Super-Heroes Are People Too

Comic-Con Attendee Dressed as SupermanWhat I did on my summer vacation: I indulged my inner nerd at the annual Comic-Con International festival in San Diego, California. With a friend, I flew into town late on Thursday evening and spent two days among a teeming population of comic book, fantasy and science fiction devotees, wandering the crazy and enormous exhibit hall and attending some of the dozens and dozens of panel discussions and film events.

Though I have a special place in my heart for comics, I don’t buy or read them regularly, not since I was a teenager. My continued fascination lies mostly in the idea of them as outsized vehicles for adolescent imagination, as an imperfect, parallel reality to which my adult self might retreat in order to recover the comforts of childhood.

It’s an abstract notion, and not one I regularly take action on. To be sure, New York and the East Coast see their share of comic book conventions, but none of them have ever interested me much. What I wanted to do was to see the world’s biggest comic book convention, the apotheosis of adolescent fantasy. So, in planning a trip to see family in Southern California, I scheduled a slight detour to San Diego for a few days and caught the mother of all nerd festivals.

Calling All Nerds

Below: Who says comics fans aren’t sexy? Actually, she’s a booth babe. More pictures at Flickr.

To the uninitiated, Comic-Con is a huge, monolithic gathering of geeks, plain and simple. That was my assumption going in, too. But I quickly realized that the convention’s name is something of a misnomer, and that nearly every segment of fantasy and science-fiction fans are represented here in large numbers — whether or not they have an explicit relationship with the comic book medium. I’m talking about manga kids, toy collectors, Trekkies, Star Wars faithfuls, horror fans, even devotees of long-forgotten television shows. They’re all here, many of them wandering the center dressed up in elaborate, usually homemade reconstructions of their favorite characters’s costumes.

Comic-Con Attendee Dressed as the Black Cat

In fact, if anything, Comic-Con is becoming, more and more, a kind of Sundance Film Festival for Hollywood’s action/adventure/sci-fi output. Top shelf stars make appearances at Comic-Con, whether to promote obviously related properties like “Spider-Man 3” (Tobey Maguire and Kirtsen Dunst showed up) or slightly less obvious entries like “Snakes on a Plane” (Samuel Jackson swung by to give the audience a preview and treat them to a live uttering of his trademark “motherfucker” phrasing). These promotional events are becoming the biggest draws to the convention; the huge banquet room devoted to such box office matters seats over 6,000 people alone, and it was more or less packed to the gills throughout the weekend. Totally nuts.

Spectacle was exactly what I had come to see, though. I was looking for that awkwardness I knew so well as a kid, blown up huge and triumphant, and Comic-Con had that in abundance. The most obscure trivia from these fantasy worlds, whether old story-lines, minor characters or nearly forgotten creators, drew huge applause anytime they were mentioned by speakers or audience members. This was the inner geek in celebration, and practically the only way to not stir some sort of raucous vindication would have been to talk sports — though a discussion of the WWF would have also been a crowd-pleaser.

Comic-Con Attendees Taking a Break

I’d found exactly what I had come for, but after the first day, it was just too overwhelming. It felt a little bit like sitting down at dinner at a friend’s house, mentioning in passing that I was partial to, say, pasta, and then being served course after course of every kind of pasta on the earth. It was just too much of a good thing, and I nearly quit the whole convention at that point, overloaded and exhausted.

Old Men

But I found a silver lining in several much smaller, less well-attended panels which featured veterans of the comic book industry. These sessions were full of names that mean probably very little to anyone younger than thirty (even at thirty-four, it’s probably a bit unusual that I’m aware of them), names like Carmine Infantino, Irwin Hasen, John Romita, Mike Royer, Sheldon Moldoff, and many others — artists and writers who hobbled together the popular mythology of comic books through years of unglamorous hard work. I’m no expert on comics history, but I found their presence awe-inspiring. They’re truly obscure figures in the larger social history, but their names are nevertheless incredibly meaningful to older fans of the comic book medium; legends in their own right.

Most of these panels could be summed up simply as ‘old guys telling stories,’ but that’s what made them so wonderful. They recounted tale after tale of the awkward, unsophisticated and economically modest beginnings of the industry, most of which centered around New York City in the first half of the Twentieth Century.

Listening to their good natured accounts of the old days, I was completely enthralled by their charm and warmth. Their work had spawned a huge industry that had reached into other industries, beyond what anyone could have imagined, and yet they remained simple men, at ease with both the modesty and profundity of their past. I realized that, in spite of the fact that I had come to San Diego looking for something mammoth, what I was really looking for was something very small and personal. After two days of Comic-Con’s huge proportions, I can only see myself ever attending again to hear more of these intimately fantastic stories. Which, when I think about it, is exactly what I liked best about comics to begin with.

  1. Khoi, after finally seeing New York firsthand, I would think you’d be prepared for exuberant and excessive showings.

    I have a friend who attended Comic-Con all dressed up. She shared the same thoughts with me, that it’s a gathering of a lifestyle that extends well beyond comic books. She seemed quite enamored too 🙂

    Speaking of Snakes on a Plane, I can’t help but think it’s the end of Samuel Jackson’s career. Any movie that has a cult following before it’s even released is bad news. I can’t decide if I want to see it to laugh at the atrocity, or if I should just avoid it altogether.

    And I’m glad you’re having a nice vacation. From the sound of things (read: An Event Apart), you work FAR too much.

  2. I was supposed to go this year, but my plans fell through. My studiomates returned exhausted, feeling much the same way you did, Khoi. After the first day, they’re beat.

    Also, from a creator perspective, I understand it is hard to get any business done because there is just too much going on all the time.

    San Diego is a bit like Mecca to those of us who love comics; everyone should go once. Glad you had a gread time!

  3. “… I nearly quit the whole convention at that point, overloaded and exhausted.”

    I’ve been going to the San Diego Comic-Con every year for about 6 or 7 years and this year’s was by far the worst crowding and most exhausting Con I’ve experienced (still had a good time, though). In previous years it felt, to me at least, there was more time, opportunities, and room to chat with people. I doubt it will deter me from going again next year but, for the first time, it made me think twice about it.

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