It felt like old times at SDCC without the big Hollywood panels
Another San Diego Comic-Con has come and gone, and going into it, there was a lot of talk about how the WGA/SAG-AFTRA strike would change things. And things definitely changed at SDCC, but not really for the worse.
As the studios continue their cartoon-villain intransigence on paying a living wage or regulate AI overtaking our jobs, writers and actors have walked off the job. And a big part of that job, for those involved with sci-fi/fantasy and many other productions, is promoting them at Comic-Con. Scribes and stars typically appear on panels and previews, where they drop giant BTS tidbits and unveil teases for upcoming installments.
These are Comic-Con’s must-attend events, sparking an entire microcommunity of people sitting in line outside the exhibit halls, sometimes even with their own caterers and buskers, sometimes for as long as 24 hours. For many fans, these are indeed a huge part of their Comic-Con experience, and their main reason for coming.
So what happens in a year when picket lines reduce the star/creator wattage that drew thousands to those marquee events?
As I’ve written here, Comic-Con offers many uses for the working (on non-struck things) professional. I came this year in part to network for gigs, and in part to sign my new kids’ graphic novel at my publisher’s table. Neither of those directly tied to the big panel/preview scene, so for me it was mostly business as usual. Nor, at first glance, could I necessarily spot a difference, other than some occasionally empty patches in the crowds, which would normally be wall-to-wall nerd.
However, after two days, some patterns began to emerge, and friends and colleagues that I spoke to confirmed this. As Craig Miller, Lucasfilm’s Director of Fan Relations for the first two Star Wars movies, described it, the effect on strike-year Comic-Con was “both profound and minimal. Hall H, the big, 6,000-person room”—where they often announce the latest Marvel or Star War for the first time — “is empty. There are no lines of people waiting hours to get into that room. But they’re still here at the convention.”
As a result, Miller spent the Con at a table, selling his memoir Star Wars Memories, and sold every last copy. Granted, any SDCC might have brought him scads of customers who liked both Star Wars and books, but it’s also a highly competitive environment, with literally hundreds of vendors and publishers vying for those same dollars.
This time, however, the diversion of crowds, who might otherwise be in Lineworld, onto the main convention floor created a flood of foot traffic for vendors that lifted even the smallest boats. Rantz Hoseley, VP of Editorial for Z2 Comics, confirms, “sales and signings at our booth were the biggest we’ve had at any convention, with a number of deluxe editions selling out by Thursday evening [the first of Comic-Con’s four days].”
Z2 specializes in graphic novels for music fandoms, which like Craig Miller, does guarantee a reliable trickle of monetizable passion. However, this time it was more like a river (or at least a tributary), and it was across the board, says Hoseley: “The aisles in [individual practitioner-filled] Artists’ Alley were packed, and many artists sold out of their SDCC exclusive prints by Friday. Small press publishers said the attention they were getting from attendees was significantly higher than previous years.”
A Comic-Con actually focused on… comics. Who knew?
They scheduled my book signing for what’s normally a bit of a Comic-Con doldrum: 12:30 on a Friday, when the hardcore-Conners are still sleeping off their “Marvel Mai-Tais” and “Bowser Bomb” hangovers from opening night festivities, but the more typical Friday/Saturday newcomer numbers haven’t quite surged yet either. Still, even I got a rather healthy turnout and a few book sales not to my mother.
Hoseley explains this transfer—but not drop–in warm fan bodies, thusly:
“With expensive tickets purchased well in advance, hotel and flight reservations made, and given that many people save up all year to have an adventure at Comic-Con, the lack of movie and TV heroes had them turning to comic creators for their memorable moments and excitement.”
TV/comic writer David Avallone (Elvira, Batwheels) who attends for the same, non Hall-H-related reasons as I do, said he didn’t see the difference in a Con floor still mobbed with Mandalorians and Sailor Moon (Sailors Moon?). However, he notes, “I did notice that some panels were a little more heavily attended than usual, and there were lines for things which previously wouldn’t have had lines.”
And ultimately, this might well have been the defining difference at SDCC 2023. Along with a bump for smaller authors and artists, there was undeniably a big boost for non-headline events, of which there are also hundreds. “It seems the people who populate Hall H like watching program items,” says Miller.
I can also attest to this. At peak Con hours, the floor was just as jam-packed as ever, but—like the fabric of spacetime warped by Einsteinian gravitational waves (nerd-pandering simile alert!)—it took on a unique “shape.” Instead of just pushing any which way through an amorphous blob, you found yourself constantly navigating around super-long lines for anything with a programmatic flavor.
For example, do you know the CBS comedy Ghosts? It’s quite good and popular. Would you have predicted new-Harry-Potter-book-length lines to do an interactive “Ghosts” activity? Not so sure.
Veteran Comic-Con fangirl Kate Tracy, who makes SDCC an annual hajj with friends from all over, says she actually enjoyed the strike-year pivot: “I had a really lovely convention. I really only missed Hall H at like 4:45PM on Saturday when I realized we weren’t about to see [Marvel film chief] Kevin [Feige] and his [typically world premiere next MCU installment] footage in fifteen minutes.”
At the same time, Tracy stresses, “We all get why. All the folks I ran into in lines or other panels were so supportive of SAG/WGA. Didn’t hear one complaint or ‘they ruined my Con!’ utterance.”
So what does the world’s biggest orgy of fandom look like when the porn stars (and um, fluffers? Perhaps I should stick to nerdy similes) are away? Surprisingly, not that different in numbers, just with fan-fun differently directed. In many ways, to creatives lacking the majors’ marketing muscle. A healthy correction back toward SDCC’s roots.
And potentially, a portent. Animation pro Mark Hoffmeier (Spider-Man: The Animated Series, How to Train Your Dragon) notes that, even pre-strike, the studios had already been pulling back resources from SDCC for the past few years anyway.
“The absence of major industry players – and their stars, showrunners & parties – could definitely be felt. With so many studios offering their own versions of the “Con” (particularly Disney) might this be a taste of Comic Con moving forward?”
And as Avallone puts it – and I’m inclined to agree — “I mostly go to the show now to see colleagues and friends, to commune with my community. It is still far and away the best show for that.”