Michael Cavna on Comic-Con at 40: Humble Beginnings Morph Into Outsize Spectacle

By Michael Cavna
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 22, 2009

It is a monumental week for the nation's largest Convention of Cool. Wednesday, Comic-Con -- the annual comics-fan clustergasm that, like the host city itself, San Diego, likes to think of itself as eternally young -- wakes up 40 years old. And one bloomin' realization will go through its head:

"Dude! Forty! I'm, like, totally middle-aged. What the -- "

"What the -- " is a good question. This "comic book convention" (ah, such a quaint term now) has middle-age spread. Each year it has expanded its pop-culture draws -- animation, high-end collectibles, video games, Web cartoons, movies, more movies -- until the fest is the largest of its kind in the world.

In an event built almost entirely upon the industry of fantasy, it's easy to delude oneself for a few years, but at 40 the truth is unavoidable: Comic-Con has grown so Hollywood-huge and commercially muscular that it has morphed beyond its original purpose.

More than 125,000 people over five days pack the San Diego Convention Center to hear stars ranging, this year, from sci-fi legend Ray Bradbury to "Madman" comic author Michael "Doc" Allred. In both a cultural and business sense, Comic-Con has become the Incredible Hulk of Hollywood bulk. Tinseltown comes here to build early sci-fi and superhero buzz among Generation Text.

This is where, last year, attendees got early glimpses of such films and potential franchises as "Twilight," "Watchmen" and "The Spirit," with the occasional "Up," "Bolt" and "Pineapple Express" tossed in for good comedic measure.

This year's most talked-about unveiling will be "Avatar," the first movie James Cameron has directed in 12 years.

Neil Gaiman, superstar author of such works as "The Graveyard Book" and "The Sandman" comic series, will show off the DVD release of his 3-D film "Coraline."

This year's Comic-Con will provide a buzzy mix of big-name first-time attendees ("District 9" producer Peter Jackson and "Ponyo" animator Hayao Miyazaki) and returning heroes ("Iron Man 2's" Jon Favreau and Pixar's John Lasseter). There are also those hot action actors who come into the Con with increased heat ("Star Trek's" Zoe Saldana, here for "Avatar," and "Transformers" star Megan Fox, on hand to tout "Jennifer's Body").

Hotly anticipated are the A-plus listers who come with multiple projects: Tim Burton ("9" and "Alice in Wonderland"), Robert Downey Jr. ("Iron Man 2" and "Sherlock Holmes") plus the rising Mila Kunis ("Extract" and "The Book of Eli").

And we note another trend, one that drains us a bit: We won't be able to sleep at night without visions of vampire trailers stirring fevered Hollywood dreams. In the wake of HBO's "True Blood," we'll be visited upon by CW's "The Vampire Diaries," and the "Twilight" sequel. That's in addition to zombies ("Zombieland" starring Woody Harrelson) and coldblooded aliens (ABC's "V" and Syfy's "Stargate Universe").

Amid all that, mere global cataclysm "2012" (starring John Cusack) will seem like a day at a Disney kiddie film. Except that in "2012," the parents just might get to live.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company