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Comic-Con 2008: The empire strikes back

The nerds still run the show, but as Hollywood launches a major offensive, how long can the fanboys rule?
/ Source: contributor

The line to mount Neil Patrick Harris’ white unicorn at the “Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay” DVD promotional island in the middle of the football-field-sized vendor floor at the annual San Diego Comic-Con was pretty long or I would have considered going for it. Where else would I have a chance to ride a fiberglass unicorn? Or have my picture taken next to a gigantic statue of Jabba the Hutt? Or get the autograph of woman who starred in “Frankenhooker?”

The answer: Nowhere. I ended up doing none of those things. I had long, longer, longest lines to wait in for various panels of famous people in town to promote their sci-fi/fantasy/horror/animated/ninja movies and new fall TV series. Were you there? Did you see the “Tron 2” trailer? I know, I know, the original “Tron” wasn’t exactly a hit. But that’s the power of nerd culture. Given enough time, we can make anything popular and beloved.

Anyway, one non-panel experience worth mentioning was the moment I got stopped in my tracks by a quartet of adult women dressed in sexually provocative versions of Disney princess costumes. There was Slutty Snow White, Slutty Ariel, Slutty Cinderella and Slutty Belle. The cameras around me went crazy, while I wondered if this was merely the fruition of the Mouse’s long-term blitzkrieg of princess marketing to young girls and even adult women, or was it a rebellious, non-consumerist perversion of the brand, bold women going off-message?

I hoped it was the latter. Here’s why: I’ve covered this event, once quaintly referred to as the “Nerd Prom,” for a few years now. And I’ve attended it as a fan-civilian for even longer. And the days when it felt like a party by us and for us seem to be over.

The freaks and the geeks may have infiltrated Hollywood deeply enough to create cooler TV shows and get a “Watchmen” movie made, but the carpetbaggers and their marketing and publicity teams — those people whose job is to study our shopping habits, find out who we are and what we buy so that they can predict and strategize ways to seduce us into giving up our cash to underprivileged studio bosses — have crashed the gate, loudly pretending to have our best interests at heart.

The nightmare continuesOh, and the producers making that “Friday the 13th” reboot? Congratulations, you were the worst. I hope you’re reading this. I went to your panel.

And after talking about how you’ve dreamed of coming to Comic-Con with a movie to promote, you tipped your hand by confessing that you’d never actually been to the Con before. Then you proudly announced that you’ve re-arranged the Camp Crystal Lake mythology to suit your own tastes and that you’re also the tools behind the remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” a classic film that doesn’t need yours or anyone else’s grubby, greedy hands soiling its legacy.

You were smug L.A.-personified shills for anti-good-movie producer Michael Bay, evading questions from the audience and being offended when snarky types asked if there’d be any Bay trademarks like crazy car chases or giant explosions in “F13.” Stereotypes exist because of jerks like you. Enjoy your future irrelevance in tricked-out Malibu hot tubs.

There. That felt good to get off my chest. And fortunately, though the dark forces of non-imagination have secured a greater foothold at the Comic-Con than ever before, I witnessed a healthy, thriving, multi-tentacled beast of strong resistance:

Thousands of web comics and their creators roaming the convention center panels, promoting their workSome of them have audiences in the dozens, yes. And so what? Everybody has to start somewhere. And it doesn’t matter if it’s that or a podcast or a vlog or a tiny print zine (for the retro people) or an indie graphic novel about everyday people. The do-it-yourself method of working still works. Even heavy hitters like “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” kingpin Joss Whedon’s “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” keep the creator, not the demographic-minded overlords, in control. This is good news.

The ascendancy of Judd ApatowYes, he’s everywhere now and approaching saturation. But this guy and his crew of actor/writers like Seth Rogen and Jason Siegel, as well as their subcultural forebear Kevin Smith, are organically grown and all were in attendance. (Apatow, in one panel, cited Smith’s film “Clerks” as a defining moment. “I thought, ‘Wait. You can do this?’” he said. Then Smith demanded that he say it in print. So there, he just did.) Their voices are changing popular mass culture from the comedy end, they push their audiences to accept their odd, raunchy visions and they make it look as easy as falling off the couch.

Lynda Barry, the cartoonist who will sing to youThis cartoonist, a contemporary and college friend of “The Simpsons” creator Matt Groening, has worked in relative obscurity for over 20 years with her strip, “Ernie Pook’s Comeek,” having been a staple in alternative weekly newspapers in the 1980s and 90s. Her one-woman panel presentation, based on her latest book, “What It Is,” was Comic-Con’s single most inspirational moment, even if most of the 125,000 daily attendees weren’t in the room or, more likely, had never even heard of her (I had to explain her and her work three different times in response to the question, “What panel are you headed to now?”).

An exuberant, no-nonsense cheerleader for life’s outcasts, she led her smallish room’s capacity crowd in a sermon-like call to creativity without fear of failure, to engage in what she called “deep play” or suffer going slowly insane. Of all the convention’s “professional” badge wearers, she was the coolest. She finished her panel by singing, “You Are My Sunshine” without moving her lips and got a standing ovation.

The ‘Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job!’ picnic
It’s hard to fully explain why an event like this — one that’s more or less just an in-person extension of Cartoon Network’s hands-down-weirdest, non-animated comedy show — is as vital as it is since it has absolutely nothing to do with comics. But it’s important, if for no other reason than it demands that visitors simply accept its willfully obtuse, aggressively Dada-like world-view as the only right and natural way of being.

A meaningless tug of war contest, scatalogical karaoke, free hot dogs and Cactus Coolers, a deer-shaped piñata, an old woman singing a somewhat sexually explicit song, jet skis, a man running around wearing a enormous papier-maché head whose sole function was to leap at unsuspecting attendees and yell, “Spagett!” and a DJ on the microphone asking non-costumed people, “Who are you dressed as?” go a long way toward making unreality seem normal. And that’s a very comic-bookish thing. Even better? I left an hour into the two-hour picnic and Tim and Eric themselves hadn’t even shown up.

A group of about 20 middle-school-aged girls dressed like wizards, fairies and ninjasI saw them as I walked dejectedly out of the “Friday the 13th” panel. They were gathered in a huddle, loud and squealing. One of them turned on a boom box and terrible dance music filled the air. They squealed even more loudly than before and started dancing. They took up space they knew they deserved, made noise they knew they deserved to make, danced without the self-conscious shame that high school eventually injects into young women, weren’t shopping for anything and, most importantly, weren’t being fed a line of hype from some Hollywood blowhard. They set their own freak flag-waving agenda. If Lynda Barry had been in that lobby she probably would have joined in their dance.

Dave White is the author of “Exile in Guvyille.” Find him at