A Taste of Comic-Con

Crowds on the floor at Comic-Con preview night 2010, from www.theworldisraw.com

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.

The PA system exhorted, “Please, no running in the aisles,” an announcement that could apply only to these opening minutes, when high-speed mobility was a possibility. The first people on the floor, who had been waiting in line for most of the day, if not longer, paid no attention. They sprinted to stake their claim on an exclusive toy or poster, a limited-edition comic, or a celebrity signature. Others filtered in with a dazed zombie walk, then stopped dead in their tracks a few steps inside the door. I saw what I presumed to be a family of four—dressed in matching Batman, Batgirl, Robin, and Bat-Mite costumes—transfixed in the entryway, eyes darting around the room from corner to corner, unable to process the scale of the hall and the bewildering array of spectacles on display.

In less than half an hour, the entire gargantuan space was heaving with the frenzied energy of a stadium-sized crowd. There was a collective quickening of pulse and hyperventilation. People pawed the merchandise, ogled the costumes, snapped photos, explored the elaborate booths, and queued up in lines that spontaneously generated around the hall as the stocks of swag drew low.

By 7:00, the center aisles were clogged, even as thousands more were still making their way onto the floor. Fire marshals eyed the crowd nervously, muttering into walkie-talkies and making notes on clipboards. Preview night attendance was capped at a fraction of the total number of four-day registrants because there was no other programming on Wednesday night to pull people out of the exhibit hall and into the dozens of meeting rooms for panels, game tournaments, film screenings, or autograph signings. There would be more people at the Con over the weekend, but the floor would never feel quite as crowded and intense as it does in the first hours of preview night.

In 2001, when preview night first opened to all four-day attendees, it was mostly an opportunity for collectors to scope out the prices and inventory at the dealers’ tables and start conversations that might lead, a few days later, to the purchase of a particularly pricey back issue or piece of original artwork. By 2005, exhibitors were reporting sales on preview night that matched levels previously only seen on Saturday afternoon, the traditional height of the Con. People wanted to get their purchases out of the way before the programming started, in case they had to spend time waiting in lines or doing other activities that would take them off the floor. Preview night was no longer an afterthought; it had become the critical time for buyers and sellers of collectibles, either vintage or new. Lines grew longer, and the crowds initially overwhelmed the convention center’s ability to handle them, leading to a lot of frustration and wasted time.

This year, the Con seemed to have crowd management down to a science. There appeared to be enough security and volunteers, adequately trained in both procedures and etiquette, to keep things moving without seeming too much like a police state. This was combined with a willingness, or perhaps resignation, on the part of attendees to accept more regimentation, given the challenges of having so many avid, amped-up fans in one place, some of whom were armed with uncomfortably lifelike swords and weaponry.

The need for all these rules, systems, and enforcement mechanisms makes logical sense considering the scale of Comic-Con in the 2000s. However, as the thinning gray ponytailed elders of the Con will tell you, it was not always this way.

The San Diego Comic-Con dates back to 1970, when organizers led by Shel Dorf (1933–2009) and a few hundred fans first assembled at the U.S. Grant Hotel to meet special guests Jack Kirby and Ray Bradbury, watch vintage horror films, buy and sell back issues, and, in later years, attend a Saturday night fan banquet that was open to all attendees. In that early age of comics fandom, San Diego vied with big conventions in New York to be the center of the comics universe. It got a boost in 1976, when a fledgling studio called Lucasfilm showed up with a slide show introducing its new movie, Star Wars. The shrieks of geek orgasm that shook San Diego that year echoed out across the cosmos—an early indication of the force of Comic-Con buzz that would so intoxicate Hollywood marketing departments decades later.

Fandom grew more numerous, confident, and sophisticated through the 1980s and 1990s, and the Con grew with it. By 1985, Comic-Con had moved to the Convention and Performing Arts Center, and the crowd of about 6,000 was enough to freak out star writer Alan Moore, who never attended another comic convention in the United States.

Comic-Con became the site of a film festival, a gaming tournament, an academic conference, a retail trade show, and a meeting place for dozens if not hundreds of fan organizations whose members rarely got together in person. Somewhere along the way, the Masquerade costume parade that was traditionally held on Saturday night overspilled its levees and flooded across the entire breadth and duration of the Con. The “cosplay” antics of fans dressed as their favorite characters became a staple of media reports of the Con in this period, giving the show the Mardi Gras-like reputation it enjoys today.

I was not alone in discovering Comic-Con in those years. In 2002, attendance jumped more than 10,000 from 2001: in the midst of a severe economic downturn and the lead-up to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, people needed an escape from reality, and they knew where to find it. The next year, the exhibit hall expanded to its current size, taking up the entire lower level of the convention center from Hall A to Hall G, which formed a gigantic contiguous, cavernous space crammed with every manner of pop culture diversion. The media were starting to take note. Big features appeared in Entertainment Weekly, Variety, and USA Today, as well as on network news and business shows.

By 2005, Con attendance crossed the 100,000 mark. Whatever virulent strain the nerds had been cooking up in their parents’ basements had gotten loose in the general population. This was the era when even hardened professionals and veteran attendees went weak-kneed at the sight of the crowds, the lines, the endless aisles of booths and tables, the costumes, the noise, the celebrity star power, the crazed over-the-top hype, and the increasingly exclusive parties for A-listers thrown by Hollywood studios and big media outlets.

Each year, new voices arise to declare that Comic-Con has lost its way, sold its soul, jumped the shark. Each year, it sells out faster and the quest for hotel rooms grows more frantic. Each year, Eunice and I pack our bags and wonder, how could they possibly top last year? And each year, they find a way.

If you enjoyed that snippet, good news! There’s lots more about what goes on at Comic-Con and what it all means to the larger world of entertainment, technology and business in Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture!

If you’re a comic book nut like me, miss it at your own risk!”

-Stan “The Man” Lee

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