Comic-Con wrestles business out of chaos
Day 1 of San Diego Comic-Con, 2011.
July 9th, 2012
03:57 PM ET

Comic-Con wrestles business out of chaos

Editor's note: Aaron Sagers is a New York-based entertainment writer and nationally syndicated pop-culture columnist. He has specialty knowledge in "paranormal pop culture," has lectured at conventions nationwide on the topic and is a media pundit on supernatural entertainment. He covers pop culture daily at ParanormalPopCulture.com and can be found on Twitter @aaronsagers.

If you don't have some reaction to San Diego Comic-Con International you're not participating in popular culture.

What began more than four decades ago as an intimate gathering of comic book creators, fans and legends has become a packed entertainment event. Although it doesn’t have the same ring to it, Comic-Con could more appropriately be called the Transmedia Pop Culture Con where buzz for a year’s worth of projects is created, prolonged or squelched.

Yet, despite the awareness that the con is a giant marketplace where producers sell directly to customers, there has been shockingly little analysis of the business of the event before Rob Salkowitz’s new book, “Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture.”

Seated at a conference table at the McGraw-Hill building in Manhattan, Salkowitz delved deep into his nerd-business theories.

A futurist and business writer, Salkowitz approaches "The Con,' as it is known in nerdy circles, as more than just a meeting ground of Hollywood suits and 130,000 fans. Instead, he calls it a “laboratory in which the global future of media is unspooling in real time,” where people participate in their entertainment instead of just consuming it.

Salkowitz writes that Comic-Con can actually teach some important lessons about challenges facing all creative endeavors in our globalized, digital world, but he does so from the perspective of a comics nerd who attended his first con when he was eight.

“In fact, I learned to read and write from comics, and I learned, basically, the fundamentals, of visual communication,” said Salkowitz. He strayed from the church of comics for a time as an adult, but returned to it and attended his first San Diego Comic-Con in ’97. After he ended up in a game of Five Card Nancy (based on the Ernie Bushmiller strip, and created by Scott McCloud) with McCloud, Kurt Busiek and Will Eisner, you could say he was back in the congregation.

Salkowitz’s nerd cred makes him the ideal candidate to examine The Con’s moment of “Peak Geek,” where comics culture is at a maximum saturation level, and to make some educated predictions of what happens next.

Without slipping into a dull business discussion about something like a Trade Federation dispute, Salkowitz acknowledged that Comic-Con's environment consists of consumers who are simultaneously fans and co-creators in a business fueled by talent.

“At the highest level, this is a book about this industry that started out at the fringes of culture and of business, and over 25 years, it came to inhabit the center of both of them,” he said. He called The Con a “triumph of the nerd story,” but added “the 2011 Con felt to me like Europe in 1914, right before everything blows up.”

He added there is always the risk that Hollywood might move on from The Con, because that industry is interested in making hits - a hard thing to manufacture. Even if a movie like “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" connects with fans, and is true to the source material, it may not connect with the mass media (it didn’t). Even if lesser-known characters like Iron Man can be the focus of a successful franchises – and lead into the mega-successful “The Avengers” – that doesn’t make “Green Lantern” a sure thing (it wasn’t).

“Maybe popular culture gets sick of this and the moment passes, and in a few years, comics are like disco,” he said. “A lot of people are looking back are going to say, ‘Wow, that’s really strange that was so popular’ and comics either go back to being this nerd niche … or become just like jazz.”

That’s why Comic-Con has decided to embrace brands like “Twilight,” he said. If Comic-Con can get a younger generation to build memories that way, it could guarantee fans return to the convention 30 years from now for nostalgia's sake.

Salkowitz sees Comic-Con in a state of mid-jump over the shark. Much of the event's celebrity component lacks “meaningful activity,” he said, but there is also a “very authentic, historically-focused” aspect of creators trying to do real work.

Enter "nerd media." While companies want to attract the raving comics fans who attend The Con, those fans are not zombies, Salkowitz said. They talk back and participate, and can’t be taken for granted.

Having someone like Chris Hardwick or Harry Knowles behind an entertainment company's project adds credibility – unless it begins to look like those nerds are so integrated into a marketing and publicity machine that they’ve been corrupted. If that happens, there will be at least 10 other grass roots websites ready to emerge from the basement and take their place, Salkowitz said.

Looking forward, Salkowitz the business writer wants to observe the impact of digital comics at the 2012 Comic-Con more than anything else. He said he’s interested in seeing if the direct comics market can survive, and if retailers will be able to participate. Also, in a situation where anyone can be a publisher now, but the value is placed on the distribution, he is curious how things play out when everybody has an incompatible format.

Salkowitz the nerd, meanwhile, is excited about the “deluge of good vibes” that comes with walking into a room filled with 130, 000 people having the time of their lives. He added that that’s the side he really wanted “Comic Con and the Business of Pop-Culture” to be about.

“There’s always going to be the terrible commercial aspect,” said Salkowitz. “At the end of the day, people are interested in this stuff because of the stories, because of the characters, because it captures our imagination, because it’s well told and well executed. … It’s people that are doing that, and not the people at the top of the companies.”


Filed under: Comic Longbox • Comic-Con 2012
soundoff (23 Responses)
  1. Cris

    Quiero decir que he seguido atentamente tu artículo porque
    es un tema que había buscado en google y hasta el momento no había encontrado aquello que buscaba.

    Un saludo

    March 9, 2013 at 2:00 pm |
  2. Josh

    I like to play at the playground.. and make pictures of cups..

    July 14, 2012 at 4:15 am |
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    July 11, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
  4. Dino

    How many Comic Book Guys can you count in the photo above?

    It started 4 decades ago. That's when people started thinking comic books would be worth a fortune if you saved them. Unfortunately most of the ones worth anything are over 4 decades old for a similar reason that products marked "collectible" are not worth squat. The latter is in print, the former is by overzealous word of mouth.

    July 11, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
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      September 15, 2012 at 1:26 am |
  5. THE TRUTH

    Comic-Con has become everything it was never meant to be. It's now a corporate salesfloor full of shills and greed. It used to be a fun celebration of nerd-dom. A place where Comic Book Guy could find others of his kind and hang around with the artists and writers of said comics/shows/movies/games.

    Now it's all press and heartless corporate greed.

    Sad times.

    July 11, 2012 at 8:37 am |
    • HDS

      That's why DragonCon is still better.

      July 11, 2012 at 9:19 am |
  6. Kay

    Comic-Con has gone from a fun convention about comic books to a hellaciously overcrowded media circus incluidng movies and TV shows that have nothing at all to do with comics. Forget getting into the more popular panels – you'll be crushed in a hallway with thousands of other people for hours, then trapped in a hot, way overcrowded room with no way to get food, water or a bathroom break because if you go out you won't be able to get back in. If you're really lucky you might be able to actually see the celebrities or writers you came for. If you're not (and most aren't), you'll be stuck halfway back and spend the whole time staring at the backs of heads, all while you're starving and parched. Sounds like fun to me!

    July 11, 2012 at 7:49 am |
    • Aleksandra

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      October 12, 2012 at 4:47 am |
  7. Sid Frischer

    As a comic artist who creates comic art almost everyday. I appreciate an article about the comic-con conventions,
    since I realize that for the comic artist for be recognized and sell him work, to make a living at it, one must use this
    venue to break into the market. What Im wondering is what is the future of online comic books? Seems that is the
    best economical way to deliver comic books to the masses of fans that might read them. Can anyone help me out,
    tell me about online digital comic books? Sid Frischer, artist, comic artist

    July 11, 2012 at 1:41 am |
    • Fsafda

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      September 14, 2012 at 11:57 pm |
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    July 10, 2012 at 11:37 pm |
  9. Nwvotes

    Would you or have you ever gone to Comic-Con? Vote at Nationwidevotes.com

    July 10, 2012 at 8:42 pm |
  10. Chris

    Comic-Con is chaos all the way around – the only "business" is what they're doing to the attendees year after year. I have participated both as an attendee and as an exhibitor, and came to the conclusion that Comic Con exists in spite of itself, not because of itself. It is one of the most poorly organized, poorly executed conventions in existence. And I've been to some pretty horrendous conventions over the years. For the dud-thinkers out there (and the majority of attendees are exactly that) there isn't a problem, simply because they were able to dress up, be stupid, and be a fan-boy, all without getting tossed onto the trolley tracks. But for anyone who actually has a clue, the move to Anaheim is WAY overdue. Only problem is, then the same "organizers" will only have a bigger mess to screw up. This attendee/exhibitor is "non-participatory" until someone with real organizing ability comes onboard. I'm not holding my breath.

    July 10, 2012 at 7:53 pm |
    • zapper

      Sounds like the last 15 yrs. of burning man....

      "Comic Con exists in spite of itself, not because of itself. It is one of the most poorly organized, poorly executed conventions in existence."

      July 11, 2012 at 1:27 am |
  11. WHAT?

    Any good writer knows better than to rely on one subject for source and content or quotes – terribly written and quite narrow minded – shame on CNN. I have no desire to read something from a high schooler here.

    July 10, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
  12. Khan

    I now rename this event to : Comic-Khan!

    July 10, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
    • cdgfla

      Yes, still, here, old friend. You've managed to kill just about everyone else but like a poor marksman you keep, missing, the target. If you want to kill me Khan you are going to have to come down here, you are going to have, to, come, down, here.

      July 11, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
  13. HowardtheDeck

    Thought you might be interested in this for your site – a 2012 Comic Con International Preview Podcast. These guys break down all of the panels, exclusives, what's new this year, and more.

    Feel free to post the link to your blog, people might like to download and listen on their trip to San Diego!

    http://underscoopfire.com/podcast-41-comic-con-international-preview/

    July 10, 2012 at 11:45 am |
    • Rick Otto

      Thank you for the link Howard. We have a blog called MyTechBrief at http://www.mytechbrief.com. Just this week we added a new category to our blog called Action Figures/Toys. It will cover action figures and toys such as board games relating to items such as Video Games. It will also cover Comic Books, Anime, and other pop culture items, really anything you see at Comic-Con International. We just added an article mentioning Comic-Con and as part of that article I posted the link to the podcast that you provided.
      The link to the Action Figures/Toys category is: http://www.mytechbrief.com/topics/action-figures-toys

      July 11, 2012 at 7:10 am |