We are rapidly approaching — and perhaps are already deeply into — an era in which every major American city has a comic-con, but the term “comic-con” seems applicable only to the Comic-Con International in San Diego. And that application of the term has become itself nearly meaningless. In a celebration of recommended summer activities, USA Weekend’s cover for June 20-22 gave the biggest type to “Comic-Con.” But the article within — after dispensing with movies, cocktails, and concert tours — in attempting to give the “10 best reasons to go to Comic-Con” did not include comic books or comic strips or cartoonists among those reasons. And the word “superhero” was mentioned only in connection with dressing up in the costume of your favorite. Others of the “10 reasons” include celebrity spotting, family-friendly events, retro toy retailers, free nightly parties and “nearly every pop-culture passion.” Oh, and “Artists Alley” — “where many folks are happy to draw whatever your heart desires.”
But no cartoonists, comic strips or comic books. Just “pop culture passions.”
The themes adopted for the Sandy Eggo Con this year commemorate various anniversaries — Batman’s 75th, Daredevil’s 50th, Marvel Comics’ 75th, Usagi Yojimbo’s 30th, and Hellboy’s 20th. All comics milestones. But 2014 is also an anniversary year for many of the most historic, precedent-setting newspaper comic strips, some of which set the pace for comic book adventuring. With 80th anniversaries are Terry and the Pirates, Flash Gordon, Jungle Jim, Secret Agent X-9, Mandrake the Magician, and Li’l Abner; 90th anniversaries — Wash Tubbs (and Captain Easy, a model for Superman, who came along in 1929, 85 years ago) and Little Orphan Annie. And other 85th anniversaries are those of Buck Rogers and Tarzan — and Popeye in Thimble Theatre.
But none of the program sessions in San Diego recognized the signal contributions these comic strips made in the field that the Comic-Con is supposedly celebrating.
Heidi MacDonald, comics editor at the Internet news site The Beat, estimates that there are 600-700 popular culture conventions being held around the world each year. Newspaper reports on comic-cons usually emphasize the colorful costumes on parade at these events but seldom mention comic books or comic strips. Or cartoonists. But the news articles are awash in the names of movie stars and other pop culture notables.
At nytimes.com, George Gene Gustines observes the change: “Its name may emphasize comic books, but New York Comic-Con [scheduled for October] at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center also celebrates film, television and video games. ReedPop, which organizes the show, is making that appreciation of all things pop culture more official by declaring October 3-12 ‘New York Super Week,’ a citywide festival that will include gaming events, lectures, concerts, comedy shows and more.”
Most of the new crop of comic-cons report record-breaking attendance year after successive year. The Denver Comic-Con, which I’ve attended since its inaugural three years ago, jumped from about 27,700 the first year to 61,000 the second and, this year, to 86,500. Comic-cons are apparently growing in popularity, but they’re also growing further and further away from the comics that inspired them.
Still, at the San Diego Comic-Con, officials can point to lots of comics stuff. Said Jim McLauchlin in his wrap-up at newsarama.com: “A few years ago, when the fanboys lit their torches and sharpened their pitchforks screaming ‘You sold out!’ the Con trumpeted that they still had more hours dedicated to straight comics programming, more hardcore comics events, and more comic book vendors than any other damn show in the country. And they were absolutely right. In this, San Diego sits in position of paradox: They have more comics than anyone, yet comics are somehow subsumed, pushed to the side.”