San Diego Comic-Con and the Tensions of Market-Induced Growth

In Comic-Cons, as in great nations, there's room for plenty more to live the dream.


San Diego Comic-Con International (SDCC), the country's largest gathering of fans of popular culture, held its 50th convention last month. The sold-out event drew around 135,000 attendees.

This year's Comic-Con dedicated many panels to charting the event's changing style and feel from decade to decade—and the controversies that accompanied those changes. Those arguments ultimately come down to concerns about who the event is for, and whether the sense of ownership felt by an experience's early adopters needs to be acknowledged or respected. Those questions have resonance beyond the seemingly petty cultural hipsterism of "I was into this before it was cool."

SDCC did not began as the country's largest gathering of pop-culture fans. The first "San Diego's Golden State Comic-Con," as it was known in 1970, drew 300 people paying $3.50 to a three-day event in the then not-very-top-flight San Diego hotel, the U.S. Grant downtown. (It was never held there again, and now fills, or overfills, the city's enormous waterfront convention center.)

The most prominent guests were comic-book legend Jack Kirby and—showing that the event always had room for the world beyond comics—science fiction writers Ray Bradbury and A.E. Van Vogt. A promotional flier for the inaugural conventional, drawn by then-fan-now-pro Scott Shaw! (who runs panels at Comic-Con to this day), showcased the gamut of comics culture, from superheroes (Superman) to newspaper strips (Snoopy) to the undergrounds (R. Crumb's Mr. Natural) to animation (Mickey Mouse). Within a couple of years, allied fandoms, including Tolkien fanatics and the Society for Creative Anachronism, were added to the mix.

Hotels considered comics conventions unattractive at the time, because comics fandom trended so young that many of the guests weren't legally able to rack up much revenue at the bars.

Early adopters of cultural trends often lament the changes that come when "their thing" gets a bigger and broader audience. Comic-Con has had this shadow over it for a while now, as the event's 450-fold growth in its five decades would indicate. Five years and 5,000 attendees ago, I wrote a ringing defense of SDCC as a comic book convention even as it had become so much more than that: a comic book convention embedded in a far larger genre-media convention.

Hollywood interests started moving in on SDCC long ago, from a preview of a Sinbad movie in 1974 to pre-release hype for Star Wars in 1976. The hype over the 1989 Batman movie helped cement the now overwhelming connection between comics fan culture and big Hollywood culture, By the time Angelina Jolie showed up in person to promote Tomb Raider in 2003, the die was cast; the very next year, not coincidentally, attendance leaped 35 percent.

As someone noted on one of the historical panels, SDCC is now best conceived as a series of small-tent conventions held simultaneously under one big tent. The focus of the different small tents run the gamut from superhero comics to art comics to Star Wars to ball-jointed toys. (I had to look those up myself.) While I have seen no reliable polling data on attendees' ranges of interest, watching where the crowds go over the past 25 years leads me to guess those most interested in comics per se are outnumbered at least five to one by those more interested in movies, TV, and toys. This makes many old-timers complain about how their special thing has been swamped by outsiders.

Filmmaker Kevin Smith straddles the line as a comics fan who runs a comic shop but is famous for making movies; he hosts yearly panels in a 6,000-capacity hall essentially just to shoot the shit. He groused this year at a smaller panel dedicated to discussing the state of SDCC in the 21st century at the absurdity of an earlier wave of anti-outsider anguish when Twilight fandom began descending on the con. Calling back to a now-outmoded cliché about the nerdy end of fandom, Smith said it was foolish to mock the sparkly vampire fans since they skewed more female, and "Mars needs women, guys!" (The under-30 portion of the crowd actually skews more female than male these days, and the entire body of the convention is about equal in gender mix.)

Science fiction novelist Greg Bear is one of the small gang of San Diego–based fans who got the con rolling half a century ago. At a panel this year, he remembered that back then fans of this sort of culture were considered "not part of this planet." That's why cons like this were invented—as a hard-to-find lifeline to other smart, simpatico minds yearning to learn as much as they could about whatever fantasy, science fiction, or comic art they doted on. Remembering one early SDCC attendee, superfan Forrest Ackerman, Bear said Ackerman's goal was to "make more people like himself that he could talk to." Bear still waves his fan-freak-flag high, stopping himself and choking back tears remembering how much the novels of Olaf Stapledon meant to him as a kid.

But who are "people like yourself" in the tent of fannish tents? That's the sticking point. Things can get complicated when you are thrust in a tight space with people whose nerdy obsessions don't match yours. Smith joked about seeing a bunch of people dressed as Klingons sneering at the lame geeks striding by dressed as stormtroopers.

On one of this year's historical panels, Barry Short, a longtime SDCC worker and a former comic shop owner, described the vast crowds attracted to the con as a clear victory, the promised land all the lonely geeks of decades gone by had been fighting for. Their culture was no longer mocked and hated! Their tribe had grown beyond imagining! But one detail that he chose to highlight was telling—that it was no longer hard to find T-shirts featuring Marvel superheroes.

That sort of thing would not be any kind of victory to, say, indie cartoonist Mary Fleener, who on a historical panel remembered fondly the days in the 1990s when she and a few fellow independent artists could pool money together for a table that cost less than $400 and profit selling their homemade mini-comix. Her tribe was different than Short's; they just awkwardly co-existed in the same grounds.

Comics are not just the root of the biggest Hollywood blockbusters; they're a newly respected part of American literary culture. The artists and writers responsible for that aren't necessarily obsessed with superhero T-shirts. But even that conclusion was complicated at a SDCC panel starring Chris Ware, author of Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, one of the linchpins of modern literary comics. He admitted, in his self-lacerating sad-sack way, that as a nerdy, scared, hated kid in school, if he found anyone else who shared in any way his tortured love and fascination with crummy Mego toy figures of comics characters, he'd want to hold them close—too close for their comfort.

Comic-Con is filled with people who both seek validation in their manias and mistrust the manias next door, whether those neighboring fandoms seem to bring down the cultural property values or try to make them annoyingly highbrow.

No matter how pollyannaish you want to be about change and growth, more people in an experience makes for a different experience. Such changes may come to the benefit of the newcomers but the detriment of old-timers.

Gilbert Hernandez, co-creator of the Love and Rockets series and one of the greatest producers of comics and American literature for decades now, lamented on a panel the passing of the days when people could still just show up as a walk-in, which allowed more of what he fondly remembers as the groovy underground contingent that made the atmosphere more festive and interesting for him in the 1980s. Other old-timers remembered with sadness the days when one could reasonably guess that nearly everyone they might want to socialize with after hours would be at the same hotel lobby, pool, or bar, or have easy access to hobnob with even the most famous of guests. I know the circumstances of mellow smallness that allowed me in the 1990s to find myself at an impromptu lunch with a bevy of comics superstars—Peter Bagge, Daniel Clowes, Adrian Tomine, Ariel Bourdeaux, Rick Altergott—will never happen again.

That theme of growth being good for some and bad for others was made quite explicit in a panel dedicated to some of the more iconic exhibitors over the con's history, two of whom discussed how in the past few years, after decades of faithful service to the fans, they decided to stop paying for tables.

Bud Plant, whose national business of selling comics-related books and art grew in lockstep with SDCC, merely noted that a couple of years back he stopped paying for tables because "the new crowds are here for other reasons than buying my sort of book." Chuck Rosanski, of the nationally known comic shop operation Mile High Comics, complained about bad service and a table rental cost that went from $40 when he began to $18,000 when he stopped. But he also felt that SDCC sold out its core constituency by ending a practice where attendees on the last day of the event were able to buy advance tickets to next year's con. Being a legacy badge-holder still gives you access to a special sale in which about half the tickets are available before the general public gets to compete for the other half. But being a legacy is no longer a shoo-in to return.

To Rosanski, it is "heinous to disenfranchise those who care most" with this way of rationing the now-precious tickets. But mostly he admits he's just "sad my people aren't there anymore."

Yet on the same panel, Maryelizabeth Yturralde of the San Diego bookstore Mysterious Galaxy said she's managed to keep making money at SDCC where these old-school comic book people have not. She did it by moving in the young adult fiction world that attracts more actual young people than comic books do now. The fact that such new young people have a chance to attend SDCC instead of just Rosanski's legacy old pals is her business' lifeblood.

At a couple of panels, some dealers in underground comix talked about experiences that I imagine everyone is glad seem to be a thing of the past: Sunday raids by vice cops looking to bust dealers for selling obscene comics, stickers deployed at the last minutes to cover naughty bits of art, and some books just slid under tables as the cops made their rounds. SDCC brings in nearly $150 million to the local economy now so such harassment is unlikely moving forward. (Artist Charles Vess at a panel remembering the first con told a drippingly ironic story of an encounter with cops that year telling him his kind wasn't wanted in San Diego.)

It's healthy to remember that the world is not anyone's personal possession to shape according to their desires, even when you might feel waves of nostalgia over the days when SDCC didn't mean constantly pushing through dense crowds of people with giant heaving DC-branded bags (and always for TV shows, not actual comic books!), or when security didn't regularly bark at you to "Keep it moving!," or when your pathway to a comics creator panel with a crowd of 60 wasn't blocked for five minutes to make room for a crowd of more than a thousand heading toward a panel about a TV show.

This longing to close the gates may be irresistable, but it is not harmless. It's the same attitude, writ small, that makes the politics of immigration and the politics of population ugly, this idea that you have the right to maintain the way the world shaped itself around you when fewer "outsiders" were around. We share the world with others, and the lines of our property are always more narrowly defined than we might want. Slamming the door behind you is not an option, and it is graceful to recognize that.

Everyone who wants to have a good attitude about the convention's growth can tell anecdotes about how often they hear random people in the hall gushing about how amazing something they just saw was, or seeing teens geeking out gleefully over a longbox full of the comic books they were able to find and buy there.

That doesn't mean mourning your past and experiences so changed you can't recognize them is illegitimate. But SDCC remains the most copious gathering of fellow fans, entertaining panelists, and well-stocked dealers of art and artifacts to meet your comics needs—as long as that need isn't to be segregated from the many thousands of other people there for their own reasons.