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.

NEXT: Detective Acquitted in Road Rage Shooting

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  1. Did you get the Nerd Flu?

    1. After 16 or so SDCCs I assume its burning in me low-grade constantly.

      1. You’re a carrier, like Typhoid Mary.

  2. 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!, Mark Evanier, Walt Simonson, Louise Simonson, Steve Leialoha, Mark Evanier, Mimi Pond, Tom Spurgeon, Gary Groth, and that isn’t even all.

    “You said Mark Evanier twice…”

    “We really like Mark Evanier.”

  3. Ha. I do like Mark E. But not double. Will fix!

  4. I wonder if the hot guy who dresses up as shirtless Wolverine from the first X-Men movie is still attending. Though that was in 2001, so not sure if he’s still as hot.

    1. The guy who plays Wolverine is like 60 and he is still hot…isn’t he?

      1. He’s only 45! And yes, he is still hot.

  5. I saw more than one of those this year, iirc.

  6. With any scene, the problem is the ratio of participants to spectators.

    This was always a problem before the interwebs, to a lesser extent, but the internet has made it much worse.

    For every participant in your scene (whatever it is), there are tens of thousands of spectators on the web out there. And now they know about it, too. …and they want to watch.

    And a scene that has oriented itself to spectators over time is qualitatively different from an organic scene that sprang up oriented to participants.

    For instance, back in the day, punks didn’t dress up as punks–that’s just the way they dressed. If you’re dressing up as a punk, you might as well dress up like a pirate or a ninja. It’s a costume.

    And it’s weird for people who were legitimate participants way back when, when they walk back into what’s happening now and it’s all geared to spectators.

    Somehow, all of a sudden, you’re not legitimate becasue you didn’t dress up in a Halloween costume?

    I know it happens in every scene of a certain size, and I’m sure there’s still fun to be had once it goes full spectator. But it isn’t the same after it goes. At some point it has to become disco.

    1. Reminds me of an old joke.

      Two girls are walking down the street and one asks the other “What’s Punk?” so the first girl kicks over a trash and exclaims “That’s Punk!”.

      So the second girl goes and kicks over a trash can and asks “So that’s punk?” to which the first girl responds “No, that’s trendy”.

      1. And neither of them picked up the hundred dollar bill lying on the side walk. Amen.

      2. That is great. Thank you for that joke.

        “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.”

        Wow. Bad logistics. I’m a suburb kid with only comic friend fans and there’s no way I’d expect anything less than a thousand for him. Not even close. Funniest mainstream cartoonist the papers had in the 80’s.

    2. This is largely true, but the knowledge about punk and breadth of access is something nobody would have ever even wildly dreamed of pre-interent.

      It’s a blessing and a curse. A curse for the ideological purists and the gatekeepers of information, a blessing for the fans. And, yes, as one of those pre-internet, drive three hours to the record store guys, I miss the real fans. But the knowledge and access today? Overwhelming. Stunning. Worthy. And so the movement, relegated to underground status because of its lack of commercial viability, becomes the critical standard, which is, IMO, right and proper.

      Seriously. Anecdotal point: Do you realize that as a hardcore punk you could barely find Damned Damned Damned as a proper album in the nineties? It was actually hard to find. That’s…been corrected. I think it even wound up on Frontier at one point…my point is, if that album isn’t accessible, everywhere, all the time, there’s a problem.

      1. For me it wasn’t about the recordings; it was about goin’ to the shows.

        Some of my favorite stuff back then was only available as singles and stuff. What they call “Static Age” for instance, now, was only available as singles on 45s.

        Most of the recorded music we’d get was copies of copies of cassettes that chicks, mostly, would put together and circulate. Some of them were plugged into the tape trading network…

        A guy who still does shows from back then, Little Fyodor, used to be a regular commenter here, and he was like a pioneer/legend in the tape trading circuit. Anyway, it wasn’t about the recorded music so much–although if you were out in the hinterlands, that was pretty all you could get.

        It was about the shows!

        And I’m not just saying this about punk rock, although that’s what I was into; I’m saying it about any scene that went from being organic and authentic to spectator driven post internet.

        I understand Burning Man used to put a lot of emphasis on the idea that everyone who attended was expected to be a participant rather than a spectator–to try to stave off that kind of thing. And I think that’s a great idea. But eventually, everything turns into disco.

      2. Post internet, there is no more underground. There are no underground raves. EDC might as well be on television. If the comic store clerk on the Simpsons went to Comic conventions today, he’d be an outsider. That’s the way the world works now.

        Back in the day, I’d go to a show, and I’d think, wow, there’s like 200 people here, and we’re like the coolest people on the planet just for being here. How cool do you have to be to even know this is going on–much less be here? If I had a billion dollars, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else, doing anything else than what I’m doing at this show. We really are the elite!

        It’s not just that I’ll never feel like that again–it’s that post internet, no one will ever feel like that again. You’ll never, ever, ever, ever, be one of the few people in the know ever again, and the spectator audience will always outnumber participants. The new spectator world may never even realize that the organic participant world ever existed. …in every scene.

        The future will be better in some ways, but it’ll be worse in others.

        1. Yeah yeah um no. This is…whining. Pretentious, ex-elitist whining of the no-longer In Crowd. The ‘participant-spectator’ dichotomy is also totally false.

        2. Man, this is just sad–

          Back in the day, I’d go to a show, and I’d think, wow, there’s like 200 people here, and we’re like the coolest people on the planet just for being here. How cool do you have to be to even know this is going on–much less be here? If I had a billion dollars, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else, doing anything else than what I’m doing at this show. We really are the elite!

          Dude, you don’t get to say when ANYTHING has gone disco–because, from this, it’s pretty clear that disco is your speed.

  7. They need to get around to publicly releasing the Avenger’s trailer. How has that not leaked yet?

    1. Since Guardians of the Galaxy is the last MCU film before Avengers 2, I assume the trailer is going to be tacked on to that.

  8. I liked what Colbert said.

    “An orgy of people not invited to the orgy.”

    1. Clearly Colbert’s never been to a con.

  9. Pix of sexy cos-players, or GTFO.

  10. That all sounds great until you talk to people who actually work the comic related booths and realize that most people are priced out of anything but the “exclusives” because of the ever increasing costs both in tickets and hotels.

    “Artist’s Alley” only exists because that’s how Comic-Con retains their non-profit status (which is a joke) and even that is sponsored by DeviantArt these days.

    It’s a false parrallel to compare Burning Man which is essentially when hippies go out to light things on fire and prance around all artsy like and Comic-Con where artists try to connect to and sell their wares to their fans. When you make it to where the artists cannot afford to exhibit in any meaning way (and the price point is quickly getting there if it hasn’t already) and the actual fans of the art in question (comics) can’t get in due to the lottery nature of the passes or the price itself you no longer have a worthwhile comic book convention.

    1. Holy hell I didn’t mean to hit post that quickly. I apologize for the errors in that post.

    2. Comic book prices have risen like 500% above inflation or something ridiculousness.

      If teens (its historic audience) can’t even afford to buy it the art form has already priced itself out of relevance.

      I am honestly surprised an alt publisher has not at least tried to sell comic books at like buck a piece…hell they might even be able to get them back into convenience stores.

  11. (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.)

    Sigh, scarcity of resources strikes again. Back then I was too young to have a job that I could afford a flight to San Diego, then there was a job but no time, then there was time but no tickets…

    fml

  12. My partner goes every year. I went last year with him and pretty much vowed I would never go back — it is just way too many people (they have basically booked the SD convention center’s capacity of 130,000 people the last few years), so it has been thusly dubbed stand-in-line con, which is pretty much what you have to do to see any of the high profile panels or buy any of the more exclusive goods.

    The entire place smells like a gym locker / arm pit after the first day.

    1. So visitors from Chicago will feel right at home?

  13. …e-books are highly price-elastic. This means that when the price goes up, customers buy much less

    I don’t about you, but I’d much rather read two crappy novels at $.99 each that one good one at $2.98.

    Don’t slap me on the head, I already did that. Reading a book is not the same as buying one. This is impracticable, but it would work out better if we could somehow pay for reading the last sentence of a book, not the first.

  14. Do the people that complain about Comic-Con, and to a lesser extent Burning Man, not realize there’s a metric shit ton of comic book conventions (and concerts) all year long?

    Now I know that they probably don’t have the awesome swag bags that SDCC has, but you’ll have a heck of a lot easier time seeing the panels and actually meeting the artist.

  15. Hey Brian,

    What are your thoughts on SDCC suing Salt Lake Comic Con over its usage of “comic con”?

  16. Don’t give up on that casual life of random lunches. The only thing that REALLY prevents it is too tight of a schedule. I am pretty sure Terry Laban would love for you to buy him lunch.

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