Comic-Con Heroes: The Departure

They say the end is only the beginning. Today’s installment ends serialization of my ebook Comic-Con Heroes: The Fans Who Make the Greatest Show on Earth. On July 8, 2015, after my current commitment with Amazon KDP Select ends, the tome’s release into the public domain begins—as promised. I plan to make copies available here, from Bunny Bows Press, and most likely Smashwords. I am still working out final logistics. Free also means removing the book from Amazon, which doesn’t permit the option. I am exploring a one-cent alternative.

A week ago, I posted the last of the dozen profiles, in order of appearance: The Dark Knight, The Fighter, The Collectors, The AcademicThe Nerd Culturist, The Writer,The Bicyclists, The Heroine, The Time Lord, The Volunteer, The Vendor, and The Millennial

The idea for the book started with reflection “The Roles We Play“, which I wrote on break in the press room during San Diego Comic-Con 2010. To me, the convention is more than about comics or Hollywood’s more recent pulp media invasion. The event is aspirational. People dress up to be who they really want to be, for even a few hours or days, and meet actors, characters, and content creators whom they adore. Many other attendees see themselves as societal outcasts—misfits—for being a bit nerdy or overly enthusiastic about comics, cosplay, role-playing games, and sci-fi. The Con is their people, where they can belong.

With that introduction, I present the book’s conclusion, as originally published. It’s a reflection about what Comic-Con means and the increasing role that Hollywood plays.

I glance at my watch. Time is 4:50 in the afternoon, and the Con closes in 10 minutes. I emailed Anjeannette McRoberts earlier asking to shoot new photos. She didn’t respond, and I’ve given up. I stop about 20 meters from the up escalator before me and the outside doors to my right.

A familiar figure breezes past, with a friend trailing behind. My God! It’s McRoberts! What kind of gravity pulls us together? There are thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, still inside and around the convention center. We chance meet again? I chase after the women.

I finally understand why McRoberts likes “Strike Back”. She is a woman on a mission, focused, determined, and moving fast. There is last-minute, official Comic-Con swag to be had if timed just right, she explains, on the upper level.

But she is too late for the bounty and walks away with a last lanyard as treasure. I never thought of lanyards as being valuable. From the buttons filling the one around McRoberts’ neck, clearly I’m a doofus.

I offer a consolation prize before taking two fast snapshots. Hours earlier, I finally got over to the “fulfillment room” for that “Strike Back” Tee. Cotton is my thing, but the shirt is 50-percent polyester. I explain and offer the T-Shirt, which she graciously receives.

Meanwhile, San Diego Comic-Con 2013 comes to a close.

Walking outside, I take a last long look at big-movie and television-show banners hanging around the convention center and contemplate Hollywood’s Comic-Con takeover. Ten minutes later, while riding the San Diego Trolley, I pull out my smartphone and Google-research, to support an idea coalescing in my noggin.

When the convention started in 1970, fantasy and science fiction was a small genre.

My discovery came from television not comics, on a Sunday afternoon in early 1967. Winters are snowy back home in Aroostook County, and rather than go outside and play I switched on the television—all of two channels, one from Presque Isle, Maine, and the other from Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada. The CBC channel broadcast the most exciting movie I had ever seen, and only 30 minutes remained to watch.

As the credits rolled, the announcer said: “Tune in next week for the continuing adventures of “‘Star Trek'”. The episode was the second pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before”. I was 7 years old and elated.

The American station, WAGM, was unique at the time—the only broadcaster reaching a region one-fifth of the state. Networks ABC, CBS, and NBC made an exception and permitted the station to be an affiliate with all three, rather than the typical one. “Star Trek” aired in September 1966 on NBC, but WAGM’s program director chose to broadcast another program from another network instead. I would have missed the show if not for CBC across the border. Oh, Canada!

“Star Trek” became a family ritual, every Sunday afternoon at 2 p.m., as my three sisters and I huddled around the television together. But the series limped along with low viewer ratings for two more seasons before NBC finally cancelled the original Trek, which wouldn’t find its audience until the early 1970s in syndication.

Gene Roddenberry’s “Wagon Train to the stars”, as he pitched the series to NBC executives, was unusually good pulp media science fiction for its time. Other late last-century and early 2000s examples include the first “Star Wars” trilogy (1977, 1980, 1983), of course; successor “Star Trek” series and movies (1979-2001); “Alien” and “Aliens” (1979, 1986); “The Terminator” and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (1984, 1991); and a handful of TV cult favorites like “X-Files” (1993-2002); “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (1997-2003); and the short-lived “Firefly” (2002)—all of which have strong fan followings. I won’t quibble about which others are good, but focus on their overall numbers. Few.

The 21st Century is altogether different. There is an explosion of speculative-fiction storytelling, and it sells. According to IMDB’s Box Office Mojo, among the films with the all-time highest gross sales, 14 of the top 20 are comic character, science fiction or fantasy. If you count the “Pirates of Caribbean” series, the number is 17. All but two released during this century.

Look at the 2013-14 TV season and the number of science fiction, fantasy or comic-book hero programs—many already popular from previous years: “Almost Human”; “Game of Thrones”; “Arrow”; “Dracula”; “Grimm”; “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D”; “Orphan Black”; “Once Upon a Time”; “Once Upon a Time in Wonderland”; “Revolution”; “Supernatural”; “The 100”; “The Originals”; “The Tomorrow People”; “The Vampire Diaries”; “The Walking Dead”; and “True Blood”, among others. The list is from mainstream broadcasters and excludes genre-focused Syfy, which adds many more.

The Con is changing, because society has changed, with the fast-pace of technology innovation as driving catalyst. Tech is in our hands and behind the films and TV shows we watch. What was niche storytelling in 1970 is mainstream today. We live science fiction, and CGI brings remarkably believable fantasy to life, everywhere from games to movies to television.

But the Con’s attraction stays the same. Characters like Spider-Man and Superman that drew attendees in the 1970s still command attention in the 2010s. DC and Marvel booths promote more live-action and animated superheroes than just static comics. That’s the difference.

Superhero movie franchises recently revived or sequeled tell the story: Batman, Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Spider-Man, Superman, The Avengers, The Incredible Hulk and X-Men, among others. Sales are huge. “Marvel’s The Avengers” is currently No. 3 in all-time gross global sales—$1.5 billion, according to Box Office Mojo. “Iron Man 3” is No. 5 ($1.2 billion), while “The Dark Knight Rises” ranks ninth ($1.08 billion).

Among the same top-20 movies, 13 are based on characters from comic books or novels.

In 2012, according to Box Office Mojo, three of the top-10 grossing movies were based on comic-book characters, with The Avengers and Batman ranking first and second, respectively. For 2013, through end of October: “Iron Man 3” is first and “Man of Steel” third. Comic-book hero movies were top-grossers in 2007 and 2008 as well.

Hollywood’s Comic-Con influence started increasing around seven years ago. On television, “Battlestar Galactica” (2003-2009), “Lost” (2004-2010), and “Heroes” (2006-2010) lead a small cadre of programs putting compelling speculative storytelling first, and demonstrating science fiction and fantasy could appeal to mainstream viewers.

Meanwhile, moviemakers turned to some of the best storytelling on the planet, crafted by the people who write and illustrate comic books and graphic novels, and reimagined well-known heroes who, if for no other reason than their longevity, would appeal to audiences of all ages.

As I look around the San Diego Trolley car at the many faces of Comic-Con—the fans who make the greatest show on earth—I realize that Hollywood isn’t taking over. Dreamers and nerds, the convention’s lifeblood, have taken over Hollywood.

Proof-point: The large number of recent or current TV shows featuring oddball, socially-awkward, cerebral main characters, like “30 Rock”; “Bones”; “Fringe”; “House”; “Lie to Me”; “Monk”; “Portlandia”; “Sherlock”; and “The Mentalist”, among many others. Then there is the strong shift in popular culture and entertainment towards speculative fiction genres like sci-fi and fantasy or sub-genres filled with magic, vampires, and zombies.

For four days and nights, dreamers and nerds, whether they be fans or the content creative elite, gather the one place they can be the people they want to be. Every day.

That’s the role Comic-Con plays.