San Diego Comic Con has always been one of the most democratic events on the planet — it's made for the fans, who get to connect with the heroes and universes they've admired from afar. Even as Comic Con has gotten bigger and more crazy, the organizers have tried to keep it accessible to regular fans.
But it seems like Comic Con faces the same kinds of challenges as Burning Man, the other grassroots event in which people dress up and celebrate their love of weird culture. The event has just gotten too big, and organizers have resorted to a confusing lottery system. But the end result is the same in both cases: increasingly, you kind of have to be a professional to make sense of this complicated structure. Is Comic Con no longer for the rank-and-file fans?
All images by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images.
Both Comic Con and Burning Man have had organizational challenges for years — people were complaining back in 2005 about Comic Con's crazy hotel-booking system. And the Comic Con badge registration system has been a nightmare for years, with highly publicized crashes and delays in 2010 and 2011.
But this was the year that Burning Man turned a corner, in terms of becoming less accessible to ordinary "Burners" — the organizers put into place a new lottery system, in which you registered for a chance at a ticket — and cheaper tickets were even harder to get than in years past. People who were able to register early for a $200 ticket were now being forced to spend up to $390, if they even got a ticket at all. As L.A. Weekly wrote, "Burning Man has been a rich man's game for a while now."
As for Comic Con registration, the organizers tried to avoid the problems of years past, where millions of fans (or at least, millions of computers) tried to access the registration website at the same time, causing crashes. Instead, they put into place a more complicated system, in which you had to register for a Member ID first — and then, at a later date, go back and actually register for a badge. This worked reasonably well — except that badges sold out within an hour, and the badge registration site didn't work for many people.
And meanwhile, just subjectively, I have seen tons of people on Twitter (including some great writers and artists) complaining that they were basically unable to get a hotel in San Diego this time around — even with the shuttle service from the hotels. And words like "price-gouging" have been bandied about a lot on Twitter, to describe the rates a lot of the hotels are charging during that five-day stint from Wednesday to Sunday. To quote one fan, "The thought of how much it'd cost to get to/attend/stay at SDCC is enough to make me sob because there's no way I can ever afford it." (To be sure, there's also the craptastic economy, which also puts Comic Con outside a lot of fans' means.)
So Comic Con, like Burning Man, is becoming more of a "rich man's game," through no fault of its hard-working organizers. (And to be sure, whenever I've met the people actually organizing SDCC, it's clear that they're fans and they approach this from the perspective of trying to make it a cool event for fans. I'm sure the organizers get less sleep than anybody at this thing.)
And meanwhile, the event is more and more taken over by huge studios, which spend untold thousands of dollars to put together big spectacles, which involve flying in thousands of their own people — who all need to be put up in hotel rooms as well, exacerbating the bottleneck. The great thing about Comic Con has always been the way it bridges the gap between fans and pros — but with the sheer amount of showbiz glitz going into the event now, it's like its own microcosm of L.A.
And meanwhile, it's already clear that there will be new logistical challenges for fans — the San Diego Comic Con Guide blog is a fascinating read, because author Valerie Alexander compiles a pretty careful list of all the announcements and quirks about the event every year. This year, problems include an announcement that there's no camping out for Hall H — although then if you read more carefully, it says that sleeping bags and chairs are fine, just no tents. And people who are camping out for Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 2 may be asked to vacate the area, if the staff aren't finished putting up the pavillions and things. Also, there may be more spot checks where you're asked for not just your badge, but your photo ID, causing huge bottlenecks.
So is Comic Con no longer as accessible to ordinary fans as it used to be? We asked Valerie Alexander, who keeps her ear to the ground about SDCC stuff more than anyone. Here's what she told us:
I do think it's a real concern. I've been attending since 2000, and the majority of my Con/nerd friends no longer bother going. It's just too frustrating. When you can only get a Thursday badge and your best friend only got a Sunday badge — and then you find out the panel you both wanted to see is on Saturday — it can suck the fun out of the Con. I also think the lines are getting worse every year, and that reduces your choices to what you can see or do. It can end up being a lot of money and stress for little return.
I've had my blog up for a few years and every summer, post-Con, I get email from people complaining that they will never go again. It's really too bad, because Comic Con used to be like the Nerd Superbowl-meets-Mardi Gras. But I think many people are sticking to smaller cons now, which are more convenient, but don't provide that same epic spectacle.
So what do you think? Is Comic Con becoming too hard to attend? Is it facing Burning Man-style growing pains — or is it even worse, because it's like Burning Man with huge Hollywood studios in the mix? And what could the Comic Con organizers do to make the event more accessible to ordinary fans?
Note: We attempted to get a quote from the Comic Con press office, and they didn't get back to us by our deadline.