This Year at SDCC, Buy a Comic!

It’s that time of year again, when people from the comics and entertainment industries gather in San Diego for four days of peace, love and music… Well, not precisely that. As someone who attended San Diego Comic Con last year, I don’t think “peace, love and music” would be the most apt description. Crowds, security guards and more security guards were my impression. The atmosphere at SDCC was more Altamont than Woodstock, especially if you committed the unpardonable sin of stopping to look at someone’s costume for more than five seconds.

But of course, that doesn’t matter to the tens of thousands who flock to this celebration of fan culture each and every year. Comic “cons” have now become a big industry, and a major marketing opportunity in the world of the billion-dollar superhero film. And this year there’s an extra twist with the promotion of the new Star Wars film. Fan culture double jeopardy as it were. (Last year, I was most excited about seeing the trailer for Kevin Smith’s Tusk. This year, Smith does have a trailer, for a new film called Yoga Hosers, but even he admits that Star Wars will hog all the attention.)

And once upon a time, all of this was about comics.

I’m the first to admit that “cons” are really not my kind of event. I didn’t grow up going to them, and didn’t even attend one until years after I had written academic papers in comics studies, attended academic comics studies conferences and met some very interesting comics creators. I enjoyed that level of participation in our favourite medium. There was very little superhero material, for example, amongst the comics scholars I knew, and discussions over dinner were more often about Nietzsche and V for Vendetta or Harvey Pekar rather than arcana about the latest Marvel movie. In fact, most of the comics scholars I know haven’t even seen most of those films. Because they’re interested in comics, not superheroes.

But when I did eventually check out a few cons, I found that, in the smaller, quieter moments, there’s something still admirable about the people who let their freak flag fly with impunity at these events. Comic cons are not about the people with the most “accurate” costumes or those who collect all the swag. They’re about moments like running into a guy dressed as Silent Bob, who in our 15 minute conversation, didn’t say a word. Or the two guys I met from Albuquerque, in full Hazmat suits. Or shaking Mark A. Altman’s hand, who directed the cult classic Free Enterprise. Or bumping into David Lloyd as he was setting up his table full of Aces Weekly buttons and chatting about digital comics and the changing industry. I did spend one afternoon in the infamous “Hall H”, and had the great pleasure of seeing Adam West and Burt Ward together. (I’ve never been more excited to hear that “na na na na na” theme.) Those are the moments I keep from SDCC last year, amongst all the cacophony.

Comics, alas, are not as big a part of these events as one might think, although they are still there. If you dig down past all the corporate displays, get away from the obnoxious video games (free advice: louder isn’t better), somewhere in SDCC you can still find a great artist’s alley, meet some fantastic small-press creators and analysts and get a sense of what these events used to be.

The fact that fan culture has become a gigantic industry, into which major movie studios now pour millions of dollars, has been both a blessing and a curse. Comic cons, and not just the one held in San Diego, but the dozens held each year all over the world, are now their own sort of industry and have their own rituals. There’s the badges, then the obligatory “swag bag”, and of course the cosplay and the masquerade, artist’s alley, T-shirt island and the celebrity signings. It’s interesting, looking back through the history of these sorts of events, how much of that was in place right from the start. At the first Star Trek conventions in the early 1970s (apparently attended, anonymously, by a young George Lucas!), there was cosplay and a sharing of fan-made replicas of props, as well as comics and book trading. But primarily these were places where, for a day or two, attendees could let the dirty little secret of their fandom out into the open, with no shame. That became the primary social function of not only Star Trek, but all manner of fan conventions as they evolved through the 1970s.

In fact, one of the more peculiar things I witnessed at SDCC last year was the screening of a rare documentary from 1977 about comics culture and comics creators, featuring interviews with Dennis O’Neil (looking extremely young), Neal Adams (looking exactly the same as he does now) and Jim Steranko (before the grey hair, but still a cool 1940s type). But beyond those little treasures, there’s footage of Comic con from those years, and it struck me how much, and how little had changed. There was still cosplay, not as technically proficient as what participants do today but they made up for it with enthusiasm and commitment to character, like the doughy-physiqued man in green paint as The Hulk, turning over the judges table during the competition and flexing his modest muscles. And there were endless shots of people combing through long boxes, talking with dealers and their fellow fans. Yes, there was a presence from the movie industry, most notable some weirdos promoting a little movie called Star Wars, but mainly it seemed to be about comics, the people who love them, and the people who make them. I don’t think Comic cons are about that anymore, at least not primarily.

The ritual of a “con” is no doubt very comforting to those who attend, and another thing I noticed about the size of SDCC is that it gives rise to little “cells” and “sub-cons” where people seemed to be having a lot more fun than me, shuffling around with my heavy bag, looking for a place to sit down, have a cool drink and re-charge my iPhone. (I spent a lot of time in a great Mexican restaurant right in the downtown core, where the mascots were two guys dressed as Cockroaches. I recommend it to any of this year’s attendees.)

The question that always comes back to me when I contemplate Comic cons, particularly this time of year, is “Are they good for comics?” I wonder how much energy expended by the 100000+ attendees of SDCC is about a love of comics, and how much it is about meeting a celebrity or seeing a movie trailer or getting some sort of exclusive collectable toy. I left SDCC last year with a prized new possession: a first-edition of American Splendor #2. That was my collectible. But I seemed to be in the vast minority. Having said that, the minority is pretty vast at an event like this. If there are 100000 people, probably at least ten or twenty thousand of them are serious comics fans, and that does represent a substantial population. You run into the real fans on the shuttle bus at night, for example, or in the bar, where I actually ran into some of my friends from comics scholarship, visiting from Scotland. The main events of SDCC don’t happen on the convention floor, of which Lucasfilm and AMC and video game companies buy so much. They happen when you literally bump into Phil Lamarr, or Matt Kindt on the street. Or when you make new friends with the same interests. In that sense, the spirit of a Comic con is still very much alive.

And as for comics? They’re there. You just have to look a little harder for them than you did back in the seventies. At least the event is still called “Comic con” rather than “Fan Expo” or “Fan Celebration”, which, however admittedly accurate that might be, it moves these sort of gatherings dangerously away from the medium that spawned them in the first place.

So, I implore you, if you’re going to San Diego, be sure to wear Batman’s special blue flower in your hair, and pick up a comic, please. Preferably from someone or by someone you’ve never met and never heard of. Make a new discovery.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Independent scholar Ian Dawe has been writing for Sequart since November 2013. Before that, he had a mixed background, initially in science (Molecular Biology and Biochemistry), where he earned an MSc from Simon Fraser University and then an MA in Film from the University of Exeter in the UK. He spent a decade teaching at the college level, delivering courses in Genetics, Biochemistry, Cell Biology, Biological Anthropology and Film History. His academic work includes peer-reviewed papers on the work of Alan Moore, Harvey Pekar for Studies in Comics and a dissertation on Terry Gilliam for the University of Exeter. He has presented papers at several major academic conferences including Slayage 2014, Magus: Transdisciplinary Approaches to the Work of Alan Moore in 2010 (in the wizard's hometown of Northampton), Comics Rock and the International Conference of the Humanities in 2012, and at the Southwest Popular Culture Association Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2014 and 2015. He has contributed to several books, including a chapter about the TV show Archer in "James Bond and Popular Culture" and two chapters on Breaking Bad for "Breaking Bad and Masculinity", both now available from McFarland. At Sequart, he has authored a chapter for New Life and New Civiliations: Exploring Star Trek Comics, A Long Time Ago and two more upcoming books on Star Wars comics. He has also contributed to books on Alan Moore and 1970s Horror Comics. He is currently planning a full-length book on Better Call Saul. Ian currently lives in Vancouver, BC.

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Also by Ian Dawe:

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A Galaxy Far, Far Away: Exploring Star Wars Comics

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A Long Time Ago: Exploring the Star Wars Cinematic Universe

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New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics

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4 Comments

  1. Brent Holmes says:

    ” I don’t think Comic cons are about that anymore, at least not primarily.”

    I’ve never been; but I believe you. Footage gives me the impression of rats in a maze steered in a way to separate convention goers from the maximum amount of cash in the minimum amount of time. I would be thrilled to have a minute’s time with any of my favourite creators but am well aware this is largely facilitated through autograph lines with often exorbitant prices for the privilege of having something you already bought autographed with the hope of a few brief words with one of your icons. I certainly don’t expect my charm or insight on comics to compel a Gaiman, Moore or Morrison to open up to me but I’m definitely content to admire their work from afar. Glad to hear you found a few quiet, rewarding moments.

  2. San Diego Comic-Con is an interesting amalgamation, yet this year it has become really unappealing to me. It seems even more chaotic than before, with people pushing and shoving their way through (the one moment that has stuck out to me the most is when I saw this women, giving off the most hateful glare, literally elbowing people as hard as she could as she was moving through the crowds). Everything has a ridiculous line, a lot of people are scalpers buying 5+ of the same exclusives (with items selling out 30 minutes after the exhibit hall opens) leaving next to nothing for actual fans, and it just is such an incredible hostile environment. Such an atmosphere does make the moments of interacting with fellow fans that much nicer (I met two great friends at SDCC), but those moments are becoming increasingly rare.
    I have been attending SDCC for seven years, but I may not do it again (although my addiction to the convention scene will probably get the better of me) next year.

    Side note: while you are in the city, I highly recommend going to La Pizzeria Arrivederci. The pizza is absolutely phenomenal. Here’s the address: https://maps.google.com/maps?client=safari&hl=en&biw=568&bih=321&dpr=2&um=1&ie=UTF-8&fb=1&gl=us&sll=32.7467466,-117.1614415&sspn=0.0002136,0.0003386&q=arrivederci+pizza&gmm=CgIgAQ%3D%3D

  3. Last year, I was invited to be a guest on the Gobbledygeek podcast right after SDCC had finished. In the midst of all of the toys, movies, panels, announcements, etc. I had run across some exciting forthcoming comics news, like Busiek and Dewey’s Tooth & Claw (now The Autumnlands), and Remender and Murphy’s Tokyo Ghost, and a couple of others. I was surprised to learn that these announcement, and a couple of other news items dealing with comics, had slipped right by my hosts in all the SDCC noise and hype about TV and film projects. The Gobbledygeek guys, true comic fans, were really excited about these new projects by great creators, and this made me realize how difficult it has become to find out what going on in the comic world at these kind of events.

    Honestly, I have come to enjoy smaller-scale cons much more. HeroesCon in Charlotte, NC, though larger every year, is still very comic focused, as is NC ComicCon in Durham, NC. The vendor halls are still dominated by thousands of square feet of long boxes, trades, and displays of actual comic books, and staffed by folks who get excited when you walk up to them and ask about Silver Age war comics or some obscure book that went out of print years ago but which for whatever reason still holds a place near and dear to your heart. I’ve never been to SDCC or New York ComicCon (which turns out to be the real star of Ted 2, by the way), but I don’t think I would like them much.

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