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.