New York Times critic, A.O. Scott, attended Comic-Con in San Diego this week and he came away with a different impression than he expected to.
It’s easy enough to mock this spectacle, or to complain, as some old-timers do, that it’s all been co-opted by the movie studios and “the big two” (meaning DC and Marvel). But it’s also possible to marvel, so to speak, at how quickly and completely what were once subcultural pursuits have conquered the mainstream, and to appreciate the bottom-up, populist aspects of that conquest. The commonly heard phrase “fan culture” suggests a world made by consumers, a matter less of capitalist control than of popular participation.
At a panel called “How Comic Books Took Over Hollywood,” Axel Alonso, Marvel’s editor in chief, remembered putting aside his early interest in comics when his adolescent attention turned to sports and girls. “It used to be that cool people looked down on nerds,” he said. “Now I know a lot of cool people who pretend to be nerds.”
Maybe now “nerd” is a global category, which means that Comic-Con represents a mainstream made up entirely of misfits.
That is the part of Comic-Con that even true believers sometimes roll their eyes about — the theater of marketing and publicity disguised as fan service. But the richest paradox of Comic-Con, and the key to its mysterious allure, lies in its ability to feel both absolutely corporate and genuinely democratic. In Hall H, you are aware of the distance between fans and celebrities, but also of the symbiosis between them. The most beloved creators here are the ones who can most credibly represent themselves as fans. Filmmakers like Mr. Tarantino or J. J. Abrams, who has taken over the “Star Wars” franchise, enjoy a special, exalted status. They are high priests who emerged from the congregation, geeks who transformed themselves into gods.
But everyone else is made in their image. Even as Comic-Con enforces the distance between the idols and their worshipers it also insists on their shared identity. From one direction, the truth of this is fairly obvious. Most people who draw comic books grew up reading them. Game designers tend to be gamers at heart. The Q. and A. sessions at industry panels emphasized this connection. Editors and marketing executives at DC and Marvel reminisced about childhood discoveries of the Justice League and the Fantastic Four.
The deeper mythology of Comic-Con is that fans and creators are joined in communion, sharing in the holy work of imagination. The logic of popular culture today suggests that every fan is also an artist. This is literally true in the blossoming fields of fan art and fan fiction, in which devotees of intellectual properties (the ubiquitous San Diego shorthand for books, comics, movies and shows) make their own images and stories involving their favorite characters. Cosplay is a live-action form of fan art, or maybe fan nonfiction, and the owners of the intellectual property rights are careful not to interfere too much.
The organizers of Comic-Con, meanwhile, provide encouragement for fans who dream of professionalizing their passions. A smattering of panels offered advice on how to pitch an idea, how to market a product, how to make a living in a crowded marketplace. Social media and digital technology encourage the fantasy that everyone can make stuff and put it out there for everyone else.
Or maybe it isn’t a fantasy. The world of popular culture only gets bigger, and as it does it grows more diverse, more inclusive and more confounding. It’s possible to imagine that someday everyone who has a badge at Comic-Con will also have a booth and a speaking slot on a panel, that fan and creator will achieve a singularity like the one predicted for human and machine. It’s almost possible to believe that we’re already there, that people are waiting in line for a chance to see themselves, even if they don’t always recognize the image.
Which line is the right one? Will I like what I find at the end? Why am I here, anyway? You may come to worship, but you stick around to question and to judge. I started out saying that Comic-Con is no place for a critic, but maybe I was fooled by the costumes, and everyone I saw was really a critic in disguise.