Saturday at Comic-Con International: San Diego — one of the consistently busiest days for any convention with the United States — is a day teeming with excited, masked fans eager to flaunt their fandoms and obsessions with pride. After three years of no true option aside from isolation and YouTube panels, fans are even more eager than ever to parade their Marvel swag, DC body-suits, and Image Comics tote bags, but I’ve just watched a group of people wearing said publishers’ mass-produced, 100% cotton IP throw a stack of new comics in the trash. I suppose I’m getting ahead of myself.
... one extremely important piece of extra swag: a COVID-19 vaccination/negative test wristband...
Three days earlier, and it’s the usual buzz of Preview Night, where people from the American East Coast to the West, Atlantic to Pacific Oceans, and every continent under the sun manage to filter their way into the San Diego Convention Center one slow badge-scan at a time. Things are a little different this year, however, as the usual scramble to make sure you can say you were one of the first into the towering convention hall is marred by an extra line, some extra precaution, and one extremely important piece of extra swag: a COVID-19 vaccination/negative test wristband, a seemingly indestructible orange paper reminder of an attempt at safety that, luckily, most people were happy to oblige despite being unable to remove it for the entirety of their con stay.
“I wouldn’t have come if they hadn’t required this,” remarked an attendee when asked about their bright orange band. “I would have just gotten my ticket refunded. Like, I’ve been waiting for years to come back but if it’s not safe it’s not safe.”
As I move along at whatever pace the buzzing crowd will allow me (admittedly faster than before, with the convention center seeming unusually quiet for this show), it becomes clear that — in proud Comic-Con tradition — not everything is as smooth as it should be. Volunteers, signage, and security are ushering thousands of people into and through the Convention Center at a surprisingly fast speed, only to be put on an escalator leading directly to the exit, roped off from the show floor just yards away with harassed volunteers vehemently insisting that, no, we cannot go through, no matter how much we want to.
Perhaps they simply didn’t want to imagine what it would have looked like if the next day’s headlines had read “Nerds Riot Because Someone Wouldn’t Take A Rope Down.”
The increasing level of upset clearly catches the right person’s attention and someone — who tersely insists that they will not speak to the press about how these situations are handled when they inevitably arise, which I find as a common occurrence throughout the weekend with every volunteer — lets the crowd through. Perhaps they simply didn’t want to imagine what it would have looked like if the next day’s headlines had read “Nerds Riot Because Someone Wouldn’t Take A Rope Down.”
There’s a magic to be found during Comic-Con International’s Preview Night in particular, a sentiment that only becomes clear after having experienced the rest of the week. Art dealers are fully stocked, publishers of all sizes and their dedicated teams are smiling behind piles of freshly printed t-shirts and stacks of newly-dusted-off comic trades, Artist’s Alley attendants look hopeful for the coming days — overall, it just feels like coming home.
Admittedly, a coming home to fluorescent lights, and a coming home to sharing interests no matter how broad or niche, but still: coming home to what has been the Comic-Con experience since its origins way back in March of 1970. As was the comment from several attendees from varying backgrounds and con-attendance tallies when asked, the night felt like a breath of fresh, albeit mask-filtered, air.
It’s an undeniable fact that the lines at Comic-Con have become part of the culture. Whether it’s camping out overnight on the off-chance that you might get into the nosebleeds for a Marvel Studios panel, inching along at Artist’s Alley to get a book signed by your favorite artist, or simply waiting for one of the countless TV show 'activations' surrounding the Convention Center — the latest interactive experience to be added to con traditions in the last decade or so — there’s no denying that Comic Con has become a game of Hurry Up And Wait. In spite of this, con-goers from around the world queue up with glee, ostensibly creating a culture in and of itself centering around the privilege to stand in endless lines in the name of their fandom.
Several variations of “This was worth not sleeping for two days” were overheard...
“I’ve been going here for six years and I’ve met lifelong friends in the Hall H line,” reported one attendee. When asked if it was being present for the announcements that made it worth it or the friendships formed through the mutual fandoms, the same person replied “Both, I guess. But it’s like a bond over getting to be the first to see it all.” Several variations of “This was worth not sleeping for two days” were overheard amid the throngs as they milled out of Marvel’s Hall H announcements on Saturday evening, with many people reporting that waiting with like-minded fans was a favorite part of their experience.
This was, of course, not just a feeling reserved for the frothing masses at Hall H, but to any of the non-show-floor related activities offered — including the House of the Dragon activation that, much to my aching, sleepy chagrin, was right outside of my hotel room right at the center of the Gaslamp district. (The price I pay for being so close to the show itself.)
As someone who has the patience for neither two-day long lines nor interacting with that many people at once without any kind of forward motion, this kind of love of standing in line seemed baffling to me on a personal level. At the same time, it also felt refreshing to see people excited about something again in the way that they only seem to be in the strange bubbled world of comic conventions.
“I’ve been watching Game of Thrones since season one!” I heard from someone who had brilliantly brought his own collapsible chair, waiting halfway down the winding line to enter the makeshift Targaryen castle outside of the Hilton Gaslamp, the end of which offered an AR experience that attendees could receive on their smartphones. “I read all the books, too. And I’ve been to every one of these things when they happen. Like, where else am I going to be able to do this? Why wouldn’t I want to wait for it?” Similar answers came from people all the way down the line, including those from parents who had also brought children whose faces were often — smartly, on behalf of the parents — glued to a tablet screen for the creeping duration of whatever activation and panel for which they were waiting. Many of those moms and dads were happy to explain that they didn’t get to do this sort of thing when they were a kid, and they wanted to share what they couldn’t have with their children.
As much as I’d like to believe that this was truly the spirit of Comic-Con come to life, something that became more apparent over the course of the weekend was that the actual spirit of Comic-Con — the collective joy of getting to share your fandoms, your interests, and yourself with like-minded others, all in the name of a love of pop culture — has changed somehow. While all these many stories and quotes were handed over to me with glee from attendees bursting to tell-all about their experience, that same energy, that same need to Be There and see The New Thing might be what created the largest problems with the convention overall this year.
The new reality of Comic-Con may have created a shift in focus towards a burgeoning culture of eager eyes and ears waiting for the next big announcement...
The new reality of Comic-Con may have created a shift in focus towards a burgeoning culture of eager eyes and ears waiting for the next big announcement, not to mention the possible purchasing of big box merchandise – and that may not be something inherently bad, I hasten to add – the cost of that new reality also became clearer in 2022 compared to previous years. Aside from my anecdotal experiences from the exhibition floor and the line for Hall H and outside activations, Sunday afternoon’s Talk Back panel revealed that much of attendees’ experiences didn’t seem to be about sharing a love of comics, TV, or movies anymore, but instead about being the best, the most vocal – about being the one to see it first. Too many stories revealed that people — many of whom were disabled — who had waited for hours, or even in some cases days, had been shoved to the end of the line by others who would strong-arm themselves and their friends into pole position by hook, crook, or Discord channel. Anything to guarantee being the first, and therefore the 'best,' fan.
The one place where this driving need seemed to dissipate was in certain sections of the show floor, mainly, and unfortunately, impacting comic publishers, book retailers, retailers, and art vendors.
"It does feel like people are less interested in comics than ever. I get it and all, but that doesn’t make it less depressing."
“We’re….okay,” a salesperson and marketing executive for a comic publisher told me on the condition of anonymity, the morning after a night of several large Eisner wins. “It helps that we have some great people here to sign this year, but it’s really slow compared to other years. Usually we’re mobbed and, as you can see, we still have boxes [of stock] that aren’t even opened. It does feel like people are less interested in comics than ever. I get it and all, but that doesn’t make it less depressing.”
I wish I could say that this conversation was a sad fluke, but nearly every publisher I spoke to at length admitted sharing similar feelings about the show. All expressed a sinking feeling at the idea of their comics — particularly ones that aren’t key to what’s most relevant in television and movies right now — just don’t have as much of an audience anymore. Even the few who said that, perhaps, people just didn’t want to lug such a heavy pile of books home on their flights offered the half-joke with an exhausted lilt that really does hit home if you sit with it for longer than a moment. Every year, creators and publishers express their concern that Comic-Con isn’t about comic books anymore; this year, that felt more true than ever.
There was some solace to be found amongst the sprawling stale cardboard of the back issue bins that lined the outermost borders of the far end of the show floor. Like many others who finally had a moment free amid the chaos of the week, I quietly scoured the bins with my treasure list in hand. Nearly every retailer knew their audience, however, and brought an abundance of their Silver Age Marvel best — an era that is currently resurgence in popularity thanks to the influence of the all-powerful MCU. With my list of oddities, such smart salesmanship felt somewhat discouraging compared to previous years when diving in headfirst to a pile of cardboard boxes at one of the bigger conventions meant coming up for air with some of DC’s forgotten gems, Marvel’s disquieting '80s ephemera, or tattered (yet still lovingly bagged and boarded) copies of titles from publishers long gone or lost overseas.
With the exception of one vendor — Harley Yee Rare Comics, whose collection had me thanking him on the brink of tears for a beautifully kept pile of '70s British sci-fi anthologies and some pristine copies of DeMatteis and Badger’s '80s graphic novel Greenberg the Vampire — there was a sameness of what was found to be found in the bins that felt undeniably financially smart to the times, but discouraging with regards to the uniqueness that convention-specific comic collecting often entails, and the back-issue bin magic of discovering something new.
... there was seemingly a panel for everyone and, wonderfully, everyone seemed to be excited to fill the seats in the name of supporting the people who bring the things they love to life.
Relief from the Longing For Cons Long Past could be found, somehow, in looking at the attendance at the many panels held across the four-day event. Let’s be clear: I’m not talking about Hall H, or even the famed Indigo Ballroom at the adjoining Hilton Bayfront, but instead, all of the smaller panels in the smaller rooms where old heads and new names come together to talk about just how good it can really be to make comics. From underground legends like Kitchen Sink Press’ Denis Kitchen, Wimmen’s Comix co-founder Trina Robbins and the iconic mother of fandom Maggie Thompson, to the big names at the Big Three like Batman: Gotham Night’s Evan Narcisse, Catwoman’s Tini Howard, and SFSX’s Tina Horn, there was seemingly a panel for everyone and, wonderfully, everyone seemed to be excited to fill the seats in the name of supporting the people who bring the things they love to life.
Very few, if any, of the panels that I walked into even just to peek at over the course of the week were empty — and if they were, the audience they did pull were rapt with attention, and the panelists were glad to give back in kind.
Nowhere was that more true than Thursday afternoon’s Spotlight on Todd McFarlane, in which the man who once explained the appeal of his massively successful Image Comics character Spawn by saying, simply, “kids love chains,” held court in a manner that was one part the funniest stand-up show you could imagine, one part an inspirational TED Talk by one of the most outrageously self-confident people on the face of the planet Earth, and one part an existential experience that made you understand exactly how the prisoners felt in Watchmen when Rorschach told them that they were locked in there with him. Whether it was the Toddster seeming surprised by his own success or his declaring to a young creator that he’d never catch up to that McFarlane magic, what unfolded on stage across that hour was one of the most enjoyable, delirious experiences I could ever hope to see, and something that could never have taken place at any other event in the world.
Suddenly, I understood the people waiting in line for the House of the Dragon activation. Where else was I going to be able to do this? Why wouldn’t I wait for it? Perhaps we are all sharing the same fandom after all, even if it’s fandom for different things, expressed in different ways. Maybe that’s the true magic of San Diego Comic-Con after all: that, whatever you’re here for, whatever your fandom happens to be aimed at, you’re given the space to express it freely and openly, whether it’s obscure back issues, panels featuring creators who should know better than to say what they’re saying, or waiting in line for two days to get an AR code downloaded to your phone while watching the trailers for the next big thing five minutes before they’re uploaded to YouTube. At Comic-Con, we get to see ourselves reflected in each other’s fandom, and realize that, deep down, we’re all the same.
Except for the people who dump their comics in the trash. Maybe just stay at home in the future.
Read through all of the Comic-Con weekend's major festivities with Popverse's SDCC coverage round-up.