A couple of nights ago, I had a dream in which I envisioned my own death. In my dream I was looking at my own body from a short distance, and I saw two glowing spots that looked just like eyes at the top of my chest. I somehow came to the realization that those glowing spots represented lung cancers that were eating me alive from within, exactly as if I had some sort of demon trapped in my body. The glowing spots began to grow larger and brighter, and suddenly I woke up in a complete cold sweat. Not a highly recommended way in which to spend an evening.
What's odd about my dream is that I have never had one before in which I could so clearly foresee my own death. I am fully aware that people have all sorts of dreams, and that some folks are plagued with near continuous nightmares. Not me. If you'll pardon the expression, I normally sleep the sleep of the dead, with ambivalent dreams that I seldom remember but for fleeting images. Now I'm sure that there are a few among you reading this column who are already divining all sorts of weird extrapolations about me from my recounting of this one exceptionally vivid dream. In actuality, however, I think that my dream had more to do with environmental stress than any other factor. You see, I had this awful dream the night that I returned home from this year's San Diego Comic-Con International.
So how could exhibiting at San Diego engender such a weird subconscious reaction in me? I've had ten days now to cogitate about this, and I think there were a couple of primary of factors. First, I believe that there is inevitably a strong mental reaction to any abatement of severe stress in one's life. After 10 straight days of worrying about what might go wrong next with our very large and complicated booth display, I was naturally in a rapid decompression mode when I had my disturbing dream. That, however, is pretty normal after any major convention. What I think is a bit more specific only to this year's convention experience is the fact that this particular convention was incredibly difficult for me to handle in a physical sense. As some of you might remember from a couple of my past columns, I am one of that small minority of people who had the misfortune to contract West Nile Fever a few years back. The strain of West Nile that is currently pandemic in the USA is a very new disease, having only first appeared in New York in 1999. The Centers for Disease Control initially thought that the long term consequences for the new strain of West Nile in the USA would be similar to those experienced from the older strain, previously identified in Africa, the Middle East, and extreme Southeastern Europe. They were wrong. Instead of creating only mild flu-like symptoms that pass in ten days to two weeks, this new strain causes long term memory loss and cognitive dysfunction, episodes of spontaneous weakness, and even paralysis and organ failure in a small percentage of those who contract the disease. These long term symptoms are just now beginning to be understood, but the cogent point for this essay is that I am one of the folks who goes through periodic West Nile "crashes," where I have nearly instantaneous episodes of nausea, dizziness, and headaches when exposed to environmental stress.
Tying my illness in directly with the convention, every year at San Diego I have a tradition of walking down the absolute center of the building between 1 PM and 2 PM on Saturday afternoons. I try and listen for conversations during these strolls in order to both gauge the overall atmosphere of the convention, and to pick up on trends in the entire comics world. The one overwhelming impression that was made upon me by this year's stroll through the center of the San Diego convention was that the place was, quite literally, making me ill. I'll readily admit that I was set for a crash before taking my midday stroll as a result of needing to walk over a mile in the blazing heat, on the warmest single day in San Diego since 1933, from the only parking spot I could find at 11 AM on Saturday. By the time I finally made it into the air conditioned convention building, I was already very overheated and tired. I aggravated that stress dramatically, however, by then walking through the entire convention.
So you know, what really made me feel the most ill during my walk through the convention were the excessive lights and noise in halls D, E, & F. To explain, the six huge interconnected halls that comprise the main dealer's room of the convention center have been divided up by the staff into specific areas of interest. The comics dealers and publishers are mostly in halls B & C, while the TV, Movie, Fantasy Gaming, and Card booths are mostly in D, E, & F. Hall A is a bit of a catch-all area, with a little bit of everything. As long as I stayed in A, B, & C I sort of felt pretty much OK. The place was insanely crowded in nearly every corner on the Saturday, but the media halls were particularly packed. What was more cogent, however, was the suspension of the normal convention rules for the billion-dollar corporations. To explain, there have rules for years limiting the use of excessive lights and microphones at the SDCC. Those rules still apply in A-C, but seem to not be enforced at all in D-F. As a result, trying to walk through those media dominated aisles becomes an exercise in sensory overload. Those big companies are well versed in how to draw attention to themselves in huge consumer venues, and they had all the sensory tricks they knew in play, from advertising characters wandering the aisles, to pretty girls in scanty clothing screaming into microphones about their company's latest hot product. They also had millions of dollars in freebies to give away, which (in my personal opinion...) really cheapened the atmosphere of the convention. To draw a particularly disheartening analogy, San Diego has gone from providing the exciting family fun of attending the world's fair of comic books, to the tawdry and overwhelmingly loud world of a sleazy midway being run by professional carnies.
To return to my description of how the convention made me ill, as I walked down the main aisle on Saturday, I began to notice that the place felt exceptionally warm. While it was certainly much cooler inside than out, the AC in the building was not built for simultaneously having a 99-degree day outside, and 80,000+ people inside. Between the heat, the lights, the noise, and the crowding, I began to feel faint long before I reached artist's alley, which is always isolated from the rest of the comics world (for some unfathomable reason) at the far end of hall F. When I say that I felt "faint," what I really mean is that I thought for more than a few moments that I might fall down and pass out right in the middle of the main aisle. That would have been bad. Even worse, I was not alone in feeling this badly. Not only did I have other people I know concur with me that the place was making them a bit queasy, too, but I also heard rumors that the paramedics were busy on Saturday helping people out on stretchers with similar symptoms. Am I the only one who thinks that we've reached a point of excess when a comic book convention makes people feel physically ill?
So what are the solutions to their crowding problems? I have a couple of extremely aggressive suggestions that might help. First, extend the show by a day, by starting on Tuesday evening. Speaking as a dealer who spends $30,000+ to set up and operate my 7 booths each year, I would genuinely appreciate another revenue day to help cover my costs. It might also help to spread the crowds out a little bit. The building is almost always empty on Monday and Tuesday, so why don't we add another day? Even if the costs for our booth rental had to go up to cover that extra rental of the building, I am sure that the additional business volume would more than compensate. We did, after all, for the first time ever turn away thousands of fans this year when the entire San Diego convention center reached full capacity on Saturday afternoon.
I would also suggest that my proposed new Tuesday evening preview be limited to only dealers and creators. That was my original idea when I proposed the Wednesday evening preview five years ago, but that night has now become so insanely popular with the four-day attendees that Wednesday evening is now one of the busiest periods of the convention. That result completely obviates my original purpose of Wednesday evenings being intended to allow the professionals in the business to be able to shop and chat with each other in relative calm, before the huge crowds of fans prevented any further interaction. Restricting access would also allow dealers needing to arrive a bit late to set up in relative calm on Tuesday evening.
My other proposal is a bit more radical. Barring our being able to extend the show by a day, I would suggest breaking into two parts. If we've outgrown the San Diego Convention Center, why not keep the Comic-Con in San Diego on one weekend, and set up the media circus in LA or Anaheim on the following weekend? Aside from being a major dealer in the comics world, I am also a collector of Pueblo pottery. I can tell you that spreading shows over several weekends in order to meet the size restrictions of available facilities is a long-standing tradition in the Native American Arts and Crafts world. Last weekend, for example there was a huge show at the Albuquerque fairgrounds. It is being followed by two equally large shows in Santa Fe (60 miles north of Albuquerque) this upcoming weekend, and the huge Santa Fe Indian Market (with 1,400 booths!) on the weekend following. In between the major events there are four great auctions, a number of really cool museum events, and gallery parties by the dozen. By spreading the whole shebang out over 18 days we allow dealers and fans to come and go as they please, with some folks making a vacation out of the entire affair, and other just flying or driving in for specific events. Believe me, the stress level darn near disappears when you can skip a day without it killing you financially (as a dealer), or missing some key event (as a fan). It may not be a perfect solution for everyone, and it will certainly take a couple of years to implement, but I'll bet that the nexus between two huge shows on consecutive weekends in San Diego and LA would bring in even more fans than the 120,000+ who attended this year. I also know that I would be happy to set up at both shows, with a paid vacation in San Diego for myself and my staff in between the two events. Maybe, just maybe, that temporary respite from stress would keep me from getting ill at the show...
That's all the room I have for this month's column, so I'll stop now and go home to pack for my upcoming 10 days in Santa Fe. I do have some other very important topics about this year's San Diego convention to discuss, however, so I'm going to leave you now with the dreaded: "To be continued..."
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