San Diego Comic-Con: A Look at the Past… and the Future

We’re coming up on a month since the last San Diego Comic-Con (officially called Comic-Con International, though no one actually uses that name, much to CCI’s chagrin) so it might be a good time to look back and reflect a bit on the convention itself and peer into a bit of its history.

Anthony Harris pointed us to some absolutely fascinating pictures on the very best photo sharing site on the web, Flickr. They are from a photoset of journalist Alan Light and they are 165 photos from San Diego Comic-Con… 1982. Talk about a blast from the past! Not only are the photos a treasure trove of awesome early ’80s fashion (which was still heavily influenced by the 1970s), but they feature such comic book luminaries as Jack Kirby, Will Eisner, Jim Shooter, Marv Wolfman, Carl Barks, Milton Caniff, Burne Hogarth, Robert Overstreet, Sergio Aragones, convention mainstay Mark Evanier and many more – including Walter Koenig!

By 1982, San Diego Comic-Con was 12 years old and it’s interesting to see that it still basically looked like a small regional convention, which for all intents and purposes, it was. The shots from the floor look mostly devoid of the massive throngs you’d see today; the creators actually look relaxed and happy to be there. Even the Inkpot Awards ceremony looks rather quaint and goofy, with quick sketch artist extraordinaire Sergio Aragones sketching each winner.

What a difference 25 years makes.

This past year’s convention, I think, reached saturation level. Every single day was sold out and every single inch of San Diego’s massive convention center was used. Where do you go from saturation point? By definition you can go nowhere, and that’s troubling news for the world’s premiere comic book (now with pop culture!) convention that has shown attendance rise every year that I’ve attended since 2001. Next year I fully expect to see the fine, surly folks of Elite security walking around with cattle prods, herding the shuffling masses down the congested aisles, no one ever really allowed to stop moving, no one really having a good time.

What can San Diego do? Not much, unless they can add another 100,000 square feet or so in the next year to a facility that already has 525,701. There is a lot of low talk these days about Las Vegas. It’s a name that blows on the wind whenever people talk about San Diego’s impending space problem. Maybe it’s a solution; maybe it’s not. Las Vegas is certainly close enough to Los Angeles to keep Hollywood interested, but it lacks the perfect weather that makes San Diego so appealing. I’m afraid to think about con goers dropping like flies on the Strip as they overheat in their elaborate costumes.

Las Vegas is something to think about for the future, though. Comic-Con International has a contract with San Diego until 2012 and if you spend any time away from the convention center during the week of Comic-Con, and you talk to locals, you see just how much the city of San Diego takes pride in the convention. They embrace it. It’s important for their economy. I doubt they’d want to lose it any more than I want to spend a week in the desert in July with 112 degree heat. And I can tell you that I don’t want to do that. At all.

Perhaps the mayor of San Diego can work on a little cultural exchange program with the mayor of Tokyo and get some of those guys whose job it is to stuff people into the Tokyo subway cars over to San Diego for the convention. In a few years, I think we’re going to need them.

I don’t want to give you the impression that San Diego isn’t a great time — it truly is, every comic book fan should try to go once in their life — it’s just that I know an impending crisis when I see one. San Diego has very quickly become a victim of its own success. Already this past year we had a whole treasure trove of new Fire Marshall enforced regulations about the way in which you could and could not move around the convention center. Are we so far away from the Fire Marshall shutting the whole thing down when the crowds become untenable?

On a personal level I know that my enjoyment level goes down as the crowd size goes up, and you can just see it on the faces of many of the people there that I’m not alone. It’s The Crowd Size-Fun Factor Corollary. Creators seem overwhelmed at times, the security guards were a lot less patient, and you could hear the rumblings from the crowd in some of those aisles that were so packed full of people that no one could move.

These were the things that were on my mind when Mr. Harris sent us the link to those pictures from 25 years ago. As I worked my way through them I kept exclaiming things like “Jack Kirby! Oh, man how cool would it have been to see him in person?!” and then it hit me — in 2032 someone is going to look at pictures from the San Diego Comic-Con 2007 and wonder what it was like to see Stan Lee or Brian Michael Bendis, or Geoff Johns. They’re going to say to their friends that those people in 2007 were so lucky, just as I did to my friends about the people back in 1982.

Think about how unique the comic book convention experience is. At my first San Diego in 2001 I met the legendary Dave Gibbons. I shook his hand, I briefly befuddled him by asking for a Hal Jordan sketch… and then he drew it for me. That is an experience almost completely unique to comics. I can’t go meet John Milius and shake his hand and whip out a Bolex and ask him to shoot me a quick scene. Eric Clapton is probably not going to play me my own unique guitar riff that I can record and take home with me. Derek Jeter is not going to have a quick catch with me.

And that’s just one of the things that makes comics so great, and one of the reasons why I’ll be back in San Diego next year. Just go easy on me, Tokyo Subway Guys. And no grabbing my ass when you shove me in the doors.


  1. Too true. There is something really cool about getting a sketch from someone whose work you’ve followed and respect–its the stuff San Diego was founded on. I haven’t been in years, but I remember walking around once and thinking, “geez, did STAN LEE just walk past?!!!” Or listnening to Jim Shooter speak to a group of people hanging on every comic filled word. Aywhere else he would’ve been just some dude talking about comics, but to us, he was a god amongst men.

  2. That’s fantastic. I think im gonna try to go to San Diego next year. I am already going to New York and Chicago.

  3. I have proffered the idea that a move to Las Vegas would probably slow down the celebrity presence, because it’s more effort than San Diego, where they can just be driven down on Saturday. Las Vegas is a whole other mess of nastiness for travel.

  4. I’m 27 years old and I live in Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico and I feel so lucky to have been a part of the whole experience since 1992, when hollywood had there couple of hours of glory by the way of trailer park (somethign that nobody seems to care anymore), those first years were great when they first open the door and you entered the smell of golden age comics suddenly hit you and you felt great all over, from that moment till sunday your body made a pact with you it wasn’t going to get tired until monday morning all you had to do is drink water thats it…i can tell from 92 to 98 it seemed to only get better freebies gallore I remember getting back to my house with tons of tons of posters, stickers, t-shirts and toys…and I can tell you by the time anime got big something changed, it got a lot bigger but the year the con jumped the shark was 2000 the year angelina jolie went to promote her movie, that year was the year of the “Tourist” Someone who does not know a thing about comics, little about manga or anime and only goes there to try and get free stuff see stars and basically riun something good….thanks hollywood…thanks so much. From that year on it is slowly turning in to something that feels more like a chore than a great once a year geek nirvana. I hope comic con international goes far far away so that a real San Diego Comic Con can break out where hopefully “Comics” are the most important thing.

  5. I was born and raised in San Diego. And I have been going to Con since I was a kid; to think that it might be leaving saddens me a little. The idea of the

  6. My first experience with San Diego was last year – and it was absolutely amazing – and this year was not a let down either. I get the luxury of arriving in SD a few days early (with the rest of the guys) and then wandering around the little paradise of a city before the craziness of the con picks up. The thought of not going to SD in July is a sad, sad thought. There is no place I would rather be. Hell, if I could move there, I would. Did I mention that I love Las Vegas, too? I am a gambler. Vegas just doesn’t offer the same charm that SD does, for me. I like going out to eat and getting to know my waitress. I like finding the “non-touristy” side of town. I like seeing the Navy guys at the bars trying to get ladies. There is a certain “small town” charm to SD – that Vegas can never offer. There is a certain charm to all the people in costumes walking around downtown – and drawing some stares. Those stares won’t happen in Vegas. It sucks that the Con is getting too big for its britches. I have only been twice…but I noticed a significant difference in the size of the crowd – and the content within the con. I really have no idea what to do about the “problem.” I am not a convention planner – I have no good ideas to “make it work.” I just know that I want it to work. And…I think it is safe to say that even if it doesn’t – Conor and I will still be heading to San Diego, California in July anyway.

  7. I’m actually a little afraid to go to San Diego. I always assumed that my wife (whom I never give enough credit) would respond to this vacation suggestion by getting me a psychiatric consultation, but I mentioned it this summer and she was like, “Rock on. July? Let’s go.” But once the prospect of planning the trip at some point became a real possibility, the whole thing became very daunting.

    “If I want a hotel, say, within walking distance, when do I have to do that? Two years in advance? I don’t know what I am doing this weekend, much less July 2009.”

    “What about the crowd? If I do plan a trip a year in advance, and I do manage to get my badge without any snafus, and then I finally get there to find the fire marshal has shut down the gate because of the crowd, I will personally reduce the crowd by killing everyone I see in a blind, primal rage. This ain’t a day trip to Kansas City for me.”

    So I don’t know what to hope for. It definitely sounds like it’s headed for critical mass, but what would be better? For it to move, or just to get too big for its own good and then spend a few years contracting? To a certain extent, the invisible hand of the market may take care of it; if there are a couple of years there when it’s really unpleasant, fewer people will want to go and it’ll get manageable again.

  8. I’ve gotta say, the giganticness of the convention is really the most irritating to longtime crusty convention veterans like ourselves. If it’s your first show, and you’ve never been, it’s 90% awesome, and 10% irritating.

  9. I used to live in Los Angeles and I was able to go to the con twice. Once in ’92 and the other in ’94. I remember that both times my mother looked at me the day before and said how about you and I take a trip to San Diego tommorow for the Con. So I got my list of books that I needed we got in the car and we went. We just walked up and bought passes. We did not have to worry about buying them months in advance. The con was not that crowded when we got there. I remember walking up and getting Adam West’s autograph, like it was nothing.

    Maybe instead of trying to make the con bigger may be they should try making it longer. Instead of trying to squeeze the whole experience into one one weekend make it last the whole week. They could set certain events for certain days. Have the movie pannels all on one or two days. The same for the TV stuff, Marvel and DC. I think that this would tend to thin the crowd a little. I know some people would have problems going down forthe whole week, but I know a lot of people already do that. This plan is not fool proof, but at least it is a start.

  10. I don’t think the staff could survive many more days. Or us.

    The thing is, if you want to go to a smaller convention, there are a lot of them. This is the big show, so it makes sense that things are more hectic. It’s the price of success i suppose.

  11. That Frank Miller pic from 1982 is awesome. ‘please don’t ask me to draw x-men (except kitty)’

  12. Honestly, it’s time to kick out the vast majority of the TV and movie stuff. There were a lot of things there that had nothing to do with comics and that’s the stuff that’s packing the place these days.

  13. Honestly, it’s time to kick out the vast majority of the TV and movie stuff. There were a lot of things there that had nothing to do with comics and that’s the stuff that’s packing the place these days.

    Yeah, who wants all that income and revenue? Certainly not the city of San Diego, or the convention company.

    Seriously, San Diego is what it is, and it’s not going back. There are lots of smaller conventions where you can meet people, and not have to deal with the movie crowds. but it’s not gonna be San Diego again.

  14. The only con I’ve ever gone (and go) to is Baltimore, and in the 6 years I’ve been going, there have been only 2 non-comic “celebrities” there – Lou Ferrigno and Mick “Mankind” Foley. Yet the con just keeps getting bigger and bigger, and it’s all comics! It’s like nirvana – with fanboys.