Pow! Whap! Ka-Ching! The Comic Con Report

Before Gary Coleman arrived for autographs, before Wonder Woman waylaid Stephen Colbert, before a troupe of Jedi Knights performed what can only be described as an interpretive light-saber dance—before all this and the million other oddities of the second New York Comic Convention, there were the fanboys, the culture industry’s most valued consumer.

“We’re in!” shouted Mickey Silberstein, an earnest and, yes, lightly pimpled 17-year old, when he arrived at the Comic Con on Friday afternoon with a cluster of friends. “I’ve been looking forward to this for a year now. I came last year, and I’ve been waiting ever since. It’s been 362 days.”

Mickey’s friends giggled, but, heck, they had also been counting down to Comic Con, and these days there is no shame in that. Or, at least, not much. When self-described comic freaks get their own TV shows (think Joss Whedon of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame), movies (where does one start?) and comic-book characters (Hello, Stephen Colbert!), geekery is less a cultural mark of Cain than a reclaimed badge of honor.

“Now some of us have girlfriends!” blurted one of the young groupies, Jon Salazar, whose weekend Comic Con pass dangled from his neck like a medal.

His friend Ryan Giantz, a frizzy-haired yapper in an orange parka, nodded vigorously. “The whole nerd culture is kind of in style now,” he said.

In style—and very profitable.

For three days last week, the second annual New York Comic Con raged across three floors of the Javits Center in Manhattan, a 40,000- to 50,000-person orgy of comics, consumption and pop-cultural phantasmagoria. From morning to night, grown men in Spider-Man suits rubbed Lycra—or at least elbows—with sexified girls in manga gear, while publishers large and small hawked their wares: Fantastic Four movies and memorabilia at Marvel, arty graphic novels at Top Shelf, and, at the Heavy Metal table, a mix of breasty babe-covered books and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle titles (Heavy Metal’s publisher, Kevin Eastman, co-created the turtles).

On Saturday, the crowds were so dense they could have turned David Blaine into a panicked, raving claustrophobe.

Last year, the first year, the organizers had underestimated the frenzy that a “con” in the cradle of comics country—New York! Gotham! Metropolis!—would generate. While zealots have been packing the Comic-Con International in San Diego for decades—the 2006 crowd topped out at 114,000—the New York organizers low-balled the local geek quotient and wound up having to haul out the state troopers to control the crowds. It was a disaster that blogger-cum-comics-editor Heidi MacDonald described as the great “State Trooper-versus-Stormtrooper” showdown—and that was (praised be the Force!) not repeated this year.

Instead, this year’s Con was packed, but also giddy, bonky, pumped—like Halloween, homecoming, prom and an S&M fetish fest all rolled into one.

“This is penetration!” said Stephen Colbert, as he pointed to a poster of himself as Tek Jansen, the hero of a soon-to-be-released comic book. It was Friday afternoon, and he was sitting in a booth on the third floor of the convention center, delivering a few choice Colbertisms before signing a bunch of autographs.

“To hell with television. This lasts forever” he said. “You can’t put a television in a clear plastic wrapper and put it in your collection. This, you can!”

The fans cheered, hollered, hooted. One woman asked him to sign a pair of pink I ❤ New York underwear—which he did—then left clutching them.

Clutching was a common motion at the Comic Con. For all the frenzy of these recent boom-time years—years when comics went from sub-culture to super-culture—the comic-book faithful still had a whiff of punchy disbelief about them, a kind of swan-in-her-moment-of-unveiling quality. It was as if a giant, invisible exclamation point hung over the whole Con, punctuating every statement and syllable: Graphic novels generated $330 million in 2006! Ghost Rider raked in $44.5 million its first weekend! American Born Chinese was nominated for a National Book Award! Stephen King has teamed up with Marvel to turn The Dark Tower into a comic-book series! Everybody wants a piece of the comics madness!!!!

“To think that someday we would be at a convention talking to people who have nothing better to do, and that Toby Maguire and Nic Cage and Robert Downey Jr. would be starring in movies based on what we were doing!” said Stan Lee, one of the father’s of the modern-day superhero, as he held forth at a Comic Con panel, an 84-year-old ham in a pair of aviator bifocals. “If somebody had said, ‘I think that’s going to happen,’ we would have said, ‘You’re drunk. No way!’”

The graphic-novels crowd was just as incredulous. “The landscape has completely changed,” said Marisa Acocella Marchetto, the creatrix of last year’s critically acclaimed Cancer Vixen. Back in the dark days of 1994, she recalled, when she released her first graphic novel, Just Who the Hell Is She Anyway?, “nobody knew what to do with it.” Eleven years later, after the first installment of what would become Cancer Vixen appeared in Glamour, publishers launched a bidding war that ended in a jackpot $250,000 deal with Knopf’s Sonny Mehta.

“He’s like the god of publishing!” Ms. Marchetto said.

For Ms. Marchetto, the recent graphic-novel fever has a lot to do with “living in a world that is more and more visual,” where attention spans are tinier and words less commanding. Others have ascribed it to everything from Hollywood’s new nerd mafia (or, in writer Brian K. Vaughan’s words, the “Geek Diaspora”) to the new generation of girl manga freaks to the ongoing parade of superhero blockbusters.

Most likely, they’re all right in some way or another. But there’s also something about comics—about their fecundity and fandom—that makes them an ideal and exquisite part of the new, amped-up cross-promotion machine. Maybe it has something to do with their halfway place between books and films, the way they serve as ready-made movie storyboards, their easy supply of cheap (and serialized!) ideas. Or maybe it has to do with their coveted teen-boy audience. But whatever it is, cross-promotion was all the rage at the Comic Con.

The epicenter of all this cross-property pollination was the Floor, the buzzing maze of publishers and retailers that felt, at times, like a mini-Times Square—all noise and motion and branded tie-ins. At booth after booth, it was comics tied to video games tied to movies tied to books tied to action figures tied, again, to comics. It was Marvel! DC Comics! Chaotic! Konami! And in the center of it all, Fox Atomic, the new “culturally branded entertainment company” that made a big Comic Con splash with its plucky, buxom sales force.

“If you register with us, you can win a trip to Hollywood to meet with producers and pitch your own movie or graphic-novel idea to them, and then we’ll give you a couple thousand dollars to get started,” said a cheery brunette dressed in short-shorts with the words “Fox Atomic” inscribed across the ass.

Fox Atomic has mastered the art of cross-promotion. A division of Fox Filmed Entertainment (which is itself a division of News Corporation), the company produces teen freak-out flicks like The Hills Have Eyes, which then get spun into graphic novels like The Hills Have Eyes: The Beginning, which, in turn, get distributed by HarperCollins—also a Rupert Murdoch entity. The whole branded shebang then gets a boost from MySpace—News Corp. again—which has recently launched the MySpace Comic Books profile and hosted a Comic Con panel featuring at least one Fox Atomic author. A perfect synergy loop.

All this commercial cross-promoting worries some of the die-hard comics loyalists, who are happy that pop culture has once again caught up with comic books, but fear some of the consequences.

“What’s interesting—and maybe a little scary—is the degree to which outside media have sort of latched onto this, like a life preserver,” said Chris Oarr, a veteran comics-scene character and former executive director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. “Now I look around, and I see cell-phone companies, movie studios, and every manner of licensed-product creator sort of coming to groove on what we’ve got, and it’s a little frightening.”

It’s frightening—and to some fans, like Messrs. Silberstein, Salazar and Giantz, a little annoying. After finally getting to enjoy their own party, they have no desire to see it crashed by know-nothing pseudo-fans.

“I’m scared that a lot of people are going to want to be comic nerds,” said the young Mr. Salazar. “And they’re just poseurs.”

Pow! Whap! Ka-Ching! The Comic Con Report