Four Years of San Diego Comic-Con

My first trip to Comic-Con was in 2009. One of my friends opened a chat window with me and suggested we get a group of people together and make the trip. We bought the tickets, booked a hotel room, and made some Monarch Henchmen costumes. It was an incredible trip, and it sparked a love of cosplay and convention-going. Since then, I’ve been to SDCC every year, and it’s never been the same. It’s not just that I’ve gone with a different group of friends, or that I’ve never stayed in the same neighborhood. Simply, any nerd hoping to go to SDCC faces a serious dilemma of risk versus reward: gamble your time and your money against that of every other geek wanting to go for the payout that it will be better than any other convention out there.

We went from tossing around the idea to standing on the convention floor in 2009 in less than four months. We bought our tickets months after they’d been released for sale. We couldn’t find an affordable hotel in walking distance, but we did find one close enough to the Qualcomm trolley station. The trolley was convenient even if it gave us a curfew (hard to stay out late when the last train is at 11:30pm). We drank in the hotel, played card games, and had a hell of a time. That first year is the only time I remember the experience being easy.

It took us all by surprise how quickly tickets sold out the following year in 2010 (just three days). The group of friends was a lot more rag tag, and not everyone was able to get four-day passes. But we made the most of it and found another hotel, further out, but still by a trolley station. We cosplayed, but since the group was more disparate, we had a harder time coming up with a unified theme (“JLA” is so broad that it might as well have been “DC”). This was the year that I learned the lesson of buying tickets for next year while still at the convention. The lines were long, but at least I’d be guaranteed a four day ticket and preview night access.

The nightmare planning year was 2011. I’d booked and paid for a hotel before tickets even went on sale. I didn’t do this because I was a crazy planner, but because Comic-Con couldn’t seem to find a ticketing service provider who could handle the volume. Tickets, when they finally did go on sale, were gone in under eight hours. Again, the group of my friends who were able to get tickets had changed. But, as the group was more or less chosen by chance, we couldn’t come together on cosplay at all and eventually went the quick and lazy route. Even then, only three of the eight of us bought the costume and wore it. Nevertheless, we had an incredible location on Coronado Island; we took the ferry across the water every morning. The planning had paid off, so I bought my ticket at the convention again, planning a fourth year. I hadn’t even realized how even in that span of three years, the average cost per night of the hotel had gone from $80 in 2009 to $125 in 2011. And I was still having so much fun that I didn’t see at the time how difficult simply buying tickets had become for many of my friends.

This year, 2012, will likely have been my last San Diego Comic-Con for quite some time. The event’s level of exclusivity has become prohibitive. Many of my friends didn’t even compete in the lightning-fast online race for tickets (within ten minutes the virtual line had claimed all of the four-day passes, and those were just the people who figured out Comic-Con’s broken link e-mail). Of those who competed, only a small handful got what they’d came for. None of them were staying in hotels, but with family and friends who I couldn’t stay with. I had my ticket in hand, purchased almost a year ago, with nowhere to stay. Luckily at the last minute an acquaintance from college graciously allowed me to sleep on the floor in the hotel room of her and her boyfriend. For most of the convention I was by myself. I walked the exhibit hall and looked at the booths by myself and sat alone in panels. I went to a few after hours party events and mingled with some creators when I could. I even finally did the whole “wake up at 2AM to get in line for a panel that doesn’t start until 10AM” experience so I could see the Legend of Korra and Firefly panels. But I did it all alone because the event had become so incredibly exclusive. And you know, even though I spent 2012’s SDCC using the hash tag #ConAlone, it was still an incredibly fun convention. I got to sit in the front of panels because it was just me. I saw what I wanted and went where I wanted to go without having to wrangle group negotiations. I met with friends I’d only ever talked to online and finally got around to going to some of the after parties I never could before. It was an intensely fun trip. I just wish that I could have had somebody there with whom to share the whole experience.

This year, for 2013, SDCC’s registration for 2012’s attendees was online instead of in-person during the show. Attendees could only buy badges for themselves or other people who had attended in 2012. This more than anything — more than the crowds, more than the lines, and more than the price — is what will keep me away. In 2011 I met a wonderful woman to whom I am now engaged. When I went to Comic-Con last year and bought tickets for this year, we’d only been dating for four months. I couldn’t make the $175 investment to bring her along without knowing for sure that we’d still be together (after all, tickets are nontransferable). So this year, I had a choice to make: buy a $200 ticket during the online attendee-only presale for myself and try to get a ticket for my fiancé during the open registration, or just say “screw it” and go to another show.

My experience with conventions is limited to California events: SDCC, WonderCon, and BigWowCon (formerly SuperCon, San José’s local show). One of the friends I met up with in 2012 is a more serious con-goer. I asked her about some other shows I’d heard about like Dragon*Con or Emerald City. She told me something that quite caught my ear: the cost for her entire family (a husband and kids) to go to Dragon*Con, including hotel, flight, food, and show purchases, was less than the hotel alone at SDCC — a sketchy hotel on a bad side-street. Dragon*Con isn’t even crowded. The bars in the area outside don’t have bleachers so that the locals can sit and watch the freak show of geeks. Tickets are readily available. To top everything off, she was telling me all of this while we were getting a drink at Zachary Levi’s NerdHQ, an off-site bar and panel location. There were lots of cool little spots like that around the convention to hang out, catch a drink, talk to creators, and enjoy the convention: Trickster, the YouTube Lounge, NerdHQ, etc. In fact, most of the people I went down to SDCC to talk to or see in panels were at the these places as much as they were in the convention center. The lines were smaller, admission was cheaper, and they served whiskey. There were people in San Diego meeting all the people I wanted to meet, experiencing all the things I was experiencing, and nerding out as much as I was, and they didn’t ever have to go through the convention center’s throngs of crowds or craziness to do it.

Come 2013, I don’t think I’ll be going to San Diego. I don’t doubt that even as SDCC pushes core fans away it will continue to be an incredible event. Sure, you can meet the Penny Arcade guys at PAX, and you can cosplay with the dangerous ladies in FanExpo, or you can get a beer with Jimmy Palmiotti at Baltimore Comic-Con. But SDCC will always be the one place where you can do all three at the same time. It’s the biggest show because everybody’s there, and everybody’s there because it’s the biggest show. It’s an event supported by the self-contained logic of its own success. I just don’t think I’ll be going into the convention center anymore. I might drive down for a couple nights and swing through the off-site circuit, but it’s too hard to get tickets and it’s too hard to keep up with the show’s stress and anxiety. I’d rather sit at a bar and chat with a woman in a TARDIS dress and a man in a superman suit.

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