The weeks leading up to the San Diego Comic-Con (SDCC) were sweat-inducing and panic-riddled. I had been promised three all-access passes to the SDCC from an LSU football ticket scalper; and on that promise I pitched an article idea to the editors of ANTIGRAVITY and swore delivery of a Comic-Con exclusive. With my flight booked and lodging at the W&C B&B paid for, I was constantly getting the dry-rub from the Tailgating Tiger regarding my SDCC credentials. With the exception of The Venture Bros., my interest in the Comic-Con universe is novice at best. For example, when I see a Dungeons & Dragons twelve-sided die, I immediately wonder how much it would hurt a person if it was used as slingshot ammo. But I made a promise and in my line of work, your word is your resumé.
One week prior to the SDCC’s opening and just ten minutes after abandoning all hope of passes being delivered from the bowels of Death Valley, I was forced to once again spin my Rolodex of grey-market contacts. After two desperate emails and one cryptic phone call my second cousin, Tony ‘Two Lump’ Teatro, from Camden, New Jersey made contact. Tony asked why I didn’t pre-register for passes the year before like everyone else and then said, “You will owe me big for this one, we will need to go through Chinatown.”
Francisco, my associate and SDCC pass-deprived friend in Southern California, acted as my service agent on Cousin Tony’s mediated deal and made good on assumed degenerate deeds in the Southern California area for a group of Asian underworld graphic designers from New York called The Undo Edit Boys. The gory details were not explained for reasons regarding the overall safety of my family and fear of various municipal code violation notices for all involved. For Francisco’s efforts and risk of possible detainment, he was awarded one of the four weekend passes his unselfish commitment to the cause had supplied.
I could now at least rest easy on some fronts: the editors would get a story and I would be able to add a Comic-Con exclusive Brock Sampson figurine to my Venture Bros. memorabilia collection. There, however, was still an unknown. Would I be able to tolerate science fiction and fantasy immersion for three days? Could I stand the close quarters and company of the fan folk long enough to get a true feel for the Con; or would my automated cynicism knob peak and topics holy as scripture to these fanatics be explained as cheap narrative tricks instead of magical powers, time travel ability and uber-beneficial radiation exposure? The hype and overall allure of the SDCC has always eluded me, but Francisco swore to me that I was missing out and that the thing he did for those dudes was totally worth it, no matter the legality.
I set out for the SDCC by rail from the Oceanside, California Coaster terminal on Thursday. Francisco had entered the convention at dawn’s light and, according to his text messages, had already made a trip to his car to drop off his son’s dew-covered, exclusive Transformers G.I. Joe Shockwave HISS Tank. Kendrake, a Japexican photographer from New Orleans, joined me on this expedition into the shameless sequel-promoting machine. Asking Ken to join me on the mission was key. His Asian eye for the bizarre and Japanese ability to stop the flow of pedestrians to take a pointless photo, coupled with his Mexican “No speak Ingles” defense, were immediately put to good use.
Charles, an ex-Marine and multiple Comic-Con tour operative, had met Ken and me at the train station in Oceanside and was awarded the fourth pass. In return for the rare as helium-3 pass he would assume the duties of an expert guide or pop culture sherpa. As soon as the train lurched forward, Charles pulled two 20 ounce bottles of Nestea Brisk from his bag and ordered us to each drink three-fourths. As the southern-bound train hugged the coastal bluffs, he unfolded a disposable paper gas station funnel and carefully began refilling each bottle with a clear liquid he called “goodness.” After wiping a few spilled drops from his button-adorned messenger bag, he said, “Day one. Burn rich!” and signaled with a shiver for Kendrake and me to fuel up. He then spoke freely and in great detail on the complexities of the Comic-Con floor. He advised me that a story would be easy to come by, but the Comic-Con Exclusive Bloody Brock Sampson variant toy for my collection would take some know-how to acquire. And if it was purchased, keeping the packaging in mint condition would be a battle not easily won. Charles said the SDCC had become too big for the convention center and too crowded to accomplish everything in just one day. His explanation of the Con was similar to how I feel about the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival: I’m on the fence about going each year but always end up picking racetrack dirt boogers on the walk back to my car.
After the hour-long ride down the Pacific coast we arrived at the Santa Fe station in downtown San Diego. I examined my SDCC pass and wondered if it was worth the trouble and various degrees of international syndicate involvement. I hung the gold foil inlay pass from my neck and waited for the train doors to open, signaling that we had reached the drop zone. I asked Ken if he thought the stain on my lanyard was blood. He rubbed his finger on the suspect substance and tapped it on his tongue. “No, it’s Sriracha.”
We were blocks away from the convention center and the SDCC’s presence was immediately made known. I passed through the doors of a Ralph’s grocery store to buy additional tea to cut my “goodness” to tolerable levels and immediately heard the Star Wars theme blasting from the in-ceiling speakers above the chips and soda aisle. Buses and billboard trucks promoting Fox animation and upcoming blockbusters cruised past the hordes of faithful conventioneers. Rickshaws lasered by, adorned with Bob’s Burgers characters and carrying those who chose to save their stride for the mad rush for prime seats at the Breaking Dawn Part 2 panel. The masses lining the street looked as if they were caught in a tractor beam pulsing from the convention center. I was still blocks away from the Con and my fear of a corporate entertainment bombardment had already begun.
With the convention center a crosswalk and fifteen flashes of a red LED palm away, I saw a giant inflatable head of Finn from Adventure Time atop a Metro station awning and said, “Dang!” really loud. That uncontrollable announcement—unbeknownst to me—was the attitudinal tidal change I was certain would not happen. It was like that second chalice of Pabst Blue Ribbon nectar that completely washes down and neutralizes the almost rancid taste of the first can.
With Finn properly photographed and the backed-up foot traffic flowing off of the active city transit rails, we entered the lobby of the convention center through Hall A, grazed past security personnel with a flash of our seasoned passes and then I set virgin eyes on the largest collection of cool known to man.
Ten minutes spent in the showroom and I had already spent forty dollars on a Shallow Gravy gig poster designed by Kevin Tong (17 of 300) and was handed buttons and pins and tiny vinyl ninja dragons and pewter ghouls and skull flower zipper pulls. The free items I received were far from truck parade trinkets; they were keepsakes by design and may one day be exhumed from a dusty Optimo box my daughter discovers in the attic rafters as she is sorting my mortal possessions.
Behind every turn there were half treasures and t-shirts and things I needed and things I knew I would never see again and things that David Blained twenty dollar bills from my wallet. I began keeping notes, not for my article but for booth numbers and print descriptions. I drew kindergarten versions of quasi-popular cartoon characters on napkins to act as visual reminders of items I wanted to buy but didn’t because I had only browsed one and half rows of the conventions fifty.
Charles pulled me aside next to a giant statue of Stan Lee and gave me some advice like a compassionate drill sergeant who wanted nothing more than for me to be the best SDCC commando possible. “Remember: this a convention. If an item is not an exclusive Comic-Con piece, opt for a business card. This is a showcase. You can order this little stuff online. Go for numbered limited edition bigger items where the artist or designer is present. Ask them to do a sketch on the poster or print; commission them to do a scene you have always wanted to see; make your purchase one-of-a-kind. The four dollar yarn fetus keychain is rad but you will go broke in increments of five. Get the business card. Day one is for cruising and contacts. Burn rich!”
I took Sergeant Charlie’s advice but had to buy two Adventure Time Comic-Con exclusive Poketo wallets at ten dollars apiece to keep all my merchant business cards in order. I began meandering through the labyrinth of perpetual gifting with his method of attack in mind. My bottled “goodness” calming effect had begun to take hold; and I remembered you need to also pay attention to fellow conventioneers and have a camera ready at all times. I had successfully photoed the back of Eugene Mirman’s head and completely missed an opportunity to take a photo with Rob Riggle.
My trusted photographer had fallen prey to the costumed sprites and fangirls crowding the folding table storefronts. As the crowd movement pushed me in an opposite direction from Kendrake because of a Gene Simmons prescription signing, I faintly heard him say, “I’m going to find my Liz Lemon.”
To escape the chaos of the LucasFilm-Dark Horse-Lego-Marvel-Mattel nucleus, I split for the cell wall and began to orbit the outskirts of the media powerhouse epicenter. As I hit the creases and populated but less traveled rows, an Asian cat at the Epic Proportions booth said, “Hey, you made it?” I immediately checked for the Undo Edit insignia tattoo on his forearm. He said, “I am Jerry Ma. Is Fran here yet? Tell him thanks for helping me get all my t-shirts in here on time. I would not have made it without his help.” I assured him that I would deliver his message with a wink and thanked him for the passes. I casually walked away while internally struggling to apply my east coast Chinese street knowledge to decode his message before delivering it to Francisco. The Adult Swim (AS) less-is-more display quickly distracted me from my attempt at translating a dialect I have absolutely no ear for.
The AS rep said, “Hello”, and handed me their convention schedule which doubled as a bloated pink hipster paper mask, complete with trucker cap and thick frame specs. I asked why their online store was shuttered and he immediately said, “Give them shit on Facebook.” He handed me a pass to the AS afterparty on the USS Midway, a Dethklok and Girl Talk show.
I showed Charles how cool the mask feature was, and when I removed the disguise with no eyes, I saw a giant Aleppin Sane glaring from a perch a few exhibition rows away. I bolted in the direction of the lightning-faced hare and entered the rock poster hutch of Jermaine Rogers, an artist I admire, collect and, until then, was unaware of his presence at the convention. As Jermaine flipped through hundreds of prints, we discussed the demise of Ween and shared thoughts on the South. As Jermaine was rolling and tubing five purchased prints, his assistant gave me wristbands to a live band heavy metal karaoke after-party at the Tipsy Crow.
We were four hours deep into the convention and fuel reserves were running low. I sent Kendrake a message to meet Sarge and me in the lobby by the Hall E entrance, which happened to be the convention’s weapon check entrance. A line of villains, heroes, archaeologist, mega-bots and school girls all stood patiently waiting for their sharpie-modified Super Soakers to be rendered harmless and their pool noodle cannons to be plugged and tagged by security as inventive but non-lethal. When Kendrake arrived he said, “Is that the line for the Starbucks cart? Fuck that.”
We decided to head for the San Diego Marriott Marquis’ pool bar to re-up on “goodness,” this time in a glass with ice. On the short walk I ran across the SDCC silent auction where I bid on a painting by up-and-coming talent Debi Winger, a San Diego local body artist, that managed to sum up the doldrums of life as a wampus with acrylics and canvas. The pool bar was classy California with a mild bay breeze, lush vegetation and rejuvenating outdoor loveseats. Today, however, the patrons looked as if they were pulled from a ten year old boy’s toy chest. Petty Officer John-117 rode past the fire pit on a razor scooter as Harley Quinn took Suicide Girl photos on a grassy mound near the towel return kiosk. I pressed my way to the bar and overheard Robin explaining how he had thwarted the theft of a small girl’s Con exclusive Chun-Li My Little Pony and stopped maritime traffic for an E3 Productions nautical shoot. I ordered an extra shot Bulleit whiskey for the Boy Wonder and we both threw them back with a BANG. A non-descript robot was patiently waiting to execute his primary function as I was paying my tab. As I squeezed by the metaloid, I tried my luck at conversing in a language familiar to most machines. “Beep Beep Boop Boop.” To which the paper mache android replied, “I speak English, asshole.”
I took my seat with laughter tears still rolling down my cheek. Francisco finally met up with us and, looking at my professional poster carrier-protector with padded shoulder sling, said “I told you that you would dig this place. Fresh to death, right?”
And right he was. My hate and apprehension for the Con was rooted in insignificant clichéd stereotypes worthy of a Jay Leno monologue. From actually making the trek I realized that without the deep pockets and blitzkrieg branding by the major studios and masters of marketing plastic building bricks, the mid-level creatives would have no real estate with heavy foot traffic and consistent window shoppers; and without the success on those gaffer tape and banquet table plots, the wampus sympathizers would have no model-home attainable goal. The San Diego Comic-Con is a pop ledger landscape where the artist and creators can easily find a common ground to stand on that is on grade with fans and hypersensitive admirers. The real world units of measure traveled and the gold mushroom coin to U.S. dollar currency exchange rates are a non-factor no matter how many Middle-earth regions, galaxies beyond and imagined, inner and outer space warps and human scale South Parks you have to travel through to find that Bloody Brock Sampson Comic-Con Exclusive action figure.