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Comic-Con At 50 Looks Back To Its Roots And Ahead To Its Future

On March 21, 1970, a group of teenage comic and movie enthusiasts under the nominal adult supervision of a superfan named Shel Dorf mounted a one-day comic “minicon” at the US Grant Hotel in downtown San Diego, similar to a convention that Dorf had staged in Detroit. The event was successful enough that they decided to do a bigger version over the summer. Over 300 fans turned up to buy, sell, talk, live and breathe all things comics, sci-fi and fantasy with special guests Ray Bradbury, Jack Kirby and A.E. Van Vogt. They called it the San Diego Golden State Comic-Con, eventually settling on the pithier moniker “San Diego Comic-Con” by 1973.

As you may have heard, San Diego Comic-Con is still around. The 50th edition of the show kicks off this week, bringing hundreds of thousands of fans to San Diego for an annual festival that has become a centerpiece of the 21st century media/entertainment industry and global popular culture.

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Comic-Con has always been a big deal for the comics and publishing industry, but it really rose to global prominence in the early 2000s, coinciding with the first wave of big superhero-driven blockbusters and the expansion of the San Diego Convention Center, which enabled the show’s attendance to balloon from 45,000 in the late 90s to well over 135,000 unique attendees that it draws today. The success of SDCC paved the way for other huge fan events around the world, creating an industry that now contributes billions of dollars in economic impact to host cities.

Through it all, San Diego Comic-Con has persevered, pursuing its mission to promote comics and the popular arts despite the thick fog of entertainment industry marketing hype that now blankets downtown San Diego for the week. Though the days of exponential growth are behind it, at least until San Diego decides to expand its facility further, SDCC remains a magnet for media attention, marketing dollars, exclusive merchandise, and fan frenzy. It’s also put long-simmering speculation of an imminent move to another locale on hold with the announcement of a new deal to stay in San Diego through 2024.

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Back to the Future

So what does the grand dame of fan cons have in store for its semicentennial celebration? SDCC Chief Communication and Strategy Officer David Glanzer says that it will be fairly low key from an organizational standpoint, with most of the festivities centered on programming. “Probably the biggest thing is over 50 guests from SDCC’s past on variety of panels and events, talking about what the Con was like over the past five decades,” said Glanzer. Those programs are spread out across the four days of the show, featuring everyone from longtime fans and original attendees to bigtime professionals and celebrities.

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There’s also a gala opening night fundraising event at SDCC’s new Comic-Con Museum facility in San Diego’s Balboa Park on July 17, featuring the induction of Batman as the inaugural member of the museum’s Character Hall of Fame. The museum itself won’t be up and running for a while, but it has been raising money and hosting special events and exhibits for the past year, and will be open for visits during the weekend.

Continuity through community

What’s kept the show going for so long? “Honestly, I think it’s community,” says Glanzer. “When I first attended Comic-Con [in the late 70s], I felt like I found my tribe. As a film and science fiction buff, I learned a lot about silent films, pre-code films and the whole wider world of fandom. If you’re interested in this stuff, it’s limitless.”

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Mike Towry, one of the then-teenagers who launched the very first Comic-Con and was chairman of the 1972 edition of the show, says that the people – both fans and organizers – are the through-line that connects those prehistoric gatherings around the pool at the El Cortez Hotel with the extravaganza today. “What the Con has become was beyond our imagining,” he says. “In those days, comics were looked down upon. You were seen as a weirdo if you read comics over age 12. To have a convention where we could get together was our chance to be normal for three days out of the year.”

Artist and publisher Denis Kitchen, who attended all but one of the previous 49 SDCCs and is a special guest of the show this year, agrees the comradery is key to the show’s longstanding appeal, especially to the community of comics professional who often work in solitude for most of the year. “Years ago, a couple dozen professionals took Friday afternoons off and played softball at Balboa Park: Publishers and Artists vs. Distributors and Retailers,” he recalls. “I pitched several years for the Publishers. Today I pitch books and projects on behalf of clients. Fifty years ago, I would party most nights till dawn with friends. Today? Well, that part is still the same.”

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Many old-timers marvel at the Con’s growth in size and influence. “The idea that all this would go so mainstream, that Comic-Con would be so huge, we couldn’t have imagined it,” says Towry. [Comic artist and inspiration for the first SDCC] Jack Kirby was really the only one who saw this whole convergence of comics and entertainment coming.”

From “nerd heaven’ to center of the entertainment world

Partly because of Kirby’s influence and partly because of founder Shel Dorf’s previous experience running the Detroit “Triple Fan Fair” which encompassed comics, science fiction and film, Comic-Con has always had one eye on the entertainment world as an extension of comics into other media.

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“We’ve always thought that being a fan of comics doesn’t exclude you from being fans of other stuff and vice versa. We welcome cosplay, film, multimedia. It’s part of our mission,” says Glanzer.

Towry concurs. “Hollywood is how young people are consuming their SF and superheroes these days. It’s good SDCC sees that and fills that need. People are excited to be there and having a great time.”

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The increasing prominence of blockbuster entertainment since the mid-‘00s has given some people the impression that Comic-Con rises and falls on how much starpower the Con can pack into Hall H, the giant 7500-capacity auditorium featuring the biggest names, the most anticipated previews, and the comically-long lines to get in. During the 2007-2013 era, almost every studio showed up to parade their upcoming features and all-star casts in front of the Comic-Con faithful, believed to be an unusually engaged and influential audience. These days, with mainstream superhero and genre tentpoles less dependent on activating hardcore fans, an expensive trip to Hall H isn’t always part of the marketing budget.

This year, WarnerMedia isn’t bringing its upcoming movies to Comic-Con, though Game of Thrones and other high-profile TV projects are still on offer. Meanwhile Marvel Studios is back after a year’s absence, and perennial favorites Star Trek and Supernatural will be on hand.

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“I’d love to see every studio come to Comic-Con but not every studio comes every year,” says Glanzer. “We don’t question it – it’s their decision. They’ve been great stakeholders in terms of speaking to the fans. We trust the studios know what they’re doing, they’ll be back when the time is appropriate. We’ll be here for them and so will the fans.”

An “everything store” for fans

The other big draw for the show, and one of the few constants throughout its 50-year history, is the exhibit hall, or, as the old-timers call it, the Dealer’s Room. “The show floor used to be the world’s biggest bookstore. Now it’s an everything store for fans where you can get exposed to all kinds of great new stuff,” says Glanzer.

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But that part of the show has also changed dramatically with the growth of the Con. Bob Chapman, owner and head of Graphitti Designs, has been the official source of Comic-Con t-shirts and apparel since 1981. “That relationship started through serendipity,” says Chapman. “I had a booth at the 1980 show selling comics and approached the Con about doing t-shirts, since I had a screen printing business. They were receptive, and that led to us doing a whole lot of other comic-related shirts.”

That turned into a golden business opportunity. By the early 2010s, the hours-long line for t-shirts at the Graphitti booth had become a fire hazard on the show floor and they had to move to a preorder model to reduce congestion. “It’s grown exponentially,” says Chapman. “Sales are staggering. And we’re selling to a broader public now, not just the hardcore fan base.”

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Chapman says his arrangement with Comic-Con is to keep retail prices reasonable to allow for a “decent profit margin” but not to gauge fans. “Comic-Con [as a nonprofit] isn’t looking to fleece, pillage and maximize profits. I’m in sync with them on that, and I like dealing with them for that reason,” he says.

But the evolution of Comic-Con from a collectors’ show to an entertainment extravaganza hasn’t benefited everyone. The ranks of comics, art and book dealers has thinned as the costs of setting up at Comic-Con have grown and the audience has diversified.

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Bud Plant, one of the first retailers to specialize in comic and genre-based art books, exhibited at the first 48 Comic-Cons. In the early 2000’s, his booth occupied a giant space in the middle of the hall and was a go-to destination for every collector. This year, he is a guest of the convention, but will not have even a table on the show floor.

“I’ll continue to come to the show to do business and be a fan, but the sales just aren’t there anymore to justify the investment,” says Plant. “Sales really started going down in 2008 and we started downsizing. My customers tend to be older, more mature collectors, and they’re not coming to this show as much. Maybe they can’t get tickets, or they’re intimidated by the crowds and all the changes.” Plant also observed that the loading procedures for the show, now scaled up to support the needs of the giant booths of entertainment companies and studios, have become less flexible and dependable for smaller vendors.

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Despite all that, Plant says SDCC remains a great shopping destination. “It’s still a primo place for fans and collectors of every interest. It’s just that the bargains are harder to come by, because dealers are paying so much to set up at the show that they can’t afford to bring lower-priced stuff.”

What’s Next?

This year SDCC will relive the glories of its past and revel in its current central role in the world of media, entertainment, popular culture and live events. With its future in San Diego secure for the next five year, the question of whether the show can continue to make giant leaps forward as it did in preceding decades by increasing its capacity, or simply continue along with incremental improvements to an already full-to-bursting event, lies with voters in San Diego, who will have a question on the ballot next March about whether to expand the convention center.

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This year’s San Diego Comic-Con kicks off with Preview Night on Wednesday, July 17 and continues through Sunday, July 22.

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