Lee Hester of Lee’s Comics in Mountain View has been going to comic book conventions for decades, back when you could easily rub shoulders with legendary artists like Jack Kirby and get an autograph without worrying about paying your rent. And from Hester’s acquired perspective, Silicon Valley Comic Con has been a great experience.
“We’re in the middle of Nerdstock,” Hester said, and he meant that in a good way. “This is the biggest thing ever in San Jose. We’re in the middle of a ‘happening,’ and generally people don’t realize that until it’s over.”
Tens of thousands of people — official attendance numbers weren’t available Sunday afternoon — were part of that “happening” over the weekend in downtown San Jose. And in its sophomore year, Silicon Valley Comic Con organizers — led by co-founders Steve Wozniak and Rick White and CEO Trip Hunter — showed they learned a lot from their first year.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION: The convention center was overwhelmed by fans last year, especially Saturday when about twice as many people showed up as expected. So organizers made some changes: Registration was moved to the spacious (and shaded) South Hall tent, big-name panels were held at the City National Civic Auditorium across the street from the convention center and a free outdoor festival was added to further diffuse the crowds.
GRACIOUS GUESTS: Starting with William Shatner on Friday night and going through “The Flash” stars Grant Gustin and Tom Felton, the stars people came to see all came off as approachable and sincere when answering fan questions. Even Gustin, who showed up to the event wearing Los Angeles Dodgers gear, laughingly apologized and switched out his warm-up jersey for a maroon sweatshirt. Marina Sirtis, from the cast of “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” praised the fans in San Jose, saying they were asking smart questions and ones they didn’t usually get at conventions.
THE GREAT OUTDOORS: The outdoor festival — with music, movies, science exhibits and more at Plaza de Cesar Chavez — was a brilliant addition. It gave attendees somewhere to go outside the convention center, and, since it was free, the general public could get the event’s spirit without plunking down for a ticket. The outdoor festival also provided the convention with the food options it was sorely lacking last year. Moveable Feast brought out about 40 food trucks over the weekend, serving up everything from barbecue to Thai food.
ENTERTAINING FOR EVERYBODY: Steve Wozniak said that adding a science component to the convention was a way to make it stand out from the crowd. That was certainly true, with scientists from NASA and SETI in the center of the convention floor, showing off real space rocks and astronomy tools, and a real living legend in Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin drawing more than 2,000 people to the City National Civic.
But just as important was the addition of a kids’ STEAM area on the convention center’s ground floor level, where kids (and their parents) could check out DIY robots, build a box fortress or — thanks to the San Jose Public Library — create their own button using comic book pages. There was even a display of “old tech,” with rotary phones, vintage computers like the Apple II and the Macintosh Plus, and a few typewriters. And speaking of vintage, the collection of pinball machines and video games — free to play, thanks to South Bay Button Mashers — was a great way to blow an hour without using all your quarters.
What didn’t work
WHERE AM I?: For a convention in the heart of Silicon Valley, Silicon Valley Comic-Con suffered from some tough glitches. The program guide didn’t include a schedule, so attendees had to use the website or download the mobile app to figure where and when everything was happening. There were also abrupt schedule changes, par for the course for any convention, but it was difficult to find out about them unless you were wired in.
CONVENTION CENTER BLUES: For the second year in a row, an elevator at the Convention Center broke down — and this time it stranded a group of “Star Wars” cosplayers in the elevator Sunday as they waited for techs to free them. That’s not really on Silicon Valley Comic Con, but it’s the kind of thing that makes participants wonder about the facility.
And while the spread-out nature of the convention helped keep lines separated and crowds reasonable, I overheard some vendors on the convention floor complaining that having the big-ticket items — like celebrity photo ops and panels — farther away also was drawing away the potential customer base.
But Silicon Valley Comic Con has a chance to fix its problems and build on its successes when it returns next year, April 6-8, 2018.