Watching and reading coverage of last week’s Republican National Convention and this week’s Democratic National Convention, I’ve found myself surprisingly nostalgic for them from afar. I watch news reports interviewing people in embarrassing hats that declared their affiliations or see photographs of bustling crowds in cavernous halls, and think Ah, those were the days with some strange, inexplicable, happy glow. There is, you see, one problem with this reverie for days-gone-by; I’ve never actually attended a political convention in my life. Despite this, the more I paid attention, the more something seemed familiar about what I was seeing, whether it was the charged fervor of the attendees, the hermetically sealed bubble closed off from reality, or even the possibility of societal breakdown within one convention center. Then it hit me: These two shows are to politics wonks what San Diego Comic-Con is to pop culture junkies.
It’s difficult to describe the experience of Comic-Con to someone who’s never been. You could go the factual route, and describe the five-day event as “a multigenre convention held annually in San Diego, California” that draws exhibitors from not only the world of comic books, but also movies, television, video games and toys in addition to an overwhelming number of attendees — last year it was somewhere around 130,000, with tickets selling out within 90 minutes of being released — but that misses some of the craziness and overwhelmingness of actually being there. According to one RNC attendee interviewed by the Atlantic last week, that “you really had to be there to get it” feeling is just one thing that Comic-Con shares with the political conventions. “Not that you can’t read about it,” said Wisconsin delegate and former Newt Gingrich supporter Sue Lynch, “but when you experience the energy in the room, the enthusiasm to know that we can win — it makes all the difference in the world.”
Lynch described the appeal of attending the Republican National Convention by saying, “You’re among like-minded people, sharing experiences throughout the different states.” Flash back to a 2010 article in Psychology Today by psychologist Robin Rosenberg about what made Comic-Con such a draw for its attendees: “The folks at the convention may use the Internet to create their own virtual communities of like-minded ‘friends’ … But there is something about stepping into a convention center, an exhibit hall, and a hotel, knowing that you share an interest with almost everyone there,” she wrote, adding that “it’s that community aspect that’s so visible at Comic-Con and similar conventions. There is the sense of being among one’s people.” And, because you’re among “your people,” then you can indulge yourself in interests, discussions and arguments that seem both meaningless and beyond comprehension to outsiders, whether it’s the victor in a classic Kirby Thor vs. Kirby Hulk slugfest (The answer is Hulk, because all he has to do is separate Thor from his hammer for long enough for the Thunder God to revert back to human form, duh) or whether or not Ron Paul got snubbed by the Republican National Committee over his delegate count, without the fear of judgment that the world at large brings.
There are more similarities between Comic-Con and the National Conventions, of course. There’s the poor level of professional security at the events. “One of the curiosities of national party conventions is that logistical work on the floor is doled out to consultants and party operatives who for a week are given the responsibilities of bouncer,” wrote Slate’s Sasha Issenberg. “Very few of them are necessarily built or skilled for the task; they tend to be direct-mail consultants, field tacticians, or journeyman campaign-manager types.” Meanwhile, fans regularly complain about Comic-Con security, with one cosplayer actually refused entry because of his costume and videos posted on YouTube in an attempt to shame unprofessional behavior and the griping about those who aren’t “doing it right.” Exhibit A: David Weigel’s “I’m amazed at the number of people who just come to conventions to hang out.” Exhibit B: the backlash from the traditional Comic-Con demographic about fans who visit the show to see Twilight stars.
Another thing that the two events share is a belief amongst many that they are merely distractions from more important issues, with their biggest contributions to the world being the amount of revenue generated for local businesses surrounding their respective locations. (This year has already seen reports about income generated by visiting politicians, and Comic-Con’s value to San Diego remains a recurring news story every single year, it seems.) Money being spent outside of the convention halls is a good thing, of course; not only is the local economy helped by such transactions, but it potentially reduces the possibility of convention attendees buying more of the at times unbelievable product available for purchase at said shows. (Nuff said, surely.)
It’s tempting to dismiss the parallels between Comic-Con and political conventions as nothing particularly special. Surely this mix of intense nerd-out and collapse into minutiae happens at all trade shows and conventions, after all? you could ask. And yet, both sets of events have an import in the real world that, say, The Digital Signage Expo — “The world’s largest international trade show dedicated to digital signage, interactive technology, and Out-of-Home networks,” in case you were wondering — doesn’t, if to differing degrees. (Say what you like about the importance of the identity of the next Green Lantern; he still won’t be the man with a nuclear football at his beck and call, so that makes the political shows just slightly more important from my point of view.) Both the political conventions and Comic-Con, however, are external conventions, in the same way that most trade shows or conventions are internal, and as such stand separate from the other shows in some important way; yes, they’re safe spaces in which you can discover your community and get your niche nerd on, but they’re also shows that are meant to rally enthusiasm to help introduce things — be they movies, comics or Presidential candidates — to the world at large, and in both cases, they are events where it is very clear to those producing or even simply exhibiting that the eyes of the world are upon them.
(Comic-Con, of course, doesn’t have its own Clint Eastwood yelling at a chair moment of infamy yet — although it’s come close, in its own smaller way — but I’m sure that’ll happen before too long. When so many people are watching, it’s really just a matter of time before someone attempts something that will fall flat and embarrass everyone in the surrounding area, to the point where everyone just tries to pretend it didn’t really happen.)
For those who feel as if the notion of a political convention being similar to Comic-Con demeans a grand political tradition, I’d direct you to Advertising Age’s damning description of last week’s RNC as “a four-day informercial”. “It’s now hard to believe that there was a time when the conventions actually served a purpose,” railed the magazine’s Ken Wheaton. “Over the course of a few days, delegates gathered and squabbled and shouted, wheeled and dealed until they settled on a candidate. It wasn’t a party to rubber-stamp a previously agreed-upon nominee. It was part of the political process.” (For those who feel that this is partisan grumbling, Wheaton makes a point of adding, “the same thing will go for Barack Obama and the Democratic convention in Charlotte, N.C. next week.”) Instead of what the National Conventions should be, Wheaton argues, the shows have become “a marketing and outreach opportunity” for businesses eager to impress the right people. “What better way to keep the regulators off their back than to fete members of both parties, to remind them of all the joy (and jobs) their companies bring to the constituents.” The same is true of Comic-Con’s purpose for the publishers, studios and assorting celebrities and creators who are involved. Under the guise of meeting the fans, what is actually happening is a series of sales pitches to win over the uncertain and fire up the base, sending them out to spread the word to even more potential consumers out in the real world. Change “regulators” to “fans” and Wheaton’s criticism rings just as true, doesn’t it?
Despite their similarities, I wouldn’t want to suggest that Comic-Con and the Republican and Democratic National Conventions are exactly the same thing. There are far too few attendees cosplaying as their favorite historical figures at the later for that to be true, for one thing — although imagine how wonderful the masquerade contest could be at a political convention… If only there was some way to install that Comic-Con staple into the political mainstream, even just to see how Fox News or MSNBC would cover the sight of everyday people dressed up as Abraham Lincoln, Jimmy Carter or Martin Van Buren. And Comic-Con sadly misses the opportunity to crown a leader of the geek culture movement every July, likely due to both the lack of any need for such a thing and also the the convention’s inability organize SDCC attendees into appropriate amounts of delegates. Nonetheless, it’d be nice to imagine a world where there’s more of a cultural crossover between the two types of events, with the political conventions more open and welcoming to the public, and Comic-Con discovering the joys of dropping balloons on the crowd to emphasize important moments from big-name speakers. If nothing else, it would bring more of a punch to the close of every Joss Whedon panel.