Celebrating its 40th anniversary later this year, Comic-Con, while originally a convention for comic book and science fiction/fantasy enthusiasts, has expanded into an annual pop-culture juggernaut that, as Kevin Smith says, has gone mainstream; in his view on par with Cannes, Sundance and even the Olympics. Even your mom has heard about it.
Now a sprawling mecca-like convention for film, television, horror, animation, anime, manga, toys, collectible card games, video games, webcomics, fantasy novels and more, Comic-Con has invaded every element and facet of pop-culture for better or worse, which is where Morgan Spurlock’s “Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope” documentary focuses its affable gaze.
Featuring testimonials by self-described geeks such as the aforementioned Kevin Smith, Joss Whedon (a producer/writer on the film), Seth Green, Harry Knowles (an executive producer on the film), Seth Rogen, Eli Roth, Stan Lee (another producer), and many more — while clearly a lot of talking-head celebrities in the film have a vested interest in a ‘A Fan’s Hope’ and its success, the celebratory and affectionate chronicle of nerdom and Comic-Con is not without its own self-critical analysis.
Charting the growth and explosion of Comic-Con as a pop culture phenomenon, ‘A Fan’s Hope’ examines those pros and cons via four main subjects — a team of Cosplay artists, led by a talented young costume designer, trying to wow fans with their “Mass Effect 2” suits; a young nerd in love who’s planning on popping the big question to his girlfriend, hopefully during a Kevin Smith panel; two amateur comic book illustrators trying to break into the industry (one a bartender, the other a soldier); and “one of the last survivors,” an aging comic-book dealer and collector who operates Mile High Comics, but is running into financial woes with the falling readership of comic fans and collectors.
And these stories run from the trivial (the Cosplay gang neurotically trying to get their costumes right), to the very endearing (the nerdling trying to pull off his engagement), to the almost heartbreaking (the rude-awakening rejection of one of the comic book artists, who unfortunately overrates his own talents).
But what was once a gathering of like-minded geeks has taken on a considerable commercial aspect: According to a 2011 estimate, the economic impact of Comic-Con is $162.8 million for the economy of San Diego. Not chump change, and the commercialization of the convention is felt far and wide. Smith, Whedon, Knowles and several other subjects lament both the waning demand of comic books at Comic-Con and the encroaching consumerism from movie studios that has engulfed the festival. So big is the festival that you have waves of curiosity-seekers, plus the die-hards all co-existing together. “That’s what it is now, people who have never read a comic book and people who have never left their mom’s basement mixed together,” Jon Schnepp, producer of the animated television series “Metalocalypse“ explains.
Perhaps the most compelling of these stories is Chuck Rozanski’s, the long-haired aging hippie-geek who runs Mile High Comics, because his story arc deals with with real economic stakes (or at least higher than everyone else’s). Deeply in debt, approaching sixty, and presumably wanting to retire at some point (though with his child-like enthusiasm for his field, maybe not), the comic book retailer has been hit hardest by the rise in interest in video games, toys, film, TV and pop culture elements — many of which are born from comic books, but don’t necessarily precipitate the purchasing of comics.
His situation means he may have to sell off his most prized possession: The “Red Raven” #1, which he describes as Marvel’s rarest comic, as it features characters that were never ever in another issue and its worth is estimated at $500,000 (and hovering around the comic like a vulture is a pretty amusing, typically douchebaggy, Blackberry-wielding comic book broker).
And while stakes of all sizes are demonstrated for each of the subjects in the film, what’s perhaps most disappointing about ‘A Fan’s Hope,’ is that ultimately, none of these challenges, it turns out, were very high, and in that sense, the doc feels a little manipulative. The film paints a grim picture for Rozanski’s financial future, only to reveal in the end that after a half-off sale, he’s totally in the clear, and won’t be forced to sell off his beloved “Red Raven” comic. Likewise, there are obstacles for every subject, but almost all of them end with a cheery, happy ending, not unlike the amiable and breezy tone of much of the film itself (though it’s glossed over and treated as hopeful, one of the amateur comic-book artists clearly doesn’t have a career in this field, but its unclear if he or the documentary actually realize this).
Which is perhaps the biggest problem with the documentary — there’s not a lot of consequential meat or weight to much of it. And for better or worse, this is kind of the point, and arguably part of the doc’s charm. This isn’t “60 Minutes,” it’s a good-natured look at fandom and how it manifests in many ways at Comic-Con.
While it features an armada of arrested development man-children and women — the ones that Triumph The Insult Dog has a field day ripping to shreds, giving him so much effortless ammo — it’s hard to hate even on the dorkiest of these people, most of whom are generally very sweet and harmless, if perhaps a little delusional at times. For all its minor faults, “Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope” isn’t a bad little doc. Its says very little of substance, but this isn’t a more serious investigation into a societal ill like “Super Size Me.” Instead, ‘Comic-Con,’ is a celebratory fan-made doc for fans that should land well with is intended target audience, who now have to dig a little deeper through the commerce to get to the (relatively speaking) “cool stuff.” [C]