Comic-Con Gone

SDCC-goers grapple with a cancellation

Last week, San Diego Comic-Con organizers officially announced that, because of COVID-19, they were cancelling SDCC scheduled for July 23-26, 2020, for the first time in its half-century history.

But unlike many institutions that have found some kind of way to carry on under lockdown conditions–schools, way more kinds of offices than previously realized, late-night hosts in short sleeves–in my experience, what makes SDCC special is what uniquely cripples it.

In a word, it’s the crowds, stupid. The defining double-edged (and likely, +3 and enchanted) sword of Comic-Con, in its current incarnation, is the sheer wave of humanity it unleashes in one place every year. And this is what initially makes Comic-Con so daunting.  Half a year before the con even opens, attendees have to bid on a “lottery” to get hotel rooms, with many others begging, borrowing, or bartering for a few inches of floor space. During SDCC, the entire convention center becomes like an infinity pool of Infinity War characters. Attendance numbers are so staggering, the lines for key events themselves become subcultural happenings.

But paradoxically, it’s also that very crush of amped-up, unconventional, cosplaying humanity, jammed up against their favorite creations and creators,  that makes SDCC so special. It ripples with weird and one-of-a-kind experiences that can be found or replicated nowhere else.

Kate Tracy of Maine, a hardcore fangirl, has gone every year since 2009, and describes awaiting one of the annual must-see events in Hall H:  “There is nothing in the world like when it hits 4:45PM on Saturday, and 6,500 punch-drunk fans, who have been waiting in line for 24 hours, try to wake themselves up from five hours of pre-game programming, cause they know it’s goooooo time.  Where’s Eddie Ibrahim to tell us not to record footage of the footage? What hat is [Marvel film chief Kevin] Feige going to don? The whole room rumbles with electricity.  There’s a crazy, unfiltered joy in the air.”

Veteran TV writer-producer Mark Hoffmeier (Power Rangers, Spider-Man) agrees, citing one of his own Comic-Con memories: “Seeing David Hasselhoff ride down the middle of the street on a double decker bus as we ate lunch.  He was singing “I’m Driving in my Car…” while surrounded by K.I.T.T. cars, oompah bands, and lifeguards.”

And nowhere else but San Diego Comic-Con would I have helped put together a “Zombie Boy Band Show,” promoted it on the street the day of, and gotten a packed house that night. Or spent two days hawking a music album while dressed like this:

Comic-Con

A Giant Mass of Humans

As I’ve previously written in this publication, Comic-Con has served me professionally in many different guises over the years: a place to hand out flyers, to sell comic books, and to network with industry professionals. For all three, I needed to have a giant mass of humans who can barely handle eye contact with other humans jammed into one compact area and forced to interact.

And not just any humans. Comic-Con-goers, those willing to vault the aforementioned logistical hurdles, the lines, the mobs (to say nothing of shvitzing around San Diego in July in a full Deadpool costume), are a special breed. By definition, Comic-Conners love the new, the crazy, the way-out-there. My lunatic “Patriotic Cyborg” costume amused them, so they listened to my pitch. They picked up a bizarre-looking comic book from this nobody and bought out all my copies. They’re a flowing river of curiosity, open-mindedness, and eagerness. And that is a powerful force to concentrate in one place.

Other professionals report similar experiences. Comic-book writer David Avallone (Elvira: Mistress of the Dark, Drawing Blood) says for him, attendance is mandatory. “I got my first comic writing job at the Odyssea Bar at the Bayfront Hilton, drinking with editors during SDCC,” says Avallone. “And I got my second comic writing job drinking with my co-creator at the same bar. That one bar during that one convention has been absolutely key to my life and employment.”

Hoffmeier agrees, calling SDCC “a business necessity…Between the panels, luncheons, drink meetings, and casual hang-out time spent with colleagues and friends it was always a good yearly catch-up with folks.”

And when he says “catch-up,” what Hoffmeier means is, “remind others you exist so they’ll remember to hire you.” Showing up at Comic-Con is the business equivalent to writing 10 of those “just circling back” e-mails. After many years in late-night, I’ve been pivoting into animation, but all my contacts are in my previous world. So for me, the cluster of animation-industry professionals at SDCC is a target-rich arena. I booked two gigs and am continuing to work on projects with a company whose principals I met at a Comic-Con cocktail party.

But as Avallone points out, Comic-Con’s cancellation hits comic-book artists the hardest; they sometimes make between 50 and 70 percent of their annual income at this con. And of course, the city of San Diego will take a huge economic blow from losing 2020. It usually rakes in more than $19 million in under one week. On the ground, Tracy notes that “There are stores in [San Diego’s] Gaslamp [District] that pay their mortgages for the year by selling their window space during SDCC.”

Still, all of us recognize the dilemma and the wisdom of SDCC’s organizers. We’re all too familiar with supervillainous plots of world destruction to not take ominous warnings seriously. And Tracy readily points out the impossibility of finding a workaround: “There’s just no way to Social Distance in the Exhibit Hall.  Going in there in normal years nearly induces a meltdown!”

Avallone says San Diego is just the latest in a series of convention bookings he’s had and seen cancelled: Seattle’s Emerald City in March, Wondercon in April. He approves of the cancellations, but wonders about the long-term impact: “The conventions are shut down AND very few new comics are being made AND the stores are closed. It’s impossible to predict what our industry looks like when commerce resumes.”

But, in keeping with their calling as “true believers,” Comic-Con attendees are accustomed to looking to the future for solace. Hoffmeier hopes the pandemic will lead, like the 1918 flu did, to a Roaring 20s– “Where SDCC comes “roaring” back and we can again enjoy being armpit to armpit with thousands of strangers dressed as Stormtroopers, Spider-Men and cardboard-weapon-wielding Anime characters.”

Even Tracy, who’s made San-Diego Comic-Con her big annual vacation for nearly a decade, sees a silver lining: “Thankfully, Comic Con’s offering a free transfer of tickets to 2021.  So I’m looking at the positive: No stress of Registration Day!”

Rob Kutner

Rob Kutner has written for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Conan, and is also the author of Apocalypse How: Turn the End Times into the Best of Times, and the graphic novel Shrinkage.

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