By Ben Coleman

San Diego Comic Con 2023 will forever be known as the year in which titanic entertainment industry market forces and long-simmering worker discontent met on the field of collective action, and the resulting WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes meant that there were hardly any famous people at the biggest of the big cons. “Were there any famous people at the big con?” my less online friends will ask on Monday, and my answer will be a resounding “Not really, no.” But what does that actually mean? As long as I’ve been going to comic conventions people have been complaining about comic conventions. And while the grievances differ, the general thrust is that there’s too much stuff at these things that aren’t comics. World weary Golden Age artisans sit idle while the philistine hoards line up around the block for Funko Deadpools or Twilight body pillows or 38 seconds in the presence of Karl Urban (I’m picking a name at random here, and for the record my friend who did that once said Karl Urban was lovely).

It used to be about the comics, you know? Just a bunch of nerds in TSR t-shirts leafing through longboxes under drippy HVAC in a community center annex. Maybe some folks dress up like Luke and Leia and maybe some other folks explain why that’s not the best couple’s costume, but at the end of the day it’s called a “comic” con, not a cosplay con, or groupie con, or some third kind of thing that purists dislike. My own opinion on the subject is less cantankerous: I think cosplay is a vibrant and exciting part of the community, dumb merch finances a lot of things I like, and I don’t begrudge actors an additional revenue stream, especially since starring in niche genre shows can preclude higher-paying gigs in more conventional areas. But I also love comics, and I gotta say it’s hard to square how often the people that make them can feel like an afterthought at conventions ostensibly in their name.

There’s a similar conversation happening around the great social media splintering. We’re trained from birth to believe that the goal of a small thing is to become bigger. But a lot of folks are finding that there’s a real use case for small and medium-sized things. If you use a convention for networking, promotion, and/or parasocial power fantasies then you want a performatively ostentatious platform that’s going to hit the maximum number of eyeballs and where you can rub elbows with the manicured elite whenever possible. If you want to connect with like-minded indoor kids in the proverbial church basement, well, then there’s probably an argument for smaller and more intimate social structures that foster trust and community. Frankly some of us should probably eschew conventions and social media entirely in favor of full-time grass touching and guided meditation, but that’s a conversation for another article. At the end of the day there’s no one kind of convention, and I think there’s a place for the glitz and glam of an SDCC in this mixed up and often overly dour world.

All of which is completely moot, because I’m here to tell you that the celebrity exodus hasn’t contracted the con in any noticeable way. The marketing companies haven’t gone on strike, and there’s nothing a marketing team loves more than sliding into a power vacuum like a besocked Tom Cruise in Risky Business. 2023 is the year of the experience, the installation, and the activation. What is an activation you ask? I’m not entirely sure, but I suspect it’s what happens when a brand becomes self-aware. There’s no shortage of giant plastic distractions to distract you from the smaller paper distractions we spend so much of our limited time on this Earth obsessing over. I clocked two discreet fake Blockbusters (Lego and Funko, respectively) and a giant inflatable Tamagotchi UFO, which prompted me to check my watch to see what decade it was (my watch is from the ’90s so that didn’t resolve the issue). How do you feel about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? I suspect you’ll be forced to form an opinion in the next year. The ‘90s kids have inherited the earth, and no amount of Karl Urban is going to change that one way or the other (Karl I’m sorry you’ve done nothing to wrong me).

No one seems all that put out by the strike, at least on a vibes level. For all missing famous faces the con itself is no less a rollicking sea of anime wigs and elf ears and samurai swords. To date I’ve seen a Man in the Big Yellow Hat on the arm of Carmen Sandiego (an inspired pairing), the DS9 baseball team waiting for tacos, and a Princess Mononoke in the middle of what I’m pretty sure was an all-hands Skype meeting. All I need are some jaded Sailor Scouts smoking cigarettes by a loading dock and I’ll have cosplayer bingo. I’ve experienced several moments of unrestricted arm movement, so it’s possible that some folks stayed home, but the tablers I’ve talked to said sales are good and anecdotally panel attendance is up. That said, I suspect Funko Pop sales took a comparable bump too, so this may be the rare case of a rising tide lifting all boats. It’s possible I saw a picket sign in the crowd but that may have been a cosplay picket sign, which is the kind of Baudrillardian semiotic collapse that you get used to in these parts. There’s the desert of the real and then there’s the guy dressed like the desert of the real, know what I mean?

We’re critters who like to accumulate. We like eating together, drinking together, some people even like going to the bathroom together, although I am not in this last camp. There’s no better example of this phenomenon than a comic con, where writhing multitudes of pop culture enthusiasts spill blood and treasure for no better reason than that some of them like Spider-Man and some others like trans Dracula fanfiction and still others have 60 extra dollars and want to meet Karl Urban (Karl I can’t think of another celebrity name now we’re both of us trapped). To an alien observer we must seem like ants with behavior-altering brain funguses, inexplicably climbing fronds of grass to be voluntarily devoured by capitalism. As a metaphorical ant myself I know it looks strange but I am no less compelled to climb the proverbial frond. I don’t know that it would be possible to sustain a human enterprise at this scale without the investment of brands and their sundry activations. Without the commercials and the halftime show, the Super Bowl would just be a regular bowl (probably, I don’t know much about football). Watching the con play out while a good chunk of the entertainment industry in turmoil is fascinating, but I doubt this is the con that people who complain about cons would hope for.

Regardless, it remains undeniably impressive to see hundreds of thousands of dorks from every corner of the globe peaceably gathered in a single mid-sized Southern California city to celebrate the things they like and not the things they don’t. It is cool to like things. It is fun to meet people who like the same things you like, and it is rewarding to discover a new thing to like in this bewildering arena of sensory overload. It’s early days yet and who knows what tomorrow’s vibes will bring, but everyone seems to be in a good mood, with the possible exception of the guy screaming serial numbers into his phone. There are families here, found and otherwise, and couples, and weirdos like me lurking around the fringes with a notebook. It’s an enterprise straining under the burdens of consumer capitalism, densely packed and the BO situation is off the charts, but that’s been the case at marketplaces since time immemorial. The burble of crosstalk and barter is pleasing to the ear. The shrieks of excitement, the brows furrowed in concentration, it’s a kind of magic. All that’s missing is Karl Urban (Karl we both knew it would end this way).

Miss any of our earlier SDCC ’23 coverage? Find it all here!


  1. This begs the question, Does something become unworthy if it’s not “famous”? Because there are so many lesser known yet worthy things going on at Comic-Con, including my panel in support of my graphic novel, GEORGE’S RUN, published by Rutgers University Press. The panel is at SDCC today, Sunday, July 23, in Room 29CD, from 12:30-1:30pm. It’s called George Clayton Johnson: Master Storyteller. I invite you to see it!

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