Does San Diego Comic Con still care about comics?

I hear this question a lot — actually, more than the question, I hear it as a statement: “With the influx of Hollywood, there is no place for comics at Comic Con”

That statement isn’t true, but I can see why you would think it is.  The Hollywood influence at SDCC, more pronounced than at any other major comics convention, gives the impression that there is no room for comics at comic con and that those attending don’t care about comics.

Let’s unpack that.

San Diego Comic Con started in 1970 as the “Golden State Comic Book Convention” (I’m pulling most of the historical info from past SDCC guides and Wikipedia). It went through a few name changes in the intervening years until it is known as THE “Comic Con” — there’s a New York Comic Con and a Chicago Comic Con, but generally when people refer to “Comic Con” they are talking about San Diego, which in the past 40 years has become the premier comic book convention in the country?

Why is that?

Primarily, SDCC has grown to be what it is today because of Hollywood.  George Lucas showcased “Star Wars” there in 1977.  “Superman” was previewed there (to a few catcalls) in 1978.  Since then, Hollywood has had a consistent presence at the convention, recognizing early on that not only was it a short drive down the coast, but they could get early feedback on their genre projects.

Hollywood also recognized early on that Comic Con was a good place to find new stories and writers.  Independent artists, animators and writers were always there, hawking their latest books and independent work, so why not find the coolest and hottest properties at the convention to option and develop as future projects?

The last 10 years showed a real explosion in the coverage for Comic Con, due to the internet and blogs.  Now that people could hear about these Hollywood projects early, there was demand.  In 2005, ABC thought that it might be interesting to bring a new show to the Con, see what the audience thought before it premiered in the fall.  The response was so positive and enormous that it set the precedent for TV networks and cable — LOST became a huge hit, the pilot getting great word of mouth three months prior to it hitting the air.  Now every year, not only do established shows make appearances at the con with cast and writers, but new shows which haven’t aired yet get a chance to test the waters. Fans made it clear that they wanted this kind of attention from Hollywood and Hollywood responded.

The impression as that the Hollywood machine is so enormous now that it pushes comics, the original inspiration and medium which generated the convention in the first place, off to the side.  While I understand that feeling, the fact is that comics are still a dominant force at Comic Con.  DC and Marvel still have the largest booths in the Exhibit Hall. A vast section of the Exhibit Hall is dedicated to independent comic publishers, retailers and artists. While it is true that the major traffic jams occur in the Hollywood section of the floor, it’s because the studios bring all of their big screens, flashing lights and — well, Hollywood — flair.  It’s hard to ignore something so bright and shiny twirling endlessly before your eyes.  So while the Hollywood and Silicon Valley (gaming) sections of the Exhibit Hall create most of the traffic, the square footage of space dedicated to comics is still larger.

But what about the panels? This year there are more than 64 television shows with panels at Comic Con! If you are doing that math, that is 16 shows a day!  The film panels have dwindled markedly, as studios have had mixed results from showcasing genre films at the convention.  A few years ago, everyone expected the big attraction at the con would be the panel devoted to the long anticipated film adaptation of the beloved and groundbreaking comic series/graphic novel WATCHMEN, but a curious thing happened.  There was an undercurrent no one had really paid any attention to, except for Lionsgate which was producing a different adaptation of a Young Adult series that was quietly taking over teenage girls across the country.  The teenage girls showed up at Comic Con, once word was out among the rabid fanbase that the film would be presented at the Con with the unknowns cast in the film.

The result was TWILIGHT took the Con and everyone there by complete surprise.  My sister Julie was in Hall H awaiting the start of the panel following Lionsgate.  I received a text from her during the TWILIGHT panel in which she told me of the deafening crowd reaction to the actors as they came out on stage.  It was in that moment that we knew, a full six months ahead of its premiere in theaters that the film would be a huge hit.

Conversely, panels have a way of telling you what won’t do well.  Reviews following the panels for The Green Lantern were so decidedly mixed that the studio had to be worried about their tentpole after the Con.  Like it or not, the Con has predicted success and failure for Hollywood, and they are fools not to heed the bellweather.

But back to the issue of the quantity of panels — let’s take a look at the names of the panels in the first two hours on Thursday, the opening of SDCC this year:

  • Comic-Con How-To: Building the Foundation to a Page-Turning Story
  • The Witty Women of Steampunk
  • Marvel: Breaking into Comics the Marvel Way
  • IDW & Hasbro
  • Racebending.com: Creating Spaces for Diverse Characters and Representations
  • From Fan to Creator: Goal Setting for Creative Types
  • Flesk: Celebrating a Decade of Publishing
  • Comic-Con Film School 101: Preproduction and Screenwriting
  • TheOneRing.net: The Truth About The Hobbit
  • DC: Talent Search Orientation Session 1
  • Battlestar: So Say We All
  • How to Get News Coverage (for small press comics)
  • Comic Book Law School 101: ABCs for a Savvy and Smart Start (Up)
  • Books and Hollywood: Literary Franchises in Television and Film
  • Epic Games: Fortnite Revealed
  • Comic-Con How-To: Creating a Character-Driven Story

Those are all of the panels that begin between 10 AM and 1o:45 AM.  What do you see?  More than half of the panels are dedicated to comics and publishing.  Weirdly, we only have one TV show with a panel during this time frame, and it happens to be for a show (Battlestar Galactica) that has been off the air for years!  It’s true, not every hour of every day has this many comics panels running simultaneously, but it’s pretty close.  I would argue that while Hollywood films and tv shows overshadow these smaller panels in their coverage, they are like the umbrella which allows for all of the other panels for games, books, comics and fansites to exist.  If there was no Hollywood, there would be maybe half as many panels.  This diversity is what makes SDCC the greatest display of fandom and geek culture that exists in the world.

In recent years, indie comic producers have felt that they are losing real estate in the convention hall — a valid complaint, given the limited space and growing demand for it.  Some of them decided to move out of the convention center and set up shop in a building nearby.  Heck, even some of the Hollywood folks have been crowded out of the convention center and have found places to establish a headquarters in the sprawling Gaslamp district a block or two away.  This has only grown the Con more, as more and more options make it easier for people to enjoy elements of the convention without needing a badge TO the convention.  After all, the con has grown so large, it is difficult to buy a pass, whether for a single day or the entire weekend.  The solution has come in a most unexpected way — take some of the offerings and events outside of the convention, available to anyone and everyone.  Until the San Diego Convention Center expansion project is completed in about four years, this will have to suffice.  In the  meantime, I doubt that anyone will really mind.

One of the most anticipated events during this weekend is the annual Eisner Awards ceremony, celebrating the best in comics and graphic novels for the preceding year.  If there were no comics, there probably wouldn’t be a convention.  Is it fair to call it “Comic Con” anymore?  From a traditional point of view, the purists say ‘yes’, though even Comic Con itself bills the event as a celebration of popular culture, recognizing that the reach has expanded far beyond its original intent.

So, does SDCC still care about comics?  I think they do.  Hollywood certainly does, as so many films and tv shows have come from comic roots.  So long as there are comics, I think it’s fair to say that Comic Con will care.

Long Live Comic Con!

Posted under analysis

This post was written by Shawna on July 3, 2012

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