There is a scene in Grosse Pointe Blank where John Cusack's character returns to his childhood home, only to discover, much to his shock, dismay and disgust, that it has been torn down and replaced by a convenience store. That's kind of what it was like for me this past weekend at the San Diego Comic-Con.
Some of you are probably wondering why I'm writing about a comic-book convention in a space reserved for film. That's no less valid a question than the one that had me wondering how the largest comic convention in the country had so totally lost sight of its vision.
Since its creation in the 1970s, the San Diego Comic-Con has grown into a massive gathering, a combination trade show and geek fest that focuses primarily on the industry and medium of comic art. There has always been a place for related media—videogames, movies, toys, television—but in the past couple of years the balance has shifted.
With the tremendous box office success of comic-related films like X-Men, Spider-Man and Hellboy, the presence of Hollywood is like a fast-spreading disease at Comic-Con. Rubbernecking celebrity-gazers have invaded like an army, hoping to catch a glimpse of Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, Quentin Tarantino or any of the countless celebs who can be seen roaming the convention floor or promoting their latest projects on various panels. There was a time when Stan Lee, co-creator of comic icons like the Fantastic Four and the Hulk, would have been the biggest star at the convention. This year, Snoop Dogg gave him a run for his money.
Inside the 525,701 square feet of the sprawling San Diego Convention Center, amid the platoons of Star Wars storm troopers and the posses of Star Trek Klingons, the comic-book part of Comic-Con was lost within a decadent carnival of Hollywood hype and merchandising mayhem. Display cases everywhere showed new lines of action figures, ranging from Star Wars and Scarface to custom-made Japanese vinyl characters. At the Legos booth, a 10-foot Batman made of the interlocking blocks looked out over the showroom floor, searching in vain for the pulpy publication from which he sprang. A massive snake with a gaping jaw big enough for people to stand in and have their pictures taken was part of the promotional blitz for Snakes on a Plane. Crazed fans fought to catch a glimpse of patron saint of geekdom Kevin Smith, who was there promoting Clerks II, while they drooled over the near-dozen ample-bodied women dressed as Princess Leia in her Return of the Jedi slave outfit. Open
auditions were being held for the remake of Revenge of the Nerds. Fighting my way through the 110,000-plus crowd—many of whom had respiratory and hygiene problems—my brain went into sensory overload and I nearly forgot one of the main reasons I was at Comic-Con: to report on the Portland connection.
Portland is home to comic-book publishers Dark Horse, Oni, Top Shelf and Cellar Door, as well as such top industry talents as Greg Rucka, Paul Guinan, Anina Bennet, Jamie Rich, the Smith Brothers and the three Matts—Wagner, Clark and Haley. These people are usually cloistered away working in their homes or studios, and San Diego is one of the rare times when they come up for air.
I wanted to report on how Portland is impacting the world of comic books. In years past, that might have been a feasible goal, but this year, with a crowd so huge the fire marshal reportedly would not let anyone else in, where going from one end of the main floor to the other took up to 30 minutes, nothing seemed to work out as planned. Every time I looked for artist Matt Clark, back on his feet after a recent heart attack, he was nowhere to be found. Jamie Rich, who was debuting two new books—The Everlasting and Love the Way You Love—was never at the Oni booth. I was, however, able to find out some big news at Oni: The local publisher has licensed and will create comic versions of Comedy Central star Stephen Colbert's Alpha Squad 7: Lady Nocturne: A Tek Jansen Adventure, as well as the television series My Name Is Earl.
Wandering the convention floor, I managed to track down a handful of Portlanders. Matt Wagner, whose work helped usher in a new era of independent comics in the 1980s, made an announcement that his fans have been awaiting for over 20 years. Long out of print, Wagner's debut series, Grendel, will finally be reprinted to mark its 25th anniversary. Top Shelf Productions publisher Brett Warnock was beaming with the news that three of his company's books had won Eisner Awards—the Oscar of the comic industry. Artist Brett Weldele was showing off his latest work, Southland Tales, written by Donnie Darko scribe Richard Kelly, as was Paul Guinan, whose The Phantom: Law of the Jungle debuted at the convention.
"This place is a madhouse," I mumbled to Ian and Tyson Smith, who were selling copies of their comic series Oddjob and shopping new properties to companies like Disney and Kids' WB. The Smith Brothers, like so many other comic creators, are facing the reality that the medium they love is taking a back seat to film, television and video games. Dark Horse and Oni spend almost as much energy developing film deals as they do publishing comics.
I love film, and I love comic books. What was most disturbing about Comic-Con was not that the Hollywood machine had invaded the event, pushing off to the side the publishers who built the medium that has fueled the convention for four decades. It wasn't even the comic industry's grabbing of its own ankles to be part of the glitz and glamour of the film world. It's the fact that the industry and medium have sold out their integrity to dance around with the type of crap and mediocrity Hollywood wants to sell to the rabid fans.
Selling out to be part of a multibillion-dollar industry is bad enough, but compromising the virtue of a maligned art form so that garbage like My Super Ex-Girlfriend and Snakes on a Plane can get more exposure? That's not even criminal—it's supervillainous.
David Walker will be back in town next week, ranting about films—and comic books that have been made into films—on screen here in Portland.