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Taking things seriously at a comics convention


SAN DIEGO >> The clouds never lifted at the Comic-Con International fan convention on opening day Thursday. Inside the meeting halls, neither did the gloom.

Once a year for the past four decades, comic book and fantasy fans dressed in Batman suits or carrying light sabers have descended on San Diego to trade collectibles, see trailers for new Hollywood movies and maybe speak a little Klingonese. But as fantasy has become big business — seven of last year’s top 10 movies were either science fiction or comic-book inspired, or fanciful enough to rate a spot at Comic-Con — a new anxiety has settled over the convention over the future of the business and over comics themselves.

Panels at this year’s conference at the San Diego Convention Center include comics and the plight of indigenous peoples, feminist writers and censorship, progressive politics in comics and, of course, the many financial and copyright issues created by the explosion in Hollywood’s interest.

As a certain archvillain might ask: Why so serious?

“It’s frightening,” said Lisa Vizcarra, a science teacher at Carquinez Middle School in Crockett, Calif.

Vizcarra, who seemed to set the day’s tone, was speaking to a Comic-Con audience about a looming pedagogical crisis: Students, distracted by video, are no longer responding to comics as an educational tool even as schools increasingly use them in their curriculums.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do, and that’s why we’re here today,” she told a room packed with teachers and other listeners, one of whom had a raised rubber hand on the top of her beanie.

The issue for the conventioneers was that, after struggling since the 1970s to have the comics taken seriously, they have now succeeded, perhaps too well. The geek culture has been around long enough to create a tenured, intellectual elite, and, by and large, these professionals see nothing but trouble in the fantasy world.

A little later, in the same room, a pair of psychologists and others tried to diagnose Batman’s pathology. He is not, they finally decided, an outright psychotic. But he does show symptoms of clinical depression and more than a few indicia of post-traumatic stress disorder.

“He is weird,” concluded Robin Rosenberg, who has written a book called “What’s the Matter with Batman?”

“He is quirky and he has issues,” she added. “But so do we all.”

Many of the day’s more serious analysts were participating in the 20th Comic Arts Conference, a gathering of fantasy-oriented academics held in conjunction with Comic-Con.

“We still get asked, is it a real conference?” said Peter M. Coogan, one of the organizers and the director of the Institute for Comics Studies in Missouri.

While it is still rare for accredited universities to build programs around comics, a growing number of independent research-oriented institutions like his own, said Coogan, have brought gravitas to a field that once seemed lighter than Spider-Man’s touch.

Antonio Chavarria, a curator at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe, N.M., said that some years back the museum rejected a proposal to make a study of Native Americans in comic books.

But times have changed, so Chavarria was in San Diego on Thursday morning, helping to kick off the comic arts conference with a discussion of indigenous cultures and subaltern heroes. (Those, it was explained, are seeming underdogs who rise up to teach the big dogs a lesson or two.)

On the opposite end of the sprawling convention hall, at a seminar called “The Comic Book Law School,” Michael L. Lovitz, a copyright lawyer, was hammering away on another serious matter — the ins and outs of work-for-hire, the employment term that has become a critical legal issue in multimillion battles over the ownership of characters like Superman and the Fantastic Four. Everyone paid attention, but no one seemed to be having fun. Someone in the crowd sighed audibly when Lovitz, in explaining a point of law, noted that unicorns aren’t real.

“Sorry,” he said.

Many stayed in the room for the next session, also sponsored by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, about censorship and the female artist. In the end, there wasn’t much discussion of the law. But the panelists seemed to agree that comics-minded men are not as open-minded as they claim to be when it comes to comics-minded women.

“There has for a long time been a bias that women can’t draw superheroes,” said Anina Bennett, a writer who drew nods of assent all around. “I find it personally pretty annoying that that has not changed.”

With annoyance in the air, Comic-Con forged on. In the early afternoon, political progressives lined up for a talk about forcing change through comics. It was, perhaps, a prelude to the evening’s hot topic, at a 6 o’clock panel: Have gay characters in comics become too nice?

Friday would bring another question: Is Superman Jewish? An author, Larry Tye, argues that his Kryptonian name, Kal-El, is Hebrew for “vessel of God.”

Back at the comic arts conference, on the convention center’s southeast end, a pair of academics — Benjamin Saunders, from the University of Oregon, and Charles Hatfield, from California State University, Northridge — Thursday afternoon were weighing the future of superhero studies.

The time had come, argued Saunders, a professor of English, to break free both of mythic criticism, with its Jungian roots, and of traditional cultural studies, with their insistence on the political root of aesthetics, in favor of something new.

Just about then, something very loud began thumping through the floor. It seemed to be coming from the convention center’s Hall H, where Lionsgate was prepping for its presentation of “The Expendables 2,” a thought-free action film filled with mayhem, starring Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

And, finally, it sounded like fun.

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