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8 questions about Comic-Con you were too embarrassed to ask

Comic Con attendees
Comic Con attendees
T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

The pop culture phenomenon that is San Diego Comic-Con (SDCC) begins today. Thousands of fans, many dressed up like their favorite comic book heroes and video game characters, will make the pilgrimage to southern California to eat, drink, and breathe everything comics and Hollywood for the next four days.

This might seem a bit weird to people who have never picked up a comic book or had the spirit move them to dress like Batman. Here, then, is a brief guide to the phenomenon of a comic convention.

1) What is a "comic-con"?

Comic Con

(Photo by Laura Cavanaugh/Getty Images)

When people talk about a "comic-con," they're usually talking about a comic convention — an event where comics fans, creators, and experts congregate to attend panels, go to parties, and participate in discussions that are all centered on some aspect of comics.

The first comic convention, according to Pop Matters, was an event called "Comiccon '64" held in New York City in July of 1964. Science fiction conventions started gaining popularity in the 1980s. The first San Diego Comic-Con, the most-attended comic convention in the country, was held in 1970.

In more recent years, these conventions have become more popular, and at some cons, like San Diego Comic-Con, the subject areas have expanded from comics to cover television shows, movies, and other forms of art and fiction that are more mainstream.

2) Is there more than one comic-con?

Comic Con

(Getty Images Entertainment)

Yes. There are comic conventions all around the country, but San Diego Comic-Con trademarked "Comic-Con" in 2005 and has threatened legal action against other conventions that use "Comic-Con" in their names. Last August, SDCC sued Salt Lake City Comic Con, claiming that SLCCC had piggybacked on its "creativity, ingenuity, and hard work," and deceived the public about the convention.

In response, SLCCC pointed out that there were multiple conventions or "comic-cons" that existed before the 2005 trademark.

The bottom line here is that there are multiple conventions, there are different companies behind each one, and there's a lot of value in them. If there weren't, why would San Diego Comic-Con apply for a trademark?

3) What's the difference between New York Comic Con and San Diego Comic-Con?

The main difference between the two, and really what sets San Diego apart from all other comic conventions, is how connected SDCC is to Hollywood and its many marketing teams. SDCC's watershed moment of Hollywood saturation came in 2010, when Robert Downey Jr. introduced the cast of The Avengers to assembled fans, two years before the movie even hit theaters. But the convention's pop culture dominance has been growing since the late 2000s, when SDCC began hosting the casts of TV and film properties like Glee and Twilight. Though many of them had nothing to do with comics, they would come to the convention and promote their work, much to fans' delight.

Even though New York Comic Con has grown more and more popular, it has a lower profile. In terms of scale, the biggest event at New York Comic Con tends to be the annual panel for The Walking Dead, whose cast members pay a visit to the convention every year. But even The Walking Dead is no Avengers.

This lack of Hollywood hype for New York Comic Con translates to more attention paid to smaller projects and more of a focus on comics news.

4) How many people attend cons?

Hundreds of thousands. Here's a look at attendance figures for comic-cons in San Diego, New York, and the up-and-coming Seattle/Emerald City over the years. You'll notice that San Diego has had a sustained 100,000-plus audience since 2006:

Comic Con

A note on the graph: San Diego Comic-Con reports its attendance as "130,000+" while New York Comic Con rounds to the thousands. We plugged in 130,000 as San Diego Comic-Con's numbers. New York Comic Con considers itself the "second-largest comic book and pop culture event in the country."

There are many reasons why comic conventions have gained so much steam in the last few years, including mainstream pop culture being inundated with comic book projects, more people being interested in comic books, and so on.

San Diego Comic-Con's constant popularity has probably affected the profile of other conventions, too. In terms of attendance, there are people who can't make it to San Diego year after year, so they instead attend conventions closer to their homes. In terms of business, higher-ups who work on movies or television shows might seek out other conventions like New York's or Emerald City's if those cities are a better fit for the projects they're pushing or if they're backing projects that aren't as huge as The Avengers.

5) Do you have to dress up to go to a con?


(Getty Images Entertainment)

No. What you're talking about is cosplay (costume play). Lots of people attend comic conventions in costume, but it's not a requirement.

6) Can a convention ever be too big?

Comic Con

(Chris Frawley/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. via Getty Images)

This is one of the biggest complaints you'll hear from devout comic convention-goers. These events have capacity limits, and when you get to the big two — New York and San Diego — those limits will be hit, and people will be shut out. Tickets to the bigger cons are a hot commodity, and draw the attention of scalpers who sell the tickets for inflated prices.

In 2014, New York Comic Con's passes sold out in minutes. Those passes were resold on sites like eBay and StubHub for higher prices. San Diego Comic-Con regularly sells out in minutes, as well. That sucks for fans.

But there's also a cultural dilemma. Because Hollywood has gotten so involved, you might have some diehard Twilight fans show up (as they did in San Diego in 2012) to a convention for one event, while actual comic book fans, ostensibly the people the convention is designed for, get turned away.

Jim Demonakos, the founder of Emerald City Comicon in Seattle, explained to me that what drives Emerald City's con is whether the fans are happy. His rule is that the fan experience dictates capacity.

"You can grow as big as you want … as long as you're still delivering a good product to your fans," he said. "So really, what is too big? When you're creating an experience, that is overall negative."

ECCC has grown exponentially in the past few years and welcomed an estimated 70,000 people in 2014; the event is expecting around 80,000 in 2015.

7) How did cons get so popular?

Comic Con

(Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney)

There are a lot of reasons. Something like the cast of The Avengers appearing is guaranteed to put a lot of butts in seats, and it also puts pressure on other movies and studios to promote themselves at comic conventions.

But probably the most important factor for the growth of comic conventions is that nerd/geek culture has gone mainstream. It isn't just comic book fans who know about the Guardians of the Galaxy now, and it's not just geeks who know about the Dark Knight. Liking comic books or superheroes has become like having a favorite band, and comic conventions are like concerts.

You also have to consider the marketing that goes into these conventions. People running the events want to make money — at least as much money as they're putting in. And in order to get people to attend, you have to advertise and get the word out. Having big names on a poster (or even simply rumored to possibly appear) helps a lot in that regard.

"Marketing is the most important job there is when it comes to a public event," Ben Penrod, who founded Awesome Con, told me, explaining that he spends four to five hours per day on marketing. "That's not to downplay the amount of work that goes into making the event happen, but none of that matters if people don't show up."

8) What's happening at San Diego Comic-Con this year?

San Diego Comic-Con is going to have a different feel this year. Marvel Studios, which has pretty much had a stranglehold on SDCC buzz for the last few years, is skipping the 2015 event. Instead, expect for announcements and surprises from franchises like The Hunger Games, Fox's X-Men, and Warner Bros.' Justice League to dominate the weekend's news.

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