Destroy All Monsters: You've Been Comic-Conned

Matt Brown, Columnist

The first time I went to YouTube to watch a trailer for an upcoming movie and was forced to sit through 15 seconds of an unrelated ad before I was allowed to watch the ad I had freely volunteered to watch, I realized we had entered a viper pit of marketing where the original pleasures of a circle-jerk - moderate pleasure for modest reciprocal effort - were no longer even available, given that we are now apparently required to give reacharounds to ourselves.

So it is with Comic Con, the annual summer solstice festival / Burning Man for the North American geek community, most of whom are peripherally aware of comic books as the things that were somehow involved in the early stages of the making of Iron Man 3. The convention has become a global marketing behemoth made out of the United Nations of geek culture, a Crisis on Infinite Earths where all dimensions of the fan cosmos are brought together to freak out over everything they're going to be spending money on over the course of the next five years.

At Comic Con this past weekend, local god Joss Whedon declared an Age of Ultron, while arch frenemy Zack Snyder backed into DC Entertainment's last corner by stumping for Batman in his Man of Steel II. The stars of the television series that fuel Tumblr - Game of Thrones, Doctor Who, Breaking Bad, etc. - sat on panels and waxed philosophical about whether Joffrey deserves another pimp-slap (he does) or if Karen Gillan looks even better bald (harder to determine). Khal Drogo, be still my heart, briefly resurfaced in the land of the living to plant a wet one on Emilia Clarke and scold George R.R. Martin for sending him to the Night Lands in the first place. Same old, same old - a gigantic ouroboros marketing machine that feeds, and consumes, itself.

The teenage version of me, who I spend quite a bit of time with even now, wouldn't have known what to make of all this. He was deep in the closet about having grown up on Star Wars - because Star Wars was the love that dare not speak its name at the bottom of the valley between Return of the Jedi and Episode I - and he got his annual fix of Star Trek: The Next Generation fandom every other October when he went to a Creation Con in Toronto, which was attended by some three hundred or so other people.

Now that fandom is open - wide, wide, cavernously open - I sort of want to take another run through high school. (To whit, and paging Marc Webb: wouldn't Peter Parker be the most popular kid in his class, as portrayed by Andrew Garfield?) This earth thus inherited, geekwise, seems a fine thing. If Comic Con itself has merely become the most vulgar extension of the marketplace side of the movie business - basically, Cannes: America - who am I to complain?

In the "honour every part of the animal" notion of hunting, killing, and consuming large game, Comic Con makes beautiful sense. The fan community at large, for any property that can even tangentially be described as "geek," is basically a Mr. Fusion reactor waiting to have the garbage thrown in, after which it'll give you power for years (backwards or forwards). The energy is already out there, and better, it comes pre-coded, referenced, and approved, with its Wikipedia entry ready to post.

Someone out there, in Hollywood or above, noticed that fan communities aren't just enthusiastic - they're also obsessive. In the strange alchemical collision of pop culture and classical nerddom, there evolved an ability/desire/consuming need on the part of whole armies of people to identify themselves via those media offerings with which they, themselves, identify. In an increasingly widespread array of personality signifiers across multiple media platforms - a girl in half a stormtrooper outfit playing The Last of Us on her TARDIS-blue couch while live-tumbling this week's episode of Supernatural and swearing in Dothraki - attachment has become about more than how one defines oneself to others. It became about how one understands oneself for oneself, as well, in an endless mood board of ageless vampires, space cowboys, and Asgardians who say "quim."

While it's difficult to draw direct linkage between fan interest and box office mega-grosses (Pacific Rim's domestic tally argues that fan interest, alone, is good for about seventy million bucks - lots of money, unless you're a movie studio), fan communities and their vast multimedia reach have a role to play building the bridge between the niche audience and the mainstream. In the Malcolm Gladwell sense, geeks are a cross-bred super-army of mavens, with the internet as their connectors.

And what's astonishing about the whole enterprise is simply that this entire group of people is not just willing to be marketed to; they're basically begging to be marketed to, and to go on and spread that marketing beyond the sphere of San Diego. They're a voluntary marketing department made up of people who aren't just workaholics, but who go home at night and worry about not being workaholic enough.

Money's money, and the movies, the TV shows, the content itself, has just become the loss leader that gets you into the store anyway - so that you can buy the blu-rays, and the licensed scarves, and the epically expensive action figures, which is where the real cash will be made in perpetuity long after the shows are off the air and the movies have been rebooted (twice). All the physical product is how the community feeds itself anyway, by further and further inculcating itself within comfortable folds of manufactured, media-based identities. The studios just stand off to the side and watch - and dribble out a bit more content, and a bit more, and a bit more, so that we all know well enough to keep coming back, never stray too far, and ask for more, and more, and more.


Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture.

Around the Internet:
  • thecrimsoncurse

    you want to critique the hundreds of thousands of modern young fans of all things nerdy, because the corporations that put out the stuff they like make money from them? if they go and have fun and meet the artist of whatever they like and then want to talk about it then they become mindless advertising tools of such corporations?

    i can read through the lines. this article isn't about the fans or disney or hbo. it's about matt brown - the aging bitter outcast who, because of the internet, has had the smug dark corner of his identity not only come to light but be outright embraced by the masses. oh, the growing pains of a crusty underground cultural elitist. you can muse on other folks self identities but this is really about the loss of yours.

    i mean, come on - you liked iron man 3 (i think?), you like game of thrones. so now you come out here on your verbose pedestal and outright stereotype and dismiss millions of people to make yourself feel better? like everyone but you gets it?

    like star wars and star trek didn't have toys in the 80's and 90's? and you didn't buy them? bullshit. you are a part of the system as much as anyone else. so keep hating on that girl in the half stormtrooper outfit, she certainly isn't paying attention to you. "you like this and i like this, but i'm better than you." fucking pathetic.

    we got to watch marvel spend years building an in continuity film universe of fairly decent movies all leading to a pretty spectacular avengers movie. and now they are taking insane risks on things like antman and guardians of the galaxy.

    great source material like the walking dead and a song of ice and fire are being made into high production series and i'm suppose to be pissed? because of action figures? because those action figures have a wikipedia page? - who the fuck cares? where is your outrage at shitty 80's cartoons who existed solely to sell action figures?

    we live in a fucking golden age of media. stop complaining. it's embarrassing.

    (to be fair i think you are a great writer but this article in particular gave me pretension whiplash)

  • A bit more of an overly cynical article than I would expect from Matthew Brown.

    San Diego Comic Con is absolutely huge with 130,000 people (plus many more without badges at off site events) there, it's many things to many people. "The Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope" documentary was great, but really just scratches the surface. It really is a crazy geek nexus of many different things. Yes, it's overly commercialized with Hollywood taking over all the large rooms in the convention, but that doesn't mean that's all there is. There's also a lot of small independent comic writers & artists, people doing their own web series outside of the Hollywood system. There's workshops and panels on everything from making costumes to drawing to making films on a small budget.

    My own visit to Comic Con in 2011, I will remember for everything from seeing panels with Joss Whedon & Guillermo del Toro, to meeting Canadian writer/artist Chester Brown, Mike Mignola and discovering a bunch of great indie comics from Drawn & Quarterly and First Second. Going to a packed panel on the comic Fables and seeing the Hernandez brothers celebrating an anniversary for Love & Rockets.

    Of course, the smaller things don't make headlines on the general media that cover only the Hollywood aspects of San Diego Comic Con. Just as I would say only about 1% of the SDCC audience dresses up in costumes, but you wouldn't exactly be able to tell that from pictures that make it online.

  • BYawn

    Be that as it may...artists and creators who go to con to sell sketches, pages, and other things direct to their fans...not to mention those who go to get their name and their work out there...rely on this opportunity for a good bit of their income and self promotion...sure Hollywood has its claws in the thing, but you've got to take the bad with the good. Plus...cons are fun! I like the thing that I like, but ignore the things I don't...no apologizes for that...

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