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There was a Comic-Con before Hollywood arrived, and that event still exists

Crowds flood the San Diego Convention Center for Comic-Con International.
Crowds flood the San Diego Convention Center for Comic-Con International.
Todd VanDerWerff/Vox
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.

The line for Hall H, the giant room where Comic-Con screens footage from upcoming, geek-centric movies, was over a mile long shortly before 4 a.m. Saturday, at least according to The Verge's Kwame Opam. Long lines are par for the course with Hall H (and Ballroom 20, its slightly smaller, TV-centric sibling), but the line had never been this long, this early. The line's unofficial Twitter feed spent most of the day lamenting people who had gotten in line early, early, early, only to find themselves shut out.

Hall H seats 6,500, so it should have had more than enough room. But Saturday was the day that featured Warner Brothers and Marvel, the two studios doing the most in terms of making comic-book-based films. Both came laden with heavy-hitters: Batman V. Superman for Warner, and Avengers 2 for Marvel. But even though most already expected it to be hectic, the sense percolating through the gossip around the Con today was that even those who had been coming here for years had never seen anything quite like this. The devotion test I talked about yesterday was starting to become ridiculous, yet nobody quite knew how to put the genie back in the bottle.

As I mentioned in my first write-up of this year's Con, Comic-Con is actually seven or eight different events that all co-exist more or less peacefully under the larger umbrella of the name. Much of this is thanks to the Con's origins as a small chance for fans of comics to gather in an attractive Southern California location. Even as Hollywood has co-opted the Con to its own ends, the show pushes forward with long-standing traditions that have existed since its earliest days. This original Con exists comfortably alongside the Hollywood Con.

But it's also bred some bad habits into the event. Comic-Con, earnestly and forever, proclaims that it's all for the fans. But in recent years, the most public face of the Con (all those movie trailers and TV show panels) has become less about fandom and more about passing a series of trials. Comic-Con, at least this Comic-Con, is no longer for the fans, not really. It's for the marketers.


A massive commercial opportunity

You don't need to go to the San Diego Convention Center to go to Comic-Con anymore. Indeed, Comic-Con has mostly taken over downtown San Diego in recent years, all largely thanks to the efforts of marketers. NBC's presence on the show floor, for instance, is minimal, but it's rebranded a local seafood restaurant with images from The Blacklist, because that makes perfect sense. FXX has taken over an area sandwiched between the convention center and the oceanfront to set up a giant recreation of Homer Simpson's head, the better to promote its upcoming cable rerun deal for The Simpsons.

These sorts of offsite displays are all over this year. You can visit Fox's Sleepy Hollow via the virtual reality device Oculus Rift. You can check out an Adult Swim-themed funhouse. You can wander through Cartoon Network's Adventure Time. You can eat breakfast in a restaurant rethemed to be about Syfy's upcoming space series Ascension, and you can go play video games in an old Pinkberry that has been reimagined as a classic arcade, the better to celebrate next year's Adam Sandler vehicle Pixels.

This is to say nothing of the dozens of other marketing efforts that go up around the convention center. Buildings are turned into billboards. Buses are, too. Promotional materials are handed out for projects big and small that some marketer somewhere thinks just might appeal to Comic-Con attendees. Oddly enough, the place to best escape this throng of marketing that has come to define Comic-Con is within the convention center itself. Sure, there are people passing out fliers here and there, and a handful of banners hang from the roof, advertising television shows. But compared to the non-stop onslaught outside, the inside of the building feels positively tasteful.

It's easy to see, then, why so many lament the Con that was and decry the event it has become. There is so much here, and it's so easy for all of that to obscure all of the things that remain from the Con's earliest days. And yet all of that stuff is still here, too. The major comics companies all give their equivalents of annual stockholder meetings. Genre authors wax philosophical from the dais on the intricacies of their craft. Young artists looking to break into the industry present portfolios to comics publishers, in hopes of scrounging up a little freelance work. Outside of the attention of the media and even most of the Con-goers, the old Comic-Con rattles on.

This disparity has grown even more pronounced in 2014, which has been a sort of feast or famine year. The lines for Hall H and Ballroom 20 have ballooned to massive proportions, especially on Friday and Saturday (usually the two most-attended days), but everything else feels slightly more sparsely attended. Getting into panels in just about any other room hasn't been terribly difficult, outside of the occasional, poorly-scheduled panel. (Comic-Con, which has always had a slightly touch-and-go understanding of which television shows will be popular with its audience, scheduled Orphan Black, a sci-fi show immensely popular with the geek set, in a room that only holds 1,000 people, for instance.) Even the show floor has been crowded but more or less manageable.

Increasingly, it seems, Comic-Con is evolving from seven or eight things into two things: the convention that includes Hall H and Ballroom 20, and everything else. There might be 130,000 people at Comic-Con this year (itself a decrease from last year's numbers, though almost certainly because of the Con's switch from selling four-day passes to individual day passes), but the internal market of the event is self-correcting. Hall H and Ballroom 20 are turning into grueling ordeals. "Everything else" is increasingly returning to the days of yore, when people were friendly, and you could just walk into anything you wanted at any time.


Creation and celebration

Granted, this is an extremely limited sample size. Maybe the hecticness of 2013's Comic-Con in almost all aspects was an extreme outlier, and the more laid-back vibe of 2014 is an outlier in another direction. And obviously, this is all filtered through my perspective, and the perspectives of those I've talked to. But the more I've shared this theory with people I've come in contact with, the more they've seemed to spark to it.

Comic-Con, like fandom itself, has always been awkwardly perched between creation and celebration. The event exists that we might all celebrate some of the awesome entertainments we've loved over the years. It also exists that we might earnestly await something new, something bold and fresh. And barring that, it exists to place those fans who wish to make the leap to creators in a position where they might get the advice or access to make that happen. All of Comic-Con walks an uneasy balance beam between these two poles, and most things here, from cosplay to fan questions, are usually some mix of both.

Even I, a jaded, cynical critic, am not immune to both sides of this coin. My first panel of the day, for instance, was a celebration of Snoopy and his siblings, which featured Kelly Osborne (of The Osbornes fame) as a panelist for reasons not even Osborne seemed able to discern. What the panel mostly consisted of was a woman reading old Peanuts comic strips featuring Snoopy and his siblings to us, in the soft, soothing tones one might reserve for explaining the jokes on the funny pages to a very small child. I don't get nostalgic for much in the world of pop culture, but Snoopy is one of those things, and the panel ended up triggering intense memories of reading the Sunday comics with my own mother, of a time when my relationship to pop culture could be as simple and unadorned as unabashed affection.

On the flip side was one of the best panels I've ever attended at Comic-Con, a discussion of the craft of writing with five of the top fantasy novelists working today, including George R.R. Martin, the man who wrote the books that became Game of Thrones, and Lev Grossman, who wrote the Magicians trilogy, three of my favorite books of the last several years. The panel was filled with largely rudimentary questions about world-building and writing processes, but something about hearing from these very successful people created the sense within myself (and many others, I'm sure) that writing my novel was as easy as just going out and doing it. Just like them!

At its best, Comic-Con captures that essential element of any fandom that comes from a place of pure love, and then it gives that love form. Whether that form comes from elaborate costumes, fan-fiction, original works that draw inspiration from beloved works, or even just loud cheering when your favorites appear on stage, it's something that Comic-Con nurtures and grows and turns into something that can be seen from space.

When the event puts you in a room with cool people and lets you watch them think, there's nothing quite like it. For instance, the annual Quick Draw panel was held Saturday, and its vision of cartooning as a series of improv comedy games (with renowned cartoonists drawing gags off of prompts from the moderator) is one of the best events at the Con, thanks to its rich history and possibility for immense laughter, sure, but also because when watching it, one gets to see a creative person's brain fire, immediately, into action, as spare lines become pictures become something hilarious. It's thrilling.


Bottling the feeling

But the flip side of that is true, too. The Con presented at Hall H and in Ballroom 20 is thrilling as well, but for reasons that feel more and more manufactured as the years go on. The larger this side of the Con gets, the more the deck is stacked in its favor. Most of the movies presented in Hall H will go on to suck. Plenty of the new TV shows screened here already do. But line people up for hours on end and make their ultimate destination into a carrot that dangles enticingly just out of their reach, then cram all of those people in the same room, sleep-deprived and primed for excitement, and anything can happen. Everything becomes intensely awesome, forever and ever.

It will come as no surprise that Comic-Con is essentially a marketing tool. But the danger of making this side of the Con so much about marketing is that it essentially turns the major face of the event into an opportunity to endlessly bottle that feeling of pure love and present it to viewers in less and less potent forms. Comic-Con isn't the primary reason, or even the fourth or fifth reason, that so much mainstream Hollywood output consists of crappy remakes and unnecessary sequels nowadays, but it certainly can't help to have that room full of cheers when the first few snippets of Batman V. Superman appear.

Please understand: I don't think anyone is wrong to love Hall H. I have been in Hall Hand had a very good time. But when the only pursuit our films have is awesomeness, and humanity is leeched out of so many of them, it's not hard to look at all of the marketing here and wonder whether it's time to stop asking for the 90th iteration of the same old thing and, instead, hope for something new. But, then, of course, we get something new most summers (this year, it was the thrilling sci-fi action film Edge of Tomorrow), and most summers, we reject it in favor of that which we know.

There's a beauty and purity to the expression of love that is fandom, but Hollywood has figured out a little too well how to channel that in events like Comic-Con. We are invited, over and over again, to keep paying homage at the same temples, to the same gods. We celebrate, and we celebrate, and we celebrate, but we forget all too often to create.