The History of Comic Cons in the U.S.

Brad Kern
6 min readOct 10, 2023
Brad Kern — NYC Comic Con
NYC Comic Con

Comic conventions, known as Comic Cons, have become cultural phenomena across the globe. In the United States, they have evolved from small gatherings of comic book aficionados to massive events attended by hundreds of thousands, celebrating not just comics, but all facets of pop culture. Here’s a brief look at the history and evolution of Comic Cons in the U.S.

Origins: The 1960s and 70s

The seeds for Comic Cons were sown in the 1960s. The first official “comic book convention” is believed to have taken place in 1964 in New York, called the “Tri-State Con”. It was an intimate gathering, unlike the colossal events of today, focused purely on comic books.

However, the most recognized early convention is the San Diego’s Golden State Comic-Minicon of 1970. Organized by a group of comics fans, it was initially a one-day event drawing around 100 attendees. The success of this event led to the first full-fledged San Diego Comic-Con (SDCC) later that year, attracting over 300 participants.

Expansion: The 1980s and 90s

By the 1980s, the SDCC had started gaining traction, and the convention landscape began to diversify. These events started expanding their purview beyond just comic books to include other elements of pop culture like films, TV shows, and toys. This decade saw a surge in attendance and the inception of other major conventions across the country.

The 90s further accelerated this trend, with the blossoming of the Internet and a resurgence in superhero films. The SDCC became the prime destination for major Hollywood announcements, trailer launches, and celebrity appearances.

The 2000s to Today

The new millennium heralded an era where Comic Cons became cultural milestones. The SDCC’s attendance rocketed from around 42,000 in 2000 to over 130,000 by 2010. By now, it wasn’t just about comics — it was a celebration of all things pop culture, from anime to video games to mainstream TV shows.

With the boom in the superhero movie genre, led by franchises like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Comic Cons became essential promotional platforms for studios. Many other cities across the U.S. established their own annual conventions, such as the New York Comic Con (NYCC), Emerald City Comic Con in Seattle, and C2E2 in Chicago.

Simultaneously, many specialty conventions emerged, focusing on specific genres or fandoms, including those centered on anime, horror, and science fiction.

Pandemic Onset and Initial Responses

As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in early 2020, major events around the world were cancelled or postponed. Among the casualties was the highly anticipated San Diego Comic-Con (SDCC). For the first time in its 50-year history, the SDCC was cancelled due to the health crisis, as reported by USA Today and Variety. This move resonated throughout the industry, signaling the gravity of the situation. As a community built on physical interactions and face-to-face connections, the fan conventions faced unprecedented challenges.

Virtual Shifts and Mixed Responses

In response to the pandemic, many conventions opted for a virtual format. SDCC went virtual in 2020, offering panels, exhibitions, and interactions online. Publishers Weekly highlighted how the New York Comic Con (NYCC) also pivoted to an online model that year. While these digital iterations allowed fans to connect from the safety of their homes, they lacked the tangible energy and immersive experience that in-person events offer. Some fans, as noted in Reddit discussions, voiced concerns about whether conventions would ever regain their previous glory.

The Return of In-Person Conventions

By late 2021, with vaccination efforts ramping up, Comic Cons began making a cautious return. The LA Times reported on the comeback of the SDCC, albeit in a smaller, modified format named “Special Edition”. Attendees donned not just their usual cosplay but also masks, reflecting the times. The New York Times covered the NYCC of 2021, noting the palpable excitement of attendees, even with safety protocols in place.

The resilience of the Comic Con community became evident in 2022. As Publishers Weekly highlighted, the NYCC witnessed fans “roaring back”, with strong attendance and an atmosphere echoing pre-pandemic times.

Post-Pandemic Landscape

Moving forward from the pandemic, conventions have incorporated lessons from their virtual stints. Hybrid models, combining in-person events with digital components, have started gaining traction, offering a blend of physical interaction and online accessibility.

However, the Entertainment Weekly article emphasized that while fan conventions are bouncing back, they’re also evolving. Health and safety have taken center stage, with increased sanitation measures, capacity limits, and vaccination checks becoming the norm.

Moving Forward

The COVID-19 pandemic undeniably altered the landscape of Comic Cons in the U.S. and worldwide. However, the events’ return and adaptations highlight the community’s resilience and adaptability. While the road to full recovery may be gradual, the essence of Comic Cons — a passionate congregation celebrating shared interests — remains unshaken. The post-pandemic world sees these conventions not just as celebrations of pop culture, but also as symbols of hope, unity, and the human spirit’s ability to bounce back.

SAG and WGA Strikes’ Impact on Comic Cons in Summer 2023

Background of the Strikes

In the summer of 2023, both the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the Writers Guild of America (WGA) engaged in substantial strikes, putting Hollywood’s production machinery to a grinding halt. With major TV and film projects paused, this turmoil seeped into the world of Comic Cons.

Initial Consequences

As reported by the LA Times and Variety, the immediate effect of the strikes was a noticeable absence of the usual star-studded panels at the San Diego Comic-Con (SDCC). With writers and actors prohibited from promoting their upcoming works due to the strikes, the convention missed the mega-panels of recent years that typically drew huge crowds. According to San Diego Magazine, many studios reduced their presence or pulled out entirely, altering the traditionally film and TV-centered focus of the event.

Shift in Atmosphere

However, every cloud has a silver lining. Many attendees felt that the SDCC of 2023 was a return to its roots. Entertainment Weekly highlighted that the strike-induced shift led to a renewed focus on comic books and indie projects. Panels that may have been overshadowed in previous years by major Hollywood announcements took center stage. CNN’s coverage emphasized the convention’s pivot to highlight lesser-known artists, writers, and indie comic creators.

The “Blessing in Disguise”

NPR reported a sentiment among some attendees that the Hollywood strike was a “blessing in disguise” for the SDCC. Without the glamour of Hollywood’s biggest stars and high-budget projects, fans reconnected over their shared love for the core elements of Comic Cons — the comics themselves. Many attendees appreciated the chance to delve deeper into comic lore, interact closely with creators, and discover new indie titles.

Fallout and Reflection

Vox delved into the broader implications of the SAG and WGA strikes, highlighting the disputes over contracts and rights. While the strikes affected numerous industries, the change in tone at Comic Cons became a notable side-effect. For many, it was a nostalgic return to the conventions’ origins, while for others, it was a reminder of the ever-increasing commercialization of these events in recent years.

What Now

The SAG and WGA strikes of 2023 undeniably altered the landscape of the SDCC and other similar conventions. However, the events of that summer underscored the versatility and adaptability of the Comic Con community. While the Hollywood glamour was missed by some, many embraced the opportunity to celebrate the heart of these conventions. The summer served as a testament to the fact that while the spotlight might shift, the passion of the community remains unyielding.

Impact on Culture and Economy

Comic Cons have had a profound impact on American culture and economy. They’ve contributed significantly to the rise of “geek culture” and its integration into mainstream media. Economically, these conventions boost local tourism, with attendees spending on lodging, food, and merchandise.

Future and Challenges

With their rising prominence, Comic Cons face challenges. Overcrowding has become an issue, leading to debates on the need for larger venues or attendee caps. The commercial aspect, with Hollywood’s increasing influence, has led some purists to bemoan the drifting focus from comic books.

Yet, the essence of Comic Cons — that of a passionate community coming together to celebrate shared interests — remains intact. As they evolve, these conventions will likely continue to reflect the changing dynamics of pop culture, while holding onto the love for storytelling that started it all.

In conclusion, the history of Comic Cons in the U.S. is a testament to the enduring appeal of comics and pop culture. From humble beginnings, these conventions have grown into influential events, shaping the cultural landscape and uniting diverse fandoms. — Brad Kern

--

--