The inaugural San Diego Comic Book Convention, now more commonly known by the shorthand Comic-Con, drew around 300 comic enthusiasts for a weekend at a downtown hotel. More than 40 years later, the event now hosts upward of 120,000 attendees at the San Diego Convention Center, all gathered for a pop-cultural smorgasbord in which comic books are but a small, increasingly marginalized part.
In Morgan Spurlock's cutesy new documentary Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope, the convention is lauded as "Nerd Mecca," a safe place for various subcultures to "geek out" together without any Muggles looking askance.
But with 120,000 people flocking to San Diego every July — and major studios, networks and gaming companies courting them with panels and booths — does the word "subculture" really apply? This is the dominant culture now, and Comic-Con has become as much Death Star as rebel hideout.
You'd think the rabble-rouser responsible for Super-Size Me and Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden? would be inclined to explore the more troubling aspects of the Con; it stands to reason that the same Spurlock who rallied against corporate control of American diets would cast a jaundiced eye toward an event that's been co-opted by the entertainment industry.
But a few mild misgivings aside, Spurlock has made, in essence, a 90-minute promo reel for the convention, a paean to fanboy (and fangirl) enthusiasm that could double as an orientation video, if such a thing were necessary. It's a brisk and cheery overview, sweet but superfluous.
After establishing himself as Michael Moore-lite, with an aw-shucks persona and a penchant for gimmicky stunts, Spurlock wisely retreats behind the camera for Comic-Con, revealing various aspects of the event through a diverse group of artisans and aficionados.
Among them are two would-be illustrators who cut radically different profiles — one the son of Star Trek conventioneers who pour drinks at a sci-fi/comics-themed bar in Missouri, the other a black military man from North Dakota who draws a striking Hulk.
There's also a designer who creates astonishingly detailed Mass Effect costumes (including an animatronic head) with her friends for the annual masquerade; a veteran comic-book dealer who considers unloading his ultra-rare copy of Red Raven No. 1 to cover his business shortfalls; and an anxious young man who plans to propose to his girlfriend at the Kevin Smith panel. (With a custom Lord of the Rings engagement ring, naturally.)
Spurlock adds enthusiastic testimonials from Con luminaries like Joss Whedon, Harry Knowles and Stan Lee — all of whom serve as executive producers — and other prominent regulars like Seth Rogen, Eli Roth, Guillermo del Toro and Kevin Smith. (Women are underrepresented, both here and at the event.)
Though Smith goes off on a hilarious digression about what would happen if his 11-year-old self could see him rubbing elbows with the likes of Stan Lee, most of the celebrity interviews offer more hype than insight. A carnival this immense hardly needs more barkers.
Comic-Con fares better when Spurlock spends time on the floor with his subjects. When the two amateur illustrators submit their portfolios for review, Spurlock doesn't need to goose the stakes — their talent will be affirmed or denied, and their dreams will be realized or dashed in kind.
The dealer's ambivalence over selling his Red Raven book, meanwhile, speaks to the state of his trade: Scoring $500,000 would rescue his business, but would the business be worth doing anymore? And though a very public proposal at a Kevin Smith panel sounds like rapelling to the squirmy depths of mortification, there's a courage and grandeur to the gesture that's true to the Comic-Con hero.
Still, it's hard to fathom what motivated Spurlock to make this valentine to pop-culture fandom, which finds a silver lining for every cloud and mostly sees nothing but blue skies. Perhaps he simply wanted viewers to get swept up in the infectious spirit — but with an event of this magnitude, his is just another "Woo!" swallowed up in the convention hall.