innovations

Comicon: The cutting edge of convention display.

We've been attending these things for a long time, and to some extent we've seen everything that exhibit hall booths have to offer. We saw E3 in its heyday, with giant pavilions, flashing displays, free t-shirts, and booth babes flown in from a hundred different cities. We've seen small college cons, where you could hang around the entire day and just chat with your friends who got impressed into service, manning their club's booth. We've seen everything in between, some of it breathtaking, some charming, some just ridiculous. But there's always something new for the connoisseur

For example, Pan Am flirted with scarcity. Their "theatre" -- actually a replica of an L-1101 interior or something -- seated only 6 people, and they gave you boarding passes, with a time to come back later. They gave them out at the beginning of the day, and you had to start lining up as soon as the hall opened.

Their strategy was very word-of-mouth oriented: they had a small booth, so only a few people could get in. They gave away a lot of interesting stuff, so that people would talk about them. They gave everything away in the morning, to maximize their return on investment and give latecomers something to strive for tomorrow. And it worked -- they might have been the big hit of the show.

The second big surprise for us was the gaming overflow area. Most of the gaming companies, being relative latecomers to Comic-Con, aren't able to get booths on the exhibit hall floor, at least not of the scale that they'd prefer. So most of the companies decamped to conference space at the Marriott, where they set up enormous displays and plied the attendees with food, drink, and comfortable chairs.

It's not actually a new thing -- it's been going on for a couple of years at least -- but the sheer scale of it seems to get more out of hand each year. And some of these companies have the most ridiculous, tenuous justifications for coming to Comic-Con. Norton took the cake with their grafted-on Captain America promotion. AMD at least had a nice prepared spiel about their desire to give people super-heroic computing power. (Silly, but charming.)

In extreme cases, it's actually kind of annoying. Walking around, one sees old curmudgeons reminiscing about the days when it was all comic-focused, before it turned into a mutimedia circus. (We've done it ourselves. Damn kids. Get off our lawn.) But it's hard to argue with the sheer size of the thing.

In fact, the size is such that there was an amazing amount of stuff that took place outside of the convention center. We spilled out into the streets, wandering free, following the frequent Cartoon Network Adventure Time parades for pizza. Some of it, when described later in the clear light of day, seems totally unbelievable. But it happened. I was there. "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe."

Then there was the South Park, er, park. . . ing lot. (Unfortunately north of the convention center.)For their 15th anniversary, Comedy Central and South Park did a giant outdoor installation. I think the biggest surprise there was the sheer number of little kids. You just knew that they'd been brought there by their parents, who were showing off what they watched when they were teenagers. 15 years is a long time -- long enough to make us all feel very old indeed. But that's progress.

At this point, it's so entrenched that major exhibitors rent storefronts on the high street, like the Cartoon Network's pizza place, or the arcades. I don't know of any other convention that's reached that point -- that level of transformation. Even E3 was never like this. The gravity draws even unrelated companies in. One day, when people think of San Diego, they'll think "Comic-Con". It's hard to walk around outside and imagine what the city exists for, apart from this one event. Maybe that's what conventions are for -- to transform ordinary places to such an extent that that becomes their natural and expected role.

scenes from the streets at comic-con.

—jeff