Meeting Our Cultural Overlords at Comic-Con

Seth Stevenson: Why I Hated Comic-Con
Notes from different corners of the world.
July 16 2012 1:04 PM

Meeting Our Cultural Overlords at Comic-Con

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Why I hated it.

SAN DIEGO—For the most part, I've stuck to the comic-book-related panels here at Comic-Con. They are the raison d'être of the festival. Comic books are still the topic that seems to fuel the most passionate, thoughtful conversations—as witnessed at the 30th anniversary tribute to Love and Rockets, or the seminar on progressive politics in comics. It's beautiful to watch the insular passion of the comic book obsessives—they are the warm, beating heart of the whole Con.

Still, I worried I'd be missing out if I didn't attend at least one panel devoted to filmed entertainment. Comic-Con could never draw 130,000 attendees to a convention solely focused on comic books. The Con's powerful place in the modern media landscape stems from its role as a showplace for the pop-culture-industrial complex—a place where TV networks and movie studios come out to play.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

With this in mind, I woke up Saturday morning determined to gain admission into Exhibit Hall H of the convention center. Hall H is the big kahuna—6,500 seats—where all the sparkly Hollywood stuff goes on. The first event scheduled on Saturday was at 11:30 a.m., when Quentin Tarantino would be presenting footage from his upcoming film, Django Unchained. To ensure I'd get a seat, I showed up four hours early to stand in line.

Immediately it became apparent that I should have shown up at least seven hours early. The line was comically long. It flowed into a park next to the convention center, serpentined several times, wound its way through fretful hope, past mournful despair, and then hopped out onto an access road for 750 yards or so before twisting into an entirely different park. It finally terminated on a desolate, cracked-asphalt basketball court not remotely within eyeshot of the convention center entrance, where—and at this point I broke into an incredulous chuckle—it began to serpentine again, such that one had to trace 10 or 12 basketball-court-length switchbacks before making any forward progress.

San Diego Comic-Con International 2012.
The lines at Comic-Con.

Photo by Kevin Dooley.

The guys who fell in line behind me were a cheerful, chubby trio, munching on breakfast sandwiches. One dude wore a "Joss Whedon Is My Master Now" T-shirt, and another wore a shirt that said, "Captain Filipino-America." To pass the time, they named the full casts from every Star Trek iteration. Then they named all the actors who ever appeared on The Wonder Years. Then they began to play the six degrees game.

First challenge: Connect Ellen Page to Ed Asner. Then: Rick Moranis to Kristen Bell. Anton Yelchin to Oliver Platt. David Boreanaz to Andy Dick. (This last was a tremendously impressive feat, which involved a detour through Eddie Furlong and The Crow: Wicked Prayer.)

Hours went by. Literally, hours, shuffling ahead a few feet every 15 minutes. Still these dudes were naming random celebrities, throwing in jokey one-liners as punctuation. When they hit a sticking point connecting Steve Gutenberg ("inventor of the movable type press!") to Chris Pine, I was growing loopy enough to join in, and pulled off a sweet Danson-Schwartzman-Rogen-Bana string that seemed to win their respect. After that, I returned to silently trudging.

At noon, a staff guy with a bullhorn told us that the Tarantino panel was closed and we were now waiting, almost certainly in vain, to gain entrance into the following panel about a movie called Silent Hill: Revelation 3Dwhich is apparently a sequel to a film I've never heard of based on a video game I've never heard of. My linemates weren't the least bit fazed. They rolled right along, venturing impressions of what Jeff Goldblum might sound like if he auditioned to play the Joker; imagining Ron Perlman as a lantern-jawed woman named Pearl Ronman; proposing a Star Wars spinoff in which Chewbacca "puts on a cowl and becomes king of the Ewoks."

I could take no more. Mostly of waiting for four-and-a-half hours to see a freaking sizzle reel for a horror movie I would never pay money to see. But also: these dudes. They were friendly, sharp, and funny. But for four hours they didn't manage to have a single conversation about anything real. No exaggeration—there was not one sentence about their lives, their families, their jobs, their romantic prospects, their hopes and dreams. Four full hours of Jonathan Frakes and Olivia d'Abo and Pootie Tang. (The guys in front of me were worse. They spent four hours talking about superhero movies.)

In the William Gibson novel Pattern Recognition, the protagonist develops a physical illness spurred by the sight of the Michelin Man—a sort of allergy to the semiotics of commerce. By the end of the weekend, I was experiencing mild nausea at the sight of Batman costumes and Big Bang Theory T-shirts and fall-TV trailers. At people lugging around gargantuan bags of worthless freebies. At tie-in toys.

There are lovely little gatherings here of people who yearn to emotionally connect over their favorite manga books and machinima and online cartoons. But there is also a sickness at Comic-Con. A pop culture pathology. I grew increasingly disgusted at the thought of all these people paying for the privilege of being spoon-fed gobs of entertainment gruel. Lapping it up. If you camp out overnight, we might show you a couple clips from The Expendables 2! Frankenweenie! Fringe! The Cleveland Show! Resident Evil: Retribution! Do you have a question for our panel? What was it like to work with Dolph Lundgren? Will the CG dragons be bigger this season? When is your character getting a love interest? Do you find the period costumes help you get into the proper mind frame on set?

Maybe I was being unfair. Perhaps I just hated the aesthetics of an event where Kevin Smith is the prom king, in his doofusy XXL hockey shirts and calf-length jorts. Where 80 percent of the framed art for sale on the convention show floor involves cyborgs, barbarians, zombies, or juggsy ladies in tattered bikinis. Would I feel differently if this were a convention devoted entirely to the confluence of Preston Sturges movies, Jane Austen novels, Newsradio, and 1990s Native Tongues hip-hop? (I admit I'd be fascinated to see who else, if anyone, might show up at this imaginary Seth-Con. But I'd draw the line at cosplaying as Mr. Darcy or Posdnuos.)

Sunday morning, the last day of the Con, I decided to give it one last whirl. On the heels of my failure to infiltrate Hall H, I was determined to gain entry to at least one tough-ticket event. I noticed on the schedule there was a panel celebrating the 20th anniversary of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That'd do nicely. I actually liked the Buffy TV show. (What? My ex-girlfriend watched it, it was on all the time in our apartment. Anyway, it was good! Don't make me get all fanboy defensive! Whedon forever!) Bottom line, this seemed like a situation where I wouldn't feel alienated and could even boast a modicum of legit geek cred.

I showed up five hours early. The line outside this smaller, roughly 2,500-seat ballroom was already at least 1,000 people long. Three other panels were scheduled to take place in the room before the Buffy panel started, but lots of folks were "preloading"—meaning they'd sit through hours of stuff they didn't care about in order to guarantee themselves a seat for the Buffy reunion.

I got in. Which at first I regretted. I endured a seminar about a BBC swords-and-sorcery drama called Merlin. Then a panel consisting entirely of people who do voiceovers for Star Wars video games. (I guess I shouldn't have been surprised, but it turns out even video game voiceover artists have their own flocks of fanboys.) There was a panel about a new Batman cartoon series—ostensibly an afternoon TV show for children, though all the questions were from adults who solemnly inquired about who was voicing Alfred and whether there would be any crossover episodes with the Green Lantern cartoon. (Kevin Smith himself moderated this one, emitting guttural, orgasmic noises when he saw a mockup of the new animated Batmobile.)

Finally, it was Buffy time. A reel of favorite moments played, and I found myself laughing along with everyone else at the vintage Whedon-y goodness. The panel came on stage. James Marsters, who on the show played a vampire named Spike, delighted the crowd by recounting how he got cast, revealing his favorite Buffy quotes, singing Whedon's praises, and regaling us with backstage stories. The key thing was: He clearly adored Buffy every bit as much as anyone sitting in the audience. He was, yes, a fan. I slowly realized I liked being there in that room, with him and all these other fans, together dipping back into this show as if it had never gone off the air.

Eventually the lights darkened and there was a screening of the Buffy musical episode, titled "Once More With Feeling." All 2,500 of us sang along. Isn't pop culture awesome?

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