For most of the year, the Hard Rock Hotel in San Diego is a hipstery boutique hotel, all darkly gleaming surfaces and pulsing music with a 1950s-themed coffee shop at street level. But every July the San Diego convention center—separated from the hotel by just a few lanes of traffic and a couple of trolley tracks—hosts Comic-Con International, and 150,000 avid fans of comic books, science fiction, horror, action figures, and anime show up looking for a place to get breakfast. So the Hard Rock Hotel's coffee shop transforms to accommodate them. Like last year, Syfy Channel covered almost every surface with posters and flat-screen monitors advertising its shows. There were new menus, renaming dishes after characters or actors from Syfy shows (Lou Diamond Flapjacks was my favorite—he plays a soldier in space on Stargate Universe). And the coffee shop got a new sign out front, too: Syfy renamed it Café Diem, after the restaurant in the show Eureka.
Cute? Sure. And the Café Diem was one of the more subtle remoldings of space at Comic-Con this year. One of the things that draws geeks like me to Comic-Con is the chance to engage deeply with alternate universes that we love—to talk to the people who draw our favorite comic books or star in our favorite movies—and feel more connected to them and our fellow fans. More and more, Hollywood money at the Con is fulfilling that desire with elaborate sets, rooms, and buildings remade to look like places that don't exist, but that we all feel like we know. They're pop-up theme park attractions tailored for an audience that obsesses over details, over the artifacts and trappings of genre fiction.
I'm a geek. I know the secret identities of supervillains and can forcefully defend my opinion of who the best Star Trek captain was. (Sisko. You got a problem with that?) So when I first attended Comic-Con two years ago, walking onto the packed convention floor was like coming home—not least because the place was furnished with three-dimensional instantiations of imaginary friends and objects from my childhood. I was here to cover the Watchmen movie that year, and Warner Brothers had trucked in the Owlship, the hero's hovercraft. It was the size of a truck and looked exactly like the one from the comic book. Maybe even better—the controls on the inside were cooler. I had seen it on set, but seeing fans gawk at it during the con was even better. We were sharing our enthusiasm—and to be a little cynical about it, through that enthusiasm becoming better consumers of the product. How was I not going to see that movie? Check out that Owlship!
But the next year, when I didn't attend, environment-building went big. Disney built Flynn's Arcade, a main set from 1982's Tron and its upcoming sequel. Nobody builds a themed space like Disney, right? I've seen YouTube videos of what it was like—walk into what looks like a classic 1980s video arcade, the sort of place lots of us spent formative time, and then go through a secret door, past flat screens showing production designs from the new movie, and then, big reveal: a life-sized model of the newly-redesigned light cycle. On the video, at that moment, someone says, "Oh my God!" He has bought in.
This year Disney built Flynn's again, and loaded the arcade part with classic titles that ate a lot of my quarters 25 years ago: Arkanow, Joust, Galaxian. There were a few period-authentic, playable versions of Space Paranoids, a title from the first Tron that didn't exist until now, the unreal made real. "Of course it's marketing, and it's awareness of Tron," Sean Bailey, Disney's head of production, told me. "But it's storytelling, too. It's like, 'I've seen vehicles! I've seen the suits!'"
That's the same kind of nerd engagement that drives the other installations around town. Sony Pictures built Britt Reid's Garage, the secret lair of the Green Hornet, and parked a few versions of the Black Beauty, Green Hornet's customized car, outside. Inside a bullet-riddled Black Beauty sat amid tools and workbenches and a bunch of classic sportscars. Even my magazine got into the act—the Wired Café has a bar made to look like a mini version of Merlotte's Bar and Grill from True Blood. The waitresses walk around with bloody vampire bites on their neck, which creeps me the hell out.
Why is it worth it for the studios to spend this money? Building excitement at Comic-Con has become a critical marketing move for movies and television. One metaphor I heard is that Comic-Con is the pop-culture equivalent of the New Hampshire primary. Not to go all Marc Ambinder on you, but the idea is that while success or failure at Comic-Con doesn't determine ultimate success, people watch it as an early indicator.
I think there's more to it, though. Science fiction fans talk about "world-building," creating an entire, internally consistent universe inside a book or a movie or a comic. Stargate Command or the USS Enterprise come to seem like places you could really go, built out and functioning even when you're not looking. Increasingly Comic-Con is turning into an event that, for four days a year, contains all those universes, like the bottled city of Kandor inside Superman's fortress of solitude.
It's fitting that the convention center sits across the street from San Diego's gaslamp district, itself a themed space of old facades repurposed into bars and boutiques, delimited from a seedy downtown by old-timey street lights. Today Comic-Con builds another world over that one. Giant posters advertising movies and computer games plaster the sides of 30-story buildings. Shops put out "Welcome to Comic-Con" placards and the trolley stop has signage in Klingon. Zombies, or maybe just people made up as zombies, lurch through the streets scaring people, either advertising the upcoming series Walking Dead or just doing performance art. The unreality of the Con is metastasizing like an alien fungus, coating the city, making things weirder and geekier and, to my eye, better. For four days a year in San Diego, we geeks aren't trapped in the real world with normal people. They're trapped in here with us.