A big part of Comic-Con culture is found standing in line. A big part of what aggravates just about everybody about Comic-Con is standing in line. There’s really no way to get the full experience of the Con that most people are attending—the one where you spend all weekend attending panels instead of, I don’t know, playing role-playing games based on the long-dead TV series Jericho (which is an actual thing you can do here)—without standing in a few lines.
So I went looking for lines today, though I went out of my way to find ones that might result in me getting a pleasant experience eventually—i.e., lines that would actually let me into panels I might want to see.
In the first line, I had one of my favorite experiences of the Con. I always really enjoy meeting people here, but I particularly enjoy when I meet people with kids, especially when those kids are driving the whole experience, instead of the parents dragging their sons or daughters along to stuff the kiddos couldn’t possibly be interested in. While standing in line for “Cartoon Voices 1” (a panel I’ve had recommended to me for years by you folks and one I was only just now getting a chance to attend because the Community line was insane), I found myself in front of a mother and her daughter, who was insisting that they go to see the panel for Last Airbender sequel Korra (something I tried to get into but found the line too long for), which was in the room a few hours later. Mom, not quite knowing what to do with her kid for all that time, just dragged her to the line for the room, and she sat on the ground, playing with a Phineas And Ferb action figure she’d gotten down on the show floor earlier. (Lord, that I might have a kid with awesome taste.) Mystifyingly, the Con had scheduled the annual chat with Marvel’s Joe Quesada in between the two animation panels, and the thought of the daughter having to sit through that amused me.
“Do you want to come back to Comic-Con next year?” mom asked the kid, with that tone in her voice where the answer is implied to be “No.” The kid looked up, frowned. “Of course. Why wouldn’t we?” The mom turned to me as I chuckled. Sure, she said, she complained about the whole thing every year, but once she got there, she came to really enjoy it. And she had stood in line for True Blood for hours the day before and finally gotten in, an experience she had really enjoyed. Plus, it must have been fun for her daughter to get to meet the guys from Phineas And Ferb and see the footage from Korra, and even if mom wasn’t into it, it’s always nice to have a kid who’s really into something that doesn’t make you want to blow your brains out.
The lines can be a great way to chat with people, to find common cause with the many other geeks at the event. But if they don’t result in you getting into the panel you really want to see, your whole day can be shot, and the anger at both the Con and its scheduling can become all-encompassing.
Take the second line. After returning from an interview, I decided to try to get into the Adventure Time panel, though I knew the line would be forbidding for a panel that was starting in five minutes. And, indeed, shortly after I arrived, the room was closed down with me well away from the front of the line. I trundled up to the front to wave my press pass around and ask if I might hang out in the back to watch the show. I wouldn’t take up a seat. (The Con doesn’t always—or even usually—allow this, but they’ll occasionally be fine with it if you ask really nicely… and have a press badge, I guess, since I've never seen this work for one of you civilians.) At the same time, the doorman let in a handful of press pass holders.
And then the teenage girl started to shriek. She and her friends had gotten to the front of the line, then been told they couldn’t get into the room unless someone left, opening up seats. She and her friends had been waiting in line for HOURS, and they couldn’t get in. But the Con was just going to let in the PRESS? (At this point, I carefully covered my press pass and decided not to approach about standing in the back, lest I become a secondary target of wrath.) She went through the five stages of grief so rapidly that it was like she was a cartoon character or something (even at one point bargaining with the idea that if she could just get one of the HATS Cartoon Network was going to hand out, she’d be fine). And finally, she and her friends left, having come to terms with the fact that they weren’t going to get to see whatever was making the people in room 6A laugh so heartily.
I stood around, though, trying to plot my next move. And sure enough, about five minutes later, the doorman let in several more people they’d found seats for.
These forbidding lines can also turn people away from panels they’d otherwise love to attend. Anecdotal evidence suggests that’s what happened with Fringe, a show that would seem to be a Comic-Con natural but one that left a good portion of the seats at the back of Ballroom 20 empty. (That The Big Bang Theory and Community can easily fill rooms of several thousand people and Fringe cannot suggests there’s something unstable in the universe.) And yet once I Tweeted about this, I started to hear from people both online and in real life that they assumed the long lines that have plagued Ballroom 20 all weekend long (it was the host of the 7,000 person line debacle) would be in effect for Fringe, and they might as well not even try. Instead, the line rarely got much above 1,000 people, and we all got in, even if we had to wait for a bit. (The panel itself was unremarkable and probably the worst I’ve seen this year, with lots of evasion of any sort of spoilers for season four—although an opening video featuring a panoply of actors from Michael Emerson to Greg Grunberg to Danny Pudi auditioning for the role of Peter Bishop was very funny.)
If we’re going to “review the lines,” though (and as that mom pointed out to me, a lot of Comic-Con, like going to a theme park, is about standing in those lines and hoping the “ride” at the end is worth it), it’s worth pointing out that the Con has figured out ways to make them less torturous. They’ve put up little markers for every 1,000th person, to let you know where you are in the grand scheme of things (you can see one above). They’ve figured out ways to direct traffic much more succinctly, so everything moves more quickly. And they’ve found ways to route those who aren’t in line in ways that won’t get in the way of the actual lines keeping moving. The whole system has been rethought, often with solid results.
But at the same time, the Con has totally missed the fact that it’s slowly evolved from a convention where movies are the main draw to one where TV shows are the main draw. Part of this has to do with the uninspiring movie slate this year—I love Francis Ford Coppola, but the guy’s hardly an instant Comic-Con draw. Part of it has to do with the event’s reluctance to potentially piss off the big studios by relegating the “lesser” movie panels to Ballroom 20 or even smaller rooms, instead of Hall H. And part of it has to do with how the Con rode to prominence on the back of those big movie panels, while TV was always the red-headed stepchild. But every time I went by Ballroom 20 today, the line was at least 1,000 people long. And when I walked by Hall H, the line was 20 people long. It’s not hard to see where this is all headed.
And, really, this all makes sense. The Con comes at the perfect time of year for TV folks. Most shows are on summer hiatuses, but they’ve also just gotten back into production, so they have various things to tease for the diehard fans. And fans of TV shows form much more concrete relationships with their favorite characters than movie fans do with their favorite stars. Sure, it’s pretty cool to see Harrison Ford here (as many did last year), but he’s still crazy old uncle Harrison Ford, making his visit every couple of years and sending photos to you via the tabloids. Danny Pudi, though? That’s your best pal Abed. He comes to your house every week! Two movie panels briefly ignited excitement—the Spider-Man one and the Tintin one (mostly because Steven Spielberg came)—but nothing else could muster that much enthusiasm. And the studios have realized time and again that a movie can get bad buzz out of Comic-Con and become a hit (Avatar) or get good buzz and become a flop (Scott Pilgrim). The audience that’s going to stand in line for that movie for six hours at Comic-Con is still going to see it, no matter what they think of the footage they see at the Con. It’s convincing everybody else that’s tricky, and your mom doesn’t give a shit about the buzz out of Comic-Con.
But TV’s different. In this age of ultra-divided audiences, producing a TV show is often more about the care and feeding of a fanbase than anything else. And Comic-Con is a fantastic way to do just that. Get several thousand fans in one room, feed them some intriguing tidbits and fun videos, then allow that information to trickle out via Twitter to the other fans who couldn’t attend, giving them a chance to get excited for the next season. A Comic-Con favorite like Chuck is in the same position as Scott Pilgrim—where all the good buzz in the world couldn’t make it a hit—but it’s also sort of not, in that a lot of its survival has depended on keeping the fans happy, thus keeping the ratings just steady enough to give NBC an excuse to keep it around. Movies, increasingly, are about blowing everybody away. TV’s about maintaining, and that’s why the Con should downplay the movie angle (outside of the really huge blockbusters that decide to come) and shift toward a TV focus going forward.
That Cartoon Voices panel, by the by, was one of the most fun things I’ve attended at any of the Cons I’ve been to, and I thank those of you who’ve been pressing it on me all these years. There’s just something amazing about seeing one person come up with 20 or 30 different voices, and the lineup of talent (including Tara Strong, of my beloved My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic) was terrific. The initial question and answer session was OK, but when moderator Mark Evanier took it upon himself to deliver unto the panelists an old-time radio script (of a children’s play of Snow White) that they were to perform after only the barest of preparation, the panel crackled to life. I’d recommended the panel to the mom and daughter, and during the mundane talk about careers (granted, talk spiced with famous cartoon voices seemingly appearing as if from nowhere), I was worried I’d steered them toward something they’d find awfully boring. But once that script started up—complete with a haggard, blowsy old woman for the Wicked Queen and Beavis and Butthead as two of the seven dwarves—the whole thing came to life. There’s a definite side of the Con that might as well be called the “Experiences You Can’t Have Anywhere Else” Con, and while they can be hard to find, they’re always worth seeking out. This was one of those.
Overheard on the show floor (best if read in the voice of an older woman who's seemingly smoked three packs a day her entire life, as I first heard it): "Oh great. There's always a slowdown around the fucking slave Leias."
Because of my interview schedule, I didn’t get a chance to do much more exploring—particularly once I tried to find some of my favorite Artists’ Alley denizens to see how they were doing and found the show floor absolutely packed, to the point where walking in it was like being stuck in an elevator that moved laterally, a move that sucked up probably 30 minutes despite me moving only about the length of a football field—nor did I get to see a lot of panels (well, I did sit through one about the history of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund that was interesting but incredibly dry).
As the night ran down, however, I ended up in a Penny Arcade panel that was mostly enjoyable—since those two guys really know how to interact with their fans and have a lot of natural comic timing—but one that was unfortunately marred by the, uh, “dickwolves” controversy, something I didn’t even know existed before stumbling upon this panel. (And if you click on that link, prepare to lose several hours of your life.) The two clearly want to play this off as no big deal (especially since it’s mostly been a moot issue for the last several months), but it was also something people kept bringing up one way or the other, and it gave the whole panel a weirdly muted tone, even when the laughs were flying.
From there, it was off to the Fables panel, what with Fables being one of the two comics series I make a point of keeping up with (Unwritten being the other). I don’t know what it is about Fables that has its hooks so firmly sunk into me—I’ve been as disappointed with it as other comics I’ve dropped, but I always keep buying it, eventually finding it worming its way back around into my good graces again—but I suspect it has something to do with the very thorough mythology and world Bill Willingham has created, one that seems to constantly reveal new and unexpected depths. (I’d say that the folks who tried to turn Locke & Key into a TV series should be paying attention to a comic with the sort of endless storyline that could make an irresistible show, but everybody’s already making shows that are incredibly similar to Fables anyway.)
And you know what? I enjoy the hell out of this panel every year. Willingham—who’s apparently just gone full Dude, what with his Jeff-Bridges-in-The-Big-Lebowski hair—is an avuncular guy, and the whole creative team seems like a wacky family, as though you could build a hoary old sitcom filled with bad old puns and lots of weird practical jokes around the team, if they didn’t all live in different parts of the world. And the panel—which had been moved to a bigger room yet again—was filled with lots of nice little touches, like Willingham presenting a fan with an actual trumpet (no, really) or giving all of us a neat little one-page story fitting into the series’ current chronology. The big news out of the panel was that there will be a new Fables spinoff—to take the place of the canceled Jack Of Fables—called Fairest. The concept is pretty nebulous. It basically seems to be simply, “Fuck it! Princesses!” But the art looks tremendous, and the idea of doing a series that’s essentially a series of miniseries has potential, if all involved can nail down keeping the multiple voices within the property seeming like one authorial voice. (Jack often felt too jerked around by a variety of impulses and weird creative decisions.) Plus, the fandom around this show is so tightly knit—thanks to Willingham’s Web site, which might be the friendliest community on the Internet—that it feels like everybody knows each other’s name. (I half expected special celebrity guest Phil LaMarr to wander over and say, “Hello, Todd!”)
Plus, for every weird creative call Fables makes, it’s always got a bunch of intriguing ones off on the horizon—another Christmas special (yes, please)! More stories set in Oz! The plotting of the series has strayed toward being too loose in recent years (very like a long-running TV show, actually), and Mr. Dark remains a problematic villain, due to an utter lack of personality. But the characters are so well-defined and established and the world so compelling that I keep coming back. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that Willingham—like those TV producers who know exactly how to keep the fans happy—is very good at cultivating that fanbase, at making sure everybody feels welcome and ready to enjoy this series. I keep reading Fables for the same reasons I keep watching a long-running show that misses a step or two here or there: It feels like home.
I kept getting some of you asking me to check out Trickster, and it finally spurred me to Google the damn thing just to figure out what it was. And tonight, after leaving the Con, I headed over there with the fellow folks who joined us for the first (of hopefully many) A.V. Club Comic-Con meet-up. Trickster is much more focused on the art of comics than is really my bag (I’m only a dabbler in such things), but it’s certainly an attractive set-up, and the whole thing—despite the fact that it’s free and open to anyone who wants to wander in—just feels classier than the main Con, less commercial. There were guitarists crooning softly, plentiful amounts of wine, and great conversation between fans and comics professionals. Those who’d like Trickster to become a solid competitor to the main Con are probably going to leave wanting, but Trickster suggests what could become a very enjoyable side event, particularly for those who are trying to break into the comics industry (about which more tomorrow).
Finally, while walking in downtown San Diego last night, I saw this, which is just the most terrifying thing ever. (Imagine it set to the Twin Peaks theme and filmed in slow motion.)