As of today, it is four weeks since the opening of the San Diego Comic-Con International. My column about the convention was due a couple of weeks ago, but I have intentionally been letting extra time pass in the hope that my anger over the way the convention was run this year would subside. At the end of the day, however, I'm pretty much just as peeved today as I was four weeks ago, so I guess that my reticence in writing this column accomplished nothing more than causing me to miss my deadline.
To give you an idea of what I think went wrong at this year's SDCC, I will tell you a story. Each year at San Diego, I leave my own booth for about 20 minutes at the peak of the Saturday afternoon crush, and walk the dealer's room in search of clues as to the present direction of the convention and/or the entire comics world. I was not more than 200 feet from my own display this year when I ran into Neal Adams, sitting by himself in the Continuity Publishing booth. Neal was in full public view (his display was near DC, on a corner of the main aisle that bisected the entire dealer's room...) in a building filled with 50,000+ "comics" fans, and he was absolutely alone. Not one fan was seeking his autograph, or even to chat with him for a moment.
Now I know that there are a few among you reading this column who are asking "Neal who?," but my own personal bias leads me toward believing that you are in the extreme minority. Neal Adams has been a huge draw at comics conventions for decades due to his legendary work at Marvel and DC during the late-1960's, 1970's, and 1980's. Ever since his creation of Continuity Publishing during the 1990's, Neal has worked on many fan-favorite projects, and has certainly accomplished much over the past 20 years that warranted his staying in the public eye. At a recent Big Apple convention in New York City, for example, Neal was THE main guest, with lines of autograph seekers that sometimes snaked completely around the entire room. Yet, here at what was once the largest comics convention in the country, I spent my entire 20 minutes of convention analysis time in the middle of the day on Saturday speaking with Neal about his new statue line, without a single interruption.
So where were all the comics fans during the time that I was speaking with Neal? Honestly, I don't think that all that many comics fans were in the building. A trend started emerging about a dozen years ago, where the San Diego Comic-Con International committee began assiduously courting the big Hollywood studios and consumer goods companies to build giant exhibits in the dealer's room. We were initially told that this effort was being made because there was a great deal of reluctance on the part of the folks who controlled the San Diego convention center to even allow us (comic book riff-raff) to rent their stunning new facility. The theory was that, by bringing in companies like Lucas Films, Mattel, and Warner Bros. that we would be not only validating the convention in the eyes of the City of San Diego, but that we would also broaden the reach of the convention to a much wider audience of potential comics fans. Bring the "civilians" into the building via drawing power of the media companies, and we would then have a chance to expose them to the comics world.
While the initial intentions of this courting of Hollywood may have been positive, the net result has been a complete co-opting of the convention. This year, in a bizarre but symbolically very telling change of policy, all comics dealers who were exhibiting at the show received notice just prior to the convention that we were no longer going to be able to unload our booth material in the convention center loading docks. It seems that ALL of those 50+ unloading docks were now needed for the studios and media companies, and that we were no longer welcome to bring our cars, vans, and small trucks to the center to unload. We were initially told that we were being forced to take our merchandise (including all Golden Age Comics!) to a treeless open-air blacktop parking lot located just adjacent to the end of the airport runways at Lindberg Field, and to leave them sitting in the hot sun all day. At the last minute, however, a different open-air lot, this one right behind the convention center, was made available for us. The fact remains, however, that all the comics dealers had to watch from behind 6 foot high wire fences (in an effect that made me feel disturbingly akin to the mice in Maus...) as the fat cat's tractor-trailers leisurely unloaded their huge booths into what used to be our home.
Taking this destruction of our convention ever further, the primary marketing mechanism of the media companies at the convention are free goods. Giving away free posters and sample comics has long been a tradition in our industry, but the insanely expensive 48" X 60" cloth bags that Warner was giving away (reportedly 5,000 each of a different design each day) were so large that a couple of clever girls converted them into skirts overnight! Warner was not alone in giving away great items, however, as I heard reports that there were near-riots as "fans" struggled to gain possession of other particularly attractive freebies that were also available only in limited quantities. With such attractive giveaways being available only in the south (media) end of the building, is it any wonder that when the doors to the convention first open, that huge numbers of attendees immediately run for the media booths? If for no other reason (as I was eventually informed to my extreme dismay) to hawk those limited edition items overnight on eBay.
At the end of the day, what appears to happening is that what used to be the San Diego Comic-Con is now becoming exclusively a media show. It is true that comics (between back issues and the new publisher booths) still constitute about 25% of the dealer's room, and that comics programming is still integral to the over all convention. That having been said, however, the concept of the San Diego convention being a showcase for the very best that our world has to offer is fast fading. With the cost of a single booth rental having been raised this year by another 20% to $1800 (less prepay discounts) per booth, more and more comics exhibitors (both retailers and small press publishers) are reluctantly coming to the conclusion that they no longer can afford to exhibit at the San Diego convention. In the meantime, companies who tie in well with the media giants, such as the ever-growing contingent of toy and t-shirt dealers, have no problem covering the extra rent. So, as fast as members of our comics community fall by the wayside, our place at the table is being snatched up by those who used to be our guests. Is it any wonder that I see this as being an endgame, where comics eventually become just a minor sidebar in San Diego to what is becoming a huge greedfest fueled by freebies from the media giants?
What I really believe is most tragic in this entire process, however, is the complete destruction of the original premise that guided the San Diego convention founders of advocating reading. Having exhibited in San Diego for 36 consecutive years, I watched Ken Krueger, Shel Dorf, and Richard Buttner guide the convention from a Science Fiction dominated affair that initially only drew crowds numbered in the hundreds, into a thriving comics convention that became the crown jewel of our entire world. Always absolutely basic to the entire mission of the convention, however, was a powerful advocacy of literacy and reading, regards of whether it was prose or graphic story telling. From the time that we moved to the new convention center, however, and once the original volunteer organizing committee was gradually replaced by a "professional" group of managers, the primary function of the convention has degenerated. As was related to me by two young people who attend San Diego schools, the convention is now considered by teenagers in San Diego to be the place where it is cool to go to see the "freaks" in costumes, watch the upcoming movie trailers, and grab up all the freebies. Comics, somehow, never enter into this picture at all...
So who do I blame for this degeneration of the San Diego Convention? Sadly, while the San Diego Comic-Con International is still ostensibly a Not-For-Profit organization, the reality is that the cabal of managers who were originally hired to streamline the convention have gradually taken it as their own. They now re-elect themselves into their positions of power each year with no real opposition, and then set their own salaries based purely upon the size of the convention. Quite literally, their success or failure as regards the advocacy of comics and/or reading play absolutely no part in this decision-making about their annual compensation. All that matters is how many bodies that they can get in the door, and how much they can charge for tickets and booths. I know that I am many times excessively naive and trusting, but this complete hijacking of what was once my favorite comics event of the entire year by a select few clever and scheming individuals makes me more than a little nauseous. I genuinely want to think the best of people, but so often I find reason to be disappointed... That having been said, in my view the San Diego Comic-Con International is now a clear instance of paradise lost. With no other viable candidate on the horizon, I guess I have no choice but to come to the conclusion that the New York Comic-Con is now the largest comics convention in America. They may yet also sell out to Hollywood, but for the time being at least, they are doing a far better job of being a comics convention than San Diego.
Please send your e-mails to
your letters to:
Mile High Comics, Inc.
Attn: Chuck Rozanski
2151 W. 56th Ave.
Denver, CO 80221