Commonly, and mistakenly, considered the domain of smelly dudes in freaky costumes, Comic-Con has emerged as the epicenter for pop-culture influence and a hotbed for creativity. A convention that started humbly 41 years ago, drawing a mere handful of hardcore comic book collectors, the Con now sells out months in advance, draws over 150,000 of the fanatically inclined, and has become a must-attend event for the Hollywood power elite—whether they know why they need to be there or not.
However, unless you’ve ever navigated the sprawling city-sized convention, it’s been hard to understand the real Comic-Con. Organizers had routinely denied previous requests to document the event, fearing a public mocking of a misunderstood subculture. But that all changed when Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold) came calling with the support of his "geek dream team": comics legend Stan Lee, Ain’t It Cool News’ Harry Knowles, writer Jeremy Chilnick, and wunderkind producer Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly). The result is Spurlock’s latest documentary feature, Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.
As a self-described misfit-made-good, Spurlock set out to get inside a world he personally holds dear, determined not to ridicule or create caricatures of the people who embrace their fandom. "This is a world I regard with great reverence," says Spurlock.
In the film, Spurlock focuses on five archetypal Comic-Con characters to streamline the story, while making sure to capture plenty of footage of grown men in full-body latex and legions of bikini-clad Princess Leias. From The Designer, Holly Conrad, who fashions professional quality costumes, to would-be illustrators Eric Henson and Skip Harvey, longtime comics dealer Chuck Rozanski, dubbed The Survivor and The Lovers, James Darling and his girlfriend, Se Young Kang, who become engaged during a session with Kevin Smith, the film uncovers the passion, creativity, and devotion hardcores have for their particular niche. And with a string of interviews from luminaries like Whedon, Kevin Smith, Matt Groening, Guillermo Del Toro, and Eli Roth—once all childhood outcasts—Spurlock illuminates a new Hollywood brotherhood.
In a time when zombies, dinosaurs, knights, and night walkers dominate the network lineups and superheroes are the surest way to box office success (hopes are high for Whedon’s megawatt Avengers film, scheduled for release in May 2012), understanding Comic-Con’s creative alchemy has never been more relevant.
Fast Company talks with Spurlock about his as yet unreleased film (which comes with a companion book that Spurlock describes as "If Taschen made your high school geek yearbook"), how his generation liberated creativity for the basement-dwelling set, and how video games are the next gen’s comic books.
FAST COMPANY: What is it about comic books, and by extension fan culture, that’s been so endearing for so long?
MS: I think there’s the escape element. Comics transport you to another place outside of where you are. Most of them are about someone trying to do the right thing; it’s about someone trying to be perfect in an imperfect world. There’s so much of us that we recognize in characters. We all aspire to be heroic; we all want to do the right thing. We like that idea of flawed perfection.
As part of the film you include interviews from people like Joss Whedon, Kevin Smith, and Harry Knowles talking of their love of comics. Those segments almost seem like confessions. What happens as you grow older? Why does this love of comics seem to be suppressed and then released again?
Morgan Spurlock: Eli Roth said it really well in the film. We are the first generation that kept everything as kids. I still have everything. I just flew back to New York this past Christmas with my Darth Vader carrying case that has my action figures in it. There is this childlike wonder that I’ve really wanted to maintain in my life, and maybe it’s just a healthy immaturity that helps keep that alive. We’re told we have to grow up from the time we’re 10 years old. And once you graduate college then you’re really told "get a job, grow up, you’re not a kid anymore." But I think holding on to some sense of that is what makes it interesting and fun. And these are the things that help shape you into who you are.
It’s also the first generation that has made itself wildly successful by embracing their passions in these areas.
These geeks and nerds are now the people who are running the movie studios, who are greenlighting projects, who are writing the graphic novels and stories that are being made into these movies and television shows. These people who were so influenced, this Star Wars generation, have grown up to take that badge of honor we had as kids and now we get to share that in our own way with people through our own stories and ideas.
What about the creative energy is unique to Comic-Con?
I think that there is something really special about it; it’s not just a place with crazy people in costumes. That happens there, but it’s a place where you can literally go and your dreams can come true. As an artist you can go there and get discovered. You can create costumes and branch out into a new career. It’s exciting to see the things that can actually happen there. And it’s become an event that’s a necessary attendance. I remember when I was there all of my agents from CAA were going down. I don’t even think a lot of people know why they have to go down, they just know that it’s become such an important part of the business and it’s a great place to meet talent or talk about projects. People recognize how valuable it is now for the industry.
Another thing that’s great about Comic-Con is the rubbing of elbows. You can’t help but interact with the people who’ve helped give you your career. I think there’s a tremendous sense of humility in the people that go there and want to do right by them. Ron Perlman and Guillermo Del Toro both talk about when they make Hellboy. This had a tremendous following and the last thing you want to do is disappoint the people who for years have held this with such deep regard and esteem. So, I think there’s a tremendous respect and that respect was one of the things that I wanted this film to represent.
Can you talk about how it’s become more of a pop culture event as opposed to a comic book convention?
It’s become a celebration of everything. Video games are a huge piece of this culture now. Holly Conrad said it really well in the film. I asked her what it was about the video game Mass Effect she loved, and she said, "To me, Mass Effect is the Star Wars of my generation." And I thought that was really eloquent. There are video games now that have a real cinematic quality, that are multi-layered and tell stories of characters and have sequels. I think she’s spot on.
Does Comic-Con make creativity more accessible?
What’s happened is that it’s much easier for any of those people with a creative voice to have that family. Comic-Con shows you that there’s a tremendous tribe of people that surround you who are just like you, believe in what you do, and love the same things you love. Social media has made that even smaller. And through success you make things more attractive. When you see the quintessential outsiders become the most successful people in the world—from Mark Zuckerberg to Bill Gates to Steve Jobs to the Kevin Smiths and Joss Whedons to the Stan Lees—it makes it easier to say "I want to be the guy who grows up and writes TV shows about vampires." It’s changed the viewpoints. I don’t think there are as many parents that are afraid of this world anymore.
All images: Warrior Poets