Comic-Con and Media Spaces

I realize it’s a bit late after the fact to talk about Comic-Con 2008, but I’ve had some thoughts bouncing around for the last few weeks after my experience there (and have had many other things on my desk since then).

I’ve attended many media conventions (aka “cons”) for over twenty years, and while I’ve seen a fairly wide range of size and scope, I’ve never had a fundamentally dissimilar experience at any of them. In other words, they all function more or less identically. If you’ve never been to a con, imagine large groups of people milling around a hotel or civic convention space, attending panel sessions, screenings, and workshops in the small rooms, and hearing keynote addresses and buying merchandise in the big rooms. Indeed, with the exception of a relatively small number of people dressed in costume (as well as a lack of insecurity and posturing), it looks more or less like an academic conference or trade convention. People talk, people walk, people watch people, people drink, and people buy crap.

That said, Comic-Con exponentially ratchets up the scale of this experience.

Welcome to Comic-Con 2008

Welcome to Comic-Con 2008

The sheer size of the event is a cliché, but a warranted one. I’ve been to sold-out football games and concerts before, but this was easily the largest event I’ve ever attended, in terms of numbers of people simultaneously converging on a single place. The San Diego Convention Center, as Kristin Thompson pointed out, is itself so gargantuan that you can’t capture it in one image from street level. But every corner of that space was still full of people on both days I attended. Every concourse, meeting room, sidewalk, restroom, exhibit booth, breezeway, and ballroom: packed. Even floor space along walls and around support columns was scarce.

You really can’t overstate this, and I still find it immensely significant, though I’m also a bit ambivalent about it. It challenges the dubious claim that online culture has made physical contact obsolete. Well over a hundred thousand people–the vast majority of whom are otherwise fully tapped into online communities–had come to the SDCC, at considerable expense of money and time. If so many people are willing to come so far (or at least, for Southern Californians attending, at such cost) then physical proximity must still matter. But proximity to what, exactly? Is it just to be around their flavors of consumer culture?

I’m increasingly interested in how media companies–i.e., The Powers That Be, or TPTB, in fanspeak–navigate and negotiate in fan-dominated spaces. Thus, my main academic interest in attending Comic-Con was in scouting it out as an example of what John Caldwell refers to as “contact zones,” i.e., as spaces where the media industry contacts “civilians,” be they the press, investors, aspiring entrants, or fans. In this case, the “industry” included not only the major film studios, television networks, and cable channels, but also comics publishers, game publishers, and toy and collectible manufacturers. Though the weekend is certainly centered on the fan perspective (see below), all of the categories of “civilian” listed above were present at Comic-Con. Accordingly, as I realized over my two days there, proximity takes on multiple dimensions at the con. Fans are close to “stars” (whether actors, writers, artists, or directors) and new media products (i.e., upcoming films, TV shows, comics, games, etc.). Aspiring industry workers are close potential employers or network contacts. Media companies are close to the press, potential partners, potential employees, and (lastly) potential consumers.

The proximity of media company to press is the one that matters most to Hollywood. Like most events from the perspective of industry, it’s the media coverage that matters, not the actual experience. Accordingly, the infamously packed Hall H–the largest room in the SDCC, where the biggest film and TV projects are previewed–gets the brunt of media coverage. Indeed, aside from a couple of elevated VIP platforms in the main exhibit hall (set up for TV interviews) this was apparently where most of the press was camped out. The resulting mainstream coverage was skewed towards big projects, with a smattering of quotes from somewhat lesser-known-to-the-mainstream figures (like comics writer Geoff Johns, and America’s Favorite Geek™, Kevin Smith). From this perspective, the tens of thousands of fans at the SDCC functioned as publicity props, there to fill B-roll and offer enthusiastic testimonials.

That is, the audiovisual performance of “fandom” (however narrowly defined by Hollywood) in such venues is considerably more important to media corporations than anything real fans actually do. This gap between different expectations and perceptions is a critical juncture in contemporary popular culture as TPTB openly court fans, and is at the crux of my ongoing research.

Still, even though I never made it into Hall H (despite waiting for over an hour for the Watchmen preview), there was plenty going on everywhere you looked. Under the veneer of corporate promotion, this is still a fannish event. In retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t focus on the big things so much, because there’s little to be gained from being in attendance at those panels that can’t be gleaned from press coverage and umpteen blogs. There’s so much more to see and hear there if you’re not focused solely on Hollywood: Cape comics. Indie comics. Anime. Manga. Literature. Video games. Role-playing games. Costuming. Collecting. These media, practices, and people are still compelling and vital, and they are why Comic-Con–and every con–are still important spaces.

Waiting in line to duel

Waiting in line to duel

In the end, despite my initial bewilderment, I was impressed by how much Comic-Con restoked my inner geek (or not-so-inner, from my wife’s perspective). I was winding down my comics infatuation prior to Comic-Con, but found it wound back up again afterwards. I’m again interested in what’s going on on screens big and small, and how smaller companies are having a go of it. I’m enamored with particular genres (SF and superheroes for the most part), and excited to see how they continue to develop.

I also embrace the term “geek,” controversy and all, because my experience at Comic-Con has made me more comfortable with it. To be “geek” today is any many ways no different than at any other time in the past half-century: focused on minutiae and worlds well out of the mainstream, always seeking out cracks in supposed “reality.” As a parent, I endeavor to pass the geek on to my children (as so many people my age, gratifyingly, did in person at Comic-Con). What’s different, and much, much better today is that geekdom, broadly speaking, has no social boundaries. Attendees at Comic-Con came from every gender, ethnicity, age, ability, and orientation, making it a far more cosmopolitan space than almost any other you could encounter. The only demographic spike was age (probably averaging close to 30), but I’d argue that was more out of convenience and social mobility than anything else.

Geeking the next generation

Geeking the next generation

I feel more like a geek now than I did before I went. And that’s a good thing. I look forward to attending next year, and in exploring how media, fans, industries, and my own passions intersect in the meantime.

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