A recent article in the New York Times highlighted a number of panel sessions at San Diego Comic-Con that focused on serious topics and conveyed, according to the article, a sense of “gloom” inside the meeting halls.

Gloom was certainly visible at Comic-Con this past weekend — but it was on the large projection screens more than in the spirit of the attendees. A sizeable number of the movies, television shows and comic books portrayed apocalyptic visions of our future – a very bleak one indeed, if  TV shows like “The Walking Dead” and the forthcoming “Revolution” and “Defiance,” or upcoming movies like Elysium or Pacific Rim, are any indication.

While psychologists may speculate that these grim scenarios reveal deep, underlying societal insecurities, science fiction fans seem to find little gloom in fantasies of our dark future. One of the largest events running in conjunction with Comic-Con was the Walking Dead Escape – an obstacle course in Petco Park where fans played the roles of either a zombie or a human survivor trying to avoid zombie contamination. And, of course, there was the traditional zombie walk through downtown San Diego. While attired as flesh-eating members of the undead, everyone seemed to be having a great time.

Offsetting the Annoyances

The Times article cites a comment from writer Anina Bennett who, at one panel session, stated: “There has for a long time been a bias that women can’t draw superheroes. I find it personally pretty annoying that that has not changed.” The Times then continues: “With annoyance in the air, Comic-Con forged on.”

There was, indeed, no shortage of annoyances at Comic-Con. With 100,000 or so people packed together at an event that has clearly outgrown its venue, it would be difficult to imagine that there wouldn’t be an abundance of trials and irritations. Yet annoyance didn’t seem to translate into gloom for many of the participants.

At the end of the Con, as in past years, Comic-Con International president John Rogers sat at a table in a meeting room taking notes on a litany of complaints from attendees about ticketing mishaps, long lines, the lack of power outlets, a shortage of toilet paper and other logistical misfires. Even so, many of the people who stepped up to the microphone to voice a complaint prefaced or concluded it with a comment about how much they enjoyed the event.

According to Bennett, the source of the “annoyance” quote above, “Everybody’s in a great mood. All the attendees I’ve talked to are having fun.” What about reports of the gloom? “I don’t think it’s gloom and doom at all,” she stated. Bennett was particularly pleased with her success as a vendor at this year’s Comic-Con. She reported that she and husband Paul Guinan sold more copies of their books this year than in previous years. By Sunday afternoon, she was left with only two copies of Frank Reade: Adventures in the Age of Invention, and only one copy of Boilerplate: History’s Mechanical Marvel — which she was saving for a helpful security guard at the show.

Steve Robertson from Koch Comic Art, which sells original comic book and animation artwork, agreed, saying the show was “better than last year” in terms of sales. “I hope it’s a sign of the recovering economy,” he added.

Taking Comics Seriously

Bennett acknowledged that many sessions included serious discussion about comic books and popular culture, but saw this as a positive sign: “It’s great people are taking comics seriously.”

The larger Comic-Cons, such as San Diego Comic-Con, San Francisco’s WonderCon and New York Comic-Con, all host a broad spectrum of sessions — from the academically serious to the astoundingly frivolous. The serious end of the spectrum does, indeed, include sessions on challenges facing the industry – including creator’s rights and the disruptions of new technologies and distribution platforms. The more lighthearted topics were represented by sessions on Star Wars origami and “My Little Pony.”

Much of the material in the comics themselves is quite serious, of course, tackling adult themes and important social topics. The term “comic” book is now a historical vestige of a long-gone era in which these four-color publications contained only humorous material.

Yet serious content is not greeted with a somber attitude by fans. As Bennett noted, “These books make people smile, even though it’s serious [content].”

The Joys of Fandom

Then there are the fans. Despite the serious, even somber, topics and petty annoyances, much of Comic-Con was infused with the joy of fandom. People camped out all night — in some cases for days — to get into the San Diego Convention Center’s enormous Hall H and view celebrity panels and “sizzle reel” clips of forthcoming films like The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 2, Elysium and Iron Man 3.  The audience burst into applause when the covers for upcoming titles in DC Comics’ “Before Watchmen” comic series were revealed for the first time. And fans of Joss Whedon’s television series “Firefly” — which was abruptly canceled nearly a decade ago — were thrilled to see the cast and crew reunited to promote an airing of the original series on cable TV’s Science Channel. Twitter streams were filled with tales of star sightings and the acquisition of prized tchotchkes – much more than complaints and annoyances. In fact, Twitter proved to be a key tool in mitigating one of the Con’s major hassles — line lengths — by keeping everyone informed of how lines were moving.

The eclectic scope of the events at Comic-Con makes it easy to see different views depending on where your gaze falls. Like the blind men and the elephant, how you see Comic-Con relates directly to which parts of the event you experience. It’s that breadth of content that makes Comic-Con such a fascinating show.

The increasing seriousness with which popular culture is being taken is an important aspect of the evolution of an industry that is now reflecting on its history and facing challenges for its future. But seriousness is not gloom. And many fans find joy in the darkness.

This blog post was written by Kendall Whitehouse, Wharton director of new media, who just returned from four days at San Diego Comic Con. For Whitehouse’s photos from the Con, see his Flickr photostream, and for previous reports on the event, see his blog, On Technology and Media.