A Look at San Francisco Comic Con and SF Zine Fest
SFComicCon is the first comic convention to be held in the City by the Bay since WonderCon left for Anaheim in 2012 due to convention center renovations. The WonderCon move was a painful one for Bay Area geeks, as it was the only major non-anime convention that Northern California had. And while organizers said it would return after renovations were completed, it never left Southern California, making this new con created by Imaginarium LLC a much appreciated option for NorCal geeks. (Silicon Valley also debuted a new comic con this year.)
The event was held at the San Francisco Marriott Marquis, a centrally located downtown hotel. For a Marriott, the Marquis is a beautiful and humongous hotel, built to withstand all the tech conferences that pop into San Francisco every month. They have two restaurants/bars and a quick service cafe, plenty of bathrooms on each floor, and lots of couches and tables. The “central hub” area, where you can look down from several floors and see all the cosplayers and attendees, really makes you feel like you’re a part of something.
People at the con were upbeat but not rowdy. There were plenty of creative cosplays to take in and fans from every stage in life, from little girls dressed as Rey and Harley Quinn to older fans dressed as Catelyn Stark and Carl from UP! The individual artists at the dealers hall were all fantastic, and there was a pretty solid selection of local publishers mixed in with indie comics creators and geeky clothing and jewelry makers.
A few panels really stood out. When fan favorite Khrysten Ritter from Jessica Jones had to cancel last minute, the con organizers were quick to replace her panel with one featuring Manu Bennett from Arrow, who ended up being incredibly charming and thoughtful (and who I’m certain won over everyone who walked in expecting Ritter when he taught the audience a Māori haka, did a shout out to Colin Kaepernick, and capped off the panel by singing and playing the piano). The evening panels were an assortment of stand-up comedy and music, and the acoustic performances by Super Guitar Bros and Video Game Pianist were perfect ways to wind down the night.
But amidst all these positives I started to notice other things that didn’t sit as right.
In a city known for having a large number of smartphone wielding millennials, the event had no app, up-to-date website, or even a paper schedule, so everyone had to spend time poring over giant schedule signs in the main hub area. The history of Wonder Woman panel was inexplicably moved from a larger room to the equivalent of a walk-in closet that sat maybe 35 people and didn’t remotely have enough space for everyone who wanted to see it. Another panel about women in comics was canceled, or moved to who knows where (because I couldn’t find it on the board). A tech panel that advertised itself as a discussion among women coders was moderated by a man who pondered if maybe we should make games specific to gender. One of the largest panels featuring voice actors Grey DeLisle, Chris Sabat, and Janet Varney ended up wading into the uncomfortable territory of white actors doing “blaccents,” but the discussion was more about how fun the white actors found them rather than a serious look at whether it’s appropriate to do them. The out-of-towner emcee of the cosplay contest was well-meaning, but she ended up talking a lot about driving in SF and visiting touristy areas to a room full of public-transit-riding locals. To top it all off, the event itself, despite being a brand spanking new con, was a whopping $86 for a 3 day weekend pass (compared to the much more established WonderCon charging $65).
In this sense, SFComicCon just didn’t feel very San Francisco at all.
Underneath the tech boom, gentrification, and overpriced coffee, the heart of San Francisco is forward thinking, feminist, racially diverse, queer, and whimsical. We’re home to the largest percentage of LGBT residents in the US. The first Ethnic Studies college department was started here. In SF you can find anything from a feminist bookstore to a BDSM-themed coffee shop. We’re right next to Berkeley and Oakland, home to numerous diverse and liberal communities that have held social justice protests like the Free Speech Movement, Occupy Movement, and Black Lives Matter. Anything calling itself “San Francisco” should be as inclusive and diverse as the area itself, and unfortunately I found SFComicCon lacking in that regard.
In comparison, on Sunday I dropped by the San Francisco Zine Fest (SFZF), a DIY publishing festival started in 2001 that celebrates independent artists, writers, and comic and magazine creators. A few of the creators had booths at both SFComicCon and SFZF, and yet the vibe could not be more different at the two events. Where SFComicCon was in a luxurious, air-conditioned hotel, SFZF took place at the SF County Fair Building, a structure that looks like it was built in the 1960s and completely lacked air-conditioning. Where SFComicCon’s tickets felt overpriced, SFZF was completely free, and offered a free BART shuttle for out of towners.
SFComicCon offered an after-party at a club for $10 with a badge; SFZF offered a free pre-party at our local Mission Comics that featured work by local Asian comic creators.
It’s at SFZF that I saw the real pulse of the city. Zines and comics about being fat, or queer, or disabled, or a person of color, or all four lined the tables. One seller sold patches that had slogans like “F*** the Patriarchy” and “Screw the Gender Binary.” I picked up comics about conjuring up fantasy worlds to help deal with depression, how food connects us to our culture, and what it means to be multiracial. I got a pin of Uhura from Star Trek raising her fist in Black Power.
The atmosphere at SFZF felt incredibly inclusive and inspiring, and the attendees were a mixture of Bay Area locals sporting side shaves, pins, torn jeans, and homemade jewelry. Families brought their kids and grandparents and carried their comics and zines out into Golden Gate Park to read. Locals chomped down on Oakland donuts (made by a company that employs disadvantaged women) and caught up with neighbors they ran into.
I know SFComicCon and SFZF are two different beasts, and I’m not advocating one become or replace the other. But SFComicCon is a new con and has plenty of room to grow. It’s hosted by a group that appears to be headquartered in Florida, so perhaps they could take some pointers from SFZF. I’d love to see SFComicCon come back, but I also want them to connect more to the local color in the area. Host more panelists of color — there’s certainly plenty of geeky ones in the Bay Area. Give the panels featuring women and women superheroes more space. Maybe don’t have your only major tech panel be one where a guy essentially mansplains gaming to women coders. Solicit more panels that showcase the diversity in the area and in the comics world, and get in touch with the local comic shops and actors.
There’s a chance for SFComicCon to become the Bay Area comic con ahead of even the upper crust Silicon Valley comic con, which was started by Steve Wozniak and offered ridiculously priced VIP ticket packages ranging from $250-$890. SFComicCon, get in touch with who and what San Francisco really is, or I worry you’ll end up fading.