Last year’s Twilight camp at Comic Con. This year similar lines popped up on multiple nights,
for multiple events in different rooms.

It’s easy to be cynical about Comic Con. It’s a huge marketing event, after all. And the part that isn’t about marketing is just about merchandise anyway. Right? Isn’t that what it’s all about? I mean, people keep telling us that. I’ve read a number of Tweets and editorials from people the last couple of days reminding us that everybody who took part in Comic Con is either a spoon-fed fool or a tool of the corporate marketing machine.  

In the past I might have agreed with them. From my position at the Con – usually trying to get into Hall H and then running to some other off-the-beaten path room to do lightning quick interviews, in between schmoozing and boozing sessions with friends and colleagues – it can be easy to get myopic and think that the whole convention is about a bunch of Hollywood types glomming on to fan culture and sucking it dry. The reality is that while Hollywood types are trying to do just that, it doesn’t represent the totality of the convention. By any means.

This year I spent some time at night talking to the people who were lining up to get into the convention in the morning. Folks were sleeping out on the street so that they could get prime seats in Hall H, the massive exhibition hall where the major movie panels take place, or to get into Ballroom 20, a smaller but still large room where almost all of the TV-related panels happened. They had sleeping bags or air mattresses or little chairs or sometimes just slept on bundled up clothing. They sat outside for hours at a time – the most hardcore getting there 15 hours before the doors to the convention center opened. 

These people are kind of crazy. No doubt about it. You have to be a little nuts to get into a line like that just for an opportunity to see Tom Welling take the stage. But they can also be kind of amazing. Sleeping (or as was more often the case laying down but not quite sleeping) on the streets of San Diego were the beating heart of fandom. The most outrageous and the most hardcore and the most extreme fans, but the beating heart nonetheless. Earlier in the Con my good friend Jeremy Smith of Ain’t It Cool had noted a distinctly reduced number of costumes on display this year, and we had theorized that it was because the Con was becoming more mainstream. As USA Today covers the convention on the front page, we reasoned, the fringe elements disappear. 

I think we were wrong. I think the fringe elements change and adapt, but they remain. I don’t know that the people sleeping in the street were the same people cosplaying, but they exhibited the same fanaticism that reminds you that the word is from whence ‘fan’ comes. They shared something else that the cosplayers have always had: a sense of community.

That sense of community is what all the cranks and anti-Con grumps and haters miss. The reality is that a lot of these people complaining probably aren’t fans themselves. They don’t get fandom. They don’t know what it’s like to be the only person in their town with a passion for some weird property or an obsession with some obscure art. They don’t get the power of coming to a place where everybody understands how you feel, even if they don’t share your particular interest. Don’t get me wrong, there are still cliques and hierarchies and rivalries between different fandoms, but when it’s all said and done, the convention is – conceptually – filled with generally likeminded folk. The kind of people these fans never get to meet in their real lives. 

I know that I have a complicated relationship with fandom. I understand blindly loving something, but I also try to be more discerning about it. I can be a cynic and I can be snarky and I can be dismissive. But talking to those people waiting in line I was actually kind of moved. Lord knows I would never sleep on a street for anything (I don’t like standing in a line for more than 30 minutes. Very little is worth that kind of wait), but these people had an energy that was undeniable. And what was amazing was that they were building a little community. Most of the folks I talked to had arrived alone, or with one or two friends, but these lines were long masses of social interaction. You could see a society forming right there as strangers on the line began talking, starting with their mutual enthusiasms and continuing on from there. I met people who were on line together because they had met at Comic Con years before. I met people who I thought might be good friends but who turned to have only met each other hours before. 

That’s really what Comic Con is about. It’s what all conventions are about. They’re not about buying stuff or being sold stuff, although because conventions almost always about an aspect of pop culture, buying and being sold are usually major components. That said, I don’t think anybody who left Comic Con happy this weekend did so totally because of what they bought, or even what brief video package they saw in Hall H. They went home happy because they had great interactions – either with friends they already had or friends they made. I know that most of the other web journalists I hang with at Con feel that way, that it’s a nice opportunity to get everybody together and have some drinks and some fun. I spent time with friends I already loved, and I made new friends that I hope to keep in touch with and hang out with in the future. There you have Comic Con in a nutshell. It’s an excuse to be together. And to be together while celebrating something that we love.

I’m very interested in the line phenomenon in general. It’s pretty new to Comic Con – last year was the first time that I remember it being so major and dedicated, and it seems to have begun with the Twilight fans (here’s an article I wrote about that last year). Will lining up continue to be a Comic Con thing? Will these most hardcore people keep pushing and forming the lines earlier and earlier?

As for the fact that Comic Con is a major marketing event: duh. The normally level-headed Neil Miller from Film School Rejects tweeted this in reference to movie bloggers getting excited about movies that presented at the Con: I refuse to apologize for being level headed in this mad house of movie blogging. I’m not just a cog in the marketing machine. It’s a nice sentiment, but if you look at the last few articles Neil has posted on FSR, you’ll see one is about a Comic Con premiered trailer, one is about four posters for a movie, one is about how much simulated damage Transformers 3 is doing in Chicago. That’s all movie marketing. More or less every story on Film School Rejects is marketing, even when they’re negative. Awareness is awareness. And the same goes for CHUD, by the way. Whenever a site is covering the marketing materials for a movie, that site is a cog in the marketing machine. Whenever a site does pre-release stories about a movie, it’s a cog. Hell, whenever a site does a pre-release review of a movie, it’s being a cog. Bringing Harrison Ford to Comic Con was a marketing maneuver for Cowboys and Aliens, but it created a very real, very tangible energy and excitement in the crowd in Hall H. To the marketers that’s buzz that will be useful in selling a movie. To the people there it was a moment of sheer excitement. We’re writing about popular entertainment produced by giant corporations. Let’s not pretend like we’re above the fray. And let’s not pretend that we don’t like this stuff.

In the meantime, I got an email from one of the people in line Saturday night. Her name is Nicole and she was waiting for Supernatural, and I think what she says really sums it up. And sums it up more succinctly than this windbag can ever hope to do:

I just wanted to write you a quick e-mail and say thanks for taking the time to talk to a bunch of us hardcore streetsleepers on Saturday night. That impromptu conversation managed to simultaneous define and epitomize what I love about the Con: total strangers united in a completely unique way, where our common love and passion brought us together in a way that I can’t particularly define, and I don’t even know if I want or need to.  If you’ve experienced it, you don’t need me to explain; if you don’t understand it, nothing I could say would ever properly explain it.

Anyway, it was definitely a highlight of my trip, which is saying a lot…I had a drink with Joss Whedon on Friday, for crying out loud.  Thanks for rallying the troops that night and reminding us of why we love the con and what we love about it: ourselves.