Geek Sauce: Is the San Diego Comic-Con a focus group or Mecca?

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Back in 1970, the first San Diego Comic-Con catered to, duh, comic-book fans, and its organizers hoped to attract a few hundred people. Forty-two years later, thousands attend the annual event, and, according to a commentator in Morgan Spurlock’s Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope, the audience comprises “people who’ve never read a comic book and [people who’ve] never left their mom’s basement, like, mixed together.” Now more a haven for nerds of pop culture than nerds of the printed comic book, the convention is often treated as a launching pad/church for movies and television shows; in 2012, the Con has become Cool. As frequent attendee and star geek attraction Joss Whedon says in the doc, “Are we not dope? Are we not amazing for being so obsessed with something?”

If you even have a passing interest in the Con—your personal dopeness aside—you likely will watch much of Episode IV with a smile on your face. It’s hard not to grin when, for instance, you watch a montage of Spurlock’s famous interview subjects (Kevin Smith, Whedon, Eli Roth) geek out over who they’re hoping to meet, or see The Man himself—Marvel’s Stan Lee, of course—signing autographs and high-fiving fans. You see fans in costume and bigger-than-God stars interacting with them. The film, which Spurlock shot at 2010’s convention, is one big valentine.

Spurlock, who mercifully stays out of the picture, does impress some sort of organization onto the multiday chaos, mainly by focusing on a handful of attendees. There are a couple of guys, one middle-aged, who are trying to break into comics (and get cringe-inducingly honest feedback). There’s an aspiring costume designer whose team stages a skit based on the video game Mass Effect. And there’s a young couple in love who met at 2009’s convention and may deepen their relationship at 2010’s, during a Kevin Smith Q&A in the massive Hall H.

Episode IV isn’t all fairy dust and fan fidelity, though. A writer for DC Comics calls Comic-Con “the world’s largest focus group.” Whedon even gets cynical, speaking from the organizers’ point of view: “We must mine this extraordinary love, because inside of it, there might be money. So let’s dig into this love and get the money out!” One of the other commoners Spurlock highlights is a gray-ponytailed comic-book purveyor who’s betting his financial welfare on selling a $500,000 Red Raven No. 1—or at least bucketloads of other stuff from his collection. As his sales go up and down over the convention’s four days, the stress is palpable, particularly when he has to check in with his glass-half-empty wife.

Mostly, though, the vibe is cheery. If you’ve never been to Comic-Con, this doc will make you want to go. If you’re a veteran, it will remind you why. As Ain’t It Cool’s Henry Knowles (one of the film’s producers) says, “This is mecca.”