Lines, Tears, And Vampire Stalkers: The Agony And Ecstasy Of San Diego Comic-Con
As a voice over the PA system announced that the convention floor was now open, I saw a man enter the doors and start sprinting down the aisles, presumably toward a booth with a particularly exciting exclusive. Behind him, drifting in his wake about 20 feet away, was his daughter. She had to be about six or seven years old. She couldn’t keep up. And as he ran harder, he left her farther behind.
I have never wanted to trip a man so badly.
For seven consecutive years, I attended San Diego Comic-Con — not as paying attendee, but for work. I was paid to be there, selling merchandise and chatting with fans in my company’s booth. I couldn’t attend panels or events, unless they were ones we were throwing, in which case I’d be there — working. At most, I might get a chance to take a 30-minute break once during the 4-day convention to walk the floor and buy things. Otherwise I was managing lines, which habitually extended so far beyond our booth that we’d have to take the stragglers to stand by the wall and lead them back in groups of 10 or 20. Sometimes even the line continuation would snake around, three deep. Sometimes we’d have separate lines, if there was a signing in the booth along with the shop. So for hours on end I’d parade fans back and forth, weaving through the heavy foot traffic on the floor, and trying to keep people amused while they waited 60-90 minutes to buy a t-shirt.
My day started at 8 am, when we would arrive to start stocking the shop with merchandise. The floor closed at 7 pm, but we’d be there for another hour closing out our drawers and assessing what products we had left, or would need to have brought out for the next day. I’d spend 12 hours on my feet, sometimes without time for a bathroom break, sometimes cramming a warm Auntie Anne’s cookie in my face-hole for lunch because I didn’t have time to stand in food lines.
The fans would keep us posted on what we were missing, explaining where they got their cool exclusives, what panels they’d gotten into, or telling us all the exciting gossip, like that one time someone got stabbed with a pen in Hall H. Sometimes they’d even bring us gifts, or trade us for giveaways they might have missed. I traded a lanyard for a Fringe fedora, and traded another one to a lady working the autograph booth next to us for a signed photo of LeVar Burton (I didn’t ask for it, but she’d had him sign it with my name so what the hell, right?). Over the years I found familiar friendly faces I could rely on, people who would always stop by for a hug amidst all the chaos. One guy had a backpack full of those little 5 Hour Energy bottles, and he’d swing by each day to see if I needed one. I definitely took him up on it.
But as the days wore on, tempers would fray. Paying lots of money to stand in line sucks, especially if you might miss out on the thing you were hoping to buy, and even MORE so when it’s the fifth line you’ve stood in all day and you may have spent the previous night sleeping in a line outside. I remember one man who claimed to be a voice actor in a bunch of ’80s and ’90s cartoons (he expected us to recognize him and care, which we did not), who started yelling at my colleague because he’d purchased an exclusive sweatshirt and the zipper was busted, but we had sold out of the size he needed and couldn’t exchange it. Which is shitty, but bringing people to tears isn’t going to get anyone a fucking new sweatshirt, you know? So I pulled him aside and let him yell at me, and once he’d started to calm down I explained our situation. How we do the best we can to make everyone happy, because we know how much they are paying to be here. How we try to manage our stock to make things available each day, but with literally THOUSANDS of people coming through a tiny 20’ x 20’ booth each day, things were bound to run out. How we would try to find a satisfactory solution (i.e. give him free shit to shut him up), but we just didn’t have that one fucking sweatshirt. He eventually thanked me for being so reasonable, and gave me a promotional pen covered in all the characters he’d voiced. I threw it away that night.
That wasn’t even my weirdest encounter, though. My first year there, when I was young and unjaded and my friendliness still felt natural (as opposed to the constructed cover it became in later years), I met an older gentleman dressed like a Bela Lugosi-esque vampire. He was a late night horror host, sort of a less popular Elvira character, and he started chatting with me. Our company was a little less popular in those days, so the booth wasn’t quite as crowded, and he would come to sit and get out of the hubbub for a bit. We didn’t think much of it, until he KEPT COMING. He particularly liked to come about an hour before the floor closed, wanting to talk to me. And he wouldn’t leave, even as we started counting our cash and gathering our things. My colleagues finally started running interference for me, telling him we needed to clean up and he had to go. He seemed to be waiting to see if he could join us after work, as if we would be doing anything other than retiring to our hotel rooms, locking the doors, ordering room service and trying not to fall asleep before it arrived.
He looked me up on Facebook after the convention and sent me a friend request, which I never accepted.
If we gave away promotional merch, pins or hats or things, it would cause a frenzy like piranha around a fleshy bone. We’d have to be stealthy, because if we had a good item the word would spread and people would loiter around our booth, waiting for the next promo drop — which would infuriate the floor security staff. But it was worth it, because the fans who come out to SDCC put up with so much shit to be there that they deserve some freebies.
I sold magnets to Brent Spiner. Chris Hardwick would say hi to me as he ran through the floor. I was in the room when John Barrowman kissed David Tennant on stage before a screening. I hosted off-site fan events. I witnessed someone pass out in the middle of a crushing crowd at a Walking Dead zombie display. Fans would cry if they didn’t make it before we had to cut of the autograph lines, or some would try to sneak behind to meet the actors, and then I’d get to play bodyguard. The best, however, were the red-eye flights back to New York City on Sunday night, after the show closed. The plane would seemingly be filled with other people who’d worked the con, and we’d all cheer and chat and then pass out. One year I sat next to two drunk dudes from Marvel.com, who then introduced me to a Spider-man writer a few rows up.
So the job was never boring, but year after year the excitement would wear off a bit. I’d get home at the ass-crack of dawn Monday morning, with no voice left from shouting above the crowds, only to collapse on my couch and sob. I wasn’t sad, but after running on sugar and adrenaline for 4 days straight I would just fall apart. It takes it all out of you.
It feels good to be missing San Diego Comic-Con this year. And when I start getting a little FOMO about a cool Westworld experience, or Halle Berry chugging whiskey at a panel, I stop and remind myself that I wouldn’t have seen it anyway. I’d have been too busy managing lines and trying not to piss my pants.