San Diego Comic-Con, the largest popular culture festival in the U.S., is exciting, illuminating, and crowded. Very crowded. And it’s confusing. With so many overlapping events competing for an attendee’s time, planning your schedule and determining the optimal time to queue up for specific events requires the logic of a chess master. [See Knowledge@Wharton, San Diego Comic-Con: Best Laid Plans.]
While there is no corner Comic-Con that isn’t crammed with people, there are benefits to be gained from being a contrarian. Going against the flow can lead to wonderful moments and a less stressful con experience.
Preview Night: More than Exclusives
For folks lucky enough to have a ticket for Preview Night, the evening is typically a mad dash for Comic-Con exclusives. Preview Night lets fans get first dibs on these only-at-Comic-Con action figures and souvenirs from companies like Hasbro, Funko, and Mattel. Yet the full show floor is open that first Wednesday evening. While crowds mob the vendor booths, the comic book creators in Artists’ Alley and the booths of many publishers are relatively quiet Wednesday night.
Last year I strolled past the Avatar Press booth to find George R. R. Martin quietly chatting with at fan. I walked right up, asked for a photo, and had a brief chat with the famed Game of Thrones author. During the rest of Comic-Con, autograph sessions with Martin required waiting in a long line. Over in Artists’ Alley, creative couple Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner were goofing around and greeting fans who wandered over to the far end of the hall that houses Artists’ Alley. Many comic book creators were more relaxed and accessible during Preview Night than at any other time during the con.
Every Day is a Big Day in Hall H (and Elsewhere)
Friday and Saturday typically feature the most popular panels in Comic-Con’s infamous Hall H. Access to these events involves camping out for most of the night in order to secure a seat in the cavernous auditorium.
However, in recent years, after the morning crush for the best seats, Thursday has been a relatively easy “walk in” day in Hall H. You still needed to get in line and wind your way through the entry chutes under the tents, but by midday the line flows freely, providing access to the vaunted Hall H after only a short wait.
And while the Friday and Saturday panels feature the most popular panels, the Thursday and Sunday events are nevertheless always noteworthy.
At the 2013 San Diego Comic-Con, Thursday included Harrison Ford on the Ender’s Game panel along with stars Asa Butterfield and Hailee Steinfeld, writer/director Gavin Hood, and producer Roberto Orci. The day also included the Europa Report panel; “The Visionaries” session with Alfonso Cuarón, Marc Webb, and Edgar Wright; the Divergent panel with series novelist Veronica Roth, director Neil Burger, and many of the film’s actors including Shailene Woodley, Theo James, and Maggie Q.
In 2014, Thursday saw the first Comic-Con appearance of director Christopher Nolan for the Insterstellar segment of the Paramount Studios presentation, which also featured actor Matthew McConaughey. Both were a surprise — neither was mentioned in the Comic-Con Program Guide — and access to the hall was relatively easy that day.
Panels like these would be highlights at any other fan fest. Only at San Diego Comic-Con do sessions of this magnitude pale by comparison to the even bigger studio events on Friday and Saturday.
Although Hall H typically hosts the most high-profile events of the con, don’t judge the quality of a panel by the size of its venue. Outside of Hall H and Ballroom 20 are many fascinating presentations. The smaller room may mean a long line (or even the need to attend the preceding panel in order to get a seat), but these sacrifices are minor in comparison to camping on the grass all night to gain entrance to Hall H. And these smaller panels often bring great guests and compelling conversations. [See Comic-Con: Glimpse the Future in the Smaller Rooms and Comic-Con Movies: From Tentpole to Shoestring.]
Beyond the Convention Center: Offsites
As the crowds flood into the San Diego Convention Center, other events around town provide often less-crowded alternatives as well as viable options for days for which you don’t have a ticket for Comic-Con.
As a fan of the work of Felicia Day and the team at Geek & Sundry, I typically stop by the offsite event for the annual meet-and-greet and autograph signing with Day. NerdHQ provides a full range of programming with each event ticketed separately in an intimate venue. The Petco Park Interactive Zone is filled with fun activities, such as last year’s Sleepy Hollow virtual reality experience. This year the San Diego Public Library presents an exhibition on The Art of Comic-Con. Other engaging marketing activities for movies and television programs are sprinkled throughout San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter. [For a comprehensive look at offsite events at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con, see the calendar at on the SDCC Unofficial Blog: http://sdccblog.com/events/2015-07/
Finally, don’t be afraid to abandon your carefully planned schedule and just wander around. Peruse the show floor, check out the cosplay in the Sails Pavilion (where the bright but diffuse sunlight makes for great photos), or stroll the activities and exhibits on the lawns adjacent to the Convention Center.
By resisting the gravitational pull of the most popular events, by not following the crowd and going your own way to smaller, equally interesting events, you can have a fun and less stressful Comic-Con.