Despite the explosive growth of pop culture conventions around the U.S., Comic-Con International’s San Diego Comic-Con remains the nation’s preeminent event for fans of comic books, sci-fi and fantasy movies and television shows, and video games. Although ReedPOP’s New York Comic Con last year reported attendance numbers approaching those of the San Diego event, San Diego Comic-Con still offers the largest and most eclectic array of activities for fans of all things pop culture.
With two-dozen simultaneous panel sessions, a large exhibition hall, movie screenings, and acres of media advertising — plus the myriad of independently-run offsite events — any attendee can only experience a small slice of array the pop culture festivities that take place over the extended weekend.
Here’s how Comic-Con International: San Diego 2014 looked from my perspective.
The Calm Before the Con
Rather than arriving midday Wednesday as I’ve done in past years, this year I flew into San Diego Tuesday night. Having Wednesday free to stroll around the Gaslamp Quarter provided the opportunity to see the offsite marketing installations and banners already in place or, in some cases, still being set up — like watching the unloading the iron throne for the Game of Thrones Experience. [For more on the marketing madness at Comic-Con, see below]
The Con then begins in earnest with badge pick-up and Preview Night.
Reportedly there was a time when Preview Night was a modest affair that allowed relatively unencumbered access to vendor booths on the show floor. No longer. The exhibition hall on Preview Night is now jammed with attendees.
For most fans, Preview Night is the opportunity to get a first shot at the exclusive collectible items from companies like Hasbro, Mattel, and Funko. The collectible mania is one of the few aspects of Comic-Con that has yet to infect me. Contrarian that I am, I find Preview Night a better opportunity to visit Artist Alley to meet authors and comic book creators. Authors like George R. R. Martin and Robert Kirkman — who would be mobbed later during the Con — were relatively accessible during Preview Night.
At the close of the show floor on Preview Night, it was off to the second annual SDCC Unofficial Blog’s Enchantment Under the SDCC party at Henry’s Pub.
Panels and Offsite Events
Thursday morning began, as in past years, with a visit to the Geek & Sundry Lounge.
With so many competing activities at Comic-Con proper, I typically forgo most offsite events. Yet, I’m intrigued by what Felicia Day and company are doing to develop a branded collection of online content, and I always look forward to hearing updates on their plans. (For more, see my 2013 interview with Day in Knowledge@Wharton: “Felicia Day on Creativity and Building a Business on the Web.”) In addition, the Geek & Sundry offsite event afforded a good Felicia Day photo op outside of the chaos of Con.
Back at the Convention Center, the “Spotlight on Bill Finger, the Co-Creator of Batman” panel marked the first appearance at San Diego Comic-Con of the only living descendants of writer Bill Finger: his granddaughter, Althea Finger, and great-grandson, Ben. The panel session, moderated by Dr. Travis Langley, also included Lee Meriwether, Michael Uslan, Marc Tyler Nobleman, Mark Evanier, Jens Robinson, and Tom Andrae. Denny O’Neil, who was in the audience, eventually joined the other panelists to discuss the work of the prolific, but historically unheralded, co-creator of Batman.
Later on Thursday, ComiXology co-founders David Steinberger and John D. Roberts hosted their traditional “ComiXology: Ask Me Anything” panel. The session opened with CEO Steinberger announcing the company will provide a DRM-free (without digital rights management controls) download option for content from participating publishers. Top Shelf, Image Comics, Dynamite, Monkeybrain, Zenescope and Thrillbent initially signed on to support the feature.
My panel line-up on Friday began with “Image Comics: I Is for…Inception” with David Brothers moderating the panel with Kelly Sue DeConnick, Matt Fraction, Chip Zdarsky, John Layman, Fiona Staples, Steve Seagle, Claire Gibson, and Marian Churchland.
The panel session “For Love or Money: Creating Personal and Professional Art” featured Mark Waid moderating a discussion with Mimi Pond, Ray Billingsley, Michael T. Gilbert, Jim Rugg, and David Lasky.
At the “The Future of Geek” panel Rob Salkowitz, Heidi MacDonald, and Tim Beyers, looked that the future of pop culture fandom, moderated by John Siuntres.
Following up on Thursday’s “Spotlight on Bill Finger, the Co-Creator of Batman” panel, Friday offered the “Who Created Batman?” panel with a number of the same panelists and several new additions: Dr. Travis Langley moderated the conversation with Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson, Marc Tyler Nobleman. Tom Andrae, Arlen Schumer, Jens Robinson, Athena Finger, Denny O’Neil, and Brad Ricca.
Expanding on “The Future of Geek” panel earlier that day, the Friday afternoon panel “Brands Gone Geek: How Media and Marketers Are Harnessing the Might of the Superfan” featured Steve Rotterdam moderating a discussion with Carr D’Angelo, Mel Wilson, Filip Sablik, Ed Catto, Rob Salkowitz, Kris Longo, and Heidi MacDonald, on how brands are tapping into current pop culture trends.
On Sunday morning I caught the end of the panel on “Spiritual Themes in Comics” with Eric Jansen (moderator), John Schafer, M. Scott Verne, and B. Dave Walters.
Following that panel, Bleeding Cool journalists Hannah Means-Shannon and Rich Johnston discussed the “Bleeding Cool Top 100 Power List” (for which I typically provide photography).
The annual “Jack Kirby Tribute Panel” included, as always, Mark Evanier regaling the audience with his personal recollections of the great artist. This year Evanier was joined by Len Wein, Scott Shaw!, Paul S. Levine, and Charles Kochman. In the audience for the talk was the Kirby Museum’s Rand Hoppe and TwoMorrows Publishings’ John Morrow. Also in attendance was Barry Ira Geller, who worked with Kirby to design Science Fiction Land, a proposed theme park and research center, along with the planned movie Lord of Light, based on Roger Zelazny’s sci-fi novel. Neither project came to fruition, although the screenplay and Kirby-drawn designs for the film served as the basis of the CIA’s cover story to rescue six U.S. diplomatic personnel from the Canadian embassy in Iran in December 1979, events characterized in Ben Affleck’s 2012 film Argo.
The annual “Secret Origin of Good Readers” panel moderated by Mimi Cruz this year included a discussion with Frank Beddor, Anina Bennett, Dave Elliot, Karen Green, and Marjorie Liu.
Finally, I caught the beginning of the “End Bullying! Responding to Cruelty in Our Culture” panel hosted by Carrie Goldman and Chase Masterson before having to head out for the Comic-Con Talk Back (see below).
Evening Events from A to Z: Awards and Zombies
Each year, Friday evening brings the Eisner Awards Ceremony, which provides an opportunity to connect with old friends and to celebrate the work of comic book artists, writers, and editors.
This year, Image Comics’ Saga garnered awards for Brian K. Vaughan for Best Writer, Fiona Staples for Best Painter/Multimedia Artist, and for both Vaughan and Staples for Best Continuing Series.
Another Image Comic’s title, Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky, received the award for Best New Series. Writer Fraction along with artist David Aja also received Eisner Awards for Best Single Issue (or One-Shot) for Marvel’s Hawkeye #11: “Pizza Is My Business.” Aja was also awarded Best Cover Artist for Marvel’s Hawkeye.
The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story, by Vivek J. Tiwary, Andrew C. Robinson, and Kyle Baker from M Press/Dark Horse, received the Eisner Award for Best Reality-Based Work.
A complete list of the 2014 Eisner Award winners can be found on the Comic Con International website.
Heading back to the hotel following the Eisner Awards after-party, the line with fans camped out to enter the Convention Center Saturday morning stretched far down the walk, signaling the crush that would hit the convention on Saturday.
Each year, Saturday evening is occupied by the annual Zombie Walk. This year’s event was unfortunately marred by an incident during which a pedestrian was struck by a car. I was several blocks away from the accident and was unaware of it until I heard the news later that evening. From my perspective, the walk seemed to go as smoothly as in past years. Click the image for a gallery of photos from the event.
Marketing Mania: Virtual and Real
Beyond the panels and the cosplay, San Diego Comic-Con is where major media companies pull out all the stops to attract the attention the hardcore fans in hopes of building buzz for upcoming movies, television shows, video games, and comic books.
This year the marketing blitz that surrounds Comic-Con was evident before I picked up my luggage from the airport’s baggage carousel. TNT Network’s new drama Legends blanketed the airport with ads on the building columns, stairway railings, and the baggage carousel (providing anxious travelers something to gaze at as they desperately waited for their bags to appear.) The TNT advertising onslaught continued in town, with Legends banners covering one side of Marriott Marquis and a painted mural on the exterior walls of another downtown building. If there were such an award, Legends would take the prize for “most ubiquitous advertising campaign” at this year’s Comic-Con.
FXX dominated the space between the Convention Center the adjacent Hilton Hotel with “Simpsons World,” promoting the upcoming “Every Simpsons Ever” marathon on the network. The Homer Dome let vistors enter a large constructed head of Homor Simpson to view a giant video screen that displayed what’s on Homer’s mind. Other activities on the lawn included Marge’s Sweet Station, which offered free blue cotton candy, and the Kwik-E-Race game that let fans compete for prizes.
The most noteworthy marketing trend this year was the use of the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset to place participants inside fully immersive 3-D environments. While the marketing highlights of last year’s Comic-Con were the large-scale walk-through environments environments constructed for promotions like the Godzilla Encounter and the Ender’s Game Experience (see Knowledge@Wharton, “Comic-Con Marketing: Experience the ‘Experiences’.”), the Oculus Rift allowed several immersive experiences to go entirely virtual this year.
On the show floor, Fox Home Entertainment’s X-Men Cerebro Experience let participants sit in the chair of Professor Charles Xavier and don the Oculus Rift VR headset to enter the Cerebro to search for shape-shifting mutant Mystique. Over in the Legandary Pictures booth, the Oculus Rift allowed fans to pilot the giant Jaeger mobile weapons from the film Pacific Rim.
Outside the convention center, Fox Television used the Oculus Rift to place fans in the eerie hamlet of Sleepy Hollow. Once in the three-dimensional world, Ichabod Crane warns of the impending arrival of the headless horseman. After a few spooky bits of misdirection, the horseman in question arrives and lops off your head. It’s unnerving to experience your head plopping to the ground and then being lifted, sans body, by the horseman. After the 3D experience, each participant received a digital photo of his or her decapitated head lying on the ground.
In a nearby Omni Hotel, HBO’s “Survive the Realm” Game of Thrones Oculus rift allowed people to virutally ascend to the top of the program’s 700-foot tall ice wall.
Not all the major marketing efforts were virtual, however. Several were quite real, offering fans thrill-ride type experiences. To advertise the upcoming Fox television show Gotham, participants could fly down a zip line in front of a large representation of Gotham City. To promote the Assassin’s Creed Unity video game, Ubisoft featured an obstacle course requiring participants to run, swing, duck and jump to avoid various impediments. Brave participants could also take a “Leap of Faith” by jumping from a 25-foot tower into an inflatable bag.
Whether real or virtual, Comic-Con is proving ground for the latest in entertainment marketing. For more on the marketing efforts at this year’s Comic-Con, see my article in Knowledge@Wharton, “Marketing at Comic-Con: Virtual Reality Gets Real.”
Talking Back and Wrapping Up
As in years past, my final official Comic-Con event is the Con’s Talk Back session, in which Comic Con International president John Rogers listens to a barrage of complaints, observations, suggestions about this year’s Comic-Con.
While it’s logical that the Talk Back session occurs at the end of the four days, listening to the parade of gripes is a dour way to end the Con. Despite the gloom, I find the event revealing, not only of fans’ concerns, but of how Comic-Con International views its mission.
This year, among the parade of other complaints, one commentator requested, “Try to get the badges to fit into the badge holders next year.”
Comic Con International’s Rogers responded:
Ah, you’ve decided that something that is a feature is a bug. You’ll notice, if you look at your badge, there’s a hologram on it. That hologram is strategically placed over your barcode. Why? There are unscrupulous exhibitors that will take your barcode and your personal information without your permission. Putting the hologram over it prevents that from happening…. Now [suppose you say], Hey, I actually do want to give an exhibitor my barcode….” How do you get the badge out? If it’s flush with the plastic, I have to dig my fingers in and try to lever the darn thing out, and I tear it. So we said, “Hey, if we make it a little taller, you’ve got something to grip and lift.” So — you see it as a bug, we saw it as a feature.
It was a minor point, but Rogers’ reply was illustrative of much that occurs at Comic-Con. We often assume that things that go wrong or seem less than ideal are the result of poor planning or lack of insight. Yet, in many cases, they are conscious choices. Given the constraints of Comic-Con — the enormous scale, the number of people who want to attend, the scarcity of Conventional Center space and hotel rooms, and so on — the tradeoffs may be difficult, but they are seldom arbitrary.
To conclude this year’s Comic-Con on a more upbeat note, after the Talk Back, I dropped by the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. fan party. Thus San Diego Comic-Con 2014 ended as it began after Preview Night, at Henry’s Pub and Restaurant.
From Preview Night through closing, San Diego Comic-Con celebrates the men and women who create comic books, movies, television programs, and video games. Click the image to view a photo gallery of pop culture authors, illustrators, and industry executives.