Most of the 130,000 people who attend Comic-Con International are there to cosplay a favorite character, attend presentations by favorite actors, artists, and authors, and to discuss storylines with fellow fans.
Scholarly research would likely not be among the activities that would first come to mind — but that’s just what one Indiana University Kokomo communication arts student did this summer.
Braden Dunlap was one of 11 students selected for a popular culture field study program at Comic-Con, in San Diego, out of more than 60 applicants. Each participant developed his or her own study, and attended the daily sessions from July 18-21 to interview people, attend workshops, view cultural artifacts, and observe fan behaviors. At the end of the event, they presented what they had learned in a panel discussion at the Comics Arts Conference.
“I took everything I learned over the last few years in my communications classes, and used it,” Dunlap said. “We can talk about it all day, but until you put it into practice, it’s just another thing you learned in class. I got to put it into practice.”
And of course, “it’s Comic-Con, which is something I’ve wanted to go to since I found out about it,” the Topeka resident said. “It’s been on my bucket list forever.”
He received an applied learning grant from IU Kokomo’s Office of Academic Affairs, offered to support students who want to engage in experiential learning.
Dunlap spent 10 hours per day interviewing journalists, bloggers, vloggers, and others covering the event, analyzing the difference in news media portrayals between traditional journalists and entertainment-specific journalists.
“I was there to do a job, so I didn’t have time to wait in line for some of the fan experience,” he said. “I went to a panel discussion specifically about how Comic-Con has been covered through the years, and talked to one of the panelists right afterwards.
“I interviewed a Fox news reporter while he was on his way to his next interview. Everybody there was pretty friendly. I was surprised at how open they were to being interviewed by a student.”
He found decided differences between how the event was covered.
“Regular news reporters treated it like just another story,” he said. “For others, it’s the Mecca of their industry. Everybody is there, from Marvel, Game of Thrones, and they cover everything in depth.”
Despite being busy, he made time to meet Hellboy creator Mike Mignola, and to get his autograph. He also saw John Bradley, the actor who portrays Game of Thrones character Samwell Tarly, on his way to a panel appearance, but could not wait the hours it would have taken to get in to that panel, or one for Marvel characters.
Dunlap stayed with the other students on the project in housing at San Diego State University, and enjoyed the opportunity to talk through his research challenges and share ideas. After returning to Indiana, he had a week to write and turn in his paper, to earn class credit for the project.
In addition to increasing his academic skills, the experience grew him personally.
“I felt very independent, not just as a student, but as a person,” he said. “I had never been to that large of a city by myself before. By the end of the week, I felt like a native of San Diego and Comic-Con. If I had the chance, I would be able to do it again, but do it better.”
He said a research methods class he took with Chris Darr, professor of communication arts, especially prepared him to do independent research. It focused on ethnography, which is the study of people and cultures.
“We did surveys, and interviews, and ethnography in that class. I would have been foundering without it,” said Dunlap, adding that he was one of two undergraduate students chosen to participate.