San Diego Comic-Con 50: How It Became The Mecca of Conventions

San Diego Comic-Con, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, went from hotel basement to a must-see pop culture pilgrimage.

san diego comic-con 2019 50th anniversary

Whether you know it best as San Diego Comic-Con, Comic-Con, or SDCC, for more than 130,000 people annually, Comic-Con International: San Diego is the show for fandom. 

There were cons held before SDCC (New York Comicon, 1964), and there are larger ones (Comiket in Japan, with more than half a million attendees), but the San Diego-based nonprofit event, celebrating its 50th, is The Con.

Each year, San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter is overtaken by fans celebrating pop culture, an entertainment industry seeking to generate buzz, and media outlets from all over the world covering it. The city also benefits financially: the event produced a $147 million regional impact during fiscal year 2018, according to the San Diego Convention Center Corporation research.

“It is the start of the geek year, essentially, where we learn about everything we look forward to that is coming out for the next 12 months,” says Kevin Smith, director of Jay and Silent Bob Reboot. “Some cultures have Year of the Rabbit, Year of the Chicken, and the year of the geek always begins at Comic-Con.”

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He adds it’s almost a religious experience, saying, “We head down there in the belief that they’re going to show us things, we’re going to see things that are going to hold us over for an entire year and make us excited—and faith is always rewarded at Comic-Con.”

“It is the Super Bowl of nerd-dom, the crown jewel of nerd and geek culture,” says actress Felicia Day, who created The Guild and Geek & Sundry—and is author of the recently announced book, Embrace Your Weird: Face Your Fears and Unleash Creativity(more on that here).

“I’ve gone to Super Bowls, and I could tell you that the San Diego Comic-Con is bigger than the Super Bowl,” adds Todd McFarlane, creator of Spawn, and co-founder of Image Comics. “That’s a one-day event, and everybody gets excited and mills around the stadium, [but] we’ve been here for days and days, and that street in front of the Convention Center never thins out.” 

“It’s a bit of a throwback to carnivals that came through your local town, and P.T. Barnum,” says Bruce Campbell, Comic-Con favorite and host of Travel Channel’s Ripley’s Believe It or Not!.

DC co-publisher Dan DiDio adds, “It’s a cultural stop point, it’s what you hear, it’s what people talk about, and it’s the Holy Grail of conventions.” 

“It’s somewhere like Mardi Gras, or Burning Man,” says Rob Salkowitz, author of Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture. “Or, topically, like a Gay Pride parade that started out as a [subcultural] thing, and now, not everybody who goes to Gay Pride parade is gay, but everybody that’s there is there to celebrate the culture.”

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But the show had far more humble beginnings.

COMIC CON-CEPTION 

What would eventually become SDCC started in 1970 with the one-day Golden State Comic Minicon, held in March, which saw roughly 100 attendees, and was to raise funds for and interest in a larger convention. This was followed by the three-day Golden State Comic-Con in August, which attracted 300 attendees. Before it became SDCC in 1973 and Comic-Con International: San Diego (CCI) in 1995, it was also San Diego’s West Coast Comic Convention. As the Con grew from hotel basement to arena, to the San Diego Convention Center, some of the original nerds behind it included Detroit Triple-Fan Fairs organizer Shel Dorf, publisher Ken Krueger, comic shop owner Richard Alf, sci-fi writer Greg Bear, and businessman Mike Towry. 

In those early days, not many movies were promoted at the Con, with one slightly notable exception being Star Wars in 1976, where stills were shown for the upcoming movie. The panel, titled “The Star Wars: A Prevue,” also sold a now-rare poster by Star Wars comic artist Howard Chaykin for $1.75. So, a precedent was set early on for sneak peeks and con-exclusive merchandise.

Things began to shift in the mid-1980s. Salkowitz says that as some of the bigger East Coast cons began to falter, SDCC became the place for the industry to get together. Artists and editors would connect, then fans would show up for talent, and there was a sense of intimacy.

McFarlane—who is celebrating Spawn’s 300th issue at the event—remembers his first Comic-Con in the late ‘70s  when he traveled with his father from Alberta, Canada with hopes of having his portfolio reviewed by Jim Shooter.

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“There was a big long line, and I patiently waited, knowing that I probably wasn’t going to get there—until [Shooter] did what all human beings do. So I followed him into the bathroom and pretended to take a pee next to him… He went to wash his hands, and on the way out, I went, ‘Mr. Shooter, is there any way I could show you some of my artwork,’ and he stopped, graciously enough, and took a look at my artwork and gave me a bunch of pointers.”

further reading: Comic Convention Calendar for 2019

DC Co-Publisher/CCO Jim Lee’s first Comic-Con was in 1987, where he joined artists Whilce Portacio and Scott Williams. He said it was just comic book creators, dealers, and fans back then, and he’d spend his days working on commissions.

“At night, you were drawing in the hotel room to finish up your commission list, and there were different fan clubs that would just kind of wander in, hang out, and you’d basically draw till two or three in the morning, go back to the convention, distribute the sketches that you did, and then draw some more.”

Lee even got invited to a secret 70th birthday party for Jack Kirby during his first year at the show. 

“I saw Frank Miller come in, and Steve Rude, and all these gigantic names in the comic book business, who I didn’t know at all—and then Jack Kirby comes in, everyone applauds, celebrates him, and then over the course of the night people were just coming up to him and talking to him,” Lee says. “He was super approachable, and I saw an opportunity when literally there was no one around him, just walked up and introduced myself, and told him how much his work meant to me. You can’t beat that for a first Comic-Con experience.” 

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In 1988, the first Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards were held. Known simply as the “Eisner Awards,” and named after the comic book legend and creator of The Spirit, Salkowitz said these helped to “institutionally solidify” the Con within the fan community.

further reading: 2019 Eisner Award Predictions

Tom Hiddleston as Loki at SDCC

HOLLYWOOD INVADES

The proximity to Hollywood made SDCC a logical place for movies to generate buzz.

“By the end of the ‘90s, you had 45,000 to 50,000 people going there, so when the media world ripened to the idea of comic movies, and it became a do or die thing for the movies to win their first weekend,” Salkowitz says. “Activating the hardcore fans and the influencers and getting them to spread the word about it was a huge deal for Hollywood marketing.”

Films that made a footprint at the Con in those days included The Rocketeer in 1991 and Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1992. The Phantom Menace, Blade, and The Matrix arrived in 1998, the first X-Men movie had an incredible impact in ’99, and Lord of the Rings arrived in 2000.

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Further Reading: How The Phantom Menace Teaser Trailer Became a Cinematic Event

“The heyday for me was somewhere in between when it was slowly kind of transforming into what it is today, when a celebrity or an actor showing up was like a huge deal because it just didn’t happen,” says Lee. “I remember it was like a hotel suite party, and Ben Affleck was doing the Daredevil movie, and he was just showing up to hang out. It was just like, that was a cool moment, and you just will never see that really today.”

Smith — who is bringing his upcoming Jay and Silent Bob Reboot to this year’s event, with footage from the film’s “Chronic Con” — also arrived during that era, first appearing at SDCC in 1995 to support Mallrats with a screening at the Horton Plaza mall.

“We didn’t have a panel or anything like that [but] I remember Peter David, Joe Quesada, Jimmy Palmiotti were at my screening, and I was so incredibly impressed,” he says. “After the screening, [Smith’s Mallrats producer] Scott Mosier and I approached all the artists that were at the screening and asked them if they would do our opening credit sequence [a montage of comic book covers], which didn’t exist at this point.” 

When Smith returned to the Con in 1996, he had attracted a following and packed his panel room.

“The person in charge was just like, ‘Who are you? Why did this happen?,’” he says. “That was when I felt like I had arrived at Comic-Con.”

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Once Hollywood came in, Salkowitz says the Con became a hub for media, which led to people wanting to be there just to be there, because it looks like a cool place to be. With the advent of social media in the mid-00s, it became a place for fan influencers.

“It was this rolling snowball of different stuff that picked up traction over the years and has become so tightly interwoven,” says Salkowitz. 

Known most famously for his work in the Evil Dead movies, Campbell’s first appearance at SDCC came around 15 to 20 years ago, even though he’d been doing cons for years prior.

“The thing that struck me about San Diego was the enormity of it; there’s nothing that’s that size,” he says, adding the studios “wised up” and started bringing actors to the show because it’s a perfect place to sell a product. 

“You come to this show because every journalist on the entire planet is there, and you do those roundtable blitzes where you do 10 roundtables with 10 people in an hour, and you walk out of there, you’ve hit a hundred markets.”

THE HALL H SPECTACLE

In the early days, around 1980, the arrival of a celebrity such as Adam West caused a stir. And the appearance of Alan Moore and Jack Kirby at the same SDCC in 1985 (as documented in a Jackie Estrada photo, in which the perspective makes Moore look like a literal giant) remains an epic moment. 

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The booths on the show floor got bigger and more elaborate, contributing to the event’s eye candy factor. But in terms of reputation and spectacle, Comic-Con entered a new era when Hall H opened as a 6,500-seat venue after Ballroom 20 was deemed too small for the blockbuster presentations (Batman Begins had the honor of hosting the first movie panel in Hall H, but without Christopher Nolan or Christian Bale in attendance).

Marvel Studios arrived in Hall H in 2007 to tout Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk. The Avengers assembled on stage in 2010, and Tom Hiddleston appeared in character as Loki in 2013. It was announced Batman would battle Superman on the big screen in 2013, and J.J. Abrams took everyone to a surprise Star Wars concert in 2015. Television started taking over Hall H with Lost in 2009, then there was Dexter, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Stranger Things.

“One of the ones I really remember is when Scott Pilgrim took over San Diego and he was everywhere,” says DiDio, referring to the Edgar Wright-directed film, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. After the 2010 panel, Wright walked all of Hall H to the Balboa Theater for an early screening of the film, followed by a concert. 

“I’m not much a Hall H guy; I’m a back-bin guy, and I go to the opposite end of the floor,” DiDio adds. “But I was like, ‘Okay now this has gotten crazier than I had even imagined’.”

read more: Complete Schedule of Upcoming Marvel and MCU Movies

The Twilight Saga arrived in 2008 and stuck around until 2012. This opened up the Con to broader fandoms, and the Hall H crowd felt even bigger, somehow, and the Con had to begin issuing wristbands, and discouraged camping out overnight. 

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“Those years, that was a big turning point for the fan demographic because it was bringing a lot of young women to Comic-Con,” says Salkowitz.

“I remember that big shift when suddenly you started talking about how fandom had so many different faces,” says Smith. 

PEAK GEEK

The Con was entirely sold out two weeks before the show in 2008. In 2009—during a recession—it sold out four months in advance. In 2010, the four-day passes were gone in November—eight months ahead of time. Now, it isn’t surprising if the show is sold out within a couple hours. This year, all badges sold out during open registration in 72 minutes. 

Looking back on 2007-09, Day calls it a “sweet time” because commercial and grassroots endeavors co-existed, the iPhone was introduced, and people were starting to be “a little bit more open with their geekiness.” 

“I think Comic-Con really made my career,” she says of her first year at the Con, around 2008, when she was promoting The Guild. 

“I remember standing outside the doors and handing out bookmarks for my web show, so I was a busker, in essence, for my first San Diego Comic-Con,” she recalls. “I was an actor on some drama shows but not big enough to be a star of any kind, and was just part of the Joss Whedonverse—which was a great place to be—but The Guild really put me over the top and it was the grassroots support from people I met at Comic-Con that really put us on the map.” 

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further reading: SDCC 2019 News, Tickets, Panels, and More

As the Con expanded, so did the surrealism of the affair. Salkowitz says he realized the event reached “escape velocity” from baseline nerd culture and was now tied into the mainstream entertainment business when an entourage descended an escalator on the way to a limo, only to encounter Paris Hilton surrounded by paparazzi. 

“The fact that Paris Hilton has any use for Comic-Con, and that Comic-Con has any use for Paris Hilton, that made me think of this in a completely different way,” Salkowitz says. 

“Almost my very favorite night ever was the night after we did our Dr. Horrible panel in 2009, and we all went dancing and walking around downtown,” adds Day. “Joss [Whedon] would just go down the line and talk to people who were waiting in the Hall H line, and that’s what I love about Comic-Con: That lack of barriers between fan and creator because everyone feeds off each other.” 

DiDio shared a story about comic writer, editor, and Wolverine co-creator, Len Wein (who passed away in 2017), in which Hugh Jackman hunted him down to thank him for creating the character that made him famous and successful: “The fact that these older creators that just thought that they were getting a paycheck, not realizing that this stuff was going to have such a lasting effect, were being appreciated for what they did? I think that’s my most surreal stuff.”

Gal Gadot and Jason Momoa at SDCC

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BEYOND THE CON 

Today, the San Diego Convention Center is maxed out on capacity and the event has sprawled to include satellite events. And while attendance peaked in 2015 at around 170,000, the numbers now hover above 130,000—although Salkowitz says he thinks it must be more than 200,000 when considering people who travel to San Diego without even entering the Con. 

Although Day thinks it has shifted back (which seems to coincide with some studios scaling down Hall H presence), Day says she witnessed a turning point around 2013/2014 when the Con got big and the parties became the focal point.

Along with that, she says the time coincided with “off-campus events” that didn’t require an event pass, such as Zachary Levi’s Nerd HQ, which she called an inspiration for her own Geek & Sundry fan events in San Diego. 

“It is basically an entire city event now,” says DiDio. And, to his point, for Batman’s 80th anniversary, DC is celebrating beyond the walls of the convention center. Batman is the first inductee into the Character Hall of Fame at the forthcoming Comic-Con Museum in Balboa Park. Among many other activities, the company is also hosting interactive activations, such as a VR experience at the iFLY indoor skydiving experience where participants will feel like they are the Caped Crusader soaring through Gotham City—but under the influence of Scarecrow’s fear toxin.

Meanwhile, “every carnival had a sideshow,” says Campbell, referring to the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Car Lot activation in nearby Petco Park, which will include “human car washes,” a pinball arcade, and bizarro cars on display. “You got the main tent, but then the truth is the cool show was off to the side, so I guess that’s us; we’re the cool show off to the side.” 

THERE CAN ONLY BE ONE 

Even if you’re the sideshow at San Diego Comic-Con, everyone is part of the main event.

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As the 50th SDCC unfolds, Felicia Day says there can only be one Super Bowl of nerd-dom, despite countless other conventions on the landscape which serve the fans and entertainment industry. But San Diego remains the big show. 

“It really is sort of like the one representative day that ‘regular’ people can see from the outside, and I don’t think anything will ever supplant that.”

“This is a pilgrimage,” says Campbell. “It’s the mother of all conventions, and it’s got a lot of children.”