Monday, August 3, 2009

The Pop Culture Jump-Off: Notes From The 2009 Comic-Con

You can trace the story of this year's Comic-Con with a line. Not a straight line, necessarily, but one that seemed to wind all over the building at various points all day all four days. If you were at Con, it's almost a given you were in the line, or a line, maybe for hours, maybe even overnight. The phenomenon of the Line marked 2009 as a turning point in the Con's 40-year history, for a variety of reasons.

1.The New Demographic

Besides the Twi-hards, who spawned their own controversy – more on that in a bit – this year was a coming-out party for the latest anime/manga generation. A/M cosplayers seemed to outnumber their “traditional” superhero/villain counterparts around the floor; you couldn't walk more than a few feet without seeing another pair of furry ears, or a group of young people offering free hugs, or busting out some moves to entertain themselves and the crowd:

In fact, from the floor this year's Con looked like it featured the most diverse group of attendees in years. POC creators like Gene Yang, Dwayne McDuffie and Leinil Francis Yu were among those showcased in spotlight panels. And two pro-diversity panels received a strong attendance, from both POC and white fans, despite some at-times questionable panel placement: as we noted before the con, they were booked to start at 6:30 p.m., nowhere near “prime time” hours. There were also more POC-related properties and creators on the floor, a few of which we'll be spotlighting later. The question going forward is, how much attention will this market get from the comics/pop-culture profiteers?

2.The Uninvited Guests
“… The 10,000 Twilight fans at the con really were a problem for the show, but a lot of the reasons that got floated came from a sexist, xenophobic, bullsh-t fanboy place. I actually feel bad even writing this, but truly, legitimately, 6,000 people at the show just for Twilight means 6,000 people that weren’t spending money at the show means 6,000 people that might’ve wanted to go that had an interest in dropping a few bucks at the various vendors? Shut out.”
- Christopher Bucher, co-founder, Toronto Comic Arts Festival

Love 'em or otherwise, the Twilight fans were the topic of discussion throughout the convention, even moreso than the film series they're so devoted to. Some blamed them for the fact that tickets to the event sold out two months ahead of time. The line for Thursday's New Moon panel reportedly started Wednesday, before the convention even opened, and grew to Star Wars-like proportions. Tents even popped up in lines for showing of the series' eponymous opening film at a nearby theatre. Twi-hards, though, encountered a rarity at a geek gathering: a backlash.

Smart-asses bearing TWILIGHT RUINED COMIC-CON signs, while not abundant, were definitely on the premises, even after Thursday. The negative response was, no doubt, at least partially based in gender; here you had a flock of young women not just stepping into a traditionally male-based arena, but stepping into it without the “proper” fandom. Female fans of Joss Whedon and his BBD collection (Buffy/Browncoats/Dollhouse), for instance, tend to get a free pass. And it should be noted that people of both genders also reportedly camped out overnight for Saturday's Lost panel, without catching much flack. But on another level, the complaining about the Twi-hards wasn't so much about the nature of their devotion as it was about what it represented.

3.(Lost In) The Hollywood Shuffle


Most of the biggest panels – and by that I mean the ones that were booked in the SD Convention Center's biggest rooms and drew the biggest lines – shared one disconcerting characteristic: none of them was related to comic books. Iron Man 2, remember, is an ongoing comic adaptation, not an original comic work. The same can be said for the much-applauded panel for Mark Millar's Kick-Ass. But, even if Twilight is being adapted in a manga format, its' panel was part of the ongoing encroachment of Hollywood into what used to be a comic-book convention. There were panels for, among other things, Lost, District 9, True Blood, James Cameron's Avatar, Burn Notice, Chuck, 9, the instantly odious Glee, Stargate Universe, and even web series The Guild – and none of these is based off of a comic book. And these are only a few examples on the tv/movie side. Even Kevin Smith showed up for his own panel, for no other reason than he's Kevin Smith and people will still line up to hear him ramble about nothing in particular.

That crowding for attention has spread from the ballrooms to the showroom. At least one end of the floor was dominated by video-game displays, and there were also booths dedicated to shilling material for films like The Collector and Sorority Row. The allure of the Hollywood dollar could also have bad implications for the Con's core constituency.

4.The Shifting Tide

With a reported waiting list of 300 media/consumer products companies lined up for booth space here at San Diego Comic-Con International, the convention feels absolutely no restraint as regards raising booth rent. What does exist is a totally uneven playing field, where mom-n-pop comics retailers, publishers, and creators are now being asked to pay the same cost per square-foot as the international corporate giants. That being the case, it should come as no surprise that we comics exhibitors are rapidly being priced out of our own house. I heard from several comics retailers who have been here at the convention for decades that they are either cutting back for 2010, or completely pulling out of the show.
- Chuck Rozanski, Mile High Comics

More and more each year, Comic-Con has billed itself as a “pop culture” extravaganza. It's not implausible to suggest this year marked the point of no return in that evolution. With Hollywood continuing to not only pay to play on geeky turf but re-sell geeky ideas and content to the multiplex masses, I heard more than a few local fans complain, privately, that the heart of the city's biggest non-athletic attraction was being torn out.

That loss might be more than metaphorical soon. It was reported during the Con that organizers are already threatening to move the event unless additions are built to the Convention Center, which is hemmed in on all sides by hotels, downtown San Diego, and the San Diego Bay. It's also no secret that officials from Los Angeles and Las Vegas have pitched their respective cities as preferable alternatives once SDCC's contract ends three years from now.

But what convention will we – and by “we” I mean comic-book fans - even be going to by then? If the Con continues to march toward becoming a mass-media trade show, will we even have a reason to go? If a more diverse demographic continues to attend, will the exhibitors pay notice? Will sitting in the Line for hours for the chance watching maybe two or three minutes of clips – the Avatar panel, featuring 25 minutes of footage, has to be considered an exception to the rule – be worth it in three years' time? Will camping out in the Line overnight, or holding your spot with the help of friends and family, now become an accepted practice? And if the Con does end up moving, who would go with it?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

These are all really good observations and an especially poignant question to so many of us that have been attending Comic-Con for years. Comic-Con isn't about comics any more, even the signs downtown call it a "popular arts" festival. Whatever that means (I think pop art, I think of Lichtenstein and Warhol, not pop culture). And I think the whole Twilight backlash is just indicative of the larger issue -- that our beloved convention is being taken away by a movie-watching public whose dollars are worth marketing to moreso than our own.

While I'll be sad to see Comic-Con move on to another city, I already know that I probably wouldn't follow it (I might make an exception for Vegas, simply because it could become a weeklong vacation and I could visit family, too). Instead, I'd rather work on helping set up a local anime/manga convention. Those kids need to give their free hugs away somewhere!