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July 31, 2007 |

By Daniel Carlson | Guides | July 31, 2007 |

This was my first year to attend Comic-Con International, a massive geekfest that overtakes downtown San Diego for a few days every July, and it was definitely a learning experience. For the first time ever, the event sold out completely, meaning that north of 125,000 attendees clogged the halls of the San Diego Convention Center from last Thursday through Sunday afternoon. The crowd marked a tipping point for the convention as it inched its way even further into the pop culture mainstream, in a move that’s both vital to the organization’s larger integrity and dangerous to its genre-oriented roots. What started out as an actual comic book convention — henceforth, the Con — now bills itself as “celebrating the popular arts,” and all the major movie studios as well as individual TV series are there to promote themselves to the swelling mass of fanboys and fangirls. It’s a sprawling, confusing, exciting weekend, but I can’t help but feel that something’s getting lost in the shuffle of media glitz and advertising hype, something intangible and tricky and hard to define.

Theatricality And Deception Are Powerful Weapons
I started my weekend at the Warner Bros. panel on Friday morning, and the sheer lack of content was indicative of the larger oddity of this year’s convention, namely, that there’s not much going on. A new trailer for next summer’s Get Smart was screened, followed by a brief Q&A with Steve Carell, The Rock, and director Roger Avary, among others, but that was the most interesting of all the clips. Nicole Kidman phoned it in with a taped message before a preview for The Invasion, but that movie’s less than three weeks from being released, and any footage of it won’t do anything to sway people from thinking it will suck (which seems likely). The segment about One Missed Call — a new J-horror remake based on the film from the deeply unsettled Takashi Miike, this one starring Edward Burns and Shannyn Sossamon — was so boring I started to feel bad for Burns and Sossamon, who sat there mostly in silence while we stared at them, wondering if anyone would ask a question. The few who eventually did were rewarded with iPhones, which sent a surprised rumble through the crowd, who were mainly pissed that such a cool gift went to people who asked questions of the stars of what’s bound to be a pretty shitty horror movie. Hell, if I’d known I would get an iPhone, I would’ve asked Burns why the hell he made A Sound of Thunder.

watchmenposter.jpgBut even the highlight of the panel was strangely anticlimactic: 300 director Zack Snyder took the stage to talk about Watchmen, and was joined by only two of the recently announced cast members: Jackie Earle Haley and Malin “I Showed My Tits in Harold & Kumar” Akerman, neither of whom spoke or answered questions. And I have to say, though I maintain that 300 was overrated in the fanboy community, Snyder definitely seems to have the passion required for the project. He talked a lot about how he wants to stick as closely to Alan Moore’s book as possible, keeping the 1980s setting and the R-rated violence. But that’s it. The gimme posters passed out in the swag bags at the door listed the film’s release date as March 2009. There won’t even be footage to preview until next year’s Comic-Con; this year, there was only Snyder and an open mic. And then the ultimate letdown: The rumored glimpse of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight turned out to be just that. There was nothing at the Warners panel at all about the movie. The new teaser trailer you’ve probably seen already? Nope. An appearance by Nolan or Christian Bale? Nope. A satellite interview like the one Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford did the day before from the set of Indiana Jones IV during the Paramount panel? Not a chance. The only stuff about The Dark Knight all weekend was some kind of bullshit viral marketing scheme involving Joker masks and skywriters that I didn’t have the time or inclination to follow. What gives, Warner Bros.? Are you worried that somehow the people who attend Comic-Con won’t care about your movie, so you feel you need to stoke the fires with confusing viral ads? Since when do those work? All I wanted was a glimpse of the trailer that was going to be released later that day anyway.

That was the Con: A lot of promise, and not much follow-through.

I also attended the Kevin Smith panel on Friday night, which was basically just a chance for Kevin Smith to try and figure out how many times he could say “cocksucker” in 90 minutes (answer: even more than you’d think). He told a few stories that I don’t even feel like relating here, simply because I’m worried that typing out phrases like “caked in dog cum” will cause me to have the kind of nightmares I’d rather not experience. Needless to say, Smith is pretty good at doing whatever it is he does, though I’m starting to think he’s decided to stop actually telling stories on film and instead promote the idea of his own existence. He’s become an entity unto himself, like Jessica Simpson or something; he is on the verge of being famous simply for being famous. Sure, he’s made three great movies — Clerks, Chasing Amy, and half each of Mallrats and Dogma — but it might be time for the guy to step it up a notch. Also, for those interested: The Criterion Collection is going to reissue its Chasing Amy set with a bonus disc of documentaries and featurettes, though in a nice turn you’ll be able to buy just the individual bonus disc if you already own the film, so you won’t have to get ripped off by a company double-dipping. That’s pretty clutch.

Jittery Little Fellow, Aren’t You?
posehn1.jpgThough I guess that’s not quite true, or at least it’s only true of the bigger panels and “events,” like Marvel’s hyped unveiling of a mysterious box that turned out to contain … a replica of the Iron Man armor. Fantastic. The real fun of the Con could only be found by attending events in which you had a personal, emotional stake, or by simply seeing celebrities and (relatively) famous people around the trade floor. I bumped into John Gulager and Brian Posehn, and they were both kind enough to oblige for a photo, as was the unfortunate girl hired to model as Slave Leia in front of the life-size (one assumes) mock-up of Jabba the Hutt. leia1.jpgI’d seen the Jabba model while strolling the floor on Friday, but when I passed it again Saturday evening, there was a girl decked out in the infamous gold bikini, posing for pictures in front of the statue. Guys were darting up to her to get a photo, which is understandable, but some were just photographing the girl, which crossed the line from ironic/funny photo-op to creepy stalker behavior. I walked up and asked her if I could get a picture — I knew she wouldn’t be allowed to refuse, but I still at least wanted to act like she was a human being — and had what had to be one of the more surreal and depressing conversations I’ve ever had. I just wanted a fun souvenir, and since my inner 12-year-old was screaming at me to get the picture, I knew I would do it. I asked the girl if her job was weird, or interesting, or remotely fun, and she said, “It can get pretty weird, like the one guy who stayed for an hour.” Yeesh. I asked, half-joking, “Was he taking pictures or just staring?” She responded, “Kind of both, actually.” Holy hell. Poor girl’s basically stripping, only for way less cash and for even skeezier customers. There’s no money in being a Slave Leia.

I’ve Got Kitty Pryde And Nightcrawler, Too, Waiting There For Me, Yes I Do.
Like I said, most Con-goers were there for one special panel or another, one magical gathering of the cast and crew of a TV show or movie they loved. I learned this the hard way on Saturday morning, when I arrived at the Con at 8:45 for the 10 a.m. panel on “Bionic Woman” and found close to 1,000 people in line already for the same ballroom I needed. At first I wondered just why the hell this many people were interested in the “Bionic Woman” remake, which, though exec produced by David Eick of “Battlestar Galactica,” still looked a little weak. (And it is; good concept, decent execution, terrible dialogue.) That’s when it hit me that most of these people weren’t waiting for the “Bionic Woman” panel at 10, but the “Heroes” panel at 12:45, and were more than willing to sit through a few panels they didn’t care about at all just to have a good seat for the one they really wanted to see. I can’t exactly fault them for their level of devotion, though; that was pretty much my plan, as well, since I was willing to camp in the 4,000-seat Ballroom 20 and wait through the “Heroes” panel and even a TV Guide one (which was painful) just to see the “Battlestar Galactica” and Joss Whedon panels that afternoon. The line was terrible, but also radically different from Disneyland or some place you’re expected to queue up for hours at a time with total strangers, because strangers at the Con are usually easily excitable people who will begin to talk to you with no prompting about arcane bits of fandom. By the time I’d walked to the end of the line, I was ready to give up and just cut, since I was tired and hungover and trying to recover from lack of sleep (more about that later). I heard one of the abrasive hall monitors who was working the Con shout out that it was time to “scrunch up” the line to make it four people wide and funnel into the room, so I stopped about 20 people from the end of the line and just cut in. It seemed like the best thing to do, and I lucked out, ducking into line next to a girl wearing a “Firefly” T-shirt, meaning she was (a) a fan of the show I also loved but more importantly (b) hardcore enough to wear the shirt. And sure enough, she was nice enough to let me get away with cutting, and since we all filed into the room together, made a solid single-serving friend, watching my stuff whenever I went to the bathroom.

Going to the bathroom, by the way, was something I tried to do infrequently. The ballroom hit capacity for the first event and stayed full all day, and the line of people hoping against hope to get in later in the day grew so long even that had to be capped. Leaving for the bathroom meant getting a ticket at the door that would guarantee you admittance upon return, since anyone leaving for good automatically forfeited their seat to the next person in the insane line outside. I darted out occasionally for quick restroom breaks or to grab a soda or a muffin or an $8 tuna sandwich, but I mostly sat in that one damn from 9:45 a.m. to 5:45 p.m., and the only thing that kept me from going stir-crazy was the panels for shows/writers I loved. And no, I don’t mean the “Heroes” panel; that I couldn’t care less about, though the announcement that Kevin Smith would be directing an episode of “Heroes: Origins” and even Smith’s surprise appearance to take a couple questions on the matter sent “Heroes” fans into apoplexy. No, like I said, I was there for “Battlestar” and Whedon, and I enjoyed both, despite the fact that not much news was announced at either and most of the audience questions were pathetically lame or just downright stupid in their obviousness (e.g., the person who asked Whedon if the feminism in his works is intentional). The fun part of being in a room full of freaks like yourself, of people who seem to have gotten wrapped up in the same silly lives and stories of make-believe characters, is to commune with other outsiders. Sure, the hundreds of subcultures within the family hierarchy that is Geekdom can be occasionally ruthless in their antagonism, but that’s because nobody picks on my kid brother but me, you know? I was talking to a friend who happened to be in San Diego over the weekend for a medical conference, and he said he’d seen the Con-goers swarming Fifth Street at night. “I made fun of the people who were there,” he said, and of course he did; those damn geeks, with their TV shows and comic books and weird little worlds. Damn them for having the wherewithal to care about pop art. All they wanted was to drive across the country and geek out for a while in a place they could feel safe, where you can meet other freaks and shop for comics and watch TV shows and get a chance to ask a question of the writer, producer, or star who’s breathed life into something silly and fictional and somehow still great.

There Goes My Hero
light1.jpgBut it seems that this year, more than ever before, that chance for the geeks to assemble is being recklessly grafted onto the commercial machine of Hollywood. After spending Friday roaming the convention halls, I managed to tag along to three different industry parties that night, though my memories of each grow fuzzier as I try to piece them together chronologically: There was the DC Comics party at Deco’s, then the William Morris party on the roof of some hotel, and then some party at some club that sounded like Decapitation or Emancipation or Revelation or something. The parties were a fascinating mix of famous people, comic-book people, industry people, and the kind of blonde leathery Tan Diegan girls that scuttle around the Gaslamp district like slutty roaches. For instance, everyone took it in stride when David Arquette strolled through the DC party in a suit that appeared to have a skeleton sequined onto it, but at one point my coworker leaned into me and whispered with moderate excitement, “That’s Grant Morrison who just walked in and is standing behind you.” Only at Comic-Con is Morrison going to be more recognized and revered than a movie star.

But there were still stars there, and it’s weird to see them rubbing nervous elbows with men and women clearly not used to the atmosphere. Comic-Con now gives off a vibe of an uneasy partnership between the jocks and the geeks, as if the jocks realized how much money they could make off the geeks and thus invited them to sit at the cool table in the cafeteria. The whole event used to be a place where geeks went to get away from it all, but now it’s the place they go to have it sold to them by the grown-up versions of the cool kids they used to despise. I saw Andre 3000 at one of the parties, and I thought, “What the hell is he doing here? I mean, sure, it’s an agency shindig, but this is frakkin’ Comic-Con.” And then I thought: “Exactly.”

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. He knows he’s a geek, so don’t feel the need to point that out in the comments. Thanks. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.

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