It Makes You Feel Like You're in Another World
I love that there is still a real heritage to Comic-Con, there’s still a respect for that heritage, the artists who dated these comics are still there, so I disagree that comics are getting pushed out of Comic-Con. I think it is transforming into something else.
“If you really want to show people you’re a real comics dealer, you have to huff in front of them.” Veteran comics dealer Chuck Rozanski is instructing his assistant Ashley. They’re sitting in a diner in Denver, where he runs Mile High Comics (“We have eight million comics and service more people than anyone else”). The camera cuts from Chuck to Ashley to a friend who pulls a comic book from its plastic package and huffs on cue, illustrating Chuck’s technique. “Go to the centerfold,” he continues. “You never touch it with your nose because you don’t want to get the oils from your nose on the paper, but you get as close as you can, and then you breathe in deeply. And if you can actually appear like you know what you’re doing, all the comic boys, all the geeks, you’ll go up like eight notches.” Ashley smiles.
So goes Chuck and Ashley’s preparation for the 2010 Comic-Con, in Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope, opening in select theaters and available on VOD beginning 6 April. Chuck hopes to sell a lot of product, as he does each year, a point underscored during a brief scene with his wife Nanette: “Our short term cash flow considerations are still really, really tight, there’s no getting around that,” he says, as she nods vigorously and at last says, “Yeah,” essentially her only line in the film. Maybe this year, he says, he’ll sell the exponentially rare Marvel book, Red Raven #1, for half a million dollars.
This bit of tension between Chuck and Nanette recurs in the film: once he’s at Comic-Con and falling behind on hoped-for sales, he reports that she wants him to “pull out,” at which point he sounds defiant, refusing to leave, because “This is where I live.” Still, he’s facing a dilemma that can only persist, which is that comics, for all the loving and huffing they inspire, are increasingly hard to sell. And, as Morgan Spurlock’s documentary shows, it’s a dilemma illustrated at Comic-Con itself, which is no longer focused on comics, but on pop culture generally, and big-money product, indicated here by a montage of celebrity appearances (Angelina Jolie, Chris Evans), pretending to inspire a “grass roots” campaign.
Chuck’s story is framed by his moniker in Spurlock’s film, “The Survivor,” a descriptor that tells you as little as others attached to other individuals. These include The Geek (Skip Harvey, who points out that his parents are “uber-geeks,” having met while organizing the original Star Trek convention in 1976), The Designer (Holly Conrad, who has a team working on costumes and makeup for a Mass Effect 2 masquerade), and The Soldier (Eric Henson, introduced with military drums and telling his daughter he’s going to San Diego to be hired to draw Superman). Similarly, the film takes up an episodic structure: a series of all-male celebrities explain their affection for Comic-Con and/or comics as an idea, if nothing else (these include Stan Lee, Guillermo del Toro, Joss Whedon, and Kevin Smith, and even Kenneth Branagh makes a brief pitch for comics that provide “an exhilarating tale” of heroes).
Civilian interviewees add their own appreciations and also discuss a series of topics: their first time, their favorite celebrity encounter, their favorite collectibles, the romance they initiated at Comic-Con (all heterosexual, by the way). As such segments and shorthands approximate a comic book’s layout, the movie adopts an ambiguous relationship with that particular subject. While it leans occasionally toward nostalgia for the olden days, when comic books were king at the Con (“Very little of the Convention anymore is actually comics,” laments Chuck, before he complains that “friggin’ Lucas talks over the loading dock” these days, leaving little access for smaller sellers), it also appreciates the current fans, namely, their love of everyone from Princess Leia to Tim Burton, everything from video games to action figures. The movie notes—with help from interviewees—that the entire adventure has turn broadly commercial, with all levels of vendors, from Mile High Comics to Warner Bros., figuring how to get at eager, nerdy customers’ money.
As Chuck points out during his demonstration of comic book huffing, at least part of this figuring is premised on the idea that these particular consumers are (like) addicts. He describes the relationship between fans and creators, between comic book buyers and sellers as a “mutually shared system of belief.” This may be, as he jokes, a belief in a superhero’s great advanced moral code, perhaps translated into an ability to fly, say, or design and deploy incredible crime-fighting, world-saving gadgets. (As Eli Roth puts it, “You don’t have to stop loving the things you loved as a child!”) And it also has to do with another system of belief—in money.
“Fans tend to be admirers, and admirers tend to be buyers of merchandise,” observes Steve Sansweet, owner of the world’s largest Star Wars collection and author of 14 books on that very subject. Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope is, at its most obvious level, a paean to The Fans, a series of chances for great fans to be on camera (and perhaps to sell comic books, or design skills), to show off their passion and their art and their creativity, for an audience beyond those who go to San Diego each year, or even those who check out TV reports or internet videos. It does acknowledge the various ways fans can demonstrate their fandom, including buying stuff. It doesn’t look at who benefits from this particular sort of demonstration: that’s less a fan’s hope than a fan’s function in that broader system of belief.