Anticipating Comic-Con '09

The San Diego Comic-Con starts on Wednesday with preview night. There will be plenty of pop-culture bliss to spread around to the 125,000 attendees, but actual comic books don't have nearly as much impact at the event as they once did.

Another Comic-Con gets going on Wednesday with preview night, San Diego's 40th. I love Comic-Con and this will be my seventh in a row. But even in the relatively brief time I've been attending, the event has changed a great deal. Despite retaining the name "Comic-Con", these days the convention bills itself as the largest pop-culture gathering in America. Comic books still have a presence, of course. Panels involving Marvel and DC's biggest titles can come close to filling the mid-sized 1,400-seat rooms, and occasionally a creator will build a big enough name for himself to hold court in the 3,000 or 4,000-seat rooms. But that's a rarity. Those rooms are mostly reserved for television shows these days.

Down on the main floor, several dozen retailers sell current graphic novels and individual issues, while an entire section of the floor is donated to dealers who trade in comic books from the golden (1930's, '40s) and silver ('50s, and '60s) ages. Individual comic publishers have booths on the floor, everything from the biggest (Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, Image) to small press imprints you've probably never heard of. Not to mention artists' alley, where dozens of artists, some famous, some not, set up to sell their work, talk with fans, and create new sketches. But even on the massive main floor, the comic book people and the major tv and movie studios don't always get along. In the wake of Comic-Con 2008, Chuck Rozanski, who runs Mile High Comics, one of the largest dealers at the show (and in the United States, for that matter), had a long and fascinating column about the dealers being virtually ignored in favor of catering to the major film and television studios. Comic-Con PR man David Glanzer's take was that the same percentage of floor space is dedicated to comic books as in previous years. But if we're to take Rozanski at his word then clearly something that was once the lifeblood of the show is now more of an afterthought.

It's interesting to watch this process happen, in slow motion, over a period of years. Comic book movies are a big, big draw at Comic-Con, but comic books themselves, maybe not so much anymore. Has the event sacrificed its soul as Hollywood has taken an ever-greater interest? Rozanski seemed to think so last year, going so far as to utter the dreaded "sell-out" in his column. This year, since it's the 40th anniversary, Comic-Con will have daily panels with people who were there reminiscing about what the convention was like back in the '70s, '80s, '90s, and 2000's. But there will also be more television panels than ever, some for shows that are not even close to Comic-Con's target demographic.

In previous years, series like 24, Bones, and The Office snuck in amongst the sci-fi and fantasy. But those are programs with passionate fanbases and at least ancillary geek appeal. This year, there are panels for Burn Notice, Psych, Glee, and The Middle. Burn Notice I get- it's a cool action/spy show and it co-stars Comic-Con and B-movie legend Bruce Campbell, who will of course be in attendance. Psych isn't really even close to a genre show, but since the USA Network is already bringing Burn Notice, it seems like they thought they needed to bring something else along, too. It's telling that the latter two, though, are relegated to an offsite room at the new Hilton Bayfront hotel. Fox is clearly still working hard to build buzz for Glee, but a series about a show choir, even one populated with misfits and outcasts, doesn't really fit very well at Comic-Con. Most egregious, though, is ABC's The Middle, a middle-of-the-road family sitcom starring Patricia Heaton that may have the least appeal to the Comic-Con crowd of any event I've ever seen at the convention.

This struggle between the old Comic-Con and the modern Comic-Con is also evident in the evening programming schedule. The traditional Saturday night highlight of the convention is the Masquerade, where regular attendees sign up to be in the show, dressing in elaborate costumes and performing skits of wildly varying quality. The Masquerade fills the 4,000-seat Ballroom 20, and the convention even runs the live video feed of the event in several smaller rooms to accommodate overflow. But this year the convention is also hosting a Saturday night screening of Watchmen: The Director's Cut with director Zack Snyder in attendance to provide commentary and analysis. If there was ever a movie that fit right into Comic-Con's wheelhouse, it's Watchmen. This screening could easily fill the 6,500-seat Hall H, but instead it's being relegated to the 3,000-seat room. I'm betting there will literally be thousands of fans locked out of this event, but Comic-Con has never used Hall H for nighttime programming. I also imagine they're reluctant to admit that something besides the Masquerade may be the main draw on Saturday night this year. Of course, Warner Bros. themselves may also share some of the blame for the room choice, as Glanzer has been quoted saying that studios would often rather have hundreds of people shut out of a panel than risk their "talent" seeing empty seats in the room. Either way, this particular choice seems myopic of everyone involved.

Regardless, the 40th San Diego Comic-Con will fondly remember its past while, it seems, struggling mightily to not think too hard about what will happen after 2012, when the current contract with the city of San Diego runs out. Even if the Convention Center receives its proposed expansion and staves off the show's likely move to Las Vegas (trading beautiful west coast weather for scorching desert heat in the name of more space), I can't see comic books ever reclaiming their spot as the main focus of Comic-Con. Comics will always have a place at the convention, but that place seems to get a tiny bit smaller each year.

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