It's the biggest pop-culture convention in the world. Now Comic-Con, once dismissed as a playground for super- geeks, is attracting Hollywood's star players. Anna Pickard reports
Imagine a world where Darth Vader walks hand in hand with an Ewok, and where Hollywood pulls up a chair and asks you what you'd like to see next. Imagine a place where the people who love pop culture the most are, increasingly, the people who are forming it. Welcome to the world of the fan. Welcome to Comic-Con.
Every summer for the last 40 years, San Diego has hosted this international festival of "comic books and popular arts". Famous for its elaborately costumed attendees and passion for sci-fi, fantasy and everything superhero, the event has mushroomed: last weekend it attracted nearly 140,000 people.
In the past, Comic-Con's legions of superfans have been used by the media as a quirky ". . . and finally" story - a stick to poke slyly at weirdos on the cultural fringes. Now, however, the geeks have taken over the mainstream. What was once obscure has become cool: Japanese anime is an arthouse staple; sci-fi is the stuff of blockbuster hits. Yes, the San Diego convention centre was full of happy folks in costume. But there were also plainclothes couples, groups of friends, families. I even saw Jonathan Ross, with his children, taking a photograph of some particularly well-crafted masqueraders. He was wearing a flight suit.
Lately, Hollywood has grown to love Comic-Con: this year, film stars and directors were noticeably appreciative of the massed concentration of fans the convention represents (who needs Cannes or Venice, with its deputation of the world's press?). Tim Burton, Johnny Depp, Scarlett Johansson, James Cameron and Sigourney Weaver were all here, rubbing shoulders with their fans - the people who put them where they are, and who have the power to keep them there.
They also came to see what the crowds were getting excited about - and that was mainly vampires, superheroes and large explosions. After a four-day near-residency at Comic-Con, here are my highlights of the event - and a look ahead at things to come.
Bloodsucking is still big business ...
As anyone with a teenage daughter will know, vampires are hot right now. The Twilight phenomenon had a big impact on Comic-Con, not least because 6,500 fans (or "Twihards") queued overnight to witness the stars of the sequel, New Moon, in person. Mainly so that they could make a massive "Squeeeeee!" noise as soon as Twilight star Robert Pattinson appeared, and then talk about it for years to come.
Nor do vampires look likely to disappear any time soon. BBC3's drama-comedy series Being Human - featuring a cohabiting vampire, ghost and werewolf - is about to start a second series in the UK (and is just starting its first in the US, flying the flag for British bloodsuckers); HBO's True Blood is currently one of the most popular programmes on US cable.
All of this will soon come together in the risible-sounding new TV show, Vampire Diaries - a Frankenstein's monster of teenage programming, featuring the hot teens of Beverley Hills 90210, the arched eyebrows of Gossip Girl, the soft heart of Dawson's Creek, and some fangs. Ta-da!
... but 'sparkly' vampires get a bad rap
By Sunday night in San Diego, day four of the conference, there were many young men carrying signs that read: "Twilight has RUINED Comic-Con." You heard them everywhere, complaining that "Vampires that sparkle just aren't real vampires." Partly this grumpiness was down to overcrowding, but the mood was nicely summed up by writer, director and comic fan Kevin Smith. When asked about Twilight, he said: "Don't judge - that's the next generation of fans! That's what I love about comic-book conventions: it's the only place in the world where a guy in a Star Trek outfit can look over at a guy in a Chewbacca outfit and say, 'Ha! Look at that fuckin' geek!'"
But then he would say that: he has a tweenage daughter.
Space: the final frontier that no one can afford to film
In a world where practicality and economy rule, the first casualty appears to be space. It's not that space is "out", exactly, but that stories set in space are expensive to make: a budget that plans to spend squillions on special effects is not likely to get the green light any time soon.
Space stories aren't going away, however; they're just being adapted in clever ways. Take Caprica, the forthcoming TV series spin-off of the popular Battlestar Galactica remake. It's going back in time to tell the story of how the Cylons - who tried to destroy humanity over the course of five seasons - came to be created in the first place. The idea, presumably, is to convey Battlestar's sense of infinite space, vast history and galactic vision. But could we set it somewhere where people wear normal clothes, in an environment that don't cost a lot to create? Brilliant!
Robert Downey Jr is having a moment
When director Jon Favreau brought Robert Downey Jr to Comic-Con, along with the trailer for his first Iron Man film, he wasn't sure whether people were going to boo them off stage: had they taken too many liberties with Marvel Comics' sacred text? But audiences loved it, and Favreau partly credits the film's success to the word-of-mouth campaign that started here.
By way of thanks, Downey Jr returned with a huge new trailer for the sequel, full of explosions and glimpses of new characters. He also stars in another big film previewed at Comic-Con: Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes, which gives the deerstalkered detective an extra helping of ninja skills. Ritchie is surely crossing his fingers for the Downey Jr + Comic-Con = Huge Box Office Win effect. Merchant Ivory will be at it next.
The Avatar avalanche
A 25-minute preview of James Cameron's 3D film Avatar made the biggest splash. A whole hall full of fans sat slack-jawed at the special effects, enjoying the sense of being special, of simply being there.
Cameron also announced that there will be free screenings of another 15-minute Avatar clip at Imax cinemas worldwide in August - a first for the film industry. Is this the way forward? Will every film now be released like a Dickens serialisation, one chapter at a time? Are we seeing the dawn of appointment entertainment, where you have to wait for the next instalment to arrive and then make sure you're in the right place to watch it? Wait: has James Cameron just invented television?
Stab 'em with your stilettos
Sigourney Weaver spoke on a panel entitled Wonder Women. The role of Ripley in the original Alien, she said, had been written so that it could be played by a man or a woman, as were all the roles in the film. She got it because she was the best. But mainly, she added, she was grateful that she was allowed to do fight scenes wearing clothes that were up to the job. Half the actresses sharing the stage with her couldn't say the same thing.
There are plenty of women in genre TV and film - though you have to be tiny, stick-thin and able to win a fight against several large men while wearing high-heeled boots and a pretty dress. If you're old enough and possess the right gravitas, you might get to be the captain of a spaceship, or president of the galaxy. But the fact remains: while male characters are allowed to be flawed, awkward or unattractive, female characters are not.
During a panel debate on the TV thriller 24 (now on Day 8), executive producer Howard Gordon was asked why there weren't any women listed as part of the writing and plotting process over the last couple of seasons. "It's just how it happens sometimes," he said. "Mick Jagger never gets asked why there are no women in the Rolling Stones." Everyone in the room sat dumbfounded. It wasn't a good answer.
How the fans muscled up
When vampires have had their day - or night - something else will rise up to replace them. What better, in these difficult times, than stories about ordinary people with extraordinary abilities? Chuck is a great example of the kind of TV programme that will flourish in this climate: a comedy about a computer technician with a brain stuffed full of government secrets and no way of getting them out.
There's an interesting story behind Chuck, too. While the series consistently improved throughout its first two seasons, low ratings put its future in doubt. When the fans heard this, they got all their friends to watch the show, at the time of broadcast (rather than recording it), so as to bump up the audience numbers. When that didn't work, they appealed to the show's main sponsor, promising loyalty in return for their support of Chuck.
With fans prepared to fight so hard, TV bosses must have been sitting in their velvet-lined hot tubs, stroking their long-haired pets and saying: "We need four more shows just like this one." It happened with vampires, after all.