This year’s Comic-Con International: San Diego was a mix of the new and the familiar, the wonderful and the weird, the carefully planned and the unexpectedly serendipitous. Here are highlights of Comic-Con 2015 from my perspective.
The Calm before the Con
The hours before badge pick-up on Wednesday afternoon provided the opportunity to stroll around downtown San Diego to get a glimpse at the official Comic-Con banners on the street lamps and peruse the advertising covering the buildings and transportation vehicles throughout the Gaslamp Quarter.
As last year, the marketing onslaught started shortly after stepping off the plane. The staircases and baggage carousels at San Diego International Airport were covered with ads for Conan O’Brien’s TBS program Conan. The Conan ads continued in town with banner wraps covering trains, buses, and the upper floors of the Marriott hotel.
The trend of wrapping buildings in large ads seemed to have subsided slightly last year, with no wrap on the prime real estate of the Hilton Bayfront hotel that year. The building wraps were back in force this year, however, with multi-story ads on both the Hilton Bayfront and Marriott Marquis and — for the first time this year — with a pair of banners on the Hilton garage as well. In addition, the usual barrage of building-covering ads appeared throughout the Gaslamp Qaurter and around Petco Park.
As I outline in my Knowledge@Wharton article, the early appearance of these advertising installations triggers a flurry of social media activity that allows brands to tap into the pent-up excitement as fans await the start of Comic-Con. [See “Building Buzz: How Comic-Con Turns Froth into Frenzy” ]
This year, the pre-Preview Night afternoon also offered time to explore The Art of Comic-Con exhibit presented by Comic-Con International at the San Diego Central Library. The gallery included illustrations and documents covering 45 years of San Diego Comic-Con as well as Comic-Con International’s sister shows WonderCon and APE (the Alternative Press Expo).
After picking up my badge and connecting with a reporter from NPR to be interviewed for a piece on All Things Considered about immersive marketing [see “Want To Get Inside Your Favorite Show? Go To Comic-Con“], it was time to head the Convention Center to hit the show floor for Preview Night.
Preview Night has become one of my favorite parts of Comic-Con. The lack of competing programming that first evening means you can browse the exhibition hall floor without fretting about all the other activities you’re missing.
Once again this year, I followed my contrarian strategy for Preview Night. [See “Be a Con-trarian: Go Against the Flow at Comic-Con“] While most of the crowd rushes toward the booths of collectible vendors like Hasbro, Mattel, and Funko, I go against the flow and head over to Artists’ Alley. Comic book creators who would later have long lines of fans looking for autographs or commissioned illustrations were relatively accessible during Preview Night. Artist Bernie Wrightson and his wife, Chip Zdarsky, Stan Sakai and other writers and artists were readily approachable Wednesday evening. When artist Paul Guigan and writer Anina Bennett mentioned this would be the last major con at which would have a table, I took several farewell shots of their booth.
While I typically skip the nighttime parties at Comic-Con, on Wednesday evening I had two post-Preview Night events in my calendar: The Enchantment Under the SDCC party from the SDCC Unofficial Blog and the Game of Bloggers Meet Up hosted by Crazy4ComicCon’s Tony B. Kim. Despite a long day, I made it to the former, but only for a brief visit and few quick photos. As much as I wanted to stay longer and to stop by Tony’s meet-up, I wearily headed back to the hotel to get ready for the con to officially begin the next morning.
Panels: From Grant Morrison and Geek & Sundry to Jack Kirby and the Culture of Comic-Con
On Thursday the con begins in earnest. My personal Comic-Con schedule typically lists four or five simultaneous events for any given time slot. The plan is to make on-the-fly judgments about what to attend based on line lengths, expected wait time, and conflicts with other activities.
Thanks to a fortuitous tweet alerting me to a short line for Thursday’s opening panels at the Hilton Bayfront’s Indigo Ballroom, the day began with Grant Morrison in conversation with Graphic India’s Sharad Devarajan. Morrison discussed 18 Days, his retelling of the central battle from The Mahabharata, and Avatarex, a super-hero series placed in contemporary India. It was interesting to hear Morrison, who once penned one of the darkest Batman tales — Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth — talk about the current need for more optimistic narratives in comic books.
Between Morrison and the later Geek & Sundry panel in the Indigo Ballroom were two additional programming sessions. Director Sanjay Patel and producer Nicole Grindle presented an early screening of Disney/Pixar’s Sanjay’s Super Team, a heartfelt, loosely autobiographical piece based on Patel’s relationship with his father and his Indian heritage. In addition to showing the short film, the presentation included a touching clip of Patel showing the film to his father. The panel was a surprise highlight of the day.
Following this, the panel on Voice Over Celebration with Beloved Cartoon, Video Game, and Film VO Actors included moderator Genese Davis speaking with actors Anthony Bowling, Susan Eisenberg, Rob Paulsen, Tara Platt, Caitlin Glass, and Yuri Lowenthal.
Next up in the Indigo Ballroom was the Geek & Sundry panel with Felicia Day, her brother Ryon Day, Wil Wheaton, and Geek & Sundry performers Laura Bailey, Matthew Mercer, Jessica Marzipan, and Hector Navarro. It was a rollicking session with Ryon Day and Wil Wheaton going out of their way to repeatedly embarrass Felicia Day.
The other days of Comic-Con included an eclectic mix of panels —
The Spotlight on Scott McCloud featured McCloud interviewed by Gene Luen Yang.
The Marvel: Secret Wars panel included Marvel executive editor Tom Brevoort, writers Jonathan Hickman and Charles Soule, and others of the creative team.
DC Entertainment: One-on-One with Geoff Johns featured Johns in conversation with Dan DiDio.
Hermes Press: A Celebration of Women Artists in Comics During WWII, moderated by Daniel Herman, included a lively conversation among Trina Robbins, Maggie Thompson, Ramona Fradon, and Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson.
Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson had to leave the Women Artists During WWII panel early to participate in Twisted Roots of the Comics Industry which overlapped the earlier panel by 30 minutes. The Twisted Roots of the Comics Industry panel also featured Michael Uslan, Danny Fingeroth, Gerard Jones, and Brad Ricca.
The Seven Comic Shop Archetypes: Who Will Triumph, Thrive, and Survive moderated by Ed Catto, featured Christina Blanch, Glynnes Pruett, Joe Field, and Atom! Freeman outlining what it takes to be successful as a comics retailer.
The Annual Jack Kirby Tribute Panel was, as always, hosted by Mark Evanier, and this year included J. David Spurlock, Marv Wolfman, Rob Liefeld, and Paul S. Levine discussing the work of the late Jack Kirby.
In the Comics Arts Conference session, The Culture of Comic-Con: Field Studies of Fans and Marketing, a panel of college students discussed their analyses of different aspects of popular culture as evidenced at Comic-Con.
Pics or It Didn’t Happen
Photography is a major focus of mine at Comic-Con, not only for my work for Knowledge@Wharton but, as well, for my roles as Convention Photographer for Comic Book Creator and ACE (All Comics Created) magazines, and as contributing photographer for the annual Bleeding Cool Power 100 List.
On Thursday, I connected with editor Jon B. Cooke for a photo shoot with cartoonist Peter Bagge for an upcoming issue of Comic Book Creator. That evening I worked the red carpet at the Fandango Movieclips party to capture the arrival of celebrities including Heather Graham, Laura Vandervoort, Holland Roden, Naomi Grossman, and Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino.
On Saturday, I helped photograph the Agent Carter flash mob that convened in the lobby of the Convention Center and, in a pre-arranged scheme, paraded to the Marvel booth to meet Agent Carter lead actress Haley Atwell.
Throughout Comic-Con, photographing the men and women who write, illustrate, and produce comic books was a major focus of my activity.
And, of course, grabbing shots of creative cosplay is always fun. Among my favorite costumes this year was a flawless implementation of Steve Ditko’s Mysterio from The Amazing Spider-Man #13. Also intriguing were the time- and gender-shifted Rococo X-Women.
The Eisner Awards Ceremony
The Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards Ceremony is always a highlight of my Comic-Con experience, and this year was particularly noteworthy. Comic Book Creator, a publication for which I serve as Convention Photographer, was nominated for Best Comics-Related Periodical/Journalism. (The Eisner went to the well-deserving Comics Alliance.)
Philadelphia comic shop and publisher Locust Moon was nominated in two categories — Best Anthology and Best Publication Design — for Little Nemo: Dream Another Dream, and was awarded the Eisner for both.
In addition to the celebrity introductions and the always entertaining antics of Jonathan Ross, the main focus of the evening is on recognizing the work of those who create comic books. Seeing Shannon Watters and Noelle Stevenson accepting multiple awards for Lumberjanes was one of several high points of the evening.
Planned Activities and Random Encounters on the Show Floor
Signings in the vendor booths on the show floor provide ideal opportunities to capture portraits of key comic book creators. This year, I snapped portraits of Grant Morrison in the Legendary booth, and Joss Whedon and Chuck Palahniuk in the Dark Horse booth.
There’s typically a point during Comic-Con at which I decide to ignore my carefully-planned schedule and just wander the exhibition hall floor. This frequently elicits unexpected, serendipitous encounters.
Where else but Comic-Con would you find Todd McFarlane greeting fans and striking web-shooting poses with young kids dressed as Spider-Man and Spider-Gwen?
Comic book creators are also fans, and it’s wonderful to run across industry notables greeting each other, such as Scott Snyder chatting with Paul Azaceta, Todd McFarlane hanging out with Marc Silvestri, and Jonathan Ross excited to meet Carlos Ezquerra.
Strolling across the show floor I also ran into Marvel’s head of television Jeph Loeb , which provided the opportunity to tell him how much I loved his 1998 series, Superman for All Seasons.
Talking Back and Heading Home
My last session at Comic-Con each year is the annual Talk Back session, during which Comic Con International President John Rogers sits alone at long table and listens to a long line of attendees with comments, complaints, and suggestions about Comic-Con.
This year’s Talk Back was relatively subdued. The long lines to access Hall H, the event’s largest venue where many of the high-profile Hollywood presentations take place, are a recurring topic during each year’s Talk Back. There was little mention, however, of this year’s most significant logistical change — the introduction of the “next day line” for queuing for wristband distribution for Hall H on the subsequent day. By distributing several waves of color-coded Hall H wristbands early in the evening and allowing people to leave the line once they have a wristband (with the ability to rejoin a similarly-banded friend holding their place in line or joining the end of the banded line), the new scheme essentially supplants the previous requirement to camp out all night with extended wait time during the preceding day. Given the lack of attendee commentary on the “next day line” during the Talk Back, expect this practice to continue next year.
Following the final events of the day, fans streamed out of the Convention Center as San Diego Comic-Con 2015 came to an end.
At the airport the following morning, the trip ended much like it began, with an advertisement for TBS’s Conan show appearing on the television monitors showing CNN in the airport. “Hope to see you next year!” the ad declared and, indeed, I hope to be back again for another Comic-Con International: San Diego in 2016.