In Defense of Comic-Con

Yes, all the bad things you say about Comic-Con are true. But that doesn't make it any less wonderful, weird and special. 

It’s easy to pick on Comic-Con. God knows I do it; I have a real love/hate relationship with the world’s biggest pop culture convention. Every time I find myself swept away by the joy of like-minded weirdos coming together I also see a crowd of people all but fighting over a free branded fanny pack; every time I see a young person meet a creator whose work has made their life a little less lonely I also see gross dudes ogling or pawing at scantily-clad cosplayers. I get emotional whiplash at Comic-Con, yo-yoing from remembering why I love fandom to being forcefully reminded why I hate certain fans.

But I come to praise Comic-Con, not bury it. Yes, the convention is, at the best of times, a chaotic clusterfuck that is managed with a ramshackle attitude that never ceases to amaze me, but it’s also an extraordinary event that shouldn’t be happening at all, a gathering of many nerd tribes to mingle in one overcrowded, smelly building for four days. Nothing in this debased world is perfect, but Comic-Con at its best has moments that aspire towards perfection, moments about real human connection, sheer enthusiasm and unbridled imagination.

One of the biggest complaints about Comic-Con is that it isn’t even about comics anymore, that it’s become a Hollywood sell-out event. There’s some validity to this line of whining - the Hollywood presence is overwhelming, and a good section of the show floor is dominated by crazy expensive studio and TV network display areas. But the show floor is enormous, and this stuff only takes up a piece of it - not even half. If you were to venture away from there (a good idea in general, as the crowds thin out the further you get from the big studio booths) you’ll find an absolute wonderland. It’s a phantasmagoria of small press stalls, weird toys, hard working artists doing commissions, vintage collectibles and tons and tons of old comics.

More than that, the programming at Comic-Con is absolutely diverse. All you hear about in the media are the movie panels that play out to jam-packed Hall H crowds, but the convention center is enormous and features dozens of other rooms. In those rooms you can see panels about the mainstream Big Two comic companies, panels featuring the next tier companies like Boom! and IDW, small fandom meet-ups, experts guiding you through how-to tutorials. Check out the programming on Thursday at this year’s Con - before noon you have a tribute to Bill Finger, a panel telling you how to copyright your ideas, a panel showing the basics of starting a web comic, a look at a comedic take on the Bible, a panel about getting graphic novels into your local library and a meet-up for fans hoping to revive Babylon 5.

That’s the first four hours of the first day of the four day convention featuring eight or so hours of programming a day, and I’ve only listed a handful of the panels. It isn’t Comic-Con’s fault that you’re so fixated on Hall H.

But Hall H (and increasingly Ballroom 20, where the TV panels are held - for now… TV is gaining on movies when it comes to popularity at Comic-Con) is what gets all the attention, and a lot of the vitriol. Look, I get it. Waiting in line overnight to see a marketing presentation by a major corporation is absolutely insane. I would never do it. Ever. And it’s a pretty recent thing, by Comic-Con standards, starting a few years ago when Twilight came to the con. I’ve watched the line-waiting grow and become a standard part of the experience for a certain group of people, and I’ve come to a weird conclusion:

They love it.

These people really dig waiting in this line (many of them, anyway). There’s a sense of community that builds in the line. I’ve heard about friendships and romances that begin in the line. Most years I visit the line late at night and just walk around listening to everybody talk and get excited and pass the time, a weird urban version of the classic camp-out. I’d never wait in the line (I won’t even wait in a bathroom line. I’ll pee in the bushes, thank you very much), but for these kids - and many of them are kids, college age and younger - it’s a vital part of the experience.

“The experience of being sold movies!,” you cry. “They’re waiting in line to have studios advertise at them! They’re waiting in line to consume commercials!”

And you’re right. I don’t have a big defense of this aspect, except to say this: Welcome to America in the 21st century. We are a society that watches sporting events both for the game and the commercials. We fetishize old advertising. We interact with brands on social media. In the nerd world we declare our allegiances to corporate entities that produce our entertainment, not the creators themselves. Even when fans make their own stuff it’s almost always riffs on, mash-ups of and sexualizations of existing corporate properties. I don’t like this aspect of our world, and I’ve called it out here on this site before (usually to grumbles from people who claim they’re too smart to be impacted by advertising, they just like the images/filmmaking/brand). But it is the reality of the world. Comic-Con, in its own weird way, reflects what’s going on in society as a whole, good and bad.

But I’ll tell you this - while I’ve become pretty cynical about a lot of this stuff in general, I haven’t become cynical about the enthusiasm that comes from Hall H. Yes, it’s a gladiatorial atmosphere, with six thousand people cheering footage and swooning over celebrities, but that enthusiasm is real. And it's magical. Whether it be getting swept up in incredible clips or experiencing the strange event of Francis Ford Coppola leading the room in a chant of "Nosferatu," the energy in those sweeping moments is indescribable. I’ll take this enthusiasm - based on the hope for something to be good, for something to transcend, and springing from the shared moment of being happy about it - over the enthusiasm you see coming out of certain film festivals. That enthusiasm, especially at Sundance, is made up of a kind of self-delusion, an enthusiasm that over-values perfectly mediocre movies. The Comic-Con crowd is getting over-enthused about their hopes for these films, while the Sundance and SXSW crowds are getting over-enthused about a finished movie that doesn’t deserve it.

I’ve been both parties. I’ve walked out of Sundance movies high as a kite on the cinematic experience I just had, and then I go home and that rush fades away, and when the movie is finally released for general audiences people read my review and wonder what cut it was that I saw, since their experience was so different. There’s a lot of psychology to it - the joy of discovery, the desire to be a champion for a movie, the happiness you just get from being in the setting - but it’s still over-enthusiasm. And the Hall H over-enthusiasm is the same, but it’s coming from a place of looking forward, of being excited about what is yet to come, as opposed to fooling yourself about what just happened.

You might think that it’s better to get over-excited about a small Sundance movie than it is to get over-excited about Mad Max: Fury Road, but you’d be really wrong. The cinema is huge, and it contains multitudes. And despite the current cries of the wan self-styled cineastes, the cinema is in great shape, supporting all different sorts of films through all different sorts of distribution channels. In fact this is one of the things that’s made me more cynical of festival films over the last five years - you see a lot more ‘product’ on the circuit now, movies made to get picked up in a package VOD deal or to be a pre-ordained part of the Oscar race. It’s content, not art - which isn’t that different from many of the blockbusters being teased at Comic-Con, except that the Comic-Con product will probably be more fun to watch and make fun of.

I have a complicated relationship with Comic-Con and I have a complicated relationship with nerds. I’ve always seen my own geekiness as an affliction, not a lifestyle, and so I’ve always been jealous of/contemptuous of others who are better able to throw themselves into it. I’m certainly not in some nerd closet - I’m waaaay geekier than most of the normal people I know - but I’m also not giving my entire life over to my fandoms. I’m trying to strike a balance, and Comic-Con is not a place to strike a balance.

Since I’m coming from both sides of the issue (“Look at these fucking nerds!” “Look at all of these people just like me!”) I suspect I have a good understanding about the secret origin of much of Comic-Con’s bad rap. It’s a larger cultural insecurity about the unbridled zeal these people display. It makes me uncomfortable as well, and I think some of it extends into the realm of being truly weird (one girl I spoke to in Hall H told me she cried twice during the Avengers: Age of Ultron footage presentation. It wasn't even that long!), but I do envy these people the purity of their excitement. I don’t envy many other things about them, including their blinkered devotion to shitty properties or the bafflingly uncurious nature many of them seem to have about things that aren’t related to their fandoms, but that’s the bi-polar nature of Comic-Con for you. Do I wish there was more discernment on display? Of course - I always do. But sometimes you just have to bask in the fervor. Sometimes I get so caught up in being serious about this stuff, in thinking deeply about it, in analyzing it thoroughly, that I forget to just sit back and enjoy it. Comic-Con reminds me to enjoy it, if just for a few days.

In his wrap up of Hollywood’s Comic-Con presentations old fart Peter Bart (who I heard hand-writes his emails for someone else to send) called the crowd ‘loser geeks.’ Some people, like loser geek icon Wil Wheaton, got upset about this. Fuck it, I say. Embrace the hate. It’s not going to change. In many ways it’s a re-enactment of high school drama, except that the jocks have found the nerds inexplicably on the prom planning committee. We’ve invaded their turf. There’s a lot of hate that comes at nerd movies and nerds in general from people who are outside of that culture and who feel threatened by the way it has become dominant. There goes the neighborhood.

For four days a hundred thousand weirdos and freaks and losers and dweebs get together in a lovely city and become way over-excited about the stuff they love. Yeah, a few poseurs show up and some corporations make money off the nerds, but that’s okay. For the majority of people (remember, 130,000 people come to Comic-Con and Hall H only holds about 6,000 people, so most con-goers aren’t hooting at studio sizzle reels) this weekend represents a rare chance to be among others who share their excitement. So they get over-enthusiastic for a long weekend - I can guarantee to you that isn’t the worst thing that’s happening in the world right now. Let them have their fun.

Scratch that. Let US have our fun.

Image from Comic Vine