Call it the Mt. Everest of cons, or WrestleMania for nerds: the San Diego Comic-Con is the flashiest spectacle of the year for comics, cosplayers, and celebrities. And the 2024 iteration of the show—to be held July 24–28 at the San Diego Convention Center—is being heralded as a true comeback. After a cautious post-pandemic reopening, last summer’s WGA and SAG strikes meant the famed parade of celebrities sat it out. The hope and hype for comics fans is that this year’s event will be a return to SDCC’s trademark splendor.

SDCC started out in 1970 as a 300-person gathering around a hotel pool. The show now welcomes some 130,000 official attendees and several thousand more hangers on, who loiter around the hoopla in the Gaslamp District. Comic-Con has become embedded in San Diego’s culture and identity. Current San Diego mayor Todd Gloria was a badgeholder before he was elected, and he now officially welcomes attendees via a press conference. His predecessor, Kevin Faulconer, once rode a zip line into the con to celebrate the opening day.

It’s also very lucrative. While publishers enjoy gangbuster sales of debut books and exclusives, the city of San Diego has also benefited handsomely from the growth. According to the San Diego Chamber of Commerce, SDCC generates about $160 million for the local economy.

But the process was an evolution, says David Glanzer, chief communications and strategy officer for Comic-Con International, the nonprofit that runs the con. Early on, “I think the city didn’t know what to make of us,” Glanzer says, “but we were treated nicely for a show that didn’t book a lot of hotel rooms. When things really got big, we were very lucky to have the mayor and city council members go to bat for us and say that it was good for the city.”

Occasionally there have been hitches—like in 2005, when the San Diego Padres booked a set of home games at the newly opened Petco Park, located just across the street from the convention center, during Comic-Con. The result was a memorable logjam of 40,000 sports fans leaving the stadium just as daily con-goers flooded the same corridor. Comic-Con reps tried to warn Major League Baseball officials at the time, according to Glanzer, but to no avail. “Maybe we didn’t do a good job of explaining that our fans come early but also leave late,” he says. Glanzer recalls the unforgettable sight of Padres fans and costumed con-goers swarming across a pedestrian bridge just to get to their far-off parked cars. Since then, MLB and the Padres have made sure to never again book a Padres home game during the con. Instead, the stadium gets used for industry parties—or occasionally a zombie escape room.

Today, SDCC is San Diego’s signature annual event, with entire blocks studded with elaborate promotional activations, trolley and hotel wraps, and fans sleeping out overnight by the harbor to get first dibs on panels in Hall H. And the Comic-Con Museum in Balboa Park is a year-round fixture—2024 exhibits during SDCC include a spotlight on artist John Jennings and another on the San Diego/Tijuana connection through comics.

The logistics of throwing a party for 130,000 people are vast, says CCI executive director Fae Desmond, who is retiring after 47 years. “I deal with behind-the-scenes matters, like the Coastal Commission,” she says of her job, which also includes “worrying about stupid stuff—like people sleeping under tents. What if there’s lightning? Basically, as an event planner, you’re always worried.”

Desmond has avoided major disasters with thorough planning, all while keeping CCI’s mission of building awareness for comics and related popular art forms foremost. “We have probably more security than any other convention,” she says. “Our mission comes very high, but the safety of the people comes first.”

Ted Adams, a cofounder of San Diego–based comics publisher IDW as well as Clover Press, is also a local resident and sees the commitment of organizers as key to SDCC’s success. “Comic-Con itself is an incredibly well-run organization that represents the city of San Diego in such a positive way,” Adams says. “It’s extraordinary what they’re able to do, how they can manage those huge lines.”

Retailers rally

While the con’s economic impact on hotels and restaurants is well-known, it has a more complex relationship with local bookstores and comic shops. “Comic-Con is our biggest single event of the year,” says Jenni Marchisotto, co-owner of Mysterious Galaxy, one of the nation’s leading independent sci-fi/fantasy bookstores, which has been involved with SDCC since the store was founded in 1993. In addition to its long-running booth on the show floor, Mysterious Galaxy partners with publishers (including PRH, Disney, and Abrams) to handle book sales and signings at their respective booths.

The store also collaborates with SDCC on programming. “We curate panels to include both the Comic-Con special guests and authors brought by publishers,” says Marchisotto, who took over as co-owner of the store in 2020. SDCC typically boasts a diverse array of genre prose authors—Rodney Barnes, Naomi Novik, and Christopher Paolini are all 2024 special guests, side by side with star names in comics like Daniel Clowes, Barbara Brandon-Croft, Juanjo Guarnido, Rick Parker, Mariko Tamaki, and Julia Wertz. (For more on genre crossover promotions at SDCC, see “Not Just Comics at the Con,” p. 16).

Everyone in San Diego knows about the con.

Last year, the bookstore put together eight panels, and Marchisotto expects a similar showing this year. But while the Mysterious Galaxy storefront is located not far from downtown San Diego, no events are held there during the con—because the staff are tied up at the show. “We definitely get some con-goers that come to visit,” Marchisotto says. “But SDCC takes so much organization that we just don’t have the manpower to do anything else.”

For some area comics shops, the con is a mixed bag. It can be a deterrent to sales, according to Mathias Lewis, owner of Knowhere in San Marcos. While considered local by residents, his store is still 30 minutes away from downtown San Diego, and “no one is going to the convention and visiting my store unless they go severely out of their way,” he says. Knowhere’s usual customers tend to spend all their money at Comic-Con; store sales inevitably dip as cash-depleted fans head home. But there is an upside effect—a kind of enthusiasm boost. Fans come back from the convention center “broke beyond belief, but excited about comics,” Lewis says. “Maybe they meet a creator, and I can tell them, ‘I have all their stuff here.’ Emotionally, it builds excitement.”

A big ticket

For publishers, SDCC has become a daunting budget item: the cost of exhibiting and staffing a booth can approach six figures. Adams, who left IDW in 2018, recalls that when IDW launched in 1999, its first Comic-Con was a table with one artist, one book, and a metal cashbox. Within five years “we were doing these elaborate booths, with big signing areas, big displays, meeting rooms, and outside events,” Adams says. With inflation and the growing costs of travel, more and more comics and book publishers are likely deciding to stay home as the promise of strong show sales are outstripped by the costs.

During his time as IDW publisher, Adams says the goal was to break even, but the increasing expectations eventually became a strain. “We were in the business of publishing comic books,” he observes, “and all of sudden we were essentially an event company as well.”

That said, SDCC is a locus for major news breaks and releases, and plenty will foot the bill to be in the thick of the action. For example, Oni Press will celebrate Scott Pilgrim’s 20th anniversary at this year’s event with an early release of box sets and merch, Drawn & Quarterly will debut Eric Nakamura’s Giant Robot: Thirty Years of Defining Asian-American Pop Culture, Random House Children’s Books will have a special Kids and Family Zone in the PRH booth for the first time, and new publishers including Magma Comix are debuting—plus international outlets, such as U.K.-based Titan Comics, have returned. Also, Titan Comics plans to host special guest and 2024 Eisner Award nominee Zoe Thorogood at a signing at its booth, among other panels and appearances. (For PW’s q&a with Thorogood, see “Strange Fan,” p. 14).

Despite the costs, the serendipity of connecting with thousands of fans is still worth it. “From my perspective, it was a way to give back to the comic book community,” Adams says. “The opportunity for creators to interact with their readers is powerful. It’s hard to describe the rush that you get from San Diego Comic-Con.”

Marchisotto agrees. “It is a lot of work, but it is a lot of fun,” she says. “It’s a different kind of energy and joy from day-to-day book events. We’re absolutely exhausted for about two or three weeks afterwards, but it’s worth it.”

Desmond recalls a personal aha moment that reflects the impact of the event. One year she was working an entrance when the show opened. “I was trying to get people to stop running,” she says, “because that’s a major thing: people want to run right in. But these two young kids came in the door, and they just stopped and looked around. They were so overwhelmed. For me, that’s the ‘why do you do this?’ To make all these people happy.”

Perhaps the biggest (yet smallest) example of SDCC’s significance in its hometown metropolis can be found at nearby Legoland in Carlsbad: a Lego version of downtown San Diego includes the convention center with miniature Lego cosplayers posed in front. When you’ve made it to Lego, there’s no looking back.

“I really appreciate the interaction between the city and the convention now,” says Lewis, who also served as an Eisner Awards judge this year, one of the few local retailers to ever do so. “Whenever people find out I own a comic shop, the first thing they want to talk about is San Diego Comic-Con,” he adds. “Everyone in San Diego knows about the con. It is a beloved event.”

Read more from our San Diego Comic-Con Preview feature:

San Diego Comic-Con 2024: Strange Fan: PW Talks with Zoe Thorogood

San Diego Comic-Con 2024: Not Just Comics at the Con

Fans attending the San Diego Comic-Con 2024 can discover genre titles and authors featured across all formats.

San Diego Comic-Con 2024: A Newbie's Guide to Surviving the Con

SDCC is a marathon of panels, signings, meetings, and sightings, and advance planning is essential to survival. If you’re lucky enough to have snagged a ticket—or your company is sending you for the first time—here are a few tips from vets.