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Thousands Converge on San Diego Comic-Con

By Wan Yusof Wan Morshidi

Staff Photographer

Imagine a Klingon standing in line for a snack, Imperial stormtroopers patrolling the grounds, Spider-Man bouncing from floor to floor, a gorilla from Planet of the Apes holding the leash of a blond woman, the anti-Christ prowling for new converts, Aurra Sing sporting a tan and long blond hair, and a hobbit wearing a T-shirt and jeans. Add beautiful models and talented actors from science fiction movies, fantasy magazines, posters and the Internet signing autographs and posing next to fans for the picture of a lifetime.

All of the above occurred at the San Diego Comic-Con International, an annual convention, drawing crowds by the thousands, that is the biggest of its kind in this country, if not the world. Comic-Con hosts creators, artists, writers, vendors and publishers in the comic, science-fiction, horror, fantasy art, and Japanese anime industries as well as film studios, aspiring actors, card and toy manufacturers, and game companies. In a nutshell, the convention is a place for business, entertainment, autographs, mega-doses of pop culture and a rather interesting bunch of people with whom most MIT students could identify.

This year’s convention took place between July 19 and 22 at the San Diego Convention Center. Upon entering the enormous structure, my senses were overwhelmed by costume-wearing attendees, glitzy pop culture signs, a cacophony of anime and movie sound-effects, fast and furious images of martial arts movies and action cartoons on television screens, and walls of comics, fantasy art and T-shirts featuring anything from super-hero insignias to Gothic images. It was as if I were at one of those bazaars in science fiction movies.

With a floor covering about 250,000 square feet and covered by more than 3,500 exhibitors, stopping by every booth with a crowd of a few thousand at any given time was indeed a challenge (according to the website, the official count for total attendance was 48,500). Exhibitors were divided into categories: dealers, large and small press, and artists.

Most dealers were vendors of comics, popular and rare videos of foreign and domestic origin, toys, games, and art. Available comics spanned a spectrum of genres from Archie to fantasy erotica. Collectors found rare issues worth over a hundred or a thousand dollars, from the Golden and Silver ages to the latest release.

One striking observation is the rising popularity of Japanese pop culture among the youths in this country, particularly video games and anime. This was evident in the huge response to Dragon Ball Z, Gundam, and Robotech, as well as the costumes adorning teen attendees (especially Final Fantasy and Sailor Moon characters running around). Also worth noting is the positive response to Asian martial arts/action movies. Sales of Asian products were booming; I saw youths purchasing Japanese and Chinese cassettes, Manga comics and toys by the bundle.

The remaining dealers were representatives from art and animation schools, medieval weapon vendors, software publishers, dot-comers, insurance agencies, and independent film-makers.

The large press exhibition was dominated by giant companies like Marvel Entertainment, DC Comics, Cross Generation Comics, and Sci-Fi. This year, the excitement centered around Marvel's upcoming movie releases and planned projects: Spider-Man (May 2002), X-men 2 (Winter 2002), Blade 2 (March 2002), The Incredible Hulk, Daredevil, Fantastic Four and Elektra. Also prominently hyped was the anticipation of the Lord of The Rings movies (December of 2001, 2002, and 2003). Elijah Wood, the actor who plays Frodo Baggins, made several unannounced appearances at the convention, and was mobbed each time, despite being dressed in plain street clothing.

Perhaps the real gems at the convention were the small press exhibitors, who are struggling to carve a niche in the comic and entertainment industry. Mullet Heads, for example, was started by three young Californian entrepreneurs attempting to cash in on the return of the mullet and late eighties pop culture craze through cartoons and toys. pitches itself as the Internet’s largest weekly updated photo comic book and art gallery. Its originality lies in the use of sexy superheroines who usually lose to villains. Business opportunities, such as licensing rights for Guilstein, a full digital action/horror film based on a Manga by Tamaki Hisao, were also available.

One of the most important aspects of Comic-Con is its programming. This year the convention featured over 225 separate panels, portfolio reviews, seminars, workshops and events devoted to comics and pop culture. Topics included copyright laws, animation workshops, Gaming 101, professional networking, online comics, comic strips in the 21st century, tips on how to break into Hollywood, how to become a syndicated cartoonist, and adapting mythologies.

For a more academic audience, there was the Comic Arts Conference, at which papers were presented with topics such as “comics as a form of literature and cultural representation.” One of the more interesting subjects was the discussion on web comics. Comic professionals have seized upon the Internet as a distribution front. The Internet’s multimedia capability provides readers with an experience that paperback comics cannot and allows a creator to self-publish and release finished products simultaneously everywhere across the world, thereby eliminating the traditional distribution channels.

However, the recent dot-com shakeout has limited opportunities to make web comics a viable business. The only company that can claim some measure of success is Keenspot., which hosts a total of 2000 comic strips, is probably the only online comic site that generates revenues. According to Darren Bleuel, co-C.E.O. of Keenspot, the company’s secret is its combination of an attractive business model and good service to cartoonists, who take 50% of their strips’ earnings.

Activities at Comic-Con continued even at night, with parties, special on- and off-site film showings, nearly round-the-clock film and anime showings, and gaming, including company-sponsored tournaments with major prizes. The main event was the Masquerade, where people from all walks of life took the stage in costumes and presented short performances. With almost 40 participants, the show provided plenty of humor and eye candy.

At the end of the four-day convention, I hadn’t spent enough time exploring the floor or joining every activity I was interested in. Nevertheless, my experience was entertaining and educational, and if possible I would like to attend again next year.