How many of you were able to attend Comic-Con in 2008? There’s an interesting story that came out of that particular convention. Well, there’s interesting stories that come out from just about every Comic-Con. Quite a number of them from each, in fact. But there’s one from 2008 that’s especially interesting for us here in our discussion of fandom.
Let me set the stage for you. After hosting a few different venues, Comic-Con first started using the San Diego Convention Center back in 1991. Attendance that year was around 15,000 -- needless to say, they didn’t take up all the space themselves! But with more space available at the Convention Center, the show was able to expand over the years and attendance broke 50,000 for the first time in 2001. The show kept expanding and, by 2004, they were officially taking up the whole Convention Center in its entirety. Fire codes meant that attendance was effectively maxed out for that facility starting in 2006, and the show has had a pretty consistent number of people attending since every year since then.
One of the complaints you may have heard in recent years is that the show’s focus has been rather lost. That it’s origins with comic books have been subsumed by movies and video games. Whether you agree with that direction or not, that is a fairly recent phenomenon, as suggested by those attendance numbers. For as many stories as you might hear about camping out for seats in “Hall H” -- well, there was no Hall H to camp out for a decade ago!
As it happens, Hall H in 2008 is where our story is.
Hall H, if you’re unfamiliar, is the largest room in the San Diego Convention Center. It seats around 6000 people, and is typically used for the panels that are expected to be especially popular. Big budget movies and TV shows, frequently, where star actors or directors bask in thunderous applause. Because these events are popular and have limited seating, it’s not uncommon for people to wait in line outside long beforehand to guarantee a place inside. Sometimes they literally camp out the night before.
In 2008, there was a movie that was trying to work up some positive buzz through the convention. While the film itself wouldn’t be released until much later in the year, showing clips at Comic-Con with much of the cast in attendance was sure to generate some additional interest. Nothing unusual in that, right?
Except this time, the movie was Twilight.
Erik Davis of Cinematical called it “an absolute Beatles-mania sh*t show with tween girls and their Twi-hard moms”. Peter Sciretta of /Film complained about “how much of a cluster-f*ck was caused by Twilight’s presentation in Hall H.” It led to plenty of outrage among “regular” con-goers and led to a number of spontaneous mini-protests about how “Twilight ruined Comic-Con!”
What’s interesting here is that this was entirely predictable. Comic book fans in fact faced similar reactions back in the 1950s and ‘60s when they attended the World Science Fiction Convention, though at a much smaller scale since attendance at those shows was only in the hundreds. Comic fanzines at the time noted how the science fiction fans looked down on comics, ostensibly because comics had been ruining the good name of science fiction with “tripe” like Superman and Flash Gordon.
Sciretta inadvertently hit on the problem in his rant about the Twilight showing at Comic-Con: “Unlike others, I don’t feel threatened by the books, films, or insane fandom. Why should I? Twilighters can do their own thing, and it really doesn’t affect me at all… except for when it does.”
The crux of the problem is invasion of territory. Comic book fans have used San Diego as their Mecca since the early 1970s. It was THE time and place where they could mingle among a large group of like-minded individuals. There was no fear of being considered an outsider; everybody was there because they enjoyed comics! As movies crept in, that was mostly seen as okay at first because they happened to be the types of movies that most of the folks who attended liked anyway. Even back in 1976, for example, Roy Thomas and Howard Chaykin were in attendance primarily to promote the comic book adaptation of some new space opera movie a kid named George Lucas was working on. The Superman and Flash Gordon type material that was scorned by “hard” SF fans.
But Twilight was a movie the “old guard” had no interest in. More to the point, the people who were interested in Twilight bore little resemblance to a previously “typical” con-goer. And when they came to Comic-Con, they were invading comic book fans’ Mecca. To carry the religious analogy, imagine a large group of Christians descending on the actual Mecca and camping out in front Masjid al-Haram, the second largest mosque in the world, to hear the Pope. That’s perhaps a bit extreme, but it’s not too far removed from what we’re talking about. Hence, the conflicts that arose.
This convention season, fans of all sorts are going to converge on cities like San Diego looking to get a certain autograph, or win the costume contest, or demo the latest video game, or just collect all the giveaways they can. The shows are diverse enough now that they’re going to attract a broader array of people than in years past, and while you’ll have to excuse comic fans as they get used to other people encroaching on “their” turf, those same comic fans should keep in mind that everybody’s just there to share their passions and maybe it’s not the end of the world if yours and theirs don’t exactly overlap.