“You could say, it’s our own fault – we become addicts, all of us. And, coming from abroad, this addiction proves as expensive as crack.”
Leonard examines the lure for international visitors – and the desire they all have for Comic-Con International to fully embrace their name.
I’ve not done much research into what actually happened but I have a romantic notion of how it went down: Shel Dorf, Richard Alf, Ken Krueger, Mike Towry and Greg Bear, sat around on beanbags in a garage, drinking beers and devouring pizza, making plans for pulling together as many guests and features as they could to fill the U.S. Grant for what would eventually become the Golden State Comic-Con. Decisions to be made about what name they would operate under, young Turks filled with youthful spit and bile. “We’ll make this the best comic convention in the world, ever, man! That’s right! One day, we’ll even go international, man… International! That’s it! Comic-Con International! Can you imagine? That would be so cool, man! Hey, Shel, pass the pepperoni, dude…”
And the name stuck. And over the decades, as comics, movies and pop culture has quickly devoured everything in its wake, the name has cast an ever-increasing shadow over the entire organisation.
For myself, the name actually was part of the initial appeal, that idea that San Diego Comic-Con was a truly welcoming International event, calling attendees like myself from across the globe like a siren. I first heard of the Con through reading stories in monthly like Empire Magazine; the name kept appearing in articles about new and fresh films, months, even years before their release date: how intriguing. And unlike a glamorous event like Cannes – a purely industry affair – Comic-Con was something I could even conceivably attend myself, one day. And it sounded so BIG!
There were comic conventions held up and down the UK, covering comics, sci-fi, TV and movies (I have a fond memory of attending my first ever Con with my mate Neil Sykes, aged 20; wandering around a Starfleet gathering, held in a couple floors of the Hilton Hotel in Leeds, one bright Saturday morning; pointing and snickering at Klingons and Vulcans, flicking through poorly produced replica tat and seeing faces, sat behind a table, signing 8×10’s and looking like they’d lost the will to live) but nothing on the sheer scale and scope of what I was reading in the magazines, and subsequently seeing on YouTube clips, about this thing called Comic-Con – this thing looked epic.
Still: San Diego, seemingly a world away for this young chap, literally on the other side of the world. But a boy can dream, y’know.
That dream became reality when I got engaged to a wonderful Welshwoman called Caroline who, as it happened, proved to be as big a geek as myself, if in admitedly slightly different genres – my passion was comics and science fiction, she was big into her movies and genre television. (We both loved Ghostbusters.) In 2009, we began planning for our big day the following year and the subsequent honeymoon; I frivolously threw out the idea of going to Comic-Con, fully expecting her to want the more idyllic image of a sandy beach with endless cocktails and waiter service. Imagine my delight when she enthusiastically embraced the suggestion. And so, after an amazing, memorable, shower-soaked day in Cardiff in June, we boarded the plane and made our way to California.
One of the first things that struck the pair of us was the sheer numbers of international accents we heard throughout the weekend: when we made our way into Hall H on the Saturday of the 2010 Con, almost every panel had a non-American dialect, echoing down from the panel dais. Kodi Smit-McPhee (‘Let Me In’), Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (‘Paul’), Kenneth Branagh and Tom Hiddleston (‘Thor’), Hayley Atwell and Dominic Cooper (‘Captain America: The First Avenger’)… And that was just Hall H. They just kept coming.
We were also encouraged by the number of international visitors we kept bumping into in every corner of San Diego. his number continues to rise, year-in, year-out, as the lure of the Con takes hold: dedicated attendees from around the world make their way to the West Coast, fully intending that that first expensive endeavour will be a one-off affair – getting Comic-Con out of the system and off the bucket list – and then falling under the same spell that every attendee, wherever they’re from, are bewitched by. You could say, it’s our own fault – we become addicts, all of us. And, coming from abroad, this addiction proves as expensive as crack. Thank the Gods it’s only once a year.
It also appealed, to Caroline and myself, that our own accents caused quite the stir with the locals we spoke to – in both cases, it was recognised by Americans we met in lines, crowds and restaurants, that we were speaking ‘English, but not English’: Caroline’s Welsh accent had many fans of those of a Celtic bent (even tickling Ron Perlman during that years ‘Sons Of Anarchy’ Ballroom 20 panel) and I found myself playing up my own man Received Pronunciation, occasionally throwing those I spoke to by sliding into deep Yorkshire, every once in a while. Think ‘Alan Rickman in a car crash with Sean Bean’.
We made our way back in 2011 and after that exciting year, I was motivated to create what has become the single most rewarding aspect of Comic-Con for me, personally: a Facebook Group for SDCC UK Attendees. Maybe it was the late hour but I was taken with the grandiose ambition of those original CCI founders, too, in naming the Group: ‘Spirit Of ’86: The British Invasion’, taking as my inspiration the import of UK writers and artists to American comics by DC editor Karen Berger in the mid 80’s. This was a move that kickstarted the influx to the States creators such as Alan Moore, Brian Bolland, Dave Gibbons, Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, an ‘invasion’ that eventually influenced an entire era of comic style, an influence that still resonates today.
In just three years, we have become a true family of attendees, helping each other with badge and hotel sales, passing on advice and tips to first-timers and arranging meet-ups while at the Con which often descend into loud and bombastic, boozy affairs with lively banter and raucous laughter – we have become a brotherhood of our own, a true invasion. I consider a number of the longer-serving members of the Group as some of my closest friends; when they say that ‘this year is going to be our last, we can’t afford to do this anymore’, my heart breaks a little, like I’m losing a comrade. I am always incredibly humbled by the passion and effort that the Group Members put in as I do, into this little thing that I threw together one August night at 3am in the morning on Facebook, still high from my own Con adventure the fortnight previous.
Last year, I wanted to see just how International the Con actually was. I started a thread on the Friends Of CCI Forum, asking members to list where they are travelling from. The majority of visitors are from the U.S. but I think the amount of visitors from further afield and the variety of home countries would shock and surprise many if they hadn’t thought of it before. With attendees flying in from all corners of the globe – from Brazil and Chile, from New Zealand and Australia, from Sweden and the Netherlands, from Turkey and Tel Aviv, from Beijing and Singapore, and, yes, from the United Kingdom, all of us are seduced by the overwhelming sense of tribe and brotherhood that flows through Comic-Con like blood.
(I’m always fascinated that even this international quotient can be a source of consternation to some: posts on the Comic-Con International Facebook, put out by these foreign interlopers, feeling that they are ‘stealing’ their Con. “What are you doing anyway, buying badges, taking the chances of our landing badges ourselves? You’re not even from here – this is America, goddamnit! ‘Merica! ‘Merica!!” This is usually followed by a couple of equally flatulent posts from San Diegans, requesting that even those from beyond California should be shunted in preference to those more local, like it belongs to them, that they somehow own it – something they’ve not been able to claim for many years now, I feel. How odd.)
One regular post type that you spot every other day on the CCI Facebook wall is from fans, asking for Comic-Con to come to their town, even another country. “Are you coming to Canada?” “Will you bring Comic-Con to Italy?” “When can we have a Comic-Con in Australia?” With a name like Comic-Con International, you could say that the organisation created a rod for its own back.
It doesn’t help that other event organisers across the globe, some of a dubious nature and outside CCI’s sphere of influence, have taken the ‘Comic-Con’ name and applied it to any and all events, such is the power and appeal of the brand. All CCI can do is sit and watch as shoddy events trade off the term ‘Comic-Con’. Hence, every once in a while, a rash of posts will appear, asking for an explanation of why a certain show somewhere didn’t meet the expectations of an attendee – “How the hell can you have your name attached to this mess?”. The reply that Comic-Con International ultimately doesn’t operate conventions outside of California simply rams home the point that the organisations title is nothing but an empty platitude.
The frustration grows when it becomes apparent that, when an event abroad does work well, what the organisers are doing is taking the Comic-Con operations model and running with it: a large central Exhibition Floor, side rooms for panels and signings, a large arena space for headlining panels. Is it any wonder that modern cons are judged and benchmarked on how closely they resemble San Diego Comic-Con? The rise in interest in popular culture and the rising demand for Cons worldwide mean that CCI could easily export this model to other cities in the continental U.S. and beyond, should they see fit. Those who have made their way to the source and have managed to experience the original can often wonder what it could take to convince Comic-Con International to step out of its comfort zone and set up tent elsewhere. For some of us, it would certainly save on air fare.
It becomes even more frustrating when it appears that the organisation seem determined to not to even consider leaving San Diego, the convention’s home – figuratively and literally. As the Con continues to grow beyond the Convention Centre and out into the city itself, almost buckling under its own weight, attendees are left to wonder why on Earth it stays, when there are increasingly convincing arguments to move to another city, even another State. It’s almost as if the con’s founding fathers wrote a secret clause into the organisation statutes: “This is where we started, this is where we belong, this is where we stay.”
It’s understandable, though. San Diego is a beautiful, charming, vibrant city without the neon plastic, sin-soaked atmosphere of Las Vegas or the metropolitan chrome and concrete surroundings of Anaheim. Being by the ocean gives San Diego an organic and bright feel, exactly what Comic-Con aims to achieve in tone for its own show, And, at the end of the day, it’s where the success story all began. There’s also the feeling that, once the Convention did uproot, the Committee would be putting on the show for economical reasons and not why the whole she-bang started in the first place: for the fans. Like the ambitions of the boys back in the garage, all of the reasons for staying in San Diego are honourable and romantic notions.
These notions may appear for the contemporary attendee to be Comic-Con International’s shackles – but I believe, however, shackles were meant to be broken. I hope one day that someone can come along and convince the CCI ‘high-ups’ that to stretch beyond the comfort zone of this beautiful city can also not dilute the brand that they are so fiercely protective of, but also allow the celebration of pop culture to grow organically, all with a proud heritage to pool from. I believe that the future of Comic-Con International lives in the embracing of the potential of that ambitious name, settled on in a garage – in my head – decades ago. And if CCI needs someone to ultimately administrate their inevitable Dubai operation, I’ll made damn sure they have my number to hand.