Every year, for several days in late July, the San Diego Convention Center is usually animated with people taking part in Comic-Con International. During the last few years, more than 130,000 convention attendees — lifelong fans, collectors, artists and culture vultures — swarmed the city for the event. It’s nerd heaven: exclusive panels and screenings from big studios like Disney and FX, interactive fan experiences like gaming centers and meet-ups, vendors with discounts and deals and more.
But this year, for the first time in the 50-year history of Comic-Con — the oldest pop-culture convention in the world — there was no gathering. Instead, there were prerecorded panels on shows and movies on YouTube and a virtual exhibit hall. Comic-Con was online.
Because many fandoms have at least in part been associated with the internet and internet culture, it would seem an obvious transition, as though this Comic-Con could bring fandom back to its roots, so to speak, and invite the possibility of new avenues of fan interaction in the age of Covid-19. But the virtual event, called Comic-Con@Home, only showed how the convention failed to translate its most essential qualities technologically and conceptually. But the event also ultimately served as a lesson on fandom — how, even in times when entertainment industries and conventions are threatened, fandoms will continue to thrive and drive the culture.
In better times, there is nothing like a comic convention. I love cons like other people love the holidays, looking forward to them for months. Each one is like a living beast, bustling and humming for days on end as fans camp out in lines just to get a seat to a panel. The show floor is a mob of bodies, many costumed, wearing extra appendages, wings and tails, carrying faux weapons — Mjolnir here, a keyblade there — and thronging around booths buying wigs and T-shirts and comics and artwork. The air is humid with fan excitement, an energy so dense that it can overwhelm the senses.
This digital con did feature hundreds of panels, from the casts of several “Star Trek” shows and longtime convention stalwart “The Walking Dead” to panels about publishing and using comics in the classroom. Covid-19 itself inspired a number of events: on superhero fandoms during the pandemic, on fictional portrayals of the apocalypse and one considering zombie outbreaks in the context of the coronavirus.
The cosplay competition, usually a staged event with pageantry, gadgetry, glitz and intricate designs, moved to Tumblr. Watch parties — screenings of old favorites like “Space Balls” and “The Avengers” — were served via Scener, a browser extension that creates a “virtual movie theater” so that viewers can watch a movie in sync and chat on the side, in real time.
Overall, what could have been an adaptive, gratifying experience was instead a flimsy facsimile. The show floor became a two-dimensional map of the exhibit hall where it would normally have been held. When you hovered over a little square, the booth name popped up. But the layout wasn’t practical or user-friendly; the online equivalent of walking and browsing amounted to individually clicking on hundreds of tiny rectangles just to see the vendors, many of whom didn’t even list what they had in stock.
The prerecorded panels seemed cleaned up and sterilized. There were no technical glitches or unscripted awkward moments to worry about, which are always risks in livestream events, but there was also nothing human and spontaneous. One panel on Friday, “Charlize Theron: Evolution of a Badass,” was an exquisitely polished one-on-one interview, full of interesting information and perfectly incorporated movie clips, but delivered like a lifeless promotional segment, with the star of “The Old Guard” sitting poised, talking-head style, before a blank white wall.
And yet, somehow, the execution was often clumsy. The editing of some of the panel clips was egregious, with responses bluntly cut together, like some of the segments in the “Star Trek” universe panel, which had the actors’ responses squeezed together in quick succession, without any natural transitions. The inevitable actor slip-ups, when they drop spoilers to rounds of gasps and applause from the crowd, were censored, sometimes bleeped, sometimes with a flagrant “spoiler” sign plastered across the screen.
The panels also kept fans at a distance. Comments were disabled on YouTube, and Q. and A.s, usually full of excited attendees in cosplay asking earnest questions, were cut out. The companies were asked to produce their own content, so some simply sourced questions in advance from their fan base. So much for the element of surprise.
Even the tease of “exclusive” content — usually the world premieres of new episodes, movies and trailers — felt sucked dry of its marrow by the canned presentation. Can info dropped in a public YouTube video still be considered exclusive? Part of opening Comic-Con up to the internet and making it accessible means it losing its claim on exclusivity. The democratization of the con feels positive, at least conceptually; the “Star Trek” panel is at 65,000 views as of this writing, when the biggest hall at the convention center during the event had capacity for only 6,500.
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But it also signals the kind of paradigm shift that we’ve seen in the culture lately. Convention culture is no longer niche. In the past few decades, in the larger cons, that has meant a shift from a more fan- and industry-forward focus, prioritizing comics and art, to primarily working as publicity platforms for big moneymaking Hollywood franchises. Comic-Con@Home felt like the latter; it worked more effectively as a vehicle for company-controlled marketing.
The watch parties, usually buzzing with life — especially late ones, near the end of a long convention day, in a darkened room with other weary but still hyped-up fans — were polite and prosaic, with a few dozen people making brief comments but mostly waxing nostalgic about Comic-Cons of yore.
In fact, bittersweet nostalgia seemed to be this year’s theme. On Twitter, fans appeared haunted by the ghost of cons past. They shared pictures of themselves in old cosplay or posing with celebrities. The images showed fans beaming, gathered in groups or with crowds around them, almost devastatingly close, it seems, considering how so much of our lives are now defined by distance — our measured attempts to keep others at least six feet away.
In some sense, such distance feels antithetical to fandom. Because at its heart is an irrepressible sense of intimacy — intimacy with a book or movie or TV show or game that is then funneled into a sense of intimacy and kinship with others who feel the same way. The convention is, or should be, all about this communion: how someone costumed as Wonder Woman can sidle up to a Superman to pose for a serendipitous picture on the show floor; the way two anime fans will pair up and face off for an off-the-cuff Yu-Gi-Oh card duel; or the hush that falls over the audience before an advance screening of a widely anticipated new movie or TV show and all the fans seem to lean in, ever so slightly, together.
For all the ways internet culture has helped grow fandoms, with online communities and discussions, conventions have come to pave a new route to fandom and have made it more active and inclusive. And it was the committed convention fans who still managed to make this year’s event something precious despite the circumstances. Would-be attendees shared pictures of themselves with their badges, dressing up their homes as the convention center. People showed their sleeping bags and tents, which would normally be set up for the wait for the most-hyped events. They set up their kitchen tables as concession stands. Instead of queuing up in a convention hall, they “queued up” in the hallways of their own houses.
These expressions aren’t the entirety of fandom, which is so much older than convention culture — back to gatherings at comic book shops and gaming nights of Dungeons & Dragons. Fans have always worked with what they have.
And even though this is a summer without conventions and blockbusters, fandom has never been the point at which pop culture ends. Rather, fans take pop culture and give it a longer, more complex life that is self-sustaining, way beyond the last season of “Game of Thrones” or the ending of the last “Avengers.” Even though 2020 pressed pause on much of pop culture, those who love it will still be here next year.