At Comic-Con, geek is chic

America's largest comic convention reflects a broader cultural nexus of geek fandom and mainstream pop culture.

High schooler Brett Penny is riding a packed trolley to the world's largest comic-book convention, clutching a four-day pass. After one day, he's already spent $60 on comic-related merchandise. But don't assume he's a geek. "Definitely not," he declares.

Actress Jessica Alba was at Comic-Con International, after all. Not to mention a preview of the coming "Iron Man" film. Plus, plenty more exhibits, panel discussions, and colorful attendees – an Elvis impersonator strutting in the armor of a "Star Wars" storm trooper costume, for example – to interest a self-declared non-nerd who rarely picks up a comic book.

"I've seen people you'd never guess would go to this kind of thing," says Mr. Penny, who's thinking about becoming a Marine, not an animator or illustrator.

The July 26-29 Comic-Con, that drew 125,000 people to the San Diego convention center, is still a place where perennial outsiders – nerdy boys, Goth girls, and all the rest – can become entertainment insiders, at least for a weekend. But nowadays, they're mixing with the likes of Penny, who might spend more time chasing cheerleaders than wondering if a certain one will get saved on "Heroes."

If anything, Comic-Con reflects a broader nexus of geek fandom and mainstream pop culture. Whether it's the latest Harry Potter book or "Halo" video game or the domination of "Transformers" at the multiplex, science fiction and fantasy are no longer confined to cult status. The popularity of those genres in a variety of mediums means that Comic-Con isn't just about comic books anymore.

"They're catering to the big [film] studios and forgetting who brought them to the party," complains Robert Beerbohm, a Nebraska comic-book store owner who's attended every Comic-Con since the first one in 1970.

According to him, many potential comic-book buyers choose to avoid Comic-Con because it's too overwhelming. Indeed, the event is a far cry from the early days when organizers wondered if it was getting a bit too large at, say, 1,000 or 3,000 attendees. Now, the crowds are huge, the lines long, and the concessions high priced.

On the other hand, many find it hard to resist what has become a kind of Hollywood South. The event is so hip that the In-N-Out Burger in San Diego where Penny works had to scramble to fill shifts because so many employees were heading to Comic-Con.

Drawn by the buzz that the convention has created for shows like "Heroes" and "Lost," TV networks and movie studios regularly send their biggest stars to speak on panels in front of audiences of thousands.

Reflecting the convention's enthusiastic embrace of pop culture, attendees could grab bumper stickers promoting Showtime's serial-killer drama "Dexter" or attend a panel on Fox's "24." This, despite the fact that neither show has much to do with comics or science fiction.

As for those who still remember buying 15-cent comic books, there's plenty for them, too. Dozens of panels focus on the history of comics, and even old favorites like Popeye and Archie get paid their dues.

Many of the fans of vintage comic books are, not surprisingly, on the older side. Younger attendees tend to prefer the flashier parts of the convention floor where they can find a variety of freebies.

But there are still plenty of comic books geared toward the young. The often female-friendly Japanese comics known as "manga" (in book form) and "anime" (animation) have been the rage for at least a decade. And there are now dozens of comics aimed at blacks, gays, and Christians.

Despite the growing diversity of comic audiences, there's always a bit of a stigma attached to attending such a convention. But Colleen McAllister, a pretty 20-something publicist from New York, says, "It doesn't matter whether you know the difference between DC and Marvel comic books."

Even so, her friends teased her about attending, and her mother seemed mystified. But she enjoyed the "sensory overload" and chance to meet "cool people." She's already planning to fly over next year. "It's worth it," she says.

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