Originally founded as a kind of fan-fest and back-issues swap meet for comic book, science fiction fans and retailers, the just concluded San Diego Comic-Con has grown to become an international platform for popular culture, servicing the fans that love it as well as the artists and publishers that create and distribute it. When the book industry is openly questioning the usefulness and mission of a strictly trade convention like BookExpo America, the San Diego Comic-Con has become a media juggernaut, barreling ahead with a shameless blend of consumer-driven hype and blockbuster promotional bombast. Has the San Diego Comic-Con become a possible model for what a contemporary publishing/media convention should be?
Although focused on comics—a sometimes tenuous connection in a show that could easily be called the San Diego Media-Con—the San Diego Comic-Con has emerged as the perfect example of the convergence of all manner of pop cultural phenomena under one roof. It's a big tent, a four-and-a-half-day carnival of panels, press conferences, business meetings, previews and bare-faced hype that has become so popular that San Diego fire marshals were forced to cap attendance at about 125,000. It's not simply that San Diego Comic-Con is popular—it's wildly popular.
Indeed, if fans attending the show were happy to leapfrog from one media format to the next in pursuit of their favorite stories and characters, why shouldn't a contemporary convention be a place that caters to an array of splintered entertainment obsessions? Perhaps we're seeing the emergence of a new kind of International Media-Con, an all-encompassing event that attracts all kinds of fans interested in all kinds of stuff; from comics, books and movies to TV shows, video games and merchandise. In a pre—Comic-Con interview with Milton Griepp, CEO of the pop culture news site ICv2.com and organizer of the Comics and Media Conference at this year's Comic-Con, he noted that some media professionals were beginning to say that the crossover between “comics and all the rest of this media stuff is all one business now. Not everyone shares this view, but it's a viewpoint that is growing.”
Best of all, driven by the relentless power of popular culture, the San Diego Comic-Con and shows like it are oblivious to broad economic swings. Of course, the economy had some impact on the 2009 event. It was reported that Hollywood cut back a bit on parties (although that was hard to detect), and some book publishers—among them Scholastic and Pantheon—did not exhibit. But many others, including Hachette/Yen Press, HarperCollins, Del Rey, Tor, Simon & Schuster and First Second (both from Macmillan) and Penguin Young Readers, were there. And even houses or imprints that did not exhibit on the floor were often part of the panels and signings. Big comics independents like Dark Horse and Viz Media—equally at home in the comics specialty and general bookstore market—were also in San Diego.
While the direction of BookExpo America is evolving (see next week's PW for what moves the convention might take), the future of the San Diego Comic-Con, and indeed the future of BEA's sister pop culture show, the New York Comic-Con, seems both bright and primed for growth. Reed Exhibitions, parent company of BEA, is even launching a new pop culture con, C2E2 (Chicago Comics & Entertainment Expo), next year. Of course, BEA is a trade show that makes little or no attempt to appeal to consumers, while San Diego is just the opposite, although it also attracts a trade and professional contingent as well. But whether you're a publisher with a literary graphic novel or a TV producer with a network premiere, Comic-Con offers mobs of critical, engaged fans and a virtual army of news media outlets.
This year's Comic-Con was dominated by the Twilight sequel as well as films by Peter Jackson, James Cameron and the legendary Japanese animation master, Hayao Miyazaki, but graphic novels and prose books elbowed their way into the party with big announcements by Scholastic (new Bone stories), Yen Press (Twilight graphic novel), Del Rey (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies graphic novel) and others. And while comics publishers (and artists) complain that comics are being eclipsed in their own house, even smaller projects were able to attract an audience in the vast media ecosystem that flourished at Comic-Con. There was something for everyone: a panel featuring such high-minded literary comics artists as Jason Lutes, Seth, Gene Yang and Derek Kirk Kim, was very well attended, and one of the most lively and interesting new comics projects (coming next year) this reporter encountered was all about Shakespeare. San Diego Comic-Con spokesperson David Glanzer quickly pointed out that about “25,000 to 30,000 fans are here for the movies, but there are about 100,000 fans that have nothing to do with the movies who seem to have a pretty good time, too.”
These days all media forms are tied together—at the Comics and Media Conference, Oni Press publisher Joe Nozemack described the much anticipated movie based on cartoonist Bryan Lee O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim graphic novel series as “another way to get the book to a wider audience.” Jeff Gomez, CEO of Starlight Runner, highlighted the importance of comics and prose books as pillars of a new era of transmedia branding—retelling great stories recast with care and seriousness in new formats.
Lance Fensterman, v-p of pop culture at Reed Exhibitions and show manager of New York Comic-Con and BEA (spotted at SDCC), took pains to differentiate between a trade show like BEA (“exclusive and very inside out”) and fan-focused comics conventions, which he called “megaphones of publicity, giant platforms to preach to the converted to create a pyramid scheme of publicity as each of those hardcore fans blog, podcast and talk about all that they saw and heard—it's taking the fans and getting them to move the needle in a bigger way.” But he was quick to add, “I think trade events need to find the megaphone, the pyramid scheme, the media hook that will get the spotlight shined on them.”