[Staff Editorial] San Diego Comic-Con: If They Only Had a Heart

Comic conventions come in all shapes and sizes, from the tiny single-day gatherings of fans to the huge, multi-day affairs that take up entire convention centers. Every year, fans of all stripes congregate at these events to mingle with their fellow fans, meet celebrities, pick up the latest swag, and get the latest news on their favorite heroes (and villains!) and their adventures. No convention has attracted more attention than San Diego Comic-Con, said to be the premiere convention for all things comics, movies, game, and pop culture. It seems almost like a geek rite of passage of sorts, to attend Comic-Con at least once in your life.

But is SDCC really all it’s cracked up to be? Is it really worth it to attend? Personally, I say no. In spite of all the hype and all the hoopla, SDCC is not worth the time and/or money that is invested into it by attendees.

Now, you could call it ‘sour grapes’. You could point and laugh and say I’m just jealous because I’m not going. And admittedly? There is a bit of bitterness, for reasons I will cover later. But even with that kernel aside, SDCC has fallen so far from its roots that there’s really no heart left to it. It is a shell of what it was founded for, with the comics kept as a vestigal limb, of sorts.

Before I dive in, a bit of history to add some context. SDCC started as a 3-day comic book gathering in August of 1972. Its size allowed it to utilize smaller venues, such as the historic U.S. Grant and El Cortez hotels in downtown San Diego, UCSD, and Golden Hall. The convention eventually moved into the convention center in 1991, and its popularity began to take off from there. Nowadays, it’s not uncommon for badges to sell out in a couple hours, and the various media outlets that cover the event show long lines and huge crowds.

And that is where the disconnect begins. SDCC is no longer about the comics that are its namesake. Nowadays, it’s about the media, with comics taking a backseat. At today’s SDCC, you’re just as apt to see numerous panels dedicated to hit and upcoming TV series, sneak peeks of upcoming blockbuster movies, or celebrity meet-and-greets as you are announcements from the likes of DC and Marvel. Even though there are still stellar panels devoated to comics -the CAC panels are especially noteworthy in this regard- the programming dedicated to comics has shrunk over the years as the programming dedicated to other forms of media has grown.

As the convention’s focus has shifted, so has its spirit. It’s no longer about comic book fans coming together and discussing comics, sci-fi, and any other topics under the sun. Now, it’s about Hollywood and the studio bigwigs elbowing their way in to promote their pet projects and rake in extra money. It’s no longer the little comic book shops setting up a table in the dealer’s hall and making money selling comic books. Now, it’s all about ‘Comic-Con Exclusive’ toys that show up for a premium on eBay the week after the convention ends. It’s no longer about the geek community. Now, it’s about the commercialization of what makes geek culture so great.

In short, San Diego Comic-Con is a convention of sell-outs. It’s no longer about us, the little guys. It’s about the big guys, who can flex their muscle and their checkbooks. Ever hear the saying ‘He who has the gold makes the rules’? Yup, that’s Comic-Con in a nutshell. It has lost its heart and its soul in pursuit of the almighty dollar, sold to the highest bidders, and regurgitated as something else completely. It is colder, more commercialized, and resistant to any sort of change that might risk costing them precious revenue.

What makes it especially sad is that we geeks have been conditioned to accept these changes as a ‘good’ thing. We’ve been conditioned to line up at Hall H hours before our desired panels so we’re guaranteed a seat, conditioned to accept abysmally large crowds and long lines, and conditioned to accept expensive food. Everything about Comic-Con is about squeezing out money, and finding the biggest media outlets to sell out to. There have been a number of comics sellers who refuse to return to SDCC -or even promote it!- because of the way they have been treated over the past decade or so.

The team here at Scarlet Rhapsody has personally experienced many of the changes with SDCC. Prior to this year, S|R had never had issues registeringfor or renewing Press credentials. This year, not only was our team denied Press access (even though we had had it for several years prior to now), but the way that Editor-in-Chief Victoria has been spoken to by Comic-Con press staff has been abhorrent and unprofessional. The impression we are left with is that Comic-Con would have welcomed us had we the standing of Kotaku, or G4, or one of the major news outlets. Because we are a small, independently-run website, we apparently are no longer worthy of gracing the halls of Comic-Con.

To a degree, I also saw this first-hand when we registered on-site for WonderCon at the Anaheim Convention Center this past March. The head of their Press Department was rather curt to me personally when I registered for Press the first day of the convention. I’m not saying I expect everyone to be 150% perky and cheery at all times when staffing a convention, but this person gave me a very off vibe. I distinctly got the feeling that she was judging me, and judging our website, her vibe was essentially ‘Who are you and what makes you think your little website is good enough for Press access?’.

That impression only intensified the next day for me. I had forgotten my Press badge in my hustle to get ready for my day at WonderCon. When we arrived on-site, I spoke with her, politely explained what had happened, and asked if I could have a replacement badge just for that day. She rather curtly told me I had to pay for a single-day badge, and insinuated that I was lying so I could pass my badge around and get others in for free. She also gave Victoria a hard time about our site, saying we were ‘barely’ approved, and listing several other conditions that had to be met (none of which were disclosed to us until that moment). In short, they gave off the impression they felt they were ‘doing us a favor’ by approving us.

We did our homework when applying for Press with SDCC. Victoria herself put in hours of filling out forms, printing out articles to submit (50+ pages!), and burning files to external media to submit to them. And for what? An unprofessional, flat rejection right before resale badges were going on sale back in late May. (Coincidence? I really want to think so.) No mentioning what we missed, no real chance to appeal, nothing. As I said previously, their response since has been unprofessional, with them dragging individuals unrelated to S|R in the middle of the discussion as justification for denying us Press credentials.

So, in their mad dash to cater to Twi-hards, Glee, and comic book movie adaptations, Comic-Con has forgotten where it came from. It has forgotten the little guys. A lot of people say it’s rapidly becoming an industry convention, where fans are being squeezed out and you need an ‘in’ in order to attend. In light of how the Press department has treated us I have to wonder about Industry and Professional registration. Are those departments policing who they allow to claim as ‘Industry’ or ‘Professional’, or are they allowing some of those attendees to ride on the coattails of others and claim perks they shouldn’t?

I think the only thing to do at this point is ignore Comic-Con. We need to turn our backs on the sell-out game that SDCC has become, and instead focus our attention on other, smaller conventions that need our support (and are just as much fun). A couple noteworthy ones coming up before the end of the year include Stan Lee’s Comikaze, Long Beach Comic Con, and the first ever San Diego Comics Fest. Support these conventions, and you’re more apt to support the little guys. For it’s the little guys that are the real heart of any convention, and of geek culture.

– Andrea

andrea @ scarlet-rhapsody.com

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