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Inside San Diego Comic-Con, America's nerd state fair

A person dressed as the "Draw Me" turtle from art school ads hangs out on the show floor of San Diego Comic-Con International.
A person dressed as the "Draw Me" turtle from art school ads hangs out on the show floor of San Diego Comic-Con International.
Todd VanDerWerff
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

To get to Comic-Con, you inevitably will have to cross the train tracks that shepherd commuters into downtown San Diego from other parts of the city, then Harbor Drive, a busy thoroughfare that all but shuts down for the annual convention. And while you are doing this, perched on a lonely island of brick and cement in between the tracks and the street will be the street preachers. They used to have megaphones, the better to tell Comic-Con attendees they were going to Hell, but now, they only hold their signs, bearing mute witness to the throngs of people who stream by, hoping to find the one or two people in the crowd who might be seeking repentance.

Once past those preachers, though, on Thursday morning, in the opening hours of the Con, pedestrians would be treated to a self-styled prophet of something called "Horse Jesus." When I wandered by him, he was proclaiming how all of our favorite superheroes, including Spider-man and "even the Harley Quinn," had given their lives to Horse Jesus. Didn't we have just five minutes in our busy schedules to hear more about our Horse Lord?

The pitch, of course, was snark, in that slightly smug, slightly superior way that only the geeks who have inherited the Earth can manage. But there was something to it that kept me thinking throughout the day. In the prophet of Horse Jesus, it was possible to see a weird symbol of Comic-Con's ongoing existential crisis. At one time, there was the Con, a friendly little annual gathering that (if it ever existed) has long since passed into myth. And now, there is The Con, an overly commercial, punishing four-day orgy of marketing that sometimes seems to be more about standing in lines than anything else. Yet try though it might, Hollywood can never entirely supplant the Con that was, so the two exist alongside each other uneasily, drawing bulwarks against each other.

The prophet of Horse Jesus, then, was a man drawing that line in the sand between those who belonged inside the Con's embrace (all of those who might have a good laugh about Horse Jesus) and those who did not (the street preachers). With every year, Comic-Con becomes more and more of a kaleidoscope of humanity. And that can make it wildly exhilarating, sure, but it also means that it turns into about seven or eight different conventions underneath the same umbrella, all jockeying for space. What is a Comic-Con? Even Comic-Con isn't sure anymore.

No, seriously, what is a Comic-Con?

In the banners that hang all over San Diego, Comic-Con describes itself as a celebration of "the popular arts," meaning, I suppose, everything that was once considered "low" culture. But that's an awfully big tent, and it's one that seems to expand a little more with every year that passes.

From the name of the event, you would think this was one of the premier destinations for comics professionals and fans to meet up and mingle. You would absolutely be right about this. From the media coverage of the event, you would think this was an opportunity for Hollywood to find a captive audience of people who are already receptive to the wares it is pitching. You would absolutely be right about this, too (except that sometimes, the audience turns hostilely on the product Hollywood pitches).

But what those two faces of the Con - the one the name suggests and the one everybody knows from news coverage - miss is the fact that it is entirely possible to go to this convention and not once see a single new movie trailer or watch your favorite TV stars talk about the upcoming season of their show. Hell, it's incredibly easy to go to this event and not even look at a comic. By broadening its definition to being about "the popular arts," Comic-Con has created something huge and vital and often very fun, but it's also created an event without a center, an event where the center is basically the continued existence of the event.

Basically, at this point, Comic-Con is too big to fail. Nobody wants to keep propping it up. Everybody has to keep propping it up, because the thought of replacing it with something else is all but unimaginable.

Live from the Nerd State Fair

One of the more popular ways to describe Comic-Con to the uninitiated is "nerd prom." And there's some truth to that. It is an event aimed at those who might be labeled as "nerds" in an ‘80s movie, and it is an attempt to give them a yearly event where they get to let their freak flags fly and celebrate however they want. But that doesn't really capture the sense one gets at Comic-Con that virtually every aspect of fandom is present, some co-opted by Hollywood and some so very definitely not (unless Hollywood is working on a Little Lulu movie).

Take, for instance, the panels I sat through today. First, I listened to a rather academic discussion of the idea of the "fairy tale remix," in which a bunch of authors who play with adaptations and reimaginations of fairy tales talked about why they were drawn to such things and what they hoped to accomplish with their work. Then, I went to another panel featuring authors, this one about when it's time to rein in a long-running fantasy series. (This panel actually seemed aimed more at wannabe writers, even though "how do I wrap up my successful series" is so not a first novel kind of issue.) I followed that up with a live presentation of the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, a chance for fans to get a kind of "behind the scenes" look at a popular NPR podcast. From there, I went to presentations of two of my favorite TV shows, Hannibal and Penny Dreadful, before ending my day surfing the throngs of downtown San Diego. What other event lets you do all of that?

And that's to say nothing of the other perpetual pleasures/hassles of Comic-Con, like wandering the show floor, a behemoth of a space that's filled with every kind of vendor you could possibly imagine, selling just about anything you can think of. (I am firmly convinced that if I ever happen to stumble upon a genie in a lamp or some other magical item, it will be on the floor of Comic-Con International.) It doesn't mention how it is to stand in line with fans of the thing you also love, to form fleeting yet strong bonds with those people. And it doesn't mention the ambience of just sitting by yourself, surrounded by other attendees, to read a book or enjoy an overpriced pretzel.

Comic-Con is not one thing, if it ever was. It is many things, and by calling it a "nerd prom," we try to reduce it to just one aspect of its existence. But look at it long enough, and it starts to resolve into other things, before racing just ahead of you yet again.

That's why my preferred nomenclature for the event has always been "the nerd state fair." Because state fairs have waned so much in popularity in the last half-century, it's become easy to miss when they were a vital chance for the people of a state to revive old friendships and grow new ones, as well as the way that they were vital chances for farmers to check out new agricultural methods and products.

Comic-Con fulfills roughly the same function in the lives of many of its attendees. It's hard to pin down precisely because it needs to be all things to all people. When people say that standing in line or fighting through crowds is part of the charm of the event, they're not lying (okay, not lying that much). For as frustrating as it can be to have to halt on the show floor when everyone wants to take a picture of the dragon Smaug from the Hobbit movies, it's hard to be someone drawn to Comic-Con and not have some tiny piece of yourself that doesn't want to be snapping pictures, too. It's all good at the nerd state fair.

Purity control

And yet there are always those who long for a return to the good old days, when Comic-Con was very specifically aimed at a small, usually male, usually white demographic. Part of the expansion of the Con has been so much about expanding past the typical "geek" audience, just as much of the expansion of that geek audience has been about how the mainstreaming of geek culture has (thankfully and finally) let so many more people into the tent.

To want Comic-Con to be small and controlled again is understandable whenever one tries to fight through a crowd of gawkers at the Lego booth, simply to get to the other end of the show floor, where all of the artists selling prints are. But it's also to want the event to stop being as vital and exciting as it can be when you really do try to make the most of it.

The very good advice that the fantasy authors on the panel about ending a series give to a fan asking a question about why his friends keep reacting so badly to the cliffhangers he puts into his novel shouldn't really exist in the same space as the teenager who dissolves into nervous giggles when she gets a chance to ask Josh Hartnett a question at the Penny Dreadful panel. Yet both do, and both are recognizably Comic-Con experiences at this point. The event is huge and fractious and confounding, but it's also weird and wonderful and unlike anything else. To go to it is to be sucked into it, buffeted around by rapids, then emerge on the other side, grinning and completely soaked.

What, after all this, is a Comic-Con? Comic-Con is, ultimately, people. People who traveled from around the world to be here. Families who took time to plan out their days. Vendors on the show floor, hoping not to have to cart everything back home to Michigan or Colorado or wherever they may be from. Grumpy journalists. Costumed fans. Fast friends and old friends and broken friends. Volunteers who didn't quite realize what they were in for. Everybody inside that building, until they're ushered out into the night when it finally must shut down. Worshippers of Horse Jesus and worshippers of regular Jesus and every other religion (or lack thereof) in between.

It's that idea that everybody belongs that keeps Comic-Con from capsizing. There are many both outside and inside the event who would dearly love to make it all about product (and more about that later in the weekend), but so long as the Con is filled with so many varied and interesting individuals, it will be just fine. In the days to come, I'll find some of these people and bring their stories back to you. It's not all movie trailers. There's so much more.