Comics, Toys & Stuff

Comic Con International: Lines

“I will not spend a single moment in line at Comic-Con 2018”

So said John Shand. “Never again.”

Original story featured in the print edition of the San Diego Reader (July 19, 2018)

It’s safe to say that most Comic-Con International: San Diego 2018 attendees will be stuck in long lines; some will sleep in 24-hour-plus lines. But not Shand. He has been attending the annual pop-culture multimedia show at the San Diego Convention Center since 1996, when it was more of a comic book and sci-fi show. For the week of July 18-22, he’s chillin’ in his air-conditioned store in La Mesa called Toy Addicts.

“If I need something at the Comic-Con 2018,” he said, “I can just pick up my phone.”

I first met Shand in 1998 when we traded toys until the wee hours of the morning; then later that week we attended Comic-Con. My niche at the time was die-cast metal robots; Shand’s was 1980s G.I. Joe figures which garnered him the “G.I. John” moniker.

From 2003-2008, Shand capitalized on the exclusive lines at the Mattel, Hasbro, Magic the Gathering, and Lego booths. He would sit in lines for hours to purchase the hottest retro-remakes of his 1980s toys and newly released products. Many of the releases were exclusive only to the con attendees, and Shand had overseas collectors wiring his Paypal accounts top-dollar for such.

Comic-Con line at Ballroom 20

“I was wheeling and dealing in the lines that sometimes took me four hours. Others would be arguing [about cutting in line] on preview night [Wednesday], because it’s a bottleneck and there’s hundreds of collectors shoving and pushing; a fight even broke out.”

After preview night at about 9 pm, he’d haul a truckload of exclusives back home, then flip the stuff via eBay’s “Buy it now” option for up to a thousand percent markup.

Shand accumulated much of his toy collection from the profits of the Con-hustle, by reinvesting on more items purchased on Craigslist, swap meets, community yards sales, auctions, other collectible shows, and estate sales. At times we’d bump heads at the same venue, and we’d flip a coin to determine who’d purchase the vintage items that were usually priced at pennies on the dollar.

Shand’s toy collection grew so much that it attracted six-figure executives who were kids in the 1980s and watched Saturday morning cartoons.

Cosplayer directing crowd to Hall H line

“I met my Comic-Con connections at [City of Industry’s] Frank & Son [Collectible Show] in 2009,” he said. “It was a good hookup, because now I had free reign and unlimited access to Comic-Con.”

When Shand met his Comic Con International connects, whom he wouldn’t identify, his G.I. John moniker changed to “Toy Addict.” Other dealers started calling him the “Toy Godfather.”

“Having Comic-Con badge hookups means everything,” he said, “I would get as much exclusive merchandise as I possibly could.” Shand couldn’t go into detail about the number of badges he would obtain, because he said some of his “higher-ups” still work for the non-profit organization.

Personalized badges are provided to attendees, dealers, press, volunteers, artists, and Comic-Con staff — to access the convention. A different type of badge is worn by the San Diego convention center staff and employees of companies that lease within the convention floor grounds (ie. Starbucks, Fedex, etc.), or provide services (security, maintenance, booth set-up, etc.)

“John’s badges were legit, bro, with our names, the plastic pouch, the necklace, and everything,” said Paul, one of Shand’s associates. “In 2010, [Shand] hooked us up with, like, 12 badges; the year after, he gave us more.”

“Back then, I had runners left and right,” Shand said. “We had up to 40 runners, because everyone wants to go to Comic-Con. I’d give some like $1000 to go to Hasbro, and they’d buy the exclusives. Then my boy the Enforcer would check the merch and okay the purchase; then the runner would be able to roam the Comic-Con for the remaining days. I would go pick up the product at the Hilton, and my homeboy would have people go back and forth for the exclusives.”

Mattel He-man castle

Exclusive toys are released for specific occasions is lower print runs. Comic-Con exclusives that are released during the five days are sometimes an alternate color variation to a previously released toy, and the packaging will sometimes state “Comic-Con Exclusive.” Some exclusives are limited to 20 counts, which combined with a high-demand in the thousands, will drastically increase the resale price.

“The con exclusives started when Mattel re-released the He-Man stuff,” Paul said, “it was in the early 2000s…then they redid the castle.”

I asked Shand what would happen if the badge holder bounced with the money or merch. He laughed and said it would never happen. “They were usually friends of friends,” he said.

“…and he’d take it out on the ones who vouched for the shyster,” said PJ, who was standing by during our conversation at Shand’s stash house in Spring Valley, which is less than five miles away from his retail store on La Mesa Boulevard at University Avenue.

PJ is one of Shand’s toy-runners and was waiting for Shand to approve his New Mutants #87 comic book to trade against Shand’s four boxes of vintage toys and Nintendo (8-bit) video games.

“I once waited in the Comic-Con line at 6 am,” PJ said, “and there were already 300 people in the mezzanine lined up to get a Hasbro ticket to gain access to the Hasbro line inside of the hall.”

Shand: “I paid about $20 for each of the G.I. Joe Zerana [action figures] with color variations.”

After a total of four hours waiting in both lines, PJ wasn’t able to buy the G.I. Joe/Transformer crossover exclusive that he longed for, because the booth had sold out. “That was a total waste of time,” he said.

PJ is a 54-year-old South San Diegan who has been attending Comic-Con since the first Star Wars hit the big screen in 1977; he’s been a vendor at the con since 1989 when the 10-by-10-foot booths “cost less than a grand; now our booth costs $2700.”

When Shand scores exclusives, he sometimes leaves them at PJ’s booth at aisle 900 to free up his hands, and shop for more.

“One time, I had to get there at 4 am to line up and get the exclusive Hasbro tickets,” Shand recalled, “and once the Comic-Con doors would open at around 9 am, we would make mad dash to the Hasbro booth. I paid about $20 for each of the G.I. Joe Zerana [action figures] with color variations, and after sold them for $200 apiece.”

Line tribes

I met Emily Savage sitting on the grass on the Tuesday of the 2016 convention. She was the first person in line for that year.

“Being the first on the floor was kinda like a bucket list thing for me,” she said.

Savage at the time, was a 23-year-old recent criminal justice graduate from Oxford University. She’s been coming to the con since she was 12 years old and is an avid autograph collector.

Emily Savage: “Being the first on the floor was kinda like a bucket list thing for me.”

“Every year, the lines get longer and longer and it gets tougher to find things and see things,” she said. At about 8 pm, I sat next to her on the grass by the doors of Hall H, as she waited for preview night to open in 21 hours (at 5 pm on Wednesday).

“I’ve got a camping pad to sleep on,” she said as she pulled out items from her pile, “an umbrella for the sun, because last year the girl in front of me in line got so sunburned and she was peeling on the last day, a change of clothes and many portable chargers.”

I had to ask, “What do you do when you have to go to the bathroom?”

“[You] make friends with people in the line with you and ask them watch your stuff,” she replied.

A male attendee with a large camping backpack sat behind her.

“You form line tribes with the people in front and behind you,” Savage said. “I’ve made friends in line from years and years ago who I’m seeing again this year.”

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The closest available bathroom for them was about 100 yards east at the Hilton.

“And with Starbucks now allowing everybody including non-customers to use their bathrooms,” PJ said, “the one at the Hilton’s going to be used too.

Chantal Barajas, a 29-year-old cosplayer from Tijuana, understands the bathroom woes at the convention all too well — so she utilizes the Hard Rock Hotel (across the street) bathrooms to get dolled up, because it’s less congested. In 2016 she dressed as female version of Vegeta, a Dragon Ball Z character. Her costume has shoulder and waist armor pieces that jut outwards which make it difficult to walk around with the 130,000-plus roaming fans ­— but more so if she has to use the bathrooms which at times, can be an hour wait.

“It is extremely difficult to go to the bathroom with any cosplay outfits,” she said. “When I have worn armor, I keep my water levels to a minimum only enough to be hydrated. One time, my armor did not allow me to sit down in the stall and I had to take it off.”

It takes Barajas about three hours to cross the border and another hour-plus to dress up in her homemade costumes. Her favorite characters to cosplay in are Black Cat, a Spider-Man villain, and Psylocke from X-Men. She doesn’t cross the border as Psylocke, because the character utilizes a katana, a Japanese sword, which she doesn’t want to explain to the U.S. immigration officer.

This week, she’s cosplaying as a female version of Batman.

In 2016, Jorge Guevara, a 30-year-old writer from Tijuana, was detained at the San Ysidro point of entry for carrying a plastic gun

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which accompanied his The Winter Soldier outfit from the 2014 Captain America film. “The [U.S. immigration officers] did not like that at all,” he said, “but after an inspection they let me through. Usually, they joke around and are polite when they see us [cosplayers].”

Guevara’s been attending Comic-Con since 2009. He stays the night at his relatives’ house for the four days. He, like many con-goers, park their cars for free near trolley stops and take the trolley in to the Convention Center stop on K Street.

Parking fees by the convention center can cost Con-goers up to $50 during Comic-Con.

“It’s become very crowded and more expensive,” Guevara said, “and it’s almost impossible to get tickets.”

Last year Guevara attended as press, because he used to write for a movie magazine. He camped out overnight to gain access to the Hall H — where even wearing the coveted press badge doesn’t guarantee access inside the hall.

This year Guevara is dressing as Deadpool, a red-and-black masked Marvel comic book character.

“Jay Pacheco” ­— not his real name — is a San Diego school teacher who’s been accessing Hall H since the early millennium.

“In order to survive the long lines at Comic-Con, it needs to be a group effort,” he said. “One person cannot do this solo. About ten years ago, I formed an alliance with some women I met in line, and we’ve been keeping it ever since. One of our women is super organized, and she brings her mom every year. They bring blankets, pillows, etc. We all take turns waiting in line in shifts. I usually take the night shift [by] sleeping on the ground to hold our place in line.”

In the last couple of years, Pacheco has posted photos on his social media, of himself waiting in line by the boat docks east of Joe’s Crab Shack, which is about a quarter mile from the Hall H entrance.

Hall H is the 64,800-square-foot, easternmost hall where the new movie trailers are shown and movie panels are held in which the fans can ask celebrities questions. Its Twitter account reads: “I am the longest, nerdiest, most demoralizing line at any convention ever made, and that’s just how you like it. Come get in me.”

Bijan, a librarian, has been attending the Con since 2012.

“I’ve never seen the appeal of waiting an entire day for Hall H, but I have waited four hours in line for the Game of Thrones Experience at the Omni Hotel,” he said. “There were basically lots of props to look at and the throne in which you can sit on and take pictures. It was cool, but certainly not worth the wait.”

Last year Bijan entered as a professional.  “It involved lots of paperwork and sending documents representing what I do to receive a professionals badge,” he said.

Pacheco wouldn’t comment on how he’s accessed the show for the last 17 years. But there are alternatives to enter the Con if one doesn’t have the clout like Shand, a byline like Guevara, the organization like Bijan, or the patience like most who attempt to purchase online, where tickets sell out faster than Clark Kent disrobes to become Superman.

Caitlin Findley: “I started volunteering in 2008.”

“I started volunteering in 2008,” said Caitlin “Kit” Findley, a cosplayer who’s been attending the con since 2003 and volunteering since 2008. “It’s a fascinating system [to access the con for free of charge]. Basically, around the end of the year/beginning of the new year, emails will go out to folks who have volunteered the previous year. There are sign-ups for new volunteers but due to a lot of repeats, those openings can close up awfully fast. After the emails go out, then the sign-ups roll out. You register through the Comic-Con website using your personal member ID. Once registered, you await the week of the con for your assignments.”

Kit’s volunteering duties include line management, art show security, prize room assistant, schedule change poster, portal check helper, freebie table assistant, and masquerade staffer — for three hours a day. When she’s put in her time, she has access to the Con for the rest of the day.

“They give you printed out slips that you keep in your badge pocket that you turn back in after your shift,” she said, “and your supervisors rate your performance. They’re not thrilled by apathetic folks or people who slack off. Considering the cost of around $125 for a badge, it is absolutely worth helping out for three hours a day.”

Being a volunteer, Kit didn’t have to wait in line to access the Hall H. She simply volunteered to assist in that part of the Convention. “I did manage to catch the end of a Joss Whedon panel,” she said, “then the South Park season 20 panel, and finally the Preacher panel.”

Pacheco’s favorite Hall H experience was the 2017 Women who Kick Ass panel led by Charlize Theron; for 2018, he’s thinking twice about returning because “it’s a mess… people check Twitter and freak out, and so people then come rushing into the line.”

Attendees used to wait the grueling Hall H lines to get a glimpse of the movie previews, but lately, Pacheco noticed that the

Mike Madriaga’s post from Ballroom 20

production companies have been showing the previews online around the same time as the Comic-Con.

“Yes, it’s nice to get photos of the stars, but I’m over it,” he said. “I’m gonna try Ballroom 20 this year.”

Ballroom 20 is a 40,000-square-foot room that’s on the upper level of the Convention Center and east from Sails Pavilion. Here, there have been appearances by Harrison Ford and Sarah Michelle Gellar, and the wait to get inside, although long like Hall H downstairs, is mostly within an air conditioned hall and on a plush carpet.

Last year I saw volunteer Andrew by Ballroom 20 guiding the foot traffic. “There are so many people here,” he said. “I have to make sure that these kids and adults don’t run and clog up the pathways.”

While we spoke, a cosplayer dressed as a seven-foot Megatron robot from the Transformers franchise drew a crowd. “You need to keep on moving,” he told them.

Kit was downstairs guiding her line though the traffic and holding up a sign that read “Line starts here.”

When freebies are given out or a celebrity makes a surprise appearance, the crowds can be overwhelming unless lines are formed, directed, and cut off with another volunteer holding up a sign that reads “Line ends here.”

Lines weren’t always so dreadful to be in at the venue. Back in the 1990s, even on a Saturday, one could line up, buy a ticket, and enter the convention center — in less than five minutes.

Now, tickets can solely be purchased online and even the cyber-line process can last a whole morning.

Shawn from Chula Vista has been trying to score Comic-Con tickets online since 2016.

“Basically you have to get online at about 8 am and you get an imaginary place in line,” he said. “Then you have to wait for a notification that you’ve been chosen to buy tickets.”

First he noticed all Saturday tickets were gone, then Friday and then Sunday.

“I held out and hoped there was Thursday left,” he said, “and then another window comes up and says something like ‘Sorry all the tickets are sold.’”

With the lottery system, where a computer program draws random ticket buyers, it didn’t matter if Shawn was the first or last to lock in his position in the imaginary line.  The whole process took about 2.5 hours.

“I think there are so many people from out of state that travel in that we have to compete with,” he said, “and the people who have passes from the previous year, I think get pre-ticket sales.”

In 2018, the companies with booths inside the Con, have followed the lottery system as well when it comes to selling exclusive merchandise.

“This year UCC, Lego, Mattel, Funko are doing lotteries,” Billy Khang said, “which I think is amazing and I don’t have to camp out.”

Khang is a 30-year-old news reporter from Yuma, Arizona, that’s been attending the Con since 2012.

“You go to your Comic-Con membership page, and under exclusives, you click which of those booths you want to go to on particular days and times,” he said. “There have been too many complaints from fans who couldn’t get into the Funko booth.”

He too knows the line-wait game very well.  “I camped out of the convention center for Funko Pops toys from 12-9 in the morning,” he said.

Two blocks away from Khang, an Eastlake father and his two kids camped out as well. They waited in line for a total of 48 hours outside of the Funko Pop! Up Shop located at 448 West Market Street, in hopes to purchase a 2017 Comic Con Freddy (White Lantern) doll for about $20; now that same doll sells for $1500.

“My wife thinks I’m crazy,” the father said. His son looked back and said “He is crazy.”

The three were the first in line of about 200 collectors that lined up around the Market and Columbia street corner to around the corner of West G Street.

The neighbors of the shop were upset because some of the collectors were blocking their doorways and others were leaving food wrappers on the same sidewalks that they were sleeping on.

Con hustles

“One of the most dickheaded things you can do is somehow get a handicap badge if you’re not handicapped,” John Shand said. “There’s people that go to the doctor and say, ‘For the next week I need a handicap pass or letter.’ Then they enter the Comic-Con in wheelchairs or crutches. Now if you have a handicap badge, you can go straight up to the front of the line with probably five to ten people waiting and get your stuff. And the handler, the guy pushing the wheelchair, he can get stuff too. If you’re handicapped, they cannot tell you no.”

“Then you got the ice cream vendors selling to the Con-goers sitting in the hot sun,” PJ said. “Or the cosplayers selling water bottles for a buck on the Harbor Drive Pedestrian Bridge.”

At PJ’s shared booth, he and his partner sell vintage 1980s toys like Shand. They don’t mind the lines of people coming into their booth to spend money. They do dislike it when lines of people for other booths stand in front of their booth. “It’s hard to get in and see our stuff when all of those people block us,” he said.

Jenny managed one of the 15 San Diego Pretzel Company carts at the convention center for five years. “Comic-Con to us was like Christmas,” she said. “In 2013, my cart would make between $5000-$7000 a day, and the customers, sometimes in a line of more than 20, wouldn’t complain about the 15-minute wait or our prices.”

Jenny sold pretzels for $4 and pretzel-hotdogs for $5. One year, she was stoked to see Rihanna, the actual singer and not a cosplayer, walking around, but she couldn’t get her autograph because it’s against her company’s policy. Everything else at the venue was pretty much fair game for her.

“We are given a badge which was from the convention center,” she said, “and it would have the name of the company that you worked for and your photo. With that badge, we can access anywhere, including Hall H, and we don’t have to wait in lines.”

PJ is given four dealer badges for his booth. If he needs extra dealer badges, they cost “$425 apiece and $250 apiece for regular badges,” he said. “The difference is: dealers get to go inside the halls an hour earlier and stay an hour later, while people with regular badges are constrained to the set hours and are escorted out when closing time happens.”

Shand has been known to use dealer badges to get in early and bypass the lines, then swap it out with a regular badge when he’s the first in line at the booth, because “dealers aren’t allowed to purchase certain Con exclusives.”