A Cannes for geeks

At Comic-Con International, the world’s largest comic book and sci-fi convention, Adrian Shaughnessy finds a great appetite for the visual and the authentic

On a trip to the US in July, I was invited by a friend to accompany him to Comic-Con International. Held in San Diego, it is the world’s largest gathering of comic book fans, fantasy movie buffs, sci-fi fiends and the white-faced inhabitants of neo-gothic geekdom.

I’ve never been much of a comic book fan, although I admire the pure graphic invention found in the best comics. But leafing through the thousands of rare comics on sale at the event, I found myself wishing I was more of a fan. Retailing for hundreds of dollars – others for much less – these fragile classics possessed a nostalgic beauty, and as one expert informed me (yes, he looked like Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons), the best American comics form an unrivalled sociological history of the past century.

I expected nerdsville – and found it. Wierdo kids dressed up as superheroes strolled outside the vast convention centre. Grown men queued in the broiling Southern California heat in thick Superman capes. Teenage girls stalked the convention booths dressed in predatory, skin-hugging, vinyl bondage outfits. Yet everyone behaved with the dignified calm of convention crowds the world over, moving sedately from stall to stall, studying the offerings with expert eyes.

But I noticed something else about this crowd. They possessed an unexpected self-confidence. Here was a group of people who had ‘come out’ – they had come out of their bedrooms, because this audience of authentic comic book fans has become the prime target for some of Hollywood’s biggest hitters. When Comic-Con started in 1970, in a ‘dank hotel’, it attracted an audience of a few hundred fans; today, it is a stellar event in the entertainment calendar.

In its 9 July edition, The Washington Post ran a story titled ‘At Comic-Con, Nerd Mentality Rules the Day – Hollywood Now Woos Once-Scorned Genre Fans’. As the article’s writer William Booth noted: ‘Comic-Con International is perhaps the largest gathering of nerds on the planet; nearly 100 000 of them attended the four-day fest, and nobody loves them more than Hollywood, which has transformed the annual convention into a Cannes for Geeks, a Sundance for the fanboys (and girls) who can drive the success of the genre films of sci-fi, fantasy and horror, which are the only movies making blockbuster money these days (think: War of the Worlds, Fantastic Four, Batman Begins and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory).’

This year, Charlize Theron, The Rock, Natalie Portman, Rachel Weisz, Jack Black and film-makers Tony Scott, Kevin Smith, Darren Aronofsky, Bryan Singer, Richard Kelly, Joss Whedon, David Cronenberg, John Landis and Matt Groening all showed up to promote themselves or their latest movie.

Two other thoughts struck me about this crowd. First, its avowal of a genuinely visual culture: the ‘look of things’ is paramount to these people. Second, its appetite for the authentic. Producers who turn up with sub-standard offerings can expect a harsh response. Comic fans may be lionised by Hollywood’s elite, but they can’t be fobbed off with fakery or the second rate. In a culture seemingly obsessed with celebrity and the sham concoction of reality television, it is paradoxical that we look to fantasy addicts for a lesson in the championing of authentic artistic statements.

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