How do you replicate Comic-Con virtually? You can’t.

A cosplayer dressed as Brittanica of Netflix's "Glow" at San Diego Comic-Con in 2019. Photo by Andrew Levy.

San Diego Comic-Con is world famous not just for its scale, but also for the mind-blowingly eclectic geek-dom. Packed into one expo hall, cosplayers, celebrities and nerd culture pioneers all showcase the best (well, in their realms) in entertainment.

Comic-Con achieves a core tenet of XP — it makes you feel something.

Sure, the first feeling is overwhelmed, but as you explore live activations and panels, meet people with similar interests and play a not-yet-released video game with a stranger, you feel connected to — and on the cutting edge of — pop-culture-meets-geek culture. And that’s a pretty cool place to be. You can’t help but leave San Diego Comic-Con wanting more.

It seems pretty obvious that there’s no real way to replicate IRL Comic-Con, so it was disappointing — and puzzling — that the free five-day event attempted to do just that.

Cut to this year’s virtual substitute, Comic-Con @ Home, which also left you wanting more, but not in a good way. It seems pretty obvious that there’s no real way to replicate IRL Comic-Con. So it was disappointing — and puzzling — that the free five-day event attempted to do just that. It should have created a new experience truly suited to the virtual world. However, the show tried to pack in the same elements of a normal-year Comic-Con. There was an overwhelming list of programming, endless exhibitors and plenty of cheesy competitions. Though admittedly, some of those were pretty endearing in their cheesiness.

The Comic-Con @ Home experience was stripped of San Diego Comic-Con’s magic.

(Unless you were looking for “Magic: the Gathering,” in which case there was plenty of that.) It featured endless hours of YouTube content that lacked continuity and community, and the few sessions on Scener and Discord felt overwhelmingly promotional. That’s not to say there was no attendee community or that Comic-Con isn’t still a massive advertising platform (it is). But there was no connection to creators or the larger fanbase watching YouTube from the couch.

There were some bright spots in the programming — “Dexter: New Blood” had a great panel. And showrunners from several upcoming Amazon series made exciting announcements. But the lack of attendee engagement made most of sessions, even those highly-anticipated, feel flat. The “fan activities” like cosplay competitions, felt pretty lame virtually. Plus, the expo hall’s usual vibrancy was reduced to a sad, alphabetical list of booths, most of which felt like pure advertisements.

Capcom “exhibit” at Comic-Con @ Home 2021
Capcom “exhibit” at Comic-Con @ Home 2021

There is, however, one big advantage to a virtual Comic-Con: Accessibility.

Fans who had never attended the live event finally got their first (teeny tiny) taste of the show. When Comic-Con hosted its first Comic-Con @ Home last year, panels for the TV show “Vikings” and the movie “The New Mutants” each topped 200,000 viewers. That’s almost double the capacity of the entire San Diego Convention Center.

Sample programming at Comic-Con @ Home 2021

At this year’s show, panels for “Rick and Morty,” “Doctor Who,” “Lucifer” and “The Walking Dead” all drew large crowds. Yet it was painfully obvious that the biggest names in comic entertainment — Marvel and DC — sat out. Disney maintained a small presence to promote Disney+ new releases and theme park rides.

Is the reality that there’s no way to pull off Comic-Con @ Home in a satisfying way? Not necessarily. A unique virtual experience rather than an attempted replica of the IRL show might have been a better route. Comic-Con started as the humble “San Diego Comic Book Convention” in 1970. The original aimed to bring a few hundred comic and sci-fi fans together to showcase and trade collectables. Today’s event is dominated by movies, TV and video games (and the attendant celebrity appearances). But comic book collectors are still a very strong contingent on the expo hall floor.

How cool would it have been to build a well-executed virtual event geared toward their most loyal supporters by returning the focus to the comics?

Photo by Erik Mclean
Photo by Erik Mclean

Creators, exhibitors, collectors, fans and the downtown San Diego hospitality industry all eagerly await the return of in-person San Diego Comic-Con. It’s currently rescheduled for November. Hopefully the all-virtual Comic-Con @ Home will be retired, serving only as a reminder of how critical community, interaction and immersion are to the show. Ideally, this venture into virtual will pave the way for a hybrid Comic-Con. Let’s preserve the magic of the live event and expand to a global online audience.

Excelsior!

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