Comic-Con as a fan (again)

Norin Radd at Comic-Con 2011

Yesterday I attended San Diego’s annual nerd mecca as as a regular guest–and not a vendor–for the first time since 1995. In many ways, it wasn’t as cool. Namely, I was forced to struggle with the famously difficult online sales just like everyone else. In fact, passes sold out after my 90-minute long wait despite entering [return] the moment they went on sale. I was lucky that another friend did get through that morning, and placed orders for my brother and me so that we wouldn’t miss our first Comic-Con since 1987 and second since 1979. (Thanks, Brian!) Greg and I gladly stood in line for 90 minutes to pick up extremely coveted one-day badges and proceeded to enjoy.

Clockwise from top left: Kiyoshi the Drunken Master, Jeffrey Brown, Eric at Giant Robot, Bwana Spoons

This time around, I had to visit booths to see certain people but was free to do so. For mixed monster artist and GR enforcer Kiyoshi Nakazawa and zine, toy, and art maker Bwana Spoons, we went all the way across the most crowded part of the floor just to hang out for a couple minutes. Worth it. Luckily, Jeffrey Brown was right across from the Giant Robot booth, where Eric was the first guy I wanted to say hi to. Other friends, I managed to run into by blind luck (and texting). Below: Mr. and Mrs. Willy Santos.

Willy Santos vs. Superman

Yes, the studios and corporations have their palaces but there are still plenty of interesting shops and galleries to visit in between panels. I ogled a huge amount of original art, not only pages from the silver-age comics that I grew up reading but also animation cells from vintage commercials, movie posters from the coolest and most obscure genres, and studies and sketches by world-class illustrators and cartoonists. Below: Work by Mary Blair and Charles Schulz for sale, but not in my budget.

Mary Blair vs. Charles Schulz

There’s a panel for everyone. Besides comic geeks, there are programs for Hollywood-obsessed teeny boppers, gorehounds, martial-arts movie nuts, and videogames. Luckily, my brother and I aren’t into the ones that require hours of waiting (Twilight). The first one we attended was one of the last to be announced: a surprise visit by Pee-Wee Herman. It wasn’t even listed in the program, but announced on the homepage at the last minute. Neither the official interview nor the audience segment had the best questions, but that offered plenty of fodder for Mr. Paul Reubens, who stayed in character 90 percent of the time but let some outside anecdotes and observations slip in. Very cool, and his road movie with Judd Apatow sounds very cool as well. Too bad Gary Panter wasn’t there.

Pee-Wee Herman in Hall H

As Pee-Wee ran off to sign autographs for lucky ticket holders, we ran off to a smaller room to see Los Bros Hernandez talk about 30 years of Love & Rockets. Yes, the saga of Maggie, Hopey, and friends is older than the ex-Bauhaus band, which actually named itself after the long-running and influential indie comic (actually punk). The brothers talked a lot of about Oxnard, Los Angeles, pulp fiction (the genre not the movie), and cinema. Is the L&R universe simply big to be condensed into a feature movie now? I think it was Mario who suggested it become an HBO series instead…

Beto, Jaime, and Mario Hernandez at the Love and Rockets panel

Greg and I walked to a nearby hotel to take part in the 35th annual Robert Heinlein Blood Drive afterward. How cool is that the sci-fi author who had a rare blood type and was saved from a serious illness by donations would only sign autographs for blood donors at the 1976 World Con in Kansas City? Or that the San Diego Comic-Con lured him to become a guest the next year by naming its inaugural blood drive after him? This is something my brother and I started participating in as soon as we turned 18, but it is pretty unthinkable when you are holding down the fort at a booth. We used to get vending machine snacks and a blood bank shirt back in the day. Now recipients receive True Blood shirts that say “I was drained responsibly.” Lots of goths in the waiting area!

Left to right: Tom Devlin, Anders Nilson, Jeff Smith, Brian Ralph

Our final stop, accompanied by GR anime editor Jimmy Leung, was a panel moderated by the mighty Drawn & Quarterly‘s creative director Tom Devlin, who I’ve known since his days with Highwater Books. The theme was epic comics, and featured three artists who have created epic adventures in the comic format, defying trends of super-powered heroics or popular genres such as wizardry, barbarians, or sci-fi. In the expertly run and entertaining conversation that ranged from very funny to slighty contentious, Anders Nilson, Jeff Smith, and Brian Ralph ultimately talked more about their approaches to of story-telling and their varying levels of diligence to detail. Not many people can draw or write well; these three did both to epic proportions. (More on Anders and Brian to come.)

Kato waits for his ride at Comic-Con

Yes, there is a lot of chatter about how Comic-Con has sold out to the entertainment industry or can’t handle its massive popularity. But regardless of its flaws, one can still be immersed in a pretty wide range of popular–and unpopular–culture that isn’t gathered anywhere else. There were anime collectors, toy nerds, cosplayers, vintage videogame nuts, book collectors, pasty goths, swords & sandals fans, street art hipsters, and just every other type of dork who had completely different experiences yet perfectly rad days at the same time as me. Yesterday, I wasn’t merely transported back to the days before Giant Robot had a table in the original small press area, but to when I attended Comic-Con at the old convention center or even the El Cortez. Getting to see personal heroes, have new books signed, catch up with friends from all over the country, and do people-watching like no where else in the world is awesome and still possible at Comic-Con–provided you can get a ticket.