THE BUTTRESSED CAPSULE shape of San Diego Convention Center hangs below San Diego proper, separated from the downtown grid by trolley tracks and the multilane roadway of Harbor Drive. In its 1990s residency there, going to the San Diego Comic Con meant leaving your hotel, crossing many city blocks and then joining a swarm of people at the crossing gates of the trolley tracks. Though San Diego has always welcomed the con with banners and the many restaurants of the Gaslamp have gamely had their waiters dress as Wolverine or whatnot, the feeling when at the Fifth Street crosswalk was like exiting the city limits for the brothel just across the county line.
This has changed. As the convention has grown, the flow of people has seemed more and more like bees to a hive or corpuscles toward a heart, the wait for the trolley to pass by meaning that a thousand people, then three thousand, then five, then ten are swarming and waiting and backing up — this is important — into the grid, so that a few years ago, the intersection of Fifth and L Street was swamped, then First and J. Downtown was being taken over.
This year, I realized someone has noticed.
The San Diego Convention Center itself is monumentally huge, a staggering 2.6 million square feet. The bottom floor (525,000 square feet) is actually a set of smaller convention halls (Halls A through H) that are all opened up during the comic convention to fit the massive expanse of dealers, retailers, artists, media empires, and fans. It takes at least 15 minutes to walk from one end of the hall to the other when it's packed, and right now some veteran con goers reading this will tell you it's closer to 30 minutes. Then there's the upper floor, with its warren of hundreds of meeting rooms, and then, well, there's the outside.
Thursday morning I left my hotel for a run along the waterfront. After running over the skybridge by Petco Park (converted for the Walking Dead Escape run), I passed the beginning of the line for Hall H. Hall H (capacity 6500) is where the presentations for films and television shows are held. The line was a series of switchbacks under a set of sails that made a holding pen for several thousand people. The line of people spilled out of this containment vessel, a well-organized straight shot that followed the concrete walkway around the harbor, and I ran alongside for about a mile and a quarter, and then the line went one way and I went another. While I was processing the fact of a mile+ line to get into the presentations, I saw that the convention site had become overnight a set of sugar trails, like an ant farm had been built here — there were shorter lines of various lengths all the hell over the place, going up the steps of the building, lines leading who-knew-where.
On my way back, I was curious about a modest line, perhaps only 400 yards long, that seemed to end at a hotel.
I asked a guy, "What's this the line for?"
"Adventure Time. The TV series."
I thanked him and jogged away, then it occurred to me that I sort of knew what Adventure Time was, but I wasn't sure if he was distinguishing it from other lines, and I shouldn't accidentally stand there for Adventure Time the Comic Book or Adventure Time the video game.
I am 49 years old and long out of the demographic where I know who's on the radio, and the whole digital explosion is also sliding out of my grasp. I took Japanese for a couple of years, enough to remember my hiragana and a handful of kanji. So when I went through Tokyo 20 years after college I had the experience of being able to read just a little bit of many signs and nothing at all of others. Within a day or two, it was a form of cognitive torture to make those syllables into vocabulary that I recognized.
It's like that with San Diego. I know what Dexter is, and Showtime, but I'm less sure about SuperEgo (it's a podcast, but I'm not sure of the content) and I'm even less sure about the line for Impractical Jokers. At least I think that's what the line was for. A restaurant on Sixth Street, once the Broken Yolk, had been taken over by this Impractical Jokers thing, and there were banners and signs with the characters (the actors? The real life Impractical Jokers?) posing in comical ways.
By the end of the afternoon, there was a line outside the restaurant and it had wrapped around the block, past the Blind Burro cantina I decided to get drunk in. Some of the people clutched books (Impractical Jokers books?) and comic books (definitely featuring Impractical Jokers) and toys (I'm unclear on why — had they branched out into toys?). While I was standing there, I heard sirens, a cop on a Segue laid down some barriers, and a fleet of Escalades went by, with police escort. The center Escalade window was open, and some guy was hanging out the window in a plaid shirt and sunglasses, waving at people. None of the people around me knew who it was, but based on the timing it was probably the cast of the next X-Men movie, and the dude hanging out the window I now recognize, googling him right now, was Bryan Singer.
(More on being forced by my fan's brain to do that kind of work in a moment. The internet is now more integrated into my life than the Comic Buyers Guide, FOOM or conversations with friends ever used to be. Someone knows this, and Someone is using it.)
For the first time, Yelp was almost useless when selecting a place to eat, as the first ten places you'd want to go had been taken over like the Broken Yolk and transformed into the Samsung Galaxy store or the Syfy lounge or Trask Industries, the last a nod to that 2014 X-Men movie. Around midnight, I was trying to figure out if a restaurant in front of me was the actual restaurant or a converted club, and the place erupted as a skinny guy slinging himself sideways down the sidewalk was signing everything pushed in front of him. He was hunched over and had a trucker hat and greasy hair and when he looked up with that dazed I've-been-good-for-hours-when-does-this-end expression, I recognized him as The Walking Dead's Norman Reedus.
At the same moment something weird happened, as he recognized me. His face lit up and he said "Hey, man," and it was like he was surfacing for a moment in the company of another equally-besieged person. The problem is, I wasn't whomever he was thinking of, and then the crowd closed between him and me and he was sucked into the restaurant which was, like myself, something other than what had been promised. It was the Bates Motel for now.
The look on Reedus's face was familiar to me. Everyone who goes to the con who is at least half-awake feels the same thing — it's what happens two hours after you've been overwhelmed by it. "I try to see everything," a con virgin told me this year from behind the stack of posters and graphic novels she was selling. She realized that this "seeing everything" urge was a problem.
It happens to veterans, too. On the first morning, my friend John said to me he was ready to leave. It happens the same way to him as it does to me — after the adrenaline rush of imagining being here, there's a waxing away of the tide, leaving behind this sick feeling of there being too much fucking stuff in the world. John collects comics, artwork, books, movie posters and toys. He has great taste, so he doesn't get everything he sees, but still, there is too much exquisite stuff. Our mutual friend Felix asked him if he wanted the $200 limited edition Goorin Breaking Bad hat, the one Walt wears when he's being Heisenberg. There was a line to buy it and Felix was going in.
"What would I do with it?" John asked me. "It comes with a box. I have a storage space just for the boxes of shit I buy."
I realized he hadn't answered Felix's question. "So is that a yes?"
John gave a kid-with-cookie-jar smile. Of course he got the hat. Everyone did. For the next few days I ended up taking my own grey fedora off as Fifth and Sixth and Island and Market Streets were awash with middle-aged ants like myself wearing the Heisenberg. The irony is that in the show, that hat looks terrible on Walt, and that's the point — it's iconic because of his mistaken belief that the hat makes him look frightening and cool. That they've packaged that and sold it is crazy genius. I ran into Vince Gilligan at a restaurant and I had no way of saying that to him, as he had that look on his face, the panicked "I just tried to go to the men's room and even the men's room was too much" feeling.
At least, I think it was Vince Gilligan. I didn't want to be like Norman Reedus, and so I said nothing. Then again, Bryan Cranston walked the length of the con floor on Sunday cosplaying as Walter White and no one recognized him. My friend Felix even took a photograph of him, posing, utterly unaware of what he was seeing, and that should give you a mild sense of the ephemeral edge between reality and fiction this last weekend.
After dinner one night I went to my hotel and stared down at the swimming pool from my room. There was a party outside I was not allowed to go to, in this case because I wasn't a cast member of — I could read the name beamed by special lasers to the bottom of the pool — The To Do List. I could see the shadows of famous-ish people maneuvering around other shadowy, potentially famous forms while shitty techno music played until midnight. I kept hanging out in my window as a silhouette, glancing downward, feeling the strange rage of being excluded from a party I didn't want to go to. In the morning, I looked at the pool cleaner and thought, "Yep, there he is, dredging for people's careers."
I don't sleep that much at Comic Con, and so I find myself in cafes and restaurants and bars, drinking coffee or tequila at entirely the wrong time of day. Saturday afternoon, I had a revelation, a drunken one about Aldous Huxley.
I know very little about Aldous Huxley except what I've read in the very good biography Huxley in Hollywood by David King Dunaway. In the last years of his life, Huxley — who had fallen so far as to attempt to write Mister Magoo cartoons — seemed like a failure. It was only after his death that many of his predictions about the interactions of man and technology came true. His Wikipedia entry contains the chrysalis of his more complicated ideas in the form of a letter to Orwell in which Huxley says:
Within the next generation I believe that the world's leaders will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging them and kicking them into obedience.
At first, phrases like 'narco-hypnosis' seem like goofy tinfoil-hat concepts, but Huxley was only wrong in terms of motivation and delivery. His error was in thinking of the government having the kinds of "centers" that the right wing suspects Obamacare will run its wily agenda from. It's not that — swap in the words Merck or Abbott for "narco-hypnosis." The genius of controlling the masses comes from having us pay for our anti-depressants and mood enhancers ourselves. We haven’t just accepted the methods of our own control — we have purchased them, willingly, and we have complained about how much healthcare costs while all the while looking the wrong way.
My drunken revelation was a cousin to Huxley's insight about loving servitude. I walked down Sixth toward the con at a shuffling, zombie pace among the thousands of people pooled by the trolley tracks. The influx of humanity in costume was amazing, and I felt happy that fandom in the age of digital communication had broadened and deepened so much.
There was a restaurant that NBC had taken over, advertising — well, I'm not so sure the restaurant itself was just one thing so much as an NBC 'experience,' as in "come here and immerse yourself in what NBC means."
"Excuse me?" A guy with an earpiece said. "When you walk a little further, do you mind looking left and upward at the billboards?"
"There are cameras. Just look up as if you're interested. It won't be hard — there's a billboard."
I couldn't guarantee that would happen, but I did look as he suggested, and I saw the ad for The Blacklist, and one for Dracula, but I also saw the original shell of a fish restaurant I'd been familiar with, more familiar than anyone here probably was. Once, it had been a PG&E substation, back in the 1980s. Homeless people used to sleep on the grating outside. Including people I knew. Whenever I walked by, it was like seeing a mansion built on a cemetery plot.
The area was once poor, then money came in, then people came in to play here, and now more sophisticated money is here. Every media corporation in the world seems to have a presence in San Diego, and it's not because they want to sell comic books. They want a space, forever, in your brain, and they want you to welcome them.
Later I was waiting for a friend outside a bathroom, and I realized the men's room sign didn't say "Men" — it had the internationally-recognized man shape, and it said "Normans." The women's room said "Normas" — and in that hiragana-to-English sort of painful translation, I realized even the bathrooms were now advertisements, in this case for Bates Motel. The frightening part — the most frightening part — was that there was no place where Bates Motel was actually mentioned. The advertisers were relying on me to do the translation myself, which I did.
I tell my first-year writing students show-don't-tell. The reason is that it makes the audience do the work, involving them in the narrative. And that's what's finally happened here in what might be the most cutting edge experiment of advertising the world has ever seen.
San Diego has become a petri dish of privacy invasion. And it's only working because we, the fans, are bringing it on ourselves. I've always thought that when we lose our rights, it won't happen in the middle of the night, via men scheming in a dark room. No, we're going to lose them by voting them away ourselves. Same with our personal information. PRISM and the NSA are frightening but much more insidious is the way I just handed over my credit card repeatedly, to show what I like in hotels, food, drink, books, artwork, movies, television and that's just the start of it. How many times when buying a limited edition Ugly Doll did one of us hand over an email address? When registering to do the Walking Dead Escape at Petco Park, did that coordinate with AMC's sister company databases so my ad preferences will reflect running shoes, zombies and the Padres? Did my failure to show up peg me as lacking follow-through?
The software isn't quite there yet, I don’t think. The cameras on the street aren't quite integrated yet with recognizing the badges we have around our neck. But in three years, five, ten, there will be the most amazing data mining you can imagine as Disney and Warner and Fox and Apple and Monsanto (trust me, their VOD service has got to be starting up any minute) spar over the right to analyze how many seconds you spent looking left, then right, at Vampirella or Lex Luthor or Sponge Bob.
This is why the money is here. We are our own worst enemies when it comes to consumption.
On my last morning, I went to the lobby of my hotel for coffee. The concierge had brought her puppy, who was five months old, into work with her. I watched a guest walk in with his 10-month-old Weimaraner puppy, who had no time for the rest of us milling around. Instead, he ran over to the front desk, bowed down and play-lunged at the younger dog, who started this wild, gravity-free back-and-forth run bouncing halfway up the hotel walls. I'd never seen the distillation of cuteness so perfectly managed within the boundaries of such a small space.
I patted myself for my cell phone, and I wasn't alone — everyone in the lobby had started to crowd around, fishing for cameras. I imagined them uploaded to Cuteoverload.com, the resulting reality show, the adaption into manga, a line around the block to meet them, a fleet of Escalades with puppies in sunglasses hanging out, a pet store converted to the Concierge Dog Café.
I put my camera away. I let them be.
Outside the con, in a patch of grass, a father finished tying a black cape to an otherwise normally-dressed five-year-old girl's shoulders. She extended her arms upward, did a leaping, stumbling run forward without fear, and she said "RAAARRR!" as she ran.
God bless you, kid, bless you forever. Keep running.