With Comic-Con International: San Diego (informally known as SDCC) a week away, its staff and comics publishers are grappling with critical questions about the value and location of the country’s largest comics and pop culture convention. Run by the nonprofit Comic-Con International (CCI), SDCC is expected to draw more than 130,000 attendees to downtown San Diego and the San Diego Convention Center from Thursday, July 9, to Sunday, July 12. In February, badges for SDCC sold out in about an hour, reportedly the fastest sell-out time yet. Though that record time serves as a measure of interest in the convention—bustling with exclusive previews and products from many comics publishers—this year’s event, like past installments, tweaks the winning formula.
At press time, SDCC’s internal staff was seeking a sponsor for Artists’ Alley, the area of the convention’s exhibit hall where individual artists draw commissioned works for visitors, sell comics, and more. DeviantArt, the social network for artists, withdrew its sponsorship suddenly in June, despite offering panels, signage, electronic art displays, and comfortable chairs to the artists for the last two years.
In a statement to the press about the company’s withdrawal, DA advisor-in-chief Josh Wattles noted that the company is focusing on mobile app development and “a comprehensive site redesign that will benefit all of our 34 million registered members.” The news has invited speculation about what no sponsorship would mean for Artists’ Alley, where tables are provided to artists at no charge, a holdover from the days when the show drew a mere 5,000 people. David Glanzer, director of marketing and public relations for Comic-Con International, says it’s unlikely that the organization will find a sponsor for Artists’ Alley just weeks before the convention, but that it worked well in years past without a sponsor.
Artists’ Alley aside, Comic-Con International has been fielding recurring questions about SDCC moving to another city—Comic-Con International also organizes WonderCon, which is moving from Anaheim to Los Angeles in 2016, and both cities have been frequently mentioned as potential locations for SDCC itself. Glanzer confirms, as he has for months, that SDCC will remain in San Diego through 2016. After that, however, its location is up in the air. A pressing matter, Glanzer says, is the availability of hotel rooms in downtown San Diego and the surrounding area. Like badges, these sell out faster than the Flash. Glanzer says some hotels would like to reduce their room blocks and increase room rates. “I want to stress that a majority of the hotels are working with us to offer discounted rates and room blocks, as they have in the past,” he says. “If we can overcome this hurdle, I am hoping we can be in San Diego for at least the near future.”
Meanwhile, comics publishers are still grappling with questions of whether to attend SDCC now that it has changed from a small comics-focused event to the biggest pop culture extravaganza of the year. Heavyweights Marvel Entertainment and DC Entertainment––which are backed by Disney and Warner Bros., respectively––have resources to make an impact at the event, as evidenced by their large booths and numerous panels with comics creators and celebrities, teasing forthcoming movies and occasionally comics. Yet smaller publishers have to assess their plans year to year and get creative about affording SDCC.
Independent graphic novel publisher NBM Publishing, which has been attending SDCC since the 1980s, declined to attend this year. NBM publishes literary, mystery, and horror graphic novels, among other nonsuperhero genres. NBM publisher Terry Nantier says that “shows evolve, and of those growing fastest in number and attendance” the indie ones are best for NBM, including the Small Press Expo (SPX), held in Bethesda, Md., and New York’s MOCCA Arts Festival, which had a record 7,500 attendees this year. “Those shows are focused more on the type of books NBM publishes, and we can get better attention,” Nantier says. (Nantier himself is still attending SDCC and appearing on a PW-sponsored panel on Friday.)
Matt Hawkins, president of Top Cow Productions, a partner studio of Image Comics, understands the concerns of small publishers, including his own, while planning for Comic-Con. For San Diego, flights, hotel rooms, eats, and space add up to thousands of dollars. Plus, it’s hard to make money at SDCC, he says, because the convention has so much going on and attendees already spend quite a bit on tickets, travel, food, and so forth. “I personally prefer the small comics conventions,” he says, citing Tulsa Comic Con Expo, which was held in a 100,000-sq.-ft. convention center and charged $20–$40 a ticket. “I think I made the most money there.”
Hawkins says small publishers need a specific marketing plan if they attend SDCC. This year, for instance, Top Cow is giving away 10,000 copies of a comic that ties in with the upcoming sci-fi video game Adr1ft, developed by Three One Zero. Hawkins wrote the script, with Luca Casalanguida handling the art. The first issue, now available on Top Cow’s website, centers on fictional astronaut Sebastian Olivier of the French Government Space Program.
Despite all the glitz and glamour of Comic-Con’s showbiz elements, comics remain at the core of its mission. Industry-focused programming is getting a major boost with a three-day slate of programming at the San Diego Public Library, where the exhibit The Art of Comic-Con will also run for the month. (See sidebar for details on programming.) The addition of the library as a venue continues the con’s policy of expanding out from the convention center, which long ago ran out of room for new events.
Glanzer confirms that their internal data shows that SDCC, like many other comics events, has noticed a significant rise in the diversity of attendees. “We have noticed a marked increase in female attendance, and from our data, comics still seem to be the primary reason for attendance,” Glanzer says. In response to last year’s controversy over Comic-Con not updating its harassment policies, he notes that the staff made its long-standing code of conduct, which addresses harassment, more visible last year and will do the same in 2015. CCI sees its code as broad enough to prohibit harassment and inappropriate behaviors alike. “We have long had a policy that is augmented by a great deal of staff, security, police, and a police command post on-site,” Glanzer says.
Speaking further on demographics, Glanzer notes: “There seems to be a belief that attendees, or fans who attend conventions, are all the same regardless of the show. I’m not sure I agree with this premise. When we announce or advertise our events, we try to target certain segments of the population. Yes, we are also successful in attracting new attendees, but we feel those new attendees are more geared to being receptive to what we offer.”
Other shows use a more “shotgun” approach, Glanzer says. “This isn’t meant as a criticism of other shows looking to get large segments of people through the door. Again, it’s just a different way of doing business; but to me, that approach seems to recruit people who might be more interesting in finding out what a comics convention is all about rather than people who want to find out more about what is [specifically] going on at the convention.” It seems a fine distinction, but given the effort it takes to get a ticket for Comic-Con, its clear that it’s for devotees, not dabblers.
In other changes for 2015, CCI has banned several new technologies, including drones, electronic cigarettes, and live streaming of panels via apps such as Periscope from the exhibit hall. In perhaps the boldest move, selfie sticks have been prohibited, due to the potential hazard they pose on an already hectic and crowded show floor.
Rich Shivener is a writer and teacher from Cincinnati, Ohio.