SAN DIEGO — There’s no such thing as just a comic book hero anymore. From big-screen films and small-screen animation to books, clothes and makeup, the hero business is big business.
Two decades ago, the only place to find the X-Men was in the pages of comics and on Saturday morning cartoons. Now, they and others like Superman, Batman and the zombies from “The Walking Dead” are cultural juggernauts, crossing over into everything.
And nowhere is that more evident than at Comic-Con International. Once just 300 or so attendees in a hotel, the event now hosts more than 100,000 visitors over four days and is a top destination for film and television companies, not to mention marketers of apparel and other products.
Attendees can wear Avengers perfume while walking in Converse high-tops that have the Joker or Batman on the sides. They’re buying glass tumblers with Marvel superheroes on them, T-shirts that bear the logo of Green Lantern, and hats with The Flash lightning bolt on the front.
It’s no surprise, either, said Rob Salkowitz, a consultant and author of “Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture.” Comics have been a foundation of entertainment for decades, but since the 1990s, the advent of better technology in film and TV has seen what was once a staple of four-color comics transform into visual spectacles.
“Superheroes were created because it was a good fit for the print technology in the 1930s and 1940s,” Salkowitz said. “What happened in the late 1990s is the technology for video games and movies finally got good enough to realize the imagery of comic books in a satisfying way.”
To wit, Bruce Banner’s eye-popping transformation into the Incredible Hulk is easy to do, and realistic.
“Of course, the level of visual effects now, anything is possible,” said Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios. “I think people, back in the day, would look at a beautiful Jack Kirby drawing and say ‘That’s beautiful; you could never bring that to life.’ Now, you can.”
Now, there’s a demand for content to fill stories of all stripes.
Robert Kirkman’s “The Walking Dead” was a black-and-white comic drawing rave reviews. Now it’s a top-rated TV show commanding millions of viewers, helping boost sales of collected editions of the graphic novels and driving interest in hiring comic book scribes for television.
Brian Michael Bendis, who writes for Marvel Entertainment, had a pilot shot for his creator-owned “Powers” series that he does with Michael Avon Oeming.
Kirkman is also going into television again with “Clone,” a comic series created and written by David Schulner for his Skybound imprint. On Saturday, it was announced that “Clone” had landed a development deal with NBCU.
Schulner credited Kirkman for guidance in doing that, too. “I knew if I went off the rails too badly, Robert would be there to put me back on track. Now I’ve been writing the comic for two years — issue number nine comes out next week — and I just finished writing issue 15, so to be able to turn it into a television show is just icing on the cake.
And it’s not just heroes, either. Archie Comics’ Sabrina was turned into the popular TV sitcom “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” starring Melissa Joan Hart. It ran for seven seasons.
Salkowitz said comics have “70 years of backstory” and an “emotional resonance” on nearly everyone.
“It becomes a very easy thing for Hollywood and video game manufacturers to plug right in to this existing mythology,” he said. “They don’t have to invent it all themselves. They don’t have to jump-start universes.”
It boils down to loyal, enthusiastic fans, and the comic book companies have that.
“Every brand wants raving fans, they don’t want consumers. They want fans, people who are participating,” Salkowitz said. “Look around. Comics have fans.”
Slow start or new beginning?
But, as the pop culture jamboree got underway Thursday, there was an unusual sight outside the 6,500-person hall that in recent years has served as the convention’s movie epicenter. It wasn’t the nearly nude man with white and black body paint wearing a fearsome skull headdress and carrying a staff. That passes for normal here. What was startling was the lack of a defined crowd: the rows of the film studios’ white tents that were supposed to shade swarms of fans waiting to get into Hall H were ... empty.
After nearly a decade in the service of the major film studios and their blockbusters, Comic-Con appears on the verge of a next iteration. Smaller knots of fantasy, science-fiction and animation aficionados — at least as the 2013 convention got underway last week — were stealing energy from the vast Hall H movie promotions that had become the convention’s defining events.
Instead of sweating in lines to see a couple of film clips and grab a glimpse of a star, fans were following their passions into the convention’s nooks and crannies that were offering a deeper level of engagement than the often banal presentations by big studios.
“People came here for an Internet show?” Jack Black said inside the Indigo Ballroom at an adjacent hotel, marveling at the hundreds who had turned up for a look at “Ghost Ghirls,” a Yahoo-distributed comedy of which he is an executive producer.
The ballroom crowd of roughly 1,500 roared as Black did battle with a wobbly, inaudible on-screen ghost, played by Jason Ritter, and promised to protect a couple of deliberately ditzy blondes, Amanda Lund and Maria Blasucci, who play clueless ghostbusters in the new webseries. Meanwhile, Thursday’s lone major movie presentation, staged by Summit Entertainment to promote two science-fiction films, “Divergent” and “Ender’s Game,” was at times tense.
“I am never coming back,” Harrison Ford, an “Ender’s Game” headliner, muttered from his seat onstage. He looked only half-joking as he became increasingly impatient with inane, prepackaged questions from the crowd.
“There’s nothing all that engaging about those panels anymore,” Anna Martinez, an attendee wearing pink fairy wings, said of the Hall H presentations.
In other words, the old standoffish Hollywood attitude — just show up and go through the motions — no longer washes. Over the first two days of this four-day gathering, fans instead seemed to be demanding more close-up-and-personal experiences.