile.
Saturday evening saw another CBLDF-sponsered party, this time at a club downtown called Onyx, which, for the record, is everything its name implies. For one night, however, the place was overrun with comics nerds, many there to watch the live art show by Jim Mahfood and a DJ set by Paul Pope. What most seemed to miss was a club beneath the club with an entirely differently live DJ show. Standing toward the back of the latter, Top Shelf’s Brett Warnock tapped my on the shoulder, and said casually, “dude, you’ve got to see this.” What I assumed was a blow-fueled orgy actually turned out to be yet another hidden club, this one with a live hip-hop band, no nerds (save for us two, of course) in sight. I closed out the bar with help from Jeff Newelt and Warnock’s Top Shelf co-founder Chris Staros.
Sunday morning began with a trip off-site to an exhibit for Tim Burton’s Alice, complete with remade sets and original props like Johnny Depp’s 10/6 mad top hat setup up in a warehouse across from Petco. Park. The morning also saw an odd (and really, are there any other kind?) run-in with Adam West. I handed him a card and told him that I was interested in an interview. “PC Magazine,” he said. “What is that?”
“It’s a popular technology magazine I answered.”
“It’s not a humor thing like The Onion, is it? You’re not going to surround me with transsexuals?”
I assured him that I wouldn’t and he happily complied—quickly steering the conversation toward Adam West Naked, a DVD he was selling alongside $40 signed headshots. The more I spoke to the man, the more I became convinced that, while his role in the Family Guy was perhaps a bit fictional, it had seemingly tapped into some prominent personality traits that were now sunning themselves in the San Diego light. “Now don’t get grabby,” he smiled, pulling out the DVD.
An interview with Jordan Crane behind the table of the booth he shared with Johnny Ryan and Steven Weissman was decidedly more serious, Crane tapping into his engineering background to discuss some of the grander schemes for his series, Uptight, the gorgeous print of the third issue hanging just above our head.
Even more serious was my talk with Jason Lutes, for which we returned to those steps in front of the Convention Center. It’s hard to keep a conversation about National Socialism light—well, for anyone but Johnny Ryan, I suppose. The interview played out over a loud rhythmic metallic clicking that I mistook for an air condition. “No,” Lutes said, standing above me, “there are about five people in chainmail heading this way. Sweaty and tired from what looked like a LARP, they marched down their steps to the parking garage below.
I rushed back across the floor to one final video game interview, that loud farewell message breakout over the loudspeaker about halfway through.
“We’ll see you next year.”
Fans filed out, off the floor, sadly, as though four days of constant overstimulation had almost—but not quite—fulfilled expectations. On stage at the Iron Man display, a Marvel employee was dancing overzealously to N’Sync’s “Bye Bye Bye.” Truer words have never been sung. I swung by a handful of booths to say goodbye to friends I wouldn’t see, well, until the next big show rolled around, and made my way back into the San Diego sun.
We wished the city a fond farewell at the Hyatt that evening. I opted not to say hello to Rob Liefeld, who was waiting for a cab in the circle out front. I did, however, manage a few words with David Lloyd, who was seated at the bar. I had a few more with Nikki Cook and Kevin Colden seated along with Kwanza Johnson, Rob Perazza (the latter of whom I had interviewed for a piece on Webcomics initiatives on Saturday, just after a few words from Leigh Walton about Top Shelf 2.0), and the rest of the Zuda crew. Four beers later, it was time to go back to my own hotel to pack.
A shared a plane with Jimmy Aquino and Splash Page’s Rick Marshall the next morning. When the engine closest to me started making an odd humming noise, my mind couldn’t help but type out headlines like “Comics Journalists Dead in Fiery Jet Blue Crash.” I hope Newsarama can come up with some nice things to say about me.
When the cab driver picks me up from JFK and asks me why I was in Southern California, I say, simply, “business.” The Leonard Nimoy incident would have to wait another day.