San Diego Comic-Con: Best Laid Plans

Photo by Kendall Whitehouse.
In San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter, all roads lead to Comic-Con. Photo by Kendall Whitehouse.

With San Diego Comic-Con beginning this week, fans of comic books, video games, and science fiction and fantasy movies and TV shows are getting excited — and stressed out.

Many comic book and pop culture aficionados are, by nature, “completists” — people who want to collect everything pertaining to their obsessions. Comic book publishers know this well and produce variant covers for popular comics, hoping retailers will stock up on multiple copies for fans who want to collect the special issues. When these fans attend San Diego Comic-Con — where seeing everything (or even most things) is clearly impossible — the situation calls for elaborate planning.

The Con and Beyond

The sheer scale of the event is daunting. San Diego Comic-Con is the largest comic book and popular culture convention event in the U.S., with an annual attendance of approximately 130,000. The San Diego Convention Center isn’t large enough to host all the activities, with sessions occupying rooms in the adjacent Hilton and Marriott hotels as well as a downtown theater. Throughout much of the four days of the conference, there are 20 or more simultaneous sessions, in venues ranging from cozy rooms seating about 300 to the cavernous Hall H, which holds roughly 6,500. In addition, the exhibit hall is jammed with hundreds of vendors, artists and activities from Wednesday’s “Preview Night” through the end of the show on Sunday.

And these are merely the official activities of Comic-Con proper. The gravitational pull of Comic-Con attracts additional pop culture festivities that vie for fans’ attention. These alternate activities include Nerd HQ panels hosted by “Chuck” star Zachary Levi, the TR!CKST3R symposium for comic book writers and artists, and events sponsored by the Geek and Sundry YouTube channel from Felicia Day and Wil Wheaton. And then there are the parties, large and small, that go late into the night throughout San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter.

Comic-Con International doles out the conference’s extensive programming schedule one day at a time two weeks before the event — many months after fans have purchased their tickets and survived the hotel lottery (commonly known as “hotelmageddon”). When the list of sessions is unveiled, the initial reaction of many fans is that of panic.

The anxiety is immediately in evidence on Twitter. When Saturday’s schedule was posted, @sonya415 tweeted: “SO STRESSED everything i want is at the same time!”  User @sam1Helen observed, “My Saturday schedule for #SDCC [San Diego Comic Con] is so crammed…I need at least 3 of me to see everything.”

Personal Logistics Planning

The challenge of successfully navigating Comic-Con is more complex than simply selecting favorites from myriad simultaneous activities; it’s an exercise in personal logistics planning.

First, there are the lines — the very, very long lines. Line wait-time calculations are key to Comic-Con success. While you may be able to walk into one of the more obscure panels shortly before its scheduled start time, those opportunities are rare. The convention’s management doesn’t clear the rooms between sessions, so once you’re in a room, you can stay through one or more subsequent sessions. This is a great boon to those who manage to get in, but it creates a challenge for those hoping to coordinate their activities between multiple venues.

The old Comic-Con rule to line up for the panel before the one you really want to see is no longer sufficient to gain entrance to many events. Plotting line strategy involves balancing desire and feasibility, with the latter comprising careful analysis of room size, the presumed popularity of each session and the expected audience overlap for successive sessions.

Fans Helping Fans

Fortunately, experienced Comic-Con fans are available to help. Tony Kim on his website, Crazy 4 Comic Con, offers advice on a wide range of Con-related topics including “How To Get Into A Panel,” “When to Line Up for Panels” and “Hall H Camping.”

Following the release of the Comic-Con programming schedule for each day, Jeremy Rutz, who runs the Unofficial Comic-Con Blog, hosted a two-hour Google Hangout with fellow Con aficionados James Riley and Kerry Dixon to probe the mysteries of the schedule — including rumors about surprise celebrity appearances — and explore strategies to help fans manage their Comic-Con experience.

Here’s a sample of the level of analysis involved: Discussing Saturday’s sequence of panels in Ballroom 20 (which seats approximate 4,500), the team assessed the perceived overlap of the audiences for “Once Upon a Time” at 11:00 AM, the four panels of Fox TV animation shows between noon and 3:15 PM, and the panels for “True Blood” at 3:30 PM and “The Vampire Diaries” at 4:30 PM. Rutz noted that many of the “Once Upon a Time” fans won’t stick around for the Fox animation panels, providing a window of opportunity for “True Blood” viewers hoping to gain access to the room without having to spend the entire day there. Rutz speculated that while “True Blood” fans will need to arrive well before the scheduled 3:30 PM start time for the panel, they probably didn’t need to join the line before noon. “I think they’ll get there in the middle of the Fox panels. If you get there at 1 o’clock, I think you’re still good.” Riley wasn’t so sure, stating, “I don’t know; ‘True Blood’ has some crazy fans, and ‘Vampire Diaries’ on top of that in the same day….” All agreed that in order to see “The Vampire Diaries,” fans will need to plan to arrive well in advance of the earlier “True Blood” panel, since the cross-over audience for the two vampire-themed shows will mean few vacated seats between the two panels.

And so it goes, room after room, hour after hour, for four days of panel sessions and competing desires. Is it any wonder the fans are stressed out?

Plan, but Be Ready to Adapt

The irony is: Much of the joy of Comic-Con comes from the unexpected moments of serendipity. It’s running into old friends or being amazed by a fan wearing a fantastic costume. It’s bumping into a celebrity in the lobby of the hotel or a favorite comic book artist on the exhibit hall floor. Those encounters can’t be planned. But everything else demands dedicated attention. Attendees to Comic-Con are advised to plan with great precision, but brace themselves for the unexpected. As Crazy 4 Comic Con’s Tony Kim notes, “Planning your schedule can be considered an art form. Even your best plans will get thwarted.”

Comic-Con International San Diego starts with preview night on Wednesday, July 17, and runs through Sunday, July 21. Kendall Whitehouse, Knowledge@Wharton’s technology and media editor, authored this blog post and will be at Comic-Con providing updates on his Twitter account and posting photos on Flickr — if, that is, things go according to plan.

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