For the past two weeks, people have been asking me what I thought of this year’s Comic-Con. It’s a reasonable question, but each time I’m asked, I have a harder and harder time coming up with a coherent answer. I went to a few interesting panels, but nothing headline-making. I didn’t bump into Sarah Michele Gellar in an elevator or play a hand of cards with Will Eisner, but had fun with a lot of my old pals.I bought a nice drawing by Rudy Nebres and got a Fabulous Furry Freak Brothersbook signed by Gilbert Shelton. All told, it was a pleasant enough weekend.
Somehow that’s not enough of an answer. Because I now write about all this stuff professionally, I am expected to have a concise, quotable opinion on what it all means. And I’m not sure that’s even possible. Considering it took me an entire book to explain what I thought of the 2011 show, a thousand words of a blog post is just me clearing my throat. But here goes…
The more Con reports I see and read, the more I realize I missed. At the same time, many of these reports confirmed my intuition that, at a gathering where shark-jumping has practically become an Olympic medal event, this year’s show represented not just a step, but a long leap into undiscovered country.
In the exhibit hall, it was the usual mob scene we’d become accustomed to over the past few years, and it actually seemed easier to get into some of the smaller meeting rooms for panels this year. But what was new to me is that the crowds outside the convention center seemed at least as big as the crowds inside. On Saturday noon when I walked to Trickster behind Petco Field, the whole Gaslamp District was packed, and most of the people didn’t have badges. They were just there for the vibe, or for any of the literally dozens of off-site attractions ranging from gallery shows to corporate-sponsored lounges to weird, freaky street theatre. There was a bit of that in the last year or two, but nothing like what I saw this time.
Then there were the lines. We stayed at the Hilton this year and had a room facing the Convention Center. In the morning over coffee, we’d stare out the window at the almost-unimaginable Hall H line, which at one point extended up and back the length of the harbor boardwalk three times around, before even approaching the serpentine rope-course under the tents. People not only jammed the massive patio on the mezzanine level to get into Ballroom 20, but flowed down the back steps and out toward the jetty on the marina – a line at least a mile long.
What was amazing about these lines is not that they were long, or even usually long for Comic-Con; it’s the way they were just calmly accepted as part of the landscape. That seemed to me to be the overwhelming vibe of the Con this year: not the pitched, frantic, gotta-get-it-now energy of the last few shows, but a kind of blissed out, passive acceptance of crowds, hassles, security, stars, hype, counter-hype, new stuff, old stuff, announcements, rising prices, and whatever else Comic-Con had to offer. People weren’t making the scene, in the sense of creating their own environment; they were making the scene in the worst, played-out hippie sense.
At the end of Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture, I lay out four scenarios for the future of comics in the entertainment world, which kicks off with four possibilities for Comic-Con 2017. The first scenario (“Endless Summer”), posits a Con of more than 500,000, with every manner of corporate crossover transmedia bonanza you can imagine. That scenario was very easy to see from 2012. Momentum is certainly carrying us toward that future at an alarming clip.
But there were other scenarios too: one with a diminished Con catering to old-time fans; one where San Diego was just first among equals in a global circuit of diverse, engaging and authentic creative festivals; and one where there was no Con at all. You could see the seeds of those as well – as long as you squinted hard enough.
An event like Comic-Con always generates skeptics and naysayers. Many find the consumerism repulsive, the spectacle tasteless, and the scale insupportably exhausting. Now that Comic-Con has fused with, and embodies, popular culture writ large, the gripes aimed at superhero movies, fan-based marketing and the nerdlebrity culture in general also wash up on its shores. Just as a lot of the growth and bombast of Comic-Con can be factored in to our assessments of the event moving forward, so too can a lot of the backlash.
But amid the noise, there are a few troublesome signals. Critical carping over the decade-old superhero movie boom has become a lot more thoughtful and targeted. This is not just old-school film critics telling pop culture enthusiasts to get their big, messy blockbusters off their lawn; it’s increasingly a knowing insider critique from people who understand, appreciate and even love comics culture, but fear it is showing signs of rot.
This has spilled over into conversations within nerd culture, with one particularly unfortunate example questioning the motives of some recently-arrived women as fans and participants. But gender issues aside, the anguish over geek authenticity reflects the anxiety of a fragile subculture being strip-mined by opportunists. As comics fandom has expanded beyond its natural audience, it has longer borders to defend and a more diverse set of views operating within the tribe. Because we are talking about naturally smart and obsessive people for the most part, these conversations can lead to a debilitating self-consciousness that can choke off forward progress.
Some of this is reflected at Comic-Con. There’s also been a sameness and repetition to the big panels for the last few years as not only the movie premiers, but also the big nerdlebrity talk-a-thons. Everyone has become more sophisticated and less spontaneous. What started out as uniquely-cool direct connections between stars and their audience have now become sophisticated three-bumper bank-shots of calculated channel management.
It all reminds me of a Simpsons episode from years agowhere Bart inadvertently becomes a TV sitcom star with his very own obnoxious catch-phrase (“I didn’t do it!”). He keeps getting more and more famous and successful, until one day he starts seeing the show as his job. The moment he has that seemingly-pragmatic and sophisticated revelation, the laughs dry up and the show goes off the air. It wasn’t the size of his fame that got him; it was the self-awareness.
In an apparently unrelated development, Matt Groening received the annual Icon Award at this year’s Con. That was cool.