It’s not easy putting on a Comic-Con, even if you’re the organization that originated the name. There are comic and pop culture conventions that existed before San Diego Comic-Con and many have come and gone since, but the biggest has remained for 50 years. And by big, I don’t mean the biggest in attendance. There are some shows that continue to grow and have moved beyond San Diego Comic-Con’s self-imposed attendance ceiling for comfort and safety reasons. No, San Diego Comic-Con is still the show that inspires the biggest demand for attendance like no other. Whether you’re a fan or a creator or exhibitor or a mega entertainment corporation wanting to show off your latest movie/tv series/comic extravaganza, SDCC draws more than 130,000 people from around the world and seems to turn away just about as many or more, fighting for badges that disappear faster and faster with every passing year.
But why? What sets San Diego Comic-Con apart from just about every other convention in the world? I travel to dozens of conventions each year, exploring convention centers and hotel ballrooms big and small. No two are exactly the same and no two are meant to be. But there’s something about how everything aligns in San Diego that sets it apart from the rest. Maybe it has something to do with doing what they do so well for 50 years. Here’s just a few examples as to what I believe makes San Diego Comic-Con the biggest convention of its kind today, on its 50th birthday.
What started out in the basement of a vintage hotel, attended by just a few hundred people has morphed into a massive entertainment event known the world over for bringing geeks together and giving fans their first look at the pop culture icons of tomorrow. Now it’s become so big that the convention center cannot properly contain it. When people ask me WHY San Diego is THE Comic-Con (other than owning the name), I tell them it all has to do with the city. Nestled with its back against the water and facing an easy to navigate city that was built to handle a bustling downtown populace, even ones dressed as zombies, stormtroopers, and superheroes, San Diego Comic-Con is perfectly positioned to host an event like this. And its format is what other shows around the world seek to emulate and hope to someday surpass. While anybody can shove rows of booths packed with creators and vendors into a convention center, SDCC doesn’t simply exist within the walls of the convention center. Streets are blocked off to accommodate the crowds, hotels become waystations for offsite events and celebrity-filled parties, restaurants cater to crowds of countless tastes. And they’re all within reach, just a few steps to a few blocks away, fans can explore the city and find pieces of Comic-Con wherever they go for the entire 5 days of the show and beyond.
The proximity of the main show to everything else the city has to offer sets it apart from other major cities with cons of their own, but have convention centers pushed far away from the bustle of the after hour events. And since the main flow of the convention is set away from major freeways and thoroughfares used by people with no interest in San Diego Comic-Con, it doesn’t get in the way as cons sometimes do in other cities where everything must grind to a halt just because a horde of a hundred zombies needs to cross the street. In order to match what San Diego has to offer, other cities would have to hold conventions in centers that sit along areas that don’t put the conventioneers in the middle of normal city business, but also gives them the opportunity to get to everything they need quickly and on foot, without having to use cars or crowded public transportation to get to their hotels or the next big thing at the show. Whoever laid out San Diego did it right, but I’m sure they had no idea that the convention center would someday hold a yearly event so huge that it would drop tens of millions of dollars into the local economy each year on its own. Add to the moderate temps, even in the middle of summer, and you’ve got a geek paradise people are dying to visit.
It’s About More than Comics… and That’s Okay
To some, that’s not a good thing and is a sentiment that most of their detractors find ironic, especially since they’re called Comic-Con. Comic-Con has long ago moved past their comic book industry based roots and expanded into something even the original founders could have never imagined. It makes some want Comic-Con International to change their name to something less of a misnomer, but they created and own the name, so it’s not likely that they’ll just give it away. But I’m here to tell you that while San Diego Comic-Con is about more than comics, it certainly hasn’t left the genre behind by any means. You can find more American and international comics collectors, dealers, creators, artists, writers, and publishers big and small than at any other convention in the U.S., if not the entire world (there are other shows that come close). While a lot of their work tends to get overshadowed by big marketing pushes by every major movie studio, the root of what the big boys are selling is usually still found in comics.
The big boom in San Diego Comic-Con started around the time that the X-Men movie premiered in 2000, but SDCC’s mixed media origins go back as far as 1976, when an indie filmmaker with distribution from 20th Century Fox debuted a trailer for his little sci-fi fantasy movie. Most people didn’t know what to think about it. Original posters drawn by comic book icon Howard Chaykin were left mostly untouched on the table where they were selling for just a dollar. But for those who saw something special in those rough clips shown on a screen off to the side of the main hall, Star Wars was going to be something big and they saw it there first at San Diego Comic-Con!
And for those who want a more hardcore comic book-centric show, there are hundreds, if not thousands of them around the world, including San Diego. As big and crazy as San Diego Comic-Con is, that doesn’t mean that you can’t check out the astonishing number of conventions found everywhere that cater to a variety of geek needs. Even the fine folks at Comic-Con International will tell you that.
When San Diego throws a party, they throw it big, and it lasts 5 days! It’s a place where people have stood in line for a week just to get a glimpse of the next few top secret projects from Marvel Studios or a Funko Pop exclusive available to only a handful of people. It’s a chance to not just meet the stars of your favorite movies, shows, and comics from yesteryear, but also ones that are the biggest stars in the galaxy right now! For those who want to meet their favorite artists and actors, but not just over an autograph table after standing in line for 3 hours, coming to San Diego Comic-Con means that sometimes you might even be able to bump into them on the street at random. My first time at San Diego Comic-Con in 2004, I bumped into Stan Lee, who wasn’t being swarmed by fans and didn’t have a protective entourage of a dozen burly guys. I shook his hand and thanked him for everything he’s give to me personally. No autograph, no selfie, no line, no crowd. I couldn’t believe it happened. Of course, that was 2004 and it’s no longer that easy, but it’s not impossible even now. For more than a decade, my San Diego Comic-Con visit wasn’t complete until I bumped into Joss Whedon in my hotel lobby or at a local shop going to or from the show. I never sought him out. It just happened. Every year. He was part of a game he never knew was happening and I actually didn’t intend to play, but was never disappointed by the results.
Sure, most of us don’t get into the ultra exclusive parties to rub elbows with Angelina Jolie or Samuel L Jackson, but there is never any shortage of things to do. Conan O’Brien hosts his shown down the street 4 nights straight for those who can get tickets. Amazon is giving you the chance to experience some of their series from the inside! Want to see props from the upcoming Picard series on CBS All Access? There’s a museum for that. And you can even check out live bands and stand up comedians perform on stages throughout the city. Mini festivals, pop up shops, and exclusive screenings are scattered around every corner, almost always for free.
But as with any convention, it’s about the connections you make with your fellow fans, brought together by the things you geek out over most. SDCC does that in spades. Even fan groups create their own events and intimate gatherings to share their love of just about anything you can think of in the pop culture realm. So many that if you’re a fan of a lot of things, you’ll have a hard time choosing between one gathering and a dozen others on any given night. No, San Diego Comic-Con isn’t just about a love of Star Wars or Doctor Who or DC Comics or Nintendo. It’s about a love of all things in geek culture! And you’ll find it difficult to discover another convention in the world that can bring it all together as perfectly as San Diego Comic-Con.