Dirk Manning is the writer/creator of NIGHTMARE WORLD, TALES OF MR. RHEE and LOVE STORIES ABOUT DEATH for Image Comics/Shadowline. He also contributes to Bleeding Cool with words and/or photos when the muse strikes him accordingly…
Before going I get into the details of my first San Diego Comic Con, let me just say this, especially for people who have yet to ever attend "the big dance" or otherwise haven't attended it in recent years.
San Diego Comic Con is no longer a mere comic book convention.
Rather, it's a sprawling entertainment trade show built around an already massive comic convention, and that fact that it's taken me two weeks to recover to the point where I could collate and collect my thoughts enough to be able to write about it should tell you the second thing you need to know about the show.
It's not a vacation, nor a business trip. It's simply… an experience.
Prior to a few months ago, whenever asked if I would be attending San Diego Comic Con, my answer was always the same: "Not this year… but hopefully someday."
It's not that I didn't want to attend the show at least once in my life, because I always did (if for no other reason than to cross it off my "Comic Book Bucket List")… but as is the case with a lot of creators who produce creator-owned comics, the notion of flying out to San Diego and staying there for a week has always been too financially daunting, especially considering how I could easily attend four regional conventions for the same cost of attending one SDCC.
After all, why fly out to SDCC – where there was no guarantee I'd make back my expenses amidst the shouting and "glamour" of the Hollywood/multi-media invasion, just to say I was there?
While that sort of thing is important to some people, it never was to me, and the result was my lack of ever attending the show…
Enter: Jim Valentino.
Having enjoyed a positive working relationship with Mr. Valentino and Shadowline Comics for the past several years, a few months back I was made that proverbial "offer you can't refuse": A free trip to SDCC in exchange for helping him man the table during the show.
Given my renowned talent and love of talking to current and potential readers about great comics at conventions, I couldn't agree to the arrangement fast enough.
As for my time in San Diego, Jim couldn't have been a better host/tour guide/con buddy, treating me to such wonderful experiences (there's that word again) as great after-hours parties, great stories of past conventions, and great food (including my first encounter with In-N-Out, which I'm happy to report did indeed live-up to the years of hype).
I could easily spend a whole column giving specific and well deserved shout-outs to Jim Valentino, the Image and Skybound crews respectively (you all rock!), the wonderful Comic Con staff (especially Maeve – the equally uber-awesome and tall gal who picked me up from the airport and wooed me with her love of Cthulhu and the best "hidden" burger joints in town), so many friends and readers old and new who I finally got to meet in person at the show (DeWayne, Andy and Susan – I'm especially looking in YOUR directions), as well as so many of my NIGHTMARE WORLD friends/collaborators I haven't seen in too many years (Kristen Perry, Jason Meek, Mark Winters and Anthony Lee)…
But instead, and in no particular order, here's some of the highlights (and, admittedly, a few lowlights) from my first ever SDCC experience.
SDCC Exclusives Make People Go Even Crazier Than You Think
I've never felt more in the minority about being a comic book enthusiast who isn't a "collector" and doesn't sell things on Ebay than I did at SDCC. The sheer madness brought about by people desperate to score various "SDCC exclusive" toys, comics and more was mind-boggling to me… until I started hearing about the prices these variants go for online, at least. Then it just became… well… kind of sad, really.
Yes, I get that a lot of people "flip" these items via online auctions to fund their SDCC experience, and that makes sense… I guess… but for the most part it seemed to be the "Exhibitors," "Professionals" and other people who had access to "Preview Night" or the con floor before hours that landed most of the major swag. Point blank: If you didn't have early access to the convention floor, your chances of landing ANY "exclusives" was automatically cut in half… at best.
THE WALKING DEAD Is Even Bigger Than You Think
Working the Shadowline table, I was right next to Robert Kirkman's Skybound booth, and I can tell you from an eye witness account that there was NEVER a moment that there wasn't a huge line winding down the aisle from his enormous section of "Image Island."
That being said, Kudos to Kirkman, a talented and still genuinely humble guy who worked his way up the ranks and stuck to his guns to the point where he's now found a way to make millions working in comics. Sure, he's the exception to the rule, but be it a case of Kirkman breathing "rarified air" or not, the man should serve as an inspiration to all aspiring creators everywhere.
Yes, it's rare… but it CAN happen, folks.
THE WALKING DEAD Party Was Even More "Hollywood" Than You Think
Robert Kirkman has always struck me as a great guy, my several conversations with Charlie Adlard were all fantastic, and the whole Skybound crew proved to be great people.
That being said, though, the Hyundai-sponsored THE WALKING DEAD 100th ISSUE BLACK CARPET EVENT at Petco Park on Friday the 13th (of course)… just wasn't my idea of a good time.
To me, the idea of a "good party" is hanging out with friends, chatting, sharing some laughs and otherwise "catching-up" with people I genuinely like…. But this wasn't one of those types of parties.
Rather, this was one of those overly-loud, overly dark, overly foggy (due to the smoke machines) "parties" where, yes, the stars of the TV series were mingling about, but it didn't matter since it was nigh impossible to speak to anyone without screaming above the blaring techno beats… and even then you had to keep an eye out so your conversation wasn't interrupted by one of the several "zombies" milling around.
(See: My failed attempt to finally introduce myself to Image publisher Eric Stephenson thanks to a combination of all the above factors.)
Lest this sound like sour grapes, let me clarify that this was an "Invite Only" party and that I was indeed genuinely tickled to have the option to attend, but from the moment the meathead working the door almost didn't let us in due to his inability to understand that, yes, "Jim Valentino" and "James Valentino" really were the same person, it became obvious to me that no amount of rubbing elbows with Hollywood A-listers and my newfound Image staffer friends could make me stay in such a disappointingly uninviting environment for more than 10 minutes… especially when Tr!ckster was within walking distance.
TR!CKSTER Is Even More Awesome Than You Think
For the uninitiated, Tr!ckster, is a small and genuinely comic-centric alternative to the multi-media experience that SDCC has become.
While those who go to Tr!ckster won't find themselves knee-deep in celebrities (per say), what they will find is a nice, chill, laid-back atmosphere that celebrates creator-owned comics complete with its own mini-convention attached to a small pub where you can sit down and chat with your pals for a bit.
This, combined with the ability to attend intimate panels and witness art demonstrations from mere feet away made this the best "secret" of the SDCC experience… even if it's not officially affiliated with the con itself.
While some people prefer the Hyatt bar and see it as "the place to be" (more of THAT in a moment) the last place I want to go after an insanely busy and packed convention is another overly-loud room where people are packed-in butts to nuts… which made Tr!ckster my "go-to" location after the madness of SDCC almost every night.
Kudos to Scott Morse, Jimmy Palmiotti, Amanda Conner, Steve Niles, Jill Thompson and everyone else who helped to draw attention to this great venue.
The Hyatt Bar is Even Louder Than You Think
When I was chatting with Steve Niles (a man who, incidentally, helped me get my start in print comic way back in my very early self-publishing days) at Tr!ckster, both him and Jim Valentino tried to explain to me how deafeningly loud the Hyatt bar was. I believe the term Steve used to explain it was "ear-crackingly-loud," but I couldn't imagine any room of people simply hanging out and merely talking being that loud… until I got there.
Imagine the sound of – literally – a million beehives buzzing all at once in an echoing room and you'll get an idea of how loud the Hyatt bar gets by 11 PM at night. This, combined with the fact that there was absolutely no room to move, limited my appearance there to a bathroom break on my way back to the Marriott. Some people claim this is the place where deals are made, but how such things – or anything, really, can happen in such a loud and unpleasant atmosphere is beyond me… and I can't help but imagine that at this point it will be MUCH sooner than later that the "in crowd" finds a new place to hang-out after the long days of the con.
The Convention Center Itself Is Even Bigger Than You Think
Being that this was my first time at SDCC, I was prepared for the notion of the show being big… but I had no idea just HOW big the venue is.
Imagine, if you will, walking for so long that you think, surely, you should be to your destination by now… only to realize that you're only halfway there.
Now imagine having to take that kind of trek through swarms and swarms of people every time you want to go anywhere… and that, my friends, the outside of SDCC alone, to say nothing of what it's like once you get insidethe building itself.
There Are Even More "Hollywood Agents" Sniffing Around Than You Think
Having recently had my first true "Hollywood experience" writing "The Hunger" for Tony E. Valenzuela's YouTube horror series BlackBox TV (after he discovered NIGHTMARE WORLD via Comixology and decided we should work together, natch!), I can say with genuine first-hand experience that the desire of movie studio talent scouts and executives to find comic books that can be successfully turned into successful movies and/or TV shows is as hot as ever.
That being said, while no one should create a comic strictly in the hopes of getting it optioned by Hollywood, based on what I witnessed first-hand, having your comic on display at SDCC will undoubtedly lead to more than a few people from "Tinsel Town" looking at your work and asking you to pitch it to them… for starters.
Utilizing Social Media At SDCC Will Help You Even More Thank You Think
Given that this was my first time attending a West Coast show, combined with the fact that most professionals and readers alike only know by my hat-and-scarf "publicity photo" rather than what I really look like (SPOILER: I don't REALLY dress in a top hat and scarf at conventions and such), I realized that two things would have to happen if people wanted to be able to recognize me and/or track me down to say "Hi" when I wasn't at the Shadowline table.
First, I wore a button with my online picture/avatar on it and fastened it to my badge, something that worked surprisingly well since people would look at my badge to gleam my name, see the button go "OH! You're Dirk Manning! THE DIRK MANNING! I didn't recognize you without the scarf and hat!"
(Seriously, folks… it was all day, every day.)
Secondly, and I realize I'm probably exposing my luddite-like tendencies a bit here, but I couldn't believe how effective both Twitter and Facebook were in keeping people up to date on the happens of the show… and my locations within it. Despite the spotty (at best) wi-fi access at SDCC (unless you were willing to pay $100 a day), I can now sheepishly admit that I'm glad I upgraded away from my old non-Internet-accessible clamshell phone that had that nifty pull-out antenna.
(Again… seriously, folks. I just got rid of it and went to a "Droid" a week before SDCC.)
The Old Guard Can Party Even Harder Than You Think (or At Least More Than I Did)
OK… now let me first say that I fully realize that I went to this show to WORK, and I say with more than a little pride there was rarely a moment throughout the duration of the show that I wasn't talking to someone about NIGHTMARE WORLD , MORNING GLORIES, BOMB QUEEN (who I met at the show!), ENORMOUS, XENOHOLICS, GREEN WAKE and all the other great books Shadowline publishes and had available… but that's normal for me at any convention.
Come Sunday night, though, I was physically wrecked to the point where I was walking with a limp and my voice was practically non-existent. Surely, this was just the state of normal affairs for everyone, right?
Well, on Sunday night I was fortunate enough to accompany Jim Valentino to the Dead Dog Party, where I got to chat with such SDCC veterans as Darwyn Cooke, David Mack, Scott Allie, Larry Marder, Shannon Wheeler and a host of others… all of whom showed relatively minor side-effects in comparison to my complete wreckage. Most (perhaps generously) chalked it up to this being my first SDCC experience, but be that as it may – the fact of the matter is that the "old guards" of the con are made of some tough, tough stuff… at least when compared to a rookie like me.
While my goal was to pace myself (and my voice) throughout the duration of SDCC – and I managed to do just that – the bar has indeed now been set higher should I have a chance to attend the show again, which brings me to my last point/observation about SDCC…
SDCC Is Even More Addicting Than You Think
Despite the fact that it was an exhausting show that, between preparation, attendance, and recovery, devoured at least two weeks of my work schedule, the perks of the con far outweighed the inconvenience this imposed – even upon on a workaholic such as myself.
While a lot of pros seem to complain about "having" to attend SDCC, after my first time there I can understand both the weariness it induces as well as the feeling that, when all is said and done, you simple "need" to be there at least once…
But, oddly enough, being there one time will most likely not be enough to take it all in… especially if you're working a majority of the show from behind a table.
Along with being a semi-regular contributor to Bleeding Cool, Dirk Manning is the writer/creator of the NIGHTMARE WORLD Trilogy from Image Comics/Shadowline. His new book, WRITE OR WRONG: A WRITER'S GUIDE TO CREATING COMICS (from Transfuzion Publishing), is now in PREVIEWS (p344, Order Code: AUG12 1318). He lives on the Internet and can be found on Facebook and/or Twitter if you're into that sort of thing… or even this sort of thing, I suppose.