By Mark Searby
Most of us will, by now, know San Diego Comic-Con as the place where the cast of The Avengers first got together as a group, or where Tom Hiddleston came onstage dressed as Loki, or where the entire cast of Twilight turned up to do a panel and the Twihards camped overnight just to see them, or where the first episode of Marvel’s Agents Of Shield TV show was screened, or... well, you get the idea.
If you consider yourself a nerd, a geek, a fanboy or any of the other such word associated with this entertainment than you’ll know all about how important San Diego Comic-Con is. But now the film/TV/comic/games studios have realised that to break their product they need to convince, and sell it, to the biggest consumption audience on the planet. Where better to do it than at SDCC. But where did San Diego Comic-Con International start? What’s its origins? Let me take you on a journey in time...
The first SDCC took place at the beginning of August 1970, but it was called Golden State Comic-Con and its venue was the US Grant Hotel. It was attended by just a few hundred enthusiastic nerds, although I am not sure that word applied back then. Admission cost $3.50, or $5 on the door, for the entire three days. The big names at the first convention included Jack Kirby, Ray Bradbury, Forest J Ackerman and the 1940s Superman actor Kirk Alyn. The event was a success, so plans were immediately put in place for another one the following year.
The second year of Comic-Con was held at Muir College, part of the University of California, in La Jolla - a short 20-minute drive from downtown San Diego. Attendance more than doubled this time with more than 800 guests through the campus doors. 1972 saw it revert back to central San Diego at the El Cortez Hotel and also received a name change to San Diego’s West Coast Comic Convention. The Sheraton Hotel hosted the newly renamed San Diego Comic Con in 1973; it was also the first five-day event. From 1974-78 SDCC was firmly rooted in the El Cortez Hotel, with each year growing in numbers. 1974 saw the world premiere of The Golden Voyage of Sinbad at Comic-Con and also the annual costume contest called Masquerade got under way. In 1976, Lucasfilm gave its first ever presentation about an upcoming movie called Star Wars. Also Mel Blanc (voice actor for Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny and many other Looney Tunes) made his first appearance.
From 1979-87, the convention flitted between hotels – the US Grant, El Cortez, Hotel San Diego – finally ending up at a Holiday Inn. Numbers were steady (between 5,000 and 6,000) but not vastly improving. Lucasfilm’s return in 1982 to screen a special preview of the next Star Wars movie – Return Of The Jedi. 1983 saw the first area solely aimed at computer gaming. The now famous Toucan design for Comic-Con international was introduced for the convention in 1985. The same year saw Alan Moore’s only appearance at a US convention. The Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards began in 1987, and are now seen as one of the greatest accolades an artist can receive. 1988 saw attendances at around 8,000 for the convention set inside the new venue of the Omni Hotel, situated right in the Gaslamp area of San Diego and adjacent to the baseball stadium – Petco Park. With more room to expand at their new venue, 1989 was a massive uplift in attendances as packed in for the entire first weekend in August. First timers included Matt Groening and George RR Martin.
The 1990s came around and SDCC continued to move venues for the first few years. Locating to a Holiday Inn, then Pan Pacific Hotel, two years running held at the DoubleTree Hotel and finally onto the Hyatt Regency situated on the waterfront of San Diego. The number of attendees had more than doubled in those years as the con moved homes and was able to sell more badges than ever before. It had also started to utilise rooms and areas in the newly built San Diego convention centre. Neil Gaiman made his first appearance in 1991 and has been a regular fixture ever since. It was around 1993 that the main floor of the convention centre started to turn into what it has become now, a full scale exhibit hall that showcases what each company/individual has to offer. DC was the first to erect a huge structure as an eye catching piece. They also flew in special guests to meet attendees, including William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and Mr T.
In 1995, Comic-Con officially changed its name to Comic-Con International and introduced a new logo that features an animated human eye. It also permanently relocated to the convention centre that year. Attendee figures continued to grow steadily and by the end of the decade it was being visited by more than 40,000 people a day. Notable guests during this time included Francis Ford Coppola (promoting Dracula), Jean-Claude Van Damme (TimeCop), David Hasselhoff (Nick Fury), Vin Diesel (Iron Giant) Paul Verhoeven (Starship Troopers). Kevin Smith and Sammo Hung both made their first appearances in the summer of 1997. The first fanboy (as we know it nowadays) mega-event was in 1998, when Joss Whedon and the cast of Buffy The Vampire Slayer had a panel (the SDCC flyer for 1998 has Joss Whedon’s name spelt incorrectly – Josh Weiden). The Jim Carrey/Cameron Diaz film The Mask had a preview showing at Comic-Con; also, Natural Born Killers and Blair Witch Project were both shown during their release years. The new millennium would see nerd culture slowly take over the world, and with that came a bigger SDCC each year.
Firmly entrenched in the convention centre, Comic-Con International was now seeing moe than 50,000 visitors through the door each day. In 2001, the convention centre had more work done to double the size of the facility. More rooms upstairs were created – including Ballroom 20, which seats nearly 5,000 people. 2004 saw CCI finally take the last empty room in the centre, a 6,500 seating area called Hall H. The first programme in the new hall was David Goyer and Cillian Murphy talking about the forthcoming reboot of the Dark Knight – Batman Begins. By this time, Hollywood film/TV studios had started to sit up and take note that SDCC was not solely focussing on comics (it never had). Lost had its pilot episode debut at Comic-Con in 2004. The exhibition hall was now being completely used – more than 800 metres in length.
SDCC had become a place to be seen, and to sell your products. In 2005, attendance figures hit more than 100,000. The cost of an adult weekend badge back then was $65. Welcome to the modern day CCI in San Diego! 2008 saw badges for multi and individual days sell out before the event for the first time ever, with a cap at 126,000 people per day. 2009 was the 40th Anniversary of Comic-Con International and with it came bigger growth as they sold out of all badges months in advance of the actual weekend. With more and more people clambering for tickets, the decision was taken by Comic-Con International in 2010 to use nearby hotels The Hilton Bayfront and Marriott Marina to hold some of the panels and screenings in a couple of their conference rooms. Preview night tickets for 2010 had sold out a few months after 2009’s convention had finished, and all badges had been cleared out by the March.
Edgar Wright screened his film based on a comic book Scott Pilgrim vs The World that year, and star of the film Michael Cera took to the stage in a Captain America outfit. The Green Hornet, starring Seth Rogan, also had a panel that year, alongside another green panel for The Green Lantern. However, that year was slightly marred by two people getting stabbed with pens and others being led away in handcuffs due to seating issues (Fanboys be crazy). 2011/12/13 continued the massive uptrend of people from around the world wanting to attend the convention. Weekend badges selling out in a few hours in ’11, the following year badges sold out in less than 90 minutes. 2013 saw passes completely wiped out within two hours (blank screens caused several issues for those trying to secure the golden tickets); also it was the first year that CCI expanded again. This time they held panel discussions in the Lyceum Theatre which is located a short walk from the convention centre. Price for a full weekend at SDCC as an adult in 2013 was $175.
With San Diego Comic-Con showing no signs of decreasing in numbers, what does this mean for the operators? CCI are committed to staying in San Diego till 2015, but after that will they look at moving the biggest nerd fest on the planet to another city just so they can accommodate larger numbers? Alternatively, there has been a plan put in place by San Diego to expand the existing convention centre. Initial plans show a third story with queues likely to congregate on the roof before being led into the new rooms. One thing is certain San Diego Comic-Con and Comic-Con International have built one of the greatest brands for studios to be associated with. Also generating over $200 million in revenue for San Diego and its businesses. It has taken over 40 years for it to reach the general public, rather than just the fanboys, but now it’s our time – the geeks shall inherit the Earth.
It’s all thanks to a small group of people – Shel Dorf, Richard Alf, Ken Krueger, Mike Towry and Greg Bear.