If comic books are dead -- if the industry is wheezing its last gasps on a death bed made of bad business deals and a dwindling audience and faded superhero spandex -- then what the hell are 45,000 people doing in San Diego at Comic-Con International, the world's largest comic-book convention? Why are they lined up around publishers' booths, getting their comic books signed by the men and women who draw and write them? What are they doing waiting to meet Kevin Smith, the Dogma and Chasing Amy writer-director, and Will Eisner, whose hero, The Spirit, debuted in the 1940s, long before their own parents were born?
"This is astonishing," Eisner says between signings, his wrist sore from an hour of scribbling his famous autograph inside book jackets and on comic covers. "It's like being born again," he says, referring to the adulation and the fact that DC Comics has begun reissuing his classic work in hardcover. Waiting in line is a man dressed like Eisner's creation: brown fedora, leather gloves, coat and tie, a rubber mask obscuring his eyes. Eisner is flattered: Sixty years later, and he has not been tossed into the trash can like so many other pioneers and their two-dimensional creations.
The first Comic-Con International: San Diego took place in 1970, with 300 fans in attendance; three decades later, it's impossible for the straggler to get a hotel room within miles of the convention center from July 20 to July 23. From 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. each day, the convention center's two dozen meeting rooms are filled to capacity, whether they hold 200 or 2,000. Fans and would-be creators crane their necks to listen to lectures on such subjects as "Online Comics: Is the Future of Comics on the Internet?" and "Using eBay to Grow Your Business" and "Golden Age Greats: Flash, Green Lantern, and Hawkman" and "Comic Books and AIDS: What's the Story?" In an enormous hall adjacent to the upstairs meeting rooms, fans snake around tables and barricades to get photos signed by actors and sci-fi celebs, among them Lost in Space mother June Lockhart and Lou "The Hulk" Ferrigno.
But the real action takes place downstairs, where hundreds of vendors, dealers, and publishers hawk their back issues and action figures and bootleg videos of obscure TV shows and other comics-related errata. Everything swirls around the enormous booths located in the middle of the floor, where giants DC and Marvel and their closest competitors, Dark Horse and Image and CrossGen and Oni Press (which publishes Kevin Smith's comics), hold court throughout the weekend. DC's booth, which shines an enormous Batsignal on the convention center's ceiling, is packed every second of the con, with writers and artists signing books and sketching quickie illustrations for eager fanboys.
Across the aisle, Marvel's Tinkertoys-on-steroids booth looks like an enormous poster for the X-Men movie, which opened the previous weekend to a record box-office take of $54.5 million, the largest opening for a non-sequel film (it has since grossed more than $120 million, despite quickly dwindling attendance). Marvel's higher-ups insist throughout the weekend that the first-week success of X-Men offers proof enough that people haven't given up on their comic-book heroes, despite sales figures that remain fallow.
"The comic-book publishing industry has to survive and succeed on our own terms, not in terms of the movie," says Chris Claremont, longtime writer of The Uncanny X-Men comic book. Claremont, a round bald man with a white beard, is the most unlikely of stars, but that does not stop grown men from begging for autographs. "What the movie will do," Claremont continues, "is make it easier to make other comic-book movies, and hopefully they will be good; hopefully they will be interesting. They will help the corporate bottom line, and that's good for us, because if the company is healthy, then the publishing is healthy. But, at the same time, we have to sell ourselves as books every issue every month, regardless of what the movie does."