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August 2, 2006

Ivan Went to Comicon and All I Got Was a Lousy Photograph of T-Shirts

The title says it all. I've been wanting to go to Comicon for years now but once again, I didn't get to go. I sent C3 media analyst Ivan Askwith to be my eyes and ears at the event. I originally posted this on my blog but thought it would be relevant here as well since Ivan is a contributor to this blog. PIctures from the convention are available on my site.

This is the first of an unspecified number of blog posts he's writing about his experiences there. Here's what he had to report:

Since this was the first year that I've been able to attend ComicCon, I have no strong basis of comparison to describe how the event has changed over time.

From the "Copy Points" briefing I was given at the press registration table, I can tell you that:

- This year marked the 37th annual ComicCon
- ComicCon is the largest comic book and pop culture event in North America
- ComicCon 2006 featured over 600 hours of programming and discussion panels.
- The first ComicCon drew together 300 attendees in the basement of a San Diego hotel.
- The 2005 ComicCon drew about 104,000 attendees.
- The largest presentation hall is a converted exhibit hall which seats 6,500 people.

Since I was attending on Henry's behalf, however, I was interested in seeing how ComicCon might illustrate some of the themes and trends addressed in the forthcoming Convergence Culture. As anyone who has been to ComicCon could tell you, I wasn't disappointed: over three days, I spent more than 40 hours talking with fans, attending panel discussions and content previews, browsing a massive hall packed with more collectible merchandise than I could have imagined, and chatting with reps from some of the most popular exhibition booths.

Trade press estimates suggest that more than 140,000 people attended this year's Con.

So after three exhausting days, and almost a week to reflect and recuperate, let me share a few of my most significant observations and conclusions from attending the San Diego ComicCon.


As I've already mentioned, this was my first time at ComicCon, so I'm not in the best position to describe how the event has changed, in tone or content, since it began in 1970.

If I were going to speculate, however, I'd guess that ComicCon began as a fan-centric event, an annual cult gathering where fans could engage and interact with other fans from around the world who shared their particular passion, while meeting some of the artists or creative minds responsible for their objects of appreciation.

Thirty-seven years later, it has turned into something quite different: above all, ComicCon struck me as a perfect setting for Hollywood cool hunters seeking "the next big [marketable] thing," and for entertainment marketers trying to create the diehard fan base needed to make their products the next big thing. More on this in a moment.

Watching people move around the floor in the Convention Center, it was relatively easy to break the attendees into a few distinct (but by no means comprehensive or exclusive) categories:

Most obvious are the spectators, most of them presumably from the San Diego area, who attend for the pure spectacle of the event, but don't demonstrate a strong affiliation with any of the properties or franchises present. For spectators, the panels and exhibitors are fun, but the real draw of the event seems to be the general craziness of the most committed fans and attendees. Spectators don't tend to seek out any particular booth or scheduled event; instead, they mostly wander the floor -- often with children or significant others in tow -- stopping to stand in line only if there's a hot piece of free swag waiting at the front of it.

Then there are the casual enthusiasts, fans who are familiar with (and vocally appreciative of) several shows, comics, or characters. Enthusiasts might wear clothes with affiliation logos on them, but they won't be in full costume -- which is to say that enthusiasts are fans who demonstrate a socially acceptable level of enthusiasm about the objects of their fandom. They might have all of the issues of a particular comic, or own all of the DVDs for a particular show, and their friends might even roll their eyes when they advocate on behalf of their fandom, but by and large, enthusiasts still consider themselves "normal."

And then, of course, there are the hardcore fans. These are the fans who have an obsessive level of knowledge about their active fandoms; who immediately recognize the usually anonymous producers, writers, colorists and illustrators responsible for their favorite shows or comics; who dress up in elaborate handmade costumes, often in small clans; who will get in line at 4 AM to secure front-row seats to an hour-long panel held at 2 PM; who are often extremely vocal in their appreciation or enthusiasm , and so knowledgeable in arcane details that the creators of their obsessions sometimes seem alarmed.

At their most extreme, these are the fans that William Shatner was thinking of when he told an audience member at a Star Trek Convention that he should "get a life" -- but as many marketers have started to learn, the hardcore fan minority can also be the difference between the success and failure of new properties.


This brings us back to the Convention itself, and my initial suspicion that there has been a discernible shift in ComicCon's function over the last several years.

The most obvious manifestation of this shift is in the event schedule itself: while many of the smaller panel discussions still feature independent artists, fan-favorite illustrators, and small time cult creators, the largest sessions -- held in auditoriums with capacities ranging from 2000-6500 -- are now showcase sales pitches from the major film studios, comics distributors, publishers and television networks.

The traditional notion of ComicCon as a gathering for pale-skinned geeks and science-fiction nerds seems to be crumbling, giving way to a new notion of ComicCon as a giant pitch session, where marketers and celebrities court the often-skeptical fan market in an attempt to win their approval and support.

Or, to place this in the larger context of Henry's work on convergence: culture producers have finally started to grasp the vital role of fans as a central engine in the new entertainment economy.

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