This week San Diego will host the 56th annual international pop culture festival known as San Diego Comic-Con. There will no doubt be lots of stories in the press about how this is the first time in three years that the event has been able to happen (which is not quite true: an online version of the convention took place in July of 2020 and 2021, and in the fall a mini-SDCC took place with 35,000 in attendance), as well as innumerable footage of cosplayers and celebrities.
One thing you probably won't hear about, though, are the volunteers. SDCC is one of the biggest pop culture conventions in the world; before the pandemic its attendance had risen to 135,000 people. And astonishingly, it is run almost entirely by volunteers. With few exceptions, everyone doing the registrations, managing the lines, accompanying special guests and everything else is doing that service without being paid any money for it. Instead, for each day that a volunteer agrees to help for 3-4 hours, said volunteer can attend the convention for the rest of that day for free.
In 2010, I moved to Los Angeles to begin film school, and that summer I was lucky enough to get a slot as a volunteer. (As with SDCC's ticket sales, volunteering involves an online lottery.) I had really no idea what to expect. I'd never been to a pop culture event like this, let alone worked at one. And what I quickly learned is that volunteering at Comic-Con is in many ways the best part of attending.
Helping other people celebrate
Put simply, Comic-Con is a gathering of tens of thousands of people who are full of gratitude and wonder for what pop culture has given them. Everywhere you go in the convention center, you see it on their faces, a giddy joy like they can't quite believe they get to be here savoring the stories and creators that have brought them so much delight. I can't tell you how many times at Comic-Con I've had the experience of stumbling onto something that was important to me as a kid, that gave me courage or perspective, without my realizing it at the time. The convention offers this incredible opportunity to see both your pop culture passions and your life with fresh eyes.
As a volunteer, your whole job is to help people have that experience. You get to give them the cool backpacks that everyone wears and loves. You get to point them in the right direction when they're looking for something or answer their questions. Most of the time if I have a choice (and you usually do) I do line management, which is basically just standing somewhere as people wait for something to happen—a room to open, a lottery to begin, a few more conventiongoers to leave the hall they want to get into. It sounds dull, I know, but I find it's a chance to cheer people on for their cosplay or their pop culture tees, to be a voice of encouragement and more generally a quiet agent of the kind of welcome and friendship that Comic-Con is known for.
Some people refer to SDCC as a pop culture version of Disneyland. But the difference is, at Comic-Con everyone around you is part of what makes the whole thing a great experience. We end up being Comic-Con for each other. (I admit, this may be the most cringe-y thing I have ever said. But it is true!)
The volunteers are a big piece of that friendly spirit. And here's the crazy thing: Nobody tells us to be like that. There's no training or orientation explaining how to be a good volunteer. That's just the way the volunteers at Comic-Con are.
I couldn't tell you a single panel or event happening at this year's Comic-Con. I haven't even looked yet. (Note to self: This is why you never get to go to Conan's events.) And if I step back and think about why that is, it's probably because the thing I'm most looking forward is those three or four hours when I'm standing around telling strangers their T-shirts are awesome and watching the excitement grow on their faces as the line they're in starts to move.