A brief history of San Diego Comic-Con

“Nerds of the world, unite!” Those words rang from the lips of the creators at San Diego Comic-Con more than half a century ago as they summoned their kindred spirits from across the country. The call has gone out to all science fiction and fantasy enthusiasts — every comic book, dime novel, and movie-obsessed fan and collector — to begin a pilgrimage. “Our time has come,” they shouted. “And the world will tremble before what we build!”

Well, okay, maybe not exactly. But similar impulses, at least, guided the creation of the world’s largest gathering of geeks, which is back in full force in 2022 after two years of the COVID shutdown, and bigger than ever (it’s completely sold out if you hoped to reach the 130,000 or so participants). And the rallying call did work. Where once to be might have depended on decidedly analog means such as shortwave radio, fan magazines, postal mail and meeting at… the name escapes me… bookstores, now fans can virtually teleport into the universe’s largest hive mind.

And if you think this hive mind hasn’t all but conquered pop culture from its humble individual origins in garages, basements and game rooms, well, resistance is futile because big guests at this year’s show include corporate emissaries from Lord of the Rings, DC, Star Trek, Marvel, Dungeons and Dragons, and, well, basically every geek brand you can think of, plus a whole lot that you probably can’t.

It hasn’t even been four decades since William Shatner told fans at the Star Trek convention of “earn a life” on Saturday Night Live, and now they’re at the center of an ever-expanding IP universe that speaks directly to them. Considering the 460,000 square feet of the SDCC convention space, as well as the surrounding venues the convention has colonized — not to mention its global digital reach — it seems assured that such gatherings have escaped the basements for good. The world truly shook, as we show in this short story.

Humble beginnings

Customers ride an escalator at Comic-Con in San Diego.
KJennifer Cappuccio Maher/Inland Valley Daily Bulletin via Getty Images

Comic-Con’s mission statement, prominently displayed on the homepage, reads:

“The SAN DIEGO COMIC CONVENTION (Comic-Con International) is a California nonprofit public benefit corporation organized for charitable purposes and dedicated to raising awareness and appreciation among the general public for comic books and comic book forms. related folk art, including participation in and support for public presentations, conventions, exhibitions, museums and other public outreach activities that celebrate the historic and ongoing contribution of comics to art and culture.

The idea that someone felt the need to create “mainstream awareness and appreciation for comic books and related popular art forms” seems like a hoot now. But that’s only because it’s hard to remember (or even understand, for those under 40) how quickly the world of entertainment became hypermediated in the 1980s with the advent of cable, home video and personal computers, and more in the 1990s via the Internet. The idea that we could all get worked up together, either at home around our devices and televisions or virtually in forums, was just an idea in 1970 (except, of course, in science fiction tales ), but it was the dream of the founders of SDCC. , San Diegan Shel Dorf friends Richard Alf, Ken Krueger, Ron Graf and Mike Towry, who wanted nothing more to bring like-minded people together.

Dorf had actually started a comic book convention in Detroit in the mid-1960s before establishing Golden State Comic-Con in 1970, which became known permanently as San Diego Comic-Con in 1973. Dorf’s Love and friends for the medium, and their insistence that comics were an art form worth celebrating and preserving was shared by millions of people who were grateful to have a new space for the ‘Express.

Broadcast the mission

A man takes a photo inside San Diego-Comic-Con.
Photo by KJennifer Cappuccio Maher/Inland Valley Daily Bulletin via Getty Images

The SDCC’s stated mission now seems like an obviously noble pursuit in a time when comic book adaptations like Joker and Black Panther won Best Picture nominations, and when pop culture in general became more accepted by high culture (once strictly the fancy pants realm of literature, theater, opera, classical music, painting, sculpture, etc.). But that was far from the case historically. In 1970, the year Comic-Con launched its first iteration, comic books, pulp novels, sci-fi magazines like amazing stories, and sci-fi and monster B movies were generally considered lowbrow and disposable. Their bad reputation was part of why science fiction and fantasy fans remained somewhat underground. But these fans existed in droves, and they began to passionately organize and stand up for what they loved, as the famous letter writing campaign who brought the original star trek back for a third season in 1969.

That’s why it didn’t take long for Comic-Con attendance to grow exponentially once news of its existence began to travel, rising from 300 attendees in August 1970 to 800 the following year. and 2,500 in 1974. Take a quick look at some of the early attractions and it’s no wonder fan interest spread so quickly. Forrest Ackerman – science fiction fan, collector, curator and literary agent (of Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov and L. Ron Hubbard, among others) – kicked off the very first event. Over the next few years, Bradbury himself would appear, along with legendary Marvel Comics artist and scribe Jack Kirby, author Leigh Brackett (who later co-wrote The Empire Strikes Back), and star trek actors like Majel Barrett and Walter Koenig.

By the late ’70s, SDCC regularly hosted 5,000 fans at each convention, usually held at The Cortez Hoteland guests now included big names like Stan Lee, Chuck Norris, legendary science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein (Starship Troopers), and “Peanuts” creator Charles M. Schulz. After only a few years, the convention was well established and on its way to global pop culture dominance.

stan lee sdcc 2010
Stan Lee at Comic Con in San Diego in 2010. Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Massive growth in a global market

Attendance was steady throughout the 1980s at 5,000 to 6,000 people per year, then exploded in the 1990s, from 13,000 in 1990 to 42,000 in 1999. The nascent Internet and its new capabilities for Mind-boggling organization and communication played a part, but so did the corporatization of popular culture – the horizontal integration of franchise content under the umbrellas of big corporations. sony purchased Columbia Pictures in 1989. Time Warner formed the following year. Viacom bought Paramount in 1994, and so on.

As fans and conventions grew more sophisticated about how they organized themselves, these new media giants became savvier about how they packaged content and spoke to those fans. Along with the internet, conventions – especially the mecca of the SDCC – have become essential hubs for a new entertainment landscape in which traditionally “nerd” and comic book properties like Star Wars, Star Trek, Batman and Spider-Man were the crown jewels.

All of this makes the idea that the SDCC is a “California Nonprofit Public Benefit Corporation organized for charitable purposes” seem a bit dishonest, given all the corporate empires and billion dollar franchises doing business on the convention floor, while spreading their wares. globally. Nerd culture has achieved what once seemed unimaginable: to become cool, set trends, and bend intellectual property providers – including gigantic film, video game and publishing companies – to their collective will. No franchise or studio with a prayer of staying relevant would dare thumb its nose at a collective with so much influence and buying power.

american mobster
Forest Whitaker at San Diego Comic-Con 2017. Gage Skidmore/Flickr

The fans are always at the heart

But while the company is on profit, it’s hardly cynical. SDCC has achieved huge revenue and exposure to thousands of filmmakers, authors, artists, actors and ancillary businesses without massive brand recognition, some of whom owe their livelihoods to it. And if the idea that it’s all for “charity” elicits any laughs, there’s at least some deeper public service than SDCC, other conventions, and the increased visibility of nerd culture. have provided. They opened the door to a much more diverse fanbase to express their love for comic books and other geeky content.

If Shatner’s mid-’80s rant SNL The skit was aimed at overgrown straight, white guys, fans decades later come in all creeds, genders, sexual orientations, and colors (sometimes even blue or green). While online nerd gatekeepers often try to impose a lack of diversity behind closed doors, the convention halls are a whole different story. There is no doubt that 130,000 people of all persuasions, many wearing costumes, crowding and interacting in a grand bazaar of acceptance, is indeed a profound vision of the future.

San Diego Comic-con fans.
Creative Commons

All of this raises a question, however. Given its global reach, the companies and brands that proliferate under its roof, as well as the sheer number of booths, tables, events, contests, exhibitions, award ceremonies, debuts, of panels, presentations and everything that happens there for four days. every summer, is Comic-Con always dedicated to comic books?

I guess the answer to that question would be… isn’t everything these days? It’s kind of hard to believe that a medium that seemed so specialized four decades ago has become the most popular form of expression on Earth. Yes, it’s mostly through movies and TV now, but the same stories, characters, and worlds that have graced the inked pages for the better part of a century are those that remain most treasured. One wonders, though, if Dorf and his fellow pioneers — most of whom rode up to that big comic book shop in the sky — wouldn’t think that some of what they’ve been trying to preserve isn’t so special anymore. But try telling that to millions of rabid fans.

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