Comic-con: raising the bar on the magical kingdom

This year was my 13th continuous San Diego Comic-con, and this time felt different. And I wasn’t the only one who thought so. I may be all wrong about why.

This year I came to Comic-con straight from the opposite end of the fan experience spectrum, working at a very small, series-specific convention. It could not be much less like SDCC, even though some of the same stars were appearing at both. I got Preview Night for the first time in years, and walked onto the floor to find that I was having massive culture shock. It took me a long time to figure out exactly why that was; and longer to figure out what it meant. I felt like I wasn’t sure why I was there, and that made me wonder if I belonged there at all. And it was rough to challenge a touchstone like that.

It’s not always easy to explain why conventions matter, but they do. We all have fan fairy tales that we tell each other, about a magical land where we can all go. We’ll see our distant friends, be merry, and dance in a castle with our royalty. These dreams are important to us; they’re a lantern to follow when everything seems dark and dreary and un-magical. For many of us, grown up and growing up in communities that we have not chosen which have been cruel and uncaring, those fantasies are a matter of survival. The communities we fashion are our safehold.

But the problem with fairy tales is we’re very prepared to believe in them, but very unprepared to live them. We spend a lot of time looking for that castle in a magic kingdom. What do we do when we get there?

Through grace, luck, and aid, I’ve been an attendee for 13 years now. I’ve seen some of its most tumultuous growth, as the Comic Book Guys with their wheeled carts were pushed out by the Twihards camping outside Hall H. Even though in my time it has always been big and challenging, many things did use to be far less cutthroat and overwhelming. “Early” for a panel was, manageably, the panel before. For a while swag flowed like a river of honey, though I promise that you never really NEEDED a plastic Green Lantern ring or your fifth branded bag. But it also used to be standard to stroll up into Sails on a Sunday and buy next year’s badge.

It’s standard practice for the more “veteran” congoers to wax on about the Good Old Days and point fingers at specific causes for our current trials. But in very recent years, this blame game has gotten more vehement and led to more disillusionment than the resigned shrug of previous years. I think there is genuinely no one factor or scapegoat for this change. For one thing, it’s really a series of subtle, interrelated shifts. And much of the change has been for the better, as Comic-con has slowly been recognized as a cultural force. Change is inevitable, and change that comes from success is always a mixed bag. And ’twas popularity that remade the face of Comic-con, not the sheer will of a handful of fans of sparkly vampires*. Hollywood’s radar pinged, and word spread amongst fans, observers, and businesses. The con spilled out of the bounds of the convention center, pushing farther into the Gaslamp. It’s more complicated now; but we also have an incredible range of choice, regardless of your fandom proclivities. The kingdom has (mostly peaceably) conquered neighboring lands like video games and comedy and brought them into the fold.

And, really, Comic-con is just a barometer for an overall geek cultural change. Conventions have exploded across the country. Merchandise that I used to order from specialty catalogs (via phone!) is now available in your local mall. It takes effort NOT to see a major motion picture or TV show based on a comic book. Twitter and other social media has allowed us to connect with other fans, no matter how obscure our particular niche, not to mention the tantalizing temptation of trying to do the same with creators and stars. The diversity of people participating in fandom has increased greatly, and you’re as likely to see entire families at cons as the stereotypical 30-something loner (that would be me, I guess). The very concept of geek being chic would’ve been laughable even 20 years ago. The barbarians are largely tamed; the guy who bullied you in middle school over your Piers Anthony novel passionately watches Game of Thrones. Our kingdom is a proud one, with vast tracts of land and coffers overflowing. We are embarrassed by the riches of fandom.

So why are we so upset? Why has so much of our conversation shifted to our dissatisfaction? Con attendees have always bonded over the agony of lines the way Angelenos bond over talk of parking. But increasingly I hear people saying, even as the lengths to which we’re courted at the ball become more extravagant, that they “just weren’t feeling it this year” and that genuinely had a negative impact on their enjoyment. And while I won’t deny that the lines have gotten pretty darn silly, it seems like there’s more to it than that.

Have we been so accustomed to the underdog tale that we don’t know what to do when we win the championship? Did we need the adrenalin rush of the secret club? I don’t think this is happening just in regards to conventions, but in fandom cultures as a whole. We have unprecedented access to each other, to creators, to work, to merchandise. It should be our Golden Age. But it’s not reading that way. We’re struggling to maintain the positivity of our communities.

Don’t get me wrong, geek culture has leagues to go still, primarily in its inclusivity in media, criticism, and fandom. There will always be new stories to tell and new people to discover. But fundamentally, maybe geek culture has arrived at the same problem as modern society; what do we do when it’s not just about – metaphorically – survival? When the t-shirts are plentiful and we can devour content nearly as often as we could ever dream? Geek culture in particular may be ill-equipped to cope with success. It’s not that kids on the playground aren’t still going to push other kids down because of their lunchbox. They’ll find a reason. But we’re not children anymore, and we’re not on the playground, and I’m not sure we know how to see ourselves if we’re not that bullied kid.

There is no wrong way to be in a fandom (barring actively hurting others). But we DO have to constantly re-examine what it means, for us as individuals. Ask yourself: if you find that the thing ceases to be fulfilling, is it the thing? Or could it be you?

Back to that funny feeling I had (at first) at Comic-con this year. I’ve never been a vendor, or a panelist, or a guest at Comic-con. But I realized after much reflection this year that my Comic-con already peaked, two years ago in 2015. It wasn’t an ideal year for me on the surface; all my friends had Preview Night and I didn’t, I’d just had major surgery and I spent a fair portion of the con in the room. I was stressed and barely saw friends. I had a project that I put a lot of my heart into and I was afraid – maybe certain – that it was going to backfire. I don’t like to talk about it, because the entire point was about the community, and that seems defeated by any whiff of individual responsibility. But I can tell you that it did not fail, taking me entirely by surprise, and I say with as little ego as possible that it will likely be the best thing I ever do. More than a lucky break getting into a signing with an idol, more than running through the streets after crazy ARG prizes. Because I didn’t do it for myself (it was always undertaken with the intent of anonymity). I can’t imagine what I could take from Comic-con that would be more than that. No souvenir bag or Fox poster tube can ever contain that feeling.

And, I think, it was fundamentally about the best parts of Comic-con. It was not something I would’ve done, or thought of, anywhere else; and it couldn’t have been pulled off without the community. It was inspired by the feeling of bringing people together in a massive, dark room like the climax of a pilgrimage. That was what blew me away at my first SDCC, and kept me coming back, no matter how hard it’s gotten. For a few minutes, maybe everyone in that room no longer felt as if the con was a fight they were in with each other, one that they didn’t know if they could win, with a prize they didn’t know if they could really carry with them. If Comic-con has any profound, genuinely meaningful joy it has to be in the power of knowing with certainty, even briefly, that you’re sharing some precious corner of your heart with other humans. I think that’s all anyone really wants, in the long run. To not feel alone. It’s why we build communities, even on the backs of the most apparently frivolous and ephemeral things. We build kingdoms in air to not be alone.

We’re not on the playground anymore. There’s something beyond fighting for respect, or defending the things you love. Everyone’s trying to find something that they’re missing, and it’s okay to try. None of us would be here if we didn’t need that. But you have to try to give more than you get. If your fandom isn’t doing enough for you, do more for your fandom. Every year at Comic-con I’ve been the recipient of kindnesses, small and large; and my only real goal now is to try to pay that forward whenever I have a chance. The swag isn’t what’s going to matter to you, in the end. It’ll be the memory of the fellow fan who gave it to you when you were sad you missed out. The special event doesn’t matter; it’s the new friend who made sure you got in solely because you cared about the same thing. The lines don’t matter, it’s the stranger you spent 5 hours with who shared their snacks. A great deal of Comic-con is effectively an advertisement, but you can hold on to the joy of sharing love and excitement with thousands of strangers. That means something. Something important.

And that value doesn’t stop when Comic-con ends; it carries over into the online and “real” world, too. It’s the times you didn’t feel alone that matter. Don’t let the communities you join to share love fall into competition and anger, even if circumstances set you up to do it. Things will always go wrong, arguments will happen, mistakes will be made. You don’t have to, and shouldn’t, ignore problems for the sake of “being positive”; but when you see them, always ask what you can make better with your contribution. You can make a choice about the kind of fan you want to see in the world and actively decide to be that person. Lift other people up, and the wave will carry you where you want to go, all on its own. It just takes time.

Kindness is a work-in-progress, but there is so much more power in “we” than “me”. Fandoms can be, and have been, an incredible force for positive change in the world; because the groundwork is already there. Don’t lose sight of the reason you joined them in the first place. We are all authors of our communities, and we have to take a stand for caring about each other.

And if you want more literal advice about Comic-con, it’s easy. Choose how YOU want to do the con, and own it. I literally wrote a book on Comic-con, and then I did a “bad job” this year. I came in largely unprepared, I only went for one signing which took a huge amount of time and didn’t pan out, I didn’t get a lot of swag, I only went to one offsite, a handful of panels. I did much less than I have before, and I could sit here and make that narrative negative. But I also actively decided that in year 13 it was time for my “Chilliversary” and gave myself permission not to make it a battle. It was okay to pick a few priorities, that were MY priorities, and roll with what came. I had a fantastic time.

Be responsible for your own experience. Don’t blame it on other fans, even the few bad eggs. Don’t blame it on a company screwing up a line, even though they do. Own that you made the choice to use your time that way and roll on. Don’t waste more of it being angry and miss the thing that will make it better. They’re your feelings and you have a right to them, but you’re still responsible for what you do with them.

You CAN still enjoy Comic-con, as hard as it is, as hard as it may get. And if you really, really can’t: it’s okay. You have permission not to come. Don’t do things that don’t fulfill you, if you examined yourself and there was no way to make it work. Your geek card will NOT be revoked. Maybe your princess is in another castle. And that’s okay. But be sure it’s not just that you don’t know what to do when you arrive at this magical place you’ve been chasing before you give up on it. Don’t move the bar for the con; raise it for yourself.

As for me, my new friend blasted Hamilton as the Hall H line was moved into the tents Saturday night, and it was strangely powerful to be brought together even by something so inherently absurd. To camp out for hours for the sake of a being in a room together. I’m willing to wait for it.


*I was in Hall H that year, and stuck on a bus with some fans who knew nothing about Comic-con but had come for Twilight and had been camping since Tuesday. It was unheard of, and there was confusion and resentment. But I can tell you that these people were kind, excited, and there less for the panel itself and more for the same sense of community that EVERYONE wants. There’s no denying that they contributed to the change, but it was never their intent, was entirely unmalicious, and probably led to the same massive MCU panels that we all camp for now. Plot twist: we played ourselves.

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Anne Darkly
Professional geek, plush artist, movie lover, writer trying to get back on the wagon. Or off the wagon. There's wagon involvement. Everyone told me to get a blog, so I did. Yee-haw.
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