Saturday, August 29, 2015

A Tale of Two Conventions

I was in the lunchroom at work after coming back from Spokane the previous week, when one of the employees that works in the department I oversee asked me, “Did you have fun at Comic-Con?”  

"Comic-Con was in July," I told her.  "I went to WorldCon last week." 
"Oh.  What's the difference?"  
Huh.  A lot, I thought.  But, how do I express it...?
Every "Convention Season," which runs for the most part from April to November each year, I make a point of always going to Comic-Con and WorldCon.  There are other conventions that I've been to.  AnimeExpo, which is at the Los Angeles Convention Center these days, focuses on cartoons, or anime, and comic books, or manga, imported from or inspired by Japanese work, is one I've been to a few times.  Westercon is a regional science fiction convention, held in a different city each year in western North America, I went to once when it was in my home town of Pasadena.  WonderCon, which is run by the same people that run Comic-Con, is one I've gone to each April since it moved from San Francisco to the Anaheim Convention Center a few years ago.  I'll be going to the Long Beach Comic-Con in September for the first time to check it out.
But Comic-Con and WorldCon have been the two I "Have To" go to each year for the past decade.  They each satisfy a different part of my psyche.  
Comic-Con is the bigger and more well known to the general public of the two, though WorldCon is much older.  About 130,000 people go each year.  And though its name points to its origins as a comic book convention, what you can find there is much, much broader than that.  Movies, TV shows and video games now dominate the big ticket items you go to see at Comic-Con.  And they're not all strictly related to comic books, or even science fiction, any more.  The convention refers to itself as one for "popular arts," and that pretty much says it.  
I started going to Comic-Con when I was writing and publishing my comic book stories and continued to go when my focus returned to writing science fiction and fantasy stories and novels more or less out of habit.  There was a few years where I questioned if there was any reason for me to continue going.  I think there is.  
WorldCon was first held in 1939, and every year since the end of World War Two.  It is run by an organization called the World Science Fiction Society and is held in a different city somewhere in the world each year.  Since I started attending in 2007, I've been to places like Yokohama, Montreal, Melbourne and London.  One of the reasons I enjoy going to WorldCon is because of the opportunity to go to places I did not think I'd have a chance to go to when I was younger.  In 2017, the convention will be in Helsinki, Finland for the first time.  That should be an interesting trip.  
WorldCon is a smaller convention that Comic-Con.  There are usually about three to five thousand attendees, depending on where it is being held.  There is a fluctuating number of "associate members," people who are members but are not attending the convention itself.  My impression is that they pay for associate membership to support the convention's continuation and to give themselves the chance to vote on the Hugos, the awards handed out at each WorldCon to celebrate the best work in a number of categories from the previous year.  Comic-Con has the Eisner awards to celebrate the best work in the field of comic books from the previous year, its strongest tie to its past as a purely comic book convention.  
The difference is more than just size and age, though.  
Comic-Con is as glitzy as it is big.  It's presentational.  There is a distinction between Performer and Audience there.  The biggest events are related to some presentation of the most popular TV show, or the biggest blockbuster that is about to come out.  People will wait in line overnight for a chance to entry Hall H, or Ballroom 20, the two largest presentation areas at the convention center, to get a chance to be the first to hear about the next season of their favorite show, or hear the big secret announcement about everyone is talking about online.  
The line between Performer and Audience is blurred when you step outside and see the legions of cosplayers walking, crawling, rolling or strutting about, trying to become your favorite hero or heroine, if only for the amount of time it takes to snap their picture.  Comic-Con is like Hollywood, filled with stars and people dressing up like them.  
It's also like Hollywood in that people are often there to pitch.  Pitch their comic.  Pitch their movie idea.  Pitch their book.  Comic-Con projects itself outward towards others.  It's about being seen and heard.  
WorldCon is much more introspective.  It moves at a much slower pace.  In part because it the demographic of attendees is considerably older than that of Comic-Con.  At one panel in Spokane, one of the moderators with free books to give out asked, "Any teenagers in the audience?"  No one moved.  "Anyone with teenagers at home?"  Her table was mobbed.  
WorldCon's focus is much more narrow that Comic-Con's.  In 2007, while on a tour of Japan with other convention-goers, I got to chance to talk with Michael Whelan, a well known science fiction artist.  He told me of a time, back in the 70's, when the people that run WorldCon wondered if they should expand the convention's focus to include more media-related panels, as part of a way of increasing membership.  They decided to retain the focus they'd had, which is on the literature of science fiction and its related sources.  As a result, the convention has remained relatively small and somewhat older as far as the attendees are concerned.  
Maybe its a function of my own increasing age, but this suits me fine these days.  I enjoy going to panels discussing things like the New Horizons probe to Pluto.  Or I would have enjoyed it had the room, a very large room, had not filled to capacity before I got there.  But its discussions like that, and the ones that such panels spark that take place with people over lunch or the numerous parties that are thrown each night after the panels are over, that I enjoy.  
Which is something else about WorldCon that I enjoy that I don't get as much at Comic-Con.  It's the people I get to see each year at WorldCon that I look forward to.  Maybe its because WorldCon is so much smaller that Comic-Con, there are more people there that I recognize and know.  Like Joe, with whom I will attend a baseball game with (if we're in a country that plays baseball) during WorldCon.  Or "The Brits," a group of guys from the United Kingdom I met on my Japan tour before Yokohama in 2007 that I met each year.  At Spokane, we got together for breakfast at the same place, the Satellite Diner, each morning of the convention plus the day after.  We talked about the panels we'd seen, the Hugo nomination controversy, politics, beer, stuff like that.  I called it, "Breakfast with the Brits."  We became such regulars that the waitress that served us each day gave us free Satellite Diner mugs the last day we ate, and the owner gave us each a big hug.  Or another friend, Jo (no "e" at the end), who I met through the writers' group we were both a part of that started at another convention, who I talk shop with about writing and who's up on all the stuff going on in fandom.  
What I get out of the two conventions is different.  At the end of Comic-Con, I'm usually exhausted, ready to get back to my routine, but happy I went, and geared up to sell my writings.  At the end of WorldCon, I'm more refreshed.  Sad that I have to go.  Wanting to stay just a bit longer.  Or at least, wanting to take some part of it with me.  I'm usually filled with ideas of things to write about.  
All these difference went through my mind when I was asked about the difference between the two conventions.  Work was about to start, though, and I had to get back to my office.  So I said...
"Comic-Con is like going to a Las Vegas for geeks.  WorldCon is like going to a family reunion of nerds."  
"Oh."  She then filled up her coffee cup and left. 


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