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Comic-Con 2011: A Little Less Hollywood, A Little More Awesome

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Angry Birds everywhere. (Photo by Nicholas Slayton/LAist)
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By Nicholas Slayton/Special to LAist

Crowds. Sun. Parties. Crazy promotional programs. Strange outfits. Studios and indie scenes. These are the ingredients for events in Hollywood, but they also came together for this year’s Comic-Con International in San Diego.

For five gloriously geeky days, more than 100,000 people gathered in San Diego’s convention center and surrounding Gaslamp neighborhood to talk comics, movies, video games, toys and any other form of nerdery. Now, after collectively taking a few days to rest pained feet and recover from Con-induced illnesses, it’s time to reflect on what happened, and how it stacked up to years past.

The biggest complaint leveled against Comic-Con is that it’s not really about comics anymore; video games and especially cinema are slowly taking over. It’s a complaint that’s been building over the last few years, and it’s hard not to notice the Hollywood presence. Multi-story banners for Cowboys & Aliens and the upcoming Immortals film hung from nearby hotels. The booths for different movie studios were elaborate pieces that dominated compared to the more functional comic book booths. And the marketing campaign was everywhere. It was hard to walk into the convention center without being bombarded by a dozen different advertisements for television shows and films.

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But even with all of that, this year was light on Hollywood. After judging Comic-Con to be too little a market, some studios pulled back. Instead of the endless spectacle of big budget blockbusters in the movie and TV-dedicated Hall H, there were smaller panels that didn’t go for that level of hype, but still managed to show off their product. Marvel’s big Avengers movie, beyond a booth display, wasn’t played up. The big surprise in Hall H wasn’t an action movie at all, but rather, the British TV show Doctor Who, which pulled in a packed house on Sunday - usually the quietest day of Comic-Con - as the stars and crew teased the back half of the sixth season.

With Hollywood taking its hype machine down a notch, this year’s convention gave the actual comics industry a chance to shine, and it didn’t disappoint. Creators packed the house and were the real stars of the convention - madcap British writer Warren Ellis even had a documentary on his writing debut on Friday night. At the Eisners - the annual Oscar-like award show for comics - it was creator owned stories that dominated.

And it wasn’t just the independents that did well. DC Comics, trying to win over fans and new readers to its recently-announced across-the-board relaunch, was pretty well received. Planned protests against the relaunch never picked up, and instead the company managed to make the titles seem interesting and unique. Although many fans (and anyone who really tries to figure out how the shortened background makes sense) might still be confused, DC seemed sincere, and creative enough, about trying to get new readers into comic books. And that’s something the industry needs.

Marvel was light on announcements, but big on spectacle. The booth was in the design of a S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier’s interior (yes, Marvel’s elite spy agency has flying aircraft carriers; comic books are awesome), offering a hint the aesthetic designs for 2012’s The Avengers, and just outright promoting the film in the place of a big panel in Hall H. In addition to signings by writers, the team at Marvel held cosplay events, bringing the best costumed attendees up on stage in a kind of Comic-Con fashion show. And it was fun. Any groundbreaking news? Not really, but as the entire surrounding area was turning into a block party, Marvel seemed to offer similar fun inside the convention hall.

But the big news really came from the companies outside of “the Big Two.” After hinting at a campaign in June on Twitter to write MacGuyver, Tony Lee, Becky Cloonan and Image Comics announced they would be publishing a new miniseries based on the paperclip-wielding hero. Dark Horse Comics kicked things off early on Wednesday’s preview night with announcements that P.C. Cast, Guillermo del Toro and Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello are working on comics for the company (Cast and Morello showed up to personally announce their series; del Toro had to miss the show due to an injury). Meanwhile, Oni Press announced their hit series The Sixth Gun was being adapted to television.

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And all of this was just a small microcosm in the absolutely insane spectacle that is Comic-Con. As television news crews tried to find costumed attendees to go for the old “Pow! Zap! Wham!” jokes, thousands upon thousands walked through the main hall and through panels, picking up free stuff, buying the latest comics - some before they even came out - and meeting people who shared their interests. It was crowded to the point of having to go on long, roundabout ways to get just 10 yards ahead. Impromptu photo shoots were common, as crowds gathered to take photos of everything from a Doctor Who fan meetup to a genderflipped Justice League.

And when the convention hall closed each night, the surrounding Gaslamp was already a mess of people trying to get food and find parties. Restaurants were converted into themed spaces - CNET turned Lou and Mickey’s into a place to charge laptops and drink, while the SyFy channel had its usual Eureka diner. The entrance to Fifth Ave. alone was a challenge getting through, with dance offs, marketers and paparazzi trying to get a peek into the parties at the Hard Rock Hotel. Some parties were open to the public, and some were exclusive. One new venue was Tr!ckster across the street from the convention center. The idea was to have an anti-convention against the “Hollywoodization” of Comic-Con, but with the more comics-focused feel this year, it was more of just an art show and place to get some drinks while talking to different creators and con goers.

Comic-Con wasn’t free of its multimedia add-ons this year, and it is unlikely it will ever be solely about comics again. But unlike the last few years, it felt like the convention found a good balance where all parts of it were respected. And the comic companies themselves were doing enough to make their announcements and booths compete with even the most over the top film studio’s. With Hollywood toning things down, the other industries shined. And with a great nightlife, friendly creators, and more things to do than five days would allow, Comic-Con was definitely the place to be this year.