Is San Diego Comic-Con Dead for Comics?

All I heard about Comic-Con this year is that the final line had been crossed, and the giant media entities had taken over San Diego, leaving comics a dusty, heaping shroud of its former glory; the name of the show, nothing but an empty honorific at this point.

A couple of years ago, I was booked for a radio spot on the Mark and Brian Show in Los Angeles. It was scheduled for about 8 AM on Thursday, the first day of Comic-Con. I was pitched to them as a comic book expert (hold your laughter, please) and I was pretty excited.  It’s kind of a terrible show, but it’s a big ass radio show in LA.  The first question was, “what celebrities are going to be at Comic-Con this year?”  I had no idea.  It went downhill from there.  I was here to talk about comics, wasn’t I?  They couldn’t have cared less, and the segment got shut down pretty quickly, and I got hung up on.

It happened again this year, but with a Los Angeles NPR station, who contacted us to talk to them about Comic-Con.  This time, I said up front, “I know comics, and that’s what I can talk about.”  They said fine, and then emailed me an hour before the recording asking the general question “What’s going on in comics right now?”  I sighed, and sent them some basic bullet points, leading with the release of Scott Pilgrim Vol. 6, which I considered to be the book of the convention.  They called me up, and asked me all the things I’d just listed out for them, except Scott Pilgrim, focusing on Superman and Wonder Woman instead.  Then they didn’t use it.  Maybe I was a bad producer, or maybe they just decided that most people don’t care about the actual comics.  You’ve only got to watch any of the news reports on Comic-Con to see what they actually focus on. There are all those "crazy costumes" to talk about instead. (UPDATE: They may not have used the NPR interview on air, but part of it is online.)

The incursion of Hollywood and the Games industry (or as I call it, “the left side”) on Comic-Con International is certainly a reality.  The crowds are largely there to see celebrities, and be the first to see new footage of eagerly anticipated movies and TV shows.  There’s no doubt that the draw of catching a glimpse or sharing some floor with the cast of some new mega blockbuster is the real reason behind the 6 figure attendance numbers.  The giant Warners or SyFy themed bags dominate the space, and because of these people, honest, hardworking comic books fans have to go through the torture of the insidious “hotel day” when you have no idea if you’ll even get a room within flying distance of the convention.  

There’s also the sometimes ugly intermingling of the 2, where some celebrity who either has a genuine interest in comics, or just sees some mostly fictitious profit or marketing opportunity, aligns themselves with a comic book company, and 9 times out of 10 fails to make any splash outside of the pre-marketing buzz and ridiculous lines of people willing to pay for the comic in order to get that autograph or handshake from that guy in the TV show. This has happened a lot over the last five years, and outside of the amazing comedy of MAYHEM and the actual wonderful comic book, Umbrella Academy, I’ve lost count of how many terribly incarnations of this we’ve seen.

Then there’s the “right side” of the convention floor. That’s the one where you buy stuff.  That’s the side where the modern incarnation of speculation still looms large.  You want graded comics, rare figures, or whatever, and it’s yours for a price.  That price is usually lower on Sunday, but still.  This is the spot where the people can buy all the knick-knacks and trinkets the heart desires.  I secretly harbor the suspicion that comic book themed merchandise makes more revenue than actual comic books do at the show, and that movie and TV themed merchandise dwarfs even that.  

In between these two sections is comic books, right in the middle.  And when I say comic books, I mean all of comic books.  The fact is, there is no place or time on earth when more of comics are gathered in one place.  If comics were dead at San Diego Comic-Con, I couldn’t have told you.  If you’re a die hard comic book lover, you would never have had to leave the aisles in the middle, and you could have met, glimpsed or gotten work from almost everyone still alive and working in comics today.  We shot an enormous number of interviews, and I honestly feel like we didn’t even scratch the surface.  We could have shot 2 or 3 times what we did, and not even touched it.  No matter what comics you are into, they were at San Diego.  Sure, they were surrounded by Thomas Jane and Nathan Fillion fans (I’ll grant you some crossover), but they were there.  Maybe they’re not the center of attention anymore, and maybe they’re not doing the same kind of show they once were, but comics are the center, and to lose this enormous gathering of comics would be a terrible loss. It’s here that people in comics, luminaries of the paneled page actually meet one another, and form relationships, and those relationships lead to comics.  I saw it happen, and in a couple situations, I think we even facilitated it.  The digital community that’s developed in comics is one thing, but the evenings at the Hyatt? Those are legend.  At that point, at midnight, when Stan Lee, after emergency dental surgery drops in on the crowd at the Hyatt to a roaring ovation, comics are king.  There are other parties and celebrity gatherings and to-dos, but comics do it best.  

And the fact is, Hollywood kind of pays for it.  Marvel didn’t get bought by Disney because of the Secret Invasion sales.  There just aren’t enough comic readers to make comics worth that much money.  It occurs to me every once in a while that if we’d been able to do this website and everything to do with it 15 years ago, I’d likely have a very different bank account.  But the flipside is, the people who are in comics are in comics because they love it.  There’s no other real incentive, because the money’s not there, nor is the fame.  There’s some of each, but you’ve got to love comics to put up with it.  So, those Warner Bros. bags running around all over the floor, hanging on the shoulders of people who have waited in line to get “Chuck’s” autograph for 3 hours, you can thank them, because they make comics possible, in their own way.  Those Twilight fans people complained about last year? They played their part in making this possible.  Maybe they buy a few comics while they’re there? You never know.  Yes, they’re annoying and the place is crowded, but it’s the price comic fans pay to get all of comics there, in one place.  If it’s not your scene, there are plenty of other conventions to attend.  But make no mistake that, in so many ways, it’s good for comics in general.

Plus, I had a boatload of fun, and my week was all comics.

Comments

  1. Let’s just hope that the NYCC stays primarily about comics.  

     

    the Tiki 

  2. I was thinking the same thing about NYCC.  I hit San Diego several times between ’92 and 2000, but don’t have much interest in what it seems to be like now.  NY is probably 80% comics, but still large and varied enough to feel like a "big" con. 

  3. YES, NEXT QUESTION! 

  4. It’s sort of a paradox regarding actual comics and SDCC. On the one hand, it’s the biggest showing of "all things comic book" in the world. On the other hand, right around that little isle of actual comics you have a gigantic sea of movies, tv and other pop culture. It’s sort of like someone is saying "Hey, I bet you think your little island of comics is pretty big, right? Pfft. Look around you: movies make comics look small, and now they’re right in your face invading your convention."

    I haven’t gone to San Diego in quite a few years. I’m sure if I had a ton of industry connections and knew right where to go when, then the experience would be awesome. But as an outsider, the whole thing seems like the last place I’d ever want to go. I don’t even like hype WITHIN the comics industry, so to see the whole "comic" con overwhelmed by hype about OTHER media is disgusting to me. Even something like the hype for the Green Lantern movie–Why do we need SDCC to focus on that when Entertainment Weekly already is? It’s like: There was once this little trade show about a lovable niche hobby; and now that trade show serves as an big live-in advertisement for mainstream Hollywood. Does the growth of the SDCC prove how appealing comics have gotten (despite flat sales), or does prove how mainstream companies have utterly conquered comics?

    This is running long, so let me just mention Bill Simmons. He’s an ESPN personality with a popular podcast. Half the time he doesn’t even talk about sports; he’s more into shilling for whatever is big, loud and obnoxious in popular culture at the moment. (Yeah, I’m down on him at the moment, but he’s actually pretty entertaining sometimes.) Anyway, one thing that always bothered me about Bill Simmons is how every now and then he would sort of make tangential comments insulting comic book fans and fanboys of all stripes. I remember a year or so ago he casually asked the rhetorical question "Are movies based on comics the worst thing in the world?" Anyway, a few days ago I saw a description of Bill Simmons’ latest podcast, and in it apparently he talks about Comic Con. If Bill Simmons is doing a segment about Comic Con, then Comic Con is dead for comics. Because there’s no way that guy would ever, ever in a million years care about anything whatsoever connected to the actual comics medium.

  5. Off topic but whoever took that first photo has a good eye.

  6. It’s not a binary thing, just because there’s a lot of Hollywood stuff doesn’t mean there isn’t still a ton of comics stuff.  There was some discussion about this at the 11 O’Clock forums and the good Mr. Siuntres had a good roundup of just how comic centric it is.  Even if you ignore all the non comic stuff it’s STILL the biggest comic convention.

    (here’s John’s thoughts: http://bullpenbulletinspodcast.com/forum/index.php?topic=9207.msg212999#msg212999)

  7. I like this man’s style, read what he says:

     http://www.iwilldestroyyounews.blogspot.com/

  8. The story about that first radio interview makes me really annoyed, but I’ll spare you all my ranting. For now.

    Some harsh truths in this article. But not necessarily unpleasant ones.

  9. I heard James Robinson on another podcast talk about how when Comicon was ONLY comics, half the convention hall was empty and blocked off. Now the other stuff just fills up that space, and like Josh says, it pays for the whole deal.

    @froggulper–Bill Simmons makes fun of EVERYONE. Thats his schtick. He does things like compare D-wade to Batman and Lebron to Robin, and dedicates entire podcasts to talking about LOST and other shows. He’s a HUGE pop culture junkie. The guy has a ridiculous following, i don’t think it a bad thing if he’s having a conversation about comics and comi-con even if its negative. Why does everyone’s opinion have to be blind praise? There’s no such thing as bad publicity.

  10. Thanks Gobo,

    I wholly agree with Josh. I can see how it can look like comic-con isn’t really about comics anymore, but that is just plain wrong. 

    I talked to Ron about this this weekend, and frankly after being away from the con for 08 & 09, I was very pleased to see that despite the perception that it’s all about the films and TV, there were still 220 hours by my count of pure comic-centric panels and presentations over the 4 days. I’m not including the animation TV or film tie-ins in my count. 

    Many of these panel subjects were things that ONLY happen at SDCC. Great oral histories from golden silver and bronze age creators and experts of the eras, legal arguments about creator rights, master classes in art coloring and writing, digital AND web comics ( 2 very different things) how to break in discussions, comic strip histories, 7 non-competing hours of comic retailer panels on friday, the eisners, and the usual 6 hours of kids focused fare on sunday .

    It’s like I said after experiencing my first san diego, comic-con is whatever the attendee wants it to be. You can be an anime fan and enjoy 4 and a half full days of anime centric events, without ever seeing one minute of tv stuff.

    Same goes for comics. 

  11. The point about panels is a great point, and I think I meant to make it.  That would never happen anywhere else.  You’ve got to share the aisles with other fans, but if comics is what you want, comics were there.  In force.

    When it comes to news, the news coming out of san diego wasn’t much to do with comics at all. But when is that what’s important about a convention?

  12. Plus the reports on comic centric panels are starting to trickle in, as they typically do in the weeks that follow comic-con, once the news sites are finished beating the Film and TV news to death. 

    DC has 23 of their SDCC panels available as podcasts at itunes.  Still waiting for marvel…

  13. This is a great example of how Brand Equity can sometimes work against you. It would make logical sense if they just gave the whole thing a more accurate title like "San Diego Pop Culture Con"…but they just can’t do that for so many reasons.

  14. I had a great time at SDCC this year. I’ve been going since ’03 and while it has become a little more about movies and games Comics are still the shining feature. My Friend and I dressed up for the first time this year on Saturday where we went to the Cup O’ Joe panel and got to meet Joe Quesada (great guy), then later when we were in the hall Matt Fraction came up to us and informed us that everyone (bendis, Loeb,Joe,  etc) loved our costumes. If it wasn’t for comics we wouldn’t have had those encounters so i still believe if you enjoy comics SDCC is still a great place for Comic. And the Movies and Games well thats just icing because i think most of us enjoy that stuff too.

  15. I agree that it can be generally said to be good for comics that so much attention gets paid. Even of for the ‘wrong’ reasons. I disagree that gathering so much talent in one place is useful to anyone but media. All week I saw creators complain about not having time to work or network at the site. The lines are too long and tedious for a non-media fan to get access to any creator for more than a minute. Like everything in life there are two sides to everything.

  16. @zombox – That really depends on who you’re talking about. Maybe Jim Lee or Brian Bendis, but there were plenty of creators of all stripes ready and available all over. People got sketches and commissions from tons of guys. I saw it.

  17. Wondercon has some Hollywood presence, but nothing compared to SDCC. I had my first Wondercon experience this year, and I will definitely be returning next year. It felt like the Comic-Con I fell in love with all those years ago.

    Before the dark times. Before the empire.

  18. I love the DC podcasts.  Makes me ‘part of’ SDCC in a little way. 

  19. Honestly, I don’t really care about SDCC. I made a last minute decision not to go last year, and a firm choice not to this year. Doesn’t seem worth it at all.

    I like Wondercon fine. Don’t kill it Hollywood. The amount of Hollywood presence at it right now is just about perfect.

  20. Isn’t that why the word con is there?

  21. @where can i find the DC SDCC podcasts?

  22. The point is that the money is in the movies and games, not in publishing comics. Welcome to reality.

  23. Comic Con is the biggest time of the year for me and the one time a year I take a vacation. I’m into video games and movies as much as the next guy but comic’s are still my passion. Yes the floor has a lot of movies and video games and all that but when you get down to it the heart of the whole thing is comics. I spend most of my time on the left side of the convention floor but I do venture over to the other side,if I didn’t head over to the right side I would miss Mr.Toast, Ugly Dolls, and artist alley. It’s a shame that people are getting upset about the comic aspect of the show because the Con has grown but it still has that special feeling it always has. I took my 9 month old son for the first time this year and dressed him up as Yoda one day, we went everyday from open to close. When it comes down to it if it makes you that upset stop complaining and don’t go because there are a 100 people waiting in line behind you for your ticket.

  24. @wallythegreenmonster

    http://www.dccomics.com/dcu/downloads/

    towards the bottom of the page..

  25. To follow up on the guy talking about Bill Simmons talking about Comic Con on his podcast. Simmons wasn’t bringing it up as a point of interest. The only reason it came up was he had tv critic Alan Sepinwall on. And Sepinwall had just gone to Comic Con to cover the tv stuff. Simmons made a crack asking if there were any women there. Then when Sepinwall (who is an admitted comic book guy himself) said it was prob 40% women, Simmons was flabbergasted. I don’t think Simmons for a second realized just how big of a mainstream event it is.

  26. j206, I love your avatar. 

  27. I basically lived at the Graphic.ly booth the whole week of the con. For me that weekend was all about comics, sure I got to meet and shake hands with some Hollywood "players" but they were there for comics as well. Some of the coolest moments were seeing some creators talk to other creators. Mike Norton talking to Tad Stone was really a cool thing to watch. 

    This was my first con and I loved every minute of it.  

  28. @ Josh, this was a great article. I haven’t been to the Con in almost a decade, and probably would avoid it now, but your points are solid. I LOVE what is being produced now in comics, and you know, Hollywood plays a big part of it. Let ’em have SDCC. I’m going to Emerald or NY. 

  29. Excellent piece – especially this part: "If you’re a die hard comic book lover, you would never have had to leave the aisles in the middle, and you could have met, glimpsed or gotten work from almost everyone still alive and working in comics today." …. 

    It’s all about what you seek out. Friday alone offered a full-day-long journey of the comics hierarchy just in panels and events alone without even setting foot on the main floor – you could’ve started out with the hungry amateurs with a how-to panel on organizational/creative skills, caught panels on Grant Morrisson, Geoff Johns, and Robert Kirkman, then go indie w/ Vertigo and finish off with a celebration of achievement w/ the Eisners.

  30. Yeah, I was talking with a friend who works in the movie industry there in LA, and he hardly knows any of his peers who didn’t go to Comic Con.

  31. Great article… thanks

  32. I’m glad I don’t live in Sandiego, I might have gotten the wrong idea about comic fans and stuck with manga. A subconscious association of large crowds with mob mentality will do that.

  33. @StandardMan – You’re right; that first photo is awesome.

    Comics fans should welcome Hollywood with open arms, I think, because that’s what really got comics shot up to the top of the pop culture zeitgeist: quality Hollywood productions of comic book properties.

    And for the stuff that "doesn’t belong", that’s people trying to "use" the Con to get some public buzz (like Pauly Shore staging a publicity stunt there)… that stuff gets ignored pretty quick, anyway.

    And as for the "funny costumes"… I would think that it makes a Cosplayer’s day to make the news.