It can take about 10 minutes to cross the trolley tracks, street and bus way that stand between San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter and Convention Center during Comic-Con. It shouldn't, but it does. You'll be one of hundreds, if not thousands, trying to squeeze through a single crosswalk. Arm after arm pops in front of you with fliers to grab. Zombies appear out of the corner of your eye, then scream something in your ear about the Walking Dead. Girls in tight T-shirts and skimpy cosplays flirtatiously approach the guys sporting Warner Bros.–sponsored Comic-Con swag bags, only to coo news about some comic book, movie or video game. You turn your head to try to find the friend who was just walking next to you, only to feel lost in a sea of people wearing the same convention badge hanging from a red ribbon, branded with the logos of Dexter and its cable-TV home, Showtime. Once you finally hit the bus way in front of the convention center, you'll wait for bus after bus to pass, each one tagged with Showtime-sponsored comic book action bubbles — “Bang!” for Californication, “Splat!” for Dexter — and the slogan, “Our heroes have more fun.”
“It's really not so much about the geek culture like it used to be,” says animator/musician Voltaire, who has been attending Comic-Con since the 1990s. “Now it's more about mainstream geek culture.”
Only geographically a San Diego event and perhaps only related to its comic book base in terms of tradition, Comic-Con is now dominated by Hollywood. In the past decade, in the eyes of the studios, the geeks have become the cool crowd. Spider-Man and Batman films were box-office gold. Battlestar Galactica was rebooted and became a critical and ratings success. Star Wars parodies popped up everywhere, from Internet memes to shows like Family Guy and Robot Chicken. The people who were once (and, sometimes, still) derided for wearing superhero T-shirts and being well-versed in the Star Wars extended universe are now a major marketing target.
Now, whether a property has any sort of comic book, animation, fantasy or sci-fi connection makes no difference at Comic-Con. Showtime is trying to tell you that Californication is cut from the same cloth as your favorite comic book, while, at the same time, advising you that David Duchovny's Hank Moody is cooler than any superhero. Glee gained more hype at the Con for its forthcoming tributes to The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Britney Spears than the announcement at Friday night's Eisner Awards that Will Eisner's landmark graphic novel, A Contract with God, is being adapted for film. The hype Glee receives, though, is the culmination of more than a year of heavy promotion, which has already wooed both major media outlets and TV audiences across the country. When posters for comic book franchises are plastered all over the Gaslamp Quarter, it's typically because there's a big-budget film adaptation starring a few major names on the way.
Compare this to Anime Expo, the country's largest anime convention, which is held at the Los Angeles Convention Center every Fourth of July weekend. That convention, which, according to organizers, drew more than 100,000 people this year, has a large anime-industry presence. U.S. distribution firms use AX, as it's known to fans, as a chance to announce their latest acquisitions. Famed Japanese artists — from voice actors and directors to musicians — make appearances. But the real power lies with the fans. If you want to know which anime or manga is buzz-worthy, watch the cosplayers and fan artists, who frequently re-create characters from series that are just beginning to trickle into the U.S. Despite its size, AX is still an authentic fan experience.
At Comic-Con, you might spend the bulk of the weekend wondering what is genuine, fan-based buzz and what was created by a clever marketing team. Are the kids in the cool cosplay simply hired hands? You can probably guess that the replica of the bar from True Blood over at the Omni Hotel isn't one fan group's labor of love. Not only is the fan culture obscured at Comic-Con, but so is the interaction between fans and artists. Throughout the convention, you're bombarded with the biggest and latest Hollywood has to offer, but the fans are still kept at a distance. Stars are often ushered between hotels and the convention center by limo, and parties are frequently guest list–only. If you want any sort of brief connection with your favorite actor or director, your best bet is to try to get a question in at a panel. That is, if you can get inside the room.
If you want authenticity at Comic-Con, you'll have to search for it. You might want to travel to the farthest edges of the exhibit hall, where the indie-comic groups, toy makers and artists have set up shop. You'll have to hit up some of the fan-based meet-ups, like the large gathering of steampunk fans we saw on the back patio of the convention center last Saturday afternoon. You'll need to check out some of the panels that aren't in the convention center's infamous Hall H, where the biggest potential blockbusters are hyped — and where, after the “Resident Evil: Afterlife” panel, one fan stabbed another with a pen following an argument allegedly over seats. When you're outside of the highest-profile sections of Comic-Con, you'll actually have the chance to chat with other fans. Often, though, that conversation will revolve around how Comic-Con is now too crowded, “too Hollywood,” and how Dragon*Con — Atlanta's massive, multigenre event to be held later this summer — is the preferred convention, even for West Coast geeks.
But not everyone is so jaded. Friday afternoon, following a panel for Adult Swim, we saw a small group of The Venture Bros. cosplayers out on the convention center patio. An animated comedy about an inept “superscientist,” his two sons, their bodyguard and a host of failed heroes and villains, The Venture Bros. has amassed a strong cult following during its four seasons on the late-night cartoon network. The cosplayers were amazing, decked out in elaborate villain costumes that appeared to be at least partially homemade. Also out on the patio were the brains, and voices, behind the series: Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer. They were dressed in speed suits similar to the ones that appear in the show. The cosplayers went on to pose for photos and chat with Publick and Hammer and get autographs outside of the duo's designated signing sessions. It was the kind of thing you expect to see at Comic-Con but rarely do. Far removed from the intensity of Hall H, the deluge of fliers and blinding mess of corporate branding was a glimmer of what had made Comic-Con mecca for fans in the first place.