My first excursion to the San Diego Comic Con took place in 1980, when I was a bright-eyed, innocent fanboy who had never even heard the word â€œconâ€ before. My brother, Jesse, who lived in San Diego at the time, had heard that the top creators at Marvel and D.C. comics held an annual conference where they would talk about their books and interact with fans. The memories of that first con have blurred together over the years with those of all the succeeding cons (around 15 or so in San Diego), but I do have a distinct recollection of walking through the corridors of the downtown Convention and Performing Arts Center, wide-eyed, seeing the hundreds of dressed-up fans and the dozen or so colorful booths in the dealer room. I also remember walking up and shaking the hands of the artists and writers I idolized, including Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, creators of the X-Men, the Fantastic Four and Spider-man, among others. It was an intimate gathering with probably no more than a few hundred attendees.
Flash forward 26 years. My brother Jesse lives in Houston these days and Iâ€™ve been regularly attending the con with my childhood buddy, Luigi, and his brother Steve, for more than twenty years. The San Diego Con is an entirely different creature now. It has relocated to the new Convention Center, a mammoth facility literally six football fields long (1,500,000 sq. ft), able to accommodate (just barely) the 104,000-plus attendees. The dealer room has become a ludicrously cavernous space, jam-packed with vendors of every conceivable sort and so crowded that itâ€™s impossible to move more than a few feet without banging against shoulder pads, holstered ray guns, various alien appendages and, of course, baby carriages. One of the meeting halls that seats 6,500 persons was routinely filled to capacity. And when I queued up for the Sony pictures â€œSpider-man 3â€ panel, I was astonished to find that the line stretched literally around the convention center; after thirty minutes of waiting, the line disintegrated into nothing. It turns out we werenâ€™t actually on the line, after all.
Todayâ€™s impersonal, celebrity-laden â€œpresentation panelsâ€ made me nostalgic for the intimate panel discussions of the past. For example, this year Nicolas Cage (â€œGhost Riderâ€); Toby Maguire, Kirsten Dunst and Topher Grace (â€œSpider-man 3â€); Samuel L. Jackson (â€œSnakes on a Planeâ€); Jennifer Love Hewitt (â€œGhost Whispererâ€); cast members of â€œLost,â€ and studio executives pushing their upcoming â€œAragonâ€ dragon movie all came, marketed, and quickly departed, hustled in and out of their respective rooms, carefully shielded from any personal contact with the fans who were there to support their various projects. Despite my misgivings about these types of promotional events, Iâ€™ll admit we were first on line to see the cast of Battlestar Galactica, the best show on television. Edward James Olmos warned that the upcoming season will be the seriesâ€™ darkest. We also saw some humorous scenes from the upcoming â€œSimpsonsâ€ motion picture.
Apart from the shameless hawking, occasionally, a panel discussion brought back flashes of the past and reminded me why certain aspects of the San Diego Con still have their appeal. Most notably, a panel of expert â€œrobotologistsâ€ debated the fighting prowess of their various favorite robots. In a surprise upset, the Yul Brynner robot from Westworld actually defeated MechaGodzilla while Vicki (the robot girl from â€œSmall Wonderâ€) vanquished the robot from â€œLost in Space.â€ (â€œHe has a weak spot for young kids,â€ one panelist reasoned, â€œand Vicki is just the right height to pull out his power pack.â€) Whoâ€™d have thunk it? Finally, kudos to this yearâ€™s winners of the Masquerade Contest, three couples, including Ming the Merciless and Barbarella, who tangoed their way to the title in a hilarious skit entitled â€œDancing with Celebrities from the Stars.â€
Yes, big-studio promotion abounds, and the charms of the old San Diego Comic Con are forever gone, but occasionally the curtain of commercialism lifts and I can catch a glimpse of cons past, of a wide-eyed 13-year-old boy walking down the corridors of the old convention center with his brother, captivated by the colors and the sounds and the sights of his very first con. I guess thatâ€™s what keeps me coming back.