Comic book conventions can be roughly sorted into two categories: San Diego, and “all others.”
By its simple gravity and mass, its sheer number of footfalls, San Diego breaks all the paradigms. The comic con rules that might apply in Dallas, Denver or Detroit go out the window. Why? Because it’s San Diego, that’s why. It’s really the only answer.
San Diego is simultaneously the best convention you’ve ever been to, and the worst. It’s the most exhilarating, and the most excruciating. It’s invigorating and exhausting. It exists at the corner of two streets that cannot possibly intersect.
And wrapped up in that seeming paradox are 150,000 people having a variety of experiences. Any gathering this big invariably becomes a beast of its own creation, beyond the control of people to manage, or possibly even define. It’s like Woodstock without (as much) brown acid. And with that comes much right, and much wrong.
WHAT’S RIGHT? THANKFULLY, THE BIGGEST THING
It is a thermodynamic freakin’ miracle that 99% of the convention runs smoothly, efficiently, and one notable exception aside, without loss of life or limb. In this, the convention organizers are to be lauded. Hell, if you’re behind the curtain at the 2nd grade Spring Fling music recital with kids dressed as flowers and ladybugs, things can get damn chaotic. Multiply that flower to the power of Tom Hiddleston in a Loki suit and make those ladybugs 15,000 people trying to get into Hall H, and the chaos becomes biblical in proportion. The fact that the madness behind the curtain stays there, and 99% of people are having a good time at any given time is a blessed event. I think those Fatima kids were working security this year (and more on that later).
This point cannot and should not be understated: The convention organizers are to be lauded for making the vast majority of things work out. One analysis of the con could certainly reveal (should you choose to look at it that way) that since so much runs so well over the course of so many days, any faultfinding with San Diego is nitpicky at best. It’s crumbs fallen off the table at an Olympian feast. Who cares if you didn’t get Taco Truck Deadpool? There were 873 things happening simultaneously, and you chose to stand in a line for one, while the other 872 were a straight party. That’s on you, son. It was a smarter (and better-paid) man than me who said “You can’t please all of the people all of the time.”
Yet San Diego is not without its problems, some of it owing to a long history that now dates back 43 years. Its modern development is a fast-acting evolution, an accident of recent history that chafes many people who count themselves in the “old guard,” some of whom were there for the first San Diego con in 1970, or who still lament the loss of the ol’ El Cortez Hotel. You don’t need to be a graybeard to join this club. Some who lament the current con are teenagers who just happen to, well, like comic books.
WHAT’S WRONG? LET’S START WITH THE CON’S NAME, AND ITS GRASP ON REALITY
If you have any affinity for comic books that runs more than two inches deep, Comic-Con International: San Diego is set up to disappoint you. Why? The old saw absolutely applies here: “It’s not about comics any more.”
No one can pinpoint the exact date that “Hollywood took over,” but take over it has. The Los Angeles Times just called Comic-Con “North America’s biggest pop culture expo,” and honestly, who can say that assessment is wrong?
Let’s use just one example from this year: Sure, the TV show Breaking Bad may be popular. But does it have anything to do with a place called "Comic-Con"? The correct answer is “no.” And in that, in the name of the con and its choice to host a Breaking Bad panel, some sticks get stuck—justifiably—in craws.
Don’t see it? Let’s remove the emotion. Comics fandom is largely an affinity-based pastime. You go to a comic con largely because you dig comics. You feel part of something. You feel like you have some skin in the game. Now let’s pretend…you’re going to Burrito-Con.
As a burrito aficionado, Burrito-Con should focus on burritos, dig? Tacos are fine as well, and hell—if you have to, you can accept other food products such as pizza. But suddenly, when there’s a panel on the Ford Mustang…you rebel. Things are out of place. This shouldn’t be. The carpetbagger effect just hit, and the sanctity of your burrito is at stake. These are base opportunists with their Mustang, exploiting you and your burrito buddies, tempting you with something shiny. The carpetbaggers just don’t get it. They don’t understand what burritos are all about, and they’ll never love them like you do. And look—everyone’s gravitating towards whatever’s shiny. Your burrito has just been reduced.
San Diego gives itself a wonderful elastic clause. Just look at the banners hanging from streetlights all around town, and they’ll tell you that Comic-Con is “celebrating the popular arts.” But the name has become disconnected from its origin, and from the reality of what it represents today. Is it a comic con? “North America’s biggest pop culture expo” seems a way more accurate description. And burritos don’t look too sexy sitting next to Mustangs.
The con knows this. A few years ago, when the fanboys lit their torches and sharpened their pitchforks screaming “you sold out!” the con trumpeted that they still had more hours dedicated to straight comics programming, more hardcore comics events, and more comic book vendors than any other damn show in the country. And they were absolutely right.
In this, San Diego sits in position of paradox: They have more comics than anyone, yet comics are somehow subsumed, pushed to the side. Is this conundrum of their control? On the broad swath, are we all just drawn to whatever’s shiniest?
Maybe. But if you told Breaking Bad to go find a nice TV con somewhere, you could start to tip the scales back. There’s a conscious choice being made there to embrace the “other.” And a choice on the other edge of the sword that cuts a different way.
As much as the name “Comic-Con” gets further and further away from representing the reality of the event, a conscious choice is being made to keep that name. The organizers are choosing to root themselves deeply in the name. This is now a responsibility. Some might see this choice as disingenuous. Some people derisively refer to the event as “Hollywood-Con” or “Line-Con.” But every last mother’s son who walks through the door interested in a Breaking Bad has a badge around their neck that says “Comic” on it. It is a reminder to the greater public of where so much of this came from. In some cases, it’s their only reminder. And that’s a good thing.
The bad thing? Finding the people who actually made the comics is getting harder every year.
THE EXODOUS OF COMIC TALENT (AND WHY IT DOESN’T MATTER)
Every year, a few months before San Diego hits, I send out a mass email to about 500-600 comic creators I know. It’s just a quick straw poll to see who’s going to be there. I wanna know who I might want to meet up with, plan events around, and so on.
Over the last four years, I’ve seen many of the “no” answers move from a simple “no” to “Hell, no” to “f**k no!” to “I’m never going to that damn place again in my life.” My perception, which has been reinforced literally hundreds of times, is that the con has simply become something that many creators—arguably, the most important footfalls that could potentially waltz through the door—don’t want it to be. Many cite the crowds. Some cite the madness. Many point to the Hollywood-ification of San Diego, and their perception that the con just doesn’t give a crap about them anymore.
If that’s true, make no mistake—many creators just don’t care about San Diego, either. They’re happy to stay at home and avoid the crowds, madness, and Hollywood-ification. The thing is, you as a fan/consumer don’t know who’s not there. Because it’s very hard to figure out who is there.
The A-number-one marketing point for those “all other” cons in Dallas, Denver or Detroit is, without a doubt, their guest list. Line up a Romita, a Kubert, Joe Quesada and Robert Kirkman, and hot dammit—you got something you can start selling tickets against. Take a look at the ads or the front page of the Website for most comic cons—their big-name comic guests are the first thing you see. Not so for San Diego.
By virtue of its gravity and the fact that you stand a 2% chance of catching a glimpse of Vin Diesel (Pro tip: He’s short! Look low!), San Diego finds itself in the unique position of not having to care about how many comic book creators show up, or arguably, if any show up at all. Their critical mass already extends so far in other directions as to make comic creators irrelevant to their ticket sales for certain, and their overall prestige as well. Believe me: I think Josh Dysart is a brilliant writer and pretty much automatically becomes the smartest man in any room he walks into, but he’s going to lose in a fight to a Hunger Games movie every time.
The experience in San Diego has shifted focus. And guess what? It wasn’t the brown acid. It’s also shifted in space and time.
THE EXPERIENCES YOU HAVE, AND HOW THEY’RE NOW HAPPENING OUT OF TIME
I asked a lot of ticket-buying, rank-and-file consumers why they came to the con this year. Their answers were pretty much sortable into two broad categories:
Most had very specific goals: “I’m here to see the Game of Thrones panel.” “I’m here to see comic artists. I’m an artist. I want to talk to them, and see what makes them tick.” “I want to get the exclusive toys, and make money selling them on eBay” were a few I heard.
A decided minority had more general goals: “We just come very year.” “I dunno. I just wanna walk around, see a lot of stuff, and see what looks like fun,” was one how one man put it.
San Diego has now become a place where you can choose to have a general experience, or a specific experience. Or perhaps more correctly, the experience chooses you.
Panel lines are long, and those lines come with no guarantee. Even if you start lining up to get into a panel two days in advance, there’s no assurance you’ll get to live any part of your specific experience. I spoke to one woman who waited in line for four hours to try to get into the 5000-capacity Ballroom 20 on Friday to see the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. panel. She snaked through lines, and by the time security told her she wasn’t going to get in, she estimated there were still 2000 people in line behind her. “I’m not totally pissed off about it, but I’m not okay with it either,” is all she could say to me. “I’m in the middle on it. Maybe I should have known better.”
As time goes by, the true “knowing better” will be embracing the general experience. Again, Comic-Con is set up to break your heart if your heart is set on getting a Funko POP! Game of Thrones exclusive figure. One man I spoke to dutifully waited in the queuing area upstairs on Wednesday, snaked through lines, walked (briskly) and did not run, and made a beeline for the Funko booth as soon as he hit the show floor. Result? They were sold out for the day already. “I did exactly what they told me, followed all the rules, and I got jobbed,” he lamented. “I did my part. There’s got to be a better way, right?”
Right. It might be a high hurdle to get over to divorce yourself from the One Special Something you just have to get, but the pursuit is a mug’s game. You’ll lose just as often as you win, and waste a hell of a lot of time in the process. It’s like blackjack without the free drinks.
The specific experience can be tough. The general experience allows for greater freedom through a simpler set of expectations (“I just wanna see a lot of stuff”), greater chance for discovery, and a wider plot of land to discover in. Because yes, Virginia—the con has escaped the confines of the convention center, and that’s a good and necessary thing.
Programming and events have spilled over into the Bayfront Hilton and the Marriott Marquis. Tendrils snake throughout the city, as parties happen throughout the Gaslamp Quarter, and even Stone Brewing five miles away. I spoke to one of the floor managers for Comic-Con, and he said they had identified a staggering 93 events happening in San Diego over the weekend that rode the coattails of the massive wave of humanity descending toward the marina. A perfect example is the Samsung Galaxy Experience, which popped up at Petco Park. For the low, low price of “free” (and getting marketed at) people could swing by the Samsung lounge and enjoy free drinks. “I hung around for hours, had a bottle-and-a-half of red wine and got good and stewed,” one woman said. “Best deal at the con.”
San Diego at con time is now rife with outside events, many free. It allows more people to “have the experience,” a necessary shift, as the con is now at a point where they have an active interest in driving people out of the convention center. Last year, the con did away with a second complimentary admission for Artist Alley table holders—the Alley crowd now must go it alone. Press credentials were severely curtailed this year. And next year, the con will reduce complimentary professional badges by 30%.
At the same time the experience has shifted spatially, it’s also shifting in time. On Sunday night after the con was over, I was passing by a restaurant when I heard someone calling my name. I turned around, and it was a table full of Marvel employees just finishing dinner. I joined them, a group of seven people who worked in editorial or marketing. One remarked, “Hey, did anything happen here? I feel like the weekend’s over and…I dunno. There should have been an announcement or something, right?”
This was the year that San Diego, which used to be a tentpole for announcements, became radio silence. Absent an Untitled Superman/Batman Project announcement, biggee blockbuster news was scarce. Marketers are afraid of the “noise” of San Diego, and they know unless they’re sitting there with four aces, overcoming the din of the con can be almost impossible. Most of the local TV coverage of the con was of the “Holy crap, a lot of people showed up at Comic-Con! Some in costumes! And there was a movie actor!” variety.
Most of the announcements made “at” the con were made on Tuesday, the day before the con, or Wednesday, preview night. We now have a time-displaced pre-con that happens before the con. Then things get crazier from there.
Media-wise, Comic-Con is now the ultimate in “long tail.” Ever since William Randolph Hearst invented a war (and likely before) the journalism game has been dominated by “must be FIRST.” But media is savvy enough not to stamp on its own signal. With so many happenings, 20 new stories on your Website’s front page a day means that 10 will cycle off before anyone even gets a chance to see them. And so, more than a week after the con ended, “new” news (this article included!) was still being rolled out.
But in this day and age of “social media” (a term I still hate, someone please come up with a better one!), we have become a culture of photographers as well. Your buzzing smartphone likely gave you 50 Facebook updates, Instagram snapshots and Tweets from your friends showing you something cool, without much context supplied. We are now having time-disassociated experiences at San Diego which are both the quickest and the slowest, happening at uneven intervals. Don’t know what that pic was from? Wait six days after the con. You can read the news.
AN INTERESTING LET’S-NOT-CALL-IT-A-SOLUTION
As Comic-Con gets more complicated, one potential fix comes courtesy of Chuck Rozanski. I have a simple rule in the comics biz: When Chuck Rozanski speaks, I listen.
Chuck, of course, is the owner/operator of Mile High Comics, a chain of four comic stores in the Denver area and Lord High Poobah of comics’ largest mail-order operation. Mile High boasts over five million back issues in stock, and can hit pretty much every last want or need you have. Chuck has been in the mail order game for 44 years, and has had storefronts for the last 39. In terms of assets, Chuck is easily a millionaire several times over. And he crawls through quarter-boxes at cons on a regular basis.
Chuck has his formula. If he decides he needs to have 20 copies of Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man Annual #2 (Don’t laugh, son! That’s the first appearance of The Rapier!) in Fine or better condition at any given time and his inventory dips to 19, guess what? He goes and finds one more. It seems insane to be millionaire in the quarter boxes, but Chuck has achieved his lofty plateau, in many ways, by being a contrary thinker. Chuck Rozanski is not afraid of a crazy idea. His idea for San Diego? He thinks maybe it should be 11 days.
“This con sells out 100,000 tickets in minutes,” Chuck told me last year. “And there are still thousands more banging on the doors to get it. It takes up the entire convention center, inside and out. It’s spilled over into the Bayfront Hilton. It’s expanded as much as it can in terms of space. The only place it can expand is in time.”
Chuck’s notion is that maybe the con arcs a massive 11 days. You start with a five-day, Thursday-Friday-Saturday-Sunday-Monday session. Tuesday is a day off—just has to be. You conclude with five more days in what is the con’s current format, Wednesday-Thursday-Friday-Saturday-Sunday.
In this, more people are finally accommodated. You can sell, literally, double the amount of tickets. Consumers could buy a five-day ticket for the first or second half, and you could offer some super-packages encompassing all 10 active con days. Chuck mentioned that you could address a certain amount of the old guard comics vs. new school it’s-a-TV-con by shifting focus on programming and events to concentrate different interests in different sections—say, more comics stuff in session one, and more media events in session two. The Tuesday off is a necessary break to allow exhibitors a change to catch their breath, re-supply, and possibly even re-configure sections of the floor for exhibitors who might want to hit one session only.
It sounds crazy. But Chuck has 44 years of being crazy like a fox under his belt. The notion here is carefully labeled “notion.” I’m not sure if Chuck even thinks it’s the best idea. He willfully admits the idea would require some deep thought, and a few more sets of eyes to look it over. And it’s not without its hurdles. The schedule of the convention center itself would obviously come into play. And there’s potentially a very chilling consequence as well.
Just for fun, I bounced the idea of the 11-day Comic-Con off the heads of a few people I know in comics, largely major retailers and publishers. To a man, their responses came back the same: It would be the final nail in the coffin for comics at Comic-Con.
The conventional wisdom is that certainly no retailer, and likely not even the Marvels and DCs of the world, could spend that much time (and $280-a-night hotel rooms) away form their home base and their core business. Nintendo, Mattel, Warner Bros. and Nickelodeon can marshal an army of employees, summer interns and jobbers to keep handing out free posters and tickets for exclusive toys to the masses. They could weather an 11-day war of attrition. But the thing that might blow the roof off of Comic-Con up could kill the “Comics” in Comic-Con.
SOME FINAL BITS AND PIECES
And you are not allowed to kill the “Comics” in Comic-Con. Despite the fact that the empirical reality of what the con is has shifted, the name remains the same. There is power in language. Comics remains, as it needs to.
And that’s the rub: Comics fans feel a propriety, an ownership, over San Diego to an extent that they do not with any other convention, or likely any other institution at all. Maybe it’s the name, the history, or the curious non-profit status the event enjoys. Regardless, this is the place where the fans truly do feel they have their skin in the game. There’s a battle being fought for hearts and minds on Main Street America now that we live in the world of the $1 billion box-office Avengers flick, and the geeks want to make sure Main Street knows what’s at the epicenter. It’s a writer named Stan Lee. A penciler named Jack Kirby. Maybe Dazzlin’ Dick Ayers or Peerless Paul Reinman on inks, who can remember? But it started with a comic book, dammit.
After so many years of struggling to get into the clubhouse, the geeks have inherited the earth, to once again brutalize the oft-brutalized pun. And now that they’re there, they want to make sure their stint at the cool kids’ table lasts a little longer before they’re shunted aside by glitzy Hollywood or the next big-moneyed interest. That’s the inherent conflict we’ve seen ramping up over the last four to five years at Comic-Con International: San Diego.
It’s much good, much bad, and much in a state of flux. To its credit, the organizers host a “Talk-back” panel at the end of every con, and take all the slings and arrows the tired, huddled and Dr. Scholl’s gel-insole masses can dish out. The most common complaint? Lines. Whatchoo gonna do?
At the end of the day, what is Comic-Con’s greatest fault? Creating an event that seemingly everyone wants to go to? There are a lot worse sins that that, including 87% of “reality TV,” whatever Macklemore does next, and the Cool Ranch Doritos Locos Taco (please, anything but ranch, again).
And this year, some things got decidedly better. Was there a new security company? Maybe just some new directives? Last year, multiple exhibitors I spoke to were hectored by security for talking to neighbor exhibitors in the aisles during setup INSTEAD OF BEING INSIDE THE BOUNDS OF THEIR OWN BOOTH, DAMMIT! No such problems this year that I heard of. The “Oh, yeah? Is that really you? Show me some ID” quotient from overzealous security guards was also down by a goodly amount.
And guess what? You can win at Taco Truck Deadpool. One Wednesday nighter lamented that he had missed the boat. A friendly con-attending vet told him, “Eh. Go back on Sunday near closing. See if they have some then.” Sure enough, Sad Wednesday Guy traipsed back to Hasbro and was told, “Sure. How many you need?” (I can’t speak to the Funko Game of Thrones figures, but there’s one small battle won.)
This has been 4000 words on The Beast Men Call San Diego. It’s not C.J. Chivers’ “The School,” but by magazine-y standards, that’s kinda long. And still, we’ve barely scratched the surface. The con remains in a state of flux. Its reality drifts from its mythology. There is much right, and much wrong. Next year, the next step in its fast-acting evolution will act out in whatever manner it acts out, and we will wring our hands again and decry the next Twilight at the door, long-ass lines, unfair exclusives, or whatever the stick-in-the-craw du jour is.
See you here next year.
—You can, should you so desire, “follow Jim McLauchlin on Twitter,” as the kids say. It’s @McLauchlin