Casting a Literary Eye on Comic-Con 2011

Strictly speaking, Comic-Con is not our Mecca. We didn't travel to San Diego this past weekend expecting to discover new material to add to our reading list and Netflix queue. We didn't count on being swept away by revelatory conversations between our favorite authors and filmmakers. This was not a place where we thought we'd satisfy ourselves with a memorable spontaneous exchange with a fellow traveler about why Jane Campion doesn't make more movies, possibly beginning with a long overdue adaptation of a Flannery O'Connor's The Violent Bear It Away.

Though we share a passion for pop culture with the costumed pilgrims who make their annual trek to The Con, we tend to be more interested observing than participating in the cultural and social forces that have taken fandom from the underground world of basement-dwellers and into the mainstream. How is it that we've become a culture where it's become the norm to engage in obsessive (sometimes self-destructive) relationships with fictional characters and fantasy story lines? Most young fans would not think twice about telling someone they camped out to catch the Breaking Dawn panel at Comic-Con. It's hardly even newsworthy anymore that people call in sick to work to wait in line overnight in order to snag a good seat at the first midnight showing of the final Harry Potter movie. This level of self-sacrifice and devotion to diversion seemed inconceivable ten or twenty years ago. But somewhere along the way, we as a culture have become a cult of escapists. We're not here to parse how or why this has happened. Perhaps we'll save that for another post after we've canvassed some academics, writers, and filmmakers on the matter.

The truth is that there was plenty of literary grist to be found amid the Captain Americas and scantily clad women in meticulously crafted slave Princess Leia costumes.  The most high-profile bonanza for non-genre book fiends was the Tintin panel, which might have better been billed as "The Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson Variety Show." Spielberg is not exactly known as a Geek God. But his Comic-Con debut drew a packed house in the cavernous Hall H, where he unveiled new spellbinding footage from "The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn," which laid to rest any lingering doubts about whether motion capture animation was the right call for this material. Spielberg nailed the books' sense of mystery grounded in the reality of the very relatable titular reporter and his dog Snowy.

Of course, the highlight of the presentation was the appearance of surprise guest Peter Jackson, who casually shuffled onto the stage as the audience immediately sprang to its feet and let out a deafening cheer. This is not to say that both Jackson and Spielberg weren't eating up the mass adulation. They tantalized the crowd with juicy morsels of behind-the-scenes footage of Peter Jackson dressed up and pretending to be auditioning for the role of Captain Haddock in an early experiment with motion-capture technology.

They then brought down the house when one of the uber-fans approached the microphone wearing a t-shirt saying "All I want to do is shake Steven Spielberg's hand." Before he could even fire off his question, Spielberg and Jackson were motioning him to the stage as if he were an old film-school buddy. Before long, Spielberg and Jackson let fly with their inner geeks while playing footsie with the enthralled crowd: Jackson whipped out his camera and took a picture of Spielberg and fanguy shaking hands. Then Spielberg brandished his own digital device and shot footage of Jackson and the joy-addled movie buff. It was absolutely over the top and full of sickeningly sweet heartwarming moments. But hey, what do you expect from a Steven Spielberg-devised spectacle?

The other big '70s legend to make his mark on Comic-Con 2011 was Francis Ford Coppola. This wasn't his first journey to the heart of the Con; he made a brief appearance while stumping for his mostly reviled 1992 interpretation of "Dracula," starring Winona Ryder, Keanu Reeves, and Gary Oldman. This time he showed up to drum up interest in his new Edgar Allan Poe-inspired gothic 3-D fantasy film, "Twixt," about a fading writer (Val Kilmer) who shows up in a small town and becomes embroiled in a murder mystery involving a young girl (Elle Fanning).

After getting deliriously rich courtesy of his day job as a winemaker, Coppola has become an artist liberated from the pressures to make films with even a modicum of mainstream appeal. His last film, "Tetro," was centered around another stalled artist looking to jumpstart his creativity by attempting to harness youthful inspiration while maintaining the wisdom of age. While the concept sounds more like an idea for a freshman philosophy seminar than a night at the movies, Coppola is up to something more ambitious and interesting than any snarky summation of his career could possibly capture: He's determined to spend the sunset of his creative life capturing the ideas that most captivate him, Hollywood (and moviegoers) be damned.

We have nothing but admiration for the ways in which Coppola supports and promotes the sanctity of what it means to be an artist. It's hard to think of another high-profile director who has spent his spare time launching a successful literary journal, Zoetrope: All-Story, holds writing retreats at his eco-lodge in Belize, and has come to embody the platonic ideal of la dolce vita, dividing his time between his Napa vineyard and eco-tourist havens around the world. Even if he never achieves "Godfather"-like greatness again, more than any other filmmaker of his generation, he's remained open to new forms of expression and inspiration in his commitment to evolving as an artist. Who else but Coppola would have thought to hand out Edgar Allan Poe masks at the door to his panel?

Other less high-profile literary loci at Comic-Con included a well-attended "Game of Thrones" panel moderated by none other than series author, George R. R. Martin. Summit Entertainment has clearly been stocking its shelves with YA books to fill the void left by the final installment of the "Twilight Saga" later this year. On hand at Summit's booth was Erin Morgenstern, whose yet-to-be-released novel about a pair of 19th century rival magicians, The Night Circus, is already attracting some high-profile interest from Harry Potter producer David Heyman. Warm Bodies author, Isaac Marion, fielded questions about how his saga about existential zombies in love  might translate to the big screen. Finally, twenty-two-year-old Veronica Roth made an appearance in support of Divergent, her bestselling story of a future society divided into factions organized around virtues: Candor, Abnegation, Dauntless, Amity, and Erudite. The book has often been filed under dystopic fiction alongside The Hunger Games (which, incidentally, was a no-show at Comic-Con this year). But Roth's book takes a fundamentally brighter view of humanity's capacity to deal with the horrors yet to befall us. And frankly, Roth's nuanced humanism was a welcome relief after Comic-Con's never-ending onslaught of slaves, dragons, zombies, and plague victims.