Sunday, July 26, 2009

Comic Cons: What's Happening?

"Sadly, where this leaves all of us in the comics world is totally screwed. 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. With fewer comics retailers exhibiting in San Diego each year, the incentive for individual comics fans to put up with the cost and hassle of coming here also greatly diminishes. If present trends continue, I predict with more than a small measure of sadness that comics will be a very minor part of this convention within five years. It will be the most incredibly wonderful media convention in the world, but the days of the San Diego Comic-Con are over."
-- Chuck Rozanski, Mile High Comics e-Newsletter

I've just finished reading a long email chain started off by the Mile High Comics e-Newletter regarding the San Diego Comic-Con. These are the points I grasped and interpolated from that email chain regarding this year's SDCC, and the possible direction of large comic book conventions in general:

1. Many of the fans were poor this year.
2. Many of the fans blew their wad on travel arrangements & tickets, and didn't have a lot of money to buy stuff; so they especially mobbed things like panels and free screenings to get their full money's worth.
3. Comic book retailers are increasingly finding themselves priced out of the shows, and even considered "irrelevant" in the face of big media companies touting their latest movie or TV show.
4. SDCC wants to be the pop-culture version of the Cannes Film Festival.
5. Fans at the convention want to see mass-market stars like Robert Pattinson & Megan Fox, not some niche comic book.
6. It seems like mass-market pop-culture has swooped down, picked up the fruits of comic book culture, processed them, plopped them down into a movie or video game, and left comic book culture as the same basement-dwelling guilty pleasure it started out as. You know those movies where they rescue a few people using a helicopter, but they leave all these other people behind? Or like during the credits of "What's Happening!!," when the gang is on the back of that truck but Rerun just can't make it? Rerun is the traditional comic book world, and Raj on the truck is Michael Bay. And Dwayne is like any comic book creator who successfully "crosses over" into mainstream media. And Dee would be Nikki Finke. Does that make sense?

If this scenario is indeed correct, then I don't really see girls who like "Twilight" as the reason the convention is being "stolen" away. Really, the bigger issue is this: media conglomerates have taken comic book culture and "Andy Warholized" it, presenting us with mass-market, mass-produced, highly vetted versions of that culture's icons. But not only that, the conglomerates have appropriated the comic book/"fan" community's mechanism of promotion & dissemination of information: the convention. So that's the Icons and the Mechanism being appropriated.

What part does the "mom and pop" comic book retailer play in this overall scheme? It's possible that at this point they might be looked upon as a vestige, a small, strange niche segment of table-holders squeezed between the major publisher booths and Showtime. And where do the independent comic book creators and artists fit into all of this? Does it make sense to even have a table? Or are such tables as well a vestige, something that is going the way of webbed toes and a highly-pronounced tailbone? Has it come down to the networking, the Twittering, the schmoozing, trying to make as many scheduled appearances as possible, trying to be seen as many places as possible?

That said, I admit that I love pop artists like Andy Warhol & Roy Lichtenstein. But I don't fool myself thinking that Andy Warhol is Chester Gould or Roy Lichtenstein is Russ Heath, you know what I mean?


  1. So, eventually, SDCC will become like Newbury Comics (are you familiar with them)?

    It has comics in the title, but the actual comics themselves are in back corner somewhere, while the front bit of the shop is taken up with Twlight standees, "Alternative" magazines, action figures, "pop" toys, CDs, DVDs, and head shop-esque paraphernalia, like a Spencer Gifts and Virgin Megastore got smooshed together and someone wiped away the blood?

    With that said, I had pro and near-pro friends who went to SDCC and nearly all made wonderful contacts and had wonderful meetings, lining up potential work for the future.

    However, I have yet to hear the opinion of the typical comic fan who attended.

  2. I've never been to SDCC... but I am more than old enough to know of it's roots: Comic books.

    I watched a 3 hour recap of SDCC on G4 and thought to myself "When are they going to talk to comic artists and tell us what's new in the comic industry?" Well, Marvel and DC did get a little air time, but the rest of the time was spent talking to the cast of "LOST" or talking about new movies and TV shows coming out... some having NOTHING to do with comic books or the genre.

    And if comic retailer have to pay the same booth cost as Sony or Warner Brothers, then yes, you can kiss these folks good-bye. But when 125,000 people show up, it would be a tough sell to the show organizers to reduce fees to publishers.

    It would be interesting to know how much the average person spent on comic books or related items, or if they spent at all.

    They should pull the word "comic" from the name as it is no longer about that. Great post and I'll be reading from now on!

  3. "So, eventually, SDCC will become like Newbury Comics (are you familiar with them)?"

    I'm not familiar with Newbury Comics, but I know several comic stores that are kind of becoming/have become like that. In Brooklyn, there are a few shops that are literally half video-game/half comic shops. And I really have no problem with that; I bought our XBox360 from one of those stores along with my week's worth of comics.

    But down the line, I can see the real danger of the actual comic books themselves becoming a smaller and smaller part of many of these stores & conventions.

    As a tangent, when I went to NYCC this year, not only were there booths with deep discounts on comics, but specifically on trades: like, 5 new Marvel trades for $25. This makes it even less likely for me to buy individual comics.

  4. I've never been to SDCC, either, but I've been hearing the same refrain lamenting the death of that particular con for years among fans and creators. The biggest con I've been to was Wizard Chicago in 2001/2002, it seemed to be the perfect size and scope of what a "big con" should be. Though it wasn't perfect, artists, publishers, dealers, and assorted media entities all got equal due and the panels all pertained to the matter at hand: comic books. I haven't been back to Chicago since, but I did attend their Dallas show this year and it was exactly as I remembered, albeit a little smaller.

    I plan on going to Dragon*Con in September, which also seems to be what a "big con" should be, though it's more of a sci-fi/fantasy convention than a comic convention.

    I have point, I think. While it's a shame that the San Diego COMIC Con has become less about comics and more about the guardians of media feeding fans, more or less, propaganda, it clearly seems to be what the fans want, as attendance (even without Twilighters) grows every year. This isn't a bad thing, as there are still hundreds of smaller cons held across the country all the time. Granted, those cons may not get Robert Downey Jr. and Megan Fox, but they will get Chewbacca, Lou Ferrigno, and occasionally folks like Bruce Campbell or Nathan Fillion. Plus, those cons have comcis galore.

  5. the last time i had any inkling of a desire to go to sdcc was in the early 90s.
    it was just too mammoth then. now it just skives me out.
    i love comics because i thought they could do anything. but apparently they can not compete with with multinational media brands.
    imagine superman can move worlds -- horrible flashback to the earth stealers - but rupert murdoch and his ilk can slay him and other comic heroes with huge wads of cash and an unlimited check book.
    the comic community should be seriously considering jumping ship of sdcc and making regional sows the major events. that and grab the new york show and really force the issue as it is for comics first and above everything else.

  6. I applaud your assessment of the state of comic-con, I wholeheartedly agree. I comment because you managed to squeeze in a reference to the credits of What's Happening, a show that has fallen into obscurity. For that, I thank you.

  7. You should have gone to Wizard Philly, Val. The deals were all over the place. Stephen King 'Dark Tower' hardcovers were $3 a pop. I bought several Marvel and DC hardcovers that were $20-35 at cover and I scored them for only $7-9 each! I spent under a $100 and walked out with a lot.

    The quote in the comments from onegemini made me laugh out loud though.

    "With that said, I had pro and near-pro friends who went to SDCC and nearly all made wonderful contacts and had wonderful meetings, lining up potential work for the future."

    I was rolling. I've heard this excuse of rational for every big show. EVERY artist I know ALWAYS says this line. The reality of any of it actually coming to pass is nil. The 'wonderful contact' I got normally never happens. It's an excuse to ease their minds that they just paid out for a big show and their product didn't sell that well to recoop their costs. That's my feelings from doing all the shows I've gone to as a pro. The amount of bullshit thrown in enormous.

    Great idea for the article! :)


  8. So it's the gentrification of comic books, then.

    Oi. First Sundance, then South by So What, and now SDCC.

    Sooner or later they'll figure out how to make a buck off of fans of reality shows . . .

  9. I was browsing the twitter comments relating to comic con over the weekend, and all I could see were people commenting on things they had learned at the big panels. The ones which had nothing to do with comic books.

    I was at Wondercon this year, which is run by SDCC, and nearly every booth that was selling comic books were selling them at reduced prices.

    Wondercon also has panels dedicated to movies and tv shows, but they are kept to one section of the convention center, so that you don't have to deal with those lines.

    My local comic book store owner wrote on his site that he wasn't going to attend SDCC this year, and almost didn't go last year. Though he didn't state his reasons in the same post, he wrote about last year that it seemed that not many people were buying comic books, and that Hollywood was taking up too much space at the show.

  10. Here's the elephant in the room, and it's wearing no clothes: comicbook stores must decide...are they specialty bookstores offering a specific collection of books, or are they hobbby stores offering supplies to a select group? How do they survive? How do independent bookstores survive in this market?

    Newbury comics always seemed to be a music store which took the counterculture fed by music, and added other cool stuff those fans wanted to buy. Tower Records was a similar example, selling toys and licensed merchandise as sidelines. (Barnes & Noble does the same.)

    15 years ago, I analyzed the market, and figured that the best way to open a comics shop would be to open a pop culture shop. In other words, be a mini-SDCC, appealing to as big a clientele as possible.

    Is it a shame that SDCC is too successful? Maybe. It still offers some incredible comics talent, even if the DC and Marvel panels get eclipsed by, well, Twilight.

    Are there other cons which offer comics, which are like San Diego was ten/twenty years ago? Certainly. Will they get the media attention San Diego does? One hopes not, because media are like bees. One bee finds a pasture, flies back to the hive, does the happy pollen polka, and soon the entire hive is in the pasture.

    Just as comic books are not that comical anymore, so is San Diego Comic-Con not that much about comic books. SDCC knows that Media draws the crowds, scores the news reports, and generates buzz. In any convention, the big boys are important. They anchor the trade floor, draw people to the other displays, and take big chunks of real estate.

    Congratulations to San Diego on their 40 years of success!

  11. Chuck Rozanski is a "mom and pop" operation in the same way I'm queen of Romania. :) If even the Starbucks of comic shops is complaining, I think one can put the final nail in this particular coffin.

  12. I dunno, I think comics fans brought this on themselves by devotion to other media sucking up comic properties - why anyone is excited about screen versions of comic books has always been beyond me. Aren't the comics good enough? Buying into screen versions is like feeding a demon that will eventually overtake your home - and it's happening. The actual product of comic books are a niche market and likely to always be.

    Anyhow, San Diego is another example of how all we can do with this great technology and communication is to obsess about our entertainment rather than take action to straighten out the world or better ourselves with real information. As long as we know what's upcoming on a TV show we're going to watch anyhow ...


  13. Anonymous8:13 AM

    1. Has anyone else noticed that "Westfield Comics" has practically taken over CBR?

    2. There's an arts festival in Buffalo where several streets are closed off and people are encouraged to bring their own artwork for display. Because of its success, the booths got too expensive for most local artists. As a result, they started their own "Outlaw Festival" right next to the other festival. Could something similar be done at SDCC?

    3. Comic Book stores must change or die. I agree with Snr Adair. Niche comic book stores rarely last unless they have some other hook.

  14. But I think that a convention or a niche store that really takes advantage of the present situation and says: "we're REALLY about comics" could really succeed.

    In marketing there is a topic called "authenticity." Back in the 80s & 90s, people were largely shopping for brands. Right now, people are instead looking for authentic experiences. Now, many times these experiences aren't really that authentic, but the goal is to make it look authentic, old-school, "real."

    Perhaps people – not the mass market, but a specialized segment – will start seeking out "real" comic conventions, "real" comic shops, "real" venues. The key is that this wouldn't be a mass-market thing, but at least the demand would be there; so we're talking about smaller venues and smaller shops. And these conventions and shops would have to cast off everything that was negative about them in the "old-school," but still retain that "old-school" flavor. And I think this could succeed. It's just not going to pull in SDCC #s though, because it just can't.

    The telling sign will really be if they ever change the name of SDCC or NYCC so the word "comic" is either obscured or taken out all together.

  15. Anonymous10:00 AM

    I'll just say this. I work occasionally for a collector that runs World Wide Comics ( cheap plug sorry). I only work booth at the "big" cons. New York, Philly, Chicago, and San Diego. Last year was my first time at SDCC and though I was in shock and awe over all the coolness that was surrounding me, I couldn't help but wonder "When are people gonna buy the comics?". Boss said that last year's SDCC was the least profitable one to date. It sadden me because THE thing SDCC is about and started for is slowly being forgotten. People care more about the latest Seth Rogan shit storm rather than finding the immortal stories by Lee, Kirby, Gil Kane, Len Wein, Gardner Fox, Chris Clarimont, & ::enter your fav here::

    But whatever... if I was making tons of money I guess I'd throw my principles out the window too... or would I????

  16. Two words people, Chicago Con. And not the "Gareb Shame on you" con.

    NYCC is good however it runs borderline in becoming the east coast SDCC. The windy city con in chicago, the philly con and most smaller regional cons will be the new foundation for comics in the near future.

    The obsessive and ├╝ber geek drooling over the movie properties and all related items that were generated and nothing about comics is indeed an issue to be fixed and streamlined. My experience in cons here in Puerto Rico and in NYC were always comics first, everything else second. As time has passed it's been all about Japanese exports and films based on comics, with the local book/artist shunned if not ignored. (Of course I may be overly exaggerating but you get my point.)

    Also the number of cosplayers I see at cons in comparison to the number of books being bought is staggeringly depressing. In my experience at least.

    Perhaps we need to get back to the more local super comics orientated cons that most of us remember and enjoyed. And we should bring along friends, family, co-workers, guy on the street to keep it going, however to be cautious in that the seeds of what now is SDCC doesn't occur again or at least is under some sort of control.

    Personally for as much as I've always wanted to go to SDCC, money was always a factor. And so far Chicago has won it for me in terms of cost, comics crowd and community. (Take into consideration that there's not much of a professional aspect of a community where I live.) NYC? I've always had a better experience, time and enjoyment seeing pros outside of the con.

    -- amin!

  17. The people who run these conventions sit down each year and discuss what they can do to increase attendance. They contact celebrities and anyone else they think will be a draw for a larger number of people than their other options. Niche people and products might attract a small number of very faithful fans, but that isn't as worthwhile to a convention organizer as a lot of "unfaithful" or transient attendees.

    I don't think this is a bad thing anymore than people working for money is a bad thing, or the force of gravity is a bad thing. It's just "a" thing. It makes the larger conventions disappointing for people who are seeking an authentic (to use your word, Valerie) experience with other faithful fans. For that, don't attend the big media conventions. You'll have to chase the moving target of conventions small enough not to be able to afford big media guests, but large enough that enough of the faithful fans have heard of them.

    I used to run conventions in Oklahoma.

  18. Anonymous12:14 PM

    Specialization like that is fine as long as the industry's static. Not sure if that's the case, here.

    I saw this happen with niche photography stores. Most of these stores only survived because of film processing. When the industry went digital, tons of the niche, "we only do film" stores went under. It was a massive upheaval.

    Now, the only ones left standing are the stores that were able to diversify and had the cash to do it. Ritz. Wolf (which was bought by Ritz). B&H (largely through catalog sales). Suddenly, they were selling telescopes, computers, and Photoshop in addition to camera bodies and lenses.

    As the core audience for comic book floppies wanes, so will these outlets...unless they diversify. And if anyone can ever do electronic delivery in a way that actually works...they're really sunk.

  19. Nailed it, Val. The writing's been on the wall for a good 3 or 5 years now. Well written.

  20. And I gotta be honest with you, the last 2 big shows I went to (SDCC 08 and NYCC 09) gave me this sort of overwhelmed feeling like I was being bombarded with marketing materials – not even comic book marketing materials, and not even cool giveaways, but straight-up marketing slicks and freebies with boring logos for some shows that were *barely* fantasy or sci-fi genre. Sometimes I felt like I was running this gauntlet where people were just throwing the marketing materials on me.

    And then you contrast all this, and those big displays from the media corporations, with Artist's Alley, which is set up so low-tech, so squeezed, so pushed off to the side like some sort of curiosity. In my mind, things like Artist's Alley are the #1 reason I would go to a show like that. Because contact with those comic creators and artists is something one-of-a-kind. Instead of that same damn Ugly Doll display with the garbage cans at the front of every show, they should have the artists sit there right where people come in and draw sketches and sell their stuff. Seriously. And that works even from a promotional standpoint. That's truly magical -- seeing these men and women actually draw. Not a freakin' doll company.

  21. oh i can see it now. the next big comic con movie will be a remake of the gauntlet: where the hero (val perhaps) must make it though the peripheral also-rans that take up prime real estate at sdcc to get to the good stuff....

    hope larson said she only made $300 at the show all weekend.
    utterly disgusting.

  22. Anonymous4:15 PM

    Um, the most important thing to realize in all of this:

    Dwayne Wayne was a character on "A Different World," not "What's Happening!!"

    That was Dwayne Nelson.

  23. "Dwayne Wayne was a character on "A Different World," not "What's Happening!!""

    see, now I'm going to be all slick and change that in my article like I never made that mistake.


  24. I have not been to San Diego Comicon in several years. BUT I believe everyone is being way too polite. When Diamond took over as the sole distributor of comics in America, the only way for non-mainstream publisher to get their message and sell their books was at conventions. Not just, SDCC but every comic convention as means to sell comics.

    SDCC is not interested in being helpful to the comic industry. It would be nice if it was more like Angouleme Comic festival

  25. Valerie, as much as I love my comicbook shops and want them to succeed, ANY niche store, in any retail segment, is going to have a hard time succeeding. UNLESS they have a robust online presence. Why? Because of the Wal*Mart technique. Wal*Mart leases footage in their store to a sideline. Wal*Mart tracks the sales on the sideline, and if successful, takes over the sideline directly.

    Same thing with niche retailers. If a cheese store starts selling Peruvian Llama cheese in large quantities, you know Food Emporium and Whole Foods are going to offer the same thing.

    Yes, a niche store can excel in selection and expertise, but how do you compete with a corporation who can also offer something similar? How many comics fans work at local Barnes & Noble stores?

    POP QUIZ: Without using the Internet, just your memory, how many comicbook stores can you name which are fifty miles or more distant from where you live?

    Bonus points if you can name any of the Eisner Spirit of Retailing nominees or winners from this year.

    Those are the niche stores, the one with a reputation. But even these stores are not national. Only one, Mile High, is, and that's because they have an incredible website and offer a fantastic selection of back issues.

    Once comics go digital, it's gonna be hard for comicbook stores to compete. Periodicals are the one retail segment that other types of retail do not touch. Toys, DVDs, graphic novels, t-shirts... If not careful, comicbook stores risk following in the footsteps of fantasy and science fiction bookshops. (SF and Comics share a similar evolutionary path, with comics about twenty years behind SF.)

  26. Just as a tangential follow-up to Torsten's point --

    Only one of the four NYC comic shops I used to frequent ten years ago has gone out of business, whereas virtually most of the other book stores, music stores, DVD/video stores, and toy stores that I used to shop at are gone. So the fact that there are so many NYC comic shops still hanging in there is sort of encouraging, though I have to wonder regarding the stability of each one in this economy. And many have indeed diversified. I think Forbidden Planet used to have a whole room with nothing but Sci-fi books in it? Or am I thinking of another shop?

  27. Yep the times are a changing.
    I used to attend Toronto area Comic Cons in the late 70's early 80's.

    There were a lot less comic companies around and so there were a lot less industry people too.

    When it was "mostly" just the "big two" the convention was "mostly" comics and some collectibles with a couple or three guest artists...

    Now the industry has crossed over into TV movies etc. and there are many more titles and companies the "extravaganza" that is the SDCC does not surprise me, it just "overwhelms" me ...

    On a side note I attended "Toronto Fan Expo" last year with movies, games, actors, comic industry people, panels etc... Kind of a "extra, extra" small SDCC and as a comic fan I was definatly overwhelmed!

    I can't imagine what it is/was like in San Diego...


  28. Anonymous1:49 AM

    While it is sad, I believe we have reached critical mass. Also, the atmosphere of Comic-Con has not changed for me. It still feels like Home even though there is a bigger Hollywood presence.

  29. Anonymous1:53 AM

    In fact, you know what my favorite moment at SDCC was this year? Looking around, and everywhere, seeing people READING.

  30. Great article. You nailed it.

  31. I agree that the current trend is a juggernaut created by us comic fans constant need for stimulation. However, it is something far more insidious, in that these large media conglomerates are PIMPING US.

    They have realized, being creatively bankrupt as they are, that comics and geek culture is a very creative force.So they MINE the culture and try to find nuggets that can me massmarketed ie have CROSSOVER APPEAL.

    Since our culture is so insecure, we are more than happy to invite any mainstream outlet that pretends to recognize the cultures value access to our culture.

    So its kinda like the victims of a vampire.We are being drained of our life blood and exploited for it, AND WE ARE LOVING IT.

    But, using the vampire analogy further, we will be discarded when the media conglomerates move on to something else to exploit.

    You think the comic crash of the 90's was bad.When the mainstream media is done with comics and geek culture it will sink to lows we never ever imagined.

  32. Anonymous4:54 PM

    What do you suggest is the alternative? We should all become emo because the world works like this?

  33. Sigh. I've also seen my comic book store (which I've been going to since it opened in the early 90's) morph into a gaming and manga shop which happens to carry comic books. They long ago got rid of their back-issue section (although they do have the last six issues or so of comics they didn't sell out of). More and more often, if you haven't subscribed to a title and you don't get there early on Wednesday, you're not going to be able to buy that title.

    I understand the economics behind this, but I hate it all the same.

  34. This was my 30th Comic Con. I've seen it run the gamut having worked as a volunteer, worked show security, attended as a fan, attended as a pro, and lately attended as a journalist. The elephant in the room is the Con Committee themselves who feel no responsibility to the "Comic" in their name but rather a devotion to the "popular arts" which is code for them chasing Hollywood because they are both greedy and star struck.

  35. It seems to me that this seems to be the cry from every convention. I'm not intending to trivialize the plight of the "mom and pop" comic store, but I've heard similar lines from the blogs of the fans and the forums of the conventions themselves(WW Philly, SDCC, Heroes Con, ETC.). It makes one not want to take the assertion that (Insert Con Here) is dying seriously.

    I'm a Pennsylvania fan. The first convention I attended was Wizard World Philadelphia in 2004. I've been attending every year since then and I always have fun, I always spend money, and I always am able to walk away with a big ol' bag of comics and stuff. It seems to me that every year the show changes a little bit, but certainly not for the worst, just as a change.

    Now I don't know abotu SDCC, as I've never been, but as a fan who was planning his first pilgrimage to nerd Mecca, I am very sad to hear talk of this con dying, at least as it pertains to the comic aspect of the convention.

  36. Louis Bright-Raven11:05 PM

    I haven't been to SDCC since
    2004, and I have relatives and friends who live in the SD / Chula Vista area.

    Not only are we hearing the complaints like Rozanski's, we're hearing the talks about how the organizers are threatening to leave SD if the convention center isn't expanded and go to LA or Vegas or wherever.

    And I say let them leave. It's my belief that all the local volunteers who help run that show will step up and rebuild the show at its roots. And from what some fo them tell me, they'd ban Hollywood and Video Games and Pornstars yesterday and make it a "comic publishers / book publishers /RPG companies only" show.

    I think that would be more than sufficient to bring the crowds in. After all, it served us for decades. And we all know that the Whedons, JMSes, Smtihs and other Hollywooders with true geek love for the medium will likely come anyway and so we wouldn't be bereft of Hollywood anyway.

  37. Anonymous1:46 AM

    I said a long time ago that I believed we had reached critical mass.

    I just received a phone call that informed me that we have not, and it scares me.

    4-Day Preview Night Passes are sold out. Already. Not even past WonderCon. 4-Day Non-Preview Night Passes are still being sold. Still for $100.

    This, combined with the rumor that they are only letting in "reputable pro and press", is complete bullshit.

    SDCC has become the new E3 if this is the truth.

    The sad part is that WonderCon may be next.

    It seems like LBCC is a suitable replacement, though.