The San Diego Comic-Con began humbly in the year 1970 when some 300 people gathered in the basement of the US Grant Hotel to promote the burgeoning world of comic books. It has now grown into the largest convention of its kind in the world, with over 150,000 people flocking to the beach metropolis generating almost $200 million per year for the city of San Diego. But as the SDCC grows, has it lost its bearing as an authentic monolith of nerd culture? [All images by Eric Drotter]

Outside the great vaulted hall of the San Diego Convention Center a mob never imagined by the most fanciful imagination gathers. A throng of people born from a futurist’s peyote-fueled fever dream mill about, the high wattage buzz of excitement running through them like a current. Robots, demons, superheroes and monsters of every origin and shape parade and mingle. A shirtless, six-packed blonde surfer dressed like Aquaman splits the crowd like an obedient school of his fish, the gorgeous redhead on his arm strangely attracting less attention than he in this mostly male horde. Two massive mech robots, standing fifteen feet high, patrol the cordoned off street like ED209.

“We always get the same joke: Nice costume, guys!” says Officer Collins, one of the police assigned to watch the front entrance of the mobbed convention hall. He’s with two other officers in bulletproof vests and Secret Service shades, but all three seem eminently amused and relaxed. The tension is so low a Hobbit could trip over it. “It’s really well behaved, much better than a Chargers-Raiders game, I’ll tell you that much,” Collins says smiling. Just then a weapon-strapped Halo soldier walks past, and two guys in army fatigues, carrying M-16s and grenades. The only obvious sign distinguishing them from actual terrorists are the giant Comic-Con bags slung over their shoulders, filled to the brim with nerd trinkets.

Besides the outlandish cosplay swarms, what is instantly most salient about the famed San Diego Comic Con (SDCC) is just how unbelievably polite everyone is. In most normal conventions people would walk right in front of you as you tried to snap a photo. At SDCC packs of people stop each other, politely waiting for you to take your iPhone snapshot of the dude with the spot-on Deadpool costume. It is a bizarre, terminally courteous and yet sweat-packed hall of well-behaved fighters and wizards, zombies and gods, heroes and nerds.

Compare this, say, to a Detroit Auto Show from a couple years back when Mazda made the mistake of announcing free hot dogs for lunch. The sudden rush of obese car hacks stampeding towards the Mazda booth was like that of a herd of khaki’d hippos crashing through the Great Hall, devouring every mechanically separated piece of meat like a swarm of famished locusts. In contrast, the graciousness is almost unsettling.

Hit the Jump to continue reading our investigation of the San Diego Comic Con, plus another couple galleries of LIAS exclusive images…

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“It is a bizarre, sweat-packed hall of well-behaved fighters & wizards, zombies & gods, heroes & nerds…”

I push my way inside, through the many phalanxes of security and pass checkers, and find my way into the hall. There by the entrance I pass a group of grown men sitting on the carpet enraptured in new toys, examining their shiny new boxes of limited edition wares. Unable to contain himself, one starts ripping away with bare hands, eagerly tearing at the cellophane. Quickly frustrated by the thick Chinese plastic he digs into his pockets and pulls out house keys. Again he attacks, only to be thwarted as he carves away at the second layer of packaging. The man stares at the confounding box like a chimp considering a Rubiks Cube. One of his friends, a portly kid in a Superman shirt and ad hoc cape fashioned from a red bandana, catches sight of his dilemma and hands him a Leatherman. It’s like that scene in 2001 when the ape first picks up a femur and clobbers his simian enemy over the head.

At any other place in the known universe, this poor chap would be dismissed as Homo Geekus, an outcast among humanity. At the world-famous Comic-Con, however, he is Hero.

A man cheered by all, feted by the various lunatics who parade around him in equally flamboyant regalia. SDCC is a King Richards Fair, 12-year-old’s birthday party and Phish parking lot all rolled into one. But don’t be fooled by the festive costumes and niche vibes; SDCC is also a Hollywood marketing Armageddon — a financial boon to the city of San Diego and a global marketing jump-off point for every tangentially associated industry from collectible toys to baseball cards to video games to blockbuster films. Buses wrapped in advertisements for the TV show Grimm shuttle conventioneers to and fro. A giant Adult Swim inflatable castle twitches in the distance, under a Despicable Me blimp hovering overhead. Pedi-cabs with lifesize Archers and Green Men advertise FX’s best comedies. It is an all-out marketing blitzkrieg.

“What’s fun about Comic Con is that the activations are really unique and authentic,” Maya Draisin tells me as we drink cold flagons of Iron Throne Blonde Ale from the Game Of Thrones bar at the Omni Hotel. As the Associate Publisher of Marketing for WIRED, Draisin has seen SDCC — and her purpose-built WIRED Café— expand quickly in its seven years of existence. “Every year it’s growing and growing,” she continues in amazement. “I’ve never seen it so busy on Thursday as it is today.” A giant wooden dragonship dominates the middle of the Café floor, hand-built by an 80 year-old Viking ship builder. With pounded nails and intricately carved serpent bow, the ship was created specifically for SDCC to promote the History Channel show Vikings. Just yesterday Kia unveiled the 8th and final vehicle in its cross-promotion with DC Comics, the Justice League Sorento. Featuring a hand-drawn trunk by legendary artist Jim Lee and a slew of custom modifications, it is the sort of well-curated marketing activation that attempts to tap at the SDCC faithful, while also raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for charities like We Can Be Heroes.

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“Spider-Man has become more valuable to its parent company’s stock value than a pharmaceutical patent…”

If there is a stigma that nerds are a lazy bunch, Comic Con will quickly dispel that stereotype. People begin lining up at daybreak to catch the various panels where CNN-worthy announcements are made — such as director Zach Snyder revealing on Saturday that Batman would cameo in his next Superman Man Of Steel sequel, or Matt Groening announcing a much desired, long-anticipated Family Guy/Simpsons crossover. Others wake at 4 am for a chance to be handed a ticket for the honor of waiting in yet another long line to pay significant money to purchase SDCC-exclusive merchandise. Hasbro for instance released a giant Transformer toy specifically for the Comic Con. A two-foot long city skyline that transforms into a giant Autobot, the “Metropolis” figure is the type of item that besets collectors with the ultimate geek conundrum: keep the items for their ever growing personal collections, or post them to eBay where a cash fall awaits them. You can see the angst in the faces of these “flippers” whenever I asked them their intentions.

Chris, a 44-year-old teller at Wells Fargo, says he’s been up for 36 hours straight — the insomnia resulting from excitement for the upcoming show. “I had too much anxiety — this is the event of the year!” he tells me breathlessly. Chris pulls out an “Old Man Logan” SDCC exclusive Wolverine doll from his giant bag, of which he bought 6 for $20 each. He expects to sell them for $140 each on eBay and invest his earnings in a highly detailed figure (starting at $500) by his favorite artist Pushead — the man responsible for many a Metallica illustration. “I buy stuff that the artists create, that you can’t buy anywhere,” Chris tells me as he hands me a doll by underground artist Jim Mahfood to look over. “You can’t find this at any Toys R Us!”

No, you cannot. Nor can you find an original helmet from the Judge Dredd movie, the fingerless hand Travis Bickle blew off in Taxi Driver or the bullet-riddled shirt worn by Robert Patrick in Terminator 2 — entombed in a glass shrine like a signed Joe Montana jersey. There are also Punisher terry cloth robes, hoodies with Wolverine masks built in and toy startups like “Zombie Homies” — a hare-brained concoction combining the most ubiquitous undead in the zeitgeist with those old “Homies” toys from the nineties.

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Among all the companies, studios, startups and conglomerates vying for attention at SDCC, Marvel is the undisputed king. The company flaunts its creations throughout San Diego like the Hulk flexing both guns. But Marvel’s dominance is not the eventuality that it now appears — consider that in 1996 during the nadir of the global comic crash Marvel filed for bankruptcy, its properties considered valueless. That was before X-Men and Spider-Man changed the battle landscape of Hollywood, and fitted its protagonists in tights. On the strength of its intellectual property and the successful run of its films, Disney purchased Marvel Entertainment in 2009 for $4.24 billion. Spider-Man has become, for all intents and purposes, more valuable to its parent company’s stock value than a pharmaceutical patent. Dwell on that for a moment.

Which is why, to many an old timer’s chagrin, the influx of entertainment conglomerates has changed the face of SDCC. While it’s been given a zombie makeover and is represented to the mainstream media by an army of geeks in poorly made Batman costumes, the truth of the matter is that Hollywood has been evermore seeping into the convention over the past decade. Not only are its stars the faces of the largest and most exaggerated spectacles, but in the evening the streets of the Gaslamp Quarter turn into a mini Sunset Strip. Many of the clubs are overrun, and the nightlife takes on a celebrity philosophy that seems at terminal ends with the nerdy ethos of 99% of its attendees. Bottle services flourish, open bars are king, and velvet ropes define territories as sharply as Westeros bannermen. To be honest, these parties can be fun — boisterous throwdowns with Weezer, Metallica or some Dutch DJ laying down the soundtrack. But do they hurt the integrity of Comic Con? For sure there are buyers and sellers in this universe, and the major studios are doing all the selling while they expect the fans to engorge blindly, voraciously. If there’s a devil winking in the corner of Fluxx Nightclub it ain’t Hellboy — it’s probably some development executive from Fox Studios.

On Saturday morning following one of these epic parties I make my way once more through the Great Hall of the convention center, gingerly nursing a hangover and considering the balance at play. The ceremony is still high, and Saturday also happens to be the unofficial Cosplay Holiday… which means, lots of eye candy for the perv set (myself included). While I edge my way to the bathroom I find myself thinking these same thoughts, and wondering if the battle of Nerd vs. Hollywood Marketeer is losing its equilibrium. It is then, from the next stall, that I hear this conversation:

“Hey man, will you untie me? I really need to take a leak!,” says a clearly manic geek.
“Uh sure, no problem,” responds another, and the sound of armor and weapons can be heard being dismantled.
“You know the Cylons had this same problem, right?” mentions the first man.
“Huh?”
“No seriously; in the original version of Battlestar Galactica the Cylons couldn’t pee without taking off their whole armor, so they had to go all day without peeing!”

This progressed into a long conversation about the merits of the original series and the beloved 2004 reboot, which sounded like it may have ended in a hug.

It was then that I realized, from the safety of the stall next door, that I needn’t fear the San Diego Comic-Con falling into the wrong hands. It seems like as long as the nerds have control, and kids still really want to pee while in a Deadpool costume, that somehow everything will be all right.

Two guys that apparently can’t pee until the end of Comic Con…

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