Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Let Your Geek Flag Fly: COMIC-CON EPISODE IV: A FAN'S HOPE

“I want to die and go to Comic-Con,” says a grey-haired comics dealer towards the end of Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope, a new documentary with a terrible title. We’ve been following him through the course of the movie as he and his staff lament that what started in 1970 as a dedicated comic book convention has become something akin to a geek pilgrimage for all types of media, leaving the lowly comics under-acknowledged. This year, they’re worried that lugging their wares to San Diego may not turn out to be financially successful. And still, he expresses his heavenly analogy for this, the biggest pop culture fan convention of the year.

He’s not the only one for whom Comic-Con is so important, either. Not by a long shot. This documentary tells some of their stories. It follows two men – one a bartender, the other a soldier – who place the final touches on their sample drawings, pack up their portfolios and head off to try and get discovered at the convention. There’s also a guy who plans on proposing to his girlfriend at a panel with director Kevin Smith and a group of garage-based amateur costumers who plan to blow everyone away with their elaborately detailed costumes inspired by the video game Mass Effect. (They even have a full-sized costume of a creature, complete with a fully functional animatronic head. Most impressive.)

Director Morgan Spurlock’s films are generally confrontational, though when he’s at his best it’s an entertaining form of confrontational. His documentaries like Super Size Me (not bad) and The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (irritating) are gimmicky constructs devoted to telling us some fairly obvious truths. Super Size Me wanted to tell us that fast food isn’t something to eat for every meal of every day. That’s not too hard to believe. But he went ahead and did it, underlining his obvious point with obvious showmanship. It’s the same thing with product placement in Greatest Movie Ever Sold, except the point is even more obvious, and the execution a grating gimmick. Not so with Comic-Con, a documentary in which he never appears. He doesn’t even snark from the sidelines; his voice is never heard and his graphics are strictly stylistic and informative.

Spurlock is not out to explore Comic-Con’s history or its pop culture position and he’s certainly not in gonzo muckraking mode. He’s here to show us the convention floor, what seems like miles of memorabilia, panels with the artists and celebrities discussing their works (and their own fandom), and the thousands of fans in various levels of costumes and geeky T-shirts. Between the handful of fan stories he tells and the footage of this particular Con (I think it’s 2010, but there’s some 2011 mixed in with what appears to be second-unit material), he cuts to talking-head interviews with other fans and, more often, prominent geek icons like writer-directors Joss Whedon and Kevin Smith, Ain’t it Cool News creator Harry Knowles, and legendary comic-book writer Stan Lee. I particularly liked seeing Lee out on the convention floor. A fan shouts, “You’re my favorite!” He replies, “I admire your taste.”

Now, I’ve never been to Comic-Con. I have no particular burning desire to go, but I’ve nothing against it. I certainly hear enough about it in the entertainment press as that time of the summer rolls around. So as someone with no first-hand experience with the convention, I would have liked a documentary that was a little less of a pat on the back for those who already hold it dear. It’s way more of a celebration than an exploration of this event, but I’m okay with that. The press coverage focuses on the big studio events, the reveals of footage and news about upcoming movies and TV shows. It’s nice to see the ground-level fans that swarm in and make it what it is. The documentary may be light, slight, and indulgent, but it nonetheless makes for a pleasant surface look at the fans who make Comic-Con tick, people Spurlock clearly loves. 

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