The Year Without a Comic-Con

The limits of Comic-Con's exclusivity

Erin Hanna

University of Oregon, Eugene, Oregon, United States

[0.1] Abstract—This essay considers the interplay between exclusivity and access growing out of Comic-Con's history, its pivot online during the pandemic, and the organization's plans for the future.

[0.2] Keywords—Access; Covid-19; San Diego Comic-Con

Hanna, Erin. 2022. "The Limits of Comic-Con's Exclusivity." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 38.

1. Introduction

[1.1] In the summer of 2019, the San Diego Comic-Con celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. The celebration was low-key by Comic-Con standards, marked by a new fiftieth anniversary logo, collectible shirts and pins, articles in the souvenir book, and fourteen panels devoted to the origins and evolution of the convention ( Some of these panels featured appearances by Comic-Con's more high-profile devotees, like filmmaker Kevin Smith, but the majority were populated by the founding and sustaining organizers, fans, artists, and retailers that kept the event afloat over its fifty-year history. The year 2019 also marked the end of an era, as Comic-Con International mourned the passing of its long-time president, John Rogers, who had been at the helm of the organization since his election in 1986. Rogers helped to guide Comic-Con through financial challenges and into the twenty-first century as the convention gained increased visibility and embraced its reputation as a behemoth of media industry promotion and a celebration of fan culture, broadly defined ( As the organization marked these important milestones, it was also in the midst of preparing for a new chapter in its institutional history with a fundraising push and gala event previewing the new Comic-Con Museum in San Diego's Balboa Park (Macdonald 2019).

[1.2] By most measures, Comic-Con's past success and its plans for future growth are rooted in the materiality of in-person experiences; so much so that this has long been enshrined in the nonprofit's mission statement: "The SAN DIEGO COMIC CONVENTION (Comic-Con International) is a California Nonprofit Public Benefit Corporation organized for charitable purposes and dedicated to creating the general public's awareness of and appreciation for comics and related popular art forms, including participation in and support of public presentations, conventions, exhibits, museums and other public outreach activities which celebrate the historic and ongoing contribution of comics to art and culture" (my emphasis) ( Indeed, in an increasingly (socially) mediated world, one of Comic-Con's enduring qualities is its ability to bring fans and various outposts of the media industries, from Hollywood celebrities and media conglomerates to independent artists and retailers, together under one roof—or, perhaps more accurately, within a one-mile radius in San Diego's downtown core.

[1.3] Needless to say, when the in-person convention was canceled in 2020 because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Comic-Con's public outreach model was radically upended. Like reams of other canceled conventions, conferences, and trade shows, Comic-Con weathered this storm by offering a virtual version of its flagship in-person event, Comic-Con@Home, in 2020 and 2021. But Comic-Con's close ties to Hollywood promotion and corresponding reliance on exclusivity made this pivot significantly more challenging when it came to replicating the experience online, raising questions about the convention's longstanding reputation as crucial interlocutor in the circulation of media industry buzz and hype.

2. The limits of the limits of exclusivity

[2.1] In bringing Comic-Con's longstanding modus operandi to a grinding halt in 2020, the pandemic also provoked me to revisit my own research about the convention—much sooner and in different ways than I could have possibly anticipated (note 1). In my book Only at Comic-Con: Hollywood, Fans, and the Limits of Exclusivity, published just a few months before the world went into lockdown, I argue that exclusivity serves as a productive framework to make sense of the significant influence of media industry promotion and commerce at the convention. In doing so, I draw attention to the ways in which exclusivity relies on limits, from the spatiotemporal limits associated with high-profile, in-person media events; to the limits Hollywood constructs around access to various promotions, celebrities, and industry secrets in a bid to increase demand for its products; to limits that position Comic-Con fans as an exclusive group of tastemakers (and promotional laborers) by promising cultural capital in the form of insider access, while ultimately reinforcing Hollywood's institutional hierarchies. Exclusivity and its limits are deeply rooted in the spatial and in-person facets of the event. But, like so many of the Comic-Con experiences I've studied over the years, it is the discourses about Hollywood, fans, and Comic-Con—particularly those emerging from the media industries and their intermediaries—that really solidify these constructs in the popular imagination (Hanna 2020, 16).

[2.2] While exclusivity remains a useful framework through which to make sense of the event in both its online and in-person iterations, reflecting on my research into Comic-Con's history and watching the convention reconfigure to meet the moment highlighted a connected concept: access. On the one hand, exclusivity and access at Comic-Con go hand in hand (Gilbert 2018, 321), particularly when it comes to industry promotion at the event, which constructs exclusivity by limiting access in various ways (Hanna 2020). However, the concept of exclusive access also hampers accessibility in a variety of ways, from the ongoing challenges expressed by attendees with disabilities in Comic-Con's annual talk back panels to the more general barriers to access growing out of the limits of exclusivity that frequently seem to be in tension with Comic-Con's mission (St. James 2014) (note 2). With this in mind, the remainder of this article reexamines this framework of exclusivity with an eye toward the added significance of access in light of Comic-Con's pivot online during the Covid-19 pandemic, and the convention's possible futures in a shifting media landscape.

3. A brief history of access and exclusivity at Comic-Con

[3.1] In approaching the interplay of exclusivity and access at Comic-Con, it is necessary to consider how this complicated and evolving relationship emerges from its history. When Comic-Con was founded in 1970, what made it exclusive was not the fact that the convention was in high demand and hard to access, as has been the case since the 2010s, but that it opened up experiences and activities that were themselves less accessible at that time. For example, the founding of Comic-Con happened as the comics industry was on the cusp of revamping its distribution model, which led to the increased availability of back issues and the explosion of specialty comics shops all over North America (Duncan, Smith, and Levitz 2015, 61–63). But in 1970, Comic-Con and other conventions like it provided exclusive spaces where fans and dealers could round out their collections by buying comics, art, and other memorabilia. This was certainly true in San Diego and was, in fact, one of the reasons the organizers (whose ranks included both fans and dealers) came together to put on a convention in the first place (Carone and Cavanaugh 2010; Schelly 2010, 102; Dean 2006, 51).

[3.2] The other impetus for founding Comic-Con was to provide the space for, as founder Shel Dorf (1994) put it, "the amateur fan or amateur writer to really meet with the professionals and find the magical secret of how it's done" ( Again, what made Comic-Con feel exclusive was actually the promise of increased access—in this case, to industry professionals whose insights might deepen fan understanding and appreciation of comics and the popular arts or even provide mentorship and guidance for fans with professional aspirations. In the 1970s, this manifested as informal poolside chats with Jack Kirby or an annual brunch that seated fans at tables with Comic-Con's professional guests (Evanier 2017, 64; Graham and Alfonso 1973).

[3.3] The majority of professional guests in these early years were comics artists and professionals, who, as Dorf (1994) put it, were "the only entertainers who didn't hear the laughter and applause." But in the decades since Comic-Con's founding, what constitutes an industry presence at the convention gradually expanded from artists, writers, and minor celebrities to a more institutionalized industry presence that highlighted companies, brands, and increasingly high-profile promotional content. This was so much the case that in 2002, Hollywood Reporter called Comic-Con "a key destination for Hollywood movie marketers looking to reach a burgeoning target demographic"; and in 2004, Variety described Comic-Con as "an industry trade show masking as a fan show" (McIntyre 2002; Bart 2004). By the turn of the twenty-first century, Comic-Con's exclusivity—and, specifically, the way this exclusivity was constructed through media discourses at and about the event—was increasingly tied to how it functioned as a promotional space that allowed the media industries to generate buzz extending beyond the walls of the convention center (Hanna 2020).

[3.4] As the quotes above suggest, this redefinition of exclusivity aligned attending Comic-Con with the exclusivity of being a Hollywood insider, but without the same kind of personal access to that industry afforded attendees in the 1970s. And in the context of Hollywood promotion, at least, the increasingly restricted access associated with exclusive celebrity appearances, previews, and other promotional content, however arbitrary or constructed, became part of the pleasure of attending Comic-Con. Climbing costs and a cap on attendance at 130,000 meant that as the convention became increasingly visible, it was also becoming more difficult to obtain tickets (Czeiszperger 2014). Add to that the growing lines outside of the 6,500-seat Hall H, which houses the most high-profile Hollywood panels, and the barriers to access become even more significant (Kastrenakes 2015). Only a small percentage of fans could actually attend Comic-Con, and fewer still were able to weather the hours—sometimes days—of queuing required to see these industry panels in person. And that inaccessibility made the promotional content feel that much more exciting, newsworthy, and exclusive.

[3.5] While there are plenty of other ways in which Comic-Con has worked to remain accessible or even grown increasingly inclusive, the exclusivity and inaccessibility surrounding Hollywood and fandom at Comic-Con is somewhat counterintuitive, considering the organization's aforementioned mission statement and its status as a nonprofit dating back to 1975. Indeed, Comic-Con's nonprofit status has led to some very legitimate criticism about the convention's relationship to Hollywood in the twenty-first century, including its privileging of the promotional and economic imperatives of the media industries by favoring exclusivity over access (Wilkens 2007). While these remain salient critiques of the organization—ones that certainly informed my own research, which is similarly critical of how the event cultivated an imbalanced power relationship between industry and fandom even as it espoused a rhetoric of fan power and influence—it is worth reconsidering these criticisms in light of Comic-Con's approach to the pandemic and its future outlook.

4. Comic-Con's pandemic years and the limits of expanded access

[4.1] When the pandemic hit and Comic-Con had to pivot to providing an online event, the carefully constructed aura of exclusivity around industry promotion at the con was also disrupted. And in reimagining Comic-Con as a virtual experience, organizers seemed to lean into this disruption, launching an iteration of the convention that was exponentially more accessible. Comic-Con@Home was free, which was a steep discount from 2019's admission price of $291; the exhibit hall was online, which meant that smaller dealers weren't competing with massive trade show-style booths on the show floor, and many of these smaller retailers reported significantly higher online sales; and panels went online at scheduled times but remained on YouTube after they ended, so they could be viewed anytime (Woo, Hanna, and Kohnen 2020).

[4.2] But with this expanded accessibility, somewhat predictably, the value of Comic-Con's exclusivity as a promotional site also seemed to wane—at least from the perspective of Hollywood and the industry trades. Variety called Comic-Con@Home "a bust" in 2020; and in 2021, Hollywood Reporter asked "Is Comic-Con the Linear TV of Fandom Events?" (a damning question in this peak streaming moment) (Vary 2020a; Hibberd 2021). In addition to the lukewarm coverage in the press, Hollywood's response, as Comic-Con became accessible to a larger swath of the public than ever before, was to pivot away from the convention, as many conglomerates and brands have done on and off in recent years (Barnes and Cieply 2011; Donnelly 2016). And adding insult to injury, DC responded by launching its own branded virtual convention called DC FanDome in 2020, which would ultimately replace any kind of pronounced promotional presence for its films at Comic-Con@Home (note 3).

[4.3] DC FanDome was initially planned for a single weekend but was subsequently split into two events, "DC FanDome: Hall of Heroes" on August 22 and the lower profile "DC FanDome: Explore the Multiverse," which was held on September 12. Hall of Heroes was clearly designed to emulate a day in Comic-Con's Hall H and offered a live stream of panels promoting upcoming films like Wonder Woman 1984 (Patty Jenkins, 2020), The Batman (Matt Reeves, 2022),and The Suicide Squad (James Gunn, 2021). Even though the panel content was heavily controlled, planned, and, in some cases, prerecorded, it was presented as "live" and ephemeral (Haring 2020). Warner Bros.' Chief Marketing Officer Lisa Gregorian described it as "an event that would super-serve the fans" while also stating "if you're not there, you're not there. It goes away after 24 hours" (Vary 2020b). One might question how both of these statements can possibly be true, especially when weighed against Comic-Con@Home's prerecorded panels, which were still accessible on YouTube as of 2022. And yet DC FanDome received decidedly more favorable write-ups and extensive coverage in the entertainment press (Vary 2020b; Couch 2020; Bacon 2020).

[4.4] There is no doubt the success of DC FanDome was rooted in Warner Brothers' significant resources and ability to replicate the kind of content and ephemerality that hewed closer to the exclusivity that Hollywood studios have been cultivating and perfecting at Comic-Con for years (Hanna 2020; Gilbert 2017). Indeed, Hollywood Reporter described DC FanDome as "an eight-hour virtual in-house Comic-Con" (Hibberd 2021). But the contrasting responses to the more grassroots efforts of Comic-Con International's pivot to a virtual format that removed many barriers to access and DC FanDome's deliberate moves to limit access, despite the affordances of the virtual convention format, illustrate how discourses about Comic-Con as an exclusive fan event intertwined with industry interests have long blurred the lines between the function, capabilities, and resources of Comic-Con, a nonprofit organization—a highly successful one, but a nonprofit nonetheless—and those of one of the largest media conglomerates in the world, WarnerMedia (now Warner Bros. Discovery).

[4.5] Keeping these differences in mind, DC Entertainment's decision to skip Comic-Con@Home is even more jarring. DC had benefited from promotional opportunities at Comic-Con for fifty years—as a comics publisher and later as a producer of blockbuster media franchises. This was and is a symbiotic relationship, with DC's presence at the event (along with many other comics and media companies) similarly boosting Comic-Con's profile in popular culture. However, despite the pandemic's significant impact on Comic-Con International's operations, leading to reported losses of at least $8 million, DC, then under the auspices of WarnerMedia, chose this moment to step back from its longstanding relationship with the nonprofit and instead seized the opportunity to stage its own competing corporate event (Stone 2022) (note 4).

5. Conclusion

[5.1] This brief trajectory provides one possible entry point into thinking about how exclusivity and access can work in concert or toward opposing goals and are deployed differently in different historical contexts, by different actors and organizations, and for different reasons. It also points to how the pandemic might change Comic-Con in the future. Given that Comic-Con's visibility and cultural relevance in the twenty-first century has largely been expressed in relation to its impact on media industry promotion, it seems increasingly possible that its importance in the eyes of the press and media industries may be waning. This is especially true if studios continue to produce their own virtual (and in-person) events in-house, rather than spending their marketing dollars on ever more grandiose displays at the San Diego Comic-Con (Hibberd 2021). However, the convention's contributions and goals "don't start and end with Hollywood's needs" (Woo, Hanna, and Kohnen 2020). For example, the Comic-Con Museum, which had its soft opening on November 26, 2021, during Comic-Con's "Special Edition" in-person event, promises to "connect" visitors "with the magic of Comic-Con year-round" in a "space where everyone is included" ( Indeed, the museum's list of core values begins with "access," promising that "the Museum is a place where everything is made to be accessible. Intentionally placed within reach—physically, intellectually, and financially." However, at the same time as Comic-Con was increasing its investment in the accessibility of its educational mission, it was also moving forward with plans to harness its own exclusivity as a brand, announcing in April 2022 that it had hired a licensing firm, IMG, in order to "allow it to secure consumer attention and deliver consumer value in more ways" (License Global 2022).

[5.2] What all this means for Comic-Con's future is not yet clear. On the one hand, Comic-Con is poised to deliver on its nonprofit mission by increasing access to educational opportunities, particularly for its local community in San Diego, which has long subsidized and supported the organization's annual event. On the other hand, Comic-Con is actively looking for new ways to profit commercially on the exclusivity of its brand by "identify[ing] partners who can develop products, retail destinations and experiences for the fans not able to partake in the annual Comic-Con convention experience" (License Global 2022). The tension between exclusivity and access extends beyond the convention's direct involvement with the promotional machinations of other industries as Comic-Con works to carve out its own place in popular culture. Whether the convention's two-year pivot online and its plans for the future mark a waning or solidification of that cultural impact remains to be seen as Comic-Con bumps up against the limits of its own exclusivity.

6. Acknowledgment

[6.1] An earlier version of this article was presented at the Fan Studies Network–North America 2021 virtual conference.

7. Notes

1. I am grateful to my colleagues in the Swarming SDCC collective for their commitment to building such an enriching intellectual collaboration during a turbulent and destabilizing time. Our work together encouraged me to continue exploring these ideas in ways that felt enriching and never depleting. Funded by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Insight Grant and led by Benjamin Woo, the Swarming SDCC collective will bring student and faculty researchers together at Comic-Con as part of a swarm ethnography project studying the relationship among industry, intermediaries, and audiences at the convention. The Swarming SDCC collective's other members include Felan Parker, Anne Gilbert, Shawna Kidman, Melanie E. S. Kohnen, Suzanne Scott, and Matthew J. Smith.

2. As Elizabeth Ellcessor points out, the question of access has a particularly important resonance when it comes to "fandom's intersections with various forms of physical, mental, and emotional disability" and is a topic of ongoing concern, both at in-person conventions and in online fan communities (2018, 210).

3. DC FanDome was one of many online fan events staged by studios or brands that previously had a strong promotional presence at Comic-Con. It is also important to note that some of these competing events also predate the pandemic, most notably Disney's biennial D23 Expo, which was founded in 2009. Thus, Warner Bros.' intervention was part of a much larger shift that was likely expedited during this period.

4. It is worth mentioning that when Comic-Con announced the resumption of its in-person convention format in 2022, the newly minted Warner Bros. Discovery was slated to return with some high-profile panels promoting film, TV, and comics. However, seeking ways to cut costs, the conglomerate decided to scale back its presence in the Exhibit Hall, forgoing its usual extravagant and high-traffic Warner Bros. and DC booths. Whether this signals a continuing trend toward the company's divestment in Comic-Con promotion, which reportedly costs over $25 million a year, remains to be seen (Kit 2022).

8. References

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