This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on March 31, 2016.
Every two weeks in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Mark Stack will ask Comics Bulletin’s very own Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.
So without any further ado…
Comic conventions: what are they for?
I’ll be honest with you, Mark. I’m starting this column far too late, on too little sleep, and with more than a few drinks in me. Considering how I approach comic cons though, that’s probably the best way to respond to this question.
I’m not suggesting that comic cons ought to be sleepless, non-stop, alcohol-fueled weekends. That’s what works for me, but that’s a special concoction I have developed over the last several years of blending vacation, networking, and fandom into two, three, or four days of madness. It’s a lot of fun and it works for me.
However, when you show up at a comic con or speak to lots of different people who attend these events that can be almost as varied in style and approach as their many attendees, it becomes clear that there’s no singular purpose or uniting vision to the concept. You can look at extreme ends of the spectrum and compare an event like Small Press Expo (SPX) in Bethesda, Maryland to something like San Diego Comic-Con (SDCC) in… San Diego, California. Both of these shows feature comics, but their focus and mission varies wildly. Even within these specific shows, you’ll notice a contrast of goals and division of concept. SPX is a relatively small show with a relatively specific purpose, yet the inclusion of animation studios in recent years and diversity with the many smaller publishers and independent artists being featured makes it impossible to create a clear mission statement for even this specific place. You can make a broad statement about it being primarily about comics and focused on “small” publications, but even that sort of sweeping appeal could be debated. Good luck trying to pin anything like a definition on SDCC.
That diversity of purpose applies to those who attend these shows as well. There are some (read: many) comics folks who absolutely loathe SDCC, but lots of them still attend. For some it is a chance to announce exciting projects, for others it’s a necessary networking adventures, and for more still it is simply something that ought to be done, like a pilgrimage to Mecca. As someone (sort of) in comics, all of these apply and it’s also a great opportunity to meet comics creators while many attendees are distracted by whatever Hollywood celebrities are appearing that weekend. The ability to walk up to Mike Mignola and chat for 20 minutes is surreal and is only going to be possible at this very bizarre, overgrown expo.
From there you can leap to all of the many, many other interested people who enjoy attending comic cons: Collectors, cosplayers, longtime readers, curious new fans, educators, students, business owners, etc. The list goes on and on. You can pick two random attendees of any comic con out of the crowd, ask them why they came, and expect two divergent answers. The only thing that connects all of these attendees is that their reasons for attending are equally valid.
The important thing to focus on when looking at the recent explosion of comic cons (both in attendance and number of sites) isn’t a specific reason why they exist. Trying to state that these events should cater primarily to a specific type of fan or that cosplay has somehow damaged the status of these events is ludicrous. Everyone gets something specific from comic cons, everyone has their own why for attending, but the con itself doesn’t need to give them that answer because they already have it.
If you’re really interested in discovering a reason behind the popularity of comic cons or puzzling out their purpose, I suspect you’ll find it in expanding the reasons people attend, not narrowing it. When you step on the floor of a show like SDCC or C2E2 in Chicago (where I was two weeks ago) and you’ll notice an incredible array of interests, hobbies, and fandoms on display. The artists alley at C2E2 could be its own show and occupied most of my time over the course of the weekend as I collected sketches, met creators, and caught up with acquaintances and friends. It was only a segment of the floor though. There were a vast variety of panels ranging from interrogations of Tumblr to looks at upcoming manga and anime at Viz to creator Q&As. The shopping scene was incredible as well with all sorts of toys, comics, and other goodies available to be haggled over.
Even at a smaller, more focused show like SPX you’ll discover a wide range of reasons to attend. It may resemble a large artist alley in layout, but the variety within that alley is deep. Many young people, specifically women, attended SPX in 2015 for two very big reasons: Kate Beaton and Noelle Stevenson. These two artists have expanded and altered the audience for North American comics dramatically in a very short period of time. Their unique styles and far reaching brand of stories have captured hearts and imaginations that led to enormous lines in the hallways of this Marriott hotel. At the same time, others came from across the country to visit artists hosted by publishers like First Second and Fantagraphics or see rising stars with their own tables like Michel Fiffe and Charles Forsman. Again, you could pick any two people out of the crowd and receive very different answers as to why they were there.
That range of reasons, whether it be at one of the biggest comic cons in the United States or a much smaller, more specialized one, is the reason why these shows continue to grow in popularity. The collection of opportunities, talent, and artifacts on display at any of these events is vast. That variety presents people with a chance to explore their current hobbies, as well as interests they may not even be aware of yet. It is an event that allows attendees to engage directly with the culture in which they exist in a very direct manner. The broadness of that answer somehow flips the script so that the question shouldn’t be why, but rather why not?
None of this is to say that comic cons are perfect or without problems. The necessity of a “Cosplay is not consent” movement (and SDCC’s rejection of these basic rules) speaks volumes. The variety of comics cons and expos on display from the very educationally-focused Toronto Comics Arts Festival to the artist-oriented HeroesCon to those I’ve already mentioned and hundreds of others shows that there is probably a convention out there for just about everyone. Not everyone will enjoy SDCC, but everyone appreciates some aspect of culture.
And that’s what it really gets down to. At some point in time comic cons existed for a much more specific purpose. They helped bring small subcultures together aiding those who really loved comic books or role playing games or science fiction to find those with a similar interest and share in that love. Once upon a time these affectations made someone feel like an outcast and in an age before the internet it was difficult to share that love. Times have changed though.
The truth is that now geek culture simply is culture. Everyone knows who Ant-Man is. People are aware of who is directing the newest Star Trek movie. Playing Dungeons & Dragons isn’t something you have to hide from co-workers. As our culture has morphed the things that used to require a special trade show to investigate and meet like-minded people have become the things we can reliably form new friendships and lifestyles around. The growth of comic cons is a continuation of the growth of culture.
So what are comic cons for? They’re for the same thing they always were for, discovering and sharing culture. That answer is every bit as broad as it should be too, just like the comic cons that run the gamut of comics to television to toys to film to literature to cosplay to a thousand other things. They are a celebration of what we love, allowing us to all geek out together each in our own unique way.