Ever-changing Comic-Con diversifies, embraces tech

Comic Con 2013

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SAN DIEGO—Ask anyone at Comic-Con International about how this crazy, overstuffed convention has changed since they started attending and you’ll get the same answer. It’s nothing like it was way back when, whether that was 20 years ago or just two or three.

Across the street at Comic-ConJason Snell
It isn't Comic-Con without a huge crowd. (This is the one across the street from the convention center.)

I’ve only been coming to Comic-Con since 2010, when the iPad’s arrival created ripples throughout the comics industry, and the show has even changed for me. No, I can’t remember when this was a quiet, comic book-focused event. When I started coming it was already a platform for promoting movies, TV shows, really anything that has even a tenuous connection to geek culture.

The people are the thing I’ve noticed the most. Every year the show seems to be getting a little bit younger, a little bit more gender balanced. The costumes have always been wild, but it seems like the pop-culture properties being referenced keep getting broader. Yes, on arrival to the convention center you will see a guy dressed as Wolverine posing for pictures with people. (I’m serious, there is always a Wolverine out there.) But in addition to the Batmen and Spider-Men, the Doctor Who cosplayers are really taking off and just about every other genre TV show around was visible somewhere.

Mutant ProtestorJason Snell
A mutant-rights protester in front of a Sentinel head, part of Fox's marketing for the next "X-Men" movie.

My favorite bit of dress-up, though, might be the satirical protesters. This year there are plenty of actual protesters holding signs asking us all to repent for our sins while shouting slogans from bullhorns. But I also noticed several fake protesters, complete with signs and bullhorns. I spotted a Galactus Is Nigh sign hoisted high on the show floor, and right next to one set of protesters outside was a guy advertising another comic convention in L.A., complete with signs and bullhorn. And around the corner by the Hard Rock Hotels an “X-Men” presentation was being faux-disrupted by a couple of mutant-rights activists.

Technology is changing the show, too. In 2010 I bought a page of comic art—Micronauts #53, thank you for asking—and was asked to write a check. I don’t carry a checkbook anywhere (I practically don’t carry a wallet), so what was I to do? I ended up showing them my iPhone as I logged into PayPal and sent them the money. Flash forward to 2013 and while there are a few cash-only vendors still out there, Square has really taken over. At one booth I bought some gifts for my kids and out came an iPad mini for me to “sign.” I packed a lot of cash to bring to the con this year just in case something struck my fancy, but in almost every case it just hasn’t been necessary.

Only three years ago, technology was much scarier at Comic-Con. Comics publishers and artists feared tech—it was the source of rampant piracy and seemed to augur the utter destruction of the print comics industry and the bankruptcy of most comics retailers. In 2013, people have chilled out. Digital comics are great—comic app-builder Comixology is everywhere at Comic-Con, with sponsorships and panels and their own booth—and print sales are actually up. The angry panels about how computers were about to Ruin Everything have been replaced by panels about how digital-first comics and interactive, animated books are the future of the medium.

GalactusJason Snell
I am become iPad, eater of industries.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t a fear of the long-term future of the medium, here and there. But it’s not the screaming abyss that was 2010, when the iPad (which seemed to me, at the time, as a tremendous opportunity to reach people who would never darken the door of a comic-book store) was threatening, Galactus-like, to devour the entire comics world.

In 2011 I wrote a story about how app makers were branching out into other media, including comics, based on my sightings of Pocket God comics and Plants vs. Zombies figurines. That’s still true, of course—there were even Plants vs. Zombies bags on the show floor. But the app world is no longer an interesting trend: it’s a given. Every single bit of marketing, every property, every publisher, every brand, they all have an app story to tell. They’re based on an app or they’ve got an app or they’ve got a tie-in game that’s an app. Apps seems to have gone from being an interesting thing to being like the air we breathe.

Twitter was already getting big a couple of years ago, but now Comic-Con is utterly drenched in hashtags. Sure, commercials and TV shows already pimp the hashtag at every turn, but in addition to banners and the like, several panels I attended were actively taking questions via Twitter using hashtags for the occasion. I’ve seen that at tech conferences before, but Comic-Con is decidedly not a tech conference—some tech-focused people are here, for sure, but it’s hardly CES or Macworld Expo.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Comic-Con may always be in flux, and its attendees may always declare that they remember when it was a simpler event—even if that time was just a couple of years ago. It’s full to bursting and has overflowed its original comic-based definition. But in the end, it’s about people connecting enthusiastically with entertainment. The composition of the audience and the entertainment have changed a lot, but that woman in the Game of Thrones outfit is just as excited about her Comic-Con experience as that dude in the Superman tights was back in the day.

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