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The Problem With Comic Con

I just finished up another year at San Diego Comic Con. Sales were fine, and I met plenty of fans, but it was much, much quieter on the convention floor than in years past. I used to have hour-long lines of people waiting at my table; not so this year. Normally this would make me think “oh god my audience is shrinking, what am I doing wrong, oh god” but I’m not alone in this experience- many (every one I talked to) of my colleagues also reported slower sales and smaller crowds.

You could see it throughout the rest of the convention center as well- it just wasn’t as packed with people as it has been in previous years. I could actually walk from one end of the show floor to the other in less than an hour- last year it took upwards of two.

So I don’t think my experience was unique, or related to the popularity of my work (my income and site traffic don’t indicate any problems, anyway). What is the root cause, then?

My belief is that it is the shifting culture and focus of the convention itself. SDCC hasn’t really been “about” comics for years, that is nothing new. Big movie, TV, and video game booths have been the priority ever since my first trip back in 2004. So what’s different?

Part of the problem is that SDCC has run out of room. They can’t add any more booth space, and they can’t sell any more tickets than they already do. This means that the convention is a zero-sum game now- there is a set number of people who can attend, and a set number of people/companies/etc who can exhibit. Tickets for the convention sell out incredibly fast, which means that they’re mostly snapped up by the die-hard Comic Con fans who stay up all night hitting “refresh” in order to buy tickets. You can’t just casually decide to go check out the convention anymore- you have to commit to it months and months in advance. This translates to seeing a lot of the same people visiting my booth, year after year. Which is fine, I like catching up with folks I remember from years past! But new faces are important too, and I saw a lot fewer of those this time.

The other part of the problem is the SDCC panel system. If you want to go to a hugely popular panel- Twilight, for example- you have to buy your tickets to the show, and then spend hours, even days, waiting in line to get in. And even then it isn’t guaranteed- I met plenty of folks on Sunday who were super bummed out that they had spent most of a prior day waiting to get into a panel only to be turned away.

Every hour someone spends waiting in line or camping a panel room is an hour that they aren’t spending on the convention floor where we are. And if you’ve been waiting for 10 hours to get into a panel, the last thing you feel like doing afterwards is walking around the con floor.

I’d wager that a sizable portion of SDCC attendees only buy tickets to get into one or two panels and have minimal interest in the convention itself. And every one of those people who buys a ticket denies it to someone who might want to come by my booth. The panels get bigger and bigger, and more and more popular, every year. The SDCC staff seems to have no desire to change this trend- ticket sales are ticket sales, after all.

So you have a set number of tickets, more and more of which are being purchased by people who spend very little, if any, time on the convention floor, which prevents more casual fans from attending the show. This might be great for movie and TV and video game studios, who are putting these panels on in order to generate publicity for their products. But it leaves actual cartoonists and vendors, like me, out in the cold.

I’m not saying that SDCC was a total bust. You can still be successful there. We did fine, sales-wise. I still met plenty of great fans, and had fun.

But the show has changed, and it feels like actual comics creators are no longer a figurative afterthought, but a literal one. And I’m not sure how worthwhile it is for people like me anymore.