The Once and Future Comic-Con

Reading Time: 8 minutes
The crowd at Comic-Con spills out of the Convention Center toward Petco Park and the Gaslamp District. Photo by Rick R. 1. Used under a Creative Commons license.
The crowd at Comic-Con spills out of the Convention Center toward Petco Park and the Gaslamp District.
Photo by Rick R. 1.
Used under a Creative Commons license.

I spent Thursday through Sunday of last week at what is officially titled Comic-Con International San Diego, but known to geeks, nerds and fanboys the world over as simply “Comic-Con” (other nicknames include SDCC, Geek Pride Week, Nerd Prom, and, before it became cool, many less flattering terms); this four-day event has become the Sundance Festival of genre film, TV, gaming and, oh yeah, comics.

I’ve been an attendee at Comic-Con since it was a comic book convention; my first visit was in 1981, the last year in which it was held at the El Cortez Hotel, a downtown landmark that had seen better days. I attended sporadically through the ’80s and early ’90s, making about six or seven visits in about 13 years, and have been there every year since 1997, watching it get bigger and more devoted to film and TV each year. To put it in perspective: The largest screening room in the convention center, Hall H, seats 6,500 people; the 1981 Comic-Con had just over 5,000 attendees.

Around Downtown San Diego, there are banners on the lampposts promoting Comic-Con; they read “Celebrating the Popular Arts.” This is emblematic of the major change in Comic-Con; it used to celebrate the Unpopular Arts. Comic-Con was the place to go if you were interested in comic books, low-budget fantasy movies, comic book artists, long-canceled TV shows, comic book heroes, toys, comic strips, low-budget monster movies, animated cartoons, comic book art, monster make-up, comic book costumes, obscure actors, and comics. The big names that got people excited were Jack Kirby, Ray Harryhausen, Will Eisner, Robert A. Heinlein, Mike Grell, Ray Bradbury, George Pal, Howard Chaykin, Gary Owens and Sergio Aragones. (If you don’t know who those people are, you’ve lived a drab and colorless life.) If a famous actor or musician showed up, it was understood that they were there as a fan, they were “one of us,” and people left them alone and let them rummage in the comic book boxes. When Star Wars did their first event (a slideshow of photos from the set) at San Diego before its premiere, most of Hollywood thought it was going to be a cheesy little sci-fi movie that would quickly be forgotten; George Lucas, being a nerd, knew that Comic-Con was the place to reach a key component of his audience, the obsessive and excitable fans who would spread the word about his great new movie.

The big star at Comic-Con in 1981 was John Byrne, artist/co-writer on The Uncanny X-Men (the big X-Men story of that year was “Days of Future Past,” which is currently being adapted to film; ironically, the “future” segment of the story is set in 2013). People waited in line up to 20 minutes to meet him and get an autograph. My biggest thrill that year was meeting Joe Shuster, the artist who created Superman. He was wandering the floor, shaking hands and meeting people. There was no line to see him, no crowd around him; he only had an assistant with him because he was nearly blind and needed help getting around. I was digging in a quarter bin beside Harlan Ellison (he was wearing a “Dial H for HERO” t-shirt), and he said “Oh look, there’s Joe Shuster.” I quickly bought a Superman comic from the nearest dealer and ran over to get his autograph.

In recent years, something has changed. Some would suggest that nerdy stuff has gone mainstream, but I’ll believe that when I overhear people at the coffee shop debating the relative merits of John Buscema vs. Gene Colan, or waxing poetic about Frank Frazetta, or arguing about whether Janos Prohaska made a better gorilla than Bob Burns. Others would argue that it’s simply the result of geeks like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates taking over the world, which in turn led to geeks like Joss Whedon gaining prominence in the entertainment world and making films about the geeky stuff they love. Or it might just be the rise of the inherently nerdy internet; as people got online, they had to occasionally turn to their nearest geek for free tech support, and over time have developed some respect for the nerds and have embraced their world. Or it may simply be that CGI has allowed us to finally make movies that are as exciting as the comics upon which they are based; no longer does Superman have to jump on a trampoline to fly. Whatever the case, Comic-Con has become cool. People who would once have pantsed me for wearing a Captain Marvel t-shirt (yes, that happened) are today wearing Iron Man t-shirts of their own.

Neil Gaiman once said that in 1992, Comic-Con was a comic convention of about 15,000, and today it’s a comic convention of about 15,000, with a movie convention of 140,000 dropped on top of it. That’s an accurate assessment, and in recent years the most frustrating thing about the convention has been the sheer number of people; it takes a good half-hour to get from one end of the hall to the other. Today 150,000 people buy tickets to Comic-Con, and thousands more show up in San Diego for the parties, bar-crawls, art slams and unofficial events that surround the convention.

Meeting geek goddess Felicia Day at the Geek & Sundry party.
Meeting geek goddess Felicia Day at the Geek & Sundry party.

These events are often more fun and unique than anything inside the convention center. Thursday afternoon, for example, I was assisting Stan Sakai in his booth when I got a text from my friend Jessica the Comic Book Girl, asking if I had an invitation to the Geek & Sundry party that evening. She was working with the Wounded Warrior Project and was hoping I could use my “plus one” to bring a disabled veteran to the party so he could meet Felicia Day. I hadn’t even known about the party, but I fired off a quick email to the GeekDad editors, and a few minutes later, I had my invitation in hand. We went over to Jolt’n Joe’s, a 4th Street club whose spacious upstairs and patio had become Geek & Sundry’s headquarters for the duration. Once we were inside, Ms. Day graciously posed for photos with each of us; I told her I had recently watched all five seasons of Eureka, and she quickly responded “I didn’t make you do that!” Later, we met Doug Jones (the actor who played Abe Sapien in the Hellboy movies and provided the physical performance for the Silver Surfer in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Sliver Surfer) and comic writer Ed Brubaker, the man who killed Captain America (and later brought him back). They goofed off and mugged for the camera together, and were very fun to talk to. Later, as I was leaving, I ran into Riki Lindhome and Kate Micucci, better known as Garfunkel & Oates. (Note: do not play their songs for your kids!) After badgering them for a photo, I told them I wrote for GeekDad and said I would happily cover anything kid-friendly if they ever chose to do such a thing. “Yeah, that’ll happen,” they laughed.

On Friday I ran into Tom Kenny, whom I had previously interviewed for GeekDad last Christmas, as we were getting onto the same elevator; also in the elevator was legendary artist Russ Heath, whom I’ve known for a few years. Tom geeked out over Heath’s presence, and I had the distinct pleasure of introducing them. There were many opportunities for such encounters every day of the con, and almost all of them were outside the convention center, where there is room to stop and talk without fear of getting trampled by the crowd.

That point is one that makes me happy. This trend has been growing for about five years now, and I think it paints a picture of a future in which Comic-Con is much different from what it is today. In recent years, exhibitors who couldn’t get into Comic-Con (or didn’t want to pay the Con’s prices, or wanted to do something that wouldn’t be permitted, or just wanted to separate themselves from the frenzy a bit) have been setting up shop in storefronts, bars, restaurants and parking lots. In 2011 a group of comic artists picked up and moved to a winery/restaurant across the street and put on a comics-only mini-con called TR!XT3R, where they could show their work, sell comics, teach drawing classes and have a few drinks. This year, GAM3RCON was held at a theater in the Gaslamp District, while Zachary Levi’s Nerd Machine took over Petco Park for their annual NerdHQ events.

I fully expect that within five years, the comics, gaming and cosplay people will all relocate to other venues away from the convention center; possibly the Conference and Performing Arts Center that housed the convention in the late ’80s, perhaps even further out; any location that’s accessible by trolley could become part of the extended convention. This may happen as part of the official convention programming, or it may be an ad hoc effort, but, either way, it will soon be a lot easier to choose the convention you want to attend. I wouldn’t be surprised to see SDCC start to sell distinct tickets to different sections; there could be a comics pass, a movies & TV pass, a gaming pass, access to the exhibit hall only, or an all-access ticket that will be a hot commodity.

This has happened before, most famously with the Edinburgh International Festival, which is now a smallish event in the center of the Fringe Festival, which has become the largest arts festival in the world, though it started out as a rebel event by people who couldn’t get into the “official” festival. The Sundance Film Festival has for some time been surrounded by dozens of other events— Slamdance, Nodance, Slumdance, It-dance, X-Dance, Lapdance, Tromadance, The Park City Film Music festival, etc. — leaving the original festival as the repository of big-budget studio films with big-name stars. This is starting to happen at Comic-Con, and it’s a breath of fresh air. If nothing else, it gives attendees a reason to leave the convention center, which makes for less-crowded aisles. There’s enough going on around town that if you can’t get tickets to the big show, you can at least still find something to do while loitering around town hoping to run into Nathan Fillion (he was over at NerdHQ posing for photos to benefit Operation Smile).

If the convention becomes multiple simultaneous events, it should get easier to navigate the halls, meet the artists, shop for comics and get one’s portfolio reviewed. The addition of what some are calling “Bar-Con” (happening at the bars around the Gaslamp) and the large number of con-related attractions that loudly proclaim “No Comic-Con Pass Needed” is rapidly turning Comic-Con into what my friend Chris Hicks calls “Nerdi Gras,” a citywide celebration of comics and entertainment, and making an overcrowded and often frustrating convention into a leisurely a la carte entertainment smorgasbord spread across downtown.

© 2013 by Jim MacQuarrie. All rights reserved.
© 2013 by Jim MacQuarrie. All rights reserved.

For the first time in years, I’m excited about the future of Comic-Con. I, like many other long-time attendees, have kvetched and railed against the hijacking of Comic-Con; it’s too big, too studio-driven; too focused on movies and mass media at the expense of comics; the new fans coming in don’t know anything about the history of these suddenly-popular characters; it’s a superficial fandom, miles wide but as deep as a puddle of ant pee; and so on and on and on. For about a decade, the refrain among all of us cranky old geeks has been that Comic-Con was better when it was smaller, when it was made up entirely of “True Fans,” when it wasn’t cool. Many have stopped coming to San Diego, preferring to go to smaller, more comics-focused conventions like Emerald City, Big Wow, HeroesCon, MegaCon and Comikaze, looking for an experience more like the “good old days” of pre-Hollywood Comic-Con.

Paradoxically, it appears the way to return to the “good old days” is not by making Comic-Con smaller, but bigger.

By spreading it out and breaking it up into more focused destinations within the citywide celebration, it becomes possible to create the convention you want to experience. If you want to meet your favorite artist, you won’t have to fight your way through a mob of people trying to get in to see the kid from that TV show; if you want to buy original art or show off your costuming skills, there’s a place for that; if you want to spend the week watching movie trailers and getting stars’ autographs, it will be a lot easier when there are a dozen other events at other locations drawing some of the mob away.

Even better, this gigantic party will draw in a lot of people who will discover something they didn’t know they loved. In the 1981 pool of 5,000 fans, there may have been a dozen who loved The Inferior Five as much as I did; at Nerdi Gras, that number could jump to 500; not enough to fill Hall H, but certainly enough to warrant a panel or arrange a meetup at any local watering hole.

The problem with Comic-Con now is it’s not big enough yet. But just wait.

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