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San Diego Comic-Con 2017 - Final Reflections
With Chris Lopez on July 25, 2017

This is Chris Lopez's final report from the 2017 San Diego Comic-Con. - editor

And just like that, it’s over. The five-day, pop-culture frenzy known as San Diego Comic-Con closes another chapter in its history. I would ask where the time went, but I know that most of it was spent waiting in line. Even so, there was a lot that I was able to participate in and learn from. Unpacking and reflecting on the experience would undoubtedly require multiple write-ups, but allow me to leave you all with some initial reflections.

On the winding ride home, I found myself physically exhausted but emotionally (maybe even psychologically) invigorated and satisfied – it was a strange feeling. I felt more passionate about the superhero comic book stories I already loved, more interested in other forms of popular culture like Dark Horse comics and television shows like Fear the Walking Dead, and, inexplicably, more connected with fellow fans and creators. In short, I felt empowered and enlightened. “What was this about?” I thought to myself driving along the 15, “What did I just experience?” The words of Henry Jenkins, professor of culture and media studies, came to mind: culture convergence and participatory culture.

Jenkins defines “culture convergence” as “the flow of content across multiple media platforms, the cooperation between multiple media industries, and the migratory behavior of media audiences who will go almost anywhere in search of the kinds of entertainment experiences they want” (2). And “participatory culture” he contrasts “with older notions of passive media spectatorship.” He goes on to explain that “rather than talking about media producers and consumers as occupying separate roles, we might now see them as participants who interact with each other according to a new set of rules that no one fully understands” (3). While both culture convergence and participatory culture existed in their prenatal forms outside of comic book culture, their beginnings were most explicit in “the Silver Age of Comics” led by the superhero comic book publisher, Marvel.

Soon after the publication of the immensely successful Fantastic Four, writer and editor Stan Lee began to write letters to the readers, not only to explain where they planned to take their heroes and heroines, but asking for the reader’s opinion on what they think should happen. Soon these little editorial notes would be placed along the cover of an issue with the back editorial letter featuring excerpts of readers’ responses. Marvel began to use this interactive, quasi-collaboration as a way to gauge which character they would give their own title, like Doctor Strange, or how they would orient a story arc. This fan-creator dynamic, utilized also by D.C., would prove so influential that it would leave some fans irrevocably changed. This was how George R. Martin, creator of Game of Thrones, felt when Stan Lee responded to one of Martin’s letters back in the mid 60s. Soon the editorial notes wouldn’t be enough to sustain and develop this peculiar relationship alone, so the very first comic-con ever occurred in 1964 in New York City, where a couple of writers and editors gathered with eager fans for autograph signings, updates on their favorite studies, and to share appreciation for one another. The notion of comic-con had concretized and ritualized participatory culture for comic book fans and writers.

With the advent of the Internet and the rapid advancements of communication technology and the plethora of grandiose, blockbuster comic book film adaptations, San Diego Comic-Con has constructed a vast and complicated infrastructure of convergence culture and participatory culture, where fans are encouraged to embody their beloved stories (cos-play) without shame, experience the digitization of their favorite 60s TV serials, and are rewarded by their beloved creators with sneak peaks of upcoming productions. And now with multiple media platforms covering every moment of Comic-Con, virtually anyone and everyone can participate in the pilgrimage to this pop-culture Mecca.

It goes the other way as well: Comic-Con is a space for creators and producers to get invaluable feedback on what they have planned. They get immediate fan reflections in the Q&A time and can provide sponsors with tangible examples of how worthwhile investing in their stories can be. Comic-Con is the perfect mid-way point for creators to discern how they should finish productions; it’s the ritual for creators to receive the encouragement they need to continue their work. 

Jenkins and others have described participatory culture as a techno-cultural movement that universalizes the roles of creator and consumer. Nowhere is that dynamic more concrete than comic book culture where fans eventually find themselves in the roles of writer or editor and creators are permitted to express and practice their own kind of fandom. Comic-Con is a magnifying glass to that consumer-creator cycle.

The ritual of Comic-Con is dizzying and intoxicating. I used to think waiting for the release of a trailer online at midnight was fun, but nothing will compare to the communal journey and personal experience of the Hall H previews. Watching actors and producers tearfully reflect on the meaning of the story or profusely thank fans will transform how you experience the show or film when you go home.

I’ll never forget Paul Dini’s comments on how his near death experience with a mugger eventually inspired him to hope for and be a part of the ethical and social transformation of criminals in real life and in Batman: The Animated Series. I’ll never forget how Marvel’s Director of Content and Character Development, Sana Amant, called out a young Ms. Marvel cos-palyer by name from the audience and commented how she remembers her from previous conventions. I’ll also never forget how kind Amant was to me when I thanked her for her work in bringing more brown people into the panels of Marvel’s comics. Comic-Con systemically humanized so much of popular culture for me. I used to think popular culture is only redeemable in so far as the theologically astute fans, like me, curate and engage it in specific way. However, after seeing the hope, goodness, and justice Comic-Con can cultivate in the social imagination, I say with Jacob from Genesis, “Surely God is here and I did not know it.”

This is not to say Comic-Con is only a bastion of social reformation and everyone in it is a saint; just cut in the Hall H line and watch how, as Joker says, “These civilized people will eat each other” (I’m speaking hyperbolically of course!). Yet it would be remiss of anyone interested in culture, meaning-making through art, etc. to ignore the kind of participatory culture happening at Comic-Con. “Comic-Cons have become Mega-Cons; they have become Culture-Cons,” says Jon Schnepp, the director of The Death of “Superman Lives.” I have no doubt San Diego Comic-Con will become one of the prime locations to understand and predict how technology, media, and popular art will influence human community and meaning-making for better or for worse. I’ve only scratched the surface of this participatory cultural phenomenon and I hope to return again next year. Thanks for journeying with me, everyone!

Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. NYU Press. New York City, 2008.

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