The year was 1970, at the San Diego Golden State Comics Convention — the gathering that would become Comic-Con International — when science fiction author Ray Bradbury took the stage at the U.S. Grant Hotel. He had a message for the fewer than 300 attendees: Do not let others label your passion for comics or science fiction as mere escapism.
"[All] these things that are looked on as escapes, it’s not so,” Bradbury said. “Don’t let anyone hand you that nonsense. That’s one of those trick words that we’ve had applied to various fields like science fiction, detective writing and comic strips. It’s simply not true. It’s a way of dreaming yourself to a reality later in your life.”
Forty-five years later, as Comic-Con prepares to welcome more than 130,000 to the San Diego Convention Center starting with Wednesday’s preview night and ending Sunday, it’s hard to imagine the pop-culture gathering taking root anyplace else.
Last week, Comic-Con International gave the city a 45th anniversary gift when it announced it would stay in San Diego until at least 2018.
“San Diego and Comic-Con are a natural pair, and we’re both extremely pleased to continue our four-decade partnership,” Mayor Kevin Faulconer said. “San Diego residents can take heart knowing that the world-famous convention will continue to pump tens of millions into our economy to support local jobs, street repair and neighborhood services.”
Still, the relationship has been a rocky one as Comic-Con’s growing crowds have stretched the capacity of the San Diego Convention Center and attendees have been met with escalating hotel fees and marketing sprawl that takes over most of the city’s downtown. Over the years, Comic-Con has flirted with proposals from cities better prepared to handle the masses or closer to Hollywood A-listers that have become such a dominant part of the convention.
But even after all the changes, Comic-Con still has heart, thanks to the people, and maybe even the location.
San Diego may not have “Keep Austin weird” quirkiness, or the long history of New Orleans, but for one extended weekend every year, it transforms into a massive, geeky summer camp.
Restaurant servers dress in cosplay, Wi-Fi stations pop up in the oddest areas, and entire Syfy series take over local cafes. San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter transforms into Comic-Con Town.
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And while it is a tornado of advertising and dreaded street marketing madness, somehow this adorable little place kind of gets away with it. Maybe San Diego knows that it’s too cute for its own good. What else would explain swapping out local street signs with Klingon language one year and Dothraki the next?
It’s a perfect setting for flocks of enthusiastic teens wielding all too enthusiastic “free hugs” signs. It’s earnest, even when it’s not. Comic-Con wouldn’t be the same sandwiched between the slot machines and the sport books of Vegas, or competing with the Disneyland tourists of Anaheim. In Los Angeles, everyone would just go home at night. But in San Diego, Comic-Con is its own weird little world. And in some form or another, it was always supposed to be that way.
After all, the whole thing was basically started by a pack of teens who just wanted to meet the people who made the stuff they spent so much time with.
Mike Towry, co-founder of Comic-Con, explains: “San Diego itself, of course, is a very relaxed, casual sort of town. I guess Comic-Con isn’t so relaxed and casual as it once was. But it started out that way, as a friendly environment. We were just local fans. Almost all of us [were] just teenagers when we started Comic-Con. We just wanted to put on a good event for ourselves, and our fellow fans.... It was just a way to have a fun time and meet the people who created the things we loved.”
No matter how much the convention stretches and grows, it has always been about creating a welcoming place to celebrate comics, books, television, music, movies and their creators. For both adults and kids, it’s a haven to freak out collectively over something that makes them feel joy.
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And in this tiny Convention Town, just far enough away from Hollywood and quite far from New York, crazy stuff can happen because the creators of pop culture must come directly to the fans.
Comic-Con fans were among the first folks to see snippets of the original “Star Wars,” before anyone even knew who or what Darth Vader was. Oscar winner Francis Ford Coppola journeyed to the masses in 1991 to offer up his next creation, “Dracula,” to the Comic-Con Town gods.
And in the massive Hall H in 2010, Marvel brought together every single Avenger live, on stage, for their very first assembling. This was for Comic-Con fans only.
There’s something extraordinary about witnessing a fan’s passion ignited in real life. And while many are acutely aware that Comic-Con is becoming more and more a gargantuan springboard to launch a studio’s new trailer, there’s still something special about being in the thick of it. It’s undeniably fun.
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Imagine being in the room the moment when Spider-Man ripped off his mask, revealing the new celebrity face of Peter Parker. Or when Tom Hiddleston commanded an audience of hundreds in character to say his “Avengers” villain’s name — Loki! Or the night spent running from the undead inside an elaborate obstacle course constructed purely for marketing reasons. Or inadvertently dancing the night away next to the person who created “Buffy.”
In between are the lunches you share with friends at Hodad’s arguing over whether you’re going to buy a ticket to see Ben Affleck as the next Batman. Of course you are. It’s Batman.
And in San Diego’s little enclave of temporary geekery, you are in a safe place where, as Bradbury proved all those years ago, your passion for the world of comics and science fiction has found a home.