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On day one of San Diego Comic-Con International, our Google calendar was a naively tight grid of panels. The plan was to bounce between Hall H (capacity: 6130 people) and Ballroom 20 (capacity: 4908 people), leaving just enough space in our schedule to briskly walk from one room to the next. What we learned on the first day was that at a convention of this size, attending any event isn’t possible without serious forethought and sacrifice.

To get a seat in the Iron Man panel, for example, it just isn’t enough to like Iron Man. Everyone likes Iron Man. The 6130 people who get seats in the Iron Man panel live and breath Iron Man. They paid for convention passes, plane tickets, and overpriced hotel rooms and will plant themselves outside in a crowded and smelly line for eight hours just to see Robert Downey Jr. sit next to Jon Favreau. Unless you can match the dedication and fanaticism of the 6130th craziest member of the fanbase, you don’t stand a chance of getting a seat in their panel.

So when we decided on the second day of Comic-Con not to give up on our most anticipated block of panels — actors, creators, and writers of the television shows Community, Legend of Korra, and Firefly, which would occur in immediate succession in Ballroom 20 on Friday morning — we knew we couldn’t do it half-heartedly. And that’s why two students from Cambridge, MA, got off the bus outside the San Diego Convention Center at 1:30 a.m., nearly eight hours before the start of the first panel.

The line began at the front doors of the convention center and extended well beyond our visual range, the end of it seemingly hidden by the curvature of the Earth. We were greeted by the tired stares of fans in the very front of the line, most of whom were equipped with a sleeping bag and the distinctive orange-yellow beanie known as a “Jayne hat” — named for the gruff character who sports one in Firefly.

We had barely started our trek to the back of the line when we noticed an incredibly loud and dense swarm of people on the sidewalk, the kind of swarm that only surrounds an unthinkably famous nucleus.

That nucleus was a moderately inebriated Joss Whedon, creator of Firefly (and, more recently, director of The Avengers). His drunken signature had the power to upgrade our Comic-Con passes from mildly interesting souvenirs to priceless geek treasures.

Neither of us had thought to bring a Sharpie, and for several gut-wrenching moments we ripped apart our bags looking for one as the Joss horde slowly drifted away. A girl wearing a Jayne hat emerged from the swarm, adorned with a signed Comic-Con badge, and shoved her marker into my hand. Minutes later, I was ejected from the Whedon swarm myself, somehow clutching the prized signature. The girl who gave us her marker was long gone, lost in a sea of Jayne hats.

We walked down the line in a daze, leaving Joss Whedon to be engulfed by a still-growing mass of fans. Half a mile and some 750 people later, we collapsed at the line’s end. Surrounding us were others who had made the same journey through the Joss Whedon swarm, and had the signed badges to show for it. We made polite conversation for a while, and when our neighbor offered us a spot on the blanket he had stolen from his hotel, we gladly shifted off the pavement.

I was beginning to contemplate a nap when a rumor propagated down the entire line in what could only have been seconds: Joss Whedon was still at Comic-Con, and he was making his way down the line. Towards us.

Before that signal reached us, we were the reasonable, sophisticated segment of the line. The segment that showed up only eight hours early and didn’t even bring sleeping bags. The segment that had so far maintained a level of cool composure in an inarguably nerdy situation. Once that signal reached us, however, it was clear that no one was going to be able to hide their inner dork for much longer. The social barriers of awkward politeness vanished and the line disintegrated into a sparse cloud of excited scheming. Complex networks of agreements were laid out to ensure everyone would get a decent photo with Drunken Joss. Firefly merchandise was prepared, Sharpies were distributed. When Joss Whedon arrived, the group of strangers at the corner of Harbor Drive and Chavez Parkway was ready.

As the dust settled and the line began to regain its structure, it was clear that the nine of us were now a sort of unified faction. Sharing such a raw moment of hero worship will do that to a group of people. And what a group it was: the Texan who was providing his stolen blanket and a bag of endless rations; a software developer and blog writer from Arizona; a married couple from the Midwest who were already planning another all-nighter for the Dr. Who panel; an aeronautical engineer from Maryland; an emergency room nurse who clocked Joss Whedon’s blood alcohol content at 1.2; the lead singer of a heavy metal band who we jokingly called by his stage name, “Michael Diamond” … and us, a pair of MIT students.

Consider how rare it is to converse at length with someone who is outside of your age group, field of work, and region. Interacting with such a diverse set of people was surreal. Food was shared, convention merchandise was compared, line-cutters were warded off, and the Joss Whedon encounter was relived dozens of times. Frequent journeys to the Starbucks three blocks away were made in teams. Six hours later, the line started to move. The movies and books we had packed “in case of boredom” remained untouched.

In order to manage a line of this scale, the Comic-Con coordinators had devised a convoluted route twisting through and around the entire convention center and ending at our final destination: Ballroom 20. It was a slow two-mile trek through an infinite labyrinth of belt barriers. Occasionally we’d trudge past other lines, consisting of a completely different breed of fans who had been waiting for hours for their respective subculture. Even from my perch in the Firefly line, it was hard not to view them as… crazy. By 7 a.m., however, the incredulous stares from the newly-arrived convention-goers suggested that we were no less crazy. We had been waiting all night for the sake of a science fiction show that had been off the air for ten years! But surrounded by other Firefly fanatics, the ordeal just didn’t feel unreasonable. Is this what it feels like to be part of a cult?

When the doors to Ballroom 20 opened and the fragile Firefly line finally denatured, our good position in line offered each of us the opportunity to run for one of the lone empty seats near the very front of the impossibly large room — the seats we had dreamed of when we got in line eight hours earlier. None of us ran. Instead, we chose a cluster of nine empty seats in the middle of the room. We couldn’t see the stage as well from here, but our line faction had been preserved for just a little longer.

These days, all of the panels at Comic-Con can be watched online, and most of the merchandise can be purchased more cheaply from Amazon. Every inch of the convention hall is tweeted several times over. So what’s the point of attending Comic-Con in 2012? I don’t think I understood the answer to this question myself until I attended the Firefly panel. Comic-con is 130,000 people caring enough about something to bring their real life to a halt for four days. It’s 4,908 Firefly fans simultaneously losing their minds, bursting out of their chairs and screaming as loudly as they possibly can because Joss Whedon has joined the cast of Firefly on stage. It’s nine people from all over the country who were strangers just hours before, opting for mediocre seats together over incredible seats apart. That’s a convention worth sitting on the pavement for.