“The nerds of the world unite!” These words thundered from the lips of the creators of the San Diego Comic-Con over half a century ago when they summoned their kindred spirits from across the land. The call went out to all lovers of science fiction and fantasy, all comic books, dime novels, and movie-obsessed fans and collectors, to begin a pilgrimage. “Our time is here,” they shouted. “And the world will tremble at what we build!”
Well, okay, maybe not exactly. But similar impulses, at least, guided the creation of the world’s most prominent geek gathering, which is back in full force in 2022 after two years of COVID shutdown, and bigger than ever (it’s completely sold out if you were hoping to join the approximately 130,000 attendees). and the summons it worked. Where once they met they might have relied on decidedly analog media like shortwave radio, fans, snail mail, and meetings in… the name escapes me… Bookstores, now the fans they can practically project themselves into the largest hive mind in the universe.
And if you think the hive mind hasn’t conquered pop culture from its humble individual origins in garages, basements, and rec rooms, well, resistance is futile because the big guests at this year’s show include corporate emissaries from The Lord of the Rings. Rings, DC, Star Trek, Marvel, Dungeons and Dragons, and, well, basically every geek brand you can think of, along with a bunch you probably can’t.
It hasn’t even been four decades since William Shatner told fans at the Star Trek convention that “get a life” on Saturday Night Live, and now they are at the center of an ever-expanding IP universe that directly serves them. Considering the 460,000 square feet of SDCC convention space, as well as the surrounding venues the convention has colonized, not to mention its global digital reach, it seems certain that such gatherings have permanently escaped basements. The world has indeed shaken, as we show in this short story.
The Comic-Con Mission Statement, displayed prominently on the home page, reads as follows:
“The SAN DIEGO COMIC CONVENTION (Comic-Con International) is a California nonprofit Public Benefit Corporation organized for charity and dedicated to creating general public awareness and appreciation of comics and popular art forms including participation in and support of public performances, conventions, exhibitions, museums, and other public outreach activities that celebrate the historic and continuing contribution of comics to art and culture.”
The idea that someone felt the need to create the “general public’s awareness and appreciation of comics and related popular art forms” seems like an uproar now. But that’s only because it’s hard to remember (or even comprehend, for those under 40) how quickly the world of entertainment became mediaticized in the 1980s with the advent of cable, home video, and personal computers, and even more in the 1990s over the Internet. The idea that we can all hang out together, whether at home around our devices and televisions, or virtually on message boards, was hardly an idea in 1970 (except, of course, in science fiction stories), but it was the dream of the founders of SDCC, the friends of San Diegan Shel Dorf, Richard Alf, Ken Krueger, Ron Graf and Mike Towry, who wanted nothing more to unite like-minded people.
Dorf had launched a comic book convention in Detroit in the mid-1960s before establishing Golden State Comic-Con in 1970, which became permanently known as San Diego Comic-Con in 1973. Dorf and his friends’ love of the medium , as well as his insistence that comics were an art form worth celebrating and preserving, was shared by millions of people who were grateful to have a new space to express it.
SDCC’s stated mission now seems like an obviously noble pursuit at a time when comic book adaptations like Joker and Black Panther have won Best Picture nominations, and when pop culture in general has become more accepted by high culture. level (once strictly the domain of the elegant trousers of literature, drama, opera, classical music, painting, sculpture and the like). But this was far from being the case historically. In 1970, the year Comic-Con launched its first iteration, comics, pulp novels, sci-fi mags like Amazing Stories, and B-movie sci-fi and monster movies were generally considered lowbrow and throwaway. Its bad reputation partly explained why science fiction and fantasy fans remained somewhat underground. But those fans existed en masse, and they began to organize and passionately advocate for what they loved, as evidenced by the famous writing campaign of cards that brought back the original Star Trek for a third season in 1969.
That’s why it didn’t take long for Comic-Con attendance to increase exponentially once word of its existence began to travel, from 300 attendees in August 1970, to 800 the following year, and 2,500 in 1974. Take a cursory look at some of the early attractions and it’s no wonder why fan interest spread so quickly. Forrest Ackerman, sci-fi fanatic, collector, curator, and literary agent (of Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and L. Ron Hubbard, among others), kicked things off at the first event. In the years that followed, Bradbury himself would appear, along with legendary Marvel Comics artist and scribe Jack Kirby, author Leigh Brackett (who later co-wrote The Empire Strikes Back), and Star Trek actors Majel Barrett and Walter Koenig.
In the late ’70s, SDCC regularly hosted 5,000 fans at each convention, usually held at the El Cortez hotel, and guests now included big names like Stan Lee, Chuck Norris, legendary sci-fi author Robert A. Heinlein (Starship Troopers) and “Peanuts” creator Charles M. Schulz. After only a few years, the convention was well established and well on its way to global pop culture domination.
Attendance was steady throughout the 1980s at 5,000 to 6,000 people a year, then exploded in the 1990s, rising from 13,000 in 1990 to 42,000 in 1999. The nascent Internet and its mind-boggling new organizational and communication capabilities played a role, but so did the corporatization of popular culture: the horizontal integration of franchise content under the umbrellas of large corporations. Sony bought Columbia Pictures in 1989.. Time Warner was formed the following year. Viacom bought Paramount in 1994, and so on.
At the same time that fans and conventions were getting more sophisticated about how they organize themselves, these new media giants were getting smarter about how they packaged content and catered to those fans. Along with the internet, conventions, especially the mecca of SDCC, became essential hubs for a new entertainment landscape in which traditionally “nerdy” and comic book properties like Star Wars, Star Trek, Batman and Spider-Man were the mainstays. Crown jewels.
All of which makes the idea that the SDCC is a “California Not-for-Profit Public Benefit Corporation organized for charitable purposes” feel a bit disingenuous, given all the billion-dollar corporate empires and franchises they make. business on the convention floor, while also broadcasting their products globally. Nerd culture has achieved what once seemed unimaginable: becoming cool, setting trends, and bending intellectual property purveyors, including giant movie, video game, and publishing companies, to their collective will. No franchise or studio with a sentence to remain relevant would dare to look down their noses at a group with so much influence and purchasing power.
But while the company is about profit, it’s not all cynical. SDCC has directed huge revenue and exposure to thousands of filmmakers, authors, artists, actors, and ancillary businesses without massive brand recognition, some of whom owe their livelihood to it. And if the idea that any of this is for “charity” causes any hesitation, there is at least one profound public service that SDCC, other conventions, and the increased visibility of nerd culture have provided. They have opened the door to a much more diverse fan base to express their love of comics and other geek stuff.
If Shatner’s tirade in the mid-’80s SNL skit was aimed at overgrown straight, white guys, fans just a few decades later come in all creeds, genders, sexual orientations, and colors (sometimes even blue or green). While online nerd gatekeepers often try to enforce lack of diversity behind closed doors, the halls of conventions are a very different story. There is no doubt that 130,000 people of all kinds, many of them in costumes, hanging around and interacting in a huge acceptance bazaar, is a profound vision for the future.
However, it all raises a question. Given its global reach, the companies and brands that proliferate under its roof, as well as the staggering number of booths, tables, events, contests, exhibits, awards ceremonies, debuts, panels, presentations and everything else that happens there over four days each summeris Comic-Con still about comics?
I guess the answer to that would be… Isn’t everything nowadays? It’s kind of hard to believe that a medium that felt so niche four decades ago has become the most popular form of expression on Earth. Yes, it’s mostly through movies and television now, but the same stories, characters, and worlds that graced the inked pages for the better part of a century are the ones that remain most cherished. One wonders, though, if Dorf and his fellow pioneers, most of whom have ascended to that great comic book store in the sky, wouldn’t think that some of what they tried to preserve isn’t so special anymore. But try to tell that to millions of rabid fans.