Comics

San Diego Comic-Con: It's Grown, It's Changed, It's Sold Out, It's Gone Hollywood, It's Still Great

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That the San Diego Comic-Con (SDCC), which happened last weekened, has jumped the shark, gotten too big, sold out, lost its soul, has been bemoaned for many years now.

The reasoning is very similar to complaints that surround another West Coast festival that I started going to the same year I started going to SDCC, 1995: Burning Man. See me blogging yesterday on the latest explosion of "people who shouldn't be going to my little party are going to it, and I'm annoyed" vis a vis Burning Man, regarding Americans for Tax Reform leader Grover Norquist's highly publicized decision to set his tax-cutting feet on the sacred Black Rock Playa.

Since I started going, Burning Man's population has increased by 12x; SDCC's, by at least 4x. (I've been to every Burning Man since 1995, I've missed two or three SDCCs.) As the events have grown—and especially as the types of people going have widened as those numbers have grown—with both events many early adopters feel alienated and annoyed. I personally know many, many people for whom attendance at either might have felt near-mandatory in the 1990s more or less swearing to never go again. And too many of them blame this on the event's changing—particularly on the events' growth or loss of focus.

But I'm here to tell you both events are as awesome as they ever were, never mind the bigger numbers, increased expense, bigger tsuris in even getting tickets to two things whose glories have led them to becoming sold-out shows. (You could buy walkup tickets for both in those hoary old days when I started ruining it for those who had been there before me.)

For sure, increased crowds, by definition, mean increased crowds, and increased crowds can be annoying in and of themselves. At Burning Man, you might be navigating larger crowds of bicyclists as you try to walk, or larger crowds of pedestrians as you try to bike. It might be harder to get front-row to a given art piece burn. There might be less couch space at any given theme camp or the Center Cafe.

At SDCC, the lines to get into anything related to TV or movies or celebrities might now be too long to cope with. Getting a pretzel and diet coke, similarly more difficult. More people might be nudging you as you dig through half-off comics and trades. (I can say, since it's where I spend most of my shopping time then and now, that the crowds around the original art tables are no more dense than before.) In general, moving from here to there might take longer and involve more giant bags full of stuff bumping into you—and your giant bags of stuff bumping into others.

But for those hearkening back to the supposedly glory days when Comic-Con was about comics, and not a clusterfuck of a TV and movie fantasy-geek-industry trade show, it is worth contemplating that everything you ever supposedly liked about it is still there, and even more of it.

The number of independent artists doing serious non-genre work there is the same, or more. The cool indie publishers are still there, with more great work than ever. At pretty much any given moment, you could be inside a not-overly-crowded room listening to panel discussions related to great comic book work and artists of the past and present. It's still an amazing comic book convention--though admittedly one embedded in a larger cultural context.

In my two days at Comic-Con this weekend, I was able to be in a comfortable room and hear speak: Keno Don Rosa, Gilbert Hernandez, Jim Steranko, Paul Levitz, Len Wein, Elliot Maggin, Scott Shaw!, Walt Simonson, Louise Simonson, Steve Leialoha, Mark Evanier, Mimi Pond, Tom Spurgeon, Heidi MacDonald, Gary Groth, and that isn't even all. In just two days.

And in between, visiting original art dealers and getting to touch and ogle original art by Rube Goldberg, George McManus, Berke Breathed, Garry Trudeau, George Herriman, Mike Sekowky, Ogden Whitney, Paul Gulacy, Carmine Infantino, Jack Kirby, Wally Wood, Steve Ditko, Gil Kane,and literally dozens of other masters.

(In an interesting example of SDCC's own organizers perhaps overdoing it with the "we don't even pull a comics crowd anymore" thought, Berke Breathed's panel was in a room that fit only around 200 people; the overflow line I saw trying to get in was nearly four times that number. See, comic artists can be superstars, too! Other comics related panels, with no more than 50 attendees, were in rooms that could have fit 500. It was weird.)

If you are not yourself a comic book obsessive, every single one of those names might mean nothing to you, despite the event's current huge media and Hollywood impact. And that's exactly the point.

For my own self, there's a lot I miss about the old days at both events as well. The easy serendipity of finding congenial pals and, say, enjoying a meal seems to have been sacrificed to chaos and business and just general busy-ness. (Or no one wanting to hang around with me anymore, natch.) The days when a mere Friend of Comics like me, not a certified industry pro, can find himself casually at a simple and easy lunch with Peter Bagge, Dan Clowes, Adrian Tomine, Terry Laban, Jaime Hernandez, Ariel Bourdeaux, and Rick Altergott are probably over. It can be just plain tiring navigating thick crowds all day for days, yes.

But as it has grown, as the movie and TV folk have taken over, the essence of what old comics fans loved about it is still there. The event has certainly changed; yet I suspect for those who now find it an unexciting grind or something they don't even want to think about anymore, it's probably more the person who has changed, not the event. Consider the difference between Christmas when you were 7 and Christmas when you were 17. It may well be that for a sensible adult, nearly 20 years of either event is just crazy. But that doesn't mean the event has degenerated and lost its value. SDCC, for whatever purpose you choose, is still pretty great.