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I’m sure that a lot of you reading these words have very strong feelings about Comic-Con International, and not all of them are joyous and pleasant. Writing this, I get that sort of “ugh” knot in my stomach thinking about all the hard work and money it takes to go on a five-day “vacation.” Getting in the doors has become this epic-level event worthy of its own video game; finding a place to stay so you can use those badges you masterfully acquired can mean camping in your car. Being inside the convention center can be overwhelming and, even worse, you may not even get inside the panel you worked so hard to get these tickets for anyway.
There’s so much that can go wrong at Comic-Con that there’s a palpable sadness when you realize you don’t have it in you to fight to do it all again next year. I’m not going this year, and when I tell people at the shop that, sometimes I feel like I’ve said there’s no Santa Claus.
For television series and movies, there are other conventions. Creation Entertainment took up a lot of the cult-TV show slack as it became the biggest place to see Star Trek celebrities, and it now hosts a dozen different events. Big-budget movies are trickier as there will always be a place for cult-film screenings, but because there are television shows and entire networks devoted to their promotion, I’m sure they’re doing fine in getting the word out. Comics are different, however: To learn the nuances of the business and ask questions of creators and discuss storylines with the like-minded, we pretty much have the Internet or comic conventions. There’s no news network or E! channel for the comics-inclined (we got close with G4), so publishers need conventions as a place to provide one big pitch for their upcoming season of books.
This audience is captive and eager for news, working so hard to get in those seats to learn what’s in store, there’s just something a little strange to find out Marvel hit South by Southwest to woo to a new audience. It’s like the publisher is cheating on us. Cheating on us with hipsters.
Looking into what SXSW is, it really seems to be everything. The South by Southwest Conference and Festivals focus on a bevvy of arts and technology, providing an opportunity for consumers to mingle and interact while learning about what’s new. Sounds a lot like Comic-Con, honestly. There’s no “Nerd Culture” sign on the door, but considering they’re covering movies, music, technology comedy and gaming, it sounds like a fun gig. Marvel went last year to promote its new AR technology and the Infinite Comics “revolution,” and both of these projects have done well enough for a return visit. The pitch is different at SXSW than it is at a comic convention; the publisher focuses more on the digital side of things and turn heads less for its characters and stories and more for the methods by which they are received by the public. This isn’t great storyline spoiler time, this is promotion at a very basic level, with widgets and graphics and interactive interfaces. And it works.
This is the right audience for comic book consumption in a new location, kind of like finding spare change in the laundromat instead of your couch cushions. The SXSW audience is people who are already into the arts and new media; they like pop culture, but want to consume it differently. Presenting information about comics as a new technology rather than in a more traditional format can eliminate a lot preconceived notions about what comics are to the general public, giving them a fresh look for a fresh audience. After all, Stan Lee had an amazing eye for what was cutting edge back in the day, going so far as to change the label on the comics themselves to Marvel “Pop Art” Productions to grab the eye. Marvel heading to an arts and new-media conference is the same thing, just a little more successful than a label change.
General Manager of the Marvel Digital Media Group Peter Phillips talked candidly with Comic Book Resources about why the packed its bags for Austin:
Last year, it ended up being, in retrospect, a big coup for us to be at SXSW. I have nothing against the comic cons or any of the traditional shows we go to. They’re fabulous. They’re well run. They’re great opportunities for us to talk about our brand. But the problem for somebody like me is that everybody [at those shows] is saying the same things I am or speaking to the same audience. To go to a SXSW where we’re a little bit different is what we tried last year. We get a ton of mileage out of San Diego and New York and all the other key comic shows, but we wanted to go somewhere where people would see us and just for a second go “Who are you again?” That’s what last year was about.
I come from a digital/online background and an entertainment background, so I was definitely leading the charge for us to go there, and I think we all felt like it was really successful. We wanted to talk about the fact that we were an innovative digital company and that we were continuously trying as the House of Ideas to get people to enjoy our content – and our publishing content especially – and that’s why we focused on the Marvel Augmented Reality app and the Infinite line that we brought out. I wasn’t there to say “This is going to change your life.” I was there to say “We’re trying some new stuff. Tell us what you think, and then we’ll move it forward from there to keep innovating.”
It’s good business and good for the reader as a whole to forge ahead with innovation, but where does that leave what came before? Will this mean we’ll seePhilips dancing in a mud pit at Bonnaroo? Am I so out of touch that I think people still dance in mud pits at music festivals?
Comic book conventions are no longer about the products in their name, they represent so much in independent work and art and fringe interests, it’s like a big smorgasbord of fandom culture to attend. We go to immerse ourselves in all of it, sample everything from the table, learn something new and celebrate something we’ve loved forever. Comic books represent something bigger than the properties themselves; it’s a certain type of expression between fans and creation than we go to celebrate. And while some comic cons have gone commercial (what better way to make a buck than off something you love?), others retain that special something that we can only get by connecting face to face. There is so much to do, going for one item on the grand buffet seems like a wasted opportunity.
I disagree with Philips in the sense that going to comic conventions aren’t “saying the same things … or speaking to the same audience,” it’s shouting to be heard over the cacophony of everyone else’s shouting in a room too small to contain itself. Marvel has an entirely different message than their competitors, Distinguished and Imaginative alike, so it’s not the same message. Comic cons are getting so big that the audience that showed up last year is different demographically than the one that showed up this year and years to come. Marvel needs to get their message across to the fans (and the potential fan) by breaking through all that noise and catching us in new locations so that their message can be heard.
I’d say it’s simply a matter of surprising us with all that new info, like a surprise date in the middle of the week. Sure, we spent a lot of time preparing on the weekends to go some place fancy, but it’s nice to be surprised with a lunch on Wednesday once in a while.