I just spent a weekend with my kids at CONduit 2015, a regional fan convention in Utah. And driving home, I had a startling revelation – Comic-Cons are going to ruin EVERYTHING.
Hear me out. I dig Comic-Con San Diego. Comic Con Salt Lake is drawing colossal crowds; that’s (mostly) a good thing too. But people don’t understand Con history. And in a mad-cap rush to crowd 100,000 people into a convention center, we need to understand the price.
Okay, so here’s a history lesson. Flashback to the thirties. Science fiction fans are starting to organize, conventions are popping up all over the place. WorldCon is founded as the ‘king’ of Cons, a massive super-con of several thousand people, changing locations every year and reigning with the Hugo award as the penultimate fan seal of approval.
There used to be Cons everywhere. Comic-Con was just one of them, the San Diego convention celebrating comic books. Just like Gen Con was gamer-centric. And Dragon Con celebrated books. But as Comic-Con grew, the media took hold of the image, industry took hold of the sales floor, and Hollywood swept the panels.
These ‘Cons’ of yesteryear are a far cry from the new ComicCons. There were celebrities, sure, but they felt safe to mingle. The panels were smaller (meaning no lines). Imagine having a hotel room for the weekend, only it’s nestled among a dozen room parties. And there were gaming sessions going 24-hours, hosting everything from board games to Star Trek simulators to Dungeons and Dragons. Media rooms stream 24-hour anime and cult flicks, while the ‘Con-Suite’ keeps your sugar up with free food. Heck, there’s even an ice cream social.
So what? Who cares?
<I raise my hand> Unlike queuing up with a million other people at Comic-Con, my kids MATTERED at CONduit. My nine-year-old daughter ran off with the Star Trek fan club and got recruited as their Captain in the Artemis game-room; I had to drag her away, to the chagrin of her crew. One of my sons fell in love with D&D. Another was volunteering as a gopher in the video game area. My six year old made several new friends, went on an epic treasure hunt, and made more art projects than she has all year in school.
In the middle of a Doctor Who discussion in the CONsuite, it hit me. At CONduit, we can be with our tribe. It’s more than just dressing up. In real life, we wear ties and live in cubicles and … we hide. Sure, we can go to Comic-Cons and dress up in ranks, maybe get mentioned in a blog or on the news. But the room parties are where we thrive. The social events are where we organize and talk, where we discuss and dream, where we organize into fan clubs for the X-Files or Firefly. The ice cream social is where we laugh and make friends and stop caring if anyone’s watching.
Now there are two things. A Con … and a Comic Con.
… A Con is about meeting artists. At a Comic-Con, you’re relegated into waiting for hours to watch a celebrity from a hundred yards away.
…A Con is about finding new crafts, new games, new art. At a Comic-Con, you’re herded across a show-room floor that isn’t much different from any other trade show.
…A Con is about interacting with people who love what you love. At a Comic-Con, you’re limited to awkward glances at cosplayers as you shuffle past in line.
In the best world, there would be room for both. But there’s a theory in economics called ‘market cannibalization’. There’s only so much room in fandom. And as the Comic-Cons get bigger, they naturally impose a limit the number of celebrities that go to Cons. Vendors can only afford to do SO many events. And even the most fervent fans get worn out. There’s nowhere for little Cons to go.
There used to be a Con every weekend in the US. Last weekend there were five scattered throughout the country. But they’ve been getting smaller every year.
This weekend, my kids got to run free. They got to meet adults who validated their interests. They got to indulge their passions. And it might be the last time.
In the best world, maybe the Comic-Cons will start to adopt some of the good things about Cons. Maybe they’ll bring in the grass roots organizers for room parties. They’ll bring in the fan clubs. They’ll give out free food and prioritize gaming.
But in the real world? Where you and I live? I’m guessing the days of small Cons are numbered. And it’s sad, because there are a lot of cool nerds who never heard about them. They’ll be gone before anyone can miss them. At least my kids went this one time. While there was still an ice cream social.