Every year at the ultra invite only Sunday night Dead Dog party for Comic-Con someone will say “I dunno, this was a strange Comic-Con.” It is tradition.
But this is the year it was really true.
San Diego Comic-Con is still the biggest and best pop culture festival on Midgard, but it had what many are calling an off year. With the death of CCI president John Rogers last November, and the passing of Comic-Con icon Batton Lash earlier this year, those involved just get a pass from me. It was pretty obvious that SDCC 2019 was a year when things just held steady and had no intention of getting bigger and better. The 50th year celebrations were quiet – yet extremely appropriate given the focus of the showrunners: a series of panels of those who had made Comic-Con in various decades, a few parties for the old timers, and on Sunday, instead of the traditional Talk Back panel, a “Comic-Con Now” where typically behind the scenes folks like Eddie Ibrahim, Maija Gates and Justin Dutta came out and told anecdotes about the show. (Ian McKellan was not wearing any pants!) This was followed by a “Tribute to John Rogers” (which you can listen to here) that was described to me several times as tearful. Rogers may have been a very behind the scenes person, but behind the scenes he was irreplaceable.
This was also a genuinely weird year because the comics industry is in a weird space. Talking over the “State of the Industry” with a pal, it was hard to think of a company that didn’t have some quirk or recent hitch, from chaos (DC) to embarrassing public cash flow issues (IDW).
And yet for all the questions, everyone has triumphs as well. The “New Publishers, New Plans” panel I put together with Calvin Reid had so many new publishers on it Calvin only got to do through two questions. There were so many new hires at so many new companies you could barely keep up.
And every company above has new stuff coming that’s exciting: Marvel finally relaunched their X-line now that Disney owns Fox; DC had some struggles but showcased the Caped Crusader at a glitzy party at the fledgling Comic-Con Museum and has made key new hires; Image still has Monstress and Saga and Brubaker/Phillips and lots of promising new talents and Skybound isn’t going anywhere; Dark Horse seems to be stable with their new Chinese majority owners; IDW has overcome their issues and has what may be the book of the year with They Called us Enemy, George Takei’s account of his childhood in an internment camp; Boom has led the industry with its returnability program and their highly targeted launch of Once & Future by Gillen and Mora seems to be on point.
Overall, it’s a changed landscape though. Kids comics and graphic novel sales are now the bedrock on which the industry is being built. And those sales are not going anywhere.
SDCC was, as always, a showcase of comics big, medium and small. Chris Ware was a guest and I spotted him smiling and shopping on Saturday morning. Jason Lutes and the Hernandez Bros. were as busy as always. Small publishers from Cartoon Books to Vault were selling lots and lots of comics – I’m told Vault Comics sales at the con were three times better than last year’s. After some health issues last year, Black Mask’s Matt Pizzolo is back on the scene. With the tide going out on Big Showbiz at SDCC, comics reclaimed some of their supremacy. And they may get even bigger in years to come.
But that leaves the elephant in the room: DC’s massively changed presence at the show. The WB/DC are undergoing huge changes at every level, and DC’s booth is perhaps the most vivid and traumatic change of all. I warned you but people were still shocked when they arrived on the show floor and found Image, Scholastic, Humanoids and ComiXology (and two companies that make prints) where DC used to be. Deciding to give up DC’s anchor position on the show floor is the kind of dick measuring move that new executives make in an uncertain terrain, and they’ll regret it someday. But they can never go back. The studio assimilation that former publisher Paul Levitz fought against for so many years is now completed. And irreversible. It was a little bittersweet to see him and Jenette Kahn inducted into the Eisner Hall of Fame in tandem. They did so much to change comics for the better and now that legacy is being completely uprooted, even though it lives on with a thousand children.
The WB booth was a huge spectacular affair, but it was also roped off, manned by giant unfriendly bodyguards in suits, and it was impossible to interact with DC as a brand as you had in the past. You can see some of the geography of the new WB/DC booth in the video that Alex Lu and I made about our trek across the show floor. But just to recap in print what I said at the end: we have come full circle. At SDCC Year One, awkward young fans mingled with Kirby and Bradbury in an egalitarian poolside milieu. At SDCC Year Fifty, ropes and security separated the talent from milling throngs.
After making that video, on Saturday I decided to go back to the DC booth and try to interact with it as I had in the past. I was looking for [redacted] — let’s call them Diana King— a DC exec with whom I have legit business and who, in years past, I would simply have stopped at the booth to find. If they hadn’t been present, someone with a headset and this person’s schedule would have told me when to come back. It’s a simple thing.
So what happened in 2019?
I circled the booth trying to find an entrance. The booth is anchored, as you can see in the above video, by a circular signing area, heavily roped off, where celebs and Batman teams sign. There are other exhibits — a sofa from Friends! — and raised stages where people can sit while they sign autographs, and there are multiple staircases leading to the VIP second floor.
I decided to start my quest by approaching one of the security guys guarding a staircase.
“Excuse me, do you know if Diana King is here?” I asked.
“Ma’am, I don’t know who that is,” said the guard, who then literally turned his back on me. I hadn’t gotten such a cold reception since the night I tried to get into a night club for yachters and basketball players while wearing my Anna Sui silver leather mini skirt and braids back in the day.
Clearly this burly security squad was not going to help, so I circled further, and then spotted a friendly face – two friendly faces!!!
I decided to try my luck with him. “Do you know if Diana King is here?” I asked once more.
This time paydirt! “I haven’t seen her at the booth…hm….she might be here. If she is maybe she’s down at the other end in the publicity area?” — here he gave an expansive gesture familiar to guides explaining how far the dinosaurs are from humans in any given Jurassic Park movie.
I didn’t think Diana was there but I thanked him and set off for the north end of the booth. I spotted Kami Garcia doing a separate signing for her DC/Zoom book, but no one else I recognized. I did see lot of empty seats in the VIP floor and, to be 100 percent fair, lots of DC art being splashed on massive two story high video screens.
My experiment was a little unusual in that I’m an industry person, but you can read something more from a fan’s perspective in Nick Kazden’s account here. The booth was all about getting people to sign up for credit cards and streaming services, and giveaways were hard to come by. The bottom line is that if you wanted to interact with DC at their booth you would have a hard time finding anyone to interact with. Whoever designed this display, he/she/they probably impressed their bosses with an imposing footprint and massive AV capabilities…but as a place where humans can make a connection, it was lacking.
Not that I blame anyone involved. The Coming of the Telephone People (© TheAnkler) has uprooted everything at Warner Bros. Even as Vertigo, Mad, Zoom and Ink were tabled, the DC Universe streaming brand got more attention than ever before at SDCC — despite the coming of HBO Max, WB’s own dedicated streaming service. Perhaps DC Universe is being built up as a cool thing that will be bundled with HBO Max?
Meanwhile what about the comics???? This is an event of such import that I think it deserves it very own post, but suffice to say that there was a LOT of drama behind the scenes at DC Comics at SDCC 2019.
THE SHOWBIZ RETRACTION
So let’s get one thing clear, Marvel’s Phase Four Hall H presentation was one of the biggest things ever at Comic-Con and was the hugest thing this year by a wide margin. The fires of Game of Thrones sizzled out in an ocean of fan entitlement, and Picard surprised a lot of people, but the MCU is THE BIGGEST FUCKING THING IN THE WORLD right now, and Kevin Feige did not hold back, bringing out almost every living character — RIP Tony and Steve — and a few who seem to have passed — NATALIE PORTMAN JANE FOSTER FTW! My entire Saturday was spent making sure I got a seat inside and it was in the verrrrrrry last row, but I still got to have fun. (I highly recommend Hannah Lodge‘s Hall H Diary, a grueling account of nine hours spent in the ultimate temple of Comic-Con. Pictures don’t lie.)
But the Traditional WB presentation was AWOL, for reasons….unknown. This VERY INFORMATIVE must read report quoting many “industry insiders” from Vulture explains that it costs $250,000 to put on a Hall H show…I’m not sure what that means, to be honest. I guess private jets to fly the cast in from London? The most convincing report I heard was that WB was holding back on their Joker presentation since it is more Toronto Film Festival than San Diego Comic-Con and they feared fan backlash. (Now this was a legit concern.)
Maybe it was just the MCU clearing the deck, but the showbiz presence at SDCC was way down his year and has, indeed, declined every year since what I would call the Peak Year of 2010, the infamous Eating Scraps year that also included two seminal Comic-Con moments: The Hall H stabbing and The Scott Pilgrim Experience. Nothing has ever been so wild and unpredictable since.
Almost everything in the world has changed since then but a partial accounting of how the show has retracted:
- No Wired Café – NONE.
- No big parties at Float every night
- No branding at the airport — how fun it was in past years to see Sean Bean or Conan O’Brien smiling at us from the baggage carousel
- No big activations on the show floor
- No big HBO activation except for a poorly received Watchmen set-up in a dingy parking lot
- Offsites closed early on Sunday … or didn’t open at all.
- No activation at the Hilton Gaslamp (DC was supposed to take the space but pulled out at the last minute because of the big Batman thing at Balboa Park.)
The insane celebrity party scene of past years is wayyyyyyyy down. But so are press opportunities unless you are… well, I guess EW, the LA Times and…IGN? I have no idea?
Press opportunities at SDCC have had their own lifecycle, just like everything else. In the year of 2007, I was able to interview Gerard Butler and Zack Snyder on the 300 press line, and the next year I interviewed the whole cast of Watchmen in a roundtable/junket situation.
Now? You’re lucky if you get a press conference with 12 people sitting on stage answering maybe 10 questions from a hundred assembled journos, some of them dressed as elves. I was commiserating with another SDCC press vet about the lowered opportunities. In the past even PODCASTERS would get one on one access to celebrities. Now, thanks to the proliferation of nerd-centric outlets, most casts do press conferences followed by press line scrums. I’m not tied in enough to the Media press corp to know how they react to this, but SDCC is far from the media-palooza it once was.
NOT ONLY THAT, but the kinds of things being promoted have changed as well. Back in the day there were massive presentations for HOME VIDEO releases – there was a huge promotion for the Blade Runner DVD one year; another, Alien had a huge display on the show floor for a home video release. Obviously with streaming taking over for owning media, these events are no longer as important, but it’s yet another phase of Comic-Con’s evolution.
We’ve been covering the calming down of Comic-Con for many years, and it’s due to many things: the terror of social media, the failure of Snakes on a Plane, greed on the part of local businesses which rent out their storefronts for activations and have jacked up prices every year, and the hugeness and difficulty of Comic-Con itself. The show became so overwhelming that studios decided to go elsewhere.
Back to that Vulture story:
According to one outspoken industry insider who works with several studios that have historically attended Comic-Con, the paucity of studio attendance this year can be attributed to a growing consciousness inside the C-suite that attempts at word-of-mouth marketing in and around SDCC don’t necessarily translate into bigger box-office returns. “They finally realized that Twitter doesn’t sell movie tickets,” this person says. “The big Marvel films, they owe the fans. But you’re trying to get space here for why? It’s like couch potato geek heaven. Not filmgoers. They’re mostly comic-book fans, after all.”
The more common refrain around Hollywood, though, is that 2019 is an off year for film at the con; that some years, due to vagaries of timing and production schedules, studios just don’t have new trailers or sizzle reels ready for the convention’s July deadline. An executive at one of the studios sitting out this year’s Comic-Con refutes the idea that its absence was dictated by a growing disillusionment with the convention. “We just didn’t have anything that worked with the timing or that was ready,” says this executive, who asked not to be identified because the person was not authorized to speak publicly. “We love SDCC! We are hard-core nerds.”
Nobody knows anything. I was there for Peak Comic-Con and it was pretty mind boggling. Maybe it will come back in some different shape or form in years to come…in the meantime, let comics rule.
LINE CULTURE TAKES A HIT
No account of the culture of SDCC 2019 would be complete without a look at the Collectors, folks seeking exclusives and autographs who, to be honest, make up the majority of the 135,000 attendees these days. The reviews for the show are in and they are underwhelmed. Friends of Comic-Con, a blog devoted to recapping the action has a great post covering ALL the line action. For comics centric folks, this is all foreign news, but for thousands of people it’s the lifeblood.
Short version: an online lottery for signings and exclusive toys has meant fewer lines, and the CCI folks seem dedicated to reducing or eliminating the overnight campers that have become part of comic-con legend. I noticed far fewer of the campers this year, and the lines were moved rather arbitrarily. The Friends of Comic-Con blog has a rather harrowing blow by blow account of a Kafka-esque line moving process, but here’s an example:
Friday Hall H attendees attempted to line up at the published location of the Next Day Line, being the first group to (traditionally) need ‘next day’ access. At first, security guards told these attendees that they would not be able to line up yet, but then CCI’s Head of Line Management, Josh Weston, came by and told Friday Hall-H-Hopefuls that they were welcome to line up at the Next Day Line, while Thursday Hopefuls should line up at the tents on the Hall H lawn. Only a few hours later, while people were sleeping in the ‘approved’ locations in line, security guards came around to harass attendees, threatening to call the police and ignoring those who told them that Josh Weston had given them permission to be there. Clearly, there was a communications disconnect between what Josh intended and the implementation by the guards. The next morning, after attempting to line up again, Josh Weston came by and told attendees that they were in the right place, and then an hour later security came by to break up the line and told Friday attendees that they would not be allowed to line up for another 24 hours. When the Friday Hopefuls were eventually allowed to line up, there was a near-riot as attendees rushed toward the flag location in a very unsafe fashion. Given the stress and mixed messages that these attendees had received for more than 24 hours, this is not surprising.
When I did get into Hall H on Saturday I was sitting next to a mother daughter duo who were complaining about a “rush line” of people who cut in line Friday night and got in earlier than people who had been waiting. I’m not sure I have the details right but it’s clear that something happened that involved cutting in line — and veteran Hall Hers were pissed.
Elsewhere, the FoCC Forum (yes forum! Old times) has many disappointed reactions. A representative account:
I agree, I barely spent anytime on the exhibit hall. The offsites and parties I went to were nice. FX ruled this year, unlike previous years. Amazon was nice if slow, and Pennyworth was awesome. B99 was a mess, I don’t understand why they make offsites that take sooo long to do. My friend was in line for almost 6 hrs and didn’t even get a badge at the end. What a waste of a morning. I went to 2 panels only, and only cause they were back to back, so a lull there too. And the exhibit hall…. it felt like a giant shopping mall more than previous years, I missed the DC booth and all the activities they did. And the only good booths imo were netflix and Picard. The lack of swag was extreme, previous years I would walk out with dozens of posters, at least 3 shirts and more fun stuff after the weekend. This year not even half of that. For such an important anniversary it didn’t feel like one at all.
While people complaining about not getting enough free stuff is typical, it seems to be a legitimate concern here.
Likewise, no account of SDCC ’19 would be complete without calling out a return to the onerous and arbitrary security procedures. The Hall H mess seems to be typical. I had one bad year a long time ago where security was way over the top and it calmed down after that. But the last few years it’s gotten weird again. I kept being told not to stand in places, and at one point I was informed I couldn’t take a beer from one part of a hotel to another part of the hotel — something I’d done in previous years without incident. People would try to go somewhere, be asked to show their badge, and then told they couldn’t go there anyway. I heard all kinds of complaints from various exhibitors about not being let in without the right badge, and other stuff.
Of course, we all want and need good security at an event of this kind. There was grumbling about having to go through metal detectors for Hall H, but the con still hasn’t put in metal detectors for the whole show, a move that is, I think, inevitable. The whole “tapping in and out” procedure with badges seems to be more a means of crowd control than really catching people who are sneaking in, but when you have a crowd that large, it does have to be controlled.
At any rate, I don’t like being yelled at by security but I don’t want people injured or unsafe either, so the old freedom vs safety issue will rage on until the end of time, I suppose.
(As a sidenote, I’ve noticed that since I dyed my hair magenta I get noticed a lot more by security-type folks. I guess being nondescript is sometimes the way to go.)
There was also a noticeable drop in cosplayers this year, which is unfortunate. I’ve noted this trend, and would hazard a guess that cosplayers are saving their biggest efforts for Anime Expo, WonderCon and other places that are easier to get in to, as the Collector Crowd takes over SDCC.
THE TRADITIONS OF CON
How was MY Comic-Con, you ask? Well my roommate Deb Aoki told me of a vow she had made to herself not to eat an Auntie Anne’s pretzel for the whole show — the overpriced gloppy emergency food that has filled many a howling belly when provisions were not packed. I actually succumbed twice this year…but both times willingly and happily. Those cinnamon pretzels are on point.
The highlight of the show for me was The Beat’s 15th anniversary party on Thursday, the kind of bash that I had dreamed of throwing my whole life. I’m not exaggerating. Being able to throw a party with top notch food and drink in a beautiful setting with no jostling and a brisk night air and fire pit for nearly 200 my the people I care about most in this industry? A night I will never forget. And everyone seemed to have a great time. I don’t mean to put down the competing Scholastic and CBLDF bashes, which I’ll be thrilled to attend next year, but this one was special, a place for the A-list of comics to meet and relax. And yeah the congratulations and praise for me and The Beat were overwhelming – and gratifying. I’ve been in this business more than 30 years and I still love it with all my heart. As I said in one of the videos…I belong here.
Maybe The Beat party was elevated for folks because of the lack of the Hyatt Bar. I know everyone complains about it, but once it was gone, people realized that nothing could replace it. I took this shocking photo of the front of the Hyatt at 10:30 PM Saturday night and showed it to folks — they were universally stunned. The Hyatt lobby was once THE place to be…and without it, there was no place to be.
The Hilton Bayfront is more like the Hellton Noisefront. I do not like that bar. Brew 30, the other Hyatt Bar, was deserted. Ah, how we missed the screaming lobby. As one veteran cartoonist told me as we sat in the deserted waterfront, just the two of us, “It’s too much, but I love it.”
Ultimately San Diego Comic-Con is about traditions, personal and institutional. The many panels devoted to the now elderly burghers of early con were a testament to that. I have virtually a whole week of traditions and assignments: an açai bowl breakfast with this person on this day on the way to the annual press event, dinner with the group then, a trip through the indie press pavilion on the only day I have time. Once again it’s the choice between the known pleasure or the unknown pleasure, Schrödinger’s Comic-Con.
On the last night I started asking people, “What is one of your favorite Comic-Con memories?” The answers varied. Some people blushed, doubtless remembering a personal encounter that couldn’t be shared.
But some got it in the spirit in which I meant the question. One person recalled winning their first and only Eisner. Eddie Campbell had a great story involving Nick Cardy and Will Eisner that you should just ask him about. Others just said a variation on, “My first year, meeting my idols and learning they knew who I was.”
My own? Well, I have lots, but one I kept mentioning was interviewing William Gibson, my favorite living author (and top five over all) for 20 minutes in 2016 and asking him about Pokémon Go. A dream encounter that I still smile over.
But it was novelist Audrey Niffenegger who put is best, as perhaps befits someone whose work is so tied to memory and time.
“I’ve only been to three con so I don’t really have a favorite memory,” she said at first, mentioning that meeting all the people her husband, Campbell, talks about all the time had been a highlight. But then she brought up the thing I had been seeing all weekend — the way that we step foot in San Diego and enter an alternate world, where nothing has changed since the last time we were there a year ago.
Niffenegger had picked up on the same phenomenon. “It’s almost as if coming here is about you having a separate self, and the people here are the only ones who can see your separate self,” she told me.
Wrapping up, this was probably the best SDCC in the history of The Beat; besides celebrating our 15th year, Managing Editor Samantha Puc and all our writers were totally baller and covered more things than ever before. New Media Editor Alex Lu had our expanded video efforts under control and our video crews were ace. It was great! I could only have dreamed of having the resources and exemplary team to cover this show in this fashion, and I know we are literally just getting started.
As to the other slower elements of this year’s show…it was just an off-year. And even an off-year had great things. The “Comic-Con Now” panel showed that after struggling with their own tragic, internal changes the team will be back with new things, like the Museum. With the Hollywood streaming wars in full swing, we have a few years of massive promotions guaranteed. And comics won’t go anywhere. That shining place where my separate self roams the halls, pretzel in hand, is forever only a memory away.
[This essay was previously published in The Beat weekly newsletter.]