Outside the doors of Vertigo's "Fables" discussion panel at Comic-Con International in San Diego, the line of eager attendees wrapped around the enormous Ballroom 6 concourse. Unfortunately for "Fables" fans, the panel was scheduled directly before Adult Swim's "The Venture Bros." presentation, and it was made plain by the parade of Dr. Girlfriend and The Monarch cosplayers that many (if not most) of those in that line were not waiting to hear what "Fables" creator Bill Willingham and his collaborators had to say about the multiple Eisner-winning series.
Comic-Con goers call it "squatting" or "camping." Fans of major media properties (like "The Venture Bros.") arrive early, line up for preceding panels (like the "Fables" panel), and camp out in the discussion rooms until their major media panel begins - sometimes for hours. Consequently, devotees of the major media property, like "The Venture Bros," occupy the limited seating that would otherwise be available to true fans of, say, "Fables," leaving many of those fans shut out.
It's an ongoing problem at Comic-Con; an unhappy collision of space, bodies, and popularity, and it played out in somewhat dramatic fashion in the minutes before Vertigo's "Fables" panel was to begin.
"Fables" creator Bill Willingham made a survey of the line and determined there were heaps of "Fables" fans who would definitely not be admitted simply by virtue of the fact that they didn't think to arrive several hours in advance.
"This is why I've been here since 2:00PM!" said one Venture Bros. fan. The panel she wanted to see was scheduled to begin at 6:00PM.
"Fables" editor Shelly Bond soon appeared and joined Willingham in proposing solutions to convention personnel. "They didn't want to listen to any ideas on how to fix the problem in a way that would be fair to both the 'Fables' fans and the 'Venture Bros.' fans, insuring that each group would get to see the panel they wanted," Willingham later told CBR News. "In fact, the assigned guards wouldn't even listen to any of the many ideas we tried to propose, cutting us off mid-sentence, as soon as they sensed we were proposing something that might alter their locked-in policies."
Willingham refused to believe there wasn't a solution to the problem, and when one Comic-Con representative became overwhelmed by the "Fables" writer's tenacity, another was brought in. "You can email Comic-Con and try to work something out for next year" and "Talk to your contact" were repeated by CCI's agents, prompting CBR News to notify DC Comics Director of Publicity David Hyde, who was eventually able to work with the higher-ups at Comic-Con to dispatch a far more diplomatic envoy to Fabletown. "I forget her name, although she did wonderful work and should be thanked," Willingham noted.
A partial solution was finally worked out whereby some "Fables" fans were advanced through the line, but it was too late to get a majority of them, and it was also too late to prevent one Comic-Con representative from telling Bill Willingham, "If your fans really wanted to be here, they would have waited sooner."
"I'm sure you can imagine hearing that comment pretty much infuriates me too," said David Glanzer, Comic-Con International's Director of Marketing and Public Relations, who CBR News contacted for comment on this story. "There is no excuse for a comment like that. We have about 2,500 volunteers working over the course of the show and a great majority do an amazing job. But not every volunteer is cut out for our event and, unfortunately, sometimes we don't find this out until after the show."
Presently, Comic-Con does not have a policy with respect to panel squatters, although Glanzer is aware of the practice. "I know some programs have been moved to larger rooms which allow for greater attendance for the panel participant, and while there will be fans for a later panel in that room, we hope it's a good opportunity to introduce new readers to a project they may not otherwise be familiar with."
Indeed, Willingham made a point to specifically welcome the attending "Venture Bros." fans to the "Fables" forum, and acknowledged they were left with no choice but to squat there for a seat in the hugely popular "Venture Bros." panel. Known for his good humor and acerbic wit, Willingham did make an effort to sell "Fables" to his literally captive audience (he teased, "This is a comic book, it's not like a TV show, you have to read it.") but the writer was nevertheless put in a position of giving a presentation to a room full of people playing games on their mobile phones or watching cartoons on portable DVD players.
(It is important to note that Bill Willingham and his Vertigo colleagues have nothing against "The Venture Bros." nor its fans. "Cinderella: From Fabletown with Love" writer Chris Roberson showed up wearing a Guild of Calamitous Intent T-shirt, and Willingham opened the panel by offering words of praise for the Adult Swim series.)
Additionally, it's typical for Willingham and his "Fables" collaborators to give away exclusive artwork and other prizes at their convention appearances, but special arrangements had to be made to insure that "Fables" fans both present and locked out received those rare items, or risk uninterested "Venture Bros." fans simply throwing them away.
The situation was typical of the modern Comic-Con experience, and it's a development that Bill Willingham has seen coming for a while. "I've been attending the San Diego Comic-Con for many years and watched, and marveled with the rest, as it grew large and powerful," Willingham told CBR. "How large could it possibly grow? We never found out the answer to that question, as the experiment was cut short, limited by the maximum number of people that could be legally processed through the San Diego Convention Center. That maximum was achieved last year and continued this year.
"I've also watched, year-by-year, and marveled (but not in a good way) year-by-year, as the security apparatus employed by the SDCC transformed, surely and steadily, into - well, into the type of body all such organizations become, unless there are powerful forces in play, dedicated to preventing that. Lost are the 'We're happy to help you' aspects of the job, although there were still pockets of that to be found - just enough isolated instances so as to draw full attention to the overwhelming exceptions. By a wide margin, the only purpose of the current incarnation of the SDCC security force is to process as many bodies through the doors as efficiently as possible.
"It doesn't matter what bodies (as long as they have badges) and what doors. Get them moving. Get them through. And if the doors aren't yet ready to receive the bodies, get them settled down into one, neat, orderly line, until such time as we can get them moving.
"'We can't change policy,' they repeated over and again, as if it were a recording. Pointing out to them that we weren't after a 'policy' change, but were trying to fix a specific problem in a specific instance, didn't help. They'd already stopped listening. Their eyes were glazed over by then. Their heels were firmly dug in. And I imagine, in their minds, there was no problem at all. When the doors were ready, they'd process bodies through them, until the room was full, at which time the doors would be closed. Simple as that. The order and function of their universe was in good condition."
The posture Willingham describes is consistent with that of Elite Security, who Comic-Con employs strictly for safety purposes and nothing else. "Security is hired to provide security. They have no leeway in allowing people into a room," Glanzer confirmed. "They are charged with helping to assure a safe environment. Once a room is at capacity, they make sure no one else enters the room. This is primarily a safety issue."
As Comic-Con evolves into more of a geek superbowl than just an enormous comic book show, the organization's crowd policies and circumstances like those encountered by Bill Willingham are increasingly problematic for comic book fans. "For the past several years we've had an annual 'Fables'-dedicated panel at the SDCC, and it's been nice to see it grow so steadily over those years, as the readership of 'Fables' has grown," Willingham said. "In fact, our growth in attendance at the 'Fables' panel was the biggest part of the problem this year, as we've needed bigger rooms in which to hold it each year, until finally, this year, we needed a room big enough that it was also used to hold some of those Big Media panels - the kind of panel one has to wait in line for hours to get into, and even infiltrate other panels, if that's what's needed to secure a seat.
"I'd very much like to see those annual 'Fables' panels continue, and to do so in ways that the Fables readers can actually attend."
David Glanzer said the "Fables" panel was moved to a room twice the size of last year's space, but as Willingham observed, a more successful comic book can, paradoxically, create a bigger problem at Comic-Con. How, then, can comic book fans be assured they will have access to their favorite creators as advertised, regardless of how successful those comic books may have the fortune (or perhaps misfortune) of being?
"Programming, in general, is dependent upon a variety of issues, chief amongst them; what day the panel is proposed, the expected popularity of that panel, availability of panel members, times available to accommodate those panel members and, of course, availability of program rooms," Glanzer explained. "I have often said that it really is like a Rubik's cube to schedule the hundreds of hours of programs at our show. If we had unlimited space, this would be less of an issue."
With unlimited space an impossibility, what is the solution for fans and creators of increasingly popular comic books like "Fables?"
"I don't have one yet," Willingham said. "But I am beginning to suspect it will involve finding another venue outside of the SDCC. Perhaps we'll find a room in one of the San Diego hotels, during the time of the SDCC and program our own event. Or we might want to find an annual comic convention that still concentrates on comics (there are still a few out there) and which would enjoy hosting some sort of Fables-dedicated events.
"That may have the added benefit of my no longer needing to attend the SDCC, which, though it still has some value, has become a truly soul-wearying occasion. I'll be looking into possibilities over the coming year, and I'll keep you posted on the results."
"As for moving events offsite; that occurred this year with some programs and it seemed to work well," Glanzer said. "So I think we are open to any number of suggestions to make for a smoother running event."