San Diego Comic-Con Over the Years

In Editorials/Opinions, General News by James Riley3 Comments

You would think, considering I grew up as a geek in San Diego, that I would be have been going to Comic-Con for the last 30 years. Alas, my first time wasn’t until 1995. I didn’t even know about SDCC until a year or two before. I was a geek from the beginning, watching Star Trek re-runs on Saturday afternoon with Dad, collecting thousands of comics, and watching endless hours of genre TV. However, it wasn’t until my brother and I decided to start our own comic store that I ended up going to Comic-Con.

Throughout the years, from 1995 on, I haven’t missed a single con. I’ve attended as a fan walking around, as a dealer, and for the last few years, helping run the Browncoat booth as the president of the California Browncoats, a non-profit that raises funds and awareness for charities supported by the cast and crew of Joss Whedon’s Firefly and Serenity. There have been quite a few changes in the last 16 years.

My first year was 1995. My brother and I had started a comic business just a few months before the con. We decided to attend Comic-Con to not only get an idea of the market, but to find deals, get autographs, and hopefully have a good time. Back then you could buy tickets at the door and didn’t have to wait in lines for more than a few minutes. I brought a small box of comics hoping to get them autographed and actually rolled it around in a baby stroller so I wouldn’t have to carry it. They didn’t (still don’t) allow roller carts, but who could stop a mom with a baby? I may not have been a mom, and it may be a stretch to say the comics were my babies, but no one stopped me.

I spent most of my days on the show floor that year. I attended a few comic panels, but I don’t recall going to many TV or movie panels. They weren’t a big deal back then, at least for me. As for the floor, it never got mashed up crazy crowded until Saturday. Even then you could move around pretty easily compared to the traffic jam it is today. Also, you could walk up and buy a ticket on Saturday. It just wasn’t that huge of an event yet. In fact, the convention center was only Halls A, B, and C at the time. No Hall D through H. No Ballroom 20. Attendance that year was around 25,000 if I remember correctly. Parking was $4 and you could find a space as long as you got there before 8 AM.

We spent the next 3 years as retailers. We sold comics, toys, and cards. It was just a small family business and we did it with very little help besides family and a few friends. We did OK in sales, but after a few years we just couldn’t keep it going in the diminishing comic market. It was around this time that action figures were the hot item, so comic sales were actually very slow comparatively. The “behind the scenes” access we gained as retailers ended up being cool, and helpful for future cons. We got to see the show floor as it was set up. We got to wander around before show open each day, if we finished setting up the booth, and check out other vendors. Comic-Con has essentially stamped this out though to keep vendors from lining up for exclusives before attendees. Attendance in those years steadily rose, getting up above 30,000. The convention center still had not expanded.

Starting in 1999 and going until 2004, I attended Comic-Con as a fan walking the floor, attending panels, and grabbing all the free stuff I could get my hands on. There were a lot of changes in those 6 years. First, the rise of eBay. If you grabbed free stuff and exclusives you didn’t want, or got extras, you could get rid of them easily. In fact, one year I paid for my hotel room (Embassy Suites for less than $200 a night!) with just the goodies I sold on eBay in the weeks after the con. Next, the expansion of the convention center. In 2001 the first part of the expansion was complete. Hall D opened. I remember it clearly because Dreamworks brought the actual time machine from The Time Machine and had it on the floor in Hall D. This was also the start of the next big change, the rise of movies and TV. From this point on, panels with the stars became bigger and more heavily attended. Movie studio booths started popping up, including the group of Lord of the Rings related merchandisers. Not just New Line, but Sideshow Collectibles, EA Games, etc. all grouped together to make one giant LOTR area.

The other big change was Comic-Con exclusives. They became much more prevalent and across all types of merchandise and giveaways, from comics to toys to bags. Bags that had not yet reached the current “I can smuggle in a child” proportions, but were still cool to have. By 2004 the convention center had finished the expansion to its current setup. There was now Hall H, Ballroom 20 and plenty of room for panels and people. It was also by this year that the con started selling out. At first only Saturday sold out, and not until the day of. I remember that the fire marshal actually shut down sales and would no longer let anyone else in that Saturday. That was the beginning of the end of walk-up sales.

In 2003, there was no Hall H, so the likes of Halle Barry, Angelina Jolie, Hugh Jackman, Kate Beckinsale, Eliza Dushku, cast members of Lord of the Rings, and a Spider-Man 2 panel all took place in Ballroom 20. The rise of Hall H as the place to be took place over a couple years. In 2004, they only used Hall H for a couple days, not bothering with Thursday or Sunday. Keanu Reeves, Jessica Alba, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jessica Biel, and Jude Law all showed up in Hall H to promote their latest movies. The biggest difference between then and now? You could walk into Hall H an hour before a panel and get a seat.

2005 saw the start of my immersion into a specific fandom. From 2005 until now, I’ve been helping to run the Browncoat fan table. For the first couple years we were just a fan group, but for the last 4 we’ve been a federally registered non-profit. We have awesome prize drawings, cool Firefly and Serenity collectibles, Comic-Con exclusives, special guest appearances, and tons of fun, all while raising money for charity. Being behind the Browncoat table is a completely different experience, even from when I was a retailer. There’s an energy coming from fans that you can feel. It keeps me going all day having so many people come by and talk or geek out about things they love.

Through the years, that is the one thing that hasn’t changed. We’re all there because of something we love. Comics, toys, movies, television, actors, fandoms, free hugs, or any of the hundreds of things to do and see at Comic-Con. There’s nothing better than being with over 100,000 people just like you.