Saturday, July 18, 2015

What Comic-Con Dreams are Made Of

Here's my report from the floor of the 2015 San Diego Comic-Con. To go straight to the photogallery from the show, click here.

As a longtime exhibitor and attendee of the San Diego Comic-Con, the words that come to mind to describe the show are exhausting and invigorating. For exhibitors—especially those like me who are  a one-man operation and tethered to a table for pretty much the duration of the show—the 4-plus days of the convention is a bit of an endurance test. But it is not much easier for the attendees either, who are running around all day, standing in lines, or sitting in a darkened exhibition hall for hours, or sometimes all day. At the end of the show, when the announcement is made that Comic-Con has come to a close, cheers go up around the floor—not simply because another successful show has hit the books, but also out of relief.

But, of course, the show is also incredibly invigorating. Originally created as a comic-book convention for hardcore fans in 1970, the show has morphed into the world’s largest mainstream pop culture mega-event that embraces all things geek, bringing under one umbrella movies, television, gaming, cosplaying, books, science fiction, art, comics, and more. Movie studios have been known to shut down their sets to bring their cast and crew to the show and no other event gives fans such close access to the artists and performers who are responsible for their favorite movies, shows and comics.

At its core, Comic-Con is a consumer show—but the palpable excitement of everyone in attendance makes it also feel like a big celebration with a crowded party atmosphere (as evidenced by the bagpipe players who snaked around the convention floor at various times), which spills over into the streets of the Gaslamp District outside the convention center, both during the day and night. The comparison people have made of Comic-Con to Mardi Gras is no exaggeration.

Some of the stories that came out of this year’s show served as a reminder why Comic-Con is the ultimate fan experience. Perhaps the most indelible was the Star Wars panel in the infamous 6,500-seat Hall H. After a surprise appearance by Harrison Ford at the panel, who joined the film’s director, J.J. Abrams, and cast, including fellow Star Wars original cast members Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher on stage, at the end of the presentation, the entire hall was escorted outside and treated to a surprise concert by the San Diego Symphony of composer John Williams’ Star Wars score outside the convention center by the San Diego Bay, which culminated with a fireworks show. It was, of course, a deft piece of promotional showmanship, but also a genuine gift to the fans.

It’s what Comic-Con dreams are made of….

Life as an Exhibitor
As a small press exhibitor, my table is just a small spec in a sea of booths on the immense convention hall main floor, which provides one with a rather narrow view of the show. I’ve written in the past that the show's changing nature has made it quite a challenge to be a pure small press comic-book publisher at Comic-Con, which others have now reported. Not everyone who attends Comic-Con is there for comics any longer and it’s hard work trying to get noticed among the sensory overload that’s Comic-Con. Many small press exhibitors rely on other merchandise to amp up sales, such as prints and t-shirts, often featuring characters and properties that have nothing to do with their comics. And while it’s still heartening to have attendees be instantly drawn to my comic-book by the art, being at Comic-Con requires strong salesmanship and the drive to put yourself out there. It’s not a role I’m entirely comfortable with, but fortunately my enthusiasm for the series still comes through as I hawk my work. I feel fortunate Rob Hanes Adventures has developed a modest fan base at the convention—many from overseas—and I enjoy the opportunity to introduce the series to new readers every year.
Below: I'm not in this report on the status of the small press at Comic-Con, but my booth can be prominently seen in the background during the interview with my booth neighbor, Lonnie Millsap!

It’s been oft said that Comic-Con is what you make of it—with so many programs and activities running concurrently and 24/7, there’s no single Comic-Con experience and it would be literally impossible to attend and see everything. As an exhibiting self-publisher, I’m bound to my table for most of the show. I’m fortunate to have friends and family to watch the booth when I’m away, but as the single artist-writer of my series, I’m beholden to be at my booth most of the time. I usually explore the floor in the hour or so I arrive at the convention hall before the doors open, taking photos and scoping out what I might want to purchase so that I can do so quickly on breaks during the show.

Some other general impressions and comments:
  • I resolved to be a bit more present on social media this Comic-Con. My limited presence in the past was partly technological: posting on Facebook and Twitter prematurely drained my mobile device’s battery, so this year I invested in an external battery booster for the show. My social media skills, however, continues to be a work in progress—I can see that I need to plan my social media strategy in advance as much as I do the other logistical elements of the show.
  • While my work has always appealed to an international audience, it seemed especially so this year. Classic adventure comics like Rob Hanes Adventures are a particularly popular genre overseas, and this year readers both new and old from the Netherlands, Italy, Brazil, and Saudi Arabia were among those I had the pleasure to meet.
  • This year was the first time I wholly embraced the Comic-Con app on my mobile device rather than used the traditional print program, and found it incredibly convenient. It was easy to peruse the daily program and save specific items as a customized list, as well as to find other exhibitors and pin-point them on a map in the app. Having an aisle booth, I often had attendees requesting directions who didn’t know to use the program to find their way around. The app made helping them much easier! Having said that, I attended few panels due to the need to man my table—I simply saved those scheduled panels I might want to see or bring to the attention of my wife and children.
  • In the last year or so, the harassment of female cosplayers has been an issue that has come to the fore. I noticed that one woman cosplaying as Elastigirl from the film the Incredibles pointedly said politely, “Thank you for asking” to everyone who asked to take her photo—a gentle way to remind attendees of respecting cosplayers.
  • However, I didn’t take as many photos as I have in the past because, having attended so many shows, I thought it was getting a bit repetitive. (It also felt like there were fewer cosplayers.) In writing about this year’s Comic-Con, writer Mark Evanier wrote, “It always amazes me each year the first time I enter the exhibit hall that everything is exactly where it was when I left here a year ago.” A lot of the exhibitors (even in the small press, including myself) maintain their same location year to year, creating a comforting familiarity for those who attend every year (in fact, my kids, who have become old enough to walk the floor now on their own know how to navigate the floor because of the familiarity of the booths).
  • Nevertheless, there were a few photos I wished I had taken: a trio of female Ghostbusters; a gentleman cosplaying as the old man from the Pixar film, Up; and, one night in the Gaslamp, a group of guys I’m pretty sure were cosplaying as the crew from the film, the Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Obscure cosplaying references are the most fun!
  • I heard various, conflicting reports that the floor felt less or more crowded this year. Personally, overall, this show felt fairly mellow and the walk across the street from the convention center into the Gaslamp District on Friday and Saturday evenings were way less crowded than I've experienced in past years. There had to be at least the same number of attendees as in past years (if not more), so I suspect this is primarily due to good programming that spread out the crowds and skillful crowd control by the Comic-Con staff. (Starting years ago, the organizers snaked many of the lines of attendees in the mornings to the upper levels, which helps greatly reduce the congestion at the front of the convention center. Nevertheless, there seemed to be more lines than ever for signings and exclusives—even lines for the privilege to stand in a line later. Just in front of my own booth every morning, people lined up past my table at the Peanuts booth.
  • Being tied to my table during show hours—and too tired to party after hours—makes it difficult to catch up with colleagues and friends. Nevertheless, people who stopped by included the maestro himself, Sergio Aragones, syndicated Funky Winkerbean cartoonist Tom Batuik, Andrew Pepoy, cartoonist and historian R.C. Harvey, writer Bill Shelly, Diamond Distribution’s Steve Leaf, and others. The sole celebrity I saw was Cameron Diaz. She seemed so relaxed, I decided not to intrude by asking for a photo when she walked by.
  •  When I do get a chance to walk around, one of my favorite pastimes is to visit the various boutique comic-book/graphic novel publishers like Fantagraphics Books, Bud Plant, First Second Books, and the original art areas.
    • As usual, the weather was great in San Diego. It had been unseasonably humid in Los Angeles leading up to the convention, but San Diego was cool and pleasant. The immense convention center, of course, maintains its own weather patterns—even with the crowds, it is kept fairly well air conditioned, so I always keep a hoodie at my booth.
    Being held earlier than usual, just after the July 4 weekend, was a bit disorienting for folks, but for 2016 the show will return to its more traditional spot on the calendar later in the month, July 21-24, 2016.

    See you there!

    Below is a sampling of photos from the show, but to see the full gallery, click here.

    Monday, July 6, 2015

    Comic-Con Tips

    With the San Diego Comic-Con nearly upon us, now is the time of year when bloggers and others offer sage advice for attending the show. I’ve resisted doing so over the years because most of them are already pretty comprehensive, if not simple, good common sense—i.e., wear comfortable shoes; bring at least snacks and water with you to avoid the long lines, high prices, and poor quality of convention center food; leave extra space in your backpack/shoulder bag for purchases; plan your schedule ahead of time; and that old standby, wear deodorant as a courtesy to others (hygiene used to be a serious issue back in the day among fanboys). In addition, as an exhibitor and attending professional, my circumstances were usually a bit different—a booth gives me the luxury of a base of operations during the show.

    Nevertheless, I thought it would be fun to write some of my thoughts down, partly to see how things have changed over the years...

    Driving down: When I was growing up, my parents always liked to get an early start on our vacation road trips, usually leaving the house just before dawn. Though I have fond memories of this, it’s not a tradition I’ve been able to pass on to my own family, none of whom are early risers. So my drive down every year to Comic-Con to set up my booth—with my wife and two kids following later in the day to join me—is one of the rare times I can hit the road in the early morning. I usually arrive in San Diego just as the convention center is opening up for exhibitors and, after years of doing this, I know exactly where to park so that I am directly below my booth on the convention floor and close to the elevators and stairs that take me upstairs. (My brother has also gotten into the habit of flying down early from where he lives from Northern California to join me and help me set up.) By late morning, my booth is usually set up, leaving my brother and I free to watch the convention center take shape, grab breakfast and check in to our hotel prior to that evening’s preview night. Two observations: one, It’s surprising how much still needs to be done in the convention center before the show begins that evening; and, two, although I’m pretty much going full speed on the way down, it’s surprising how busy the freeway is early in the morning! But the early bird definitely gets the worm.

    Getting around the convention floor: In the old days, I used to methodically walk up and down each aisle and see every booth. Even with the show running four days (plus a preview night), I’m not sure that’s tenable nowadays given the size of the floor, let alone if one spends a lot of time attending panels. Indeed, its the crowds on the floor that usually dictate what aisles I’ll go down since some can get extremely bottlenecked. Fortunately, the convention floor is generally organized with like-minded booths and exhibitors grouped together: publishers, back issue comics dealers, original art dealers, Artist’s Alley, gaming, book publishers, entertainment companies and studios, and, of course, my own area, the Small Press. This makes it a bit easier to explore the floor, especially if you have specific interests, and avoid those areas you’re not interested in.

    If you must get from one end of the convention center to the other, it’s often easiest to simply go out into the front lobby, walk down the length of the convention center, and pop back in where you need to be; or even to use a route using the upper flow levels. There will still be crowds, but not the kind of bottlenecks you’ll find on the main floor, even with the wider main aisles that are supposed to allow for better egress.

    One of the perks of being an exhibitor is that I get to explore the floor prior to the doors opening to the public each morning without the crowds, which gives me a chance to scope out the booths and merchandise.

    24-Hour Shuttle: The complimentary 24-hour shuttle and its various routes throughout the area are one of the great services at Comic-Con, which give attendees some flexibility in choosing where to stay and the opportunity to enjoy the 24-hour programming. It might be a bit of a hassle to be up at Hotel Circle or further out, but it’s certainly cheaper and the shuttles makes it feasible. But if you need to make a panel at a specific time, be sure to allow yourself plenty of time—at least an hour-and-a-half if not more—to get to the room. The wait for the bus, the many stops and especially the traffic can throw your schedule way off. Comic-Con actually does a good job deploying more buses during times of high demand, but you still need to take travel time into account when planning your schedule.

    Attending Panels: I really have no words of advice here especially since, as an exhibitor, I actually spend most of my time stuck at my booth trying to make sales. Back in the day, I could stroll into any panel at leisure. You can still do that on some panels, but for the most part, expect to wait on a line to get in. And, of course, if you’re trying to get into the dreaded Hall H or one of the other larger, popular panels, expect to pretty much spend all day waiting in line or in the room.

    One tip I have given people who tell me they wish they could attend certain panels about their favorite comics or television shows: many of the panels make their way online pretty much in their entirety (officially) not too long after the show (if not sooner). The only items usually not included in the videos are any clips/previews played, for copyright reasons. I often half-joke that I have to look at the feeds like everyone else to know what announcements or surprises have happened at Comic-Con. But in this era of social media and 24/7 news cycles, there's no need to feel left out whether or not you're at the show.

    Food: As I’ve gotten older, food has become more important to me during Comic-Con. Being at the convention for long hours, a good meal is one of the few times to relax with friends and enjoy a respite, so fast food doesn’t cut it for me! The convention center is notorious for its overpriced, mediocre food selection. Hot dogs, pizza and stale, pre-packaged deli sandwiches are the main choices. There is a rather hidden restaurant at the convention center that is surprisingly not too crowded so you can find a seat, but again the food selection isn’t anything to write home about. There used to be a few small food vendors (I recall one place where you could find some pretty good gyros), but those disappeared years ago. Though the walk is a hassle, your best bet during convention hours is going to the Gaslamp District or one of the adjacent hotels for slightly better and a more diverse selection of food. Comic-Con also occasionally offers food trucks, but that varies from year to hear. There’s a Ralphs grocery market across the street that’s also convenient.

    I especially like a relaxing sit-down dinner afterwards. Although the main drag of the Gaslamp—5th Street—is packed at dinnertime, going one block over in either direction you can actually find places that can seat you right away. These are generally nice, sit-down restaurants that are mid- to high-priced. I actually have compiled a list of places I regularly visit while at Comic-Con. This includes Little Italy–it’s a little too far to walk (but doable for those who don’t mind) and, again, it’s a bit more relaxing than just being outside the convention center.

    I also always have a pretty solid breakfast in the morning because you really need the energy to keep you going through the day.

    Money: Bringing plenty of cash used to be always important, especially since the lines at the ATMs at the convention center could get really long (assuming they didn’t run out of cash).. But the advent of pay services like Square and PayPal—which allows even the smallest vendor (like myself) with a mobile device to accept credit and debit card payments—has been a great boon that has lessened the need to have a lot of cash on hand. But it’s still probably wise to have some pocket money to be safe. Bank ATMs are easily available across the street from the convention center.

    Mobile Devices/Battery Charger: I remember the old days when Comic-Con had a message board to allow attendees to leave messages for friends! It’s way overdue, but this year I finally invested in an external battery charger for my iPhone. I’ve had to limit my social media participation during the show because by the end of the long day—with no close access to a wall plug—my device ran dangerously low on juice. The heavy-duty charger I purchased should now solve the problem!

    Camera: After years of putting it off, I finally purchased a higher-quality digital camera with a powerful zoom lens. The main reason was because I realized I needed something a bit better for my kids’ Little League games and graduation events, but of course the potential to take better pictures at Comic-Con (and vacations) is a plus. And I went ahead and got extra battery packs too!

    Life Outside the Convention Center: Though I wouldn’t do it myself, one can conceivably enjoy some of the Comic-Con experience without even having a badge! There are a lot of “off-site” events for both badge holders and Comic-Con “crashers”—indeed, the whole of downtown San Diego and the Gaslamp District feels like one extended Comic-Con party at all times of the day and night, including the now-traditional Zombie Walk down the Gaslamp, the NerdHQ event, co-founded by Zachary Levi (Chuck), which features alternative programming and high-profile guests while also raising money for Operation Smile (sited this year at the New Children’s Museum across the street.

    Back in the day, I recall there would be after-hours parties that were a must. These days, especially with the entertainment industry dominating so much of the show, parties have become more fragmented and exclusive, at locations like the Hard Rock Hotel. Nevertheless, cartoonist and comic-book professionals still have their favorite after-hour watering holes to hang out, talk shop, and network.

    As for myself, with a family in tow, and exhausted after a full day on the floor, I tend to get a late dinner with friends as soon as the main floor closes, which is when I primarily get to see some of the craziness of the Gaslamp, and then go back to the hotel to catch up with the family and hit the hay.