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Convention-goers flood the expo floor on preview night, the start of Comic-Con.
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San Diego Comic-Con International is an annual four-day celebration of the popular arts, that draws over 130,000 attendees from around the world. Originally started in 1970 as a comic book convention, the focus of the Con has since shifted from comic books to everything pop culture, from blockbusters and video games to the latest science fiction and fantasy novels. Some fans make the pilgrimage to see the people who create their favorite media, others to stock up on rare comic books or to spend thousands on the gigantic exhibition floor. Some people just come for the crowds.

San Diego Comic-Con is the third largest comic convention in the world (after Japan’s Comiket, which hosts 500,000 attendees, and France’s Angoulême, which hosts 220,000). Tickets for this year’s convention sold out within 90 minutes of becoming available online in April. Comic-Con runs for four days, Thursday through Sunday, with an additional night on Wednesday from 6 to 9 p.m. for professionals and attendees with four day passes. The Tech attended this year’s con as press.

What is perhaps most striking about San Diego Comic-Con is not the vast amount of merchandise nor the celebrity presence, but the intense feeling of camaraderie that pervades the entire show. Whether it’s waiting in line with the same folks for 10 hours to see the Firefly panel or just standing around the corners of the show floor, one of the most impressive things about the con is the feeling of community. Strangers are happy to strike up a conversation in line, compliment a passing attendee’s t-shirt, or take a photo of a family struggling with a self-portrait. It is truly a gathering place for nerds of all kinds.

One of the draws of Comic-Con is the number of exclusive items that are for sale there. Fans line up for the exhibit hall (which opens at 9:30 a.m.), hours in advance for a chance to be one of the first people in line for whatever exclusive item their heart desires.

Our favorite? The Atlas Portal Gun, limited to 100 sales per day. We waited in line twice to nab one, and were turned away both times (they sold out by 9:40 a.m.!).

Another popular pick was the Hasbro-made toy of the helicarrier from Avengers, which served as the inspiration for a Penny Arcade comic strip during the con.

It’s hard to communicate exactly how many people 130,000 really is. It’s not until you’re used to being shoved side to side when walking, and expect a ten yard walk to take 15 minutes, that it really starts to click. There are serious lines for everything — from pretzels to bathrooms to t-shirts — and they can take hours. The lines for official Comic-Con t-shirts took us upwards of 90 minutes — and that was after waiting in a line to get in line!

Comic-Con bursts with a variety of different panels to delight geeks from any fandom, from Twilight to Game of Thrones to Dr. Who. Fans hoping to get into such popular panels usually have to line up several hours in advance to get a chance at a seat — even in such mammoth rooms such as Hall H, which can hold nearly 7000 people.

In addition to the giant panels sponsored by multibillion dollar corporations, there are fun, smaller events like a tutorial in how to draw comics, how to use Photoshop to color them in, and a variety of other workshops for those hoping to break into the industry.

One of our favorites was the Quick Draw, where three cartoonists (including Sergio Aragonés of Mad Magazine fame), were put to the test drawing cartoons on the fly. A moderator offered suggestions, and inspiration was taken from the audience. Cartoon Voices (I and II) was another highlight, where seven voice actors gathered to discuss their careers and also to do an improvised reading of Snow White using their famous voices, to hearty laughs from the audience.

Many of the panels are available online at hulu.com.

One of the most well-known Comic-Con events is the annual Masquerade, which takes place on Saturday night in Ballroom 20. Costume designers spend months developing elaborate and sometimes technical costumes and props, portraying characters from comic books, movies or video games. Their work is unveiled on stage to thousands of Comic-Con attendees, often with an accompanying skit. We particularly enjoyed the Mortal Kombat/Cinderella mashup, which ended up taking the most awards that night. The masquerade is doubly entertaining because before every contestant, the audience calls out the contestant number “twenty eight!” followed by “ha ha ha” and more and more additions as the night progresses. By the end of the show, every number was followed by “Ha ha ha, woooo, yeah, awesome! REDO,” and more, much to the chagrin of the MCs.

Surprisingly, one of the most neglected aspects of Comic-Con is, well, the comics! With the overwhelming Hollywood presence on the show floor and in the panels, it is easy to forget the backbone of everyone’s favorite pop culture convention. We wandered the booths looking for comics to take home; here are some of our favorites.

Ubu-Bubu by Jamie Smart

Ubu-Bubu is a dark horror comedy about a regular housecat (Ubu) who gets possessed by a demon (Bubu) who is out hunting souls before the coming apocalypse, and the terror he imposes on his unlucky suburban family. With its adorable art juxtaposed with the hellish horrors Ubu-bubu releases, the comic is a fun read for those who don’t mind some gore mixed with their humor. Expect skull-containing hairballs, a child size demon who spreads pestilence wherever he walks, and two very, very traumatized suburban children.

reMIND by Jason Brubaker

One of the pleasures of San Diego Comic-Con is walking around the small press tables and meeting artists you’ve never heard of, and that is exactly where we found Jason Brubaker and his lovely, self-published graphic novel, reMIND.

With its gorgeous art, perfectly placed panels, and full page spreads, reMIND is one of the most visually impressive comic books I’ve ever read. The colors are vivid, the characters detailed, and the entire book is packaged in a pleasing hardback that feels true to the company name (Coffee Table Comics).

The story follows lighthouse keeper Sonja and her cat Victuals, who — after having gone missing for a few days — returns with the ability to speak. He tells Sonja that he is from a different world, and she becomes determined to help him return. As the two delve into the circumstances surrounding his disappearance, more and more mysteries are unveiled while the reader is taken on a fantastical journey.

In its brief 151 pages, you get a clear sense of Victual’s quirky personality and become immersed in the fantastical setting of the story. You’ll be rooting for the kitty in no time, and shocked when you reach the cliffhanging end. reMIND leaves you wanting more, and fortunately fans can read the next couple chapters and donate to the Kickstarter for printing the second book online at http://www.remindblog.com/. The site updates every Monday, and the entire series is free online.

Gun-Fu by Howard Shum

Enjoy Indiana Jones? James Bond? Hong-Kong action films? Then you’ll probably like Gun-Fu, an indie comic from Howard Shum, who synthesized his favorite themes from cinema and comics into the ultimate graphic novel that he would want to read. Readers trail Bo-Sen Cheng, Hong Kong cop, on his Nazi fighting adventures throughout the world while he works a number of jobs for the British Queen in 1936. Sharp graphics and bright colors move the story just as well as the clever dialogue does (Bo Sen speaks only in hip hop), and should entertain anyone with a penchant for action films.

Fat Animals by D. Shazzbaa Bennett

One of my favorite items we came across on the con floor was a charming little volume demurely labeled “Fat Animals Colouring Book.” I opened it and discovered a coloring book full of delightfully chubby animals. The drawings are absolutely adorable, and the purchase came with free crayons. Talk about a win-win! Too bad I haven’t improved at coloring inside the lines since I was a child… You can visit the author’s website at http://shazzbaa.com.

One of the most well-known Comic-Con events is the annual Masquerade, which takes place on Saturday night in Ballroom 20. Costume designers spend months developing elaborate and sometimes technical costumes and props, portraying characters from comic books, movies or video games. Their work is unveiled on stage to thousands of Comic-Con attendees, often with an accompanying skit. We particularly enjoyed the Mortal Kombat/Cinderella mashup, which ended up taking the most awards that night. The masquerade is doubly entertaining because before every contestant, the audience calls out the contestant number “twenty eight!” followed by “ha ha ha” and more and more additions as the night progresses. By the end of the show, every number was followed by “Ha ha ha, woooo, yeah, awesome! REDO” and more, much to the chagrin of the MCs.

Leaving San Diego Comic-Con was like leaving Disneyland as a kid; I had the same feeling in my gut. You don’t want to leave such a magical place, and as you see the convention center recede in the distance you really feel like you’re missing something.

Walking around in the days after SDCC, I would accidentally spot people in costume out of the corner of my eye. I would turn to see what they were dressed as, but they were not in costume at all. I was confused that I could walk without getting shoved on all sides. And why weren’t people wearing their badges all the time? San Diego Comic-Con is an incredible event, and something every nerd should experience at least once.

To learn more about Comic-Con and preregistration for next year you can visit the official website at http://www.comic-con.org/cci/index.php. There’s also a nifty documentary where you can learn more about the cultural phenomenon. Search Amazon or Netflix for Comic-Con IV: A Fan’s Hope. It’s co-produced by Joss Whedon!

If you do decide to go, we have one piece of advice: PLAN! You will not regret it.