Of course I dressed up for San Diego Comic-Con! Didn’t you recognize me? I was the gawky, weary, big-haired journalist with a glazed look in her eyes. The one standing impatiently at the traffic light, then trying to bypass the dawdling mini-Wonder Woman child. I don’t care how cute you are, sweetie. It’s hot, and I’m late. Move it.
The cherry has been popped, the seal has been broken. I can now walk around my Upper West Side neighborhood wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “I Survived My First Comic-Con.” I had gone a full two decades without traveling to Southern California to experience all those panels and press conferences and activations. It’s not as if this longtime movie critic has no interest in getting an early glimpse at the new Lego movie or Glass. I just have a thing about, you know, people. Lots of people. People who storm into a conventional hall on opening night as if it’s Best Buy on Black Friday circa 2006 just to get their hands on something called a Funko.
But this year, my awesome editors at Parade asked me to cover #SDCC18. My number was up. Mind you, until that assignment, the only convention of any kind I had ever attended was Rewind-Con in 2016 in suburban Chicago and that was only because it featured a reunion of the Beverly Hills 90210 cast. (Can ya blame me.) This was going to be just a smidge different . . . though Luke Perry was on the docket to promote Riverdale.
I knew that this was not going to be a typical trip to the Cannes Film Festival the moment I boarded my flight just after dawn and overheard two people excitedly yammer about the Adult Swim offerings. But I was ready, if not excited, for the adventure. And four days later, I was ready to slam down seven anti-histamines with a Tylenol chaser.
So what is Comic-Con really like? Here are my five takeaways, with a few photos of evidentiary support.
1. There’s Too Much . . . Everything
I’m telling you this as a woman who’s lived in New York City for 20 years and goes to festivals on the regular: I was ill-prepared for the 24/7 Mardi Gras meets Disneyworld meets Soho Halloween parade experience. On a Saturday evening, the main streets were closed off because a marching band had gathered to play the theme from Star Wars. The convention hall was jammed with people clamoring amazingly random celeb autograph signings (Corin Nemec and Joe Namath, oh my) and giveaways.
Just in terms of panels alone, there were more than 100 of them spread out through the Convention Hall and its neighboring hotels that you couldn’t even enter without a card key. On a late sunny Friday afternoon, I had to choose between the Universal presentation of Glass and Halloween versus the Walking Dead press conference. I could have cloned myself 10 times over and still missed the Brooklyn 99 panel. I don’t know how that show relates to comic books but damn if it didn’t feature a cameo appearance from superfan Mark Hamill.
Let’s say you’re not interested in panels or presentations or seeing stars. No worries — you can still line up for hours directly outside the convention center to experience one of a dozen expansive “installations” spread out over multiple city blocks. On Night 1, my friend and I got a press pass into The Good Place installation, based on the popular Kristen Bell/Ted Danson comedy. We were bunched into a big group and led into a walled-off faux garden paradise intended to be heaven. There, a total stranger/paid actor grabbed me, gave me a tight hug and exclaimed that I was his soulmate. I got a can of raspberry LaCroix. I longed for the bad place.
But, OK, I should have known Comic-Con would be an overwhelming sensory overload. That still doesn’t explain why a man dressed only in blue and red underwear was prancing on a stage in an absolutely packed Hilton hotel conventional hall. The man’s name was John Barrowman, and he once star on a Darren Starr-created drama called Central Park West in the mid-1990s. Aaaaand . . . scene!
2. Hall H stands for Hella Highlights
I’ve always been curious about the famed “Hall H” — where big-budget movie extravaganzas are born (The Avengers) and later die (Cowboys & Aliens). I had imagined a spacious room, where you could fit an upscale Bar Mitzvah party or tell the American Idol hopefuls in Hollywood that they were going home. I was wrong here too. The Hall is cavernous, large enough to fit 7,000 people. And it’s pitch black, aside from the spotlight on the stage. If you just want to keep your SDCC strictly A-list, this is where you go, period. On Day 1 alone, you could arrive in the morning and take in the Predator presentation, the Doctor Who panel, the Better Call Saul panel, the Breaking Bad reunion panel, and the Assassination Nation panel.
Each panel features a lineup of big stars, and some sort of clip reel exclusive for the crowd. Fans can ask questions, and they’re even more out-there than you can imagine. Though I did appreciate the fan that asked Ryan Reynolds during the Deadpool 2 panel which of his movies is worse, X-Men: Origins or Green Lantern. His answer: “They’re both pretty bad.”
Because the hall is not cleared in between panels, fans can arrive early and loiter in there all the live long day. If you have reserved seating, however, you must exit the building. Asking whether I had reserved seating or sat with the fans is like asking a weatherman if San Diego is sunny. Still, even I was shut out of the Warner Bros. presentation. Tell no one.
3. These Fans Are No Friggin’ Joke
They’re a special breed, these Comic-Con die-hards. They will leave their parents’ basements and camp out for days just for early Hall H entry. I mean this literally: I saw rows on tents lined up on the lawn. I don’t know whether to be impressed, in awe or deeply concerned. In 1999, I waited for four hours for a possible ticket to see a Saturday Night Live hosted by Brendan Fraser, and that’s about as far as I’ve ever gone. And yup, they also dress up in elaborate costumes (dubbed cosplaying). The get-ups seem amusing in photos yet just-plain-crazy in the blistering daytime heat. I was uncomfortable in my shorts and a T-shirt; these people were in full-on masked Jon Snow costumes. Even the waiters and waitresses in the nearby restaurants were all fitted in E.T. and Spider-Man T-shirts, and you know that the 22-year-old Gen Z girl thinks Marty McFly was on Arrow last season. But they love it. They love posing for photos and getting stopped on the streets. They don’t kvetch about the melting makeup. This is their moment to shine. Like I said, a special breed.
4. Andrew Lincoln Is my New Old Favorite
Johnny Depp, Nicole Kidman, Chris Pratt and Bruce Willis were some of the stars that whisked in to San Diego and then got the hell out. But I’d venture to say that SDCC belonged to Walking Dead star Andrew Lincoln. After nine years, he officially confirmed that he was leaving the show and teared up in Hall H while making the announcement. Do stars cry in Hall H? Is that a thing? I doubt it. A few hours later at the Walking Dead press conference, he came out early and admitted that he got choked up. When the rest of the cast — who call him “Andy” — ambled in, he paid them all generous compliments and eloquently detailed his decision. The next day, he patiently hit up all the various press suites to give similar soundbites. His behavior reminded me of the captain of the football team in his final game senior year reluctant to leave the field. I should add that I’ve never seen one minute of The Walking Dead, and to me, Andrew Lincoln is just the cute Keira Knightley stalker from Love, Actually. I now must rethink my TV viewing habits since 2010.
5. I’m Too Jaded
The low point came during the Breaking Bad panel — which ranked No. 1 on my list of things that I was legit psyched about seeing at SDCC. While Betsy Brandt talked about her favorite on-set memory, I aimlessly scrolled through the People site on my phone. My friend leaned over and whispered, “The Breaking Bad reunion is happening right now in front of you and you’re reading fucking People?!” He phone-shamed me, and he was right. Comic-Con may not be my favorite scene, but I can see why so many people love the show. There’s a fascinating artfulness to the madness. And to paraphrase my favorite comedy, I know a million nerds would kill for my job. Perhaps now that the Band-Aid has been ripped off, next year, I’ll be more prepared and more gung-ho. At the very least, I’ll bring more hand sanitizer.
Also published on Medium.