How the Nerds Lost Comic-Con

For the next three days the entertainment world will focus on San Diego Comic-Con. The convention is bigger, more swollen than ever and over 125,000 visitors are expected to pour into the mouth of the San Diego Convention Center. And that's terrible news for some of the conference's most loyal fans.

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For the next three days the entertainment world will focus on San Diego Comic-Con. The convention is bigger, more swollen than ever and over 125,000 visitors are expected to pour into the mouth of the San Diego Convention Center. And that's terrible news for some of the conference's most loyal fans.

As San Diego Comic-Con begins to skew more mainstream and becomes a Hollywood event, so does its crowd. Suddenly people are flocking to the convention to see the stars of Twilight and How I Met Your Mother. With only a limited number of tickets to go around, the experience for die-hard comic fans is being watered down and Comic- Con is turning into the very thing that those fans tried to get away from.

Fans that aren't going this year have to look to smaller magazines and publications if they want to follow stories about actual comics. Of the five things The Guardian is "excited for" none have to do with anything happening in the comics industry (though there is a mention of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. television show). Entertainment Weekly has a livestream ... of interviews with semi-famous people (Seth Green and his girlfriend were on talking about "nerdy" things yesterday). The Los Angeles Daily News has a story on how Comic-Con went from "geek to chic." And what coverage there is of comics-related goodness, like the upcoming X-Men Days of Future Past moviebecomes more about who's starring in it than it is about the actual story. Consider Vulture's exclusive and Comic-Con preview, where they state that Kitty Pryde has some time-traveling powers:

In Singer's take, Ellen Page returns as Kitty from the Brett Ratner–directed X-Men: The Last Stand, but this time she uses her powers to send Hugh Jackman's Wolverine back into the past, where he encounters the younger mutants played by James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, and Michael Fassbender. 

A simple Wikipedia search would tell you that Kitty Pryde  doesn't have any powers related to time travel—a small gripe for mainstream readers and an earth-shattering faux pas for fans of the X-Men comics. She simply becomes intangible, and sometimes has a dragon. If adding a time-traveling upgrade to Kitty's arsenal of powers is director Bryan Singer's choice, then you'd (if you read comics) at least expect a sentence or two questioning the choice.

San Diego Comic-Con has long been more than about just comics. It's been compared to the Super Bowl, and that makes sense when you think about it: the Super Bowl is a football game but it isn't really about football. It's about goofy ads, and half-time musical acts, an excuse to party, and a promotional bonanza. That's not unlike what happens at Comic-Con. Television execs, film studios, and various tribes of marketing teams have all figured out that putting their movies and shows (think of these as the half-time show), some of which may not even have nothing to do with comics, into the convention generates buzz and attention. And fans (interested in the half-time show) flock to Comic-Con to see those movies and shows, again which might not have anything at all to do with comics, taking up spots that might belong to comic fans. This ongoing frustration with the mainstreaming and co-opting of "nerd culture", is part of the reason behind rants like the questionable argument from Ex Machina (a comic) artist Tony Harris who hates the idea of "normal" girls going to Comic-Con and dressing up too revealingly. Or the ongoing and seemingly never-ending argument who has the right to really call themselves a "geek" or "nerd."

"I don't even try anymore. They should have a Commercialism-Con and bring back Comic-Con the way it used to be," a fan lamented to CNN back in 2010, some three years before this year's record-setting event. The way Comic-Con "used to be" began as a mini conference back in 1970 that only drew 100 attendees, in August of the same year an official Comic-Con was held drawing 200 more to the conference.  "It's too crowded, too commercial, and, oh yea, it sells out before you even know who's gonna be there," she added.

For example, this year's schedule includes a preview of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, PsychVampire Diaries, American Dad, Community, How I Met Your MotherThe Blacklist and panels hosted by TV Guide and Entertainment Weekly. Though, perhaps the apex of Comic-Con pop culture invasion came in 2012 when Twilight and Glee, and their respective armies of Twihards and Gleeks, came to the event in full force.

The way Comic-Con works is that there are many panels with speakers talking about a billion different topics all at once. Attending Comic-Con is largely about carefully picking and choosing which of those panels to watch. And in this competition for attention, the comics are losing. As I witnessed at New York Comic-Con last year, plenty people will wait in line forever to see the bigger exclusives like The Walking Dead and those people aren't going to, say, a panel discussing gender, masculinity , and femininity which "investigates how Batwoman and Batgirl displace the male hero in order to fight crime and live out narratives that befit a superhero/ine in a contemporary non- hetero world where queer, disabled, and renegade motorcycling are super/powerful."

Defenders of Hollywood and television's place in Comic-Con will say Hollywood has always had an open invite to Comic-Con. Comic-Con regular Rob Salkowitz told The Washington Post that Hollywood is "welcome guest" at a dinner or a party. Defenders like Salkowitz aren't wrong. In 1976, George Lucas brought a little film called Star Wars to the Con, and treated fans to an exclusive panel. "Today, that 'welcome guest' happens to have brought 100,000 of its closest friends and is eating most of the food and sucking up most of the oxygen, so the presence has increased. But fundamentally, it’s nothing new," Salkowitz said. Though, you'd be forgiven if, at that end of the night, you'd be looking for a different party.

Photo by Pat Loika via Flickr

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.