San Diego Comic-Con International began in 1970 as a one-day only convention in which comic book fans gathered in the basement of the U.S. Grant Hotel and bought and traded magazines. A little over 100 people were in attendance. That, according to original founders Mike Towry and Richard Alf, was considered a successful turnout. Could they have foreseen that it would balloon into an annual pop culture phenomenon that in recent years never had less than 100,000 people in attendance? Although they are still given areas for showcasing, it isn’t so much about comic books anymore; major media companies, especially TV networks and movie studios, vie for space to promote their latest productions, with big name Hollywood celebrities and filmmakers serving as hosts for gigantic press panels.
I have never attended Comic-Con, and quite frankly, I have no desire to ever attend. One of the reasons I appreciated Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope, Morgan Spurlock’s newest documentary, is that it allows people like me to view the convention from a safe distance – no heartbreak from not getting into sold-out events, no waiting in obscenely long lines, no pushing or shoving through densely packed crowds, no chance of being deafened by cheering throngs, no risk of getting into fights with frothing fanboys over a misunderstanding. We obviously aren’t show every nook and cranny of the San Diego Convention Center, but we do get wonderful snapshots of the major events, the most prominent being the celebrity press panels in a 6,500-seat venue known as Hall H.
A Fan’s Hope, a joint venture between Spurlock and executive producers Stan Lee, Joss Whedon, and Harry Knowles, is an entertaining mixture of convention footage, subject interviews, and fan testimonials. While a few of the latter are given by anonymous attendees, most are given by celebrities, all of whom feel a personal connection to Comic-Con and its community. Whedon, Knowles, and Lee all make statements, but so too do Frank Miller, Seth Green, Seth Rogen, Thomas Jane, Eli Roth, Olivia Wilde, and most amusingly, Kevin Smith. Noticeably absent is Spurlock himself. Indeed, this is the first of his documentaries in which he neither makes an appearance nor provides a narration. This begs the question of why he feels so attracted to Comic-Con. Whether or not you agreed with his previous documentaries, his appearances in them made it clear that he had vested interest in his subjects.
Filmed during the 2010 convention, the film documents the lives of six fans, all given nicknames, all of whom hail from different parts of America and have deeply personal reasons for attending. We have Skip Harvey and Eric Henson. The former tends a sci-fi themed bar while the latter currently serves in the U.S. Air Force. Both are talented illustrators who dream of being hired by a major comic book publisher. Armed with portfolios, they wait in long lines to have their work critiqued by trained representatives. We have James Darling and his girlfriend Se Young Kang, who immediately hit it off after first meeting at Comic-Con a few years earlier. James now wants to propose to Se Young in grand fashion, namely during a panel hosted by Kevin Smith. For all his planning and coordination, the one thing James didn’t count on was Se Young refusing to leave his side for even a few minutes. This will be a tricky one to pull off.
The two most compelling subjects are Holly Conrad and Chuck Rozanski. The former is a young costume/creature designer and seamstress; she, along with a group of friends, participates in Comic-Con’s Masquerade Ball dressed as characters from the video game Mass Effect. Naturally, the costumes were all meticulously hand crafted by herself. One of her friends dresses as an alien creature, one that requires the use of a motorized latex head. The end result could easily rival a theme park animatronic. The latter is the owner of a Mile High Comics store in Denver, one that’s struggling to turn a profit. He brings with him his most prized possession: A mint-condition first issue of Red Raven, one of the rarest comic books ever published. Understandably, he laments the fact that Comic-Con has over the years veered further and further away from its original intended purpose.
That doesn’t seem to have stopped it from happening, and it certainly hasn’t stopped anyone from attending. In fact, the 2010 convention currently holds the record for having the largest attendance –130,000-plus. I grant you that it’s a rather bland fact, although I suspect that if we had been given such statistics, Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope might have been an even more enlightening documentary. Seeking a layman’s explanation for the convention’s appeal, I consulted friends and fellow film critics Mike and Joel Massie, who have both attended Comic-Con annually since 2006. Not surprisingly, they see it only from a moviegoer’s perspective. “It’s really about seeing celebrities,” Mike told me, “watching advanced footage and seeing exclusive tidbits about movies that are sometimes years in advance.” I, for one, am far more comfortable living with the anticipation.
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