The San Diego Comic-Con (SDCC) started as a meeting of a mere 300 fans and professionals in the basement of a hotel in the summer of 1970. Back then, comic cons were few and far between and were viewed as obscure meet-ups for hardcore fanatics—not events that could hold the world’s attention.

Now Comic-Con International: San Diego, as it is formally known, is the world’s foremost pop culture–centric gathering. It runs this year from July 17 to 21 at the San Diego Convention Center, and 130,000 are confirmed to attend, with countless others participating in an array of events held just outside the convention center. Nearly all graphic novel publishers will be there to tout their latest projects, and many entertainment superstars—among them Kristen Bell of Veronica Mars, Star Trek’s Patrick Stewart, and members of the Game of Thrones cast—will appear in the legendary Hall H (a 6,000-seat space) to face and delight the fans. The story of how SDCC evolved from a few people giving talks to a marketing powerhouse is the story of how pop culture has taken over the world via the internet, but also how face-to-face encounters retain the power to create lasting friendships and kindle readers’ imaginations.

SDCC was originally run by a loose confederation of Southern Californian fans who wanted to have a get-together to match the cons that had started on the East Coast, where the major comics publishers were located. Today, SDCC is run by Comic-Con International, a nonprofit organization that spent $22 million to put on the event in 2017, according to tax documents.

CCI tends to stay out of the spotlight, and this year’s show will not have any extravagant celebrations to mark the fact that it’s the 50th SDCC. It will be somewhat low-key, according to David Glanzer, CCI’s chief communications and strategy officer. There will be a party for guests and local dignitaries, and more than 50 people involved with the con in its early days are invited to attend this year’s event. These OG con-sters will appear in a variety of programs and show presentations. “It will be a nice trip down memory lane,” Glanzer says.

A splashier event, called the Gathering, will take place at what will one day be the Comic-Con Museum in San Diego’s Balboa Park. It will celebrate DC’s Batman as the very first inductee into the museum’s character hall of fame. This event—the first large one to be held in the space—kicks off a year of fund-raising efforts geared toward getting the museum up and running. Though the museum isn’t set to open until 2021, the event will preview the space.

The Gathering will also serve as a showcase for Batman, which is celebrating its 80th birthday. DC is planning an elaborate presentation for the party and a new look for its booth on the show floor: it will move from its longtime prime spot among the comics publishers to a much larger booth shared with its parent company, Warner Bros. Entertainment, in the movie studio section of the floor. WB will not host its traditional blockbuster Saturday morning panel, which was used in the past to debut footage of such movies as Blade Runner 2049, Justice League, and Wonder Woman. This is all part of WB’s transition following its acquisition by AT&T.

The rest of the show has been in transition for a long time. Concerns that SDCC might move from its home in San Diego to another city because of the limited space at the San Diego Convention Center have mostly faded, but expanding the show continues to be problematic. Due to capacity issues—the exhibition floor is maxed out and ticket sales are capped at about 130,000—badges for the show routinely sell out within an hour, and hotels go just as quickly. A ballot measure to enlarge the convention center is planned for 2020—with a scheme to subsidize the expansion via raising hotel room taxes—but previous ballot measures have been defeated, and expansion remains mired in local politics.

As a result, some fans dream of attending SDCC for years without ever getting to the big show, making it a quest with a huge emotional payoff. Going to the con can be a life-changing experience—even for the SDCC staff.

Glanzer recalls attending his first con in 1978. “I was a big Star Wars and Star Trek fan but had no idea there were other fans,” he says. “And that summer was truly life-changing. I was an overweight, geeky, nerdy kid, but I had found my tribe. They didn’t care about anything other than that I had an appreciation for Star Trek and films. It was really like Christmas in the summer, and I haven’t missed a show since.”

To appreciate where the con may go, it’s good to look back at where it began. Although Glanzer wasn’t at the very first SDCC, several future comics stars attended as fans, including artists Steve Leialoha and Scott Shaw and writers Mark Evanier and Jackie Estrada. They are among a select few who have been to all 50 SDCCs.

The First Comic-Con

Evanier is known for his long career writing comics (Crossfire, Groo the Wanderer) and writing TV and animation, but he was active in fandom at the time of the first con. Although in 1970 there was a strong fan community in Southern California, comics conventions were still not well known. “There were science fiction cons on the West Coast, but they were fighting the incursion of comic books a little bit,” says Evanier, a lifelong Southern California resident. “Comic fans were made to feel unwelcome at the science fiction conventions because the science fiction fans kind of considered comic books beneath them. Now science fiction is a subset at Comic-Con—it’s gone full circle.”

Evanier was 18 years old for that first con but was already working for the legendary artist Jack “King” Kirby—cocreator of Black Panther, Captain America, Darkseid, the Hulk and hundreds of other Marvel and DC characters. “My friends and I drove down for the day,” Evanier recalls. “There were 300 people there and we thought this was a huge success.”

Evanier notes that there wasn’t much glamour, however. That first year, the U.S. Grant Hotel (now listed on the National Register of Historic Places) was being renovated, so, he says, con-goers had to walk over paper-lined floors and navigate temporary plywood walls. San Diego was then known primarily as a Navy town, and the Gaslamp Quarter near the convention was a grungy place where sailors on leave might look for the sorts of activities that aren’t available on ships. “We used to sometimes walk in pairs or groups from our hotels to the old convention center,” Evanier adds. “You might not feel comfortable walking at night alone there.”

Estrada, who is now the administrator for the annual Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards, the ceremony that takes center stage on Friday evening at SDCC, was also at the first con. She saw the announcement for the show and was excited that Bradbury and Kirby were guests. She recalls attending the talks by both and then checking out the dealer’s room. She says that she was not the only woman in attendance but that she did get some questions along the lines of “What are you doing here?” from dealers. Estrada adds that there were other female fans present—that not all of the other women there were wives and moms, as is sometimes claimed.

SDCC’s long tradition of accessibility was already on display, Estrada says, adding that she remembers seeing several wheelchairs and people with mobility issues. “That stuck in my brain, because there were only 300 people in attendance overall,” she notes. “It occurred to me at the time that this was a kind of wish fulfillment to be involved in comics and be able to go to this show.”

That first year was mainly a few artists and people wandering around, and “maybe one or two people in costume,” says Evanier, who notes that Kirby’s appearance was the highlight. “I still meet people my age for whom that was a life-changing moment: to get to meet Kirby and to hear him talk about his work—to shake his hand and watch him draw.”

Estrada says that like other early attendees, she got sucked into the business as time went on, and she kept attending. By 1974, just five years in, the show’s attendance had increased to 2,500, and the guest list that year included not only Kirby and Bradbury but also Majel Barrett, Milton Caniff, Frank Capra, Chuck Jones, Walter Koenig, and Charles Schulz. “How did they manage to get the top people in these areas of pop culture all in one place?” Estrada marveled. “They were just hanging out with awkward kids who would chat with them and tell them how much they loved their stuff.”

It’s this direct connection between creators and consumers that has fueled so much of SDCC’s growth and made attending it a life goal for so many. It’s always been multiple events happening at once, Estrada says. “If you’re a comics fan, all the top cartoonists are there,” she notes. “If you’re a Star Wars fan and a gamer or into manga or whatever, you come to the show for that, and then you’re exposed to this other stuff. Interests became less insular, because more people were crossing the lines between fandoms.”

From the start, Estrada was impressed by SDCC’s ability to connect fans and creators; she eventually started writing press releases for the steering committee, and she has been a part of the con ever since. Although she is not authorized to speak on behalf of SDCC, she is more than happy to recall the incredible people she’s met through the con over the years. She captured these encounters in her two books of photos, Comic Book People and Comic Book People of the 1990s. Her street-photography-style photos provide a priceless record of SDCC attendees. One photo shows Kirby and Osamu Tezuka, the father of Japanese manga, on the same stage, a testament to what might be the only time the world’s two most influential cartoonists were ever together.

SDCC retained its collegial feeling for many years, even after moving from various downtown hotels to Golden Center, a small arena. The biggest change came in 1991, when it moved from downtown to the brand new San Diego Convention Center right on the waterfront. In this much bigger and more scenic setting, the con began to attract studios and video game companies that wanted to market directly to fans. Year by year, SDCC took over more and more of the convention center until it annexed Hall H. Today, events fill the entire Gaslamp Quarter and even PetCo park, home of the San Diego Padres.

Marketing Pop Culture

SDCC’s evolution from a mecca for comics creators to the biggest entertainment showcase of the year has been a gradual one. Evanier thinks that “at some point, someone in the movie business must have said that the success of certain movies was attributed to their promotion at Comic-Con, and everybody leapt on the bandwagon.” He adds, “My theory is that a lot of these companies had someone who encouraged it because they just wanted the company to pay their way to Comic-Con.”

Evanier traces some of the origins of SDCC’s movie connection to an early event where the first Star Wars film was shown. “Since this was before home video, there were only a few ways to see Star Wars,” he says. The screening was packed. “I think that had a powerful impact,” he notes. “It reminded people of the mania for that material. In the grand scheme of promoting motion pictures, San Diego was a pretty cheap way to do it. If you’re bringing a movie out, wouldn’t you like to have a packed auditorium of eager fans who cheer the stars and the clips? It gives some momentum to the project.”

This evolution also caught the attention of writer and consultant Rob Salkowitz, author of Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture, who began attending SDCC in 1997, when cosplay and movie stars were becoming bigger parts of the show, even as comics companies were weathering the publishing booms and busts of the 1990s. The germ of the book came later, in 2011, he says, when he was looking for an idea that would tie in with his day job analyzing the intersection of technology, social trends, and marketing.

Writing about SDCC “was an epiphany,” Salkowitz says. At the time, he notes, marketers at the con “had fan engagement figured out, as well as how to sell digital content, which nobody else had been able to do yet.” He describes SDCC as “almost a petri dish for trying out marketing ideas and getting right all the stuff that [marketers were] spending millions and millions of dollars to get wrong,” adding, “The message was that marketers should be paying attention to this subculture.”

Salkowitz witnessed the rise of cosplay, exclusives, and “activations”—outside events meant to promote various films, TV shows, video games, and brands. By the mid-aughts, everyone was getting involved. Salkowitz puts the “jump the shark” moment at around 2006 or 2007, when Paris Hilton attended the show.

As for those activations, they’ve become a sort of Super Bowl for marketing firms. Seth Bardacke, executive producer at Grandesign, which has designed many of the elaborate off-site activities, including the annual Adult Swim area, says it’s not as easy as it looks to put up a memorable activity on the grounds surrounding the convention center, which is essentially a spacious lawn with no power. But the stakes are high.

“People plan their annual vacations around Comic-Con, so it’s important for not just the brands but for the producer to respect that and put in a full effort,” Bardacke says. For brands, SDCC is a way to create customer loyalty by giving them an unforgettable experience, he adds—“and today the digital and social content that is created and then shared from those memories is just as priceless.”

Ironically, the rise of social media—which did so much to plant FOMO in the minds of fans everywhere—has led some studios to get cold feet on SDCC marketing. Bad Twitter buzz about movie footage shown at Hall H presentations and other fan revolts have made studios more cautious about when and what they show. Some of the most well-received films at SDCC—Snakes on a Plane and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, for instance—had disappointing box office returns, proving that just because a room full of motivated fans like something doesn’t mean that a general moviegoing public will be interested.

Mindful of controlling the screening experience more, studios are moving to other types of events such as SXSW and launching their own events modeled on SDCC: Disney has its D23 event every two years and its yearly Star Wars Celebration. “I do think big brands are beginning to wonder whether this mass fan experience is the best way to spend their dollars,” Salkowitz says.

In recent years, the steady parade of big studio presentations at Hall H has waned. Fox and Sony have both sat it out, and Marvel and Disney were absent last year; in 2019, WB is missing. (Marvel is expected to make a return with, observers hope, the first revelation of its Phase 4 movies slate, which could make for one of the biggest moments Hall H has ever seen.) Instead, more presentations have focused on streaming TV.

SDCC’s Glanzer is philosophical about the ebb and flow. “Some people won’t be here this year,” he says. “Do I expect them back in the future? I certainly do. It’s cyclical.”

Comics and the Next 50 Cons

As for comics publishers, aside from DC’s move to a dual-branded booth, most of the major players still show up. Image Comics will take over DC’s spot on the floor, and a host of new publishers and imprints will be on the scene. It’s still a profitable show for smaller literary publishers, such as Drawn & Quarterly and Fantagraphics, who bring in their top creators and sell piles of books. Though there are always grumbles about the investment in time and money, most comics publishers have found their place in the con’s ecosystem by selling exclusive prints and books.

Evanier scoffs at the idea that the comics have left SDCC. “I think that is ridiculous, and I say that as someone who has spent 50 years doing panels about comic books there,” he says. “Yes, there are big rooms full of TV shows and movies. But if you just go down the programming schedule, there are dozens and dozens of things about comics at any given time.” He points out that, though celebrities attend to promote their projects, the official guests are still cartoonists and SF authors, much as was the case back in 1970.

Many shows have tried to emulate SDCC’s mix of glamour and fandom, but few have managed the kind of chemistry that allows a veteran journalist like Maggie Thompson to be an official special guest while Robert Downey Jr. is a few feet away promoting a movie. “They still run a great show,” Salkowitz says. “And if you look at all the events that are trying to be like Comic-Con, they still haven’t quite figured out how to make it look as easy.”

As SDCC enters its next 50 years, there’s still the matter of whether the convention center can or should expand. “It would be helpful,” Salkowitz says. “If they had room for a million people, they would probably sell a million badges. But I don’t think it’s CCI’s ambition to be big. As a nonprofit, they don’t expect growth every year and aren’t under the same pressure that some of the for-profit shows are.”

Evanier says it will be a long time before the convention does not sell out. “The players may change, and who comes to exhibit and who comes to Hall H may change,” he says. “But I think there will always be the new project that wants to use the momentum of the con to launch.”

SDCC remains a place where people make lifelong friends and have experiences that they will never forget, whether those include a blink-and-you-miss-it activation or meeting a favorite cartoonist. It’s still one of the adventures that is open to anyone. “I met friends that I have to this day through my first Comic-Cons,” Glanzer says.

Estrada has similar sentiments. “People wonder what kept me coming back, and I always say it was the people I met,” she notes. “Yes, it’s the Ray Bradburys or Jack Kirbys, but it’s also all the other creative people who I formed lifelong friendships with. It’s a unique shared experience to be with people who love what you love, and to escape from the world with them.”

Neither Evanier nor Estrada claims to have envisioned that first tiny con turning into the pop culture behemoth that is it today. However, both mention the one person who did: Kirby.

No one is laughing now.