By Christopher Vito
One of my fondest memories as a child was when my father would take me to the comic book store on his days off from work. I remember picking out X-Men and Spider-Man comic books, and being enthralled with the storylines and artwork. After school I would go to the park with my friends and we would all pretend to be superheroes ready to take on the world with our make-believe super powers. During my youth, my father would also save up money to take me to Comic-Con International: San Diego. In the mid-1990’s I remember this event being predominantly occupied by a subculture of local comic book shops, upcoming artists and writers, and smaller comic book companies. But what would become of this event as I grew older?
Many long time Comic-Con attendees have mentioned a paradigm shift in the culture of Comic-Con itself. With the rise in popularity of “geek culture,” Comic Con International: San Diego has become a massive event unlike my experiences in the mid 1990s. According to its website, it has topped 130,000 attendees in recent years, and has expanded outward to include satellite locations, local hotels, and outdoor parks. It has been harder to obtain tickets, has become more crowded, and consists of longer waits in line for panels and autograph signings. There is also a noticeable shift from smaller comic book stores and companies to major corporations taking up most of the event. Signs from Fox, Warner Bros., NBC, and Sony suffocate you with their bright lights and overbearing advertisements.
The paradigm shift is concordant with my experiences as an employee at Comic-Con. For the past five years I have switched roles from attendee to employee. As a worker for a marketing company that promotes major corporations at Comic-Con, I have seen that the days of small comic book stores controlling their own stands are now over. Instead major corporations have erected extravagant monuments usually over thirty feet tall and spanning hundreds of feet wide. In addition, my experiences during my youth consisted of leisurely discussions of comic book characters with local artists and store owners. Many comic enthusiasts had time to rummage through boxes of comic books, while toy collectors had a chance to admire their favorite pieces. Now underneath those thirty foot monuments are hustling employees trying to push you along the crowded walkways if you are not attracting attention to or purchasing their product.
In particular, two instances exemplify the experiences I have had as an employee at Comic-Con. My first year job consisted of heat pressing logos of major films onto t-shirts. The process was quite tedious, as we had to print them quickly but correctly. The first task was to determine which size shirt the customer wanted. Next, the customer determined which logo they wanted on the shirt and where they wanted it placed. Finally, the logo was heat pressed on the shirt and quickly dried by fanning it. The t-shirt making process occurred so quickly that I found myself pressing a new shirt almost every minute. Thus, the whole transaction between the customer and employee was brief, if not impersonal. The primary motivation for doing my job properly came from the solidarity I built with my co-workers, as my interaction with Comic-Con customers in this instance was minimal.
My third year job consisted of opening and closing the lines for free giveaways. The primary concern was to regulate the length of the line so the booth would not get shut down by the Fire Marshall. This meant that I had the ability to let people in the line and deny them when there was not enough space. The job was quite stressful as many Comic-Con attendees would become highly agitated by this and would consistently try to ignore my instructions. At one point, it became such a problem that I almost engaged in an altercation with a male attendee. By the third day I developed a system to avoid attendees altogether. I created a cardboard sign that read “the line is now closed” that I would put in front of my face whenever someone would try to get in line. In contrast to my first year job, the only motivation for doing my job properly came from the attendees who understood my position and respected the job I had to do. Oftentimes I found that these attendees were ones that came to Comic-Con in the 1990s, as we would reminisce about when Comic-Con used to be a close-knit event.
As a sociologist, I cannot help but think that capitalism needs to expand into new markets. I ask myself: has an event such as Comic-Con, which previously catered to a sub-culture of comic book enthusiasts, become a mainstreamed and corporatized event predicated on the commodification of “geek culture”? Even more importantly, is this shift only going to be further exacerbated both by the corporations’ desire for profit and the growing consumption of “geek culture” by the masses? Time will tell, but it surely is a place of sociological analysis.
Photo Credit: Crystal Toctocan