clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Comic-Con isn't just one fan convention. It's many.

And they don't always converge into a whole — no matter what Hall H might lead you to believe.

The Samsung Experience At San Diego Comic-Con - Day 1
Harley Quinn cosplay at SDCC 2016.
Photo by Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images for Samsung
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Perhaps the most definitive characteristic of San Diego Comic-Con (SDCC) is a logistical one, the result of an annual decision made months before 130,000 people descend upon San Diego’s Gaslamp District each July for five straight days of geek culture mayhem.

Speaking to fans at the 2016 convention’s post-mortem, SDCC board president John Rogers confirmed that this decision will continue into the future: The event will never clear the rooms where its programming takes place by forcing fans to exit after each panel.

"Our problem is, where would we put all the extra lines?" Rogers told fans who begged the board to make the change. "The transition [to clear out after every panel] would take an hour-and-a-half. We would lose half our programing."

Long lines have long been synonymous with SDCC, and the decision not to clear rooms is key to understanding almost everything about its particular brand of madness — including why navigating the convention is so often treated like a kind of geek Tour de France.

It also helps explain SDCC’s least understood but most enduring trait: It’s less a single con and more a drastically diverging set of experiences for different kinds of fans and creators — and its different "parts" don’t always coalesce into a coherent whole.

Comic-Con’s approach to crowds makes it unique among geek conventions

At many fan conventions, when a panel concludes, the audience is required to exit, thus allowing the people waiting in line for the next panel to enter.

That’s not the case at SDCC: Once you’re in a room, you can stay in that room all day long. So fans strategize about when and how they’ll try to get into the San Diego Convention Center’s massive Hall H, where the most popular panels are held. Once inside, many will stay all day, a strategy that has yielded the convention’s most iconic image: thousands of fans sleeping in line overnight. (The introduction in 2015 of a wristband system, which means fans don’t have to remain physically present in line to secure their place in the hall, has simplified things a bit, but intensified demand to sit in the front of the room, which still requires an all-night camp-out.)

If you can start queuing early enough — fans begin lining up for Hall H programming as early as 11 am the day before — you’ll be one of the 6,000 people who manage to get in bright and early when it opens the next morning, usually around 10 am. Regardless of whether you’re interested in one of the day’s panels or several, you’ll be "stuck" inside until the panel(s) you want to see roll(s) around. Bathroom passes allow for brief exits, but that’s it. All told, you might have to devote around 18 hours to standing in line, plus another eight hours inside the room.

This situation is often deeply frustrating for Comic-Con attendees. After all, fans of Kevin Smith might not be fans of Marvel or DC Comics, but they still have to sit through those companies’ presentations if they want to see his end-of-the-day panel. Meanwhile, the Kevin Smith fans’ determination to sit through the stuff they don’t like in order to see the one panel they’re interested in is probably keeping some lifelong Aliens fans who just wanted to see the midday 30th-anniversary panel out of the room.

Comic-Con’s decision not to clear rooms has helped turn the idea of a "comic" con into an "everything" con

The practice of letting everyone stay for all of the Hall H programming seems baffling and inexplicable until one considers just how big Comic-Con really is, and the resources it has (or doesn’t have) at its disposal.

Each year, Comic-Con attempts to pack 130,000 fans, thousands of exhibitors and artists bearing an extreme amount of merchandise, a week-long gaming fest, several film festivals, and a whole lot of celebrity security entourages into what amounts to only the 24th-largest convention center in the United States.

Though the con has entertained proposals to move to another city, it’s locked into its current contract with the city of San Diego through 2018, which means its space constraints aren’t going away, at least in the short term.

But even if the San Diego Convention Center were bigger, it’d be to SDCC’s advantage to leave things as they are. It is, after all, a massive cultural event backed by major corporate sponsorship — and those huge franchises, television networks, and Hollywood moguls want nothing more than to promote their upcoming films, shows, and products to a captive audience who literally can’t leave the room.

This setup increasingly creates the mentality that justifies the long wait for Hall H, in that it assumes the fan who’s going to sit through all those panels isn’t just a fan of a single thing, but of all the things. In other words, SDCC’s Hall H line epitomizes the idea espoused by nerd stereotypes like The Big Bang Theory: that to be a geek is to be a fan, not just of one thing, but of everything associated with geek culture as long as "everything" includes the films and shows getting major corporate pushes at SDCC, that is.

To that kind of fan, sitting through a whole day’s worth of Hall H programming (or camping out for Ballroom 20, SDCC’s second-largest venue whose 2,000 seats have also drawn overnight lines in recent years) is the ultimate stamp on a geek cred card. Waiting out the line is a badge of honor, a sign of ultimate commitment to your fandom. And if you’re really lucky, someone like Hannibal showrunner Bryan Fuller might bring you donuts for your trouble.

But, of course, the reality is that not everyone is a fan of all the things. For those people, it’s all the "other" cons taking place at SDCC that matter, the ones that happen outside Hall H.

The "other" cons at Comic-Con start with the collector’s Comic-Con

SDCC’s many "other" cons all function a bit differently, depending on the kind of person who’s attending them.

The most visible and prominent "other" con is the collector’s con. On the exhibit floor, a sort of massive marketplace of geek merchandise, thousands of fans hone in on their favorite booths, artists, toys, and collectibles, and prioritize acquiring their desired items the way the Hall H con-goers prioritize getting their wristbands.

Select merchandisers like Hasbro and Funko, incredibly popular geek franchise licensees who make Comic-Con exclusives every year, garner their own wristband lines, which means that to even have a chance at getting into their booths to buy something, you have to line up for a wristband hours before the booth opens that morning.

Many fans brag about how much merchandise they bring home in their Comic-Con "haul." Displaying one’s haul has become a ritual of sorts for attendees of any geek con, but at Comic-Con it seems as though the sheer intensity of the event magnifies the feeling of accomplishment associated with procuring all that merchandise and then lugging it all back home.

My funko haul from sdcc 2016. #funko #sdcc2016

A photo posted by Ralph (@rtnezzz) on

To build this haul, some fans focus on a single comic-con exhibitor and flock to them with religious devotion. This year, for example, several fans spoke to me of the joy of getting to view (and purchase) the work of legendary comic artist Alex Ross, whose exhibitor booth held several stunning exclusives. They were each eager to show off their signed variant covers of Batman and Doctor Strange. Others concentrated their efforts (and cash) on high-end Japanese collectible store Kotobukiya, which also held its first-ever industry panel at the con this year.

Most of these fans told me they didn’t even bother with the long lines for Hall H and Ballroom 20 and only went to a few panels. For them, the exhibit hall is what defines Comic-Con — and they have the overweight luggage to prove it.

But the biggest "other" is still actual comic books

These collectible-hungry fans weren’t alone in their decision not to stand in the huge lines for Hall H and Ballroom 20. Plenty of fans focused on the smaller rooms and the other kinds of (mostly non-corporate) panels the convention offered. But several fans told me that the convention programming frustrated them: It seemed narrowly divided into "comics" and "everything else."

There’s a pervasive, recurring, and in many cases rather mean-spirited narrative around Comic-Con: Though it was founded as an independent, fan-driven celebration of comic books and the fans who love them, it has utterly sold out to corporate Hollywood interests and is now overrun with lines and crowds and has nothing to do with comics anymore. If you want to see a real comics convention, the rhetoric holds, you should go to Wonder Con, SDCC’s sister con in Los Angeles, held each year in the spring.

But in fact, if you’re a fan of any of the many other vast and endless elements of "geek culture" — tabletop and video gaming, genre literature, anime/manga, overseas pop culture, horror, animation, and science, just to name a few — who has no interest in Hall H celebrities but isn’t all that into comics, you might find yourself a bit bored by just how comics-centric SDCC still is.

Sure, inside Hall H there’s a mix of Marvel, DC, and non-comics Hollywood franchises; but once you’re outside of the huge panels, comics loom large over the rest of SDCC’s programming. There’s a particular emphasis on how to break into the comics industry:Hundreds of panels spotlight small presses; offer tips on starting out as an artist, writer, or comic book merchandiser; and outline the process of creating comics and graphic novels.

Comic character discussions, comic artist and writer Q&As, comic roundtable discussions — they’re all here. And they’re all separate from the annual SDCC Portfolio Review, which encourages would-be comics artists to sit down and discuss their work with industry professionals looking to hire. Though tedious, this process actually works; the author of one Kickstarter-backed comic I bought this year noted that he had met one of his project collaborators through the ritual.

Naturally, if you’re one of the many fans who has come to SDCC to interact with some of geek culture’s smaller, more niche communities, the comics aspect of Comic-Con programming can be a bit frustrating.

Sure, there’s a gaming fest going on all week at the Marriott next to the convention center, but most of the actual gaming panels tend to be thin on the ground and a bit surface-level. (Not to mention all-male.) There’s an anime marathon that runs all day, everyday, but apart from the annual Funimation and VIZ media industry panels, there’s very little fan programming around anime and manga. And without dedicated tracks committed to exploring those topics in depth, they and many other niche geek topics ultimately get short shrift.

Con magic is still around every corner

Aja Romano

A young cosplayer posing as Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan.

At Nerd HQ, the free four-day event overlapping Comic-Con that draws in many of the Hall H headliners for a special, casual Q&A to benefit the San Diego Children’s Museum, fans lined the walls and played games while waiting for their chance to see celebrities like Zachary Levi in a smaller, more intimate space outside official Comic-Con programming. The experience offered a refreshing break from the intensity inside the convention center.

However, the bonding between fans that takes place because of that intensity is a crucial part of Comic-Con — the sense of camaraderie and community that comes with a sometimes-frenetic logistical nightmare. Inside and outside the lines of SDCC, there are real opportunities for memory-making — whether you’re talking to a beloved comics creator in the "artist alley" section of the exhibition floor, or encountering a band of Avatar/Legend of Korra cosplayers on your way to a Comic-Con party who all want to sing the Secret Tunnel song with you.

These kinds of moments happen at every fan convention, sure, but at San Diego Comic-Con, they happen in bulk. And that’s something most geeks wouldn’t trade for anything — not even a Funko Pop SDCC exclusive.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.