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Posted at 12:05 PM ET, 07/27/2009

The Truest Thing You'll Read About San Diego Comic-Con. Perhaps.

By Michael Cavna

Note: If you're looking to read about the glitzy side of Comic-Con -- yes, Robert Downey Jr. was genuinely cool to talk to -- or are eager to see the Top 10 Con Costumes, please check back shortly. We'll have it all. But if you happen to especially care about the heart and soul and future of Comic-Con, this one's for you.

YOU KNOW that scene in "Jerry Maguire," in which Cameron Crowe's clarity-seeking superagent has that wee-hours epiphany and commits it to publication (sparking an encouraging quote from the Kinko's dude)? Well, this isn't that kind of manifesto. But after spending 70-some hours last week writing about and drawing about and covering the just-done 40th Comic-Con International, it's 4 in the morning in San Diego and I'm still wrestling with the event's Big Question: Has Comic-Con, hitting middle age, gotten just too damned big? And does it, as Jerry Maguire said in letting his aphorisms fly in the air, need to get back to being smaller, less "Hollywood," fewer non-core "clients." After five days, the answer isn't so clear-cut.

The Question first hits me within hours, on Preview Night, as tonnage of shiny merch is set up. Two dudes are leaning against a wall, Jay and Silent Bob style, and one says: "This thing sure has gotten big. Too big." And the other dude says with awe: "Yeah, but doesn't it look cool?" Two dudes, two simple quotes -- uttered with the pithyness of word balloons -- and they've just said it all.

In that regard, this certainly was the damnedest Con I ever saw.

Johnny Depp to Don Cheadle to Scarlett Johansson to Jason Bateman to Megan Fox to Woody Harrelson to Sanaa Lathan to Jon Favreau to Mila Kunis to Downey Jr. to Zoe Saldana to James Cameron to Jennifer Connelly to Sigourney Weaver. And those are just folk I saw in person. I was swallowed by a Hollywood vortex. Where have you gone, Joe Quesada?

Time was, even just a decade ago, you might come to the Con and be giddy if a working DC or Marvel artist would give your "pencil test" a once-over. And if you caught Matt Groening or Sergio Aragones at a booth, you had geek-chills.

That still holds true, but now the five-day event is ringed by the ropes of exclusivity. To get to listen to the man who re-made "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," you actually needed a golden ticket. Or at least a yellow or red one.

That's not to pick on Tim Burton, who was ridiculously warm and engaging in my Con interview with him (which you can read in today's Post). But then Burton is an original fanboy, who attended the Con long before he appeared with "Alice" and Johnny Depp in tow. And that's not a knock on Connelly ("9") or Cheadle ("Iron Man 2"), who admitted in interviews they weren't huge geeks coming into their projects; they're simply top-notch professionals doing their jobs, and engagingly so.

Yet the Con began increasingly inviting Hollywood to the party and now, not only is Tinseltown the guest that wouldn't leave, but it's sublet the master bedroom and threatens to eventually hold the deed on the house, if only in terms of hoopla.

The catch is, you listen to Burton and Mike Judge and Kevin Smith and you remember: These guys were largely born out of such comic conventions and animation festivals. (Judge has spoken in this space about the power of Spike & Mike animation festivals; and I was inspired to re-watch Burton's great early short "Vincent.") They are only returning to what bred them, showing off the full culmination of their talent. (And after seeing footage, I have real high hopes for Judge's "Extract.")


Hollywood now comes to town, and the meta-event can now feel like The Event. Dave Gibbons is in the house, but the squeals down the hall are for the "Twilight" behemoth. It's a new moon, indeed.

Have no doubt: Hollywood is here because comics culture has turned mainstream cool. Burton's late-'80s "Batman" helped signal a tide turning, and two decades later, it's a wave as ginormous as the Convention Center's nautical profile. And some are deeply skeptical.

Jeff Katz, the chairman of American Original, said during a Preview Night panel that Hollywood needs the fanboy more than vice versa. "Hollywood may blow some smoke up your (butt) this weekend," Katz said at an ICv2 Comics and Media Conference panel titled "Comics After Hollywood." "But they are here to ... chase the money because there's heat here."

Katz -- whose film production credits include "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" and "Snakes on a Plane" -- said: "Hollywood doesn't give two (expletives) about what ... you've got going on here."

But then you listen to Pixar founder John Lasseter or "Iron Man 2" director Jon Favreauspeak, seemingly authentically, about the importance of Comic-Con, and you conclude that Katz paints with too wide a brush.

Which brings up the single-best attendee question asked in cavernous Hall H, where 6,000 fanboys viewed "never before seen" upcoming major-movie footage of projects like "2012" and "Zombieland." During the "Extract" session, the fanboy asked the panel: "So have any of you been down to the floor?" -- the showroom where the mass of exhibitors and general public collide and squeeze and wriggle for room. Jason Bateman -- who consistently gave smart and refreshingly honest-about-the-biz answers, was the only one who said he had.

As the floor exhibitors broke down their booths Sunday as the Exhibit Hall closed and the circus prepared to leave town, I swung by Miramax's quickly dismantled booth. The young worker said excitedly that star Mila Kunis had since come by the booth, hanging out and posing for pictures.

I headed over to Stan Sakai's booth, as the cartoonist and his wife packed up. They've been to the Con for three decades, since when they were the "oddballs" because they were among the few in the twentysomething-dominant hordes of yore who brought kids to the event. They take a measured approach to the Con's Hollywood boom. Sure, it's big, but it means more people come see our work, Stan said.

You want inspiring signs that Hollywood's spotlight can widen the heat around deserving talent. First would be the long, standing "O" that animation legend Hayao Miyazaki received at the Disney/Pixar panel. Second, there was the growing wave of people chanting: "Stan! Stan! Stan!" as Stan Lee strode down the hallway to the escalator. Soon it was at least 300-people strong. It was a scene straight outta "Rudy."

I stroll the rapidly disassembling event and talk to a cartoonist who, in the wake of his wife's untimely death, started an online dating service exclusively for fantasy "geeks" like himself. And then there are the professional talent scouts dispensing last bits of "pencil test" advice to aspiring cartoonists. And a few graphic novelists huddle, saying their goodbyes till next year's Con.
That's when one realizes: As mammoth as the Con is, it still has soul. Which is why it must not be permitted to leave San Diego in search of a bigger venue. This is the city where Shel Dorf and his co-conspirators dreamed up the fest as a humble one-day affair. This is where a young Burton would come and where Mike Judge went to fests and worked in cubicles. And where Hollywood eventually had to come to woo the fickle fanboy. It is the San Diego Con that proved: Culturally, the Geek shall inherit the earth.

After "Tron: Legacy" had a panel session, I chatted with a longtime family friend of star Jeff Bridges's. He said Jeff was rooted, grounded and decent, because the actor knew no matter how big he got, it could all be taken away like that.

The Con should continue to invite Hollywood to the party, but also remember who the true host is. The Dude can abide here, but the ethos -- the soul -- of The Con resides here.

By Michael Cavna  | July 27, 2009; 12:05 PM ET
Categories:  San Diego Comic-Con  
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Next: Comic-Con Wrap: Vote Now for Best Fan Costume


Too big and so cool is about a perfect summation as you can get. Wonder if getting the Hollywood hype downstairs--more than just Bateman and Kunis--would help integrate the two 'Cons more.

Can't wait to see your top ten costumes!

Posted by: bellabell | July 27, 2009 1:12 PM | Report abuse

Here's another report on the Comic Con, this time from NPR:

Posted by: kilby | July 27, 2009 1:19 PM | Report abuse

I've been a comics fan since I figured out who Barry Smith was in the early version of Marvel's Conan. 'nuff said.

The Hollywood connection is good for comics, I guess. I guess it means comics will be around a little bit longer. But does it have to be so super-duper big?

But the problem I have with Hollywood is the way it strip mines every idea it ever gets its hands on. Is it a matter of time before Hollywood gets tired of comics?

And Hollywood's mallplex mentality isn't doing anything for mom & pop-ish daily strips, where I get much of my day-to-day nutrition, so to speak.

Posted by: tony_in_Durham_NC | July 27, 2009 3:55 PM | Report abuse

I had a blast at Comic-Con. This year, when I realized the only way to make it into Hall H was to sit through 2 or 3 events before the one I wanted, I followed my fangirl heart spent the entire time in the smaller panels and in the Exhibit Hall. I got to talk to Stan Freeberg and Leonard Starr and hear both of them on panels, which was a thrill. But so was talking to the people in costume and the artists selling published pages for $30 and work to order for $50.

Posted by: chicagogirl | July 28, 2009 7:40 AM | Report abuse

I attended Comic-Con exactly once, in the mid-1990s, and I never went back because I considered the event (then attended by 14,000 fans, 10% of the current size) already to be too big. Since then I have attended only small cons in other cities, and I have found the intimacy to be far more enjoyable, regardless of how few top-name pros are in attendance at those "lesser" venues.

Posted by: seismic-2 | July 28, 2009 10:15 AM | Report abuse

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