Campus Life

Three days at San Diego Comic-Con

Navigating signatures, panels, a “Pizza Thrower,” and shopping

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The massive head of the fearsome dragon Smaug glowers at Weta booth passerby with an animated eye at San Diego Comic-Con 2014.
Steve Sullivan—The Tech
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Batman ‘66 artist Ruben Procopio shows off his illustration skills for fans at DC Comics’ booth at San Diego Comic-Con 2014.
Steve Sullivan—The Tech
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A zombie cosplayer poses with zombie actors at the Walking Dead display at San Diego Comic-Con 2014.
Steve Sullivan—The Tech
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Comic-Con attendees enjoy some game time on custom-built arcade cabinets at the Behemoth booth during San Diego Comic-Con 2014.
Steve Sullivan—The Tech
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A Joker cosplayer shows off his smile outside the Cinema Makeup School booth at San Diego Comic-Con 2014.
Steve Sullivan—The Tech

After buying enough protein bars, beef jerky, and vitamins to sustain me for three days, I packed away all my food along with a space blanket and some sunscreen. I wasn’t going on a camping trip, though. I was headed to San Diego Comic-Con.

San Diego Comic-Con (SDCC) has become legendary in the pop culture world for being the biggest pop culture show you could possibly imagine. At times described as a nerd mecca, SDCC is the result of a multitude of comics publishers, TV networks, movie studios, toymakers, creative talent, and much more all gathering in one place. That place is the San Diego Convention Center — during SDCC, it hosts well over 130,000 people over the course of four and a half days. That’s more than ten times the student and faculty population of MIT.

Although I’m not new to the comic convention scene, having attended Boston Comic Con a few times, I was still nervous about SDCC. It has a reputation for congested hallways, long lines that sometimes begin overnight, and fierce competition from other fans to see anything you want to see. I bought the protein bars because I didn’t want to be stuck eating the fast food in the convention center or find myself starving in a long line.

But I was pleasantly surprised by what I was able to see and do at the convention. The convention center houses a massive exhibit hall with rows of large, brightly decorated booths and an upper floor with rooms for panels, screenings, and other large presentations. Outside the convention center, attractions like a giant inflatable Homer Simpson head and a Gotham City-themed zipline towered over lines of convention attendees.

I spent my first day at the convention trying to meet and get signatures from some of my favorite comic book creators. I’ve started taking a sketchbook to comic book shows to collect signatures and drawings from different creators in one place. I missed seeing some creators because their signings were ticketed — tickets and wristbands that were distributed early in the day. But I was able to meet a few creators who didn’t have ticketed signings, such as Stan Sakai, writer and artist of the long-running Usagi Yojimbo samurai comic, who was attending his 36th San Diego Comic-Con. I was also able to see Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles co-creator Kevin Eastman, whom I had met earlier at the 2012 Boston Comic Con. Whereas in Boston I had to wait for over two hours in line to meet him, I only waited around 30 minutes at SDCC.

While SDCC draws some of the comic industry’s top talent, the spotlight on them isn’t as strong due to the huge movie and TV presence, so it’s not as difficult to see comics creators. Eastman was kind enough to sketch a Ninja Turtles headshot in my sketchbook, and we talked about one of his upcoming appearances in Boston. He expressed genuine excitement when I mentioned the upcoming Ninja Turtles movie, saying, “It’s going to be awesome.” Other autographs I received were from Jeff Smith, creator of Bone, and Ed McGuiness, a prominent artist at Marvel.

I attended a few panels given by comic artists at SDCC as well. I showed up for a panel by Brian K. Vaughan, writer of the popular Saga series, two hours early, expecting some kind of line outside to get in. As it turns out, the arrive-very-early rule for panels only applies to the more popular TV and movie panels — I never had any trouble getting into comic book-focused panels. Usually panels will focus on one or a few creators with a moderator who spends some time driving their conversation on a main subject before opening up the floor to the audience for questions.

Brian K. Vaughan’s panel was very different, and ended up being my favorite panel at the convention. He walked into the panel room alone and announced that he would not only be doing nothing but taking audience questions, but also be giving out signed comics, some of which were exclusive variant editions, to anyone who asked a question. After he introduced himself, I heard a loud rumbling behind me and felt the floor vibrate under my feet. When I looked up, a line had already formed from the microphone at the front of the room to the back wall, and was still growing along the sides.

At the PhysicsCentral booth, attendants offered a small stack of comics to anyone who passed by, saying “Free science comics!” PhysicsCentral is a project that aims to bring physics to the younger generation, and one part of their approach is comic books. I spoke with author Rebecca Thompson about how she began her comic and some of her favorite moments her work has brought her.

“I wanted to get people interested in and excited about physics, [but] I didn’t want to do classroom teaching. I wanted to have the freedom to do different stuff,” said Thompson. Eventually, through work for the American Physical Society, she created the comic book superhero Spectra. “All of her powers are things that lasers actually do... the idea is to get people interested in the story through her life, and then teach them the physics underneath that.” Thompson’s approach seems to have found some success thus far. “What’s really wonderful is when adults will say something and their kids will correct them. And eight-year-olds talking about total internal reflection is just awesome.”

The second day of the convention, I set out on a mission to win a shirt. Video games also had a large presence at SDCC, so many game demos were on display. Super Smash Bros. players could earn a coveted piece of Nintendo swag: an exclusive Super Smash Bros. SDCC t-shirt. To win the shirt, attendees had to win a minigame on the Nintendo 3DS version of the game. They could then enter a match against three other attendees on the Wii U, the winner of which would get a shirt. After waiting in line to play both the 3DS and the Wii U, the players were heavily invested in each prize match, which made the fights some of my most intense convention experiences. I could hear my own pulse pounding in my head when I was finally able to defeat the other contestants by using one of the new Smash Bros. characters, Greninja.

On the last day of San Diego Comic-Con, I did something a little different: I operated a tank that fired pizza. Built to promote the upcoming Ninja Turtles movie, the “Pizza Thrower” was set up in the parking lot for Petco Park, a stadium not too far from the convention center. After firing some full-size pizza replicas of Ninja Turtles enemies from the seat on top of the turret, I was invited to take a look inside the Pizza Thrower, which reminded me in many ways of an MIT hack. The tank was built off a Toyota Tundra, so the crew was able to drive it around. The pizza-throwing mechanism was a spinning tire on the end of a powerful hand drill. The turret rotated left and right through use of a belt drive with limit switches to keep it from rotating too far. The crew informed me that Ninja Turtles stars Megan Fox and Will Arnett visited the site earlier.

I spent most of my last day at the convention shopping for merchandise and looking for gifts for other people. More so than any other comic convention, San Diego Comic-Con is host to tons of exclusive toys, comic book covers, and other exclusive merchandise, which ranges from free swag to items priced in the hundreds of dollars. Exclusives and swag were powerful lures for convention goers, so much so that the owner of one prominent comics distributor, Mile High Comics, complained that convention exclusives were decreasing the amount of business at his comics booth and blamed them for the monetary loss he suffered at the show.

“In a nutshell, the comics publishers with booths at the San Diego convention have so cleverly exploited the greed and avarice of comics fans through limited edition publications that are only available through their own booths, that there is no longer enough disposable income left in the room to sustain us. A sad state of affairs, but also completely true,” said company president Chuck Rozanski.

One such piece was a gold-plated “Legacy Dragon Dagger,” a toy replica from the Power Rangers TV show. You had to stand in a long line just to enter a raffle to win a ticket in order to buy this $150 dagger. It’s true that some con-goers buy some items just to turn an eBay profit. The Dragon Dagger currently has over 75 listings on eBay and is selling for upwards of $300. I obtained one SDCC exclusive myself — a Dragonball Z action figure of the character Vegeta with special coloring from his first appearance on the show.

At the end of each day at SDCC my legs were as sore as they’ve ever been, but it was worth it to experience a truly unique place where almost everyone was wearing a geeky shirt or costume. I met a lot of cool people, saw exciting booths and events, and brought home hundreds of amazing photographs from the experience. The only thing I would have changed about my experience would have been to go with someone — conventions are more fun when you can experience them with other people and get dragged to a few events you didn’t think you would enjoy. However, the nice thing about San Diego Comic-Con is that it guarantees plenty of unique and unexpected experiences no matter where you’re headed.