We were somewhere around San Diego at the edge of the convention center when the heat began to take hold. I remember saying something like, “I can’t see in this mask, maybe I should take off this costume,” and suddenly there was a terrible smell all around us and the streets were full of bloated caricatures of superheroes and misplaced latch-key children, foaming at the mouth, waiting for the Adderall to kick in. We were all shuffling in one direction towards our air-conditioned mecca, except for that one fool frantically pushing against this sinewy riptide because he forgot to grab some variety of mass-produced pulp, or figure to get signed by Seth McFarlane or the cast of the Big Bang Theory. I wanted to tell him the truth, but I decided to keep my mouth shut. He would find out soon enough. His golden idols would be locked up inside convention halls that had filled up before dawn’s break. Low-paid security guards would apathetically tell him that he would have to “keep it moving.” They didn’t understand. This was Comic-Con. He paid a large sum of money and traveled hundreds of miles along this savage journey to the heart of the Nerd Dream. What possibly could have gone wrong?
I have been attending comic book and anime conventions in the Southern California area since I was a young teenager in the early 2000s. I now humbly refer to these years as the “good ole’ days.” These were the days when you could walk into Comic-Con and buy your passes at the door instead of waiting nervously at your computer only to find out that all the hundreds of thousands of passes had been sold out in 90 minutes. Now, the vast majority of conventions out there are not like this, but I am using Comic-Con as a case study because movies, television and the blogosphere have made it out to be the pinnacle, a life-altering experience every nerd must make a pilgrimage to, at least one time. Where exclusive swag (promotional items) flows like water and you will get autographs from all the stars wandering through the exhibit halls. The problem is that there are 200,000 people in the same confined space that have the same idea.
The reality is that you will only see a major celebrity or creative team on a stage during a panel or publicity stunt in the exhibit hall. If you want to meet them in person, you will likely have to scramble in hopes of getting into an hour-long line before they close it off. If you see a revered celebrity from years past, he or she will likely want to charge you to even take a picture with them. The popular Comic-Con exclusive merchandise will likely be sold out as well…or you will have to wait in a line to get a raffle ticket that might select you to wait in another line to get into the booth containing the exclusive item (considering it hasn’t already sold out. Which it has.)
If it sounds like I’m overly cynical about what the convention has morphed into because of the points above, I’m not. For the most part, it has been like this for the past decade or more. The difference between now and the “good ole’ days” is that “nerd culture” has been absorbed by mainstream pop culture. This has overpopulated the convention with attendees who are there because the media has told them they need to be there to be “true” nerds. The majority of swag you will be getting has changed from posters and occasional t-shirts into postcard-sized adverts, not unlike what you would find under your windshield wiper. In addition to this, the people surrounding you will be vainly trying to act quirky, constantly using phrases like “epic fail” and “win” just like the internet and TV told them to. For God’s sake man, ShowTime’s advertisements plastered all over the convention (and even our badge lanyards) were horrid memes.
Is this not what true nerds have always wanted? For years we have been begging for major production companies to make high quality storytelling within the comic medium, and incorporate elements of cyber culture. Now that we have it, all we can do is complain about the amount of people influenced by the pop culture wave flooding, what we once perceived, as a “closed” world. Am I just being overly cynical? Despite everything, I have never been to Comic-Con and left without a smile. Well, if pop culture’s assimilation of nerd media and the subsequent influx of hipster faux-nerds were the only things going on, I could live with it. The real problem comes from the growth of commercialization pushing out the smaller publishers, artists and writers who have been dedicated to this trade for much, much longer and are largely not influenced by money. I experienced an example of this when I went to meet some of my idols, the Hernandez brothers.
In the pre-Comic-Con media and commemorative booklets, there was a high amount of coverage on the 30th anniversary of the Hernandez brother’s main comic work, Love and Rockets. Upon arriving at the convention and seeing that many of the popular panels had lines since 3-4 a.m., I decided to rush over to the Fantigraphics Booth to make sure my first edition copies of Love and Rockets Issues 1 and 2 got signed. Upon arriving, there was no line, just the usual staff. After enquiring if the signing had been moved or was at a different time, I was assured it would be starting in an hour. In fact, a line did not start forming for the signing until about five minutes beforehand. Now, these authors are not of DC or Marvel-level popularity, but they are highly respected in their field. How could there be no line for the 30th anniversary of their comic yet a huge and vicious line to get the Comic-Con exclusive My Little Pony figurine? I could not believe it. I’m not saying that their comic would be amazingly popular if Comic-Con was not so commercialized, but the multimedia circus definitely detracts a lot of comic purists, thus diluting a more appreciative fan base that should be present. Instead, many of these true fans are relocating to smaller, more specialized conventions like Alternative Press Expo (APE) and Small Press Expo (SPX) where the dedicated artists are much more revered.
The commercialization is causing this new wave of faux nerds to focus on the fruit of multi-million dollar movie and TV productions while choking out the lesser known artists and writers at their comic-world roots. It is only making rich movie and TV studios richer, while causing the independent and small publishers to go out of business, especially in these economic times. One could even go as far to argue that the recent mass popularity of this medium has increased the awareness and popularity of pirating. If someone pirates the last season of the Walking Dead, it will hurt AMC a little, but when they want to read what happened in the comic and download the entire series, it hurts the publisher (Image) a lot more. Now, if you are saying this is all subjective data, I would like for you to explain to me why I have seen two of my local comic book stores close down this year, let alone the number I have seen close over the last decade.
I don’t see Comic-Con changing in the foreseeable future. The organization that puts it on does a great job of making sure that all professionals can get passes and has an Artist Alley for more independent artists, but it is the attendees that determine what will be successful. Therefore, if you find yourself going to a convention in coming years, take some time to talk to the booths that people seem to be passing by. Go to a panel that you may know nothing about, but still looks interesting. And if you don’t see yourself going to the convention in the foreseeable future, but still find yourself enjoying the new Batman movies, head down to your local comic book store and pick up a graphic novel. If you want to start getting into the serials, DC has even restarted all the series of their most famous heroes (called the New 52) so that people just getting into this world have a place to start without having to deal with endless back stories.
I go to Comic-Con every year as a savage journey into the heart of the geek kingdom and come to find it a little more warped every year. When Hunter S. Thompson drove into Las Vegas in search of the American Dream, he said he couldn’t find it. As readers, we saw the sad truth that he did find it, but the American Dream had become too warped and corrupted for him to recognize that he was living it. I have hope for the future of nerd culture, but it is up to us as consumers to tell the production companies that we will not be slaves to what they tell us we should like. Make sure that if you identify yourself as nerd or geek you at least make an effort to immerse yourself in the true culture, not just post about it on Facebook. Buy a D&D Player’s handbook and get your friends together on the weekend. Start hanging out at your local comic book shop, spend some money and meet some new people. I have hope that one day I won’t be driving north on the 15 on a blistering Sunday at the end of July, wondering why I wasted my time in search of the Nerd Dream.