In the years that I’ve been attending the granddaddy of all comic book conventions, I’ve seen it go from a relatively humble gathering of nerds (about six years ago, my wife and I were able to get passes about a month before the event took place—now, not so much) to the sprawling powerhouse of pop culture that it is today. It’s been a fun, frantic transition to observe, and the fact that the focus of virtually every international news outlet is fixed upon the San Diego convention stands as a testament that the culture that has long been celebrated by fanboys and fangirls has solidified itself as a major part of popular discourse.
While SDCC is a great place to let one’s geek flag fly, it’s also a hotbed of pop culture news and announcements. From major film and TV studios to independent publishers of books and comics, SDCC is often the place where fans get the very first look at next year’s blockbuster films or unexpected comic book collaborations. Among the biggest reveals were cast appearances and extended trailers for The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and The Avengers: Age of Ultron.
On the sleeper side of cinematic announcements, the panels for the upcoming films Interstellar and The Giver were both unexpectedly awesome. The Giver, an upcoming film adaptation of Lois Lowry’s novel about a dystopian society that has been able to medically suppress the emotions of its members, featured a panel that included Jeff Bridges, Brenton Thwaites, and Lois Lowry herself. According to Bridges, he was so impressed by the novel when he first read it twenty years ago that he wanted to direct a film adaptation that featured his father Lloyd as the titular role. His enthusiasm for the project—and the way he and Lowry quipped off of one another—set the footage up nicely.
Christopher Nolan, who you might know from the groundbreaking Dark Knight Trilogy, made his SDCC debut alongside Oscar-winner Matthew McConaughey. They were promoting Nolan’s upcoming science fiction film called Interstellar, and their decision to remain mum on the plot details made it all the more exciting. From the tidbits that have been revealed, the film is about a team of astronauts who discover a wormhole into deep space. Nolan referenced Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and from how spectacularly he blew our minds with Inception, there’s really no telling what Nolan’s imagination will do with a space opera.
With the success that networks like HBO and Showtime have had with original serials like Game of Thrones, True Blood and Dexter, the cable TV show has become a huge fixture at SDCC. On Friday, AMC’s The Walking Dead and HBO’s Game of Thrones did back-to-back panels in which cast members presented sneak peeks of their show’s upcoming seasons, along with taking questions from the audience. One of the most successful television panels was engineered by DC Entertainment, who has leveraged the success of the CW’s Arrow into three new superhero-themed shows that will be premiering this fall. Not only did they show a preview of Arrow’s third season and an extended trailer of the paranormal drama Constantine, but DC offered world premieres of The Flash and Gotham to their fans. The Flash, whom DC introduced on Arrow, looks to be a sharp contrast to Arrow’s dark tone—lots of color, optimism and jocular one-liners, but might be veering a bit too close to the cheese-factor of Smallville. Constantine and Gotham, on the other hand, look to be gunning for the same audience that digs the grittier side of the nerd universe. Constantine is based on the DC Vertigo title Hellblazer that chronicles the boozy, surrealistic world of John Constantine, London’s premier paranormal investigator/part-time occultist. From the trailer that premiered at SDCC, it looks like the show is really going to play up the creepy atmosphere that has been established by the comics. Matt Ryan is a dead ringer for the lead character, and it looks like he’s committed to capturing Constantine’s indifferent, cynical attitude towards his career as a demon hunter. I’m a bit worried about NBC’s decision to schedule the show on Friday nights, as that time slot seems to be reserved for shows that aren’t expected to last longer than one season.
Before the world premiere of Gotham, which will be airing on Fox this fall, I had my fingers crossed. Batman is near and dear to my heart, and I kept repeating this mantra in my head, “Please don’t let this suck…please don’t let this suck.” The good news is that it doesn’t suck. The show’s premise takes place during James Gordon’s (later to become Batman’s trusted ally) first day as a detective in a Gotham city precinct. In the first episode, we see the horrific murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne, which sets young Bruce Wayne on the path that will lead him to become Gotham’s caped crusader. Along the way, we meet some familiar faces in Batman’s rogues gallery—Robin Taylor’s Oswald Cobblepot, who eventually becomes The Penguin, is creepily brilliant, and the brief introduction of The Riddler’s alter-ego Edward Nygma as a GCPD lab geek was a great demonstration of the show’s tight script work. It might be Jada Pinkett-Smith who steals the show as Fish Mooney, one of Gotham’s up and coming crime bosses. When we first meet her, she’s coolly overseeing the brutal beating of a henchman who has displeased her, only to shift into a glad-handing nightclub owner when the fuzz shows up. There are some clear references to the Gotham that Christopher Nolan created in his Dark Knight films—the city is portrayed as this nexus of corruption that seems to spawn some of the greatest villains in comic book history.
One of the criticisms that I often hear among my fellow SDCC attendees is that the convention has forsaken comic books in favor of movies and TV. Though it’s true that the film and television presentations are the most popular, SDCC still ensures that everything that is new and exciting in the world of comics is still well-represented. Of the comic book panels that I checked out, the Dark Horse and Dynamite panels were the most intriguing. Though Marvel and DC remain the heavy hitters in the comic book industry, publishers like Dark Horse and Dynamite are excellent sources of new creative talent in the field. Dark Horse had assembled a panel that included Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk, who is collaborating with industry vets Cameron Stewart and David Mack on a comic book sequel to his popular novel. Palahniuk explained that the story of Fight Club 2 will revolve around Fight Club’s narrator and Marla Singer, who have been married for ten years and have a son together. Their marriage seems to have stagnated, and Marla finds herself trying to find ways to make Tyler Durden surface in order to jump start their sex life. Palahniuk also mentioned that the character of Tyler Durden will be cast as more of a primal force of nature that seeks to inhabit insecure males in order to bring about his anarchistic way of life. When moderator and Dark Horse president Scott Allie asked Palahniuk what attracted him to the comic book industry, the author explained that he was looking forward to a medium in which he could be the inexperienced idiot and experiment with a new writing format. The new series will hit shelves in May of 2015.
Dynamite was excited to announce a comic book collaboration among Eisner-award winning writer Matt Wagner, illustrator Esteve Polls and filmmaker Quentin Tarantino that will bring Tarantino’s Django, a liberated slave turned bounty hunter, and the heroic Mexican vigilante Zorro together for some old fashioned ass-kicking. Both Tarantino and Wagner were present on the panel, and it was difficult for them to contain their enthusiasm for the upcoming project. Tarantino explained that the story would take place in the pre-civil war era, after the events of his film Django Unchained. Neither Wagner nor Tarantino divulged too much information about what exactly would be bringing the two heroes together, but the alliance between these two heroes will definitely provide an interesting take on the western genre. During the Q&A session, Tarantino also confirmed that his western film The Hateful Eight is moving forward in production—despite the controversy involving Gawker’s leak of the film’s original script.
During my past SDCC experiences, I’ve been among the thousands who forsake a good night’s sleep in order to wait in line for Hall H, which is where the big movie studios typically bring out the big guns to promote upcoming blockbusters. This year, my wife and I decided on seeing what else SDCC has to offer for their Saturday programming. For all attendees who are unable or unwilling to get into the Hall H extravaganza, there is still a lot to do at SDCC. Our morning started with a panel called Monsterpalooza, which was basically improv theater for comic book artists. The panel of three artists from Oni Press (Zander Cannon, Joelle Jones and Jake Myler) would receive an idea for a monster from an audience member and draw their rendition of that monster in three minutes. I was lucky enough to offer a concept—I wanted a Lovecraftian space-horror—and it was fascinating to see these three artists apply their different styles to the concept. Zander Cannon created my favorite piece, which was a picture of Cthulhu looking wistful as he sat atop a planet. The kicker was that I got to keep the one that I liked the most, so I’m now the proud owner of an exclusive illustration of wistful Cthulhu signed by Zander Cannon himself. In addition to this interactive panel, we attended several panels that featured prominent sci-fi/fantasy authors. My favorite author moment was when Leigh Bardugo, author of the Grisha Trilogy, told us about her emotional response to meeting Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin for the first time. Something about seeing these established authors reveal the fact that they’re all fangirls and fanboys at heart makes them endearing and approachable.
It’s possible to write an entire piece on the exhibit hall. It’s a massive sprawl of vendors and artists that requires several visits in order to adequately comprehend. My go to swag during my visits are free books, and I don’t feel like my SDCC experience is complete unless I have at least three bags full. During this particular run, I was able to meet author Daniel H. Wilson who was signing copies of Robogenesis, the sequel to his popular novel Robopocalypse. I also snagged a copy of the first issue of Big Trouble in Little China, which author Eric Powell signed for me. All in all, it was a lucrative trip through the labyrinth—with actual minotaurs—that is the exhibit hall.
While it’s true that most of the action at SDCC takes place within the walls of the convention center, the critical mass of geek energy that is present throughout the convention simply cannot be contained by one building. During SDCC, the entire Gaslamp Quarter of downtown San Diego morphs into a surreal extension of the convention. Restaurants convert into locales from TV shows like Once Upon a Time and The Blacklist; pedicabs outfitted with fiberglass effigies of Simpsons characters weave through streets choked with cosplayers; and the nearby Petco Park is literally infested with zombies.
Among the most memorable destinations outside the convention was a geek-centric fashion show that took place at the Manchester Grand Hyatt, a hotel a few blocks away from the convention center. The show was the brainchild of Her Universe, Hot Topic and Nerdist Industries. Before SDCC, Her Universe ran a contest for rookie fashion designers that allowed them to submit their best outfit inspired by the world of fandom. The finalists were then allowed to present their clothing at SDCC, where the audience and a panel of judges selected their favorite design—the winner of which received an exclusive contract with Hot Topic. It was an impressive show, with beautiful clothing that was inspired by everything from Doctor Who to Battlestar Galactica. The show was a testament to the vision that Her Universe founder Ashley Eckstein has for fangirls everywhere—that it’s okay to flaunt the geeky stuff that you love and to look good doing it.
Behind the convention center, near the harbor, a strange juxtaposition of structures had been erected. The first was the Gotham City skyline that was several feet wide and tall enough to trick me into thinking that Coronado Island had recently become a vast metropolis. The purpose for this structure was for fans to line up and take a tandem ride down a zipline in order to capture the exhilaration of their favorite brooding superhero. The second was the giant dome of Homer Simpson’s head, surrounded by various other Simpsons-inspired structures that offered things like blue cotton candy and carnival games.
Deep into the Gaslamp Quarter across the street, several hotels had converted meeting rooms into smaller bastions of nerdery. In the Samsung Lounge, attendees were able to view exclusive trailers for Mockingjay, the third installment in The Hunger Games series, and Avengers: Age of Ultron. The more artistic SDCC attendee can also find several geek-inspired art galleries lining the streets of the Gaslamp. The Chuck Jones Gallery has its roots entrenched deep inside geek culture, as Jones was an animator for Warner Brothers during the golden age of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. Every year, the gallery is home to art exhibits that combine fandom with contemporary art.
Despite the fact that SDCC can be messy and often extremely frustrating, I still love it. At the end of that long weekend in July, it’s comforting to see so many people coming out to celebrate the enduring work of so many talented artists. Now that it’s officially behind us, all of us local nerds are counting the days until SLCC is upon us so we can meet up and swap our own convention center war stories—and maybe pick up some cool swag along the way.