Mecca for nerds

Hanging with Sacramento’s most loyal geeks at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con

They’re no angels: Three girls geek out in full <i>Halo</i> video-game regalia at this year’s Comic-Con International in San Diego.

They’re no angels: Three girls geek out in full Halo video-game regalia at this year’s Comic-Con International in San Diego.

Photo By Luis Allen

Tree Schoefer spent $615 in a matter of hours and couldn’t have been happier.

Maybe a vacation away from the Sacramento heat played a role in her high spirits? Or maybe it was simply money well spent? Either way, Schoefer was so caught up in her good mood she could hardly describe what she’d purchased. “I bought a $500 painting of Star Wars,” she recounted, “and then I bought a $15 thing that’s kind of a—it had bullets and stuff. And then I got three T-shirts.” Plus, she received “a free pizza, a free Coke, a free ice cream, a free coffee, free Butterfingers and free chips,” she said.

Schoefer was one of tens of thousands caught up in the blitzkrieg of frenetic pop-culture energy and spectacle that happens every year at the Comic-Con International in San Diego. The annual convention brings together media and professionals from the comic-book, film, television, video-game and publishing industries for five hectic days in late July.

This year, more than 100,000 people attended, mostly for science-fiction and fantasy fun and entertainment, which is why many have branded the convention as a mecca for nerds and geeks. Thousands dress up as characters from popular culture. The event draws eager patrons from all over the world, including many from Sacramento.

Attendees quickly are swept away by Comic-Con’s offerings. The convention center’s ground floor houses an exhibit hall with innumerable booths large and small. Most of them are from comic-book producers or retailers. People visit booths from industry giants such as DC Comics and Marvel, or smaller presses to talk to writers and artists and have them autograph their work. And celebrities abound, including A-listers such as Steven Spielberg, and even LL Cool J.

The exhibit floor is also a vendor floor, and businesses set up stands selling goods and services, including clothing, jewelry or artwork. Schoefer, for instance, bought a steampunk item from the Kelly’s Heroes booth, run by Fred Jeska of Woodland, who belongs to the Sacramento Steampunk Society. Jeska’s sold handmade steampunk gadgets and gear for three years, but he’s been crafting 12-inch figures long before.

Armed and dangerous in San Diego.

Photo By Luis Allen

But the exhibit hall’s only about half the appeal. Other rooms, mostly on the second floor, have panels and screenings. And the nearby Hilton San Diego Bayfront and Marriott Marquis & Marina hotels feature panels the convention center can’t fit in. These venues showcase cast and crew from popular shows such as True Blood, Glee, The Vampire Diaries and The Walking Dead, in addition to how-to’s to help attendees forge Hollywood careers or even just general panels about issues such as comic-book literacy or how pop-culture stories provide social commentary.

Businesses along the street in downtown San Diego, where the convention is held, suck up as much leftover tourist revenue as possible. And others just want attention. Video-game makers Sega set up a free arcade in a building on Sixth Avenue, and Nintendo set one up in the Marriott Marquis lobby. The district hosts so many parties and themed venues that people can experience the event without even going to the convention itself.

Comic-book, science-fiction and film fans organized the first Comic-Con in San Diego in 1970 in a hotel basement, and 300 people attended. The event’s grown exponentially ever since.

“I started coming in the mid-’90s, and by 2000 it was crazy,” said actor James Duval, who appeared in Independence Day and has a new film, Sushi Girl, dropping next year.. “Before it was kind of a community of like-minded people. Now you come to a city of like-minded people who take over San Diego.”

Some, however, say the Comic-Con swarm may be getting too big. In 2000, 48,500 people came to the convention. More than 125,000 came in 2007. The San Diego Convention Center has expanded and now has space that’s at least equivalent to nine football fields.

“It got too big, plain and simple,” argued Sacramento resident Scott Armstrong. “When it takes you an hour to an hour and a half to walk from one end of the hall to the other end, through the crowd, it gets claustrophobic.”

Armstrong, who founded Nor Cal Paranormal Investigations and volunteers as staff at Empire’s Comics Vault on Fulton Avenue, went to Comic-Con for about 10 years straight before he stopped in 2008. The crowds freak him out, but his friend Kyle Thorne, an Empire’s regular, doesn’t let them deter him. Thorne has gone to Comic-Con almost consecutively for the past 15 years, including in 2011. He enjoys himself but admits being bothered when other patrons go crazy over free giveaways.

Wait, is that really Buzz Lightyear and Woody incarnate?

Photo By Luis Allen

“The crowds get kind of mob-mentality-like,” observed Throne, an IT technician who works for the state, “and sometimes the people throwing the stuff away kind of encourage it. It’s not just the crowds. It’s the marketers or people working the booths. The vendors get kind of crazy about it.

“People go absolutely insane over these things. I’m sure I still have some [giveaways] in the house somewhere, from years past, that sit on the shelf and collect dust.”

Kevin Rodriguez, who covers the Sacramento comic-book beat for, witnessed this firsthand one year when promotion for one of the Twilight films came to the convention. “A bunch of Twilight fans found out and they went into the convention hall, sat down in seats and they never left,” he recalled. A panel featuring work by famed director Hayao Miyazaki was in the same room earlier, but Twilight fans crowded a lot of those fans out. “Twilight fans who didn’t even care about these presentations were sitting through them, most of them sleeping,” Rodriguez said.

It’s gotten so popular that people who attend the convention typically must buy next year’s passes while in San Diego. But only a limited supply is sold, and the lines are long. The other option is to buy tickets online months prior, but that route’s increasingly more difficult. In 2010, so many people logged on to servers to buy 2011 tickets that they reached capacity, leaving many without tickets.

Yet each year, thousands brave the online jungle and the massive lines for a chance. Sacramentans such as Thorne are rewarded for their passion—if they’re diligent: He got George R.R. Martin to sign a copy of his Game of Thrones book during 2011’s event.

“I’m not going there with too many expectations. I’m really just going to hopefully have a really good time,” he said.

And for fans in general, Comic-Con’s packed rooms brings a sense of validation.

“Geek culture is big right now,” said Stephanie Rector, founder of Sac Geeks, a meet-up group for self-professed comic nerds. And it’s not just in entertainment. Gadgets that used to be the domain of nerds are now the domain of everyone.

“The advent of the computer age, the cellphone age, all the video-gaming and everything else,” she explained, “it’s becoming much more mainstream to be a geek.”