Paradise Lost: The Changing Face of Comic-Con

(© Lionsgate/Universal)
(© Lionsgate/Universal)

July 17, 2013, marks the beginning of the annual San Diego Comic Con International, or as it’s commonly called, Comic Con. It’s the place where cosplayers dress up like their favorite characters, attend panels on their favorite television shows, lob questions at movie stars and see exclusive footage of the biggest upcoming superhero, action, fantasy, sci-fi and horror releases.

This year’s buzz is all about The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Kick-Ass 2 and Captain America: Winter Soldier , panels for Game of Thrones and Community, and the long awaited Ender’s Game adaptation and Godzilla relaunch. Comic Con has become a major promotional point for blockbuster films and a symbol for the acceptance of geek culture in mainstream society. And it’s also completely ruined what was once a great and wondrous event for the few who genuinely wished to attend.

Growing up as an aspiring comic book artist, Comic Con was like Mecca: a distant, holy land where once a year the pilgrims of sequential art would gather together free to express our worship in peace and unity without the judgment and prying eyes of those who could never understand our faith. We who grew up when comic books were not cool remember having to keep such passions private, hiding our carefully rendered splash page finishes behind our hand while seated in the back of the lunch room, and when caught coming out of the comics shop on Tuesday afternoon with logo-sporting bag in hand by the gang of skaters hanging outside the 7-11 next door reluctantly admitting, “Yeah, I still read Spider-Man.”

Comic-Con-Logo
© Comic-Con International

We remember suffering in the shadows of our hometowns, so distant from southern California, examining the pictures of last year’s Con with its tables of beloved creators posing with fans and smiling booth babes dressed like Catwoman and Jean Grey (never quite as hot, but still hot and best of all, real) scrolling down next year’s list of attending luminaries – Stan Lee, Peter David, Todd MacFarlane, John Byrne, Chris Claremont, Jim Lee – and thinking, “If only I had the money to fly to San Diego and didn’t have stupid school next week, I could meet those guys. I could get their autograph, a sketch. I could talk to them about upward lighting techniques, lead darkness and panel pacing. I could get their advice on some of my own drawings. Maybe, just maybe, I could be hired on the spot for their next X-Men or Batman title and then next year, I could be at that table with the smiling booth babes dressed as my characters and legions of fans asking for my signature across the cover of my first issue and laughing with the other artists who I’d call Todd and John and Jim.”

Yeah, Comic Con, was a dream.

I even remember a high school friend who never read comics getting to attend because her boyfriend’s friend (Michael Turner) needed a booth babe and thinking, “You don’t deserve it!”

But all of that has changed. The mainstreaming of geek culture means that the vast majority within the throng of fans flocking to San Diego this weekend isn’t that which spent years pretending that we couldn’t recite the name and power of every Avenger. They don’t know who Norrin Radd and Marc Specter are or why Franklin Richards is such an important part of the Marvel Universe. Hell, they aren’t even there for the comics!

The paradise we grew up longing for is lost to promotional events and paparazzi cameras. It’s not our institute of higher learning or Fortress of Collective Solitude anymore. Worst of all, now that we’re grown up, have an income, and can take the time off to attend, between price and availability, it’s impossible to get a ticket. I’ve wanted to see Comic Con my entire life! Now people who think Wolverine is supposed to be tall get to saunter into Shangri-La before I do? It’s an outrage!

san diego comic con

I can’t blame movie studios for making Comic Con into Cannes for the geek sect (minus the actual, you know, screenings). If you’re going to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in a blockbuster property than you have to promote it to the potential audience and a big part of that potential audience attends Comic Con. It makes simple economic sense. However, bringing those hundred-million dollar blockbusters to Comic Con changes the audience in attendance, and pretty soon those of us who should be in the film’s built-in fanbase are shut out by those who just want to see movie stars. It’s like standing in line for hours to see a band you’ve followed through years in the underground scene only to have a hundred people who loved the one song that made it to radio cut in front of you at the door. I’m not saying they aren’t genuine fans; I’m saying that they won’t appreciate as much as others would.

It’s hard to look at the Comic Con coverage and not feel like some small part of comic book culture is gone now. This refuge of pure geekdom, which only the most fanatical were willing to spend their money and time to attend, is no more – at least not the way it used to be. Even if it was only a fantasy to begin with, it gave us hope, once.

Of course, if given a chance to go to Comic Con, I still totally would. I may not read comics much anymore, but c’mon, it’s Comic Con. It’s like nirvana of everything awesome. Plus, I could see Jennifer Lawrence.

About Jess Kroll

Jess Kroll
Jess Kroll is a novelist and university professor born in Honolulu, Hawaii, and based in Daegu, South Korea. He has been writing film reviews since 2004 and has been exclusive to Pop Mythology since 2012. His novels include 'Land of Smiles' from Monsoon Books and young adult series 'The One' and 'Werewolf Council' from Epic Press.

15 comments

  1. I’ve been watching the third season of Wonder Woman and one of the episodes takes places during a “sci-fi convention.” The episode aired in 1978 and showed people at a hotel (where the convention took place) walking around in costume as aliens, characters from Logan’s Run and Star Wars. During the episode, the convention had a costume contest, a scientific demonstration, celebrities (and fans of this celebrity trying to pursue this celebrity) and vendor tables.
    After watching this episode I came to realize there’s not much different in the format of a con(vention) other than it’s become bigger and the name has been shortened.
    Maybe an episode from a popular tv show from the 70s isn’t the best indicator of what it was like. Perhaps you got a better shot at what a Con was like by attending one that’s not so big. They’re all over the country in smaller capacities, including ticket prices : )

    • The Pop Mythologist

      Derek,
      Good point and thanks for the comment.
      As a frequent participant of various conventions I’m sure you’ve been able to get a sense of different kinds of cons and their respective vibes.
      Have you been to the SD Comic-Con?

  2. I haven’t been to the SD Comic Con yet. I’ve been to the NY Comic Con and smaller ones. NYCC is over 100,000 people. I’ve attended NYCC for the past four years. After my wife attended last year’s NYCC (her first), I asked her what she thought. She hated it: “It was easier giving birth.”

    • The Pop Mythologist

      NYCC was actually my first con and I *loved* it! Maybe cuz it was just my first time, I dunno, but I really did enjoy it very much. I wonder why your wife didn’t like it, lol. Was she helping out at your booth or something?

  3. Perspectives like these are upsetting. I attended the con this year (my third con), and loved the melting pot of genres, mediums and fandoms.

    I wasn’t at the particular NerdHQ (at least I don’t think i was, but I watched so many on the plane home I don’t remember), when someone (perhaps Nathan Fillion) was talking about the diversity of fandoms there, and how beautiful it was to see them all there.

    But people there just to see the stars? I happened to sit in the reserved section in Hall H for the Game of Thrones panel, and I could *barely* see the panelists. Granted, there are people who are there to star gaze, but that’s generally best done camping out of the back entrance of the Hard Rock than from the back corner of Hall H. People camped out in line overnight to be the ones to hear from their favorite casts or see the first footage for the sequel to their favorite movie (that’s after the flew across the country, or Europe or South America or Australia). How the hell are they not “true fans?”

    I get that SDCC is not really “Comic”-Con anymore, and I think that’s a perfectly reasonable complaint. But I roomed with a buddy who was attending his 25th, and he enjoyed it as much as he ever had.

    But the idea of (negatively) defining who is and isn’t “geeky” enough is ignorant, elitist and dangerous.

    • Jess Kroll

      Hi Ivey, thanks for reading. It’s kind of funny that your comment talks about the greatness of diversity (and you’ll find no disagreement from me here) yet reading an opinion different from yours is “disturbing.” Elitism and arrogance has always been a part of nerd and geek culture, in the same way that people who have read Song of Ice and Fire kind of look down on those of us who just watch the shows, or the way that in the 1990’s those who didn’t read comics made fun of those who did (and now those same non-readers claim to be huge fans). For further example, to qualify for the Nerd Slam at the National Poetry Slam, participants are actually required to state a field of nerdy expertise and go face-to-face with a fellow poet in a trivia contest. Those who fail to answer the questions leave the stage to chants of “Not a nerd! Not a nerd!” This is a tongue-in-cheek rant on how far geek culture has come, yet how the pride that we may have felt years before in being a part of something small, special and passionate is also lost by mass acceptance. It’s being the first person to listen to a band two years before everyone and their spaniel starts listening to them. They were yours and now they’re not. Instead of being one of the few, yes, elite, people in the know, you’ve become just another bandwagon jumper. It feels like there’s a loss. As said, it doesn’t mean their fandom isn’t genuine, the newcomers just didn’t have to undergo the same stigmatization and labels that the hardcores did. It’s a similar logic to war veterans saying civilians don’t appreciate their rights as much because they didn’t have to fight for them. Doesn’t mean the civilians actually appreciate their rights any less, just that the vets believe they appreciate theirs much more. Of course, this might be entirely untrue and if you look at the last paragraph you’ll see that. Hope seeing Fillion was cool. I didn’t watch Firefly until after Serenity, so my coat my not be a deep brown as others, but I still wear it with pride.

    • I simply don’t agree. Nerds and geeks have — generally — been ostracized for their fandom, and one of the themes of the week that I picked up on this time around was that it isn’t cool to do it to each other.

      But if I believed it was OK, I might be tempted react similarly to the veteran/civilian analogy you mentioned: If you’ve never been to the Con before, how can you tell us how broken it is?

    • Jess Kroll

      That was kind of the point. It’s a beautiful illusion.

  4. I just got home from San Diego after my 3rd year at Comic-con. I was pretty saddened by the fact that when I went to any panels for TV shows the stars got so much more applause when compared to the actual writers and producers.

    • Jess Kroll

      Hi Rick, thanks for the reply, hope the Con was good. That’s awesome you’ve been able to attend 3. It is sad about the writers and producers getting less attention, but that’s kind of society right? Look at the Kardashians. There are millions of people more worthy of fame, instead, well, you know.

  5. MMihcaleichMiael

    Comic-Con – expanded as it has over the last 10 years or so – is spectacle. But it’s what you want it to be as much as it is what you state (never having attended.

    Of course Hollywood and the promotional machine is going to jump on the audience they see which can promote their wares. They’d be foolish *not* to. It appears it has overtaken the comic scene of The Con, but nothing is farther from the truth. The majority of my Con this year leaned to the comic aspect, not the Hollywood machine.

    The Con is what you make it. You want the comics and the art and the artists? They’re there. I was at a panel with Val Mayerick this year that only had 15 people in it … rather sad in that he is the veteran he is with an outstanding body of work. The room filled little by little, but the point is: The comic talent is there, you just have to seek it out.

    Your article bleeds a little to much whinery from someone who has never been. Experience it first before being so subjective.

    • Jess Kroll

      Hello MMIH, thanks for reading. Yeah, it is whiny, although hyperbolic is the preferred term, that was by design because the piece is not serious, it’s meant as exaggeration. And it’s an opinion, which by their very nature are subjective. I’d love to experience, as I said. It’s nice to know there is still the emphasis on the titular subject. After writing the piece I saw some videos and it looks like people were still really passionate about the comics and not just the movies or video games, although How I Met Your Mother did a presentation there, that’s stretching the definition quite a bit and shows just how far it’s come as a marketing tool. As written though, you can’t fault companies for that. There’s a large audience and the company wants a large audience. Glad you had fun though. I’m sure I would have as well, if I ever get to go.

    • Kind sir, I’m with you. Whiny is appropriate. If the attempt was truly to be hyperbolic, it failed. Sadly, OP, it feels like your post comes off simply as someone who wants to take his ball and go home. Except it apparently never was your ball in the first place.

      And, IIRC, the signs around the Gaslamp called it a Pop-Culture convention.

      If only the place wasn’t overrun by people in luchador masks, then people could get to see Comic-Con staples like Quick Draw! and Cartoon Voices.

    • Jess Kroll

      Hyperbolic: of, relating to, or marked by hyperbole (extravagant exaggeration).
      As in: Some people take lighthearted rants to hyperbolic levels of seriousness.

      Perhaps if it used more exclamation points!!! AND CAPITAL LETTERS!!!!!!11!!

  6. I think the opinions in this post probably do reflect the feelings of a lot of fans though. Even if it’s being kinda sarcastic

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