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News: The Big Show: Comic-Con International Blows Up
posted August 30, 2004
 

At the surprisingly well-attended anniversary panel commemorating Comic-Con International's 35th year in operation, a piece of rhetoric regarding today's convention floated to the surface in a way that proved so delectably appealing it was repeated in rough form at that evening's Eisner Awards Ceremony. A panelist noted that the San Diego-based show had always featured items and guests from areas related to comics like film and books. Even manga artists and anime had put in an appearance long before their American industries were firmly established. The difference between yesterday's San Diego Con and today's Comic-Con International therefore comes mostly in size, not areas of emphasis.

This clever piece of analysis is, however, highly misleading. The enormous size of the show -- attendance was approximately 87,000, up from 70,000 in 2003, and walk-in-off-the-street hotel rooms could be had cheaper at the city's last Super Bowl -- has refashioned the context in which comics function during its biggest North American showcase. Attendance at CCI has increased between 200 and 300 percent in ten years, with a roughly corresponding escalation in exhibition space utilized and programs offered. If every single person involved in the North American comics industry were shipped to southern California in overnight containers, they could not match proportion for proportion the last several years' increased presence of toy companies (boutique toy sales of items from designers like Gary Baseman and Jim Woodring hopped this summer), movie studios (major studios, major stars, major releases), and even book publishers (Scholastic made its first official appearance in support of its graphic novel line and launch book Bone). Depending on one's view of the art form, comics at San Diego had become either the sudden belle of a really sweaty ball in which all other media had come to pay its respects, or comics was simply the nerd with the big, empty house where all the cool kids decided it was okay to party but never bother to learn the host's name.

Like that star-struck kid who might not notice his close friends leaving early, with such an aggregate of comics and cartoonists on hand the absences are difficult to notice even against a backdrop of toy collectors, Ernie Hudson and game designers seeking developmental properties. Some creators have less a use for that One Big Show than ever before. Evan Dorkin, a fixture in San Diego for years says he has fond memories and will no doubt attend again in the future, but he has scratched CCI off of his list for now. "I attended every San Diego con save one from 1987 to 2000," he told the Journal. "San Diego is a real marathon and a long trip for folks on the east coast. Between getting ready for the show, doing the show, and decompressing afterward, we lose about two full weeks of work. It became a lot of work trying to offset costs by selling artwork; if I'm going to work that hard I could be doing pages." For pros like Dorkin, San Diego fulfills fewer needs than it may have previously, ironic in that conventions used to mitigate against structural discrepancies in the comic book market. Says the cartoonist, "I have fewer projects to promote nowadays, I don't need San Diego to find work anymore, socializing at SD has become a logistical nightmare, I see most of the people I'm friendly with at MoCCA [MoCCA Festival] and SPX [Small Press Expo] nowadays, and the items I used to buy at shows like SD are now available at local stores in NYC, on the internet and at the local comic shop."

A few companies have also begun to find the sidelines appealing. Despite the widespread presence of its editors and talent on the convention floor and on panels, North American industry leader Marvel Comics exhibited at roughly half the size of closest rival DC Comics, even sharing that space with Activision, and from a company standpoint seems at least equally passionate about the smaller Wizard World series of cons. San Diego's swelling may have caused the biggest changes in "art comics" company attendance, a trend noticed by this magazine at the 2003 show, and which continued in 2004. Traditional alternative comics publishers Highwater and Alternative skipped the show altogether, both citing a lack of return on the considerable costs. Chris Pitzer of AdHouse Books, who exhibited in 2003 but did not this year, said his decision was made due to the number of books his company had to promote. "For me, it was a combination of economics and schedules. We really didn't have a great number of new books ramping up to SDCC in 2004, so I thought it best to pass this year." Longtime attendee Fantagraphics had its smallest booth space in years, and its weekend sales reflected its more modest selection of books. The change in size has also left many cartoonists, regardless of whether they end up enjoying a successful show or not, guessing as to how to make best use of the weekend. An off-to-one-side Roger Langridge told the Journal that after a great 2003, he failed to make enough in 2004 to cover his expenses and that he considered getting work from established publishers while at the con almost an "urban legend." For others, business deals, or at least their instigation, fairly abounded.

In the end, one suspects that Comic-Con International's recent successes have less to do with comics' increased health and more with an across-the-board surge of interest in geek culture of every variety. For the organizers of CCI, this means another set of operational kinks to hammer out by next summer, the price of overwhelming success: a previews night that starts almost an hour later than billed, an exhausting sign-in process where line lengths reward not pre-registering, general issues of climate control and main hall air circulation, and the potential management difficulties and political fall-out if certain aspects of the show are forced to move to satellite locations. For comics in general, CCI's now-entrenched place on the calendar means a continuing evaluation as to how important immersion in the wider world of mass entertainment is good for the medium and your place in it, whether the potential for movie deals or agent signings or finding a place in a new book line outweighs the potential drain on time and capital, the precious juggling of resources that remains much of the industry's lot no matter how big a party it can throw. Neither task should prove to be an easy one; any solutions will likely develop over time.