Thursday, July 31, 2008

We didn't get to Hollywood, but we did meet Ashley Wood

San Diego is a fun city. At least, that's how it seemed to me. But it's hard to have an objective opinion of a place when the only time you've ever been there is during a huge convention catering for 125,000 people from all corners of the globe, many of them dressed as Princess Leia.
Murphy and I started to get a sense of how huge this event is when we drove into the city for the first time in our rented SUV looking for parking. The reason we had a big 4x4 was because the rental companies had all run out of what the Americans call 'Compacts' and what we'd call a 'Family saloon'. Petrol prices are biting deeply into already strained US pockets and their TV stations are crammed with commercials for cars advertised not by size or speed anymore but by miles per gallon. Gas prices have topped the $4 per gallon mark over there - which is laughable to us Brits who are already paying the equivalent of around $9 per gallon - but it's hurting them badly, especially those who drive pickups and SUVs so big that, frankly, you could fit my BMW in their glove boxes.

Anyway, we drove into San Diego - our hotel was 25 miles outside the city at Poway as there was no accommodation left in the city when we booked - and eventually found parking about half a mile from the convention centre. It was slightly surreal stopping at red lights and having Wonder Woman, The Flash, Batman and some spiky beast from Pokemon cross the road in front of you. The streets were full of comic fans readily identified by the huge Watchmen shoulder bags that the Warner Brothers stand had been giving out.

We walked through the Lamplight district which is full of nice restaurants and bars and stopped for a quick drink in Hooters. Well, we had to didn't we? We'd seen the place on film and TV. The famous bar chain has such a reputation, even overseas, that we had to see what it was really like. It turned out to be surprisingly unseedy. I expected a bar sprawling with lecherous rednecks in flatcaps and sleeveless vests being serviced by large breasted Amazonian waitresses and bar staff. Instead, we found a neat, tidy, completely non-sexual restaurant that caters happily for families. The waitresses were in T-shirts and shorts, admittedly. But so was everyone else in there, including Murphy and me. And there were waiters too. It was a real surprise. Of course, we had to have our photo taken with some of the ladies. It's the law I think.

The San Diego Convention Centre is huge. Really huge. I guess it has to be to cater for 125,000 assorted nerds, fanboys, fangirls, genre enthusiasts, gamers and people dressed as Spartans. The architecture was quite stunning with areas under glass, soaring arches and recurring circular beams, spans and windows.

Inside, we were ushered up a long, high escalator and into the main hall, which was so large that you genuinely couldn't see the far wall from either end. The place was organised around rows of stalls and stands - a staggering 5000+ of them - along with displays, props, video game consoles, statues and videowalls. There were exclusive viewings of footage from new series of Chuck, Supernatural, Smallville, Pushing Daisies and others. There were personal appearances by the stars of Heroes, Prison Break, Star Trek, Dr Who and many more shows. There was footage from the forthcoming Clone Wars movie.
As I said previously, Comicon has gone way beyond mere comics, which account for a small proportion of the overall event. It's what comics have evolved into - TV series, movies, video games, toys and memorabilia - that forms the larger proportion of exhibitors. Plus, you find stands with Playboy playmates sat behind them signing photographs (all tastefully covered in Post-it notes in all the right - or wrong - places). This is a show about cults, genres and fans. It's not just about the funny pages anymore.

Highlights for me included meeting some of my favourite artists including Simon Bisley (with me, below), Ashley Wood (with Murphy, below), Travis Charest, Howard Chaykin, Bobby Chiu, Adam Hughes and Bernie Wrightson. I've been a huge fan of them all for years, some of them back to my callow youth. I also got to see people like Lou 'The Hulk' Ferrigno, John 'Captain Jack' Barrowman, Jonathan 'Commander Riker' Frakes and Kitt ... er ... the car from the new Knight Rider.
For two days we wandered up and down aisles and in and out of stands, always seeming to find ones we hadn't seen before. We found stands for fetish gear and real swords, Wacom graphics tablets and witches' potions, life-sized statues (who buys these things?) and very rude T shirts. And all the time we walked past people who'd made the effort to dress up. Many of the costumes were fantastically detailed, real movie quality. Others were just plain silly, like the guys who cut out some cardboard shapes, painted them silver and pinned them to their tops in order to look like shoddy TIE fighters.

After the second day, Murphy and I decided that we - or more specifically our aching backs and feet - had had enough so we intended to spend Sunday chilling out. Our original plan had been to drive up to LA just for a laugh and to get a photo of ourselves with the Hollywood sign. But the TV news suggested that it wasn't a good idea. Brushfires were threatened (San Diego Zoo was in the throes of one already) and the traffic prognosis wasn't great either. So we decided instead to firstly visit Mission Beach and then drive the short distance down the San Diego Freeway to the border near Chula Vista and have a peer through the barriers at Mexico.

Mission Beach, like the Convention Centre, the cars, the Cheese Steak Sandwiches and almost everything else in America is impossibly big. It's a vast stretch of golden sand as far as the eye can see in all directions. And it's blazingly hot even, like when we were there, it was cloudy. Temperatures were up in the 90s. I feared for the health of my ginger mate Murphy. We spent a good couple of hours watching the surfers and the stereotypical roller-bladers, bikers and joggers zooming up and down the promenade.
We found a dead dolphin, which was a decidedly odd experience as people seemed quite happy to sunbathe all around it. We even got to see a strapping young lass in her Baywatch reds run up and down the beach a couple of times. Somehow it didn't look right not being in slow motion. But, after a while, sunburnt and sweating like two middle-aged men on a beach full of young ladies in bikinis, we decided to set off for the Mexican border.

In my head, I imagined the border to be a series of barriers manned by Mexicops. What neither of us expected was to find ourselves driving into Mexico without let or hindrance. Insterstate 5 simply didn't stop. Once committed, we just whizzed through. The only thing to mark our passage from one country to another was a bridge that said MEXICO in large unfriendly red letters and a sign that reminded us that guns were illegal in Mexico.

We immediately knew we were in a different country. Apart from the obvious, such as everything being in Spanish, the place looked down-market and shabby. We were now driving through the suburbs of Tijuana and it did not look like the sort of place to get out of the car and soak up the local culture. The buildings were scabbed and peeling, there were beggars everywhere and small knots of wild-eyed Latino youths hung around on street corners. One was actually cleaning his nails with a worrying looking knife. I don't have many photographs as I was nervous about showing off my camera. A resounding clunk told me that Murphy felt the same. He had deadlocked the doors and I saw him wrestle his Rolex off his wrist and drop it into a glove box.
"This may have been a bad idea", he said.
"Oh yes", I replied. "What's worse is that I think we've just illegally exported a car."
"Bugger", said Murphy.
"And I think we may not be insured now either", I said. "Shall we head back to America?"
Murphy nodded enthusiastically and we started looking for a way back to the freeway. It wasn't easy. We were driving around side-streets, many of which were blocked off or one-way, in a city we didn't know, that our SatNav didn't know, and where all of the street signs were in a foreign language.

We passed a group of bike cops and considered asking directions. Then we recalled tales of corruption, possibly urban myth but enough to put us off. Besides which, they seemed busy enough giving buxom police senoritas rides on the pillion as local lads looked on and wolf-whistled. Then, all of a sudden, Murphy spotted a queue of traffic heading in the direction we wanted to go. A quick couple of side streets and we joined the end of the queue which, sure enough, turned out to be the line for the US border. The queue was long and we thanked the stars we had good air-con. The heat was stifling outside. Opening the window felt like opening an oven door. Beggars and peddlars walked between the twin lines of traffic juggling or displaying their wretched clothes and amputations or attempting to flog us china tortoises, lollipops with bugs inside them or, most bizarrely, huge crucufixes complete with reclining Jesus. It took us an hour to get back to the border where we then had to explain to the heavily-armed customs and immigration officer where we'd been and why.
"How long have you been in Mexico, gentlemen?"
"Er ... ten minutes. Plus an hour queueing to get out."
"The reason for your visit?"
"Accident. And some small degree of stupidity."
"Are you importing anything? Do you have anything in the car that you shouldn't have?"
"Nope. We were too scared to get out of the car."

Thankfully we'd picked a guy with a great sense of humour who, after a quick look around the car and our passports, was happy to let us go on our way. The fact that we were English seemed to help (if I had a penny for every time I heard 'Gee, I love your accent!' I'd have around $2). With some relief, we imported our car back into the USA and went for a much needed beer.

It was a wonderful long weekend. Without exception, everyone we met was kind, helpful and loved our accents. I can recommend Comicon and, indeed, San Diego to anyone.

I really must go back one day. But maybe I won't leave it 10 years next time.

4 comments:

Janet said...

Wonderful post. We "accidentally" went into Mexico once ourselves and had a similar experience. The Border Patrol guys on the border with Texas weren't quite as amused but didn't give us too much grief.

Yes, Stevyn, the accent is an American crowd-pleaser. As far as I'm concerned, it's one of my English husband's best assets...and I LOVE taking him home to the US to talk to people!

Janet

Stevyn Colgan said...

Janet - I'm not sure how I'd take the news that one of my best assets was my accent! Glad you enjoyed the post though!

willow said...

Looks like your Comicon trip was a great success! Fun to see your pix. :)

Stevyn Colgan said...

Willow - Thanks! We had fun. Only the risk of sending you all to sleep prevents me from posting more!