As Hollywood invades, Comic-Con keeps its quirks

Comic-Con, the annual comic book convention, has exploded into a must-attend event for Hollywood actors and producers, but the new attention represents a healthy evolution, say comic book experts.

Will Ferrell and Tina Fey promote their upcoming film Megamind at Comic-Con in San Diego on Friday.

Comic-Con, the annual San Diego comic book fanfest that has exploded since its founding in 1970 to become Hollywood’s hottest summer watering hole, has been selling out since 2006.

This year’s top-drawer draws are names such as Helen Mirren and Angelina Jolie, and the event has gotten so big and expensive (the studio booths on the convention floor sport $20 to $30 million pricetags), that talk of a move northwards to the much larger – and more Hollywood-accessible Anaheim Convention Center is getting louder every year.

It’s all about convergence, says entertainment analyst Ian Ford. “It’s not just comics anymore,” he says. “It’s videogames which helped bring comics to life, and movies and television and now mobile phones and theme parks and every other entertainment form you can think of.”

IN PICTURES: It's not Halloween, it's Comic Con

The convention floor bristles with ads for TV shows such as “Weeds,” movies, (“Tron: Legacy”), and mobile applications (play scavenger games using your phone and factoids from the cable TV show "Dexter"), alongside card games, T-shirts, and, oh yes, comic books.

This year, the big unveiling on the comic book front are new digital readers for the iPad and other e-readers. That transition makes sense, say industry watchers.

The Internet fueled Hollywood’s love affair with the comic book fan, points out Mr. Ford. As fan opinions went viral and then exploded into social media, the entertainment world realized the power of early engagement with a young demographic that has become all-important to its big-budget movies, increasingly based on comic book characters from the pages of DC and Marvel comics, among others.

While Comic-Con may feel like any other Hollywood event to the outsider, the fans are as loyal – and quirky – as ever, says author Brad Ricca, talking from his cell phone on a crowded San Diego bus. “The bus driver just told some folks, in a voice just like Scottie on Star Trek, ‘we can’t take no more,” he says with a chuckle. All around him is evidence that the core fan base for the event is wildly intact.

“It’s pretty crazy,” says the SAGES Fellow at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and author of a book on Superman. “This guy has on a T-shirt from the Star Fleet Academy, and the there’s a Captain America shirt over there,” he says, shouting to be heard above the din surrounding him. He describes a pair of women from Ottowa who have come equipped with elaborate character costumes, a fresh one for each day. “And yesterday, a zombie handed me something on the street and took five years off my life,” he says laughing.

Not everyone is thrilled with the comic book trend in Hollywood. “This kind of merger has been gestating at least since the comics renaissance of the 80s, when comics gained a new respectability, as comic book shops served not only kids but nostalgia-minded baby boomers with money to burn,” says Christopher Sharrett, a film professor at Seton Hall University, via email.

"Instead of Superman and Batman capering about in long underwear, you can finally show them in tricked-out gear doing amazing stunts, courtesy of CGI, previously possible only on comics pages," he says. "Since comics characters are owned by the same conglomerates that control studios (think Warner Bros.), we can figure on an endless stream of superpowered – and fairly infantile – movies for the foreseeable future," he says.

Mr. Sharrett calls it "part of the dumbing-down of cinema in its hyperactive, effects-driven phase.” But this misses a more meaningful subtext to the growing acceptance of and passion for the comic book in all its forms, says Robert Ray, Head of Special Collections at San Diego State University, who has shepherded a longtime comic book collection.

“This is the beginning of a modern mythologizing,” he says, “one that says much about who we are and where we are going.” He suggests that Hollywood actually comes to Comic-Con not just to use the restive energy of the fan base for mere advertising purposes, but to tap into the creative spirit that underlies it.

“It became the gathering spot for all of Hollywood during the summer because film directors, stars, and executives need ideas, inspiration, and myths – something Comic-Con has never been short of,” he says. "Sit with any of the attendees of Comic-Con today and you are likely to hear as much about the near-future reality of human body transponders as you will about the challenges of transportation to the Comic-Con Convention.”

IN PICTURES: It's not Halloween, it's Comic Con


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