Comic-Con
4:18 pm
Mon May 20, 2013

Dallas Comic-Con: It's growing

Thousands of fans of Comics, Sci-Fi, Fantasy and more converged on the Irving Convention Center this past weekend.  Perhaps too many fans?

(Check out "Related Content" below for pictures of some of the best costumes from the Dallas Comic-Con.)

Geek fandom was out in full force this past weekend as the Dallas Comic-Con took over the Irving Convention Center for three full days.  An event that has grown in leaps and bounds over the past few years, the Con once again saw fans dressed up as their favorite characters as well as some of the biggest names in comics, TV, and film.  But the event wasn't without a few snags.

Organized by basically a handful of people and an army of volunteers, the Dallas Comic-Con is the signature event of the year for the group.  They also host a Star Wars inspired Fan Days and a Sci-Fi Expo.  But nothing these days quite has the draw of the name "Comic-Con".

From the Avengers to Batman, from Harry Potter to The Lord of the Rings, from Dr. Who to Smallville and Star Wars to Star Trek, "geek culture" has been growing in leaps and bounds.  This is exemplified by the signature Comic-Con in San Diego each year, which has become an international sensation.  New York also hosts a massive Comic-Con each year.  Both events draw fans from all over the world and the biggest names in Hollywood, comics, and gaming.  And the events are growing every year.

As is the Dallas Comic-Con.  Which is both good and bad.

The good is they can line up guests like William Shatner and MacGuyver himself, Richard Dean Anderson.  Comic book legends like John Romita Jr. and Jim Steranko.  As well as three Star Trek: The Next Generation stars Levar Burton, Gates McFadden, and Brent Spiner.  Even a few Power Rangers, a Ghostbuster, and a Superman.  All of which were in attendance at this year's event.

Or even a Sci-Fi fan favorite like Nathan Fillion, who unfortunately had to cancel at the last minute due to health reasons (pink eye, reportedly).  He is best known to fans as Captain Malcolm Reynolds from the short-lived Firefly TV series and Joss Whedon's Serenity movie that gave the suddenly canceled 2002 Fox series some closure.  Fillion may best be known to the general public from the ABC series Castle.

While Fillion had to cancel, another Firefly alum, Adam Baldwin (Full Metal Jacket, Independence Day, NBC's Chuck) was in attendance.  At past events, other Firefly cast members have made the attempt to phone Fillion during Q&A sessions with fans.  Fillion has never answered.  During Baldwin's Q&A, and perhaps as an apology for missing the event, Fillion actually called in.  Here's the audio:

Great guests and more fun for the fans.  That's the good.  Now for the bad.

In 2011, the Dallas Comic-Con moved to the Irving Convention Center and drew a level of media guests it had not reached before by bringing Leonard Nimoy, Carrie Fisher, and Stan Lee to Dallas.

In 2012, the crowds grew further to see the 60's Batman TV series stars Adam West and Burt Ward together again, Patrick Stewart of Star Trek and the X-Men movies, Stan Lee once again, and a host of other popular guests.  Attendance was bigger than ever, estimated at 20,000 people.

The fans could tell.  Lines to enter the event lasted hours in the Texas sun and moving around inside the convention center was frustrating at best.  Many who had stood in lines to see their favorite artists and personalities were left wanting at the end of the day.  Truly, the event was not ready to handle a crowd of that magnitude.

So the organizers spent the next year preparing.  Testing different methods for line management and traffic control at the two smaller events.  Doing as much as possible to have the event run smoother than in 2012.

It showed, but there were still problems.

Has the Dallas Comic-Con grown too big for the Irving Convention Center?
Has the Dallas Comic-Con grown too big for the Irving Convention Center?
Credit http://www.irvingconventioncenter.com/

One of the first decisions was to move the lines into the attached parking garage of the Irving Convention Center.  While there were complaints of the stifling and hot conditions with no airflow, it was still likely better than having everyone stand for hours in the sun.  A good idea...if everyone had known about it.

Saturdays are always far and away the biggest day of the Con.  On Friday, everyone was directed to wait in the garage, and they did.  A few hundred fans were lined up prior to the doors opening, and once they did, things moved smoothly at a reasonable pace.

On Saturday, hundreds of fans stood outside the front of the convention center not sure what to do.  Forming a line out of a guess, rather than any real information.  These fans were not informed where to go to line up. Confusion (and a few tempers) rose when the doors finally opened.  Many people who had bought tickets early online were processed well ahead of the doors opening and that was good.  But many more showed up to buy tickets and were given no real direction.

The organizers do an excellent job of communicating with fans on Facebook, Twitter, and the official website.  Not everyone can be reached through those methods, though.

Once inside, the crowd was massive.  Moving anywhere was a slow process.  Unlike many times at the 2012 Comic-Con, however, you could proceed.  It was obvious that personnel from the Convention Center had been added to direct traffic on and off the escalators of the four floor venue.  More Irving Police were present to help control the crowds as well.  A Cafe had been opened to serve food and drink at one more place.  Part of the big room for Q&A's had been sectioned off for media guests to sign autographs, moving more traffic to a different floor.

A small part of the crowd on Saturday of the 2013 Dallas Comic-Con.
A small part of the crowd on Saturday of the 2013 Dallas Comic-Con.
Credit Kevin Jefferies / KETR

Much had been done to help alleviate problems of overcrowding and crowd control.  But the building itself doesn't seem designed to handle that many people moving around at the same time.  Walkways between escalators are small, creating bottlenecks.  Cutting the Q&A room down meant less people could see their favorite person, which left many unhappy after standing in line to see William Shatner.  Previously, the Q&A room had a line and the entrance on one part of the 4th floor, and the exit on another.  Using space for media guests also prevented that and allowed only one set of doors for entering and exiting...a set of doors right at the top of the escalator where people would stop and try to enter the session, creating a huge congestion of traffic.

With a huge crowd, some problems just can't be completely avoided.  But there a some things that might help.

A process was implemented at the smaller events to give line tickets out early for popular comic artists and writers.  You got a ticket, then came back later and could "get back in line" at your previous spot.  This cuts lines down and gets fans through faster.  This could be extended to the popular Q&A sessions.  It could still be free, but the tickets allow more precise control and can be handed out at a less congested area or even reserved in limited numbers online.

More signs.  The event is very well organized and documented with schedules and maps available for everyone at many locations.  Stopping and pulling the schedule out and looking isn't always practical (where do you keep that in costume?) and creates congestion.  Clear, large signs everywhere would help.  Detailing event schedule and precise places to line up would help prevent confusion and keep people moving.  This is especially important outside before doors open.

Let online ticket purchasers in early.  VIP customers are already allowed in early and it helps cut the lines.  Extend the "official" open doors a half hour and let those that already have passes inside.  And do it from a completely different entrance than those that need to buy tickets.  As with the launch of a popular online game, let people inside on a tiered basis so the servers don't crash.

Improve volunteer information.  The "orange shirts" are the volunteers.  There's an army of them and they are an absolute necessity for the event.  But often they are as clueless as anyone else when confusion arises.  Speaking with a volunteer at a smaller event, the process seems to be a little bit of communication, a quick meeting before-hand, then assignments given at the day of the event.  While many of the volunteers help year after year and know everything, there are also newcomers who need better tools to help the fans.

Hulk Smash puny crowds!
Hulk Smash puny crowds!
Credit Amy Toole / KETR

In the end, the Dallas Comic-Con may have just outgrown the Irving Convention Center.  The center is already past the point it can handle the Saturdays of the big event, and the big event keeps growing.  While there is an attached parking garage and a nearby garage, they cannot handle the number of cars, so parking is in two fields across from the convention center.  What if it rains?  There's not enough room for people to move around inside and there's not enough room for all the events and guests.  Significant strides were made to alleviate everyone's complaints from last year, but the same complaints are still there and have merit.

The Irving Convention Center in Las Colinas is a beautiful building.  The location is wonderful.  There's several ways to get there, including access to DART Rail.  And the organizers made significant strides when having time to prepare and not being blind sided by a mass of humanity.

But there's only so much you can do to move 20,000 people through a 20ft hallway.