Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture (McGraw-Hill, 2012) is a dazzling tour of the global pop-culture transmedia landscape and how comics are shaping the entertainment and communications industry of the 21st century, seen through the prism of the world's wildest trade show and consumer event - the San Diego Comic-Con.
The following excerpt from my book Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture describes the sense of building excitement as the tribes converge on San Diego for Con week. Previous excerpts here and here.
On the morning of Tuesday, July 12, we headed to Sea-Tac airport for our flight to San Diego. In the departure lounge, we scanned the crowd of families, business travelers, and vacationers for the telltale signs of membership in the tribe of True Believers.
Tuesday was a bit early; the real crowds start to gather on the morning and afternoon flights on Wednesday. Still, we were not alone. There in the corner was a big guy with bushy sideburns, wearing an XXL Green Lantern T-shirt over cargo shorts and sneakers, with an art portfolio on the chair next to him. Probability of Con attendance: greater than 99 percent. A few seats down, Eunice spied a young woman with black eyeliner and lipstick, sporting a tote bag from Emily the Strange, sitting next to a pale friend with lidded eyes wearing ornate Cthulhu-themed earrings. We would spot them at the Trickster party in a couple of days, in line for the sushi bar. Then there was the thirty-something guy reading the Watchmen trade paperback, the young dad browsing Newsarama on his iPad while his kids played Star Wars on their Game Boys, the older guy in horn-rimmed glasses with a battered leather satchel that doubtless contained a tabbed and underlined copy of the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide . . .
Over the next two days, in airports all around the world, underground rivers of fandom were bursting out into the open, forming the tributaries of a mighty torrent surging toward San Diego. When we landed at Lindbergh Field three hours later, we saw more likely suspects in the crowd filtering toward the taxi stand, pulled inexorably together like the pools of liquid metal reconstituting the “bad cop” cyborg in the final moments of Terminator 2.
The following excerpt from my book Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture offers a critical look at the collectors’ market through the lens of the (ever-shrinking) back issue dealers section of the Comic-Con exhibit hall.
As we start to contemplate a future of comics without comic books—and a future of media without media (records, CDs, DVDs, books, and other material repositories of information)—it’s important to recognize the role that the objects themselves play in the appeal of the content. Comic books are more than containers of story and art that can be transmuted seamlessly to any new method of delivery. The demise of physical methods of distribution represents a profound change in the atmospherics of media consumption. Despite everything we think we know about the superior convenience of digital, the consequences of this change from a commercial perspective are highly uncertain.
Consider the comic book collectors’ market. This is a big part of the culture of the hobby, and the existence of back-issue dealers adds intangible (and sometimes tangible) appeal to the desire to acquire and consume comics. At Comic-Con, old comics sellers used to define the exhibit hall, which was once known as the “dealers’ room.” These days, most of the dealers are clustered in the “Golden and Silver Age Pavilion” between aisles 200 and 1,000 toward the front of the hall, just adjacent to the alt.comics and book publishers.
The first thing you notice about the dealers at Comic-Con is the familiar faces. These same businesses, and often the same individuals, have been coming back year after year since the 1970s, and have been buying and selling the same books from and to the same aging, dwindling cluster of customers. If you are looking for titles published after 1980, you will not find much to choose from in this part of the room. Every so often, you will see a dealer advertising “new collection just in!” Everything else, you could safely assume, is inventory that may have been sitting in those long white boxes for years or decades.
Dealers’ row is still an interesting neighborhood. It’s a great place to get into random nerdy conversations about the most obscure and fun bits of comics trivia. In the midst of the chaos of Comic-Con, there is a certain Zen to flipping through long boxes in search of a particularly shiny needle in a particularly gigantic haystack. The physicality of these artifacts is attractive; it creates scarcity that is impossible in the digital economy of abundance.
Unfortunately, this is one part of comics culture that is incompatible with the changes that are sweeping over the industry and, especially, the new audience.
The following excerpt from my book Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture captures the frenzied first moments as the doors of Comic-Con open to the public on preview night.
“Attention exhibitors!” boomed the PA system. “Please move all pallets out of the aisles and return to your booths. The exhibit hall will be opening momentarily.”
Around the hall, nervous energy reached a fever pitch. The staffs at the large booths bustled about, putting the final touches on their displays and exhibits. Artists neatened up the stacks of comics and original art at their stations and settled into “meet the public” mode. Forklifts retreated from the floor, mounded high with the last stacks of empty boxes and discarded packing materials.
I made a final survey of the hall, taking in the last unobstructed views of the mega-media booths and noting where to find particular artists and dealers. It was a Sisyphean chore. No matter how closely one studied the map or wandered around, there always seemed to be a few booths or even entire aisles that remained hidden until they revealed themselves on Saturday or Sunday afternoon.
The posted opening time for the exhibit hall was 6 p.m., but for the past several years, in a savvy exercise of expectation management, the Con has opened the doors a few minutes ahead of schedule. At about 10 minutes to the hour, the PA boomed again: “Attention exhibitors: Comic-Con 2011 is now open!”
The line of registered attendees, which ran all the way down the length of the convention center, up the steps, through an endless string of switchbacks and velvet-cordoned “crowd management” areas, through the upper level, and down the massive staircase behind the rear entrance to Hall C, slowly unwound, disgorging tens of thousands into the hall. Almost immediately, a steady stream of people began pouring onto the floor.
Comic-Con International: San Diego 2013 is coming up in less than a month and lots of exciting stuff is going on. I’ll be moderating a few panels at the big show, including the always-popular “ComicPreneurs,” featuring folks who have successfully launched pop culture startups; a panel on Digital First comics, spotlighting the rising trend of books being published and sold in digital format exclusively; and a fun gig with my pals at Bonfire Group on marketing and branding for the nerd-American community.
To get in the spirit of things, I participated in a great conversation last night with Heidi MacDonald of The Beat and Publishers’ Weekly. We covered the growth of the Con, its impact on movies and related media, the trials and tribulations of the comics industry, why you should not miss the Eisner Awards, why transmedia is actually cool, and lots more. We also traded “it’s all downhill from here” stories about out favorite Comic-Con experiences, featuring cameo appearances by Jack Kirby and Will Eisner.
Anyone who read my book knows I am a big fan of Heidi’s work both as a journalist and a perceptive commentator on the state of the pop culture industry. It was an absolutely dynamite podcast and I thank the good people at The San Diego Comic-Con Unofficial Blog for having us on.
In Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture, I wrote that the speed with which Comic-Con sells out is now bumping up against the laws of physics. We are going to see experimental evidence to support that theory in about 48 hours.
No, they’re not putting running the registration forms through a supercollider, but online attendees registration for Comic-Con International: San Diego 2013 opens on February 16 to anyone who obtained a Member ID prior to 2/12. Despite efforts to streamline the process, it is likely to be fraught with uncertainty and frustration as hundreds of thousands scramble for a limited number of passes.
Here’s a video produced by CCI to explain the process. Good luck everyone!
The programming schedule for the Emerald City Comic-Con was just posted with lots of great stuff as always. I will be moderating a panel on the Future of Comics on Friday at 5:20pm in Hall C featuring an amazing lineup of industry innovators: award-winning writer Mark Waid, DC/Vertigo honcho Hank Kanalz, comiXology co-founder and CEO David Steinberger, Monkeybrain mastermind Allison Baker, and videogame/transmedia entrepreneur and Harebrained Schemer Jordan Weisman.
We’ll be talking about the evolution of the comics medium as both an art and a business in the digital age, including:
- The rise of digital-first comics: how are creators and publishers using this new delivery channel? What new possibilities does it open for readers and fans?
- Comics convergence: how do comics fit in the “transmedia” spectrum of storytelling possibilities, including opportunities for blending comics with animation, videogames, social media and other channels?
- The future of crowdfunding: now that Kickstarter has emerged as a major platform for independent creators and publishers alike, what are the risks and opportunities that lie ahead?
- Bits and Atoms: how are digital media blending with and complementing the traditional physical manifestations of comics and entertainment, from retail to toys and games to “multi-screen” experiences and augmented reality?
- How far can all this stuff go and still be considered “comics”?
If you have any other thoughts or questions you’d like to hear these luminaries discuss, tweet me @robsalk.
After the panel, I’ll be signing Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture at Booth 1608, home of Seattle’s mighty Comics Dungeon. Stop by and say hi.
Yesterday San Diego Comic-Con professional registration opened. This is when a group of pre-qualified, pre-selected industry pros (and their guests) get to go online and get badges to attend their industry’s most important event.
Last year, the process took nine days. This year, whatever number of badges were available yesterday sold out in a matter of hours.
Begun, the pro-pocalpyse has.
Earlier this fall I sat down with Hanson Hosein, host of Four Peaks TV, a Seattle-based program looking at media, communication and technology and head of the Masters of Communication Digital Media (MCDM) program at the University of Washington. It was all kind of a blur to me when we recorded it, but it came out pretty well. It will air on Cable News Northwest (CNNW) December 29 and 30, and it’s on pretty heavy rotation this month on UWTV (Comcast cable channel 26).
2012 was the year digital-direct comics went mainstream. Entirely bypassing the tried-and-true supply chain of print distribution, brick-and-mortar retailers and the collectors market, these stand-alone tablet apps, self-published originals, studio efforts, and digital exclusives sold through platforms like comiXology and iVerse disrupted old business models, probed the borders of traditional comics subject-matter and opened new possibilities for the medium.
In this slide show at FastCoCreate, some of the year’s most notable achievements–the comics that best exemplified the evolution of the art form and the transition of the industry.
[originally presented at FastCoCreate, December 12, 2012.]