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During any other summer for the past few decades, nerddom has held this time of year as sacrosanct. Traditionally the time when Comic-Con International is held, one end-of-July weekend, is celebrated like a long holiday, even by those who can’t make the pilgrimage to San Diego. It’s a time of year when fans of all genres—superhero movies, fantasy TV shows, horror flicks, etc.—pay homage to the culture they love. Comics are the sacred texts; the San Diego Convention Center the house of worship. It’s a messy, smelly time—and also one of occasional transcendence.
Or, well, it used to be. In the past few years, big studios like Warner Bros. and Fox have opted to skip the con, greatly reducing the amount of A-list celebrities and never-before-seen footage appearing at the convention’s lauded Hall H. That, coupled with the fact that attending the event itself has become an expensive and stressful endeavor for fans, has led to a significant mellowing of the Comic-Con hype. For those who remember the event’s glory days as a comic book convention severely lacking in Hollywood execs, the shift was welcomed. For those who planned their trip around the possibility they might get to ask the Game of Thrones cast a question, it was a bummer. Either way, Comic-Con was on its way to becoming a very different gathering.
Now, it’s not even a gathering at all.
Like so many other conventions—like South by Southwest and Star Wars Celebration—Comic-Con was canceled this year over fears of the spread of Covid-19. This was a wise decision, of course; a convention of Comic-Con's size would’ve been a petri dish of infection. But it also could represent a loss of momentum from which the event may have a hard time recovering. In an effort to give fans something, Comic-Con is hosting a series of panels online (see the full Comic-Con@Home lineup here), but considering the future of the event was already beginning to look murky, it's possible taking it offworld for a year could have far-reaching implications—especially if folks are still weary of gathering in large groups next summer.
Truly, the gathering is the thing. Yes, Comic-Con is a chance to see the new trailer for an upcoming Marvel film and gawk at celebrities as they talk about the importance of superheroes, but anyone could watch that on Zoom (or catch the clips on Twitter, Instagram Stories, etc.). The reason people travel hundreds of miles and spend too much money on hotels is because they want—to borrow a phrase from Hamilton—to be in the room where it happens. The con is when everyone whips out their best cosplay, their favorite fan T-shirt. People make friends at Comic-Con, fall in love at Comic-Con. It’s a place where, once a year, folks interested in the same things get to gather and admire them together. That’s much harder to do via a livestream.
Yet, livestreams may be the future. One of the biggest questions surrounding Comic-Con of late has been how relevant it can be when the companies who bring big-name panelists can just hold their own conventions. Disney—which owns Marvel, Star Wars, and a host of other fan favorites—already does this with D23. There’s also the aforementioned Star Wars Celebration, which is itself livestreamed, in part. This year Warner Bros. is hosting its own virtual event in August called DC FanDome, which will reportedly feature details about Wonder Woman 1984 and the much-hyped Zack Snyder cut of Justice League coming to HBO Max. Considering the money and muscle involved, it’s hard to imagine Netflix and Amazon couldn’t do the same and hold their own events. The gaming industry offers some precedent here. For several years now Nintendo has opted to not have a big press conference at E3 and instead livestream its own announcements via its Nintendo Direct events. It makes sense that studios would rather have their big stars dial in to a videoconference than fly them all to San Diego—plus, it gives them a much tighter grip on the narrative.
But there is one advantage fans get with this year’s online-only Comic-Con: access. Going to the con is expensive, and a lot of people just can’t swing it. Moreover, there’s often movie and TV footage shown in Hall H that never gets seen by the outside world. Putting the whole convention on YouTube ensures that everyone has the same barrier to entry, and that’s a huge deal—even if it means a few fortunate geeks won’t get the chance to hang out at Pop’s Diner, brought to you by The CW’s Riverdale.
Therein lies the rub. Historically speaking, the best parts of Comic-Con have been social. Yes, it’s cool to see clips from the new iteration of Star Trek, but it’s even cooler to see them while seated next to a fellow Trekkie, preferably one dressed as Spock or Uhura. But if Comic-Con goes online, and fans—and the companies trying to pander to them—realize watching on YouTube is about as fun as seeing it live, then perhaps everyone involved will find it’s simply not worth the hassle, or the money. (Covid-19 has also brought on an economic downturn, after all.) Such a thing would be a huge loss—to the comics community and fandom at large. Comic-Con may have ballooned into an unwieldy beast in recent years, but it was, and is, still one of the few places many nerds called home. It deserves a place to be.