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Comic Con returns to San Diego

Audio

Aired 4/19/09

California's governor has been there. So have Frank Capra and Francis Coppola. And of course there are always plenty of Klingons and Stormtroopers. It's Comic-Con, an event that draws thousands of comic book, film, television and gaming professionals to San Diego's Convention Center.

A-list celebrities such as Samuel L. Jackson, Nicolas Cage and Hilary Swank are scheduled to attend this year's 37th annual convention. KPBS film critic Beth Accomando has this report.

Last July, the San Diego Comic-Con drew more than 100,000 attendees making it the largest comic book gathering in North America. Held every summer, it now offers a quarter mile of dealer booths selling comics, posters, toys, DVDs, games, and collectibles. There are two floors of meeting rooms with hundreds of hours of programming that cater to die-hard comic book, sci-fi, horror, and fantasy fans. There are autograph signings, portfolio reviews, a masquerade ball and even a film festival. But Comic-Con wasn't always like this.

BUD PLANT: "The very first one was in the basement of a hotel, the U.S. Grant Hotel."

Bud Plant, of Bud Plant Comic Art and Illustrated Books, remembers his first convention back in 1970.

BUD PLANT: "I was a kid of 18, and I had three other guys and we had an eight-foot table. I believe there was only one girl at the entire show. There were probably only a few hundred people in the first place, but there was one comic book guy and his daughter was there."

Back then, there was no Internet, just word of mouth. Comic-Con earned its rep as a place to start spreading the word when fans got a sneak peek at a project that few in Hollywood thought would succeed.

DAVID GLANZER: "In 1976 Lucasfilm came down and showed clips of Star Wars a full year before it came out and that started a bit of a trend."

David Glanzer is Comic-Con's marketing director. He says that as the entertainment industry invests more money in comic book properties such as X-Men, Superman and Spider-Man, Hollywood has grown more interested in the Con. At last year's convention, Bruce Campbell, the cult star of the Evil Dead Trilogy, looked to Hollywood's increased interest in Comic-Con with his trademark irony.

BRUCE CAMPBELL: "It's funny how it's grown. Now you see major studios here giving lots of presentations. They didn't always give a rat's a-- about the Comic-Con. Then Comic-Con got really big and they said how about that Comic-Con in San Diego."

Some have criticized Comic-Con for going Hollywood. Studio panels definitely have the biggest wow factor but they are only a small percentage of the more than 600 hours of programming. And when celebrities do come down, they better be ready to meet the fans on their turf.

Where else can you get Quentin Tarantino to take your business card; hand Kevin Smith a copy of your film; or get DC Comics to review your art portfolio. But Comic-Con is a non-profit organization and that sometimes baffles the very much for profit Hollywood studios, says David Glanzer.

DAVID GLANZER: "I think we've frustrated people in the past because we are non profit and we're not just looking to promote, when you are dealing with an entity that's in it for the bottom dollar or doesn't have a mission statement, that can be frustrating."

Comic-Con's mission is to promote comics and popular arts to the general public. That attracts a congregation of comic, film, TV, toy and gaming fans that has proven to be a highly prized demographic. It's this fan base that people such as DC Comics' vice president of sales Bob Wayne wants to connect with each year.

BOB WAYNE: "I keep coming back because this is where the fans are, this is the most exciting week of the year for us. It's the week we can to see and meet all these fans, all these writers and artists, and get that thrill of being around everybody who thinks that comics are great. It recharges our batteries for the entire year."

Al Simmons of Spawn.com shares that enthusiasm. In 1992, Simmons brought the fledgling Spawn character to Comic-Con because its creator Todd McFarlane had worked in the comic industry for years and knew Comic-Con was the perfect place to launch his creation.

AL SIMMONS: "The Con is where everyone comes I look at Spawn, it came out in 1992, we're over ten years old, so a kid that was ten is now twenty something years old, that is neat to see. To see people who have grown up with you, with your character."

Now there's a whole generation that's grown up with comics and events like Comic-Con. Some of these comic book geeks have grown up and gone into the film industry, bringing their love of comics with them.

Take filmmaker Bryan Singer who came to Comic-Con in 2000 for a panel on X-Men. Last year, he teased audiences with scenes from Superman Returns. When a fan asked why it was important for him to interrupt his shooting schedule to fly half way around the globe to make a presentation at Comic-Con, Singer had a simple reply.

BRYAN SINGER: "This is Comic-Con and it is Superman."

MUSIC: "Begin Superman theme and then let play under graph."

That's the kind of thing that can make attendees feel special. But Hollywood hasn't quite gotten that yet. Studios will bring any product they have down in a frenzied attempt to exploit an attractive demographic, whereas filmmakers such as Singer, who returns to the Con this summer, are simply embracing an opportunity to hang with people who are obsessive about pop culture as they are. And fans know the difference.

Beth Accomando, KPBS News.

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