Fan Conventions: Getting Through the Hype

Photo: Shannon Cottrell/LA Weekly from Comic-Con 2010 There's a lot of hype surrounding conventions. If you've been to one of the larger events, you know cons are often the place where big studios make big announcements. They can also be the place where companies choose to flex their marketing muscle with street team campaigns, can't-miss booths, swag, and exclusive merchandise. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, they're just taking their products directly to the customer. But often, what you hear or read about after the con focuses on this—and not the fans who make the con happen. After Comic-Con, I wrote about trying to find "authenticity" at such a massive, hype-crazy event. It's definitely there, but it's sometimes buried under the advertising and glut of announcements. The fan moments are always the best part of the convention, whether it's a massive gathering of cosplayers paying tribute to the same characters, or a simple conversation at a tweet-up where you don't feel socially awkward after dropping an obscure pop culture reference among strangers. There might not much flashiness surrounding those moments, but that's when we see the real community within the cons. Link: "Ever Get the Feeling You've Been Conned?" (LA Weekly)


  1. When I was a kid there was a comic convention downtown here in Chicago. It was in a single ballroom, filled with comic dealers, artists, writers. I stood in line and got Stan Lee to sign a copy of the “Guide to the Marvel Universe” on the pages for both “Spider-Man” and the “Silver Surfer” since he co-created both. My mom told me to ask a question and I asked where he got the idea for Spider-Man. Lee spent a few minutes telling me about Errol Flynn and his love of pirate flicks being a big inspiration. It was about as awesome an experience as a 7 year old comic fan can have.

    The shows now feel so big and hype-filled, there’s so little room for that kind of experience. Waiting in line with 1000 people to quickly slide some merch under Kevin Smith’s pen, maybe mutter a “hey, you rock” just isn’t fulfilling.

    I go to check out the Artist Alleys. Lots of great comic creators, from big names to folks just on the scene. You can actually have a conversation, buy some cool merch that puts money right in their pockets, maybe even get a sketch. I have a single sketch journal with about 20 artists in it like Ben Templesmith, Brian Wood, Faryl Dalrymple, Scott Brown, Hope Larson.

    I go to a convention to meet people who make the things I love. The more relaxed and cool that experience can be, the better.

    1. You said it. I only spent one Friday afternoon at Comic-Con a few years back, bringing around an art poster from the San Diego Museum of Art. I met some favorite creators, but the best moment by far was unrolling it for Stan Sakai. He took a look at the more traditional art on the poster, admired it, and said, “You want my signature on this? Are you sure?”

      Of course I was fucking sure! It was Stan Sakai! But that he reacted to another artists work in that way created an amazing moment for me, the fan.

  2. It’s the trade off between big cons with big name guests, and smaller, fan-run cons with fewer big name guests, but better fan experiences. The main fan run con here in Toronto has over a hundred hours of ‘non-guest’ programming, mainly discussion panels, over the course of a weekend. That’s where the real fun is.

  3. It’s the trade off between big cons with big name guests, and smaller, fan-run cons with fewer big name guests, but better fan experiences. The main fan run con here in Toronto has over a hundred hours of ‘non-guest’ programming, mainly discussion panels, over the course of a weekend. That’s where the real fun is.

  4. I appear at a lot of conventions as an attendee, as press, as a guest speaker, and even as staff. I go to comic, gaming, anime, and tech conferences of all shapes and sizes.

    The one thing that all conventions have in common is that online coverage of these conventions always has the wrong focus. The things they write the stories about are things that actual attendees of the convention hardly see at all. What’s even worse is that the online geek media has the same fault as the mainstream media.

    Take Otakon for example. The local newspaper will have an article that’s basically “OMG cosplay is crazy!” but Kotaku will have the same article. Anime News Network still gets it wrong, but does one better, by covering all the industry panels. Hello! Otakon has a gigantic artists alley, and 8 rooms of fan programming that run the entire length of the con. It’s all completely ignored by the press. They also bring multiple people from the Japanese animation and manga industry as guests, and the press doesn’t even know or care.

    If you look at PAX coverage, you would think the only part of the con that exists is the exhibition hall. Yeah, gamers at home do want to see screenshots and videos of upcoming games. They also probably care about the keynote, but there’s a metric ton of stuff going on in the con that isn’t part of the industry. For example I don’t think I saw a single mention in the press of the 10 seat Steel Battalion room at PAX East. That was simply amazing. Also, people play a lot of tabletop games at PAX, yet you would hardly know that large section of the con even existed if you weren’t there to see it yourself.

    The best way to get a real idea of what happens at these conventions is to ignore the press, and listen to the fans. Look at tweets, blogs, Flickr accounts, podcasts, and any media generated by fans who attended the convention. Short of actually going yourself, that’s the only way you’ll get an accurate idea of what a fan convention is all about.

    1. re: tabletop gaming.
      That’s only because tabletop games aren’t ‘flashy’, i.e. they’re not what brings newbies to your con. They’re what keeps quality people content at your con year after year, though.. which makes them invaluable.

  5. In my teens and twenties I used to run game tournaments at OKon, the yearly science fiction/fantasy con in Tulsa. It was a fun time — just enough people to take over a medium-sized hotel for a weekend. Everyone was part of the local scene and it was a great chance to hang out with friends and geek out together.

    Despite living only a few hours from San Diego, I’ve never been to Comic-Con, and if I can help it, I never will. I work E3 every year … why do I need another noisy, commercial, hype-fest in my life?

  6. Personally, I won’t go near commercially-run conventions. Fan-run conventions are a lot more relaxed, a lot friendlier, often a lot cheaper… and they attract the pros who actually _like_ their fans.

  7. It’s the trade off between big cons with big name guests, and smaller, fan-run cons with fewer big name guests, but better fan experiences. The main fan run con here in Toronto has over a hundred hours of ‘non-guest’ programming, mainly discussion panels, over the course of a weekend. That’s where the real fun is.

  8. I’ve long felt the same as this article. Way too many conventions these days are being taken over by the industry, and comic-con (as well as it’s New York cousin) are kind of at the forefront of it.

    I’m glad it mentioned Dragoncon in Atlanta, it’s long been my favorite con, the total opposite of the industry-run stuff. Not so many packed halls to unveil information from some other Hollywood studio or another, but many more fan-run panels and rooms on everything you could ever be a nerd about. Rather than the convention center closing and kicking everybody out at night, the Dragoncon party goes on all night. It might not have as much prestige, but it’s a lot more fun and feels a lot more “real.”

  9. I have been helping run conventions since I attended my first one in 1983 (Constellation, Worldcon in Baltimore). I have seen them rise up, split, flourish, die off, and fall from grace, only to be reborn into new forms. I have helped run science fiction cons, anime cons, gaming cons, and cons that defied description.

    The best part about them is the moments with fans in some lobby somewhere, at 1am, having some bizarre-assed talk about “what if ESP were real; should telepathic people be banished from the banking industry?” or “Barney the Dinosaur: Farming adolescents for future food?”

    To me, the guests, panels, schwag, and dealer’s areas are great, but the best prt has ALWAYS been the fans. It’s a huge social event.

    I met my wife at one. My son was at his first con at 6 months and helps run Katsucon now. My career got launched because of my book, a parody of sorts that fans loved (sorry, out of print). The illustrator of my book gave me in inroads to a tech career just as the dot com was starting, which ended up getting me a great house. I can trace back almost every great friend to a con.

    I have met rocket scientists, artist, writers, brain surgeons, professional clowns, hackers, psychic investigators, actors, voice artists, singers, musicians, and people with careers so oddball and strange, only a con could accept them for who they are.

  10. Science Fiction conventions have started in the late 1930s in the US. It is only when tings going into the late 1970s that some people got the idea that they could make money off of the back of Science Fiction fans, specifically, Star Trek Fans. At least one major organization did this, and as most organizations that are only into it for the money, they got greedy, and their actions eventually led to their downfall.

    Please support Fan run conventions, be their Media cons, or Literary. I’ve been attending SF conventions since the late 1970s. I’ve attended at least once many of the major SF & Trek/Media conventions in the North East, and I have worked on cons such as Maplecon, Ad Astra, Con*Cept, ConCarolinas, and CAN-CON in a variety of positions from Gopher all of the way up to Chair (This year’s CAN-CON). CAN-CON is going to be small, under 200 people, and is totally fan run.

    On the other hand, this weekend, I was up in Montreal at Otakuthon. Attendance was in the 5,000 or more people, and it, also, was fan run. Fan run events have a much nicer feel to them, IMOHO, and don’t try to gouge you monetarily. Being Fan run doesn’t mean it’s no professionally run. Many convention organizers do this on a voluntary basis for years, or decades.

    Fan run cons are fans trying to create a space to meet and entertain other fans. Commercial conventions are just there to make money. As a fan, I think it is obvious which will provide a better experience.

    CAN-CON 2010

  11. “The shows now feel so big and hype-filled, there’s so little room for that kind of experience.”

    The absolute best piece I’ve seen about the change in SDCC over the decades, from a man who was there to witness it himself, Mark Evanier:

    Provides a lot of insight into what the convention used to be, the direction it’s headed, and how those changes aren’t necessarily bad.

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