The San Diego Comic-Con is a strange experience. It isn't quite a gathering of comic book enthusiasts, and it's not quite a convention in the usual SFF mold. It's billed as a the "largest popular arts convention in the world," and with multimedia pavilions by comic book publishers, game companies, and media giants littering the exhibition halls, the description certainly fits.
I've never written about my experiences at the San Diego Comic-Con, though I've been attending the con on-and-off since 1988, when my mom took me, my cousin, and my sister there on a lark. I was thirteen at the time, and had been reading comic books for two years. I owe a lot to comics. I wasn't much of a reader before discovering them, and they served as my gateway to prose fiction, which I now devour as if it were a vice.
But after my experiences this year, I'm not sure if I'll be going back. The following is a snapshot of this weird, consumerist culture.
The con today is a far cry from its humble origin as the Golden State Comic Book Convention, held in the basement of the U.S. Grant Hotel, over thirty years ago. These days, the con is housed at the San Diego Convention Center, a huge structure on the waterfront, complete with a sail motif. The interior is vaulted and very sunny, split into a lower level, mezzanine, and upper level. A massive exhibition space takes up the lower level, sectioned into eight halls. The just-completed Hall H is reserved for big corporate presentations, with a 6,500-person seating capacity. The panels and the rest of the presentations take place on the mezzanine and upper level.
I had not attended the con since 2002, and haven't regularly collected comics in almost a year. That is an epoch in comic book industry time, when you factor in how quickly a publisher can file for bankruptcy, how frequently creative teams can change, or how easily a character can be fucked up beyond recognition. I've felt out of touch with the comic book world, and I thought going back to the con would help me re-connect to it all, or at least discover a series that had burst onto the scene. Sudhir, my cousin and convention buddy (and a hell of a talented artist) felt the same way, and we were cautiously optimistic.
The first thing I noticed that was different was that we had lanyards. The Comic-Con has always revered fetish (the Masquerade costume competition is still a popular event, and it seems like one in ten convention-goers is clad in groovy costumes). Now, with lanyards around our necks, we looked like nothing more than the nerd faithful, clutching our version of a guru's picture or rosary beads, making a processional to the holy temple of our constructed deities.
Some gods, though, had a diminished presence. Marvel Comics' pavilion was half the size of the DC Comics space, despite having a monster hit with Spiderman 2. You'd think by now the higher-ups would have learned to allow more fan-artist interaction on the exhibition floor, but Marvel has always been an ineptly-run company.
Lucasfilm had pulled out all the stops, though. "The Lucas Pavilion" took up a vast chunk of floor space, highlighted by a huge replica of an X-Wing Fighter below a massive screen showing clips from all five films, ads, and other stuff. I thought it looked pretty nifty.
Okay, I'll get it out of the way right now: I am a Star Wars fan (prequels included). My love of reading may have begun with comics, but my love of science fiction and fantasy began with Star Wars. I know many spec fic writers (and the editor of this fine publication) think Star Wars is crap. [Ed note: only stuff made since The Empire Strikes Back .] I can understand why folks feel that way. I've always had a difficult time explaining what it is about Star Wars that affects me so deeply.
All I can say is that I decided to become a writer because of Star Wars. The first book I read for pleasure was Han Solo at Star's End. I'm not as well-read as some people I know, but I do try to read all kinds of literature. That's the main reason I try not to look down at folks who enjoy popular media, because I know from personal experience a young person can go from playing Super Mario Bros. to enjoying War and Peace.
Anyway, I usually have a fairly consistent schedule at the con, one I've honed over the years. I spend the first day looking around the dealers' room scrounging for discounted back issues. Once upon a time, Sunday was the best day to look for deals, but now dealers are eager to sell their back issues for a dollar, right off the bat. I enjoy hunting at the dealer's room as much as any nerd, but a big draw of any convention is the wide array of panels. Sometimes they fizzle, but a lot of times I learn something new, or at least come away entertained.
My first panel was "Professional Networking," moderated by Andrew Pepoy, a versatile inker, and ten-year veteran of the field. I've been sending out my stories to magazines since I was sixteen, and a lot of the advice ("be persistent," "don't suck") is pretty standard. I used to bring portfolios to the con a few years ago, though, so I thought he might have some helpful advice. The panel was aimed primarily at artists, but there was useful info for writers, as well (networking with other artists and writers at local conventions, keep in touch with contacts, etc.). He even had a nifty handout.
The next panel followed immediately, and looked very promising: "The New Kids In the Universe: Fresh Voices in Speculative Fiction" featured Alexander Irvine (One King, One Soldier), Lorna Freeman (Covenants), Howard Hendrix (The Labyrinth Key), China Miéville (The Iron Council), Minister Faust (Coyote Kings and the Space-Age Bachelor Pad), and Andy Fox (Bride of the Fat, White Vampire). I always enjoy the author panels at the con, and I was pleased to see a real presence from the SFF literary world this year. Semi-disclaimer: The statements I'm attributing to the various participants are from memory. Any author who was there and reads this, please feel free to yell at me if I've mangled your intent.
The discussion followed the usual introductory route of most panels, with each author talking about his or her work. Then Del Rey editor Chris Schluep asked the panel if traditional fat fantasy and less traditional fantasy literature have the same merit. The general consensus at first was that there was room for all, and that there was nothing wrong with traditional fantasy. China Miéville, however, said it was important not to be "disingenuous," mentioning the always-popular Sturgeon's Law, and bringing up objectionable qualities he found in some books, specifically the Harry Potter series. At that point, everyone seemed to take that as their cue to toss off the diplomatic hats, and things really got rolling.
The discussion moved on to the topic of the genre "ghetto." Alex Irvine said it was time for genre writers to get rid of this particular chip on their shoulder—mainstream and/or academic types who don't see genre fiction as serious literature are in the minority. Howard Hendrix, who is also an English professor, countered with an anecdote about a symposium he attended where the discussion topic listed Gibson and Sterling as important "post-modern" authors. Irvine said that everyone has anecdotes of snobbery, but that these academics were fighting a "rear-guard action," and this debate was irrelevant to most people. He pointed to high school curriculum, where many genre books are taught. Minister Faust, who also teaches high school English, agreed. He cited Flowers for Algernon as a work that has been well-received in his classes, and he finds genre acceptance among his students and colleagues.
I wish the panel had taken questions at that moment (maybe they would have anyway). Irvine is right that many of us have our own anecdotes about people's negative attitudes towards genre, and I certainly hope that genre has conquered, but I don't quite believe it just yet. I always see Philip K. Dick mentioned by non-genre writers, but never Lucius Shepard or Samuel Delany. Miéville said his own sister had a hard time reading works of genre, and she was one of the most open-minded people he knew. I think that when most people think of science fiction and fantasy, the dreck Hollywood that puts out comes to mind, or the "Sci-Fi" issue of T.V. Guide, which is always done with a heavy dose of mockery. Miéville said he would measure SFF's success when a SFF novel wins the Booker Prize (Margaret Atwood, who objects to being classified as a science fiction author, apparently doesn't count.). My desire is just to get more people reading SFF books.
Afterwards, I met Colleen Lindsay la gringa, publicity manager for Del Rey Books, which was cool. So far, the convention had gone pretty well. I had enjoyed the panels, but no comic books had grabbed my attention. Only the trade paperback collection Empire, Mark Waid's disturbing series about supervillains successfully taking over the world, had intrigued me. Good stuff, but it made me want to scrub my brain clean afterwards.
On Friday, I looked forward to an intriguingly titled panel: "Beyond Once Upon a Time: Building On the Tropes of Fantastic Fiction. The panelists were: Nancy Holder (Spirited), Christopher Paolini (Eragon), Greg Keyes (The Briar King), Terry Brooks (Tanequil), Margaret Weis (The Dragon's Son), Peter David (One Knight Only), and Nick Mamatas (Move Under Ground). Even with that powerhouse line-up, the panel was strangely tame. Greg Keyes started things off, mentioning his first book wasn't picked up by various publishers, because it was too strange, and not traditional enough (i.e., it didn't have a princess, a horse, and a sword). Mamatas said it was a shame that such a novel was passed over, and that problem was with the publishing industry, not the book. Unfortunately, no one picked up on that thread, and the hour lumbered along, punctuated by some wisecracks from Peter David. Christopher Paolini gamely answered questions about his influences, mentioning Terry Brooks and Peter David, and then listing the works of William Hope Hodgson and E.R. Eddison.
Various tropes were discussed, and I kept waiting for Nick Mamatas to interject. I read somewhere that Mamatas doesn't waste time arguing with someone on a panel, he usually just shakes his head and smiles, which he did, quite often. He did speak about the importance of inverting standard genre clichés, speaking rapid-fire about his new novel, Move Under Ground, which features Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady battling Cthulhu. I wish he had just taken over the panel.
The final panel I attended was "Birth of a Nation: Hollywood, Comics, and Black Culture." Aaron McGruder, author of the Boondocks newspaper comic strip, was there, as were publisher and artist Kyle Baker (Why I Hate Saturn); Denys Cowan and Dwayne MacDuffie, the creators of Static Shock, and filmmaker Reginald Hudlin (Boomerang and House Party). All five are battle-hardened warriors in the comic book industry, and not one of them had the air of defeat and cynicism one usually sees around comic book veterans. They were far from being happy with the comic book industry—they've actually had an easier time working in Hollywood than in comics—but they were still in the game. Listening to McGruder and Cowan talk about touring the South Korean animation facility for the new Boondocks cartoon, and remarking that "they had bigger offices than we do," or Hudlin half-jokingly saying that the smart entertainment executives could be persuaded that their self-interest coincided with those of an artist ... well, "inspired" is a cliché, but it was pretty damn cool. Afterwards, I bought Birth of a Nation, the graphic novel McGruder wrote with Hudlin, illustrated by Baker, and had all three sign it.
I finished hunting down the rest of my comics on Friday, and walked, sore-footed, back to the hotel. Saturday was the big day, the penultimate day of the con: The "Star Wars Spectacular!" (I can feel your eyes rolling).
I had been really looking forward to this event, since there was supposedly going to be some exclusive information about Episode III, and "surprise guests." Steve Sansweet, "chief of fan relations," served as emcee once again. Sansweet, who probably has the largest collection of Star Wars memorabilia in the world, usually makes an attempt at dry humor, but it always comes off condescending. It was good that he didn't bother making jokes this time. What followed turned out to be worse, anyway. The entire presentation was basically one long commercial for Lucas Arts games. Oh, there were tidbits on the original trilogy DVDs, and some concept art for Episode III. There was also a droll, but brief appearance by Carrie Fisher, and a mellow Q&A session with Hayden Christensen and Rick McCallum.
Then it was right back to the shill. This shouldn't have come as a surprise to me. There were plenty of gamers in the room, and they were appreciative to see first-looks at the new Knights of the Old Republic and Battleground (omg, you get to kill Ewoks! That r0x0r!!1!1).
How could Lucas Arts possibly top that? Grinning Sansweet had the answer. The next trailer was for another superhot game we just had to have, but it wasn't Star Wars related. Lucas Arts had to show it to us, "because it's just that cool."
It was an ad for the forthcoming game, MERCENARIES, an execrable piece of shit about North Korean nukes being sold to terrorists. The introduction for the eponymous "hero" was set up with a hapless general spouting drivel about bringing in professionals who know how to clean up messes. That's the cue for our badass scalphunter to respond, "I don't clean up messes—I make 'em! And it's gonna cost you!!" In a line written by geeks and for geeks, he ticks off what he'll need—rocket launchers, Humvees, helicopters, air strikes on demand, and ... "a chick who sounds hot on a PDA." Lots of carnage and 'splosions follow. Thankfully, it was met with befuddled applause by people wondering what the fuck this lame-ass game was doing at a Star Wars presentation. At that point, they could have just gone on with more asinine games about killing Ewoks, and I would have gone away just shaking my head at corporate cynicism.
But no, they had another goodie unrelated to Star Wars to show us, another exclusive: George Lucas' director's cut of his first film, THX-1138, a movie that Sansweet sonorously declared was a film for our time.
On the screen, the words "Your identity is a number" flashed by, followed by "Your purpose is to consume."
That sort of did it for me. It is either the height of stupidity or the sign of a complete lack of irony to place such a trailer in the midst of an entire presentation built on having its participants consume. What was the point? For everyone in the room to see the film, identify with Robert Duvall's character, then go out and not buy Star Wars toys? In any other atmosphere, that trailer would have been fine, but in an atmosphere of sheer gluttony, it lost all meaning. It became something cheap. Maybe that was the point.
Sansweet saved the coup de grace of the presentation, the unveiling of the Episode III title, 'til the very end. When Revenge of the Sith blazed across the screen, every voice rose in a guttural roar and cheers. When the lights came back on, Sansweet was wearing the new "Revenge of the Sith" t-shirt, and seized the opportunity to tell us the shirts would be on sale in five minutes. Every single one of us shot out of our seat. We were supposed to know better, but we allowed ourselves to be manipulated anyway.
Outside, I felt like I was caught in a terrible Gen-X film where I literally passed people dialing cell phones, saying, "Did you hear? It's called 'Revenge of the Sith!'" I could almost hear the trendy soundtrack (filled with songs by nasalized, high-pitched males) playing in the background. As I went back inside the exhibition hall, I was trapped in a slow-moving wall of people that can only be described as "a crush of nerds." I had never experienced that at the con before. Outside of a mosh pit, I don't want to be that close to that many excited people.
When I saw the line to buy the shirts extended all the way down one wall, the absurdity of the situation hit me. Why was I allowing myself to be led like this? Just for a freaking t-shirt? It didn't seem worth it. I had a choice, so I walked away.
Later, I went back and bought the shirt. I'd like to say I did this because I had been manipulated to do it, that I went in for "the okeydoke," (to borrow a term from Harlan Ellison), but that's not true. I knew what I was doing. I was a participant in the bullshit.
As I thought more about it, my participation in the con began to feel that way, too. As the convention had worn on, I'd seen the same dealers that had been there year after year, only they looked grayer and somehow more sad. I realized I wasn't moving forward. I hadn't found any new comics to enjoy, because they were all caught in the same, boring story cycles or senseless "reboots." Walking the halls, seeing the constant inducement to "buy," I couldn't enjoy the con the same way as when I was fourteen or fifteen. The obvious reason was because I've grown older, and my tastes have changed, but it shocked me that I couldn't find one single title that held my interest. Not one. I began to think that I didn't belong there anymore, that the time had come to let it all go.
I knew that George Lucas once took a greater role in selecting products to be merchandised by his company. He stayed away from "exploitative items" like "Princess Leia makeup kits (makeup can be harmful to children's skin)." He boycotted South Africa because of its apartheid policies. (Pollock, p. 255). But in the past five years, he has teamed up with Taco Bell, currently the target of a boycott for its labor practices (Schlosser), and I've seen Episode One Queen Amidala makeup kits for sale. I had no problem separating my love for the Star Wars films from the company that profits from them, but the more time I spent as a passive "fan," the more I felt like a cog.
I walked, sort of dazed and dejected, to the Del Rey booth, and saw that China Miéville had a three o'clock signing scheduled. Mike Pasqua, the Comic-Con volunteer for Del Rey, and all-around good guy, set aside a copy of Perdido Street Station for me. Signings can be awkward for both fan and author, but some writers seem totally relaxed with the process, and China Miéville is one of them. We had a nice conversation about his panel, his novella The Tain, and the dead cities messageboard. While we talked, he inscribed my books with quotes by Blake and Whitman, and signed my copy of Perdido Street Station with the words, "Here's to not being disengenous." It was a great experience for me to speak with an author who cared what I thought and treated me with respect.
It's ironic, because Del Rey is also the publisher of Lucasfilm's Star Wars novels. Unlike the razzle-dazzle of the Lucasfilm Pavilion, though, the folks at the Del Rey booth fostered a personable, friendly environment for fans and attendees, and seemed to understand the value of treating their authors well. It lessened the scummy feeling of the Star Wars Spectacular.
After the convention, I staggered back to my hotel room, and collapsed. I looked my cousin Sudhir in the eye. I could see that he felt exactly the same way I did. The con just wasn't the same.
The way I feel right now, it doesn't seem likely that I'll go back to the con anytime soon. It's amusing to see huge corporations vie for the attention of the nerd, but the suits are savvy and know what buttons to push. They know how to co-opt, and as self-aware as we are (or think we are), we allow ourselves to be suckered. I don't want to mindlessly consume. I want to do some good on the other side of the table, and fight the good fight like Baker and McGruder, Mamatas and Miéville. Then at least I can at attempt to get my vision out, and talk to people, face-to-face ... while I swelter under hot lights and lousy air circulation. Maybe it's that "arrested development" China mentioned during his panel that goads me to try and make a difference. It's a sort of a badge of pride for me, most days.
You can't be conned if you don't go for the okeydoke.