Comic-Con International sold out again this year, this time before the goddamn thing even started, which means there were at least 125,000 nerds invading the streets of San Diego, but it felt like there were a few hundred thousand more. Over the course of four days, I got lost three times inside the San Diego Convention Center, packed as it was with people dressed up as Wolverines and Iron Mans and Supermans and Indiana Joneses and Chun-Lis and Aayla Securas and Lara Crofts and 800 billion generic anime characters; while the actual process of just pushing your way through the halls and getting jostled by some giant dressed up as Conan the Barbarian might seem weird enough, that's nothing next to seeing Batman awkwardly ride around in the back of a pedicab, or Darth Vader patiently waiting in line outside Denny's.

After a few hours, though, the novelty of standing in line for a Ms. Fields cookie behind some guy dressed up as Rorschach (or it could've been a girl, I guess, as if one could tell with that mask and trench-coat) just kinda... wears off. (And shit, who knows--it was never made explicit in Watchmen whether Rorschach really, really liked snickerdoodles, so maybe the whole experience was totally in character.) The actual weirdness starts in the sheer frenzied fanaticism of Comic-Con, a massive, exhausting, surreal event which encompasses everything from free t-shirt giveaways to panels featuring Harold & Kumar to Q&A sessions with Deepak Chopra.

As FilmDrunk pretty accurately put it, "Comic-Con is what happens when marketing people figure out that nerds will actually pay to be advertised to as long as half naked strippers hand out free t-shirts." That's totally true, except for the part that they'll pay to be advertised to as long as anybody is handing out free t-shirts (or USB drives, or keychains, or comic books, or stickers, or buttons, or lanyards, or fake tattoos, or playing cards, or whatever other cheap bullshit you can think of). When any of this stuff is handed out, there'll be a mosh pit of people gathered around, shoving and yelling and stretching out their hands for whatever's being offered. Though, yes: The women hired to do a lot of this handing out--and picture-taking, and kiss-blowing, and winking, and etc.--are usually half-naked, and their attire certainly doesn't diminish peoples' enthusiasm, at least based on the rabid levels of attention that were given to the women dressed up as Frank Miller-designed sexpots from The Spirit (who applied temporary tattoos, shaped like lipstick marks, to the necks and cheeks of whomever would come by), or the ones at the booth for the upcoming Ghostbusters videogame, who were squeezed into tight spandex versions of the ghostbusters' uniforms, complete with plunging necklines and teeny-tiny little proton packs.

There're elements--like those ones--that make Comic-Con feel really skeezy and unlikeable. It's not just that there are booth babes, but it's also that wherever said booth babes are standing, there's an inevitable halo of flashbulbs and held-up cell phone cameras and gawking men, ones with the same sort of expressions on their slack, rapt faces that you see at strip clubs. (Or maybe their expressions are a bit more enthusiastic than one would find at strip clubs, actually, just due to the niche, fetish-friendly nature of the whole thing: After all, I've never seen a stripper who started out dressed up like Rogue from the X-Men, but there was at least one cute fangirl/Rogue wannabe who I saw posing for countless photos, always in front of a rather appreciative gallery of amateur photographers.) But there's other stuff that's discomfiting and kind of creepy too, and this year's Comic-Con seems to boast a pretty unbeatable example of all this.

To start with, I should say this: I actually find people who dress up and spend days and days and thousands of dollars on elaborate costumes so they can look like Link or Spawn or Black Cat or whatever kind of admirable--just from a dedication and passion level, I'm pretty damn impressed. There's a level of conviction and dedication on display at Comic-Con that's pretty inspiring and admirable, really--it's certainly rare, if nothing else, and frankly it's kind of incredible to see this many people so wholeheartedly into what it is that they're doing, so utterly and completely devoted to the idea of genre entertainment as something that's not only fun and cool but also as something that can really affect how people think and act. Even if, yes, the way that it's most obviously displayed is in some dude wearing a homemade Spider-Man costume.

An ill-fitting Spidey unitard is one thing, though, as is a clunky cardboard Iron Man suit, but this year there were approximately 80,000 people dressed up as Heath Ledger's Joker, which just felt genuinely fucked-up: Greasy, smeared makeup; fake scars glued to cheeks; ratty, half-green hair. The sensation of true, awkward, uncomfortable ghoulishness got heightened, too, when I saw a little fat kid, maybe seven or eight, in Joker makeup and carrying around a fake plastic knife. It got heightened even more when, a day or so later, I saw a little girl--maybe two, three years old, tops--being led around by the hand, her crude Joker makeup complimenting her older brother's Batman costume. The only thing that was missing was a magically disappearing pencil.

That's the massive floor--I swear to god, the perimeter of this thing has gotta be a least a mile, maybe two, around--packed solid with eager, jumbled-together people, both in costume and not, jostling at booths and paying unholy amounts of money for exclusive action figures and rare comics and whatever free shit they can get their flailing hands on. And then there are the panels, which often require hours of waiting in line but often prove to be worth it: In a hall that sat 6,500, there wasn't a seat to be spared when director Zack Snyder did a panel about his upcoming Watchmen adaptation, with the book's artist, Dave Gibbons, there, along with all of the film's major actors. (Snyder also showed off some pretty impressive footage from the film--which, if the cheers that resulted both times Snyder showed the reel were any indication, came very close to making 6,500 people come simultaneously.) Another panel featured Kevin Smith and Judd Apatow and Snyder and a disinterested, bewildered, and possibly drunk Frank Miller, and yet another had Grant Morrison and Robert Kirkman and Mike Mignola and Jim Lee and John Cassaday and Matt Fraction and Colleen Doran all in the same room, and then there was one on Battlestar Galactica, hosted by Kevin Smith ("You came up with 'frak.' Will we ever learn what the Caprican equivalent of 'cocksucker' is?"), and featuring Ronald D. Moore and all the major castmembers. Whether it was the panels with Joss Whedon about Dr. Horrible or Dollhouse or the ones with editors and writers about the ins and outs of comic book writing, there was entirely too much worthwhile stuff to catch, and it was stuff that you really wouldn't really be able to see or hear anywhere else--but then again, there was also stuff like the the terrifyingly named "Asian Ball-Jointed Dolls 101/Collectors Meeting," which promised that attendees would "make new friends--both live and resin!" Typing that last sentence makes me wish that I had some Purell handy.

All kind of pales, though, next to a panel--one of the final ones of the convention, happening yesterday afternoon--in which Grant Morrison, one of the best writers around, was onstage with self-help guru Deepak Chopra, with the two launching into an epic discussion about everything from Indian mythology to nuclear proliferation to the fundamental elements of stories to the motivations of Batman (Morrison pointed out--and I think this is kind of amazing--that Bruce Wayne's essentially a rich socialite who dresses up at night, goes to the bad parts of town, and beats the shit out of poor people) to humanity being on an the cusp of a crucial, massive evolutionary jump, in which a new age of awareness must dawn in order to save us from oblivion. Ideas like that one, and the idea that literature can help us with this--or, scratch that, actually, the idea that superhero comics can help us with this--kind of sums up a lot of what's fairly amazing about Comic-Con International. Sure, you're sitting in an auditorium with people dressed up like Kaylee from Firefly, and even though Kaylee's just sitting in the room and waiting for the next scheduled event--a sing-along screening of the Buffy musical--you're also sitting there listening to fucking Deepak Chopra prattle on with some New Age hippie business about how Superman and Jesus and Batman and Buddha are all taken from the same narrative elements, and all can tell us the same things about humanity through the ages, as well as where we're at now. Taken as a whole like that, it's just this totally singular and fascinating experience, and it's almost enough to make you forget that two days ago, you had to hear Keanu Reeves answer a question like, "Keanu, talk about becoming Klaatu. Your process," or to hear the director of a videogame action movie starring Marky Mark say something like, "It's not minimum pain. It's not medium pain. It's MAX PAYNE." Or, shit! Before I forget! Then there's just the really strange stuff that I don't know what to make heads or tails of: Stuff like hearing an Indiana Jones ringtone start heroically blaring from some dude's pocket as everyone stands at a busy line of urinals, or something like hearing a person behind you say, with a really striking level of earnestness and urgency, "Philip Glass should totally score Watchmen. He would KNOCK IT OUT OF THE PARK. Would give it even more GRA-VI-TAS."

Anyway, it was fucked up and overwhelming and bizarre, and I kind of love it and hate it, and want to never go back and I'm already sort of planning on maybe going again. Also, I got some free t-shirts.