Inside Comic-Con 2015: Drowning in fandom at the vortex of pop culture

For Road Trip 2015, a journey to Comic-Con reveals just how long fans are willing to wait to see celebrity panels about upcoming films and TV shows. This year's must-stand-in-line event: the upcoming "Star Wars" film.

Nick Statt Former Staff Reporter / News
Nick Statt was a staff reporter for CNET News covering Microsoft, gaming, and technology you sometimes wear. He previously wrote for ReadWrite, was a news associate at the social-news app Flipboard, and his work has appeared in Popular Science and Newsweek. When not complaining about Bay Area bagel quality, he can be found spending a questionable amount of time contemplating his relationship with video games.
Nick Statt
9 min read

Enlarge Image
After the "Star Wars" Hall H panel at Comic-Con on Friday, director J. J. Abrams and cast members both old and new took more than 6,000 people to a live concert on the waterfront. Getty Images

This is the first story in our summer series, RoadTrip 2015: The Global Hunt for Innovation.

SAN DIEGO -- "You don't even want to know."

That was the San Diego Comic-Con staffer's response when I asked just how long fans had been waiting to gain access to the infamous Hall H for arguably the most popular and anticipated celebrity panel of the week: "Star Wars: Episode VII."

The real answer, it turns out, was around 48 hours. People began lining up Wednesday morning with foldable chairs, packaged food and bottled beverages, full-blown camping gear and as much fandom as they could muster to hold them over until the doors of the mammoth auditorium hall opened early Friday.

Attached to the eastern end of the San Diego Convention Center, Hall H is best known for fitting just north of 6,000 people -- or under 5 percent of 130,000-plus Comic-Con attendees -- eager to see Hollywood's biggest names and exclusive trailer footage of upcoming films and television shows. Many of the Comic-Con sessions are posted on YouTube or elsewhere online shortly after the event, but fans don't care -- it's about the experience.

Enlarge Image
Eager fans waited as long as two days outside the San Diego Convention Center for a chance to be one of around 6,100 attendees allowed inside Hall H for popular panels, like Friday's "Star Wars" presentation. Nick Statt/CNET

If that waiting around time sounds excessive, that's because it is. Comic-Con is the place where the lines between obsessive fans, Hollywood marketing hype and genuine, overwhelming love for fictional universes and characters blur into the singular, constantly-pulsing heartbeat of modern pop culture. For just half a week in July, the San Diego bay front and surrounding bars, restaurants and hotels are transformed into an elaborate extension of the 45-year-old comics convention, which has grown to include film, television, video games and toys.

Just one glimpse of the show hall floor and surrounding crowds of elaborate "cosplayers," shorthand for dressing up as recognizable characters of fiction, is enough to convince you that science fiction, fantasy and comic book culture now rule the world. Comic-Con is just where people now come once a year to celebrate that fact.

On the docket for this year's Hall H was the cast of dystopian film series "The Hunger Games," zombie apocalypse TV show "The Walking Dead," HBO's fantasy powerhouse "Game of Thrones," Warner Bros.' DC Comics lineup including "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice," and -- of course -- the upcoming "Star Wars: Episode VII The Force Awakens."

For fans, the "Star Wars" wait -- easily the longest of any of the Hall H panels -- was worth it. Director J.J. Abrams and cast members including John Boyega, Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley were joined on stage by original Star Wars trilogy stars Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford. Between snippets of banter and insight into character development, the most defining aspect of the panel was the deafening roar of the crowd and the energy in the air.

Comic-Con takes over San Diego (pictures)

See all photos

"This is so out of control," said Gwendoline Christie, who plays villain Captain Phasma in the upcoming Star Wars film, as she took the Hall H stage Friday. Christie also stars in "Game of Thrones," but even those credentials didn't prepare her for the Hall H crowd. "Game of who?" Christie quipped when panel host Chris Hardwick brought up her employment history.

Road Trip 2015
Click here for more stories from Road Trip 2015.

After the hour-long panel ended on Friday evening, a line of Stormtroopers -- Star Wars' iconic black-and-white soldiers of the Empire -- led fans around the back of the convention center to a surprise live concert. Leading the charge was Minnesota native Kevin Doyle, who walked more than 500 miles in Stormtrooper gear to attend Comic-Con in honor of his deceased wife, whom he met through a "Star Wars" costuming group and married five years ago before she passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2012.

The scene encapsulated the enigma that is Comic-Con. As thousands of people pointed plastic colored lightsabers to the sky and listened to the tunes of famed Star Wars composer John Williams, you couldn't help but wonder if it was the most endearing marketing stunt in the history of cinema.

Rise of of the superheroes

Comic-Con wasn't always a monster event capable of eating an entire city. Started in the basement of San Diego's US Grant Hotel in 1970, the original Comic-Con was made up of 300 people and dedicated solely to its titular art form.

Yet over the decades, as the popularity of science fiction and fantasy spread beyond comics and novels and into the realm of TV and film, so did mainstream consumers' familiarity with the universe of comic houses Marvel and DC and the work of fantasy and sci-fi icons like J.R.R. Tolkien, Gene Roddenberry and George Lucas.

Helping the cause was the fidelity and ubiquity of special effects and computer-generated imaging that meant that nearly anything could be brought to life onscreen.

Enlarge Image
It would have been unthinkable 15 years ago to turn a ragtag group of galactic misfits known only to hardcore Marvel comic fans into a Hollywood blockbuster costing nearly $200 million. Yet 2014's "Guardians of the Galaxy" was just that, and its characters, like the towering Groot, are now popular cosplay choice at conventions like Comic-Con. Nick Statt/CNET

Of course, there isn't a defining turning point when geek culture started taking over. Both small and large shifts in film occurred throughout the '90s and '00s. Those include the "Star Wars" prequel films, the introduction of the "Harry Potter" book and film series and director Peter Jackson's cinematic renditions of Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy.

On the comics side, the carving up of various superhero collectives among different film studios and entertainment conglomerates led to big-budget versions of Spider-Man and the X-Men. Those followed in the footsteps of established Hollywood superheroes Batman and Superman. In 2008, the introduction of actor Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man marked the beginning of a new multi-movie storyline surrounding a group of superheroes known as the Avengers. Warner Bros has since begun its own competitor around a group known as the Justice League.

Between now and 2019, there will be more than two dozen comic books films released, not including sequels for "Star Wars," "Star Trek" and James Cameron's science fiction saga "Avatar." It's easy to see why. Of the top 10 highest-grossing films in the world, six can be classified as sci-fi or fantasy and three -- "The Avengers," "Iron Man 3" and "The Avengers: Age of Ultron" -- come directly from established comics franchises.

San Diego Comic-Con 2015's best exclusive items (pictures)

See all photos

As for TV, the medium has always been both a testing ground and a validating format for ambitious fantasy and sci-fi series, from "Star Trek" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" to "True Blood" and "Lost." Now, it's also the place where lesser-known comic-book characters -- like the Flash, Supergirl, Daredevil and the Green Arrow -- are fodder for prime-time series, while more independent projects and big-bets have become colossal hits.

For instance, "The Walking Dead," which started in 2003 as a black-and-white graphic novel series from up-and-coming publisher Image Comics, is now one of the biggest shows on the small screen. Its season five finale, which drew 15.8 million viewers, topped the final episodes of "The Voice" and "Dancing with the Stars" and drew almost double the number of viewers as American Idol's last season finale.

"Game of Thrones," though it notches fewer viewers because viewers have to pay HBO a separate fee to watch it, is the most pirated TV show on the planet and has turned its stars and series author George R.R. Martin into Hollywood royalty.

Pop culture overload

It's hard to discuss Comic-Con without noticing the sheer force of will required to attend the event. As anyone here will tell you, Comic-Con, at first glance, resembles an amusement park whose main attraction requires a four-day wait in line.

The insanity of Hall H's celebrity panel lines aside, there are lines for the bathroom; lines to buy water; lines to buy hot dogs wrapped in tin foil. There are lines to play video games; lines to buy toys; lines to look at toys; lines to simply squeeze through a tiny sliver of space on the show floor hall without being pressed into someone else's face. There are waiting times to FedEx the merchandise you bought home and long, snaking queues to cross the street outside the convention center.

Enlarge Image
Fans line up in the "next day" Hall H line around 10:30 a.m. PT on Friday morning. They won't be let inside until Saturday morning, whereupon Warner Bros. will present exclusive footage for upcoming superhero films. Nick Statt/CNET

Want to get an autograph or get your picture taken with someone famous? Prepare to wait in line for hours.

The whole affair gives off an air of over-exhaustion. Comic-Con feels way too big for its own good in a city located about a two-hour drive south of Los Angeles. The San Diego Comic Convention, which operates Comic-Con and has used litigation in the past to stave off competing events that encroach on its brand name, landed a deal last week with the city to keep the convention here until at least 2018.

If there are signs Comic-Con has lost its gleam, they're not showing on the faces of attendees. Below the surface and the cynicism and outward exhaustion, Comic-Con feels like a wave pool: Fans dress up and wait in line and cheer until they're hoarse while letting themselves be engulfed by a rhythmic hype machine that runs endlessly for four straight days -- and apparently people keep coming back for more every year.

Sometimes, the wave does crash right on your head.

People routinely combat convention center staff for the right to sit down on the floor, while others sneak away to secluded corners of the second floor to lay down and sleep. It's not uncommon to spot people in the Hall H line who failed to bring umbrellas hold their backpacks in front of their faces to block out the sun.

The amazing costume play at San Diego Comic-Con (pictures)

See all photos

Cosplayers, who are often dressed head to toe in sweltering gear, can avoid the long concession lines inside the convention center by turning to the water sellers on the street, who offer bottles for $1 a pop and hold large signs reading "Stay Hydrated."

"I know some of you are Zelda fans, and some of you are here because you were too tired to leave after the last panel," panel moderator and games journalist Chris Kohler quipped on Saturday at a panel on Nintendo's classic adventure video game "The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past."

What appears to keep attendees going is a kind of symbiotic relationship with the pop culture mechanisms at play at Comic-Con, including the obvious and blatant marketing and appeals to consumerism. Mammoth corporations own nearly every facet of the superhero universe -- and Comic-Con is the biggest advertising screen of the year.

And yet cosplayers and dedicated fans maintain deep connections with the fiction and with one another, and come to Comic-Con to enjoy those relationships together. Even the act of cosplay -- itself a brilliant form of marketing in which the consumer literally wears the advertisement -- is considered the apex of fandom and the truest form of genuine devotion to a fictional universe.

Enlarge Image
Uber, which partnered with USA Network for its upcoming show "Colony," is just one of many companies that attempted to raise brand awareness at Comic-Con. Nick Statt/CNET

Other, seemingly out-of-place companies descend onto San Diego's downtown to try and co-opt some of this goodwill. Video game publishers like Ubisoft and Square Enix set up elaborate obstacle courses -- including an actual zipline -- to hawk new stealth games, and ride-hailing service Uber rolled out real military vehicles to promote USA's new show Colony. The Syfy channel hired dozens of actors to play a fictional cult and hand out fliers in downtown, while Microsoft and Nintendo transformed giant nearby hotel ballrooms into video game extravaganzas.

Yet none of the cheesy stunts can phase or distract or derail the dedication of the people who have come here to relish in the pop culture kingdoms to which they've dedicated their allegiance.

Unlike giant technology-related trade shows, such as the Consumer Electronics Show held in Las Vegas every January and the video-game focused Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles each June, Comic-Con is above all else a place for fans to express joy -- even if it costs them the misery of waiting in line for 48 hours. As one longtime attendee told me in passing, what sets Comic-Con apart is that "everyone actually wants to be here."

Even on Sunday, after three full days of grueling nonstop Comic-Con, that good-natured spirit remains on display.

A young boy wearing a convincing full-body red suit is cosplaying as the wacky, comedic superhero Deadpool, to be played by actor Ryan Reynolds in the movie of the same name set to be released in February. After posing for a random stranger's photo, the boy pulls up his mask and looks to his father to flash a huge grin.

"Alright," his dad says, "Let's go."

Deadpool disappeared into the crowd.