The San Diego Comic-Con International is full up. With every inch of the San Diego Convention Center booked for the show years ago, and every ticket gone and hotels sold out months in advance this year, the annual comics-themed pop culture extravaganza has gotten as big as it can physically get. Yet in the imagination of the world's enlightened nerds, it continues to grow.

As with most other comics convention this year, San Diego's big show reveals no signs of slowing down or scaling back despite the overall recession. The fantasy economy is still strong, with movie studios planning lavish displays and swag to bribe the fan-boy crowd to spread good word-of-mouth on their projects.

This year's show, to be held July 22—26, promises to be as spectacular as ever, with many of the world's best cartoonists featured along with Hollywood's top dogs, including famed (and Oscar-winning) directors Peter Jackson and Hayao Miyazaki (Titanic's James Cameron is rumored) and thousands of costumed fans. It's a pop culture carnival second to none, but fitting it all under one roof is getting more and more difficult.

With attendance maxed out at 125,000 and the facility full, the show is looking for different ways to grow, according to Comic-Con marketing director David Glanzer, with some programming, including the Eisner Comics Industry Awards, moved to the recently opened Hilton San Diego Bayfront. It's part of an attempt to get attendees to leave the convention center for more events.

But a giant question mark hangs over future growth for the con—already the biggest American entertainment marketing festival of the year—at least in its current location. The San Diego Convention Center has put forward an expansion plan—largely in an effort to keep the Comic-Con in San Diego. But its hefty price tag—$53 million a year for 30 years—needs to be approved by a task force, and funding the expansion via local taxes and surcharges doesn't seem too palatable in the current economy.

However, according to Glanzer, Comic-Con wouldn't be the only beneficiary of the expanded facility. “The expansion will benefit the city even more than Comic-Con. It would give them the ability to have a full year of booking multiple shows.” With its perfect weather, charming dining scene and seaside ambience, San Diego remains a growing convention destination even in a down economy. “Other popular destinations have had a drop-off, but San Diego has had to turn people away,” says Glanzer. But with the Comic-Con signed on in San Diego through 2012, and the 400,000-sq.-ft expansion still up in the air, any future moves are merely speculative.

Artist rendering of Convention Center expansion

In the meantime, just getting into this year's show is still an undertaking. While attendees have learned that planning ahead is the only way—last-minute begging and pleading for tickets is way down, Glanzer reports—convention organizers are still trying to make some last-minute San Diego dreaming come true. A robust if sketchy secondary market for passes has already sprung up on eBay, with four-day passes going for more than $600. To combat scalping and provide a legit alternative, the con itself is making returned passes available on eBay at face value. This is the only safe way to get a ticket at this point, Glanzer stresses, as unscrupulous sellers sometimes resell the same barcode, which can be used only once, and memberships can't be transferred, no matter what Craigslist says.

And what will the lucky 125,000 who do get in see? Movies, TV shows, and lots and lots of comics and artists. One highlight promises to be the celebration of the shows 40th anniversary. The con is bringing back many of its original founders and attendees, and will present several hours of programming looking back at the show's fabled history. The con is also publishing Comic-Con: 40 Years of Artists, Writers, Fans, and Friends, a lavishly illustrated scrapbook. Compiled by Jackie Estrada and Gary Sassaman, it will be published by Chronicle in September, but is available early at the show.

Changes this year include moving the Eisner Awards ceremony. The new venue at the Hilton Bayfront is much swankier than the award's previous home in Ballroom 20 of the Convention Center, and the more convenient locale may encourage more people to hang around for the after party.

Another addition is the ICv2 Comics and Media Conference, to be held during the day before Preview Night on Wednesday, July 22. Organized by Milton Griepp, and co-sponsored by PW Comics Week and The Beat blog, the event will look at the growing and lucrative connections between comics and other media.

Aside from that, everyone is still looking for room to grow. Publishers—both from the comics world and traditional book publishing—are still jostling for space. For instance, over at Random House, more and more divisions want to attend, but there's no way to get a bigger booth. This year, some space was freed up by putting the Lucasfilms licensees in the Lucasfilms Pavilion, a vast gathering of all things Star Wars, according to Del Rey marketing manager Ali Kokmen. Offerings from Del Rey, Pantheon, Random House Children's and other divisions will stay with the main booth.

The upside to the show's marketing frenzy is that book publishers are finding more and more reason to attend. This year's exhibitors include Abrams, First Second, HarperCollins, Hyperion and Chronicle, and it's still a great way to attract eyeballs and get a buzz going. And having everyone in one place makes meetings much easier. “We can meet with all our licensees,” says Kokmen. “It's a great place to make contact,” says Filip Sablik, publisher of indie comics house Top Cow, “but you have to follow-up.”

While Marvel and DC and other comics publishers will still be using the show to make a bevy of announcements, navigating the increasingly star-studded waters of the hype machine does take some adaptation, according to Archaia director of development Stephen Christy. Recently reorganized as a company with both creator-owned and licensed products, Archaia is now more in position to take advantage of Hollywood connections and plans to bring celebs to all three of its panels.

Top Cow's Sablik expresses somewhat similar sentiments. “I think we do factor in more of a media tie-in—our movie and video-game developments—when we do a panel at San Diego and probably save some of the comic-centric announcements for other shows.”

But even the celebrities are being scrutinized for their comics credentials. Both Sablik and Christy point to Milo Ventimiglia (Heroes), whose comics series Berzerker just came out from Top Cow, and Tyrese Gibson (Transformers), who has Mayhem coming out from Image, as celebrities who do more to promote their projects and use their fan base to bring in more attention and hopefully buyers. It's not enough to just slap a celebrity name on a comic anymore.

“When [director] Kevin Smith started writing comics for the first time, it was, 'Oooooo, someone knows who we are!' ” says Sablik. “Now not only do people know who we are, but there is a cachet to having that legitimate comics connection. Publishers are becoming more savvy about sniffing out when celebrity comics fans don't have a real interest in the medium.”

And despite the glitz, it's still about a fan making a personal connection with a creator—something that comics offer in a big way. “At our booth, there's always a group of creators saying, 'Hey, look at my book. I made this,'” says Christy. “It's so invaluable to have that interaction. It would still be worth all the money to create even 100 long-term fans for [Archaia's] Mouse Guard or The Killer.”

While just talking about this year's show is exhausting, the inevitable question becomes, will it always be this big? “I don't know that it will,” Glanzer says. “I don't think that we anticipate it always being 125,000 people. If we have an expansion or more meeting space and people are okay with going to satellite locations, maybe we can welcome more people, so long as we put on the kind of show we ourselves want to attend. If we can increase the awareness of comics and art, we're achieving our mission.”