"So," I said to my friends in New York,
"is this Comic-Con thing something I should go to? What is it anyway? Apparently we get complimentary tickets." Their initial looks of bemusement at my ignorance changed to open hostility.
I realized that we'd hit some kind of motherlode of nerdiness as we parked in the parking lot of the adjacent stadium. Alongside us, a slim young woman in a Catwoman outfit was climbing out of a Camaro with the license plate KSSLRUN, while a few spaces further down a meticulously-costumed Queen Amidala and a heavyset man in dungarees were trying to corral a small child dressed as a dinosaur.
"Going to the Padres game?" J. asked Amidala.
"Of course," she replied.
Getting in and picking up our badges was easier than I expected. With more than 100,000 attendees, Comic-Con has learned to run a tight ship.
Our first attempt to get into a panel was unsuccessful, so we gathered our courage and went down to the dealer's floor. The entire floor was one seething mass of humanity.
"I have never seen so many virgins in one place before," J. said. She narrowed her eyes and studied the expanse of booths selling comic books, DVDs, postcards, collectible figurines, T-shirts, anything and everything connected to every pop culture franchise that I'd ever heard of and thousands that I hadn't.
"You know," she mused,
"I've had it all wrong. I thought I was a fan, but it turns out that I just like stuff. These people are fans.""
The majority of attendees were not in costume, but there were enough who were to satisfy my shutterbug instincts. I didn't recognize every pop-culture icon portrayed but I could tell that certain characters were having a good year. In the brief time we were on the main floor, I counted no less than seven Thors. Interestingly, all of them were female -- so I suppose they were technically Thoras -- and one was South Asian. I later realized that this might be because few men really have the physique for the God of Thunder (or even Chris Hemsworth), but no one at a convention is going to complain if a pretty girl wants to stride around in a plastic breast-plate and boots. The necessary counter-balance was provided by a bearded male cosplayer dressed as Honor Harrington (with a stuffed treecat perched on his uniformed shoulder). Slave Leia, formerly a mainstay of the convention, was conspicuous by her near-absence; I only saw two, whereas her more modestly-dressed counterpart, Senator Leia, was well-represented. There was even a Steampunk Leia, part of an ensemble that included all of the major Star Wars characters re-imagined in pseudo-Victorian style, culminating in an imposing Darth Vader wearing a magnificent bustle.
When the crowds became too much, we retreated upstairs for a talk by Richard Kadrey, a writer whose work I've always enjoyed. His talk might almost have been the missing lecture from our Clarion course, with a simple double message: keep at it until you succeed, and write your own books in your own voice, not anyone else's. Kadrey is also a Clarion graduate. When we stopped by the Harper Collins booth later to say 'hi', he regaled us with stories of the Old Days, when the instructors were apparently less gentle with the students than they are today.
I spent most of the day with just two of my fellow students, our other companions having been sucked into the maelstrom and lost from view.
"I wonder what A., G. and S., are doing now," said J. at one point.
"Three cute young women in costume?" I said.
"I imagine they're posing for photographs. Lots and lots of photographs." I wasn't wrong. When we met up later, they all wore the rather strained expressions of people who've been forcing a smile all day.
Not everyone was feeling the Comic-Con spirit. Across the road from the convention center, a small group of dour-looking Christians held up yellow signs expressing God's displeasure with all this fannish excess. An unsmiling man on a stepladder read Bible verses in a flat monotone.
"Look," I said to C.,
"those guys are cosplaying religious zealots. Amazing attention to detail, they must have worked on those costumes for weeks." He gave me a tired look. Inevitably, the Christians had attracted their own counter-demonstration, in the form of a small group of cheerful fans holding signs that said things like
"Jesus told stories too" and
"Be shiny to one another. Joss 3:16." I knew which church I'd rather belong to.
By about four o'clock we'd all had as much high-intensity fandom as we could stand, and we headed for a nearby bar to regroup and refuel.
"You know," said T. later,
"pretty much every con I've been to, the best parts have always been in the bar afterwards." Everyone nodded in agreement. Maybe the next time I end up at a con, I'll just skip the panels and the exhibitor's stands, and go straight to the bar. Wearing my Thor costume.