How’s Your Show? A Comic-Book Writer’s Thoughts From on the Ground at a Rapidly Changing Comic-Con

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“How’s your show?”

It’s the default conversation starter among those of us who attend Comic-Con International as professionals — writers, artists, publishers, agents, and retailers. Over five days in San Diego last week, I lost count of how many times I heard the question or asked it. The question — “show” is industry shorthand for convention — normally works as a quick way to ask several questions at once: How have your sales been? Have you had any luck networking? Did you line up any big meetings?

This year, conversation after conversation, that question took on a new subtext. It became: How is the convention? Doesn’t the attendance seem light? Aren’t there far fewer big advertisements and displays? What is happening to Comic-Con?

To someone watching coverage of Comic-Con from a distance, it likely appeared the same as ever: Attendance holding solid at 130,000, capped out per orders of the fire marshal. Long lines of fans waiting hours or even days for a chance at a seat in famed Hall H to see the cast of The Force Awakens or Game of Thrones. New footage revealed from the next big movies.

And yet, down in the trenches, the signs were obvious that something is happening, that the Con is beginning its latest metamorphosis, and that its future is far from certain.

It’s absurd to ask existential questions about an event, I realize. But in my business — my 9-to-5 is writing comic books — Comic-Con is not just an event. It is the event. It’s the second-largest pop culture convention in the United States,1 but it is the largest by far in terms of its recognition in the realm of geek culture. Even those who don’t live and breathe comics and sci-fi know of Comic-Con, that it’s the nexus of an entertainment industry increasingly dominated by the pulpy worlds of comic books. It is our mecca.

So when we worry that Comic-Con might be flagging, it isn’t just that we worry over the Con itself. We worry over the whole geek-entertainment complex, over our jobs, over ourselves. If this system falters, what does that mean for us?

Here, then, are some observations based on what I saw and heard at this year’s Comic-Con, and the big trends shaping the show’s future.

The Rise and Fall of Movies at the Con

To understand where Comic-Con is now, it’s worth taking a quick look at where it has come from; its origin story, so to speak. It was founded in 1970, with some 300 diehards turning out to see Ray Bradbury and Jack Kirby. It’s been held every year since, charting a steady climb in attendees as it bounced from location to location, but always in San Diego. Early on, it became a place to release exclusive items and details surrounding upcoming movies and TV shows. But it remained an event focused on print comics until the late 1990s to early 2000s, when Hollywood began making a concerted push to bring in big stars to promote geek-centric fare like The Matrix, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, and The Lord of the Rings. With the stars came fans. From 1995 to 2005, attendance rocketed from 34,000 to 103,000.

The influx of attention and fame and fans turned Comic-Con into an entity unto itself, a phenomenon. Tickets sell out in seconds every year. Hotel rooms are so hard to find, I’ve known more than a few attendees to spend the week of the show sleeping in their cars. Even outside the convention center, huge displays would be wrapped around every building, and interactive fan events covered every open space for blocks out into the Gaslamp Quarter.

For professionals like myself, the changes were long hugely positive. More fans meant more people to buy books, to come to signings. And the usual convention networking was amped up to a ridiculous degree when it wasn’t just editors and publishers on the floor, but producers and directors. Just standing at your table, selling books, you might end up talking to Joss Whedon or Michael Bay. You could make your career just by being in the room.

After some geeky movies — like Snakes on a Plane and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World — were marketed heavily at Comic-Con and subsequently tanked, studios began to question the investment of a big splash in San Diego. I’ve been told by marketing people at the major studios that failures like these were enough to pop the bubble. The signs of that were plainly visible this year. It used to be that every free surface — the sides of trains, the exteriors of hotels — was covered with massive advertisements for upcoming films. This year, only the Marriott had one of its two towers wrapped.

While the Gaslamp was packed with people as always, there were parking lots and parks left open, which in previous years would’ve held interactive video game experiences, or the Playboy party.

And that party scene has dried up, without question. A friend who works in animation told me that the major talent agencies had decided to stop hosting elaborate events during Comic-Con, partly out of budgetary concerns, and partly because of the general sense that Comic-Con isn’t the “it” place it once was. Granted, one night I still found myself at a party that featured both Mike Tyson and a mermaid. But I wasn’t feeling pulled to run from one gathering to another, like in years past.

TV Is Quickly Taking Over

Comic-Con International: San Diego - Season 2015Jason Kempin/Getty Images

While movies have receded from Comic-Con, TV shows have rushed in to fill the void. Programming and advertising for TV dominated the landscape. There was even a panel for Hannibal, which is playing out the string of what could be its final season on NBC.2

The influx is likely in no small part thanks to the wealth of nerdy fare on networks, cable, and streaming channels. Marvel and Warner Bros. are both upping their episodic offerings, and genre fare makes up a huge portion of what’s on the air.

There were plenty of ads around the city and convention for TV shows, but they were all smaller, less splashy than the massive campaigns for movies in years past. My friends in marketing verify the obvious: TV marketing budgets and movie marketing budgets are not created equally. Since Comic-Con is increasingly becoming a TV-centric event, that means way, way less money is being spent.

Studios Are Hosting Their Own Events

Part of the challenge to the cultural hegemony of Comic-Con is the rise of other events. The comic convention scene is booming. I was at Denver Comic Con and Phoenix Comicon earlier this summer, and both cracked 100,000 attendees, which would have been unfathomable just a few years ago.

Then there are new events coming up specific to different companies and properties. The indie publisher Image (home to The Walking Dead and Saga, among many others) has started hosting its own event, the Image Expo, a week ahead of San Diego. All the company’s announcements came there.

Disney is pushing hard in this direction. Though Star Wars had one of the biggest moments of Comic-Con — director J.J. Abrams surprised the 6,500 attendees of the Star Wars panel by ushering them to a secret Star Wars concert played by the San Diego Symphony orchestra — most of the big news about the upcoming film as well as the tie-in Marvel comics came during its standalone Star Wars Celebration event in April. The company also hosts the now-annual D23 Expo to announce Disney news, and Marvel Studios held a special announcement in Hollywood for its “Phase 3” plans.3

Speaking of Marvel, its booth sits in the center of the massive show floor inside the convention center, and this year it was little more than a large billboard for Ant-Man after years of showy displays and appearances from the Avengers cast. Some people suggested that the lack of buzz had to do more with the release cycle of Marvel’s films than anything. None of Marvel’s slate of films is at the right place that it would benefit from a marketing push. Sony and Paramount also sat out the Con for similar reasons.

Warner Bros. did pull in huge crowds on Saturday at the DC Entertainment booth for the upcoming Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,4 and a lot of buzz was generated by the debut of Deadpool and Suicide Squad teasers, so the Con did still have its big moments.

comic_con_2015_lighsabersJesse Grant/Getty Images

A Comic-Con Without … Comics?

For those of us who actually make and sell comic books for a living, Comic-Con has become less and less of a sure bet. There are a ton of attendees, yes. But those people increasingly come to have a “Con experience.” These aren’t the diehards, looking to find new comics to enjoy or combing through dollar bins for an old gem. It’s an open joke among publishers that the side of the convention floor with TV shows, video games, and toys is far busier than the side with actual comics.

It’s an expensive show, and sales haven’t risen to match the costs. It’s viewed more as a marketing opportunity, a sunk cost. Some publishers and retailers have threatened to stop coming. Others have actually disappeared.

I talked with a couple of guys who work for a company that creates geek-centric board games, and they came to Comic-Con to scout it out to potentially set up a booth in the future. Their product would fit in, without question. But they said they’re dead set against tabling at Comic-Con. They see the show as too big for its own good, so busy that everyone who isn’t an A-list star gets lost amid the noise.

That effect is something comics people talk about a lot. Comic-Con has so many announcements that no one wants to announce anything there. Marvel is doing a big line relaunch, and most of that news came out in the weeks before Comic-Con. Same with DC’s upcoming new slate. I had initially been told that a publisher would be announcing two of my new projects in San Diego, and I was beyond thrilled when the publisher decided to wait for New York Comic Con.

For most of Comic-Con, the attendance felt off this year, too. Aside from Sunday, the floor seemed more open than in years past, less jam-packed with fans waiting in line, or trying to rush from one place to another, or snapping photos of cosplayers.

The Con Faces an Uncertain Future

For years, I hoped to one day make it to Comic-Con, to be a part of that scene, to make it to mecca. And it has been incredible to experience it. Beyond the absurd, transcendent moments, I’ve also always appreciated the respectful staff and volunteers, the chance to see so many good friends, to interact with fans. But I spent most of this year running the calculus in my mind, whether the benefit is worth the real cost in dollars, as well as the mental and physical exhaustion. It is a grueling experience, moving nonstop through huge crowds to meet up with someone or get to a panel. There’s no time to eat or sleep, always something else to do, someone else to see.5

Pretty much everyone I talked to was thinking the same thing. And you start to wonder, what happens if we all leave? What is Comic-Con without comic books?

This existential crisis of Comic-Con is not purely a matter of identity, though. There is also the very real, looming threat that Comic-Con International relocates to Los Angeles. A plan is in place to expand the San Diego Convention Center, allowing Comic-Con to grow attendance. And there’s an agreement for the Con to stay in San Diego through 2018. But there were rumors flying that San Diego politicians know the show is moving — more a matter of when than if.

While most of those “How’s your show?” conversations tilted toward the depressive, the possibility of Comic-Con relocating actually offered a glimmer of hope. If it moves, perhaps someone will start a new convention in San Diego, one actually focused on comic books. It’ll start out small, sure. But you never know what the future holds.

Van Jensen (@van_jensen) is a journalist and comic-book writer. He writes The Flash for DC Comics and is the author of The Leg: The Remarkable Reappearance of Santa Anna’s Disembodied Limb and Pinocchio, Vampire Slayer.

Filed Under: Comics, Movies, TV, Comic-Con, Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, batman v superman, Marvel, Warner Bros.