The Truth Behind the Complaint “San Diego Comic-Con Is Not About Comics Any More”

SDCC Image Booth

The largest and longest running comic convention – Comic Con International: San Diego (still affectionately known as San Diego Comic Con or simply SDCC by fans) is in a few weeks.  That means that it’s time for people to start decrying it as “not about comics any more”.  This year this common complaint seems to have been fueled by long time retailer Mile High Comics decision to no longer attend the show, coupled with a much shared and not at all complimentary Blog by Mile High Owner Chuck Rozanski. By the way, if you want to see a great rebuttal to Rozanki’s gripe about his freight delivery at SDCC last year, check out the latest Blog by Douglas Paszkiewicz, who shares some great insight into how deliveries work at large convention centers (they are out of the hands of the convention organizers, BTW).  I’ve seen similar complaints from vendors about delivers at numerous conventions over the years, so this is really not something unique to SDCC, and has zero bearing on whether the con is about comics or not anyway.

Let’s take a moment to examine the actual truth behind the claim that SDCC is “not about comics”, and then we can talk about some things that ACTUALLY ARE TRUE, and are likely the root causes behind the shorthanded complaint that the convention is not about comics.

The real question is what does it take to be “About Comics”?   If they have to focus on comics as their main thing, then yes, this is true.  But it is also true about every other “Comic Book” convention of any size.  In order to grow past being a small show, any convention needs to include many elements of Pop Culture that ultimately take the spotlight away from comic books because frankly, the number of people who primarily care about comic books is small.  More importantly, I think, to being “About Comics” is to continue to offer lots of content that is about comics and not let the comic book content be REPLACED by Pop Culture.  A convention can continue to have a lot of comic book content even if that is not the thing that gets all the media attention.

SDCC and Comics

There is a lot of pure comic book content at San Diego Comic Con.  More than enough to put the lie to any claim it’s not about comics by the definition of “about comics” that means having lots of great comic book focused content.

Panels: There are literally hundreds of pure comic-book related panels that run Thursday through Sunday.  I have examined the schedule for this year and there are about 60 panels about comics that I’d like to attend.  Unfortunately I cannot attend all of them, some are scheduled against each other, others will likely have huge crowds that I’d rather not have to contend with.  Even taking that aside, I have a personal schedule with about 35 panels on it that could keep me in panels from 10am until about 7 or 8pm every day Thursday thru Saturday and 10am through 4pm on Sunday.  There are more comic book related panels on any single day of SDCC than I have seen at the entire show of most other comic conventions.

Publishers: Pretty much every publisher that I buy comics from is at the show.  The “Big 5” from the front half of Previews (Dark Horse, DC, IDW, Image, Marvel).  The main 2nd-tier publishers (BOOM!, Oni, Titan, Viz) as well as a bunch of the smaller guys that I get books from (2000AD, Abstract Studio, Action Lab, Aspen, Black Mask, Drawn & Quarterly, Fantagraphics, First Second, Hermes, Humanoids, Kodansha, Lion Forge, Red 5) plus lots of small/medium press comics publishers that I’m not naming here.
The ones that are missing: AfterShock, Dynamite (who has never done SDCC), and Valiant.  There are not many conventions that can boast the roster of Publishers that San Diego has.  New York Comic Con probably can, maybe a few others.

Pros: There are 100s of pros at the convention.  From people I’d consider legends to today’s hottest names in comics.  They will be speaking on many of the panels I’ll be attending, as well as signing at Publisher booths, their own booths, or in Artist’s Alley at various points during the show.
There are quite a few conventions that can boast great rosters of comic book guests, so SDCC is certainly not standing head and shoulders above the rest here, but the real point is that they have plenty of comic book pros in attendance to qualify them as being “about comics”.

Comics: Even with the loss of Mile High, there are still dozens of vendors at the show selling comics.  There are 33 vendors listed in the “Gold & Silver Pavilion” which is where the vendors of older comics congregate.  There are lots of other vendors outside this area that sell newer comics, or collected editions.  That said, there is legitimately a downturn in vendors that sell stuff that can be easily purchased online, and with the cost of a vendor space at SDCC, it really is not financially feasible to focus on “50 cent bins”, so that is something that is not represented strongly a the show any more.  What they do have a lot of is harder to find, older, more expensive books that fans can buy and actually see what they are getting (which is a main detractor on getting some of these rarer books online.
There are also quite a few Original Art vendors, for people who are into that.
The bottom line here is not to make a claim that SDCC has more or better comic book dealers than any other specific con, but that they have more than enough to satisfy the bar of being “about comics”.
Personally, I think comics dealers are not really in the “sweet spot” of any larger con any more.  There are too many other things vying for the attention of attendees.  I think that there are quite a few smaller regional shows that specialize in comics and comics dealer that do a much better job at this than the big shows.

Bottom Line: There is a great deal of comic book content at SDCC.  So much so that when I attend I do nothing but comic book related stuff.  I spend all day every day from Thursday through Sunday, and there is far more than I can experience.  The important thing to remember is that comics are there if you look for them.  Just because there is a TON of non-comics stuff does not mean that there are no comics.  These are not mutually exclusive things.

Legitimate Gripes

The Main Focus of the Con is not Comics: I will give people this one.  From the outside looking in, the media focuses mostly on TV Shows/Movies and Cosplay.  If I just watched the news, I’d think everyone was wearing a costume and every panel was about a TV Show/Movie and what everyone came to see was Hollywood actors.  This is unfortunately just the way it is.  Reading comics is a tremendously niche hobby.  Most people don’t like to read, they like their entertainment to be delivered to them in a different way.

I also think that most of the attendees of the con are there for stuff other than comic books.  I just look at the lines for the panels with the Hollywood stuff and compare that to the number of people in the “pure comics” panels I attend (usually with less than 100 people) to understand this is 100% true.  Most people I know who are comics fans split their time at con between comic book panels and ones focusing on Hollywood stuff.

What is true is that the vast majority of the public does not care about comic books themselves but absolutely LOVE the things that have spawned from comics and grown in other media.  Having a lot of focus on these things is just giving people what they want.  In fact, if you look at pretty much ANY ‘comic book’ convention out there and see what they are advertising to sell tickets and pull in attendees, it is typically not comic books.  Cons advertise the actors they have coming to boost ticket sales all the time.  It’s just business.

The difference I see at SDCC is that even though the comics are not the main draw for ticket sales, they still host a tremendous amount of comic book related panels that have fairly small attendance.  What I have seen at other cons I have attended is a drop off in the comic book panels in favor of panels that have more interest to the vast bulk of the attendees.  Less comics, more “other stuff” as time goes by.

Long Lines: Yes.  Lines are brutal.  When you have more than 125,000 people there are going to be lines.  And guess what?  The longest lines are for the most popular things!  That makes sense.  What are the most popular things?  Things related to Hollywood, actors, and big/hot super-hero projects.  If these are your main interests, I’m sorry, but it’s going to suck.  There will be lines.  You may not see everything you want to see or get to meet every person you want to meet.  I think the same thing will be true at any convention that has very popular things that lots of people are interested in.   I think this is actually the goal (or perhaps the unintended consequence) of any convention that wants to have really cool guests/events and a very healthy attendance.  Rooms are only so big, actors/creators can only meet and talk to so many people over the course of an hour or two.  This one kind of “is what it is”.

I Can’t Get Tickets!: Yes.  See “Long Lines”.  When far more people want something than the available quantity, some people will not get what they want.  The convention center is HUGE, but there is still an upper limit to the number of people that can attend.  More people want to go than there are tickets, and tickets usually sell out in an hour or 2.  The limited nature of the tickets causes a lot of “sour grapes” griping from people who couldn’t get tickets.   They cannot get a ticket so make themselves feel better by focusing on how the show “sucks anyway”, is too crowded, and is no longer about comics.

(Vendor Complaint) Sales Are Down and it is Not Worth It: This is one of the things Chuck Rozanski was complaining about.  Totally legitimate. There is a tremendous amount on online competition to ANY physical seller.  If you are not offering something unique that people cannot get online, why is it surprising that people are not bothering to buy from you?  Rozanski runs a huge online comic selling operation himself.  There is also a LOT of stuff competing for the attention of any attendee.  They can be meeting creators/actors, talking to people at the Publisher booths, attending panels where they hear from people they do not normally have access to, or go across the street from the convention center which is like a huge pop culture fair with all kinds of “experiences” and cool things to do.  Why do they want to be digging through a back issue bin getting something they could get from their desk at home any day of the year?  Add in the fact that at least 50% of the attendees of SDCC have never read a physical comic in their life and have no desire to read them.  This is not to say that there are not some people who will come to shop for comics, but it should not be surprising if you’re not swamped with customers if you are not offering some kind of unique experience or product that cannot be had online.

Artists Alley is Marginalized: This is another one I will give to critics of SDCC.  The convention organizers seem to think it’s a good idea to put Artist’s Alley way down at the south end of the Convention center about 3 city blocks away from the comics publishers and 5 city blocks away from the comics dealers.  You have to run a gauntlet of Media booths and aisles crowded with 1000s of people who want to get a look at some star of a TV show or get some free giveway from a studio that they’ll either sell on eBay or will end up at the back of a drawer in 6 months time.
There are lots of conventions that treat Artist’s Alley far better than San Diego and as a result have far better Artists Alley experiences for both the fans and the pros.  I think this is the weakest link in their comic book content portfolio.

Comic Conventions are Changing

Comic Cons are changing across the board.  There is a focus on non-comic things at any con when it grows to a certain size.  I would argue that in order to grow beyond a small size any convention must modify itself to offer lots of things that are not directly comic books.  This is because the size of the audience that is interested in reading comics is very small PLUS people who like to read comics usually ALSO like those other things.

The important thing is whether, while growing, a convention holds onto “pure comic book content” as they begin to grow and add things that are not comic books.  The thing I love about SDCC is that they have succeeded in doing this.

A Round of Applause for SDCC

Even though SDCC is huge and comics are legitimately not the main draw for attendance, they still offer a lot of solid comic book content for anyone who comes seeing it out.

And for that, SDCC deserves a round of applause from all fans of comic books.  For holding onto their roots and keeping a core of love for comics alive within the much larger non-comics beast that the convention has grown into.

Opinion by: Bob Bretall  (bob@comicspectrum.com)
https://comicspectrum.com/ By Fans who Love Comics for Fans who Love Comics

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7 Responses to The Truth Behind the Complaint “San Diego Comic-Con Is Not About Comics Any More”

  1. Michael Moore says:

    Even in the earliest days most comic book conventions we’re not exclusively comic books. Back in the 70s I remember that there was as much enthusiasm for the Warren periodicals the assorted pulp based Heroes published in paperback along with Heavy Metal magazine sci-fi as well as toys. Also remember the FF movie produced by Corman hyped and received huge not to mention the Captain America movie with the Italian Red Skull. Comic-Con has always meant geekfest. It’s a party always has been always will be. And for right now the party is huge. It’s no secret comic book retailers are getting brutally beat up with huge required numbers for Very Bad Comics. couple that with a millennial lack of interest for anything occurred previously you have a perfect storm for a guy like the owner of Mile High.

    • Excellent point, Michael. Comic Cons have always pursued pop culture as it’s a crossover interest for most comic fans. But, while it’s always been there, in recent years, the pop culture has definitely been overshadowing the comics at many conventions.

  2. Brian Isaacs says:

    Bob, have you read the book Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture: What the World’s Wildest Trade Show Can Tell Us About the Future of Entertainment by Rob Salkowitz?
    Very on point as to your post

  3. Mark F Braun says:

    When comics became exclusive to distributors who pushed them off of retail shelves and dispalys in all those little neighborhood stores, THAT is when the death of comics began, as thet migrated to a few shops which in turn were gripped by distributors who controlled their life source. As comic stores close in droves, well, say whatcha want, but the high price of a comic is no longer a kid’s cheap little joy. If the only market are old guys who still care for newer titles, good luck, pal.

    • Comics are certainly taking a long time to die, if their death began in the mid-1980s as you say, Mark 🙂

      A 30+ year death, that is pretty lingering….. Kind of like we can say any person over the age of 30 has started dying….eventually we’re all going to die.

      In any event, you are correct that interest in comics has been diminishing for decades, all this while interest in pop culture that has its roots in comics has been on the rise. And larger conventions are tracking this phenomenon by increasing the amount of coverage they give to non-comics pop culture.

      But, all that is not really the point of my Blog, which is that there is still a lot of content at SDCC that is directly about comic books, whether it is a dying/doomed art form or not.

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