Comic-Con: The Sum of All Media

Written By: Paul Toth - Mar• 16•14

This is, approximately speaking, the bajillionth article on Comic-Con. People far more informed than I, have written extensively about every imaginable aspect of the esteemed event. It’s history, the luminaries that attend, the cultural incongruities, overtones, and implications, have all been discussed ad nauseum, as have the length of the lines and exalted nature of those invited to speak on its panels. And YouTube’s virtual pipes are overflowing with footage of Comic-Con happenings.

Despite all of this seemingly exhaustive coverage, I’ve found most people don’t actually know what the heck Comic-Con is. They’ve gleaned a thing or two, like the proverbial gaggle of blind men feeling their way around an elephant, but aren’t really sure what sort of creature they’re feeling up. They’re certain it’s large, unfamiliar, and perhaps a bit odd-smelling, but have only the vaguest of notions beyond that. It is for you, inquisitive blind swami, that I’ve written this.

For while you might be able to get the gist of things from the Comic-Con web site or Wikipedia, I promise to provide a more colorful, personal take on the event. One that includes descriptions of the waxy buildup on the elephant’s ears, the smell of its industrial-grade farts, and the mocking expression worn by that annoying little bird that rides around on the pachyderm’s back.

 

Wham! Boff! Pow!

Comic-Con is replete with TV stars, movie stars, star wars fanatics, anime fanatics, animators, directors, producers, videogame promoters, videogame characters (or diehard fans dressed up as them, anyway), and people who wait in line for three hours to see a sneak peek of the next installment of whatever media property has most recently captured the attention of thirteen year old girls and thirteen-year-old-girls-at- heart. So, what, in the name of all this holy, does any of this run-on sentence have to do with comic books? That’s what the “comic” in “Comic-Con” is for, right?

Why, yes. Yes, Padawan, it is.

You see, all of the mad wonder that is Comic-Con started out as an actual comic book convention—and a humble one at that. For the uninitiated, here’s what you typically get at a comic book convention:

  • Vendors, usually selling—you guessed it—comic books. And, of course, related paraphernalia like posters, action figures, and vintage energy drinks.
  • Comic book creators. Sometimes at booths, sometimes on panels.
  • Industry keynote speakers. They are just like the guys sitting at the booths, but famous!
  • Lots of people who like to read comics.

These are things you still find at Comic-Con. One of the mammoth halls at the San Diego venue is primarily devoted to all things comic-bookish. But the convention has moved far beyond its clannish, four-color roots. This is a process that has taken place over the course of multiple decades, and affected the conventioneering (Not a word, you say? Bite me!) industry as a whole. The phenomenon has just had an outsize influence Comic-Con because of well, its outsizedness.

To see how a nichy, comic convention good metastasize into something else, let us consider the humble oyster. A hunk of grit lodges in the critter’s innards and becomes an irritant. To isolate the offending particle, said oyster secretes a substance that creates a smooth later around it. The secretions build up over time, and before you know it, wham, bam, thank-you clam, you’ve got a pearl. Later on, a comely diver named Jessa scoops up the mollusk, pries it open, and claims its prize. Not so good for the oyster, which is due for some stew, but Jessa’s doing the happy dance.

So, what’s the first layer of pearl-stuff that built up around that original chunk of comic-loving grit? It consisted of someone (probably quite a few someones) asking the rather obvious question:

What if convention wasn’t just about comics? The guys that show up are into a lot of the same things. Fantasy. Scifi. Horror. They watch a lot of the same movies and TV, and read a lot of the same books. Bet we could improve our draw if we added a few scifi panels to the mix.

And the someones who held the purse strings scratched their collective chins, nodded their collective heads, and said, “Make it so.”

So authors, screenwriters, producers, and sci-fi series creators began to make their way toward booths, onto panels, and into the collective consciousness of the comic-convention-going public—many of whom were no doubt used to such fare from attending Star Trek conferences and the like. Most importantly, the new influx brought actors. When Comic-Con and its brethren began to include on-screen personalities they dramatically broadened their appeal. For every enthusiast that wants to know how mo-cap was used to make The Incredible Hulk’s expressions appear lifelike, there are a hundred who are willing to pay the price of admission on the off chance they might score an autograph from someone who struts their stuff on-screen. Broader appeal meant larger crowds, which in turn meant mo’ money, which gave the organizers greater incentive to broaden the convention’s scope. A classic virtuous cycle, with self-reinforcing feedback loops galore. “Virtuous,” of course, is in the eye of the beholder. Not all convention goers appreciate sharing the floor with gushing, starry-eyed Twilight fan-girls (What’s the female version of “fanboi?” Not sure).

 

Who Invited Kevin Bacon to This Thing?

So, now our shiny, increasingly voluminous pearl has come to represent more than scruffy comic book artists with their ink-stained fingers and half-empty bottles of lukewarm Red Bull. It shines with collective brilliance of movie producers and special effect gurus, curvaceous starlets and steely-eyed leading men. Simple booths have metamorphorsed into towering plaster-and-neon brand building edifices. Is this the end of the journey, then? Is the transformation complete?

Nay, grasshopper, it is not.

Enter Kevin Bacon. Stage left.

We can look at something like a panel of fantasy novelists as being one degree of separation of the original vision of what constitutes a core comic book convention. People who like comic books are likely to enjoy fantasy novels as well, so those who write fantasy novels are two degrees away from the fan.

Comic book fan -> comic book writer – one degree of separation.

Comic book fan -> fantasy fan -> fantasy author – two degrees of separation.

After convention organizer witnessed the wondrous profit margins that one two degree of separation had brought, it was only natural for them to ask:

 

Can we broaden the appeal of our event even more? We started out with comic books, and drew decent crowds. We added other stuff that comic book fans like, and got bigger crowds. Well, what if we add even MORE stuff—the things liked by people who like the things that comic book fans like?

Umm, what?

Look at it this way:

Bert likes comic books. Bert also likes Lost, because Bert grew up on X-Files and Lost is X-Files‘ younger, hotter cousin. He’s likely to go to Comic-Con, both for the comics, and that Lost panel he’ll have to wait three hours to watch, even though the show’s been off the air for years.

Ernie has never read a comic book in his life. He likes Lost, though. Because it has this freaky smoke monster and time travel and smoke serious smokin’ babes. Ernie also likes Glee, because some of the kids on the show are geeky like Ernie, the music is kind of catchy, and its babe quotient is high. Heck, it even has a few characters who are female, geeky, and hot, and that most certainly floats Ernie’s boat. He’d enjoy Lost and Glee panels. Like Bert, Ernie is likely to go to Comic-Con.

Elmo doesn’t read comic books, and he didn’t like Lost (confusing!) but he belts out a mean falsetto during practice sessions with his high school a capella team. He and some of his teammates will most definitely skip school, skateboard down to the convention center, and hop in line to see the Glee panel. They might even dress up as their favorite Black Butler characters and enter one of the costume contests.

Now, Bert thinks Glee is completely retarded, which you might think is bad, since he’s a member of the core Comic-Con demographic. But he’s still probably heading to the convention, Glee or no Glee, and Elmo, who wouldn’t have attended the conventions of yore, will be picking up tickets as well. The Glee panel will be well-attended, because both the Ernies and Elmoes of the world will be present. For the organizers, it’s a win.

Let’s revisit our degrees-of-separation table.

Comic book fan -> comic book writer – one degree

Comic book fan -> scifi TV fan -> scifi TV panel – two degrees

Comic book fan -> scifi fan -> geek musical fan -> g-pop panel – three degrees

BTW, this particular scenario draws from personal experience. When I attended Comic-Con three years ago, there was a Lost panel with mind-bogglingly long lines, and an event promoting the Glee pilot, which was months away from airing. The Glee thing was a huge hit, despite it having no obvious relevance to the world of comics.

In pure economic terms, the message is clear. As long as you can keep your core fans satisfied, there’s no downside to increasing the degrees of separation. Comic-Con has, and will probably continue to, embrace an increasingly broad array of genres, mediums, categories, and activities.

So, You Want to Go to Comic-Con

Whoa. Easy there, broheme. It’s not that simple.

Let’s cogitate for a nonce: We have an event with steadily escalating mass appeal (thanks to its increasing degrees of separation), a static venue (it’s always at the San Diego convention center) that’s already packed to the gills, and a once-niche category (geek culture) that’s increasingly mainstream (consider Big Bang Theory and a steady stream of hit superhero movies). Given what our high econ teacher with the poofy eyebrows and the handlebar mustache told us about supply and demand, something’s got to give. Either prices go up, or a substantial, and increasingly large, proportion of the aggregate demand will go unmet.

The Comic-Con International organization has done a pretty good job of keeping a lid on prices. They keep the per-ticket price fairly flat from year to year, and keep the scalping to a minimum by associating each badge with a specific identity at point of sale. Since prices aren’t rising with demand, demand goes unmet. In other words, you can’t necessarily get a ticket, any more than you necessarily make that wacky Flintstones scratcher pay off.

Here’s how it works:

  1. If you get a badge on year X, you can buy one for year X + 1 right after the year X convention. Congratulations! You’re one of the elite, ready to ascend to Olympus and lord it over the scrubs fighting over scraps down below.
  2. Everyone needs to enter the open registration process. First, you pre-register, providing your name and receiving a membership ID and Comic-Con online account in return. This happens about nine months before the convention.
  3. About four months before the convention, sales commence. You must be pre-registered to have a chance. It is for a specified time (8 AM on the day this was written, as it so happens) all prospective ticket buyers log on using their membership ID and are placed in a virtual “waiting room.”
  4. After two hours, no one else is allowed in the waiting room. Everyone that was in the waiting room at this point is placed in line. Your place in line is random (yes, it’s essentially a lottery).
  5. Over the course of the next few hours, people are taken from the line, in order, and allowed to buy badges (up to three, but only for pre-registered individuals). If you didn’t end up getting a spot toward the front of the line, tough noogies. No badge for you!

So, what are the odds of getting a badge, if you’re one of the great unwashed? It’s hard to say for certain. This is purely anecdotal, but of the five friends and family members I know who tried to get a badge, only one succeeded. The odds are slim, which is just what your bald, chain smoking, NHL washout out of a high school econ teacher would have told you, if you’d known to ask.

Hey, the biggest, shiniest, most lustrous of pearls are hard to come by. What did you expect?

Enter, the Dragoon

So, what’s it like at the ‘con? Crowded, for starters, especially in the main hall, and especially on Saturday. It’s like one of those preposterously hip nightclubs where you’re not actually allowed to stand in one place, and guys on stepladders keep everyone moving by waving flashlights, making sure that the human mass stays in motion so as not to be crushed under its own weight. The most popular events—panels featuring celebrities—have lines that wend around outside the convention hall structure. You have to show up an hour or more in advance to have a shot at getting into one these (there are tactics to avoid this, but getting into that would require a whole other article).

One of the most remarkable, and coolest (well, cool, in an uber-geeky sort of way) aspects of the environment is the effect you get from having so many people in costume. Probably around 10% of the convention-goers dress up, but it feels like a lot more than that. Because all of the people dressed in boring, everyday attire (like boring old yours truly) just sort of fade into the background, optically drowned out by multihued tights, glinting armor, and weaponry of such startling ornamental complexity it could make actual military gear crumple in shame.

Some of those in costume wear run of the mill, off the rack costumes, but because of the sheer numbers involved, even these make a real impression. A half-dozen brunettes dressed as Wonder Woman, striding arm-in-arm down the concourse, can make quite an impression—even if there’s nothing special about the garb itself. Others go all-out, preparing for months beforehand and constructing multiple prototypes. There are entire online sites dedicated to the art of constructing solid costume parts out of resin, allowing people to make custom suits of armor and show up as convincing versions of storm troopers, Halo soldiers, and the like. A convincing Iron Man outfit is well within the realm of possibility (though I didn’t see any the last time I attended).

Many of those attending the con clearly have mad skills (or are willing to hire the skilled). Expert seamstresses, talented dyers, and imaginative designers abound. I saw one guy dressed in what looked to be the remnants of an early modern European soldier’s uniform, torn, tattered and partially burned. The dude had also decorated himself with all sorts of simulated wounds and scorch marks, as if he was a 17nth century revenant, risen from a mass grave to take vengeance on the grenadiers who took his life.

I won’t go into the actual events at Comic-Con, as descriptions and video of these abound. It’s easy to get each year’s schedule from the organizers, if you’re curious. I think it’s a blast, though, despite the crowds, and lines, and overflowing garbage cans, and the lack of any place to sit when you want to take a load off. And most that attend seem to agree.

The Sum of All Media

David Farland’s excellent fantasy series features a form of magic that allows nobles to drain attributes from commoners—their strength, agility, keenness of sight, and so on. This allows the privileged few to become mystical supermen of a sort, wielding enormous power at the expense of those they rule (who become crippled in a variety of ways). The characters in Farland’s books speak of a legendary figure, the “Sum of All Men,” who has become so powerful that he’s sloughed off mortality altogether, becoming an eternal, nigh-invincible warrior.

As Comic-Con gathers momentum, encompassing more and more of what the entertainment world has to offer, will it too gain a sort of invincibility, with its unattainability imbuing a mythical status far outstripping the value of the event itself? Or will it move to a massive venue in Las Vegas and lose its mojo, like CES?

I wish I knew, grasshopper. I wish I knew.

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