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I love comic books, but I hate Comic-Con

The crowd at San Diego Comic-Con.
The crowd at San Diego Comic-Con.
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.

When I refer to Comic Con in this post, I'm referring to New York Comic Con and San Diego Comic-Con, the two biggest comic book conventions in America.

San Diego Comic-Con is upon us, and my thoughts are with those brave, tenacious souls who've traveled to Southern California to attend — the next three days will be hell for them.

Each year, New York Comic Con and San Diego Comic-Con welcome more than 100,000 comic and pop culture fans through their gates. By the time they arrive (possibly in elaborate costumes), these folks have already been through a lot: They've navigated faulty electronic ticketing systems, they may have overpaid scalpers after convention passes sold out within minutes, they've entered lotteries to book hotel rooms, they've taken vacation time at work, and they've spent hours strategizing over which panels to check out and how to actually get into them.

But they still haven't gotten to the worst part — the endless waiting and the oppressive number of tired, irritable people doing the same exact thing.

San Diego and New York's comic conventions are mutant amalgams that combine the misery of standing in line to get off an airplane with the sensory overload of an amusement park. They are often logistical nightmares, so much so that I've personally witnessed multiple people experience meltdowns as a result. And yet more and more people go to them each year.

Comic book and pop culture fans are good people. They're all searching for that one moment when their fidelity to the characters and franchises they love will finally be rewarded, and they will go through hell to find it. And they deserve better than what these conventions are giving.

San Diego Comic-Con and New York Comic Con have grown too big, and the fans have nothing to show for it.

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."

The main issue with SDCC and NYCC is that they are enormous. In 2014, New York Comic Con attracted more than 151,000 attendees over its four-day span. San Diego Comic-Con attracted around 133,000 attendees. Both conventions are so huge that a strange, tedious contest has sprung up between the two in the way tickets are tracked and sold, so that one can have bragging rights as the bigger convention.

Larger conventions attract more attention from influential companies like Marvel and DC, as well as movie studios such as Lionsgate, Fox, and Sony. Marketers who work for these companies want to get their movies and TV shows in front of as many eyeballs as possible to build hype. Being a giant convention makes it much easier to land that exclusive Hunger Games trailer and cast visit, which in turn will help ensure that more people want attend your event next year. Once the beast has been fed, the cycle is complete.

The main problem with a convention that keeps growing is that almost none of the obvious benefits actually make the experience better for attendees. Even though ticket prices have increased, and the companies running these conventions are making more money than ever, they haven't implemented any significant improvements for fans.

The facilities are largely the same as they were in the beginning, even as attendance has increased, so the lines have only gotten longer (SDCC, for example, is committed to the city and its convention center through 2018). The food at NYCC, save for food trucks, is bad enough to make you consider a hunger strike. The state of the bathrooms at the end of the weekend will make you lose faith in society. And the crush of humanity on the exhibition floors is exhausting.

At the beginning of each convention, attendees are spry, happy to be there. But if you were to follow one person for the entire weekend, you'd likely see her spirit begin to crumble as she dealt with the onslaught.

I probably wouldn't be able to get into Comic Con if I weren't covering it for work

For the past few years, SDCC and NYCC passes have sold out in minutes, but many of them aren't going straight to fans. Big blocks of tickets ultimately wind up in the hands of scalpers and resellers who target big events and the people who are willing to pay a premium to get in.

At New York Comic Con, there's an extensive application to get a press pass. It requires you to provide circulation numbers, past articles you've written, and articles about NYCC and comic books you've written in the past. Considering the hundreds of thousands of fans who tried to get tickets and how many were denied, a press pass is probably the only way I could get into the convention.

"The fact is that tickets for New York Comic Con are more popular than ever and we regret that because of that demand some of our most loyal fans are not getting tickets," Lance Fensterman, the spokesperson for Reed Exhibitions (the company that runs NYCC), told the site Bleeding Cool in 2014, explaining that his team was trying to think of ways to better serve the fans.

"We too are frustrated by the reselling of tickets at the inflated price [of the tickets sold by resellers]. EBay has informed us there is nothing they can do about it," he added.

In 2015, the rising demand of tickets along with resellers and scalpers once again hit NYCC, leaving lots of fans out in the dust.

"What can you do about those reselling tickets at inflated prices? DON’T BUY THEM!" Fensterman wrote to fans. "The demand for tickets at noon was roughly quadruple what we experienced in 2014. Those who were attempting to buy tickets in the queue know that it took several hours to move through the queue and received error messages along the way."

SDCC has a more complicated ticketing system that helps to weed out scalpers. But it has faced similar complaints about system failure for the past few years. The bottom line: A lot of loyal fans are being shut out, and there's an abundance of futility in trying to accommodate them. Expecting a miracle is unrealistic, but it seems the system has gotten worse, not better.

You have to choose between comic books and your favorite movie franchises and television shows

One of the biggest letdowns for the fans who do manage to get into the big conventions is not being able to secure entry to the panels they want to see, and being forced to choose.

Back in 2013, I attended NYCC (where members of the press wait in line like everyone else) and patiently got in line at 9:30 am in hopes of seeing the panel for The Walking Dead in the afternoon. The Walking Dead was scheduled for 5 pm — this was the first time I'd ever attempted to attend a "big" panel — and I waited almost two hours to get into the room it was being held in. Then I sat through a day's worth of other panels to keep my spot. I left shortly after it concluded, and there was still a massive line, way bigger than the one I'd waited in, to get in.

Since 2013, the lines have only gotten longer.

I'm not sure how long some of those people stood in line, but I wonder how much of their time at NYCC was spent waiting. I also wonder how many other panels they didn't get to see as a result.

Because NYCC and SDCC are so crowded, attendees are forced to choose between events for their favorite TV shows, comic books, and movies. No matter what, you're going to miss out on something — if schedules didn't overlap, the conventions would be two weeks long — but it's a shame that people have to spend hours and hours waiting in line for the most popular panels when they could be enjoying smaller ones. The comic book panels are usually great, but if you want to see them, there's no way you'll be able to also see some of buzzier TV and movie panels. I'm not sure there's a way to alleviate this. Going to smaller conventions for comic book panels and saving SDCC and NYCC for big movie stuff might be the most feasible option.

Is anyone listening?

At the end of most comic conventions there's an event called a Talk Back, where people voice their concerns to the convention's higher-ups. At SDCC, attendees speak to John Rogers, the president of the convention. Many typical complaints revolve around the overcrowding situation, but they also address concerns like the lack of attention and service given to disabled attendees, or a lax sexual harassment policy. The complaints are usually answered with a promise to be better next year.

But the fans who attend the Talk Back are there for something more.

As my colleague Todd VanDerWerff wrote after attending SDCC's Talk Back in 2014:

There's just no way to go back to the way things were, not exactly. The Talk Back is wonderful and raucous and, oddly, intentionally funny. But it also suggests the frustration that arises when something you love, something you've devoted a part of your life to, is simply becoming something else. Comic-Con is an institution now. It can do pretty much whatever it likes. Yet for many who attend it, it's a kind of Brigadoon, a magical, lost city they can see disappearing into the mists all around them.

Fans' complaints, and this criticism, come from a place of fear — the fear that something so great is going to disappear. Attending comic conventions has introduced me to new comic books, creators, artists, and people I wouldn't have found otherwise. The experience has made me appreciate comic books and approach them in ways I hadn't previously thought of. And so it makes me anxious that the possibility of having that experience might one day disappear because the people who run NYCC and SDCC aren't on the same page as the fans who attend their events.

If their ultimate vision is anything like what we've seen in the past five or so years, it's one with eyes on becoming the biggest comic conventions on the planet — something that doesn't have true fans' best interests in mind.

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