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What it's like to try to find a specific toy in the madness that is Comic-Con

A large version of a Funko Rocket Raccoon figurine guards a booth on the Comic-Con show floor.
A large version of a Funko Rocket Raccoon figurine guards a booth on the Comic-Con show floor.
Todd VanDerWerff/Vox
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Above all else, Comic-Con is a test of devotion, one ultimate trial for the faithful to prove their worthiness. We don't go on pilgrimages anymore, so we've come up with other ways to show our adoration and affection. And here, the goal is to be the person who loves the hardest, who gets to be first in line, who sits in front and basks in the glow of what's on stage just a little bit sooner than everybody else.

But only one person can be that person. For everybody else, Comic-Con is a daily exercise in realizing that no matter how much you love something, somebody else loves it more. They got up earlier, or they raced to the door more quickly, or they wanted it more. It's a little exhausting. Maybe fandom is a young person's game.

In true geek fashion, everybody goes to Comic-Con with a quest in mind, a goal that must be achieved, if they are to have the best Comic-Con they possibly can. Like Frodo Baggins or Luke Skywalker, the San Diego Convention Center is entered with thought of how to achieve that quest, whether it be sitting in line for 18 hours (as some would-be Saturday attendees of the Con's biggest venue, Hall H, tried Friday afternoon before being cleared by security), or searching with the utmost of patience through the entire show floor for the one needle in the one haystack that will make it all worthwhile.

What if you don't achieve your quest? Well, that's when Comic-Con becomes dispiriting, overwhelming. That's when emotions run raw and maybe even tears start to flow. Yet most of us in the press don't see this side of the Con, because even when we stand in line, we're covering this like just another event.

But on Friday, I decided to go all in. I decided to try to find something impossible. And I wouldn't cheat or call in favors or anything like that. I would just be your garden-variety fan, looking for something that might as well not exist.

Worlds of Funko

What I decide upon is one of the Hannibal figurines from toy manufacturer Funko. You probably would recognize a Funko figurine if you saw one. They look like bobbleheads – with huge, oversized heads and blank, black eyes – but they don't bobble. They have the disconcerting effect of making absolutely anything they depict look weirdly like a really cute baby version of itself.

The Hannibal figurines are limited editions produced explicitly for Comic-Con, and on Thursday, they sold out in what felt like mere moments. The one friend I know who found one managed to find it at some random booth out in the middle of the show floor, a place that might as well have been Siberia, for all the connection it had to the actual Funko booth, nestled against the far wall.

Funko figures are incredibly popular. And Funko has distributed a handful of its many Comic-Con exclusives (seemingly at random, but almost certainly by design) to every one of the distributors it works with on the show floor. This means that I will have to search the entirety of the huge, huge floor (over 450,000 square feet) if I'm to find one of these things. I will have to fight through the throngs, and past all of the other people who might want the same thing. It is, as Comic-Con quests go, pretty good.

Plus, every quest has a great reward, and the upside here is huge. Should I manage to get one of the Hannibal figurines, I can present it to my wife, who perhaps loves the operatic serial killer spectacular that is this television show even more than I do. Should I manage to get two, I can offer one to the friend I'm staying with to give to his wife. It's a good quest, combining rarity with a genuine desire to find the item.

And since it's a good quest, I should let you know I was in over my head as soon as I decided to embark upon it.

The quest begins

The show floor opens at 9:30 every morning of the Con, but I don't begin my voyage until around 10:45, after completing some other business. I figure, however, that I'm on the floor early, and that it doesn't seem too busy just yet, so maybe I'll get lucky by heading over to the Funko booth.

Yet once I get there, it becomes obvious: I will have no such luck. Funko isn't just picked over already; it's been picked to the bones. The company only allows about 10 people into its booth at a time, and people rush to line up as soon as the doors open. The guy who works at the booth that I talk to says that he and his fellow employees will let everybody line up, wait just a few moments longer, then let them through. And once the stock is out, it's out. Funko closes down (as it just has), not to reopen until the shelves have been replenished. And while that's going on, others will sit in line and wait. And wait. And wait.

Simply sitting in line all day seems not terribly conducive to an exciting article, not to mention that I'm very keen not to do it. Plus, this is a quest. King Arthur never got anywhere by sitting in line. He ventured forth. So that's what I'm going to do, too.

Already, the floor is growing more and more crowded, with Con-goers desperate to find that one particular item that eludes them. I mentioned needles in haystacks for a reason: as mentioned, the show floor is over 450,000 square feet large, and every inch of that is positively crammed full of different vendors, selling all manner of things. Turn a corner, and you might be staring at one of the most impressive collections of bootleg DVDs ever. Turn another, and you might find a complete set of Con-exclusive toys or action figures.

What's sold here is just about everything that your average geek could ever need or want. Comics, yes, but also genre fiction (with many publishers simply giving away books they feel enthusiastic about). Movies and TV shows, sure, but also gaming accessories – for both the tabletop and video gamer. Toys. Novelty T-shirts. Models. Figurines. One-of-a-kind sketches, drawn on commission by both industry veterans and up-and-coming artists just making a name for themselves. Most of all, though, the show floor gives any enterprising fan a chance to own or maybe even just look at another piece of something they love beyond all reason.

Into the arteries

Yes, there are aisles, but moving through them is less about knowing where you need to go and more about extreme patience. Walking from one end of the show floor to the other can take well over an hour at the height of the Con (as any given Friday afternoon will be), and trying to navigate the throngs of people funneling through too small of a space is a test for even the most extreme extroverts.

But walking around here isn't so bad, so long as you one can stave off the claustrophobia. The cosplayers, for instance, dominate the floor, and some of the most creative costumes spend the bulk of the day wandering around here. You might see a steampunk zeppelin pilot here, or Steve from Blue's Clues there. There are popular characters – so many Batmen! – but there are also occasional twists on the usual favorites, including at least one woman who apparently had her costume all ready after Marvel's very recent announcement that Thor would be a woman, at least for a little while.

Yes, it's no different from walking down, say, a New York city street. But there, you're surrounded by air and sunshine. Here, you're in a dim room, padding along over hard cement just barely softened by the thinnest of carpets. And people keep stopping – to look at something or just to stop – and forcing others to stop behind or alongside them. At one point, a group of people forming a line for one giveaway or another start herding toward the wall, prompted by a Con volunteer, and they don't even seem to particularly notice that I and a few others are in their way. We're pushed back by the weight of this crush of people, before breaking through, a strange game of Red Rover we win only because we can see daylight. It's early enough that we have somewhere to go. With enough others walking by, we might have just ended up in line by default.

What I'm saying may make the show floor sound like the height of despair, but it's really not. It's routinely my favorite thing about the Con, and not just because one can randomly happen by a booth and bump into a favorite author or artist or actor. No, I love the chaotic randomness of the floor, the sense that everyone and everything here is part of some great organism, and we are all flowing through its arteries in a weird dance only some Comic-Con over-brain can comprehend.

The problem with my quest is that pretty much everybody sells Funko figurines, and the company has given out a handful of the Hannibal ones to the various vendors it works with across the show floor. Essentially everywhere I go, I come across a display of the little toys, but nobody has the ones I want, saying they "just" sold out, as if some perverse, Hannibal fan with a lot of cash is moving just ahead of me, clearing out everybody's stock before I can get there.

My last resort – something that would require waiting in line but would at least result in something cool – is to queue up for a signing Funko is having with Hannibal showrunner Bryan Fuller and star Caroline Dhavernas. As someone who interacts with Hollywood types regularly as a part of his job, I'm usually philosophically opposed to these sorts of things in "for the fans" environments. But desperate times...

Yet when I get to the booth a half-hour before the signing begins, the line has already been capped, with the company having let in more people than it had been planning on allowing through. And that's when it all starts to seem so pointless and overwhelming. I had embarked on the quest to try to understand the event, to better explain it to all of you. And I succeeded beyond my wildest hopes. I was, at last feeling that same desperation, that same general upset I had seen reflected on so many faces over years of attending this event.

Toys and rumors of toys

When an item is hotly desired, like these figurines apparently are, what happens is that rumors start to spring up around it. This booth has it. No, this booth does. And in the age of Twitter, it's that much easier for those rumors to spread. Send the signal flare up, and all of the other people looking for what you are will join a kind of crowd-sourced scavenger hunt.

Yet these things almost never pay off. It's like entering a crowded parking garage, driving around and around with the same cars, looking for the one spot that's open, knowing you're going to end up missing it because you're behind somebody else. There's always someone at Comic-Con who just wants it more, and that makes the quest a frustrating experience, ultimately. How do you compete with that unknowable, with that person who is simply more dedicated, simply a better fan?

After several hours of fruitless searching, I call it a day. I will be back first thing in the morning, hopefully not to wait in line for hours just to get a toy, and though the quest has proved enlightening in some ways, in other ways, it's just taken up a lot of time. I love the sea of humanity on the show floor – the guy who's cleverly rigged up a puppet of a carnivorous plant to look as if it's his constant companion, say, or the father and two daughters all wearing My Little Pony ears and facepaint (a non-bedecked mother trailed along behind) – but it also becomes exhausting.

I decamp for the upstairs, for a surprisingly enriching panel on the origins of the newspaper comic strip in the late 19th century that includes some fantastic, strangely soothing art and two comics scholars coming close to bickering over whether "comics" necessarily need include speech bubbles (at least if you're going to point to a year zero for the art form). I meet up with a friend and spend the rest of the day at TV panels, wondering if I wasted my time.

That's just it, though. I didn't. Going to the show floor brings its own delights, even if you don't get what you wanted. The act of the search is sometimes enough, as is the way that being jammed together with all of those other people forces you into a kind of shared defensive crouch. The search is solitary, undertaken alone. It's also communal. We all might be searching for different things, but we're all searching.