The original San Diego Comic-Con came from meager origins. It began in 1970 as a one-day festival to celebrate everything related to comic books and attracted around 100 comic book fans. The event has since turned into a four-day extravaganza, taking place in different cities and hosting crowds of all ages, professions and interest levels (pre-pandemic crowds surpassed 100,000 people). Over the years, top celebrities have also been in attendance launching TV shows and movies.
Whether in person or online (i.e., 2020’s all-virtual San Diego Comic-Con), Comic-Con is a welcome step away from reality (especially during a pandemic) and an opportunity for comic book fans to bond over shared hobbies. But over the years, it has grown increasingly commercial and expensive, (2020 notwithstanding, because virtual Comic-Con was free), leading many to wonder: Is Comic-Con worth the trip, or has it become overrated?
Here, we’ll look back at Comic-Con pre- and post-Covid-19 and discuss three reasons why the event is worth the trip, and three reasons why it may be better to skip it.
Don’t Forget to Pack Your Costume!
Free of Judgment, Open to Self-Expression
Many attendees feel out of place in their day-to-day lives and see Comic-Con as a safe haven. “At Comic-Con you can express yourself in a variety of ways,” says Jeremy Renaud, PR rep for Windsor Comic-Con. “People can come here, and they won’t be judged.” Unlike at school or in the workplace, where daily dress codes may stifle self-expression and personalities, the dress code at Comic-Con is “be yourself.” Plus, Comic-Con’s art of cosplay, or costume role-playing, has inspired a growing, acceptable and profitable affirmation (and business) of self-expression. In fact, its creativity and individuality has even been used to protest workplace dress codes.
A Creative Platform to Further Social Awareness
Although Comic-Con is rooted in comics, the convention is using its growing popularity and global recognition to support and further social progress. In 2017, Comic-Con conventions in various cities and countries featured mental health panels. These panels are still going strong as attendees are looking for ways that pop culture can help them deal with current issues (like Covid-19-related stresses). Regarding diversity, for the first time in history, a woman won the Best Writer Eisner Award – the top award for comic book writing – at the 2018 San Diego Comic-Con, around the same time it was announced that the first transgender superhero in television history would be joining the characters of “Supergirl.” And, the first-ever Indigenous Comic-Con, which began in 2016 and has slowly taken off in America and in Australia, celebrates Indigenous creators and artists and their contributions to pop culture. Its success has since spawned a mini-Indigenous-Comic-Con with pop-up events in various cities. Comic-Con unlocks people’s imaginations and addresses serious cultural and societal issues.
Virtual Community Turned Reality
Joining virtual communities of like-minded fantasy and sci-fi fans is a big part of the attraction of Comic-Con. These online connections – sustained through fandoms – heighten each convention experience, spawning tens of thousands of discussion boards, forums and tons of fan art. The social connection and acceptance everyone feels is no small thing for people whose comic book hobby may have previously isolated them. This was especially true in 2020, when the pandemic forced people to stay home and remain socially distanced from one another; superhero fandom has adapted itself to the pandemic, and connections between fans as well as new ideas actually grew (including how to incorporate Covid masks into cosplay). Not to mention that over the years, modern fandom has taken on a new meaning of cool, so much so that a few years ago, MTV created Fandom Awards, a sign of embracing and celebrating fans’ enthusiasm instead of raising eyebrows to it.
Putting the ‘Con’ in Comic-Con
Growing Too Mainstream
As an open event, Comic-Con attracts more than your classic Sheldon Coopers. Prior to the pandemic, crowds in San Diego and New York soared past 100,000. (In New York, attendance in 2018 hit 250,000). Comic books, fantasy and sci-fi novels, and the “geeks” or “nerds” who were once teased for reading them are now all considered popular. While this embrace of the fringe is positive, some think that it has negatively impacted Comic-Con itself. The event is getting increasingly mainstream and watered down, which disappoints die-hard comic book fans.
More Hollywood and TV stars are coming to promote their big movies and shows (even virtually), in turn attracting crowds addicted to celebrity rather than comic books. For example, in Comic-Con 2018, controversy surrounding Johnny Depp and ex-wife Amber Heard’s simultaneous panel appearances garnered more attention than, say, the work of the talented group of comic book creators under age 15. Conventions are now more of a media blitz for movie studios and television producers to market their latest superhero movies and fantasy shows rather than a genuine celebration of the art form (although, HBO and Marvel did choose to sit out the 2018 San Diego convention, and 2019 also had a modest studio attendance).
Too Close for Comfort
While dressing up as superheroes seems like innocent fun, the thousands of costumed – especially masked – attendees has invited misbehavior. Amid such anonymity, Comic-Cons across the country turned into a forum through which groping, stalking and unwanted photographing became a serious problem to be reckoned with. In response to this harassment, referred to as “creeping at a con,” Comic-Con in San Diego improved its anti-harassment policy. However, even with tighter security, conversations on misogyny, racism and general rage, which tend to run rampant in online forums, may leak over into the events themselves. At the 2017 Comic-Con, actor Jason Momoa came under fire after joking about rape on a panel. Anti-gay controversy has also arisen in past panels, and it doesn’t help that conventions have also become increasingly political and therefore somewhat divisive with time. With so many diverse attendees in one place, it’s no surprise that some questionable (if not villainous) behavior appears in the mix.
Comic-Con has hosted people from wearers of diapers to hearing aids, but, typically, 55% of the attendees have been under 30. Generally, people of this demographic don’t have a lot of money, yet they are eager to impress. In the past, fans have dished out quite a sum to attend, both on tickets and to cover cosplay costs. An art of costume role-playing, cosplayers have spent a ton of time and money (some, between $500-$4000) designing and assembling costumes from concept art, like comic books, video games or television series. Instead of a gathering to honor comics, Comic-Con in recent years has become a contest of who can out-costume each other, which puts a strain on the wallet.
The Bottom Line: Is Comic-Con a welcoming celebration free of judgment and bursting with creativity? Or has it grown too mainstream and commercial for fans to enjoy?
Co-written by Rachel Segal