Ah… San Diego Comic-Con. Those few words are enough to get the blood of pop culture fans, nerds, mavens and maniacs bubbling overtime. The sights, the sounds, the swag! What Shel Dorf and his fellow San Diegans founded in 1970 when about three-hundred of them met in the U.S. Grant Hotel to swap comic books and chat, has become the mecca of all things cool. And I have to be honest… I’m totally addicted!

My first trip to Comic-Con was in 1992. The convention had already moved into the San Diego Convention Center at that point - prior to that it had been held in a series of different hotels and at the Conventions and Performing Arts Center. I was the guest of a friend of mine who was an animator on a popular television show at the time. Having just come to California from Connecticut to attend the University of Southern California’s film school, I had never even heard of Comic-Con. But my friend swore I’d have a good time and told me he could get us in to a few private parties. That was music to the ears of an eighteen year old college student.

I remember walking through the doors on to the floor of the exhibit hall for the first time. I was speechless… dumbfounded… overwhelmed. I still love seeing Comic-Con “virgins” get their first glimpse of the showroom floor because it’s almost always a jaw-dropping Kodak moment. Especially these days, where the sheer enormity of it all truly can make even the most hardened convention attendee take pause. Despite being awe struck, I knew right away that Comic-Con was for me; I felt almost “home”. The buzz of the whole place spoke to the inner-child in me – to that kid who was totally stoked his mom didn’t throw his Star Wars action figures away.

I remember standing on the curb outside the convention that first year, minding my own business, when none other than Stan Lee walked up and greeted me. No one else was around, and in my youtful exuberance I actually said out loud, “Hey, you’re Stan Lee!!!!!!” He smiled and simply replied, “Guilty as charged.” It was a magical moment I’ll never forget. In 1992, there were approximately 22,000 people in attendance – making the crowd larger than the population of my entire home town. Little did I know that one day, I’d remember that first year as, "back in the day when Comic-Con was still small.”

The change Comic-Con has undergone in these past sixteen years has been mind boggling. Of course the most noticeable thing is that the crowds have ballooned to over 125,000 people! In fact, last year, tickets for certain days were completely sold out for the first time. Floor space has expanded to the point where you just have to accept the fact that your feet are going to be in agony if you want to see the whole floor. The show is now so big, convention organizers have even added a “Preview Night” on Wednesday so fans can get a “sneak peek” at the action.

Photo By Spencer Weiner - Los Angeles Times

Celebrities are practically as common as people dressed up as stormtroopers, and exclusive action figures and swag are now craved by collectors in an almost unhealthy way. There’s more autograph signings, video game kiosks, gaming tables, portfolio reviews, scavenger hunts and panel discussions than you could ever hope to get to, and the party extends almost around the clock.

Maybe the biggest impact on the show is that Hollywood has invaded. For that summer weekend, everyone who is anyone at a major Hollywood studio heads from Los Angeles down the I-5 freeway to mingle shoulder-to-shoulder with the fanboys. Most studios have begun to use Comic-Con as a place to judge early fan reaction to their upcoming tentpole fantasy, action and sci-fi films. Last year, Marvel and Paramount Pictures gave fans an early look at a few scenes from “Iron Man”, and it was greeted with enthusiasm which grew into massive success at the box office. But Comic-Con has not been a foolproof thermometer. No film received more hype at Comic-Con in the past few years that “Snakes on a Plane”. Sam Jackson wowed the crowd and the fans ate it up, but unfortunately they didn’t go see the film with the same vigor.

Not to be outdone, small screen properties have also taken to Comic-Con like fish to water. Smallville, Heroes and Buffy the Vampire Slayer are all staples of the con. And recently Olivia Munn and Kevin Pereira from G4’s “Attack of the Show” have even started broadcasting live from the convention floor. So even if you can’t be at Comic-Con… you can be at Comic-Con!

The convention has become big business for the local San Diego economy. Vacant hotel rooms are harder to find than an underpriced Action Comics #1, and the credit card machines of local businesses and restaurants thrum for the length of the con. An unbelievable volume of merchandise is sold on the convention floor for those four days, and business deals are won and lost in private meetings and parties. Formerly unknown comic and film properties can become overnight sensations, launching themselves into the mainstream and becoming cash cows in the process. New talent is always being discovered and careers are being made right on the convention floor.

That same convention floor has also undergone many changes since the early nineties. What began as mostly just tables with comics on them has morphed into some of the most spectacular floor displays a person could ever want to see. Most major companies and properties have “booths” that bombard fans with booming audio and massive screens displaying their latest and greatest. For several years, Lucasfilm even created its own pavilion, where it gathered the booths of most of its major license holders in one area to create a truly spectacular Star Wars experience. Fans could hop into a life size X-Wing fighter or pose as a human sized Star Wars action figure. Gentle Giant Ltd wowed fans with a two story booth which featured a life sized Jabba the Hutt for the convention costumers who dressed as Slave Leia to get their picture taken on.

Photo By Kevin Baird

But despite the spectacle that San Diego Comic-Con has become, with admission lines wrapping all the way around the building to the embarcadero, what I like most about it still remains. That’s a chance to catch up with friends and meet people face to face with the same interests as me. Yeah, it might be harder to find that bargain on the toy you’ve always wanted because you’re “competing” with 125,000 of your closest friends, but conventions are about people. And that’s one thing San Diego Comic-Con is in no short supply of these days.