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Comic-Con Talk Back is a real-life Internet comments section

John Rogers, president of Comic-Con, writes down issues Con attendees have had with the event.
John Rogers, president of Comic-Con, writes down issues Con attendees have had with the event.
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.

Sitting at the front of the room, only occasionally cracking a smile at the long line of people that has queued up largely to accost him, John Rogers diligently takes notes. He has the auspicious title "president of Comic-Con," but what this mostly boils down to is making sure the event runs as efficiently as possible. The lines must keep moving. The fans must be placated. The system must stay in place.

What Rogers is racing against is the simple fact that if you put 130,000 human beings — plus staff, plus the onlookers who crowd into downtown — in one place, things are going to start going haywire somewhere along the line. And that's what this session is for. It's the part where people tell Rogers all about what went wrong, and he writes it down, in hopes that 2015 will be the year everything works out perfectly.

He doesn't move much, mostly looking down at his pad as he takes notes. His head goes up, then down again, almost like an animatronic character, and it's easy to forget he can even speak, so long do some of the harangues go on. But then he does, and it's inevitably laced with a kind of acid wit, particularly if he doesn't think much of the complaint being lodged. When something genuinely awful has happened, he apologizes and pledges to try harder next year. When someone is just talking to talk, he lets them run themselves out of steam.

But most of the time, his answer to these queries is simple: he doesn't know.

The town hall meeting

The official name of the session, one of the last at Comic-Con, is Comic-Con Talk Back, but I've taken to calling it the Comic-Con Town Hall Meeting, so strongly does it remind me of the town hall meeting scenes from the comedy Parks & Recreation. At it, Rogers and Rogers alone sits at a table at the front of a room and listens to the complaints of a long line of people. When the session begins, the line very nearly stretches out of the door of the room, and when I finally have to leave to catch my train two hours later, it's still going. Technically, Comic-Con is supposed to wrap at 5 p.m., but Talk Back lasts until everyone has said their piece.

It's easy to see why the session is as popular as it is. Comic-Con is so self-evidently flawed that it's a fun game for attendees to play to imagine how to make it better. The event is so wedded to its origins as a fan-driven convention that its management of its explosive growth has been a little weird at times.

In particular, the show is never quite sure what to do about its line problem, about the fact that someone could get in line at 4 a.m. and not get into the event they're hoping to see. No one – not the city of San Diego, not the convention center, not the Con – particularly wants to see people camping out overnight, but there's also no good way (nor enough incentive) to stop them. And so the balance of the Con continues to shift toward those who have massive amounts of time to devote to it and only it.

There are ostensibly simple answers to this. The larger panels could shift to an even bigger location. (One woman at the Talk Back suggested nearby baseball stadium Petco Park.) The Con could clear the room after every panel, so there's greater turnover (though this might have to result in a multiplicity of lines for different events). It could sell premium passes to certain events, or offer the convention equivalents of Disneyland's E-tickets, offering the truly passionate a chance to skip the line at any time with a ticket they paid a heightened fee for.

But as much as these sorts of solutions might add a fun level of strategic gamesmanship to Comic-Con that many of the attendees would likely welcome, they're not likely to be implemented any time soon. The Con very much takes pains to project a vision of itself as being fundamentally by and for fans, and no one else, and forcing people out after a panel to just get back in line for something they might want to see later, say, is the antithesis of that.

Plus, there's just not a lot Rogers or anyone can do.

Logistical impossibilities

This is a theme that crops up again and again throughout the Talk Back. There are a handful of times when Rogers is confronted with a problem he can solve or look into solving easily enough. Yes, he can check to make sure that certain information is included on the website, and sure, he can look into whether the curb by the smoking area can be improved to allow greater access for people in wheelchairs and carts.

But a lot of the complaints people have are simply complaints about trying to make sure other people behave in certain ways, when there's no good way to do so. Take camping out. As camping out for events has become a part of the Con (and its ramping up as a thing lots and lots of people did is a relatively recent addition to the convention), it's brought with it a host of new logistical nightmares. For instance, one person might camp out all night, then suddenly turn into six people when her friends join her in the morning, well-rested from staying in their hotel rooms. This kind of line-cutting was aggravating to the faithful. So Comic-Con decided to try doing something about it.

Enter the wristband system, which has been by far the most discussed change to the Con in several years. The basic idea is this: if you want to have one person stand in for a whole group of people by camping out overnight for something happening in Hall H the next day, fine. But before everyone who's not that person heads off to their hotel rooms or homes, they need to be in line with their friend in order to get a wristband of a particular color. Once they have their wristbands, they can leave, and when they return in the morning to the friend they made sleep on the cold ground, the Con will know they're not technically "cutting," because they'll have wristbands of the same color as everybody else in their section.

This also allows Comic-Con to get a rough idea of how many people are in line for the next morning's events, so anyone who arrives at, say, 5 a.m. without much of a prayer of getting in can be properly warned. The number of wristbands given out should roughly correspond to the number of people who are going to enter the hall, and the color-coding allows for even more ability to drill down into that data. If all of the red wristbands are given out, then that means X number of people got into line between 8 and 9 p.m. And so on.

It's an elegant idea in theory, but in practice, it led to plenty of complaining in the Talk Back, complaining that wasn't always aimed solely at Rogers but occasionally at fellow Talk Back attendees, who spoke up for or against the new system. The central issue, as those who disliked the new system (or at least thought it could be improved) saw it, was the use of deadlines. See, wristbands for Hall H would only be given out until 1 a.m. each night, then resume distribution at 5 a.m. What happened, ultimately, was that those who wanted to get into Hall H rushed to get into line before 1 a.m., and on Friday night, they had actually gotten the entire capacity of the Hall into line before 9 p.m. for panels that wouldn't start for another 13 hours.

Yet what can Rogers do? Certainly, he can modify or improve upon the wristband system. And certainly, he could abandon it entirely. (Ballroom 20, the other big venue for long lines, didn't adopt the new system, and it had far fewer problems with that kind of camping out.) But as he pointed out again and again, he can't exactly stop people from camping out in what's, ultimately, a public area. He and the city can keep people from putting up tents, and maybe he could send police officers through the area on periodic sweeps to keep people from sleeping there. But that wouldn't be in the spirit of what the Con believes itself to be, so it's not going to happen.

The actual problems

Amid the concerns, complaints, and exercises in game theory, however, there were several legitimate, horrifying issues raised, particularly with the Con's treatment of disabled people. Because of a miscommunication somewhere along the line, disabled fans who lined up for Hall H were left with nowhere to camp out, outside of the cold, hard cement, and when one man raised this issue with someone who at least seemed to be in charge, he was told that Comic-Con did not "condone" the disabled camping outside.

Again and again, stories like this were told by disabled Con-goers or their caregivers as the session wore on. Someone had separated a caregiver from the person she cares for. A woman with crutches was made to wander up and down long lines in search of where she was supposed to go. And always, always, there were concerns about how too often, the Con's staff simply didn't know where disabled attendees were supposed to go. Usually, they're let in via a separate entrance or at a separate time, but too many staffers were confused on this point.

These, of course, are the problems that will arise with a hastily trained, mostly volunteer workforce. Comic-Con has a number of full-time employees, but they mostly work on behind the scenes stuff. The public face of the Con is too often volunteers who don't yet know the entire lay of the land or missed something important in training. Or, worse, the public face of the Con becomes the security guards who patrol it at the behest of the convention center, not the Con itself, and often don't know the Con's own policies on things, like letting disabled attendees camp outside on the grass just like anyone else.

To a degree, Rogers has no control over this. He can't personally step in and make sure every person who volunteers knows exactly what to do and when to do it,  and he doubly can't control security guards or other convention center staff. The best he can do — and what he does throughout the Talk Back — is listen, and offer apologies, and say that the Con will try harder in 2015. But that doesn't matter to someone whose convention was ruined by a casual, callous remark. It only takes one person behaving poorly to ruin somebody's good time, and Rogers seems acutely aware of the fact that Comic-Con has 130,000 potential day-ruiners floating around out there.

The lost city

What became abundantly clear while following the Talk Back, however, was that the majority of those who attended were there to discuss long-running issues and offer their opinions on them. Despite the fact that the event has fallen under scrutiny this year for how hard it is to locate its (rather lax) sexual harassment policy, this issue doesn't once come up while I'm at the session, and is only alluded to in the most oblique of fashions, when one man says that he knows some women aren't comfortable camping out under the tents outside. And though the disabled attendees raise substantive issues that Rogers and the Con will have to do their best to deal with, the vast majority of the complaints raised here are simply raised by people who feel, in some way, that Comic-Con has changed out from under them, and they don't know what to do about that.

Someone described the Talk Back to me as an Internet comment section come to life before I went to it, and there's some truth to that. There are a number of genuine concerns. There are slightly more helpful suggestions. And then most people just want to make sure their voices are heard on issues that extend from the wristband situation to how hard it can be to find exclusive merchandise on the show floor, even if they know there's minimal chance of anything happening.

If Rogers ever lets his façade crack, it's to people in this lattermost group. One man asks him to "take a stand" for Comic-Con by telling movie studios they can't have panels at the event unless they allow for the rebroadcast of exclusive footage in the Hall H playback room. And while Rogers allows that he can see where the man is coming from, he also isn't going to take a stand on something so ultimately trivial, where the studios have very real legal concerns about the footage leaking (never mind that almost all of it immediately leaks to YouTube every year).

"As a convention about comic creators, we understand the importance of intellectual property," Rogers concludes, and if he lets a slight tone of irritation crowd into his voice, well, it's been a long day and a long Con.

What's interesting, though, is how the room reacts to all of this. The room is filled with people about to ask questions, yes, but it's also filled with people who've just come to watch. And while they're more than happy to applaud someone who makes a good point to Rogers forcefully, they're just as thrilled to applaud when he answers a question so definitively that it need never be asked again. (One early example involves his explanation for why Comic-Con's badges have an overhang at the top of the pouch holding them, instead of resting flush with it. The reason: it allows for easier, quicker access to the badge when attendees need to pull it out to let vendors scan the personalized barcode on it.)

What's happening here is that everybody in the room believes, quite earnestly, that Comic-Con should be better, and they really do believe that being in that room and having this conversation will help that happen. But to listen to many of these questions, particularly ones that ask Rogers why the show doesn't just go back to the way things were however many years ago (when the Con invited its founders back as guests, or allowed for on-site registration a year in advance, or...), is to see people who are deeply invested in something that is disappearing beneath them. Camping out or refreshing a website endlessly to obtain a badge are all well and good for the young kids, some of these questions all but come out and say, but what about the people who've been coming for decades? Are they going to get some love?

The answer to that, more or less, is no. There's just no way to go back to the way things were, not exactly. The Talk Back is wonderful and raucous and, oddly, intentionally funny. But it also suggests the frustration that arises when something you love, something you've devoted a part of your life to, is simply becoming something else. Comic-Con is an institution now. It can do pretty much whatever it likes. Yet for many who attend it, it's a kind of Brigadoon, a magical, lost city they can see disappearing into the mists all around them. The old Con is still there, if you're willing to look for it, but many of those who've gathered to air their grievances long to return to the days when that smaller event was the only one available.

And so they trundle up to the microphone, and they offer their thoughts, and they hope Rogers is listening. And he nods and smiles and maybe cracks a quick joke, and he writes down some thoughts on his pad. But even though all of these people are in this together, even though all of them are pushing toward the same thing, so many of them will see the city vanish around them all the same. Everything, even Comic-Con, changes.

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