For an outside observer, all the comic cons may kind of seem the same. After all, throw together some comics and artists, add in a bit of Hollywood presence, sell some spots to exhibitors, and you've got yourself a comic con right? Well, in the same way that all fantasy books read the same to non genre readers, or all classical music sound the same to non classical listeners, each comic con also has a different atmosphere that might not be particularly noticeable unless you attend several of them.
If you're trying to decide which comic con to go to, check out my impressions below. These are as of late 2017.
San Diego Comic Con
We'll start with the big one - San Diego Comic Con. SDCC has acquired a mythology of its own, with movies and TV shows making premieres here, impromptu live concerts arranged by the directors themselves, and a city downtown that gets turned upside down with offsite activations and other comic con events.
A lot of other sites cover this (see SDCC Unofficial Blog and Comic Con Guide for some good ones) so check those out if you want more details. You already know all the reasons to attend: the massive exhibit halls and companies showing off their latest pop culture stuff, all the offsites and celebrities, the continuous four day prty with like minded fans. They also have live art demos and classes, and the gaming area, as well as more serious panels such as discussions about the roles of comics in society, and the psychology of superheroes and supervillains. Best of all, almost everything is still free.
And now for its dark side: due to its massive size and frenetic pace, things can be overwhelming, especially for new people, and even for veterans. The lines are legendary - some even have their own joke Twitter accounts and for the really hot panels, people will line up and camp overnight. There's no such thing as casually checking out the major events; you will have to wait in line for just about all the major events and the offsites. (The smaller panels inside the convention center are a different story; you can often show up much closer to the start time). Since the entire city gets into comic con, it can feel like there's no place to escape if you need some time away. And of course, you have to win your tickets in the ticket lottery. Then deal with hotels.
Even with all those hassles though, SDCC is still the biggest game in town when it comes to pop culture, and it's still an experience like no other.
Organized by the same group that organizes San Diego Comic Con, WonderCon has a similar atmosphere to SDCC, but in a much more relaxed environment. There is a moderate overlap in the panels, with some of the same presenters, so you can get a sense of what the full SDCC is like, or catch some of the panels you might have missed at San Diego. There's also much fewer lines, and wandering around the exhibit hall doesn't feel like being in a can packed full of sardines. Of course, being smaller, there's less star power, but usually there's still some major TV shows and movies that present here. There's a pretty good mix of panels, guests, and exhibitors here.
Near the con itself is Disneyland, so friends or family have something else to do if they get tired of the con. And of course, the tickets are much easier to get. The con doesn't completely overflow into the city, so once you leave the convention center for a bit you're not completely surrounded by comic con events.
Overall, if you prefer a more laid back con, and especially if you're from the south california region, this is worth checking out. Also, it'll give you a feel of what San Diego is like, just with 1/10th the people.
Emerald City Comic Con
While all the large cons have some artist and writer guests and panels, at Emerald City, this doesn't feel like a token effort, but a serious commitment towards programming on the creative side. Just as an example, there is a whole block dedicated to panels about writing, with many well known published writers. The panelists also have more varied backgrounds, races, and genders, which makes for a more interesting discussion than someone talking about their latest Marvel or Image project. While most of the larger cons tend to have the same big company exhibitors, Emerald City has mostly still managed to hold on to some of that small con feel, and you can still find some eclecticism that's unusual for cons of its size. There's also a bustling artists alley that doesn't feel like it was just crammed into a side wing to check off some comic con checklist.
All this isn't to say that that ECCC doesn't have celebrity power as well. There's still a good number of major studios that show up. But this tends to be more pay to play, with prepurchased autograph and photo op sessions, some getting fairly pricey. They also keep the line moving, so at most it's a minute or two with the celebrity. Of course, this also means there's no massive camping out for lines or waking up at 4am for a ticket lottery. For some people, this will be a net positive, for others, a net negative. If you don't want to pay, the celebrity panels are still free, and don't require an entire afternoon of waiting in line.
If you're looking for a comic con that still has some focus on all the ancillary elements on the creative side, then Emerald City is a pretty good place to look. The best part is, you'll still get a good dose of star power.
Silicon Valley Comic Con
The new con on the block, Silicon Valley's unique twist on comic con is to add a strong element of science and technology content to comic con. NASA had a large booth right in the center of the exhibition hall (to give a sense of size, at other typical comic cons, this would be filled by a comic flagship like Marvel or DC, or possibly some large movie studio such as Warner Brothers). Other science related events include robot and VR demos, and a number of panels discussing the latest scientific discoveries as well as other topics such as STEM education.
Besides the science (and some gaming), the artists and other creatives tend to be less represented and does kind of feel a bit like an afterthought. There are some celebrities here, but it's usually ones that are associated with the con theme (for example, one year was Star Trek, where a lot of the Star Trek cast showed up). There's also a few other invited celebrity guests, but there isn't a major Hollywood presence, so if you're looking for general movies or television, you won't find it here. In fact, it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to call this a scitech convention with some pop culture mixed in.
If science and technology is your thing, this is worth checking out. Do note though, this con can get a bit expensive. The tickets themselves aren't cheap, and some of the popular panels in the con also require the purchase of additional add on tickets. There's some free outdoor events near the convention center, and the Tech Museum of San Jose is nearby if you want to check it out, but overall you may want to check your budget with this con.
Wizard World Comic Con
This isn't a single con, but instead a traveling tour of cons, which means that there's probably a Wizard con in a city near you. The best way I can describe this con is that it's the fast food of cons - there's a very specific mold each of these cons follows, and there's a set of guests and celebrities that appear as a regular on this con circuit (I assume it's some kind of contract but I could be mistaken). The guests have their own panels, which are easy to get into for the most part, and there's a pretty standard mix of exhibitors and artists. Other than that, I wouldn't expect any major announcements or surprise reveals.
Now there's nothing wrong with enjoying a bit of fast food, but it's one of those things where there's nothing particularly special about it either. You probably won't get an amazing experience, but you probably won't get an awful one either. If there's a particular exhibitor or celebrity you're interested in seeing, and they're making an appearance, it can be worth going to. Just make sure you check the price first; it's not necessarily cheaper than the other major cons.