A Brief History of the Comic-Con Universe
From the origin story to the sprawling multi-verse entity it is today.
By MJ Wilke
Comic-Con. It’s a name (noun), an activity (verb), an event, a place, a state of mind. And similar to the word “nerd” – “comic-con” can have many different meanings for many different people (although most would say “comic-con” simply means “my happy place”). The term comes from the shortening of “comic book convention.” Today, “comic-con” gets shortened even more to just “con.” Although, “con” can also refer to a shortened version of “science fiction convention,” also known as a “sci-fi con.” Generally, “comic-con” refers to a pop culture convention. Are you still with me, awesome nerds?
For those lucky enough to experience THE con, when someone says “comic-con” to you they are referring to San Diego Comic-Con (SDCC), officially named Comic-Con International: San Diego. The biggest of them all.
Doctoral dissertations can be written about the history of conventions, the origin story, the ebbs and flows of the local and regional fan conventions, the who’s who of convention lore – but there isn’t the space here to do that. What I’ve compiled is a condensed version of how we got the current convention landscape, starting with the very first convention — Worldcon in 1939.
In the early days, fan conventions were a place for fans of literary science fiction to gather to discuss and debate elements of the genre. But mostly they were to celebrate the worlds built by the imagination of the science fiction writers. These conventions were also the origins of cosplay. (A masquerade party typically on the Saturday night of a convention invites attendees to dress in a costume they create based on a character from a book, and that idea has spread to cosplay throughout a modern-day con.) Back in the day, notable authors frequented science fiction conventions (or more commonly known as sci-fi cons). Ray Bradbury, Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov were regular attendees and guests. Many long-running sci-fi cons still operate today; currently, author George R.R. Martin is a regular attendee of Worldcon, the longest-running convention. Upon their creation, sci-fi TV shows and movies were included in the programming at the conventions.
Note: Ray Bradbury attended the first Worldcon in 1939, and many Worldcons after that. In 1970, he attended the first San Diego Comic-Con (known then as San Diego’s Golden State Comic-Con), and attended almost every year thereafter until his passing in 2012.
Comic book conventions got their start in the mid 1960s, with local and regional conventions burgeoning throughout the 1970s. Also, comic & card shows (comic books and sports cards) could be found nearly every weekend at local municipal buildings and VFW halls. These cons featured autograph tables as well as vendors.
San Diego Comic-Con started in 1970, (known then as San Diego’s Golden State Comic Con.) From the beginning, the convention was designed to include all facets of popular culture, the best elements of the sci-fi fan cons and comic book conventions. A footnote in pop culture history occurred at SDCC in 1976. George Lucas promoted his unreleased Star Wars movie at the convention by giving away posters, now a sought-after collectable. Coming soon to Balboa Park in San Diego, Comic-Con International is opening the Comic-Con Museum.
Today, “comic-con” is used for any variation of convention; it is a very large umbrella term. Every convention is different, and the fandom celebrates those differences. There are aspects of each convention that were developed to differentiate themselves such as the Dragon Con Parade; other idiosyncrasies evolved over the years such as the “lobbycon” of Gallifrey One or the “cult of the Marriott carpet” at Dragon Con.
While there is no standardized system of comic-con classifications, I have attempted to break it down to four main categories, with five subcategories.
Science fiction conventions. Also known as sci-fi cons. Smaller, intimate conventions run by fans, usually under 4,000 attendees. Admission called memberships with badge. Main focus is programming and panels. Artist alley and author tables are typically separate from the vendor area; often called the dealer’s room. Opening/Closing ceremonies and Masquerade. Example: Worldcon
Comic book conventions. Comic-centric or comic-only conventions. Medium-sized events run generally by a comic bookstore and/or association, usually under 30,000 attendees. Admission is ticket with wristband or stamp (tickets lower in price than the other categories). Main focus is exhibit hall, some programming and panels. Comic book award events. Examples: HeroesCon, Dallas Comic Show, MSP SpringCon, Amazing! Comic Con Aloha
Pop culture convention. Most common form of comic-con. Medium- to large-scale events with attendance between 20,000 and 140,000+. Admission is pre-sale badges. Operated by non-profit or for-profit organizations. Incorporates elements of sci-fi cons, comic book conventions and the corporate-run comic-cons. Focus is split between programming and exhibit hall. Examples: San Diego Comic-Con, WonderCon, Emerald City Comic Con, Phoenix Fan Fusion
Corporate-run comic-cons. Small- to large-sized conventions with attendance between 4,000 and 100,000+. Admission is ticket with wristband. Main focus is celebrity appearances, autograph and photo opportunities. Programming focused on celebrity and industry appearances. Example: New York Comic Con
Officially licensed conventions. Professionally managed conventions and officially licensed. Includes previews, sneak peeks, actors and creators. The exhibit hall has exclusives and previews of upcoming merchandise. Examples: D23 Expo, Star Wars Celebration, Star Trek Las Vegas, Supernatural Conventions
Fandom specific. Fan-run conventions with the majority of the programming and guests from one specific fandom. Examples: Gallifrey One, CONsole Room, LeakyCon
Campus-style. Large conventions with programming in several locations. Examples: San Diego Comic-Con, Dragon Con
Unique. Conventions with a truly unique aspect such as the resort setting and programming at HawaiiCon, and focus on Indigenous writers at IndigiPop X.
Academic component. Although there is an academic element to all conventions, these conventions have an academic component. Components can be an academic conference occurring within the comic-con, or paralleling; programming track for teachers; reduced or free admission for teachers. Also, many libraries across the country have mini-cons or one-day wonders in the library specifically geared toward young kids. Examples: HawaiiCon, Phoenix Fan Fusion, Denver Pop Culture Con, WonderCon
A word about fan-run (or non-profit) versus corporate-run conventions. Comic-con is a big umbrella with room for all, and there are benefits to both styles of operations. Fan-run conventions focus on fan comfort with expanded disabled resources, con-suites, charging stations, ample seating, food trucks, freebie tables, evening programming, video rooms and charity events. Corporate-run conventions focus on well-known celebrities, especially those who do not appear at many conventions, and thus garner a higher ticket price. Corporate convention management also operate officially licensed conventions.
The long-running conventions are annual pilgrimages for their fans, typically taking over the host hotel (or the city in the case of SDCC). Fans immerse themselves in the convention from the opening ceremonies till past the closing ceremonies, not leaving the confines of the con for the duration. For this reason, those conventions have an immense amount of programming going well into the night as well as nightly themed parties. Dedicated TV channels in the host hotel play convention programming around the clock. (And, yes, the experience is as amazing as it sounds.)
No matter the spelling – Comic-Con, comic con, comicon, ComiCon, con – from the fan’s perspective, all conventions are a place where fans gather to meet the creators of the things they love, and a place to celebrate that love of a thing together.
MJ Wilke is the founder of Wayward Nerd. She is a road warrior. A nerd. A trekkie. A whovian. A Star Wars fanatic. She will go where no one has gone before, come back and post it here.