When director Morgan Spurlock burst onto the documentary scene in 2004 with Super Size Me we knew we had another master showman on our hands. Like Michael Moore before him, Spurlock was the driving character presence in his documentary. Unlike the famously polarizing Moore, Spurlock was willing to turn himself into a test subject for his film about the ill effects of fast food consumption on one’s own health, and in so doing won a legion of fans.
Fans and fan culture are the centerpiece of Spurlock’s new documentary: Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope which hits theaters and VOD this friday. The secret origin of the project lay in a conversation with a man who is responsible for the genesis of more superheroes than anyone else. While working at the 2009 San Diego Comic-Con on the Simpson’s 25th Anniversary special with his producing partner Jeremy Chilnick, Spurlock met Marvel Comics legend Stan Lee.
“Stan,” said Spurlock, “was the one who said ‘We should make a documentary’. I said ‘Yes we should’ and that night Jeremy and I were like ‘What’s the movie about? Who would be in it what would we do?’”
For Spurlock and Chilnick the answer was the one thing that is completely unavoidable at SDCC.
“To tell the story of Comic-Con is to tell the story of fans, because Comic-Con wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for fans. Video games wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for fans. The movies that are so big and popular wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for them, and so we wanted to root it in fan culture. The people who are literally the driving force of Comic-Con. The people who are that passion.”
The production reached out to comic book stores and fan communities across the internet to find its cast of characters. The film follows comic book vendors, aspiring artists, and costume fabricators on their journey to and through the 2010 Comic-Con.
“We got probably two thousand submissions from around the world,” said Spurlock. Among the first video submissions was that of Holly Conrad, a cosplayer (for the uninitiated, that’s someone who makes and wears costumes). Conrad’s work based on the video game Mass Effect is exquisitely detailed, and includes technically ambitious animatronic puppetry. The stuff of movie magic.
“She was probably the first person that we said ‘Yes, this is a story we wanted to tell’, because the imagery of her in her garage with her friends, making this costume,” Spurlock said.
According to Spurlock, Holly Conrad “literally became the model” of the kind of fan that they wanted to follow for the story. Conrad stands among the elite of fandom, dedicated to her craft and bringing to bear professional standards that have led to her working for BioWare, the company that makes Mass Effect.
Through the stories of Conrad and her fellow fans, Spurlock’s documentary creates a composite picture of Comic-Con as geek mecca. Careers are made, hopes are dashed, and marriages proposed during the course of the movie. What stands out above all else is that the convention, much like fan culture, is far from being about one thing.
“I love Guillermo del Toro talking about it when he compares Comic-Con to a Russian Doll,” said Spurlock. “Within Comic-Con there are so many other Comic-Cons that… you know I show the movie to people and they’re like ‘I didn’t even know that was there. I had no idea this exists.’ There is something for everyone. No matter who you are, what your passion is there is something for you at Comic-Con.”
Some amongst fandom, especially amongst comic book fans, see that kind of fragmentation as a bad thing. As SDCC has evolved into a celebration of the “popular arts” it can often feel like the gathering has lost touch with its roots in exchange to access to the stars of films like Twilight. Spurlock doesn’t see the problem.
“My very first comic con that I ever went to, it wasn’t San Diego Comic-Con but a comic book convention when I was probably 11-12 years old in Charleston West Virginia where I grew up,” said Spurlock. “There were people selling comic books and there were guys selling all the toys and tie ins from those comics books that already existed, and the lunch boxes, because that was back when lunch boxes were still a big deal. And then there were people doing autographs and like the guy who played C-3PO was there signing autographs. So already then it was bigger than somebody selling you a comic book and I think that what happened is it just continued to blossom as these things have become infinitely more popular.
“So I don’t buy into the idea that it’s destroying or changing the comic book industry.”
That optimism about fan culture permeates the film, which stands as an honest documentation of a world that has become integral to mainstream American culture while still remaining deeply misunderstood. Perhaps some of that optimism will rub off on the more grizzled geeks like yours truly, who have watched the outsiders become the still socially awkward insiders, and are wondering what’s next for true nerd believers of all stripes.