Before I get into recounting Comic-Con Special Edition, I just want to say how great it was to see everyone that came by our booth to buy our books and chat about favorite artists and t-shirts. We give our most heartfelt thanks to those of you that spent some time with us.
San Diego Comic-Con has always been built up to this mythic status as the king-shit comic convention, but over the years I watched from afar as it became less synonymous with some of the great creative minds of the comic world and became consumed by movie and TV show announcements. That and the New York Comic Con was a sufficient substitute until that also got so bloated I became sick of it too. So after resigning myself to never really having anything to do with SDCC, I was summoned to the convention to help operate Phantasmic’s booth at the 2021 Comic-Con Special Edition in foggy San Diego, which was perplexingly set on Thanksgiving weekend, November 26 to the 28th. This meant getting from New York to San Diego while also contending with holiday travelers and hoping that my N95 holds up.
I arrived at JFK at four in the morning on November 23 to find the airport filled to the brim with holiday travelers. Rarely do good things happen at 4 AM. No one wakes up at 4 AM because they want to, and if they’re still doing something by 4 AM, they probably shouldn't be doing that thing. Despite the deluge of families at an absolutely ungodly hour, I managed to make it to San Diego unscathed. Fueled by Cheesecake Factory and Rockstar Energy I prepared for the con ahead of me.
The timing is unusual. It’s not often a convention happens while the Thanksgiving leftovers are still warm, but it’s also not often that San Diego Comic-Con has to go two years without having it’s normal physical convention in the summer, so those coffers need replenishing. Also, according to a Forbes interview with Comic-Con Chief Marketing and Strategy Officer David Glanzer, this timing was a deliberate choice to keep the convention from being too populated and potentially be a super-spreader event. Attendance of SECC is estimated to be between 40-50,000 attendees, but going from my feeling, I’d say it felt closer to 40,000. Not the kind of numbers the summer Comic-Con pulled in during the Before Times, but not bad for during a pandemic and immediately following a holiday that often involves going back to your parent’s place.
Calm before the storm... or at least the mild drizzle.
On November 24 the Phantasmic team, along with a deluge of other booth operators, descended upon the convention center. Hand carts and dollies moved boxes of books and toys, while heavy equipment and cranes foisted up enormous signs and props for some of the more extravagant booths (Pac Man really stood out with a Broadway-sized light-up marquee). Guiding me to the spot where Phantasmic’s booth was designated to sit was a contradictory flag; the crest of Hogwarts from Harry Potter on a Trans pride colored field of pink, blue, and white. Across from our booth purveying the perverse and dark was a Christian nursing school. Sin is in at Phantasmic, dear reader!
Fairly early on it occurred to me just how similar SECC was to its east coast counterpart New York Comic Con, barring a few differences here and there, like a greater animation presence and a weird cult-like fervor around Funko Pops. I’ve been participating in fandom for a few decades of my life now, and when you have Funko Pop letterman jackets with slogans like ”BELIEVE” that’s when you enter into cult territory. You still have your small publishers, odd stores with vintage toys, Japanese collectibles that are expensive as they are detailed, and a few actual comic stores too. One clear advantage SECC has is that at least the convention center layout is pretty simplistic. The Javits Center is a non-Euclidian nightmare. When characters in HP Lovecraft books describe ancient evil ziggurats with impossible angles that defy logic and decency, they’re just describing the Javits Center. The San Diego Convention Center is just a big rectangle with sections arranged alphabetically. Easy peasy.
Despite being an event attended by tens of thousands of people, there was a scaled back quality to the con that made things feel more intimate. Curiously, only a handful of booths were actually selling comics and nobody was selling any manga, to the point where people asked if we had any to sell. The artists’ alley had a mix of new artists and old pros, and even a few I had just seen the previous week at Anime NYC. Of course the one year I’d go to a San Diego con there’s a pandemic still traversing the bodies of the world, leading to numerous west coast artists I hoped to see opting out. I picked up a sketchbook from animator Chris Sanders (Lilo & Stitch, How to Train Your Dragon). The convention did have a good small press presence in lieu of larger names like IDW and Marvel. I’m hopeful to see what this means for conventions going forward. While the dealer’s room definitely could have done with more actual comics and manga to sell, the programming was a nice mix of professionals looking at the growing manga industry, the ins and outs of comics work, and fan panels.
On the whole, Comic-Con Special Edition ran quite smoothly, in contrast to the mythic clusterfuck of the Before Times iteration of the convention. The only part that didn’t run so smoothly was my red-eye back home getting delayed to the next morning due to fog. Emerging from the murky night and returning to the hotel I had been staying at the last few days but now almost entirely devoid of life, produced an uncanny feeling. It was the closest thing I’ve experienced in my life to being stuck in one of those Groundhog Day/Russian Doll inescapable time loops. I digress.
Welcome to Comic-Con, you can never leave!
There’s still an enthusiasm for comic conventions, even if there isn’t the same media presence, and after going to many big conventions for years on end like New York Comic Con, I’ve been finding the hyper charged all encompassing entertainment style of comic cons to be a little tiresome. Let Marvel show off their new movies at their own events, and maybe we can get comic conventions that actually feel fun and intimate again.