The Past and Future of Comic-Con, in the Context of Indie Bands

This week, I’m grateful not to be working at Comic-Con. Quite frankly, the logistics of the show, in its present state, drove me so crazy, my husband Peter banned me from having anything to do with it.I’m manning the office this week, talking to ComicBase customers (who are almost always fun to talk to) and working on putting out an update (which may or may not be late.)

Last year, writer and business futurist Rob Salkowitz published a book about Comic-Con, really in response to his fellow comic geeks who’ve been gobsmacked about how their annual nerdy get-together has turned into a pop culture phenomenon. I enjoyed the book, and his most recent interview about the convention in the Washington Post. Rob downplays his credibility as a comic book geek. Back when he was in his teens or early 20s (even before his first visit to Comic-Con), we hired him to write freelance comic book reviews for ComicBase. He had such a depth of understanding of Golden and Silver Age titles, we assumed he was some old geezer, but he just had an extensive collection and love for classic comics. In any case, I can vouch for his credibility on understanding the comic book community and the evolution of Comic-Con.

In his book, he talks about the multiple paths Comic-Con could take from its present form, as a pop culture festival, and describes the current state as “peak geek”. I’ve complained about the show’s expanse to Peter, but I will admit it is a better show. Back when it was just our continent’s biggest comic book show, there were annoying looky-loos, who had nothing better to do that make fun of the geeks. I last worked at the booth in 2003, and popped in on my last con appearance in 2008, and now that the show is fashionable, those who manage to make it to the book/comic book side of the center are polite and respectful. There are still just as many comic book collectors at Comic-Con, except they’re now a subset of the show, rather than its core.

My prediction for Comic-Con’s future — albeit that is for its future as a comic book show — is based on my love of live bands. Personally, I like indie bands, not only for their style, but for their accessibility. I love seeing a band when it’s fresh and you can still see it in a small club, often getting tickets for it on a whim. Despite talent and style, many of these bands never make it to the big time, such as getting mainstream radio play, or exposure in a stadium show. The awesome club bands we’ve seen included The White Rose Movement, Adorable, Radio Four, of which two broke up and the last (I believe) has reverted to a regional band in (alas!!) New York City. Some remain quirky and steadfast in their following, like Stan Ridgway. Some do make it into bigger venues, like Cake, Jimmy Eat World, and My Chemical Romance. They’re grateful towards their longtime fans, but the intimacy of the show is often gone. They deserve their success, but for a fan, it can be annoying to suddenly find yourself surrounded by frat boys and their ilk, grousing that the band isn’t playing their “good songs” (i.e. the radio hit) and just giving previews of their upcoming album. Except for a few bands, like the Rolling Stones, there’s a cycle to the most successful of indie bands. Should they survive their coliseum heydays, they come back to a round of playing festivals or back to smaller clubs. For Peter, Blue Öyster Cult had always been the band which got away. Either he couldn’t make it to their concerts, or they had an accident which made it that they couldn’t make it to his local concert hall. A few weeks ago, they played on the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, a favorite destination for us (an amusement park on the beach!), where they put on a great show.

As a result, I don’t believe the current pop culture embracing of “peak geek” will continue forever. To me, Comic-Con is like an indie band that’s hit mainstream popularity. It still has its hardcore fans, but many can’t afford it now as they’re crowded out by those who are there because it’s currently the hot event. Many of the people I used to see at Comic-Con have moved on to just local festivals, which themselves have grown in response to pop culture’s “peak geek.” Of our original 1994 Comic-Con crew, only Peter still goes. Neil, now 15, is a hero to his peers for being there, but last year, one of his teenage friends thought he could meet up with him there as he was on an impromtu jaunt to San Diego. Like many other potential future Comic-Con fans, found it impossible to get in, because the show had sold out in advance. Some may think it adds to the show’s appeal, as it’s become an exclusive event. But will it become the thing you always wanted to do (like seeing a Rolling Stones concert) or will attention drift to more accessible events (like going to LA to see Stan Ridgway.)

I may be making the mistake of thinking of it as the show it used to be. Like a band that changes its sound with the times, it might expand even further as a movie/film/interactive media festival, a comparable alternate Salkowitz pointed to. Perhaps it’ll become a more mainstream Sundance festival or SxSW, especially as the show expands beyond the convention hall boundaries and into the surrounding streets. Comic book people will either be a small part of that, or not, as the show evolves. Like Rob Salkowitz, I know the past,and the future is different.

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