More Thoughts on Comic Con

Ryan brought up some really good points, and sparked a few more thoughts of my own!

ryannorth:

One thing he talks about is the hard-core superhero fans you mentioned above, the ones buying the tickets and lining up for panels for 10 hours: at least for print comics (superheroes, mainly) these are a dying breed.  These fans are getting older, and new fans aren’t replacing them as quickly as they’re dying off.  There’s exceptions (Twilight brought a bunch of people into Comic Con in 2011, AND this was a largely female audience in stark contrast to the superhero tribe) but even this was met with derision from the “hard core” base, who see them as impostors, and not true fans.  Twilight sucks, right?  And it’s Comic-Con, not Movie-And-Fantasy-Con, right?  This “You are only a true fan if you can recite back 40 years of Captain America continuity revisions” attitude is what can make that culture toxic.

Anyway, his point was that it’s not sustainable.  DC and Marvel’s monthly comic print sales are not what they used to be, and Hollywood licensing has filled that gap for a long time.  But popular tastes aren’t going to be for superhero movies forever, and this current boom in superhero movies started with X-Men in 2000 has to end sometime.  

Maybe that means in a few years Comic-Con shrinks a little, and with extra room, the casual comics fan can stop by on Saturday and check things out by buying a ticket at the door and without having to get a hotel in the city months and months in advance.

I have to say that I disagree with this prediction. That particular cadre of Comic-Con attendee may shrink, but attendance won’t. Because at this point, I don’t know if that cadre of Comic-Con attendee is even the majority anymore.

I mean, maybe it is, because who else would manage to get tickets? But still, in thinking about this today and talking with friends who attended — but who don’t care about comics — I have no other choice but to believe that the greater pop-cultural forces that Comic-Con represents now are simply bigger than comics ever were or will ever be again.

The articulate and thoughtful Tom Spurgeon, who’s been to more cons than I have, put it better than I could:

A thing I enjoy about San Diego is that it takes place in this bewildering array of Things I Could Never Enjoy. I don’t understand the costume impulse. Lines give me the hives. I don’t want to take endless photos of people dressed up as superheroes. I would never willingly spend an hour watching trailers and then listening to people stumble through worshipful questions of celebrities because I figure there will be plenty of that in Hell. There’s relatively little in San Diego I would take home with me were it free. And yet I don’t have any more right to decide what that show is all about than the first-time visitor from Staunton, Virginia that wants to buy some steampunk art and maybe be in the same room as Jensen Ackles. It’s good to remember that.

I talked to two friends who attended the con this year. Both work in Hollywood; neither are big into comics, and both attended on pro badges secured from work. So they may not represent the typical attendee, but as I mentioned earlier, pro badges nonetheless make up a large part of the crowd, and at this point represent more of the “casual congoer” crowd than regular badges. I also think these folks’ opinions are relevant simply because their perspectives are so wildly different from my own.

Person #1, who works in a creative capacity, attended most of the con, mainly hanging out with friends from work. She visited my booth and checked out the webcomics section, but didn’t find much that caught her eye. She also walked around the Artist Alley, and was more interested in some of the art and crafty stuff than in any comics.

She’s a fan of pop culture shows like Futurama and Firefly, so she tried to check out some panels, but wasn’t able to get into many of the bigger ones, so she was disappointed about that. And though she doesn’t follow comics, she did enjoy the Avengers and Iron Man movies, so she picked up a sort of best-of collection of Iron Man from the 70’s “to try and catch up.” She looked at some more modern Iron Man comics, but they didn’t seem as interesting.

She also bought some art books and pop-culture-character doodads, and indicated that she’d have just as much fun at the con if it was only about the big-media stuff and there were no comics at all. She liked the celebrity panels as well as some of the hands-on craft panels that weren’t about comics in particular.

She also really enjoyed looking at all the costumes, and overheard a few mocking comments of the “look at these stinky nerds” type from exhibitors, which she found disrespectful and arrogant.

Person #2 works in marketing at a network. She attended the con for two days and spent most of that time at industry events outside the con floor itself — either at meetings, or parties, or networking events. She characterized the con as a cool place to get to hang out with colleagues who may live in different cities but come in for the show, and a good opportunity to do face-to-face business. And in addition to participating in the general business conducted between executives, her network is also involved in marketing at the con itself — for example, doing branded sponsorships of pedicabs.

She spent just a few hours on the con floor, and described it as “completely overwhelming, but amazing.” She also enjoyed the costumes, as well as the chance to examine this slice of fandom in a sociological sense. She quickly decided that it’d be too difficult to try and find anything in particular on the floor, so she just browsed for a while, eventually buying a T-shirt with a pop culture character on it. She was unable to attend any of the bigger panels but did check out a few smaller ones (including one featuring a TV creator she liked). She doesn’t follow comics and had no real interest in checking out any comic-specific stuff at the con.

Both people said they enjoyed the experience and hoped to be back next year!

SDCC must be regarded as something other than a comics convention. SPX is a comics convention; TCAF is a comics convention. SDCC is something that occupies the liminal space between Sundance, Burning Man, and a Renaissance Faire. (Maybe you could call it Nerding Man.)

I think the Renaissance Faire comparison is most apt. You don’t attend a Ren Faire necessarily with the aim of buying an ocarina or some kind of blown glass artifact; you go to see people in costume, watch a joust, and eat a turkey leg. You go for the spectacle and the experience, and you usually go with an open mind. I think that’s how lots of people attend SDCC — just to see what’s there to see. It’s an amusement park.

And that’s something smaller creators like myself sometimes forget, because for us it’s very specifically a business. I don’t have another job. I need to make money at this thing or I can’t pay the rent. And everything in San Diego is so astronomically expensive — the booth, the lodging, the food, the parking — that we’re usually starting off the week four figures in the hole, every time. That’s a recipe for anxiety and bitterness.

I was doing some bookkeeping today, and I glanced at last year’s SDCC sales figure, and I nearly choked out an involuntary sob. Last year was dismal for me in San Diego, for a lot of reasons totally unrelated to the many kind people who came and saw me and bought books and shirts. But this year looks to have been better, and hopefully next year will be better still. We figure this stuff out, because we gotta.

Tom Spurgeon again:

Too much attention has already been given to people quitting Comic-Con after this year, basically pros for whom the show doesn’t work right now. I expect a few more people to engage this year’s “I’m out” class as if they’re the first ones. In actuality, people have been checking out of that show for years; it’s not a new thing. Adapting to a show that’s changed this much is going to include a component of people walking away. I still find it an incredibly useful industry and fun comics show, and I think others can, too. The things that have worked best about the convention the last five years have come from people striving to improve what goes on there; I think Comic-Con itself could take a lesson from that and become more active in shaping the comics portion of their show.

Wandering the show floor, seeing the indie artists, and talking with some of them, I get the sense that a lot of their stuff isn’t resonating with the people who’re browsing. Sometimes this is attributed to the show “not being about comics anymore” or “being choked out by Twilight fans.”

I…guess that’s true? But I’m a comics fan and I don’t like their stuff either. The challenge of San Diego, if your goal is to make money, is to sell to this crowd, to match what you have with what they want, or at least what will catch their eye as they wander stupefied down the center of the aisle. I suppose that sounds crass and gross in a way, but who among us is owed a living? SDCC, at this point, isn’t more yours than it’s anyone else’s. If it’s not working out for you, there are a hundred people on the waitlist who’d love your booth.

That said, I am glad that there are people out there who are still plugging away on their comics come hell or high water, who love their craft so much they’ll take a bath every year just to be a part of the event. I’m glad that they exist in the same way that I’m glad that the people who make life-sized LEGO replicas of dinosaurs exist. And neither of them affect my business one way or another.

I don’t know the best way to ensure that the best mix of people get their hands on the limited number of attendee badges. I don’t know if Hollywood is wasting money marketing at Comic-Con — though even if their panels are all just ultimately fanservice, a horseback joust for the fans to cheer for, I don’t see what’s so wrong with that. I resent a lot of the inconvenience and expense of the entire rigmarole, not to mention the physical toll it takes on my body. Yet I thoroughly enjoyed myself this year in a dozen different ways.

This is a complicated experience.

Last year I attended my first World Science Fiction Convention, or Worldcon. SDCC was born, forty years ago, out of the fandom community, and was probably patterned a bit after Worldcon (as have most all fan cons been over the last seventy years). Worldcon is nominally a gathering of science fiction fans, but that umbrella spreads to include fantasy, slipstream and horror, steampunk, and similar genres as well. It’s a completely volunteer-run organization, limited to a few thousand dedicated attendees, and it moves from city to city every year.

It doesn’t have a strong pop-culture component like SDCC or Dragon*Con; it prides itself on being a bit more literary. However, the thing that completely blindsided me (coming from the comic convention world) was the social component of this convention: the programming and the dealer activities all occur during the day, and then when the con ends, the parties begin.

Entire floors of hotels throw open their doors; hallways fill with people engaged in conversation; knots of congoers fill couches in lounge areas. Everyone leaves their badge on after hours — a thing that never happens at comic conventions. And people talk! Pros, fans, writers, editors, readers, vendors — they all just hang out and talk. All night long.

Fan conventions were born out of a need for this connection: before the Internet, before Twitter, even before newsgroups and fanzines, the conventions were what brought like minds together. People showed up to meet other people like them. That is the heart of conventions — finding like minds; seeing something you love and finding other people who love it just as much.

And Comic-Con still has the power to do that. It’s by no means the only medium for it, anymore, but there’s still few things that can compare to seeing your favorite celebrity in the flesh on a panel, or shaking the hand of a creator you admire, or meeting a fan and making them smile, or finding the one piece of merch that speaks to your interest specifically. Comic-Con still enables that, and I’m privileged to be a part of it.

It is still about comics, hundreds and thousands of them — and the cool thing is that it’s about everything else, too.