Comic Con

This week in San Diego, Comic Con is taking place, where thousands upon thousands of people will flock to, at least ostensibly, pay their respects or show interest in comics and graphic novels – and no, I’m not there. The San Diego Comic Con (SDCC) is certainly not the only comic-based convention, but if past attendance figures are any indication, it’s the largest one in the world, with attendance well over 120,000 fans.  Of course, it’s not entirely about comics, and more than a few media types have billed it as a celebration of geeks and pop culture, but the heart of the convention remains the comic book [and its upscale step-sibling, the graphic novel], along with the big and small screen media spin-offs.


For all the hype, and even considering that there are more than a few well-known fantasy novelists there, the whole operation gives me pause… and that pause is not because the comic con celebrates pop culture, but because, first, it shows where pop culture is and where it is headed and, second, because both pop culture and this celebration of that “culture” are based on the exaggeration of image… and the fact that so many millions of Americans are so poor in imagination that they cannot or will not create images in their own mind.


Back in the dark ages, when I was a boy, there were comic books everywhere.  Even Isaac Asimov read them as a boy, but for the most part, comic books were for the young and those who lacked the mental and intellectual ability to read the printed word and visualize a world evoked by those words.


From what I can tell from sketchy statistics, attendance at the World Science Fiction Convention, while fluctuating by location, has been dropping, and has been as low as 4,000 participants in recent years. By comparison the first California Comic Con was held in San Diego in 1970… and drew all of 300 attendees.  Now SDCC tops 120,000, and some have claimed there are far, far more attendees.  To me, this trend is symptomatic  of the fact that the percentage of serious readers, even among college graduates, continues to drop, but media and comics are booming!


The problem, as I see it, with media and comics as popular culture – besides the fact that, for a time, books were once considered popular culture and now are not – is that the proliferation and consumption of prefabricated images dulls imagination and creativity.  Even among F&SF writers, there are more and more books about narrower and narrower subjects.  When the F&SF field publishes books like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies [a best-seller, no less] or Twilight and all its clones, and every possible permutation on vampires, zombies, and werewolves, including, believe it or not, My Life as a White Trash Zombie, how much room is there for something different from such narrow sensationalism?  Even if there is, how many writers have the background and imagination to write something different?


For well over two decades, experienced F&SF authors have been deploring the dearth of good readable science fiction. But you can’t write science fiction if you don’t know more than a little about science, and readers who don’t understand science – and there are more and more of those – won’t read it because they can’t understand it. The same, unhappily, is becoming truer and truer of any once-popular genre fiction with any depth, and I fear that those writers who attempt to combine substance and depth with a story outside the bounds of the sensational will become rarer and rarer.


But… long live the comic con.


19 thoughts on “Comic Con”

  1. Kathryn says:

    I’m not sure I fully agree with you, Mr Modesitt. P&P&Z (And its related novels) are all spoofs. They’re no different to, say, Bored of the Rings and even The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, because it takes something that is culturally relevant and spoofs it. Zombies are the in-thing at the moment, and Pride & Prejudice has always been rather popular, and the merge had success. If it got more people into SF/F or the classics, then that’s great.

    The urban fantasy comments also relate to one section of fiction. I’d not actually heard of Twilight until the movies started coming out, and whether it’s good or not is irrelevant because it’s got a new generation reading. My own generation had Harry Potter, and this current one has had Twilight. I’m not sure what possessed Diana Rowland to write that latest book, which you mentioned, but kudos to her for it. I’m yet to work out whether it’s a spoof or not, though. Like any commercial market, publishers put out what’ll sell. If Twilight is the big hitter, then urban fantasy will get pushed. When Harry Potter was out, I remember a lot of books about young wizards or magicians, such as Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus books. They’re put out, and given more attention, because they’re what is selling at that time.

    Comic Con is so big because it has industry backing, but also because ‘geek culture’ is currently seen as ‘chic’. I’ve seen many people walk around in superhero t-shirts, but I can bet that not one of them could tell you anything about most of the villains in the series, not even the various plotlines. People go in thousands, if not millions, to see the latest comic block buster, and the industry sees a surge in comic sales with each one, but how many of them go because it’s a big movie that they want to see, rather than being actual fans of the series?

    I don’t think literary events on the scale of Comic Con would really work. CC is, as you mentioned, a very broad event, whereas something based on novel-based fiction would not get those same numbers. Martin might sell tens of thousands of books (I think the last figures I saw were 170k print copies and 110k digital copies of ADWD), but he’s a one off and he’s only doing that because of the TV show. If A Game of Thrones hadn’t been adapted, he wouldn’t be hitting those sales figures, perhaps even nowhere near.

    I still think there’s a market for science fiction, and properly written stuff too. Yourself, David Weber, Elizabeth Moon – You’re all kicking, you’re all still putting books out, and that’s great. But, unlike Asimov’s day, there aren’t many journals put out now. I think some of them are still around, but they’re hard to find. I’ve not seen that Asimov journal around since Borders collapsed in the UK, and that was a year and a half ago, if not longer. With higher printing and shipping costs, it seems uneconomical too. An issue might sell for £4/$5 now, whereas a book might cost £8/$8 and be seen as a better buy. I would love it if those kinds of periodicals/monthlies made a come back, actually. I think it’s just the market that’s changing.

    I’m not sure if I made much sense, actually.

    1. I certainly agree with your point that anything that gets those who aren’t reading to read is, overall, a good thing, My problem is the huge and growing number of readers who get “bored” with anything with depth in it. A Game of Thrones actually appalls me, not because it’s not decently written, but because it’s a well-written intricate adventure paen to sex and violence. I don’t have anything against violence, nor against sex; I have a lot against something that’s seemingly 80% of those to the point that they overshadow everything else, which is, of course, why it’s a hit HBO show.

      The other aspect of Comic Con that I find appalling is the Facebook-like “I have to be a joiner and be where everyone is because it’s so in.” Thoughtless mass movements in any culture are only a symptom of a deeper malaise.

      1. Kathryn says:

        Oh, that’s a fair point then. I’ve not read Martin’s series, so I can’t comment on the levels of violence nor sex, but the amount it’s sold must be proof that readers aren’t completely against depth in their reading? That said, for every Martin, there’s ten James Pattersons, three Stephanie Meyers and a billion Mills & Boon authors. Steven Erikson seems to be doing OK with his Malazan series, one famed for its complexity, so perhaps it’s not entirely hopeless?

        As for that last point, I think that’s a problem with society as a whole. It’s sheep-like behaviour, and something the masses love. If a certain artist is in the charts (Let’s use Lady Gaga as an example), people will obsess over them for a number of years before dropping them, regardless of that artist’s originality. Lady Gaga is about as original as something very unoriginal, but I doubt it’s hard to find people who think she’s new, fresh and something special. Give it 15-20 years, and no-one will remember her. Society is fickle in that regard.

  2. Robert The Addled says:

    I think that SF&F have been gaining in popularity, but only superficially – too few with the patience to sit and read, even fewer with the patience for re-reading and following complex plotlines (Wheel of Time anyone? I take massive notes every read and STILL find new tidbits).

    I’ve spoken to co-workers who love the Star Wars films and call themselves rabid fans – yet are unaware of the 100+ books in that universe – providing the background stories and other adventures of their favourite characters.

    The ‘instant’ and ‘now’ culture unfortunately has shortened our collective attention spans.

  3. Rehcra says:

    What you are all typing definitely makes since but I feel the post has left an elephant in the room. Since when is art not inspiring, Thought provoking does not have to necessarily be word based but can lie “soully” in the emotions invoked. And in my opinion comics are both. Instantaneous maybe but that is not a negative but a part of the whole.

    More people should read does not = Comics should not be as popular

    Maybe Pop culture its self is what your belittling but in putting books above another medium of art your post loses a lot of credibility. Not all because your point is valid but it still comes across as someone arguing about what music is good and what is bad. Telling me my favorite band is horrible And I don’t even read comics.

    Not that your post was not good like always, and a great point of view. I enjoyed it. Just disagreed with the bias I perceived against art.


    1. Nate says:

      Rehcra, I think you are missing one of the main points here. Mr. Modesitt is not condemning comics wholesale. What he seems to be saying is that a society with 120,000 people attending comic-con and 4,000 people attending the F/SF convention is a society that has lost much of its visual imagination. The same can be seen in Hollywood where amazing visual effects beat out good writing and good acting every time.

      Comics are far less mentally taxing and it shows in our levels of functional literacy.

  4. Bias against art? I’m not biased against art, just against bad art. This all touches on a point I’ve raised before — personal preferences stand independent of quality in anything. I may love P.F. Chang’s “Chinese” food, but it’s good, not great, and it’s certainly not high cuisine (and some Chinese claim it’s not even Chinese). I may like it, but my feelings don’t make it great. My problem with the mania over “pop culture,” as exemplified by Comic Con, isn’t that it exists or that fads having nothing to do with excellence have always existed, but that this mania has reached a new high that threatens to overwhelm excellence, and that mania is also resulting in [or coincidental with] a decline in written literacy in the United States — and that decline is not a matter of opinion. Written ability and reading perceptivity and understanding have declined markedly, measured by a wide range of standards and tests, over the last generation.

  5. Bob Howard says:

    When Harry Potter exploded onto the scene, much was made of the positive stimulus for children (and many adults) to return to reading. It would be interesting to see the results of any real research in that regard. Intuitively obvious it may be, but I’m not so sure the assumed effect actually happened. Similar arguments are made regarding comic books and graphic novels, i.e., that any reading is good and will serve as a “gateway drug,” encouraging exploration of more worthy written fare. My feeling?…not so much.

    The cheapening and coarsening of our culture is exemplified by the rising popularity of this lowest common denominator, as Mr. Modesitt so rightly observed. I, too, read comic books as a kid, but I put them aside as soon as I could manage a decent youth novel. There is room in any culture for this sort of stuff and the culture is richer for having it, but when it comes to dominate and displace more refined, challenging and “elevating” genres it becomes very troubling.

    I confess to guilty pleasures of that sort, like the Sookie Stackhouse books, but I think I would just give up if that’s all I could read. And I can’t imagine how any sentient adult’s reading experience was limited to graphic novels and their ilk. Our political leadership seems determined to lower the bar in our schools in all aspects of culture, science and critical thinking, so I don’t see any help from that side.

  6. Richard Hamilton says:

    The Harry Potter series had a level of complexity that those who read it at a young age may well rediscover years later; it sold well to adults as well as children, and had something for each, while the individual books were arguably age-appropriate at a minimum proportionate to the ages of the lead trio of characters in each book (aging one year per book). They grew, the story grew with them, although even in the last book, without needing to exceed a very mild PG-13 in terms of language or innuendo.

    The Twilight series on the other hand, was more your usual teenage romance thing, but even it had more than appeared on the surface. The category of creature of itself didn’t make characters good or bad, but rather their chosen _conduct_, despite the temptations of their condition. Humans, vampires and werewolves could all _choose_ to behave better than their background and circumstances might have prepared them for. All in all, I think it succeeded on effective if uncomplicated execution as well as by having all manner of creature able to aspire to higher standards rather than pursuing their lowest nature. The author’s unrelated book “The Host” (where someone comes to terms with and even comes to care for what first seems but an intelligent alien parasite out to dominate them), is not a teenage romance, but does share the premise of taking a type of monster or horror that’s been done before and casting it in a very different light according to the way people (and others) _choose_ to behave. The common themes there don’t bother me any more than say Van Scyoc’s books usually being about people transformed by their environment to have powers that are as much a burden as a gift. They may not invite one to think about additional issues like economics and logistics and others, but they at least do encourage thinking outside of how some tropes are always done.

    Both of those series were surrounded by outlying marketing of other superficially similar series (wizards or vampires, in other words). Some of those were actually good (Diane Duane’s “Young Wizards” series was actually started before “Harry Potter”, and while not complex compared to Harry Potter, is certainly more than it seems, and is something I expect to continue reading as more are written). Indeed, I suspect that of books sold in the wake of the HP series, many of them had been around for awhile but never really caught on until a market was perceived for them.

    I haven’t read any of the flock of vampire novels that came out riding the tails of the Twilight series (which itself I only read upon recommendation from someone that doesn’t usually care for fantasy – although I do, if they like it _despite_ the genre, then I may well like it not _just_ for the genre), but somehow I suspect that there were a few (but less) among them that were any more than they seemed. However, I have read one series that although well-executed for what it was, turned out to be far more trashy (not to mention violent) than I would have preferred. Fortunately it was _not_ targeted at a young audience.

    I’ve also read a series by one particular author, that although full of big ideas, and well-executed where the ideas were concerned, did little with the characters, leaving them little more than stereotypes; the scale of the problems they encountered grew, but other than that they showed little change or depth.

    Sadly, there are few that can invite the reader to _think_ about a wide range of ideas and issues, without preaching, and yet still have plot and characters that are (given the premises of the genre) both believable and engaging.

    I wonder how much of this is due to least-common-denominator pop marketing, and how much is due to information overload in other areas (24-hour news, constant email, text, and social network), so that people no longer _want_ to think and be entertained at the same time – not that many ever did.

  7. hob says:

    those who lacked the mental and intellectual ability to read the printed word….

    Sounds something like the historic European concept of dividing composing and playing music into class roles because of differences in ‘intelligence’ between the peasants and the aristocracy.

    Regardless, your key point seems to be that the written word conveys more than Pictures. I agree with your premise, but I have to question your conclusions…

    How many people can understand complex mathematics? Yet, our world is built on this language, millions of decisions are made according to its conclusions and limitations. Why don’t politicians speak in Math? Why doesn’t the constitution of America employ ethical deductions in mathematical notation and ask for counter proofs?

    Are people who don’t speak in Math and prefer to use variable language lacking mental and intellectual ability?

  8. No… but the failure to understand or consider basic mathematical concepts has led, at least in part, to the current political crisis in the United States, just as the growing inability of a larger and larger segment of the so-called educated class [those with college and advanced degrees] to understand even basic written propositions and their implications has also contributed. Besides,neither advanced math nor advanced written communications are necessary to function in a high tech society — BASIC skills in both are… and both are lacking… and the growing popularity of pop culture that celebrates the lower or lowest common denominators of communication can only [and has, in my opinion]result in conditions that make the maintenance of a high-tech representative democratic civilization more and more difficult.

  9. hob says:

    You are defining my point Mr Modesitt. Most novels don’t employ complex words or arrangements because this would be outside the basic skills most people have in language.

    More defined ways of information transfer rest little on the information method itself and more on how thoroughly the information method has been formalized. This mostly rests on the individuals own information lexicon and method of education.

    Could not a person highly conversant with football explain high physics to another fan in ‘football’?

    People today are more versed in picture/hieroglyphic concept associations because of television and movies. Just as you employ the alphabet, picture story tellers employ visual alphabets.

    Now, a person who has read more, will often find more meaning in your novels. By the same argument, a person who has seen more movies will find more meaning in a novel set out like a movie.

    The overall point is that, judging by your observation, more people in America are less likely to be familiar with the formal rules of written language but are highly conversant with cinema.

  10. And my point is that visual presentations are simpler, regardless of the special effects and apparent complexity of presentation, with less content depth, and that has debilitating impacts not only on culture, but upon society. Being more familiar with less is not exactly a virtue.

  11. Ked says:

    I notice the tone and effort expended on all these comments. I think they illustrate quite nicely an affirmation of Mr Modessit’s fears. Here we are comenting on a society-level what a comic-book roadshow inicates to us as a symptom of societies problems. And you’ll note there’s not been a single lol yet.

    One really lovely point I wanted to pull into the limelight from Mr Modesitts’ original post, was the remark that as the younger generations become more deeply versed in nothing but the visual-media pop culture, there is a perilous loss of experience and knowledge of everything else that is out there.
    I for one am a perfect example: I am a voracious reader, and an increasingly lucid and effective creative writer. But here’s where I run into problems that have delayed finishing my most exciting draft. I don’t know enough about horses, the whims of the weather, the smell of a slow river passing under willow trees.
    While the rest of my generation attend Comic Con, I’m out trying to learn to ride a horse.
    To me this is the most terrifying reality. That the pop culture is so weak and pathetic is a symptom of this reality: the generations surrounding me don’t know any different, and they wouldn’t bother trying to learn if you put it within arms reach. They have eaten nothing but Harry Potter and werewolves, and we are what we eat.

    I will ask a hurtful question, which I have thought on long and hard throughout my life. I have mourned the death of so many generations of elders through the World Wars. To me more grievous than the loss of the lives in question -is the loss of any chance to inherit the knowledge and thought of those fathers and grandfathers that died. I worry too, especially when I come across a question my grandfathers could have easily answered. I took a problem to a friend recently, a day or two later I received a cell-phone sms “dn wury man, z l gud, wan go muV”

  12. hob says:

    One has to be taught to read Mr Modesitt, otherwise, regardless of the skill involved, it would appear nonsensical to an observer.

    Similarly, if visual presentation of information is formalized like language, and taught, it can convey the same depth of content.

    The medium is unimportant, that is what I was getting at.

    I agree with you in the sense that because so much effort has already gone into formalizing the written word, it conveys, presently, more information than the visual formats such as comics.

    I disagree with the premise that the written word is always better than a visual medium.

    They are just separate ways of conveying information.

  13. Mayhem says:

    To be fair, we are also talking about 120,000 people in a population of 36 million in California.

    Taking that in proportion, New Zealand has the Armageddon pop culture expo, and that had 44,000 out of a population of 4.5 million, although Armageddon does have a wider focus than just comics.

    That suggests to me that the SDCC if anything has a lower turnout than would be expected in other countries, possibly a reflection on cultural changes, possibly on the fact that the US has many different conventions available across the country, and because of this they tend to splinter into smaller factional style conventions.
    Literary, pop culture, even individual product ones like Blizzcon for Blizzard Entertainment, which got 30k ish last year. I imagine that tickets for these conventions are not cheap, and that accommodation etc adds up fast.

    On the other hand, I looked into going to a discworld convention last year, to find that tickets were limited to roughly 800-1000 attendees. Mostly because I suspect for literary conventions, you’ll get a very different class of attendee. For a literary con, I would want to listen to talks by authors, or have philosophical discussions based on the various properties on show or on the genres as a whole. That can’t cope with very large numbers, the concept falls apart as the room size gets bigger.
    At a pop culture expo on the other hand, they are more like trade fairs. Individual booths for various producers, large presentations from the major studios on new movies or games etc. This leads to in general fairly simplistic presentations, and a different appeal.
    You’ll still get the in-depth panels or cosplay competitions, but those will appeal to smaller groups within the attendee mass, not to the group as a whole who I strongly suspect mostly attend for their own specific sub reasons. You’ll get the thousand fans of one comic, or the thousand of another, who probably don’t have a lot in common other than liking ‘a comic’. And then you’ll have the ten thousand fans of the latest Marvel movie, who mostly just have a liking of stuff what goes Boom in spectacular fashion, a la a Jerry Bruckheimer movie.

  14. Ryan Jackson says:

    Have to throw in one little thing regarding this comparison. And this comes from someone who reads books, comics, plays video games, watches movies. I’m usually at these cons. 🙂

    Anyway, I have read the Recluce series(among others) and each time I re-read it I tend to find some little nuanced thing I didn’t notice before. Or realize that a certain character was looking at things differently from how I thought they were. I believe this is part of the depth Mr Modesitt speaks of.

    But on the same page I know that when I reread a graphic novel, such as Kingdom Come, I will often find similar things. If from a different source. In the case of the comic it is from the background events that are often not center of the image, but convey a lot of emotion, opinion or outlook of a character.

    They both can have all the depth in the world. I admit that many comics do not, and that novels can often impact deeper. But I’d say that fits back in with what Hob said about one being a much newer medium.

  15. Josh Garner says:

    Mr. Modesitt I love your books and while I haven’t read all of them, I have read my fair share. The issue I have with what you’re saying is that I know quite a few people who were in my college English program who would say most of the stuff you have written is low brow.

    A lot of people want to think that the stuff they like– read, watch, listen to — is superior. I dislike the Lord of the Rings because I don’t think its a very good novel. Its a create book of mythology, but the characters are lacking. When I say this to hard core SF&F fan you would think I killed their mother.

    Seems to me its all about taste and opinion. What I get from you is that you don’t like comics. Hey that’s alright by me — we can still be friends. But I think comics like the Pulitzer Prize winning Maus is beautiful artistic

    I invite you to read Understanding Comics by Scott Mccloud. I was amazed by the book and have encouraged several people who’ve dismissed comic books as an art form to have a look.

    In the end to each their own.

    1. I don’t hate comic books. I don’t hate graphic novels. I don’t even hate those readers who denigrate genre fiction because they can’t distinguish between style and subject matter, but I will insist, by the nature of the media, that comic books/graphic novels have certain shortcomings that all the artistry in the world cannot overcome,,, and I’ll elaborate on this in a future blog.

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