Popular Culture

San Diego ComicCon: More is Better, Except When It Isn't

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Last Thursday I attended what was probably my 14th San Diego ComicCon (SDCC) or maybe my 16th. I began attending after I moved to Los Angeles in 1994, but I may have missed one or two, or may not have. I only made it for the one day this year, and had to miss the panel on comic criticism I was scheduled to speak at on Saturday because of other reporting responsibilities. (My hope is that I'll look back on the guidebook in 30 years, see my name, and manufacture pleasing memories of speaking on the panel I missed. In the meantime, you can enjoy the great new book, Best American Comics Criticism, from which the panel was spun off.)

I've seen the event quadruple in attendance over those years, though that growth snuck up on me. When, about 4 years ago, I finally began to get annoyed at how slow and tedious navigating through the exhibit hall had become, I guessed the event had begun pushing 50,000; I was at best half-right.

Like another huge West Coast popular culture festival I began attending after moving to L.A. (and wrote a book about), Burning Man, SDCC is plagued by old devotees (as well as petty carpers who never would have liked it in the first place) complaining the event has gotten too crowded, and drifted too far away from its original core purpose.

For SDCC, these complaints are about how the focus has shifted from comics per se to toys, games, and most damagingly (in terms of the real problem to the complainers, that is, too many of the "wrong type" crowding their party) TV shows and movies of a fantasy bent, or even now of a non-fantasy bent (such as Showtime's Dexter) but with some sort of appeal to fans of twisty genre storytelling.

SDCC and Burning Man have both changed, to be sure. But the core of the change really does mostly come down to the experience getting bigger–meaning that more, many more, people are getting to enjoy the experience, or try to enjoy it. The irony of that is that as more people try to enjoy the experience, the experience inevitably changes in certain ways, even beyond the obvious problems that crowds create, such as the fact that you are now, well, always having to navigate dense crowds (and lines).

Burning Man, for example, has to enforce more rules more picayunely now that its pushing 50,000 folk than it did when there were 4,000 of us there, or 8,000. Similarly, a growing SDCC's security forces have become far stricter about things like sitting down against the wall in the exhibit room or halls, or enforcing a unbending line system for getting into certain panels or talks, some of which you can't even try to get into once they've begun. And I'm sure there is no way in hell a mere attendee could sweet talk his way into the loading dock behind the exhibit hall as I had to do in 1996 when I needed to hand deliver 1,000 copies of the Action Suits 7″ I had issued (starring drummer, and current Reason cartoonist, Peter Bagge) to Fantagraphics, Peter's publisher. The sort of locking down of rules and access that crowds create does effect the overall quality of the experience.

But still. In terms of its core purpose–a place to enjoy presentations, conversations, and shopping related to comic books–SDCC is still thorough, and thoroughly amazing. I get that people learn to love something and want to love it the way it was. A smaller ComicCon, or Burning Man, felt even to me, no enemy of size and growth in general, friendlier in some ways, more human, though I can't help but think a lot of the evanescence of those feelings might have to do with age,  not crowds. I'm just not well connected with the kids having the beer parties on the beach at night as I used to be, or the ones throwing midnight rock shows at nearby batting ranges, and a charming dive bar that isn't going to have 200 people crammed into it any night the Con is around is probably getting further and further away. (I hope they are still out there somewhere. But I won't be enjoying them.)

But for the most part, the haters of these cultural phenomenon for getting too big (nearly every news station in the country seems to treat SDCC's beginnings as a news story) are being petty. SDCC is still a great convention for shopping for original comic art, or old comic books, or new comics, or meeting small press and mini-comic creators, or meeting old favorite creators or watching them talk, or seeing the trade show megaofferings of the big companies; it's still all those things it ever was, plus some more, and more people know about it and are trying to enjoy it. In some respects this is counterproductive, making it a little harder for all of us to enjoy what we came there for; but to condemn SDCC for its success is an unlovely, slam the door behind me mentality not worth endorsing.

As I squeezed out the doors of the Convention Center on Thursday, a couple of teenagers brushed by. One of them, apropos of nothing but the day they had just had, spontaneously exclaimed: "ComicCon is awesome." The other agreed. Then they began bitching about their pal Ryan, not present, who had been a buzzkill all day, failing to grant ComicCon's manifest awesomeness the respect it deserves. I sympathized, and thought that Ryan needs an attitude adjustment. Your ability to tolerate dense crowds, long lines, and attractive and not-attractive people in revealing superhero costumes may vary, but for fans of the popular arts, most assuredly still including comic books and comic art, ComicCon is still awesome, and I expect always will be.

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  1. 2 or 3 years ago was my first ComicCon, so I’m not one to wax nostalgic about the way it used to be. But the way it *was* was too crowded. Not in a gee-its-all-too-mainstream crowded way, but in a its impossible to move in the main exhibit hall, we’re packed in shoulder to shoulder, I’m six feet tall and I can’t see the booth 4 feet away for fuck sake this is goddamn insane way. It was TOO CROWDED. It sucked.

    Then last year, standing in a line outside IN THE SUN for 3 fucking hours to get into the main event hall. Re-fucking-diculous. That tore it, and I skipped this year despite having free tickets and living only a couple hours away in LA. Lines and staking out a seat all day sitting through all the events you don’t want to see just to see the one event you do… That’s their solution. Raise your prices assholes, or sell prices to different sections for fuck sake.

    BTW, You know what else sucked? Inception.

  2. But maybe I’m missing the point of Doherty’s post? Anyway, Inception still sucked.

  3. I prefer the Springfield Bi-Mon-Sci-Fi-Con.

    1. Shit. Beat me to it. Worst. Upstaging. Ever.

  4. kids having the beer parties on the beach

    Sorry but they banned drinking on the beach a few years ago.

    Being a nerd who never got into comics, I don’t have much desire to check out the Con even though I’m a local. I suppose as I get older and creepier I might go check out the nerd girls someday.. but I digress.

    So I don’t know anything about the Con, or Burning Man, but I think there’s a phenomenon that occurs often in the dealings of man. Witness the late-60’s Haight-Ashbury scene – it starts off with dedicated people putting in the effort to establish a creative community of like-minded people. Soon the community becomes noticed, outsiders come in, fail to contribute and just expect to be taken care of. Soon the creators get tired and leave, and all that’s left are a bunch of pissed-off, greedy, self-serving folks.

    1. Soon the community becomes noticed, outsiders come in, fail to contribute and just expect to be taken care of. Soon the creators get tired and leave, and all that’s left are a bunch of pissed-off, greedy, self-serving folks.

      But I’m sure that wouldn’t happen with open borders.

      1. It already happened with closed borders, fool.

  5. Well, count me amongst the petty naysayers. This was the first one I’ve missed in over a decade and I will probably never go again. For me it is the intrusion of non-comic book media into a comic book convention. If I wanted to see the shit that movie studios and television networks have to offer, I would go to a sci-fi or broadcaster’s convention. Part of this is sour grapes, it sucks to see the funny books I know and love morph into the visual abortions that ALL movies and TV shows based on comics become (The Fifth Element is the only adaptation that isn’t unwatchable and that is only due to the astounding job the art department did on the film). Part of this is logistics, I go to (gasp) buy comics and that pleasure is greatly reduced by the huge crowds of the last few years, try schlepping a Mag-Liner full of long boxes through the hordes queuing for The Lost Experience or the Buffy pavilion. The Alternative Press Expo in SF is still a good time though. Chuck Rozanski, owner of Mile High Comics in CO has a great 4 part overview from a dealer’s perspective if anyone is interested.
    http://www.milehighcomics.com/…..71910.html

  6. Way to put that Ryan tool on blast.

  7. I hear they’re making a movie about me.

    1. As long as Torpedo makes an appearance, I’ll be happy.

    2. It SHOULD be about me, dagnabbit.

  8. But there are certain size limits for certain things. Roughly – for a good conversation, 4 people. For a good committee, 12-13. For a face-to-face community, 150. I have seen a lot of clubs and organizations outgrow their original focus and structure, and therefore had to change. This may be good or it may be bad, but it’s still not the same club or group it once was. What you cane to it for may well have disappeared or been diluted with the increase in size. Not all growth is an unmitigated good.

  9. Conventions are weak. Everyone who attends even one is an honorary Furry.

    1. For a poster called Fluffy that sure is a hypocritical insult.

      Do I get to Drink?

      1. OK, you got me there.

        I was kinda trolling with that post.

    2. Sure, you’d say that. You live in BFE, VT. Even the fucking maple syrup convention is 60 miles from you.

  10. If it’s so crowded, won’t additional conventions start?

  11. Success ruins everything.

  12. I’d be pissed if I couldn’t attend my uber-dweeb session because my path was blocked by a thousand pre-teen vampires.

    It’s not that teeny boppers (or Will Ferrel fans, srsly?) shouldn’t have their fun, but it makes no sense to have it in the same place.

    Isn’t the convention center large enough to put comics at one end and Dexter at the other?

  13. ComiCon was worth my time. I’d prefer it if the convention was a bit more focused on what the comic fans actually want and not what Hollywood’s trying to sell us. Ultimately though, it’s about having fun with friends. Getting a hotel suite next to the con, having a party, and stumbling to your room with a bag of swag is an awesome feeling still. NOTE: If you’re gonna drink like me, get a hotel room AT the con, not 1/2 a mile away.

  14. All…Doherty still being a shameless self-promoter. How I’ve missed this place.

    And this legitimate insight into how the size of the crowd affects the type of governance: Don’t any of you anarchists out there think that this might have some relevance to how governments evolve over time due to growths in complexity and externalities?

  15. I’ve been going to Comic-Con since 1991. The exhibit hall has always been crowded on the busiest days, so that’s not really new. The difference now is that fanatics make it much more difficult to get into the panels we want to see. No one was camping out the night before a panel ten years ago. We got into the Raimi Spider-Man panel without having to stand in line for hours. Also, increases in exhibitor prices are squeezing out the smaller exhibitors. For example, Comic Relief did not have a booth this year and Bud Plant’s booth was at least 1/4 the size of previous years and they may not be back at all next year. If similar exhibitors were taking their place, this would not be a big deal. But this is not what’s happening.

  16. Larry-not only was Bud Plant’s booth smaller in size, but so was Fantagraphics. Most of the dealers I spoke with were concerned about whether or not they’d be back next year.

    “SDCC is still a great convention for shopping for original comic art, or old comic books, or new comics, or meeting small press and mini-comic creators, or meeting old favorite creators or watching them talk, or seeing the trade show megaofferings of the big companies; it’s still all those things it ever was, plus some more, and more people know about it and are trying to enjoy it.” Not if those creators and vendors are getting squeezed out by the movie companies and exorbitant booth prices.

    I’ve read several blog posts in the last week by smaller vendors who say that they can’t afford to come back. Comic Con IS changing and I’m not sure if it’s for the better.

  17. It’s a COMIC convention, not the E! convention. The organizers, greedy @$$holes, need to start saying NO to anybody who has ZERO to do with comic books. No video games, no anime, no TV shows, no movies. In fact, if the organizers want to hold a trendy, for-the-shallow convention, then how about talking to E! and holding the E! convention the week following the COMIC convention?

    Or maybe it’s time the Comic Book Industry holds a different convention (i.e. Vegas or Reno or Orange County) and abandon the San Diego Trendy Convention?

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