These days, it’s hip to be square. No longer are the disenfranchised forced to lurk in basements, feverishly rewinding their VHS copies of Fist of the North Star under the scornful plastic eyes of the “Battlestar Galactica” action figurines hanging from their walls — still in the original packaging, of course. Now, they’re making the shows. Shit, they ARE the shows. “The Big Bang Theory” is about a horde of CalTech dweebs; hell, one of our favorite hero/villain characters is a motherfucking chemistry teacher. The lines outside midnight movies aren’t for The Artist, but for comic-book adaptations and horror and video game flicks, no matter how inevitably shitty. The Day of the Dork is upon us, and the San Diego Comic-Con is their mecca. And that’s kind of the glory and the pity. What started as a simple gathering of comic book collectors has morphed into a giant hydra named Media Arts. Like the Marshmallow Man, Comic-Con is both amazing and terrifying, a colossal behemoth fashioned from a thirtysomething’s nostalgia terrorizing a major city, a place where Paul Dini can receive a deep analytical question on the mythos of Azrael in the Arkham Asylum storybook from a forty-year-old overweight engineer dressed like Sailor Moon. It’s everything you could ever want in the way of pop culture, and even more that you’d never want. It’s like suffocating to death in a pile of stuffed Hello Kitty dolls. It’s choking on too much of everything you love.
Such is the same with Morgan Spurlock’s documentary Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope, which is just a far worse name than this film deserves. Spurlock’s doc is both a glossy travel brochure for fans who long to visit the wild untamed verge of the San Diego Waterfront and a fond memento for those who’ve been. It offers a brief history of what Comic-Con was, while giving us talking head blurbs of all sorts of famous folks, from Joss Whedon to Kevin Smith to Frank Miller, extolling the glory and virtue that is Comic-Con. It also follows no less than six hopefuls with their own dreams and ambitions: a costume designer hoping to score big at the Masquerade, two comic book artists hoping to be given jobs, a collector who wants a giant shiny new toy, a comic book seller who wants to unload a half-million dollar #1 issue, and a young man who wants to pop the big question to his equally nerdy fiancée. It’s so much it’s too much, but it’s light and sweet and easily dismissive. It’s kind of ironic that the man who took on both McDonald’s tendency to advertise itself down American’s throats and the cynical nature of product placement in film and television directed a documentary that’s basically one giant commercial for a long weekend of nothing but advertising and focus grouping. But forget it, jerk. It’s Comic-Con.
Spurlock does create a lovely picture of both the overwhelming geekiness and the sheer desperation of Comic-Con. It’s not the Bataan Death March of B.O. and Comic Book Guys pushing wheelbarrows full of tacos that some would have you think. It’s not all pasty faced weirdos screeching into microphones, caterwauling the weird minutae of their own obsessions. Is that there? Well, yeah. But mostly, it’s the fans. It’s people who love this stuff — anime, Magic: The Gathering, video games, toys, comics, sci-fi, zombies, all that good ridiculous pop culture-y stuff that makes the kid inside of us do the Bartman. So when you follow these hopeful fans, who dream of making monsters for a living, who dream of sketching their heroes for profit instead of just in the margins of the chemistry notes, who dream of finding that special someone who’d love getting a handcrafted engagement ring that resembles the One Ring Gollum followed into the pits of Mordor, you too get that glimmer of hope and happiness. It’s all so painfully predictable, yet you still feel your heartstrings tug when the kid get jittery as the man peruses his portfolio, or gasp when a wardrobe malfunction means the animatronic alien head you spent months working on suddenly blows a circuit. A huge part of Comic-Con is the undying love you have for these things, and being around people like you who love it just as much as you do.
But there’s a lot of those people, and they’re pushing out the O.G.’s. And while Spurlock delves somewhat into this problem while following the old salt comic-book dealer plot thread, he’s not Errol Morris. He acknowledges the problem, and moves past it, with more shiny blurbs from celebrities. The celebs Spurlock chooses are a perfect encapsulation of the out-of-control nature of Comic-Con. For every snippet we get from someone like Robert Kirkman or Stan Lee, we also get some from Eli Roth and Seth Rogen. Rogen, OK, he made the terrible Green Hornet and Roth, perhaps, because he’s an obsessive fanboy like the rest of us, but what does that have to do with Comics? As you wade through the collective masses on the convention floor, you begin to see the comic-book dealers and artists have gradually been shoved out to the sides. There’s huge marketplaces for HASBRO and MATTEL, Marvel devotes its space to hawking the latest film ephemera. Tables where actual comic book artists will talk to you and sign your issues and maybe do drawings are dwarfed by displays for “The Walking Dead” or huge massive monitors to show people playing the latest Dead Rising or Street Fighter vs. Pokemon: Mortal Kombat 23.
The convention is mostly about the panel discussions, which Spurlock skirts around. Sure, because the dude pops his question during the Kevin Smith panel, we kind of get a glimpse, but Smith’s panel is an anomaly. Normally, the panels involve the producers, writers, creators, and actors for a particular program or show or film sitting at a table in front of a horde of screaming fans. The people tell the fans how much they love them, and then give brief teasers about the future seasons while answering questions vaguely or acting sassy. Then there’s a clip that the studio or production company allows, everyone goes wild, and then next panel. It’s test-marketing, it’s free advertising, and it’s why everyone goes to Comic-Con. It’s also indescribable. Watching Felicia Day and “The Guild” folks sneak premiere their “Game On” video, to the ultimate jaw dropped joy of Wil Wheaton was something I was giddy about. Even if I transcribed the “Venture Bros.” panel, listening to Doc Hammer and Jackson Publick simply riffing on a crowd dressed in every conceivable character from the show, including the fucking plug guy, you wouldn’t understand. You simply have to be there.
And the problem with Comic-Con is that you can’t get there. It’s gotten so fucking huge and massive and sprawling - in the name of Media Arts - that getting into the actual panels has become ridiculous. Three hours before the “Game of Thrones” panel, the line was already some eight thousand deep and would have filled the room to capacity. And some of the television shows being represented are starting to get equally farcical. I get NBC bringing “The Cape,” it was a goddamn comic-book show. But “Community”? Okay, fine, they do so much pop cultural riffing, they’re basically a Comic-Con unto themselves. But “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”? “Hawaii Five-O”? I remember going to sit in that panel being excited because I thought maybe they were setting the new show in space or it was going to have a cool sci-fi twist. But nope, it’s a cop show in Hawaii. I guess the connection is that they’ve got a Cylon and an island ghost in the cast.
But like Comic-Con, I’ve digressed far beyond my original point. Spurlock made a cute but disposable documentary about Comic-Con. It’s entertaining and sweet, kind of like the Chocolate World tour before you get into Hershey Park. You genuinely feel for the people who are hoping to get something out of Comic-Con. It’s a love letter to the fans of pop culture. It’s everything that you love about Comic-Con. And for once, Spurlock kept himself behind the camera. Sure, it’s a marketing tool, plain and simple, but it’s something you like so it’s okay. I think people who’ve been to Comic-Con will get more out of the documentary than those who’ve never gone. I had hoped for maybe something like the psychological brilliance that SLW got when we sat in on that Twilight Fan-Fic panel. I had hoped he would have gotten more in with the fans, the ones who aren’t trying to sell anything, and just want to buy. But, instead, it’s a just a big shiny bright banner, covering up the massive lines of people waiting to get a glimpse of their heroes. I was really excited to go to Comic-Con this year, because it was the first year my younger brother might have been able to attend, and he’s an even bigger nerd than I am. But the cost and the crowds have finally turned me away. So while I did kind of enjoy Spurlock’s hideously titled doc, for me, it was a sad reminder of what I would missing out on. The little kid inside me has been frozen in carbonite, stacked next an overflowing pile of Ecto-1’s in their original boxes, and hidden behind an oversized statue of Domo with original editions of Ray Bradbury being sold by Ray Bradbury. The Empire’s won, but they won’t miss my business, because there’s plenty of legions ready to take my place and shell out cash, so Comic-Con will always live long and prosper.