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.