One of the perennial complaints about the San Diego Comic-Con is that it’s been overrun by things other than comics. That there are people promoting movies and TV shows and everything else. This largely neglects that it has pretty much always had those things, however. The first year’s guests included: Forrest J. Ackerman, Ray Bradbury, and A. E. van Vogtfor example. The second year had Kirk Alyn, Leigh Brackett, and Edmund Hamilton. You can go through every year’s guest list and find any number of people who had only tenuous, if any, connection to comics. The organizers deliberately met with other fandoms like the Society for Creative Anachronism and the Mythopoeic Society to help build support early on.
More recently, I’ve heard people complain about the changing nature of cons in general. That the larger ones now are focusing on things beyond comics. The Artists Alleys feature more prints and paintings than actual comics, there are booths set up to sell car insurance or steampunk corsets. A year or two ago, a friend of mine suggested that the show was entirely based around getting celebrity autographs, and everything else was basically just a waiting area with a flea market in it to keep people occupied. Last week, in a Least I Could Do strip, author Ryan Sohmer compared the con to a mall.
In these cases, the changes are both real and deliberate. More to the point, they reflect a changing marketplace that not everyone seems to be able to acknowledge and/or adapt to. The conventions people are remembering as being more focused on a single genre were smaller affairs, precisely because there’s a more limited audience. When a show grows to the point of attracting 100,000 people, it’s base has become so broad that it needs to expand into other media and genres to ensure there’s something for all of the attendees.
Meanwhile, smaller conventions are popping up to fill the void left by the larger ones. Their smaller and more modest scope is almost necessarily a result of their more limited focus. They certainly don’t attract the media attention of, for example, a Wizard World show, so you hear less about them, but their more intimate nature results in that experience that attendees seem to miss in the larger conventions.
After all, the point of conventions in the first place is not commerce but community. What makes going to conventions fun and enjoyable has less to do with what swag you picked up, and more to do with who you attended the show with or were able to meet on the con floor. Fandom is first and foremost about creating a community with others, whether that centers around comics or cosplay or RPGs or anything else. Conventions are just a means to facilitate that by providing a central meeting time and place. Indeed, the first comics convention consisted of about a dozen people who came out to Jerry Bails’ home one weekend.
The booths and celebrity appearances and movie screenings and all that are window dressing. The opportunity to get Gil Gerard’s autograph is just an additional incentive to clear some time on your calendar. Yes, comparing the larger conventions to a flea market or a mall isn’t entirely inappropriate; those shows are indeed shows and are based around commerce. But the smaller conventions that are stepping up still want you to show up and hang out with your old friends or maybe make some new ones. Those are absolutely still around; they just don’t have the legacy name cache of the larger ones that have switched over to commerce as their sole motivator.