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Comic-Con undergoes extreme takeover

Once the precinct of geeks, confab has been hijacked by studio promo machine

SAN DIEGO — Despite collecting comicbooks through college, until last week I hadn’t attended the annual Comic-Con Intl. in 20 years. In part that’s because I ceased mourning Spider-Man’s dead girlfriend years ago and even had a real one of my own — a departure from the most vociferous comic faithful.

Such crude stereotypes notwithstanding (and as a recovering geek, I can make them), enough producers and execs asked if they’d see me in San Diego that it felt like time for a return visit. After all, comic heroes have graduated beyond the two-dimensional, becoming such prosperous fodder for big- and small-screen adaptations as to bring out the media en masse.

It’s old news that Comic-Con has gone corporate, but my self-imposed hiatus nevertheless left me unprepared for the scope of this sprawling showcase, which bore scant resemblance to the affair I remember. And while the studios’ extreme takeover provides certain advantages, some renegade aspect of the experience has been bleached out — in much the way that five companies controlling the entertainment industry tends to smooth and sanitize rough edges.

Fully comprehending the Hulk-like transformation that has occurred requires a bit of perspective.

While 75,000-plus jammed the San Diego Convention Center last weekend, Comic-Con in its early days consisted of a few thousand souls tops, circulating in a dealer’s room, attending panels and watching latenight movies. The film menu included fare like “Flesh Gordon” and the Russ Meyer exploitation pic “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls,” whose liberal nudity was much appreciated by my 12-year-old eyes. Granted, enough marijuana smoke filled the screening room that police threatened to shut things down, but organizers were booed and the movie continued to its spellbinding climax.

Today, much of that spirit is gone. Studios and game companies shrewdly seized upon the event as a major marketing platform, albeit one that somewhat awkwardly blends trade show salesmanship with the flamboyance of West Hollywood on Halloween.

LAY SOME OF THE BLAME on “Star Wars,” which helped to mainstream sci-fi/fantasy and demonstrated that audience’s enormous consuming power. George Lucas’ far-far-away galaxy also perfectly summarizes the mix of worship and hostility that go hand-in-hand here, where people could gripe about the franchise’s direction and then gobble up way-cool “Revenge of the Sith” T-shirts once the sixth film’s title was unveiled.

Whatever the impetus, the effects are clear. In a hangar-sized auditorium seating 6,500 that dwarfed the Comic-Cons of my youth, Keanu Reeves plugged his latest movie, Jude Law patiently fielded questions about “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s” Sarah Michelle Gellar apologized for not having made the pilgrimage sooner.

Nor is it just actors who receive the rock star treatment. Indeed, where else would Bruce Timm — producer of the animated “Justice League” — garner a well-deserved standing ovation?

The modern invasion by studios and networks bestows a newfound validation that helps mitigate Comic-Con’s geek-o-rama image. For starters, the flacks on hand themselves significantly increase the female quotient at an event that, in the past, could charitably be called “babe-challenged.”

That’s not to say refinement and sophistication come easily, as the marauding packs of grown men in elaborate Stormtrooper and Klingon costumes seemed to overwhelm the air conditioning/ventilation system, causing a distinct B.O. smell (and I don’t mean “box office”) to permeate the exhibition hall. I’ve seen plenty of smoke blown at confabs like Mip and NATPE, but nothing quite like this.

NEVERTHELESS, THE COMMERCE conducted at Comic-Cons of old has advanced well beyond bartering over back issues of “Fantastic Four” — a point Gellar underscored at a session promoting her new movie, “The Grudge,” where a star-struck girl asked if the actress draws upon characters she’s played for personal inspiration. “You know they’re not real, right?” Gellar said gently.

Alas, that moment of intimacy quickly succumbed to reality, as Gellar bluntly stated her reason for being there, demanding that loyal fans go see the film on its opening weekend.

At a fundamental level, Comic-Con still revels in a parallel universe — the chance for “all you strange, weird, beautiful people,” as author Ray Bradbury lovingly described them, to assemble and let their hair (or tentacles, or whatever) down. Small wonder the event continues to attract a disproportionate number of people with disabilities, perhaps because fantasy and escape is especially beguiling to those who face a more challenging reality.

That part hasn’t changed. It’s just now that it’s Fantasy & Escape Inc., brought to you by Warner Bros., Fox and Paramount.

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