Comic-Con International just wrapped up in San Diego and, by all the accounts I’ve seen, was generally a rousing success. I didn’t see any reports of Twilight fans getting bullied, no one was stabbed in the eye with a pen, and the zombie walk did not include a panicked driver who tried to run people over. In fact, the biggest complaints I heard about the show this year were the perennial ones about how there’s not much “comic” in Comic-Con. That it’s been taken over by movies and video games and pop culture more generally.
This year’s round of complaints began before the show even started when long-time retailer Chuck Rozanski noted that, for the first time in over four decades, he would not be setting up a Mile High Comics booth at the show. He said the show demographics had changed, and that fans weren’t looking to pick up old back issues like they used to. Which I don’t doubt is true, but I suspect it has as much to do with the nigh-ubiquity of digital comics and paperback collections than the actual demographic of the show.
In any event, the show spawned the usual rounds of being too movie/TV/game-focused.
My counter-argument has long been that it’s always been based on pop culture more generally. The first full show included Forrest J. Ackerman, Ray Bradbury, and A. E. van Vogt as guests. Ackerman and Bradbury had done some work in comics, but that was hardly what they were known for; all three gentlemen were in science fiction. The following year, actor Kirk Alyn was a guest. Animator Bob Clampett the year after that. Voice actress June Foray the year after that.
By the time George Lucas started promoting Star Wars at the show in 1976, Comic-Con had featured such guests as Walter Koenig, Majel Barrett, Frank Capra, George Pal, Chuck Jones, Mel Blanc, and Chuck Norris. To be sure, the show featured comic creators as well, but there was a great deal of crossover fandoms at the convention from the very beginning.
And all that was by design. In a recent piece in Rolling Stone, Mike Towry recalled that when they were first discussing the idea of a convention, they met with Jack Kirby to see if he would be willing/able to attend as a guest. As they were still in the early planning stages, they asked for Kirby’s opinion on whether they should limit the show to just comics or have an expanded scope. Kirby suggested they include everything fans like. Towry recalled Kirby as saying, “it would be a lot more fun and a richer experience if we included these other things, like film and science fiction and whatnot.”
Despite being called Comic-Con International—or Golden State Comic Con or San Diego’s West Coast Comic Convention or whatever before they settled on a permanent name—comics were always only considered a portion of the show. The fans that were there at the start included folks from comics, science fiction, movies, television, and a variety of other aspects of pop culture. That holds just as true today, but the increased scale of everything (from attendees to budgets to media saturation) tends to make the more visually active aspects (i.e. movies, television, and video games) stand out perhaps a little more. But it’s absolutely nothing new.