This week, thousands of costumed do-gooders, displaced Orcs, and spiky-haired anime heroines are laying siege to San Diego's harbor front in the name of all things geek. It's San Diego Comic Con, the largest comic book, science fiction, fantasy, and anything else convention in the world, and it is also the newest target for "Super Size Me" and "The Greatest Movie Ever Sold" documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock.
With a book, "Comic Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope", out now from DK Publishing and a film set to debut this fall, Spurlock dives headfirst into the annual phenomenon that has grown from a place to buy back issues to a multi-million dollar showcase for the next mega-blockbuster franchise.
PopcornBiz chatted with Spurlock to find out what led him to Comic Con, what he dug up while embedded in the world, and how he's paying his geekiness forward.
PopcornBiz: I guess the first question is: Why Comic Con?
Morgan Spurlock: I am a huge geek and have been ever since I was a kid - big surprise. [laughs] Comic books, genre movies, these were all the things that really shaped me as a kid. I had parents who really loved it and encouraged it as well. I remember I went to my first San Diego Comic Con - which I had never been to, although I had been to ones in New York and LA - two years ago, when I got hired to do the Simpsons 20th anniversary special for Fox. And we went there to shoot and cast for super fans for the special - we were trying to find Simpsons super fans who would talk to us for the special, and I was just overwhelmed [by the convention]. I so drank the Kool-Aid in every possible way. And I said to my producing partner, "This is a movie. This place is a film." Later on that weekend, I met Stan Lee - I just got chills thinking about it - so I went to meet him, to kiss the ring, to thank him, I said, "Mr. Lee, as a kid, you have to know what an influence you had on me, your comic books made it cool for me to want to write and tell stories and I can't begin to thank you enough." And he was like, "Oh my god, Morgan, thank you. Listen, we should make a movie together! We should make a documentary about Comic Con!" Literally at the moment, this movie was born.
PB: It's hard not to get fired up by Stan. Every time he speaks, it sounds like he's narrating the old Spider Man cartoons.
MS:[laughs] Yeah. "Hey, crime stoppers!"
PB: So you grew up on Stan's work, the title of your Comic Con book is a clear "Star Wars" reference - what other properties do you geek out over?
MS: There's so much that I love. I love where graphic novels have gone. I love that they're "graphic novels," they're not "comic books." So now you don't feel like a little kid. "Oh, I'm reading a graphic novel." You feel like a grown-up. There are so many stories that I love. Like "DMZ," I love Brian Wood's stories. I love "Chew," which is another great series. "Potter's Field" by Mark Waid. The genre has grown and gone in so many different directions - "Walking Dead" was fantastic. And what I remind people of is that so much of the stuff that we love as a culture has come from these books, and we tend to forget that. All these huge giant genre movies that are coming out. These TV series on television now. We're mining this incredible field that I feel is still mostly untapped. Even beyond the recognizable superhero genre. There's a lot of great material there. And there are great writers and great storytellers and incredible artists that have helped define a lot of this.
PB: When you started shooting, did you focus on one Con, or did you piece together elements of a few different ones?
MS: The whole goal was to have the whole thing take place in San Diego. That is THE Comic Con. There is nothing else like it. There are 150,000 people there in four days. It represents everything from the popular arts: It's movies, it's comics, it's television, it's video games, it's toys - it's everything. For me, that was the only place where the film was going to take place. It was shot entirely last year during Comic Con. It was shot over a period of, like, a week. We follow 7 different people into Comic Con and see Comic Con through their eyes, through their experiences. And I'm not in one frame of the movie, you don't hear me in one frame of the film. It's great. I love the stories that are in there. It really is about people who I feel represent what the Con is all about. They come from really diverse backgrounds, they come from different parts of the country and the world, and they all speak to the different levels of passion and excitement about all the worlds that are represented by Comic Con.
PB: Have you noticed a landscape change at Comic Con? The feeling this year is that it's going to be more TV-heavy, for example.
MS: You always hear that the studios aren't going to be there, almost every year the studios say that, especially when they don't have any real big genre movies to come and promote - while some may scale back, I think there's still going to be plenty of great surprises there. It is the place to capitalize on that audience, to make an announcement to that audience. It's filled with people who have a tremendous amount of sway and influence on not only the people there but to the millions of people who can't be there. I think that's what the film and the book do a great job of showing, what we all love about Comic Con, and it shows people kind of what they're missing. What I love about the film and the book is that I can give them to my mom and she'll get it. She'll finally be like, "Oh, so that's what goes on there…" Everyone will want to make that trek to Geek Mecca.
PB: Studios always seem to debate if going to the Con is worth it. Past Comic Con darlings like "Tron: Legacy" and "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" failed to make much of an impact at the box office...
MS: Well, they sure do keep coming! [laughs] I think that everybody loves to complain about things. That's what I believe. I really believe that. The studios love to complain about Comic Con, but I think it's fantastic, it's successful, it's influential. For every person who complains there are others who say, "We had a great Comic Con. It was very successful for us. We're glad we were there." It's the nature of the beast. Whenever something becomes successful, there are going to be people who are going to be the naysayers. At the end of the day, it's only growing. The whole talk around "Keep Comic Con in San Diego" was the fact that the convention was starting to out-grow the venue. But it's staying…there's talk of expanding the convention center to accommodate it all.
PB: Did you always have a companion book in mind, or was it a case of having a lot of spill-over material from the documentary?
MS: When we were doing the Simpsons special, we kind of did this sort of "American Idol"-esque casting, having people come in and talk about their love of the Simpsons in front of [creators] Al Jean and Matt Groening. It was fantastic. And as we were sitting there doing that and starting to talk about the movie - because literally I met Stan on the Friday night, I met ["Avengers" director] Joss Whedon the next day and talked to him about the movie, and as we started talking about the film more we thought we should think about a book. Like, imagine if Taschen made your high school geek yearbook dreams come true. So it was part of the conversation early on. Just because to have real beautiful photographs of these costumes and the work people put into them was something we started talking about early.
PB: You talk to a lot of big name people for the book: Bryan Singer, Seth Rogen, Kevin Smith, Guillermo Del Toro…
MS: And they are all in the film, too.
PB: Who surprised you the most?
MS: Kenneth Branagh is amazing. He's probably the last person you'd imagine being at Comic Con. Someone who comes from this world of being so classically trained, someone who represents kind of the inverse of Comic Con - you wouldn't think of comic books as Shakespeare. And that's probably what Branagh's most associated with, the Bard. Our interview with him was so amazing. He's such a brilliant guy, to begin with, very charismatic and he started to break down why Comic Con is important, what does it represent…and he started comparing it to Shakespeare and the Globe Theater and the excitement that was outside of the theater, people selling trinkets trying to get people to come in, drumming up excitement. He said, there was a tremendous amount of pomp and circumstance around all of the performances that were going on there. And he said when he thought of Comic Con, he felt Shakespeare would have been very excited about this place. It was such a good story.
PB: Now, you mentioned that your parents nurtured your geekery - how are you planning on passing it on to the next generation?
MS: I'm taking my four-and-a-half year old to San Diego this year. He's been to New York Comic Con but this is his first San Diego Comic Con, which I am so excited about. So I was showing him the book, and we were looking at the pictures and he was getting all excited. As a father, there's nothing better than having your kid see C-3PO and being like, "It's C-3PO! It's R2-D2!" and you're like, "That's my boy!" [laughs] So we were looking at the book, and he goes, "I can wear a costume!" And I go, "Yes!" He goes, "I can be Batman!" And I said, "Yes, you could." Then he goes, "No! You could be Batman, and I could be Batboy!" and I was like, "Yes we can!" So on Thursday at Comic Con there will be a handlebar mustached Batman walking around with his little Batboy because that's what you have to do as a dad. If you really want to foster the geekiness of your kid, that's what you have to do.
San Diego Comic Con kicks off on July 21st. Morgan Spurlock's book "Comic Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope" is available now. The accompanying documentary will premiere in the fall.