‘Comic-Con Episode IV’: Nerds made all too simple

Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope ()
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Simon Abrams

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You can tell a lot about Morgan Spurlock’s take on the San Diego Comic Convention in Comic-Con Episode IV: A New Hope based on the way he tiptoes around the issue of just how marginalized comic books have become at the festival in recent years.

Conventional wisdom has it that more and more people attend Comic Con, which will celebrate its 52nd year anniversary later this year, for everything but comic books. Instead, people go to see the pilot episodes of shows like "The Walking Dead" and "Caprica" and clips and trailers from upcoming movies from people like Francis Ford Coppola and Eli Roth.

Superstar geek Kevin Smith apologizes for the recent change of focus by saying that attendants just need to peel back a few more layers of hoopla to find the super-cool haven for comics geeks that the convention originally was. But Chuck Rozanski, a founding owner of Mile High Comics and a still active vendor at Comic Con, disagrees. Sales are dwindling at the Convention. Rozanski is relieved when he reports that Mile High made more money than they did last year. Which is a polite way of saying it could be worse.

Episode IV is consistently this meek throughout its 86-minute runtime. Spurlock (Super Size Me, 30 Days) has made an affectionate and uncritical advertisement for Comic Con that doesn’t go into any substantive detail about what motivates convention-goers. Variations on familiar themes about escapism and finding a sense of belonging are touted by everyone from the home-made costume-wearing cos-players to the jolly (ie: fat) nerds wearing novelty t-shirts.

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It soon becomes apparent that Spurlock doesn’t want to get into what makes a community of nerds so damn nerdy or even how the makeup of such a thing has changed over time. His documentary just presents well-meaning geeks who like dressing up as their favorite video-game characters, having their portfolios evaluated by seasoned comic-book professionals and taking pictures with the guy who killed Batman and brought the Flash back from the dead. Episode IV is perfectly mediocre because it doesn’t tell you anything you don’t already know or can’t simply guess. Bif, bam, pow, comic conventions aren’t just for social deviants anymore!

Spurlock has got all the right talking heads, but takes too much time having them answer all the wrong questions.

Grant Morrison, one of the most accomplished contemporary comics writers, briefly gets in a word about how comics can provide ideal standards for how people should aspire to behave in real life. But then a few minutes later, he smirks about how surreal it was to see a nearly naked cos-player who he describes as being nearly 300 pounds overweight.

Likewise, Frank Miller, the iconoclastic creator of such milestone comics as Sin City and 300, momentarily talks about his boyhood obsession with comics. But he's given as much face-time as a sleazy convention-keteer who boasts about organizing a Slave Leia beauty pageant.

In tying to be as democratic as possible in his potrayal of Comic Con, Spurlock only goes where many others have gone before. He profiles several convention attendees, like James and Se Young, a young couple who met and got engaged at Comic Con, and Skip, a bartender who wants to draw comics professionally. These are the human faces of Comic Con. They provide a sense of diversity and continuity to Spurlock's version of the convention.

But the stories of these lovable oddballs, with their own niche-oriented hopes and dreams (just like real people!), are totally paint-by-numbers narratives. Spurlock capitalizes on that familiarity by cheekily renaming these representative nerds with superhero names like, "The Lovers" and "The Collector." The human dramas that take place at Comic Con are significant but apparently not significant enough for much examination.

Take Skip's story for example. Skip begins the film behind his bar. He holds court with some guy who seriously engages in heated debate about whose super-powers would prevail in a fight between Longshot the mutant and Black Cat the sexpot villainess. He ends as another face in the Comic Con crowd, disappearing into a mob of convention-goers after he bluntly tells us that he's somebody back home but that he feels like "just another fanboy" with a portfolio tucked under his arm at Comic Con.

Skip takes everything in stride and is mostly a good sport when he's critiqued by everybody from Dan Vado, the president of Slave Labor Graphics, to an unnamed representative of Dark Horse Comics. But Spurlock shows Skip on the verge of tears more than once by film's end. During Skip's portfolio evaluation, cheesy reality-show-worthy music that screams "The Pressure is On" fills a natural pregnant pause. Behold, a nerd: Pity him.

James and Se Young's story is an equally heavy-handed, counterbalance to Skip's downer of a story. James jokes about how clingy Se Young is. But on the whole, he and his girlfriend are very happy to be, as he puts it, "attached at the hip." So when he proposes to her at a Kevin Smith panel discussion, it's a very cute moment.

Dreams do come true at Comic Con, apparently.

Spurlock isn't trying to show us a side of Comic Con that we haven't seen before. He's just giving us one that we're comfortable with: relationships and obsessive hobbies parsed in a mosaic of generic character types. Long live Comic Con and long live mediocrity.