Comic-Con: has corporate marketing killed good, honest fandom?

Comic Con 2013 - Lady Dare and Vegas PG as Red Son Power Girl 4

If you’ve paid any attention to San Diego International Comic-Con over the past decade or so – even if, like me, you’ve mostly watched it from your couch – you know that the world’s largest fan convention has undergone significant changes in recent years.

The historically comics-focused gathering was founded in 1970 as the Golden State Comic Book Convention. Forty-five years later, comics are still a vibrant part of the four-day event, but SDCC has morphed into a wholly unrecognizable beast, a marketing juggernaut for Hollywood’s nerdier franchises. Superstars of the entertainment industry unveil trailers and announce big news to audiences thousands-deep, many of whom have camped overnight for a seat in the hall. Some 130,000 people have flooded the convention center in past years, and from the comfort of home, this all might sound like a nightmare.

San Diego is a lovely city, sunny and full of friendly people who don’t seem to mind the influx of fans, most of them a little tired and many of them a little drunk. When you head down to the convention center, which stretches along on the harbor, you walk beside people in sensible shoes and cosplayers alike; the costumes range from gentle nods to pop culture to pitch-perfect recreations of favorite characters.

Comic-Con 2015 - Mad Max

A few blocks closer and SDCC’s corporate stamps become visible. Pedicab drivers with Iron Throne-shaped carriages trundle past; the distant sound of bagpipes grows louder until you see a bunch of buff, kilted men dancing for Outlander. People shove glossy postcards into your hands. Big promotional “experiences” for new shows you haven’t heard of line the train tracks. Past the Jesus fans with signs about eternal damnation, past the Bernie Sanders fans with signs about progressive policy changes, you reach an astounding crush of people – the sprawling convention center itself.

If the tectonic plates of SDCC have been shifting over the years, the focus moving from the independent artists to the corporate behemoths, things seem to have settled into a relatively stable juxtaposition inside the exhibition hall. At Artist’s Alley, comic book artists talk with and sell work directly to their fans; at booths for major television networks, those same fans queue up simply to enter the area where they can buy things. Celebrities sign autographs at prescribed times, but they also drop into booths at random and secretly walk the floor. You sidestep crowds taking pictures of cosplayers – they’re the fans that make their own fans as they go. The first few days you can walk around with a little breathing room; by the weekend, that’s a distant memory.

SDCC is beautifully organized chaos. There are lines everywhere, and people seem to have an extraordinary amount of patience. You turn the corner and there’s inevitably a person holding an “end of line” sign and a steady stream of people dutifully queuing up behind it. In the lines for the biggest halls, the type you spend hours waiting in without moving to see the most famous panelists, people are settled and relatively jovial, playing games and swapping stories. On Friday afternoon in an out-of-the-way section by the water, I puzzle at the stretch of people sitting along the sidewalk, until a Con official passes by with an announcement and I realize that I’ve stumbled upon a hidden stretch of the Hall H line. Hall H is the storied one, the place you camp out to visit – its line is where celebrities sweep through in the middle of the night to take selfies and hand out pizza and thank the kind of fan who would wait day and night for them.

But the funny thing about Hall H and panels full of A-list celebrities is that when you’re at home on the couch, that’s all that comes through – the convention’s for the big announcements, and being a hardcore fan is camping out overnight for your favorite comic book movie franchise. In the other halls, a fuller breadth of fandom is on display. There are hundreds of panels, from the slightly smaller to the tiny, that explore a particular show or a genre, a profession or a facet of identity. I go to a books-to-comics-to-film adaptations panel and listen to Nicole Perlman, the screenwriter of Guardians of the Galaxy, talk about her Ms Marvel screenplay and the pressures of writing one of the few female-led superhero films.

I go to a Bollywood panel and hear the frustrations of Pooja Batra, a former Miss India, with the depictions of India that get exported to America. I go to a panel about influence, and Lev Grossman talks about how disappointed he was when he realized there was no passageway to Narnia as a child, and how he carried those desires and narrative themes to The Magicians trilogy. On the final afternoon, Juliet Landau, who played Drusilla on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, shows the trailer of her new vampire documentary, and then hundreds of us launch into a rowdy sing-along of the Buffy musical episode.

When there was a disconnect at SDCC, it was in that clash of top-down corporate buzz and bottom-up organic fandom. So many people were there celebrate something they loved, but many of the film and television studios were working hard to push stuff they were sure we’d love in the future. For many fans, that canwork – but for many others, it doesn’t.

MystiqueOut back, I watched live-action role-players swordfight and work a spinning wheel in period dress; out in the streets (and clubs) of San Diego, I felt as if Hollywood had simply picked up and moved a few hours south – and in a way, it had. At SherlockeDCC, a party for Sherlock fans, Steven Moffat and Sue Vertue were asked a question by a woman cosplaying as a rabbit mentioned in an episode – and cleverly done up as a Playboy bunny. Several hours later, I confusingly found myself surrounded by actual Playboy bunnies, and, because it was Comic-Con, artfully strewn test tubes and beakers.

But earlier that afternoon at the Star Wars panel, the hottest ticket of the weekend, JJ Abrams and company led the 7,000-person audience out of the hall and over to a surprise concert, where the San Diego Symphony played music from the films. It was the sort of event that reaffirms the best intentions of a fan convention: people with a long-held and deep love of a thing connect with creators who value that love and offer up something truly special in return. The rest of us scattered around the city all paused to watch the Star Wars’ crew’s fireworks go up over the harbor: a reminder that we were all there to celebrate something, together.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Elizabeth Minkel, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 14th July 2015 19.25 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010