You don’t need no stinkin’ badges
What’s a poor unlucky muggle to do now that Comic-Con passes have become more expensive than Batmobile rims, and harder to pick up than Thor’s hammer? Not to worry, mere mortals without badges can still spend the week enjoying Con-themed events around town, some officially part of the show and open to the public, and other less authorized shindigs.
The retro-resurgent El Cortez Hotel (702 Ash Street, Cortez Hill) will host a Throwback Pre-Con Meetup in the Barra Barra Saloon, geared for those who either remember or wish they’d been around for the olden daze of the 70s and 80s. Discussions will focus on how the dealers’ room used to be filled with comic books instead of Hollywood shills, the autographs and sketches were always free, and there was never, ever a line for the ladies room.
The San Diego Symphony presents its annual Movie Music of John Williams concert at Jacobs Music Center (750 B Street, downtown) on Wednesday, July 18, with songs from the Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, and Jurassic Park films, and of course selections from Star Wars. Arrive early for a Star Wars cocktail party and costume contest, sure to be filled with a galaxy of tinfoil robots, overexposed princesses on leashes, and enough wookie hair to clog up every toilet in the former Symphony Hall.
Fluxx (500 Fourth Avenue, Gaslamp Quarter) hosts Ready Party One, paying tribute to the Ready Player One book and film franchise with Nerds Like Us, Damn Good Shindig, Nerdbot, and the Flux Capacitors.
The annual Comic Kickoff fundraiser for the Hero Initiative (helping comic creators in need) happens at Bar Basic (410 Tenth Avenue, East Village), with cartoonists on hand doing live art and premium rarities to be raffled from collectible manufacturers such as Dark Horse comics, Funko toys, and Blizzard games.
Hard rock heroes Testament (soon to be the subject of an unauthorized comic book bio from Acme Ink) will be playing Nuclear Blast’s Comic-Con Afterparty at House of Blues (1055 Fifth Avenue, downtown), where locals Carnifex will open. However, it looks like that previously secret show is already sold out.
As a backup plan, there’s always Rave of Thrones at the nearby Omnia nightclub (454 Sixth Avenue), where Hodor from Game of Thrones, actor Kristian Nairn, will be doing a live DJ set for the third consecutive year. He'll also be trying to avoid breaking his non-disclosure contract when fans barrage him with questions about the program’s upcoming final episodes.
Devotees of the never-ending TV show Supernatural will meet up at Analog Bar (801 Fifth Avenue, Gaslamp Quarter) on Thursday for the third annual Carry On My Wayward Cocktails Party, named for the Kansas song that opens the program, which just wrapped its 13th year. All ages are welcome until 9:30 pm, with promoters promising exclusive giveaways and a Hunter’s Banquet offering “a selection of hot food for all the hungry hunters, angels, and demons, and of course pie!” There will be Supernatural-themed cocktails such as the Single Man Tear, Angel Grace, and the Wayward AF, and exclusive Hunter’s swag, and nougat for everyone.
The 5th annual Her Universe Geek Coutere Fashion Show will be staged Thursday at the Manchester Grand Hyatt (1 Market Place, Marina District) with fashion designers competing for a chance to create a new collection for Hot Topic. Actress Ashley Eckstein hosts and a cast of human coat hangers will parade the competing clothing on a catwalk in the Harbor Ballroom for a “celebrity panel” of so-far unannounced judges.
Hop-Con 6.0 at Stone Brewing Liberty Station (2816 Historic Decatur Road) delivers three specialty casks of w00tstout beer, Mostra coffee samples, unlimited treats and tastings, lawn games (including giant Jenga, bocce ball, and Connect 4), and commemorative glassware to take home for those who purchase the deluxe ticket package.
The Girls Drawin' Girls Comic-Con Extravaganza at Bell Marker Brewery (602 Broadway), hosted by the GDG founders and artists, features a signing artist area, food and drink specials, $5 pints of the venue's collaboration beer, and more from 7-9pm. Ticket includes meet and greet with the GDG artists and founders, sips and bites, and swag bags.
Comic Book Men TV star Kevin Smith will stage two shows at American Comedy Company (818 Sixth Avenue) on Thursday, Fatman on Batman and Jay & Silent Bob Get Old. For Fatman on Batman, he’s joined by Marc Bernardin to “talk about all the news in movie make believe, terrific TV, and anything that squeaks in Geek.” During Jay & Silent Bob Get Old, he’ll reunite with frequent cinematic costar Jason Mewes (Clerks, Mallrats, etc), to riff in character for an improv-heavy performance that will be recorded and later made available free at smodcast.com. Smith returns to American Comedy Company on Saturday night for a panel discussion, Hollywood Babble-On With Kevin Smith and Ralph Garman.
Harley-Davidson Coronado Beach (3201 Hoover Avenue) hosts the Superhero Aerial Arts Circus & Interactive Show, with superheroes performing aerial arts and demonstrating the ropes, as well as $1 raffles, food trucks, and more. The Marriott's Altitude Sky Lounge is the site of Webtoon's Green Room Party, previewing the newest features of the digital comic app with a vertical scroll function said to average more than 40 million monthly users via iOS, Android, and web browsers.
Several cosplay and fan gatherings are planned around town, including a Harry Potter & Fantastic Beasts Costumers Meetup in Children’s Park at 10 am Friday (across from the Marriott Marquis), followed at 1 pm in the same locale by an Assassin’s Creed Fan and Cosplay Meetup.
Devotees of the Fox cartoon Bob’s Burgers will “Meat-Up” at 2 pm at Embarcadero Marina Park South (200 Marina Park Way), where men in aprons can feel free to hold intimate conversations with inanimate objects, and BYOBH (Bring Your Own Bunny Hat) cosplay is encouraged.
Toy company Funko is known for producing limited edition playthings, with this year’s newest collectibles debuting for Funko FunDay at the Manchester Grand Hyatt (One Market Place). The party includes food, drinks, and photo ops with life-size toy characters. All guests who pony up the $140 ticket fee receive one of the company’s coveted Boxes O’ Fun, usually containing extremely limited edition creations only available via this event.
If you’re determined to meet a genuine comic book superstar for a little one-on-one time, you can Dine With Comic Artist Joe Jusko at Fogo de Chao Brazilian Steakhouse (668 Sixth Avenue, Gaslamp Quarter) on Friday. Hosted by local publisher IDW, mainly known for licensed comic properties such as Star Trek and Doctor Who, the event runs $500 per ticket. But the 25 attendees will each get a custom created 11x14 piece of artwork featuring a character of their choice, drawn by the famed cover painter in advance of the dinner. The meal comes with a gift bag of goodies such as a rare Captain America variant cover edition and a complete collection of the artist’s 2016 trading card set.
Hang out at Observatory North Park (2891 University Avenue) on Friday with the creative team behind the graphic novel The Adventure Zone: Here There Be Gerblins, inspired by a podcast co-created by three brothers and their dad. The Adventure Zone event includes a panel discussion and live reading of the fantasy comic chronicling the unlikely adventures of Tres Horny Boys, and your ticket fee includes a free signed copy of the book, as well as something truly the stuff of fantasy during Comic-Con week: free parking.
The costumed villains of Galactic Empire will play heavy metal mashups of Star Wars music at Brick by Brick (1130 Buenos Avenue) on Friday night, where fellow musical cosplayers MadNES open.
Multiple photo shoots are planned outside the Convention Center on Friday, most held on photogenic staircases and sidewalk expanses that are usually (though not always) accessible to the general public (it helps to carry a serious looking camera and to play nice with sure-to-be overtaxed security staffers). Expect a giant superhero team-up of cosplayers to pose for a Marvel Fan Photoshoot at 11:30 am representing nearly 80 years of colorful Iron, Spider, Ant, Sand, and X Men.
At 1 pm, the Spinal Tap Fan Club Meetup and Cosplay Photoshoot happens at the Convention Center. A Rick & Morty Fan Meetup and Cosplay Photoshoot for aficionados of the violently funny cartoon takes place at 2 pm, followed at 4 by a Gathering of Negan Cosplayers whose ability to clobber the Walking Dead will be impeded by the fact that only plastic bats with fake barbwire will be allowed.
Early Saturday risers can join the Scooby gang around the Convention Center for a Buffy the Vampire Slayer Vampire Hunt, where the unavoidable dearth of daylight vampires will mean plenty of zombies, werewolves, robots, cyborgs, evil nerds, and other beastly baddies will be on the run and ripe for visit from Mr. Pointy. The scavenger hunt requires participants to ferret out hidden vampire nests around downtown, in hopes of winning rare promo items from 20th Century Fox Consumer Products and Funko toys.
Stick around the Convention Center until noon to watch the goggles and brass doohickeys come out for the 10th annual Steampunk Meetup, this year including the Starburner Awards. “Beginning in 2009,” according to their website, “members of the steampunk community have been singled out at Comic-Con in San Diego and presented with achievement medals (Starburner Awards).”
Batmaniacs and Jokerholics will gather around the Convention Center at 1 pm on Saturday to pay tribute to the Joker’s beloved psycho squeeze Harley Quinn for the 8th annual Harleypalooza Meetup and Cosplay Shoot. The Dark Knight’s longtime comic publisher will be showcased again at 5 pm for a DC Cosplay Photoshoot guaranteed to contain more than enough Wonder Women to fill up a whole shelf full of Mitt Romney’s binders.
The streets of downtown are invaded by the dead men (and women) walking of this year’s ZombieWalk. Saturday’s ZombieWalk theme, Walking Through an Undead Wonderland, includes interactive pop-up TV show sets, related prop exhibits, and a costume contest.
Head up the road to Balboa Park at sunset on Saturday for the United League of Fighters Lightsaber Battle, planned to run from 8 pm through 11 all around, and probably within, the main fountain. Over at House of Blues (1055 Fifth Avenue), costumed TV rockers the Aquabats play their annual Comic-Con show, this year bringing rapper Froggy Fresh (formerly and litigiously known as Krispy Kreme) to the party.
The Horror Writers Association 3rd Annual Social, to be held Saturday at the Hilton San Diego Bayfront (1 Park Boulevard, Marina District), invites all writers of speculative fiction to the Odysea Lounge, whether or not you’re an association member.
A Marvelous Art Exhibit at La Bodega Gallery (2196 Logan Avenue) features art from Marvel comics and films, created both by industry pros and local amateurs, with a free all-ages opening reception.
The musical comedy TV show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend will be staged live at the Balboa Theatre (868 Fourth Avenue) by Rachel Bloom and other cast members on Saturday. The same day, Wu-Tang Clan honcho RZA will be at the Con to host a Movies, Music & Martial Arts panel, and he’s rumored to be planning a secret performance downtown that night. Speculation that RZA will turn up rapping with the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend cast is unsubstantiated, but fun as hell to contemplate.
Brick by Brick hosts the Comics Online Afterparty with nerdcore singer-songwriter Stan Bush, whose music has been heard in everything from Transformers: the Movie to Sailor Moon, The Wraith, Bloodsport, and Kickboxer. The bill includes Random Gibberish, featuring Duke Nukem voiceover actor John St. John, and anyone who shows up in a costume gets in for 15 bucks.
Sunday and multiple day events
The Convention wraps up on Sunday when all lovers of the House of Mouse are invited to gather near the Convention Center at 2pm for a Disney Fan Cosplay Photoshoot. Costumers paying tribute to Song of the South and anatomically correct dancing hippos are strongly discouraged from attending.
Sons of an Illustrious Father, fronted by actor Ezra Miller (The Flash, Justice League, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) will perform at Brick in Liberty Station (2863 Historic Decatur Road) on Sunday. The band's Facebook page promises "a multi-dimensional youth oriented event [featuring] music, politics, art, identity, vulnerability, accessibility, self-expression, and strength."
As for multiple day events, Doug Benson Loves Movies: Comic-Con Edition features the 420-friendly “judge” of Comedy Central’s High Court recording his movie fan podcast at the American Comedy Company (818 Sixth Avenue) on Wednesday the 18th, and again on Saturday the 21st.
A comic-inspired exhibit at La Jolla’s Birch Aquarium (2300 Expedition Way) runs Wednesday through Sunday (continuing into December). Oddities: Hidden Heroes of the Scripps Collections will highlight how ocean species utilize their superpowers of adaptability to survive, from using super vision, invisibility, and protective armor to the ability to conjure prey-zapping electricity. Visitors will learn how undersea oddities have inspired everything from cinema and pop culture to medicine and engineering, and instructional cosplayers will be on hand dressed up as sea creatures.
The old Classics Illustrated line proved that comics are a great way to introduce young people to literature and art, as recognized by organizers of the Comic Conference for Educators and Librarians, running Wednesday through Sunday at the Central Library (330 Park Boulevard, East Village). Free to the public, local comic creators and publishers will be on hand, with highlights to include a Teaching with Comics Workshop for Educators, Publisher Panels for Educators & Librarians, and a College/Geek-Ed Panel.
One of the Con’s most popular features is the Art Show, where hundreds of creators, both famous and obscure, display their original artwork in row after row of frequently breathtaking, and sometimes baffling, works that represent every visual medium you can imagine, and then some. This year’s Art Show at the Manchester Grand Hyatt (One Market Place, downtown) is open to the public all four days, with most of the displayed work (including paintings, props, drawings, sculptures, jewelry, and costumes) for sale. Special displays will highlight work by artists inducted into the Will Eisner Hall of Fame and publications up for this year’s Will Eisner Awards, both named for the influential creator of the Spirit newspaper comics whose book, Comics and Sequential Art, is considered the vocational bible of aspiring creators.
Thursday through Saturday, the New Children’s Museum in East Village (200 W. Island Avenue) will be home to the Syfy Channel’s Fan Experience, where competitive games include a human claw machine, bingo trolleys, and an on-site karaoke bus. Related merchandise will be on sale, including a “Mystery Box” containing a random selection of unnamed trinkets, and evenings feature DJs and dancing.
For the fourth year, Conan O’Brien tapes his TV show at the Con, this time taking over downtown's Spreckels Theatre (121 Broadway) on Wednesday through Saturday, with free tickets to be made available via online lottery a few days before the show. A Comic-Con Costume Party is planned for Saturday and Sunday at the Mee Shim Fine Arts Gallery (1943 India Street) in Little Italy.
From Thursday until Sunday, the clothing storefront at 643 G Street will be the site of a Stephen King-themed Mr. Mercedes Immersive Experience, promoting the book-turned-TV-series. Props and memorabilia will be on display, and attendees will be able to don virtual reality headsets to play a Mr. Mercedes escape room game. If you prefer your shifts in reality to be augmented rather than virtual, you can instead sample a Mr. Mercedes: Finders Keepers augmented reality adventure game.
Over at Petco Park (100 Park Boulevard, East Village), the upcoming TV show Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger will be promoted Thursday through Sunday with a pop-up display diorama and “immersive experience” where attendees can “physically experience the force of superhero powers, as you’re harnessed to a bungee and propelled backward.” Fans can also create their own Roxxon Corp badge and lanyard, which includes a secret code for the chance at winning a range of prizes.
The Petco parking lot will be the site of Experience at Comic-Con for all four days, with bands and DJs in the evening and Ghostbusters-themed events courtesy of Sony Pictures execs hoping to win back favor for the recently bruised sci-fi comedy franchise.
The ballpark also hosts the Rocket League’s Third Anniversary Party on Thursday from 3-9pm, featuring WWE wrestlers Xavier Woods and Becky Lynch, live music, competitive games, and photo ops with a Jurassic Park Jeep and a Back to the Future DeLorean time machine, all hosted by Kinda Funny YouTube star Greg Miller. A free Impractical Jokers Block Party happens at the Park on Saturday, featuring the TV show pranksters doing, what else, pranks.
A Universal Studios Monster “Boodega” will be set up Friday through Sunday at the Super7 at 701 Eighth Avenue, with groovy ghoulies featured via food, specialty drinks, clothing, and exclusive merchandise said to be available only at this year’s Con.
During all four days, the intersection of 1st and Martin Luther King Boulevard is going to be the site of the Jack Ryan Experience, a free gaming promotion where “fans will be dropped into a hyper-reality virtual reality spy experience in the Middle East…recruits will complete spy training, an escape room challenge, VR missions, and explore a Middle Eastern bazaar.”
All during Comic-Con, enjoy free admission to Nerdist House at nearby Sparks Gallery (530 Sixth Avenue) for entertainment, hang-outs, live Nerdist shows, a VR experience based on the sci-fi series SONA, a party for the 200th episode of Bizarre States, and live editions of shows such as Nerdist News, Because Science, and Talkin’ Toons. Meet and greets feature authors V.E. Schwab, R.A. Salvatore, and Cory Doctorow, as well as Talkin’ Toons host Rob Paulsen, the voice of Pinky from Pinky and the Brain, Yakko from Animaniacs, and both Raphael and Donatello from Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles. Paulsen's guests will include Maurice LaMarche and Randy Rogel.
Dine like it’s 2032 when the Taco Bell on 658 5th Avenue is done up as a recreation of the taco eatery from the Sylvester Stallone-Wesley Snipes sci-fi film Demolition Man, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary, for the Demolition Man Experience. In the movie, Taco Bell is the only surviving restaurant chain of a worldwide post-apocalyptic battle referred to only as “the Franchise Wars.”
Friday through Sunday, Border X Brewing (2181 Logan Avenue, Logan Heights) hosts the 4th annual Chicano-Con, showcasing illustrations, comics, sculptures, costumes, and cartoon themed work by Latino artists. Events include taco specials, live music, and “superhero piñata breaking” (shouldn’t they be bashing villains rather than heroes? Then again, this is the age of antiheroes like Deadpool, the Punisher, and pretty much anyone who’s ever been on the Walking Dead). “Comics and the popular arts are important to the Latino community and can play a role in children’s lives, just like they changed mine,” says event co-creator David Favela, who learned to speak English by reading comic books.
Con-themed nightclub events include Afrofuturism Lounge on Friday and Saturday at the Brokers Building Gallery (402 Market Street), where black comic creators such as Dr. Firyali Richmond and Keithan Jones of KID Comics are hosting free panel discussions, judging a cosplay contest, spinning music, and creating and auctioning live artwork.
Searsucker downtown (611 Fifth Avenue) will be serving Marvel-flavored drinks for Comic-Con Cocktail Week, such as the Wasp (el Silencio mezcal, peach, lime, and tarragon) and the Black Panther (Maker’s Mark bourbon, blackberries, mint, and lemon), as well libations named for heroes and villains like Star-Lord, Captain America, Spider-Man, Thanos, Black Widow, and Groot, the latter drink infused with Sazerac rye, Carpano Antica, and Angostura. Searsucker’s bottomless buffet runs all four Convention days from 10am to 2:30pm.
As it happens, several comic-adjacent theatrical productions are playing around town this week, including Shrek the Musical at the Joan B. Kroc Theatre, Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax at Old Globe, Xanadu at Onstage Playhouse, and Monty Python’s Spamalot at the Cygnet Theater.
Most applicable to the Con crowd, Turning Tydes Theater presents the magical musical Wicked Wizards at the Lyceum downtown (79 Horton Plaza) on Thursday through Sunday. The spoof of Harry Potter books and films includes comedic numbers like “Azkaban Life,” the sing-a-long tongue twister “Wizard Am I,” and a show-stopping tearjerker called “No One Names the Wizard.”
— Jay Allen Sanford
“I will not spend a single moment in line at Comic-Con 2018”
So said John Shand. “Never again.”
It’s safe to say that most Comic-Con International: San Diego 2018 attendees will be stuck in long lines; some will sleep in 24-hour-plus lines. But not Shand. He has been attending the annual pop-culture multimedia show at the San Diego Convention Center since 1996, when it was more of a comic book and sci-fi show. For the week of July 18-22, he’s chillin’ in his air-conditioned store in La Mesa called Toy Addicts.
“If I need something at the Comic-Con 2018,” he said, “I can just pick up my phone.”
I first met Shand in 1998 when we traded toys until the wee hours of the morning; then later that week we attended Comic-Con. My niche at the time was die-cast metal robots; Shand’s was 1980s G.I. Joe figures which garnered him the “G.I. John” moniker.
From 2003-2008, Shand capitalized on the exclusive lines at the Mattel, Hasbro, Magic the Gathering, and Lego booths. He would sit in lines for hours to purchase the hottest retro-remakes of his 1980s toys and newly released products. Many of the releases were exclusive only to the con attendees, and Shand had overseas collectors wiring his Paypal accounts top-dollar for such.
“I was wheeling and dealing in the lines that sometimes took me four hours. Others would be arguing [about cutting in line] on preview night [Wednesday], because it’s a bottleneck and there’s hundreds of collectors shoving and pushing; a fight even broke out.”
After preview night at about 9 pm, he’d haul a truckload of exclusives back home, then flip the stuff via eBay’s “Buy it now” option for up to a thousand percent markup.
Shand accumulated much of his toy collection from the profits of the Con-hustle, by reinvesting on more items purchased on Craigslist, swap meets, community yards sales, auctions, other collectible shows, and estate sales. At times we’d bump heads at the same venue, and we’d flip a coin to determine who’d purchase the vintage items that were usually priced at pennies on the dollar.
Shand’s toy collection grew so much that it attracted six-figure executives who were kids in the 1980s and watched Saturday morning cartoons.
“I met my Comic-Con connections at [City of Industry’s] Frank & Son [Collectible Show] in 2009,” he said. “It was a good hookup, because now I had free reign and unlimited access to Comic-Con.”
When Shand met his Comic Con International connects, whom he wouldn’t identify, his G.I. John moniker changed to “Toy Addict.” Other dealers started calling him the “Toy Godfather.”
“Having Comic-Con badge hookups means everything,” he said, “I would get as much exclusive merchandise as I possibly could.” Shand couldn’t go into detail about the number of badges he would obtain, because he said some of his “higher-ups” still work for the non-profit organization.
Personalized badges are provided to attendees, dealers, press, volunteers, artists, and Comic-Con staff — to access the convention. A different type of badge is worn by the San Diego convention center staff and employees of companies that lease within the convention floor grounds (ie. Starbucks, Fedex, etc.), or provide services (security, maintenance, booth set-up, etc.)
“John’s badges were legit, bro, with our names, the plastic pouch, the necklace, and everything,” said Paul, one of Shand’s associates. “In 2010, [Shand] hooked us up with, like, 12 badges; the year after, he gave us more.”
“Back then, I had runners left and right,” Shand said. “We had up to 40 runners, because everyone wants to go to Comic-Con. I’d give some like $1000 to go to Hasbro, and they’d buy the exclusives. Then my boy the Enforcer would check the merch and okay the purchase; then the runner would be able to roam the Comic-Con for the remaining days. I would go pick up the product at the Hilton, and my homeboy would have people go back and forth for the exclusives.”
Exclusive toys are released for specific occasions is lower print runs. Comic-Con exclusives that are released during the five days are sometimes an alternate color variation to a previously released toy, and the packaging will sometimes state “Comic-Con Exclusive.” Some exclusives are limited to 20 counts, which combined with a high-demand in the thousands, will drastically increase the resale price.
“The con exclusives started when Mattel re-released the He-Man stuff,” Paul said, “it was in the early 2000s...then they redid the castle.”
I asked Shand what would happen if the badge holder bounced with the money or merch. He laughed and said it would never happen. “They were usually friends of friends,” he said.
“...and he’d take it out on the ones who vouched for the shyster,” said PJ, who was standing by during our conversation at Shand’s stash house in Spring Valley, which is less than five miles away from his retail store on La Mesa Boulevard at University Avenue.
PJ is one of Shand’s toy-runners and was waiting for Shand to approve his New Mutants #87 comic book to trade against Shand’s four boxes of vintage toys and Nintendo (8-bit) video games.
“I once waited in the Comic-Con line at 6 am,” PJ said, “and there were already 300 people in the mezzanine lined up to get a Hasbro ticket to gain access to the Hasbro line inside of the hall.”
After a total of four hours waiting in both lines, PJ wasn’t able to buy the G.I. Joe/Transformer crossover exclusive that he longed for, because the booth had sold out. “That was a total waste of time,” he said.
PJ is a 54-year-old South San Diegan who has been attending Comic-Con since the first Star Wars hit the big screen in 1977; he’s been a vendor at the con since 1989 when the 10-by-10-foot booths “cost less than a grand; now our booth costs $2700.”
When Shand scores exclusives, he sometimes leaves them at PJ’s booth at aisle 900 to free up his hands, and shop for more.
“One time, I had to get there at 4 am to line up and get the exclusive Hasbro tickets,” Shand recalled, “and once the Comic-Con doors would open at around 9 am, we would make mad dash to the Hasbro booth. I paid about $20 for each of the G.I. Joe Zerana [action figures] with color variations, and after sold them for $200 apiece.”
I met Emily Savage sitting on the grass on the Tuesday of the 2016 convention. She was the first person in line for that year.
“Being the first on the floor was kinda like a bucket list thing for me,” she said.
Savage at the time, was a 23-year-old recent criminal justice graduate from Oxford University. She’s been coming to the con since she was 12 years old and is an avid autograph collector.
“Every year, the lines get longer and longer and it gets tougher to find things and see things,” she said. At about 8 pm, I sat next to her on the grass by the doors of Hall H, as she waited for preview night to open in 21 hours (at 5 pm on Wednesday).
“I’ve got a camping pad to sleep on,” she said as she pulled out items from her pile, “an umbrella for the sun, because last year the girl in front of me in line got so sunburned and she was peeling on the last day, a change of clothes and many portable chargers.”
I had to ask, “What do you do when you have to go to the bathroom?”
“[You] make friends with people in the line with you and ask them watch your stuff,” she replied.
A male attendee with a large camping backpack sat behind her.
“You form line tribes with the people in front and behind you,” Savage said. “I’ve made friends in line from years and years ago who I’m seeing again this year.”
The closest available bathroom for them was about 100 yards east at the Hilton.
“And with Starbucks now allowing everybody including non-customers to use their bathrooms,” PJ said, “the one at the Hilton’s going to be used too.
Chantal Barajas, a 29-year-old cosplayer from Tijuana, understands the bathroom woes at the convention all too well — so she utilizes the Hard Rock Hotel (across the street) bathrooms to get dolled up, because it’s less congested. In 2016 she dressed as female version of Vegeta, a Dragon Ball Z character. Her costume has shoulder and waist armor pieces that jut outwards which make it difficult to walk around with the 130,000-plus roaming fans — but more so if she has to use the bathrooms which at times, can be an hour wait.
“It is extremely difficult to go to the bathroom with any cosplay outfits,” she said. “When I have worn armor, I keep my water levels to a minimum only enough to be hydrated. One time, my armor did not allow me to sit down in the stall and I had to take it off.”
It takes Barajas about three hours to cross the border and another hour-plus to dress up in her homemade costumes. Her favorite characters to cosplay in are Black Cat, a Spider-Man villain, and Psylocke from X-Men. She doesn’t cross the border as Psylocke, because the character utilizes a katana, a Japanese sword, which she doesn’t want to explain to the U.S. immigration officer.
This week, she’s cosplaying as a female version of Batman.
In 2016, Jorge Guevara, a 30-year-old writer from Tijuana, was detained at the San Ysidro point of entry for carrying a plastic gun which accompanied his The Winter Soldier outfit from the 2014 Captain America film. “The [U.S. immigration officers] did not like that at all,” he said, “but after an inspection they let me through. Usually, they joke around and are polite when they see us [cosplayers].”
Guevara’s been attending Comic-Con since 2009. He stays the night at his relatives’ house for the four days. He, like many con-goers, park their cars for free near trolley stops and take the trolley in to the Convention Center stop on K Street.
Parking fees by the convention center can cost Con-goers up to $50 during Comic-Con.
“It’s become very crowded and more expensive,” Guevara said, “and it’s almost impossible to get tickets.”
Last year Guevara attended as press, because he used to write for a movie magazine. He camped out overnight to gain access to the Hall H — where even wearing the coveted press badge doesn’t guarantee access inside the hall.
This year Guevara is dressing as Deadpool, a red-and-black masked Marvel comic book character.
“Jay Pacheco” — not his real name — is a San Diego school teacher who’s been accessing Hall H since the early millennium.
“In order to survive the long lines at Comic-Con, it needs to be a group effort,” he said. “One person cannot do this solo. About ten years ago, I formed an alliance with some women I met in line, and we’ve been keeping it ever since. One of our women is super organized, and she brings her mom every year. They bring blankets, pillows, etc. We all take turns waiting in line in shifts. I usually take the night shift [by] sleeping on the ground to hold our place in line.”
In the last couple of years, Pacheco has posted photos on his social media, of himself waiting in line by the boat docks east of Joe’s Crab Shack, which is about a quarter mile from the Hall H entrance.
Hall H is the 64,800-square-foot, easternmost hall where the new movie trailers are shown and movie panels are held in which the fans can ask celebrities questions. Its Twitter account reads: “I am the longest, nerdiest, most demoralizing line at any convention ever made, and that’s just how you like it. Come get in me.”
Pacheco wouldn’t comment on how he’s accessed the show for the last 17 years. But there are alternatives to enter the Con if one doesn’t have the clout like Shand, a byline like Guevara, or the patience like most who attempt to purchase online, where tickets sell out faster than Clark Kent disrobes to become Superman.
“I started volunteering in 2008,” said Caitlin “Kit” Findley, a cosplayer who’s been attending the con since 2003 and volunteering since 2008. “It’s a fascinating system [to access the con for free of charge]. Basically, around the end of the year/beginning of the new year, emails will go out to folks who have volunteered the previous year. There are sign-ups for new volunteers but due to a lot of repeats, those openings can close up awfully fast. After the emails go out, then the sign-ups roll out. You register through the Comic-Con website using your personal member ID. Once registered, you await the week of the con for your assignments.”
Kit’s volunteering duties include line management, art show security, prize room assistant, schedule change poster, portal check helper, freebie table assistant, and masquerade staffer — for three hours a day. When she’s put in her time, she has access to the Con for the rest of the day.
“They give you printed out slips that you keep in your badge pocket that you turn back in after your shift,” she said, “and your supervisors rate your performance. They’re not thrilled by apathetic folks or people who slack off. Considering the cost of around $125 for a badge, it is absolutely worth helping out for three hours a day.”
Being a volunteer, Kit didn’t have to wait in line to access the Hall H. She simply volunteered to assist in that part of the Convention. “I did manage to catch the end of a Joss Whedon panel,” she said, “then the South Park season 20 panel, and finally the Preacher panel.”
Pacheco’s favorite Hall H experience was the 2017 Women who Kick Ass panel led by Charlize Theron; for 2018, he’s thinking twice about returning because “it’s a mess... people check Twitter and freak out, and so people then come rushing into the line.”
Attendees used to wait the grueling Hall H lines to get a glimpse of the movie previews, but lately, Pacheco noticed that the production companies have been showing the previews online around the same time as the Comic-Con.
“Yes, it’s nice to get photos of the stars, but I’m over it,” he said. “I’m gonna try Ballroom 20 this year.”
Ballroom 20 is a 40,000-square-foot room that’s on the upper level of the Convention Center and east from Sails Pavilion. Here, there have been appearances by Harrison Ford and Sarah Michelle Gellar, and the wait to get inside, although long like Hall H downstairs, is mostly within an air conditioned hall and on a plush carpet.
Last year I saw volunteer Andrew by Ballroom 20 guiding the foot traffic. “There are so many people here,” he said. “I have to make sure that these kids and adults don’t run and clog up the pathways.”
While we spoke, a cosplayer dressed as a seven-foot Megatron robot from the Transformers franchise drew a crowd. “You need to keep on moving,” he told them.
Kit was downstairs guiding her line though the traffic and holding up a sign that read “Line starts here.”
When freebies are given out or a celebrity makes a surprise appearance, the crowds can be overwhelming unless lines are formed, directed, and cut off with another volunteer holding up a sign that reads “Line ends here.”
“One of the most dickheaded things you can do is somehow get a handicap badge if you’re not handicapped,” John Shand said. “There’s people that go to the doctor and say, 'For the next week I need a handicap pass or letter.' Then they enter the Comic-Con in wheelchairs or crutches. Now if you have a handicap badge, you can go straight up to the front of the line with probably five to ten people waiting and get your stuff. And the handler, the guy pushing the wheelchair, he can get stuff too. If you’re handicapped, they cannot tell you no.”
“Then you got the ice cream vendors selling to the Con-goers sitting in the hot sun,” PJ said. “Or the cosplayers selling water bottles for a buck on the Harbor Drive Pedestrian Bridge.”
At PJ’s shared booth, he and his partner sell vintage 1980s toys like Shand. They don’t mind the lines of people coming into their booth to spend money. They do dislike it when lines of people for other booths stand in front of their booth. “It’s hard to get in and see our stuff when all of those people block us,” he said.
Jenny managed one of the 15 San Diego Pretzel Company carts at the convention center for five years. “Comic-Con to us was like Christmas,” she said. “In 2013, my cart would make between $5000-$7000, and the customers, sometimes in a line of more than 20, wouldn’t complain about the 15-minute wait or our prices.”
Jenny sold pretzels for $4 and pretzel-hotdogs for $5. One year, she was stoked to see Rihanna, the actual singer and not a cosplayer, walking around, but she couldn’t get her autograph because it’s against her company’s policy. Everything else at the venue was pretty much fair game for her.
“We are given a badge which was from the convention center,” she said, “and it would have the name of the company that you worked for and your photo. With that badge, we can access anywhere, including Hall H, and we don’t have to wait in lines.”
PJ is given four dealer badges for his booth. If he needs extra dealer badges, they cost “$425 apiece and $250 apiece for regular badges,” he said. “The difference is: dealers get to go inside the halls an hour earlier and stay an hour later, while people with regular badges are constrained to the set hours and are escorted out when closing time happens.”
Shand has been known to use dealer badges to get in early and bypass the lines, then swap it out with a regular badge when he’s the first in line at the booth, because “dealers aren’t allowed to purchase certain Con exclusives.”
— Mike Madriaga
An experience becomes the experience
Last September, movie news website TheWrap.com listed “5 Reasons It Became Horror’s Biggest Box Office Success Ever.” Number three on that list was “an immersive haunted house set up on Hollywood and Vine.” That house, modeled after the crumbling manse that appears in the film, was the creation of Grandesign, a marketing company headquartered in the old Wonder Bread factory on 14th Street in the East Village.
“The first thing we did,” explains Grandesign’s Robert Ridgeway “is find the guy who owns the parking lot there, and see if he’s willing to rent it out for 90 days. Then you’ve got to get it permitted, which is tough in Hollywood. We were getting ‘No’s all the way up, but we went to the mayor of Los Angeles, and he gave the thumbs up. But we had to build it to code. We did it in ten days.”
It helped that they were old hands at the whole “never-been-done-before” marketing thing. “We were doing this ten years ago, before ‘experiential’ was really a word,” says owner Aaron Gaeir. Cool campaigns, like King Kong leaving giant footsteps and a trail of destruction along the beach in Santa Monica. That kind of large-format out-of-home ad work “was a good genesis for moving into large-format experiential engagement, things Millennials resonate with and want to share and be a part of. That’s where marketing is going.”
In a way, Comic-Con is already just that: a giant ad for pop culture that attendees pay to be part of. “In four days, it brings to a brand what some locations would take a year to get,” says Gaeir. Attendees “are going to share, and people worldwide are listening. It’s crazy: 98 percent of people who go to an experience are going to take pictures or video of it, and of those, 83 percent are going to share it with their network. For the It house, 35,000 people waited up to eight hours to go on the tour, and we wound up with over a billion social shares. And Lisa Gregorian, marketing chief at Warner Brothers, was recently quoted saying that her movies [and shows] are impacted to the tune of $30 million as a result of Comic-Con.”
So it’s not surprising to learn that Grandesign had 15 executions at last year’s Con, including the IMDboat and the #WRECKED island tied up in the Embarcadero Marina. About that island: TBS was looking for something to promote season two of their desert island comedy Wrecked. Grandesign producer Morgan Cassell spoke up for “an island that says ‘Wrecked’ that sails down the coast of California past all the beaches, so people can take pictures of it.” TBS jumped at the idea, then asked about bringing people onto the island.
Grandesign director of creative services Sean Pedeflous: “We’d never done an island before, but we’ve learned what questions to ask.... Can we paint it? Can we drill into it? Can we use gasoline generators? How do we build giant letters that won’t act as sails?”
From there, it was on to décor. “Our fabricators knew of a place in Arizona where we could get a ruined plane fuselage. And one of our New York employees had to find a stuffed boar. Add the rock-climbing-type palm trees, the mechanical boar, the skee-ball, and the beer garden with personalized coconut shell cups, and you have the makings of a sharable experience.”
Last year, brands were hosting interactive activations in the Petco Park parking lot (including Grandesign’s It-themed school bus/VR installation), “but it was really fragmented. No one made the effort to bring these brands together.”
So this year, an experience becomes The Experience, a coordinated collection of setups “that we hope to scale nationwide.”
In San Diego, the brands need to be at least “Comic-Con-esque,” says Ridgeway. “Comic-Con is a unique group. They’re not in this for economic reasons; they don’t want to just put Doritos on the side of a building.
Says Ridgeway. “For three hours each day, we’ll have e-sports, where Fortnite amateurs can come and test their skills against pros. And then on Saturday night, they can watch the pros play each other. We’ll have a couple of bands, including Saint Heart, who does a lot with costumes, and a band from TV made up of a bunch of actors.” Ridgeway is high on the structure’s versatility: the containers that give the platform its height “can be used for VR displays,” and the bar below the LED screen sets the stage for a VIP gathering above the fray.
Ridgeway runs through a partial list of the activations: Samsung’s air-conditioned trailer with a motorsports game, Fandom’s escape room, Sony’s Ghostbusters mobile game (lorded over by the Stay-Puft marshmallow man), Nestle’s DC-themed ice cream… and hey, Cloak & Dagger! I remember them from my comic-book days in the 80s. Runaway teens — she’s white, he’s black — who wind up injected with some nasty experimental drug which gives them superpowers: she can throw daggers of light, while he becomes a creature of soul-numbing shadow.
Now it’s a Freeform TV show. “We’ll have a church here, and a New Orleans backdrop,” says Ridgeway. The Marvel press release promises to “recreate the iconic moment between the two leads, Tyrone and Tandy, when their powers interact. Participants are harnessed to a bungee that will propel them backwards from the force of their powers. A slow-motion recording will capture the moment, which will also include an overlay effect that shows both the light and dark energy emitting from the participants.” And of course, “fans will have the opportunity to share their videos on social media.”
Theresa Travis, Freeform’s director of marketing strategy, sounds the experiential bell. “Grandesign pitched the idea, and two members of our team, who regularly go to Comic-Con, got so excited that we knew this was the idea to fight for. We worked with the production team for the series to make sure the light and dark energy look as close as possible to what’s actually seen on the show. This is not the audience where we want to take liberties with anything that comes from the series.....As a Marvel fan, I would wait in line to get this video.”
And goodness knows how many Marvel fans would go online to see it. Goodness and Grandesign.