Having just returned from San Diego Comic-Con, I feel about as qualified to give an overview of the entire event as a blind tick is to describe an elephant.  As usual, Comic-Con was a gargantuan, overwhelming sprawl and the air was thick with announcements from every corner of the pop culture industry.  As usual, the length of the lines and the patience of the people who stood in them were nearly inconceivable.  As usual, the density of activities inside and outside the convention center made scheduling an exercise in frustration.

As usual.  If there’s a theme that I took away from this year’s Con, it’s the routinization of chaos.

Maybe I am jaded, but much of Comic-Con 2013 seemed like, at best, an incremental step forward from 2011 and 2012.  Having maxed out the carrying capacity of both the Convention Center and the Gaslamp District, Comic-Con no longer has room to grow exponentially in scale; it can only grow in intensity, like the contents of a pressure cooker.  And I’m not sure it did this year.

There were a few big announcements on the entertainment side, particularly confirmation of the long-awaited Superman-Batman movie.  The publishers unveiled their usual slate of new talent and storylines.  Videogame fans got a look at dueling next-generation platforms from Sony and Microsoft.  Civil rights icon and US Representative John Lewis brought a different kind of celebrity star power to the show, promoting his new graphic memoir from Top Shelf.

Glamour outage?
At the same time, the events that drew the biggest crowds to Hall H were farewells to beloved properties (Dexter, Breaking Bad) and entirely predictable celebrations of current hits (The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones).  For better or worse, there was no Twilight this year to serve as a focal point for a recognizably new fan base (or the flashpoint for controversy within existing Con culture).  If there was buzz for a new breakout hit from any of the Hall H/Ballroom 20/Indigo Room programs, it hasn’t reached my ears yet.

Walking the show floor, I noticed significantly fewer costumes than in years’ past, an observation I confirmed with a handful of exhibitors and other longtime attendees.  Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing for fan culture depends on your point of view, but it was definitely a shift in atmosphere from years past, where the number and quality of costumes seemed to increase exponentially with each Con.

Beyond the Convention Center
Last year, I was stunned by the sheer number of people on the streets on Saturday afternoon, many of them without badges, attending the various satellite activities.  I was expecting to see that jump again this year, but didn’t see the quantum leap that took place from 2010-2012.  There were still crowds--just not a massive increase in crowds.

I heard second-hand that the various sponsored lounges and offsite activities were well-attended, but not exceptionally more exciting or numerous than last year.  I missed the South Park Village, which was not adequately replaced by History Channel’s Vikings setup, for example.  Even the undead seemed to shamble in smaller multitudes: the LA Times estimated last year’s zombie count at 650; this year it was 500.

Trickster, which launched promisingly in 2011 as an arts-oriented alternative (or supplement) to the big show, this year retreated even further away from the convention center, into a sports bar/bowling alley that did not seem as conducive as an arts/retail/performance space as in years past.  However, one of the organizers I spoke to said the event did well.

Winners: Retail, Digital
Now some good news: I spoke informally to a few dozen retailers, artists and collectable dealers, and every one of them reported having a good or great show from a sales perspective.  This was a marked contrast to the downbeat assessments I heard in years past. It is hard to say whether this was a function of a more vibrant, buyer-oriented Con crowd or simply a byproduct of the improving national economy.  We’ll know more once official numbers start to come out.

Digital publishing also continued to stand out as a growth area.  ComiXology sponsored everything from parties to rickshaws to a full slate of programming, and announced in the midst of the show that it has shipped 180 million downloads to date.  That’s up from 100 million in October, 2012. Do the math, folks.

Despite comiXology’s growing consolidation of the mainstream market, others are continuing to innovate in the digital space with new presentation technologies and publishing formats.  Sequential announced the availability of its new graphic novel reading app in the United States after a successful launch in the UK.  A few exhibitors were showing off interesting digital readers featuring pictures as a continuing scroll, or 3D augmented reality overlays to printed pages.

Wither from Peak Geek?
In Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture, which looked at the 2011 Con, I spoke of a moment called "peak geek," when the convergence of comic culture and mainstream popular culture would be complete.  At that point, comics culture would either need to find new audiences at home and overseas to continue its expansion or else face some kind of collapse back into a subculture.

This year we did not see a decline, but I definitely get the feeling we are at a plateau, at least as far as Comic-Con is a reflection of larger trends in the pop culture/entertainment world.  Perhaps this is an inevitable endpoint for a show simultaneously as massive, fully-saturated and well-run as CCI: San Diego.  But it seems that we are now at a point where it is far easier to go down than up, and downside risk significantly outweighs upside reward.

The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial staff of ICv2.com.