I wrote at the outset that delight in seeing artists in action explained Comic-Con’s considerable appeal. That’s partly true — and maybe once, in the beginning, it was mostly true. But looking around the place 40 years in, it’s clear that you also have to give props to sheer, unadulterated spectacle.
“Will you take a picture with me?” says the bosomy blonde to the guy doing a pretty credible Brandon-Routh-as-Superman as they stand amid the crowd on the corner of Fifth and Market, waiting to cross over to the Con. “I mean, because, come on — Oh, my God.” What a show. Behind us, two more blondes sit at a sidewalk table, signing their joint spread in Playboy. Beside them, an ice-cream truck plastered with images of the July/August issue — the one featuring Olivia Munn from G4’s pop-culture news program, Attack of the Show — distributes Popsicles along with copies of the magazine. Munn herself, the reigning Queen of the Fanboys, is inside, broadcasting from a platform raised high above the convention center floor. Below her, dozens, maybe hundreds of camcorders are aimed aloft by a throng of adorers. When she appears at the railing, cameras flash like machine guns and desperate shouts rise up from the crowd.
“Come on, you damn old busted camera!”
“I got it!”
“Marry me, Olivia!”
“Show us your boobs!”
A person could fill pages with the spectacle. I will limit myself here to just three items. First, the finest, most detailed tattoo I have ever seen, depicting on a man’s beefy upper arm the original appearance of Wolverine (cover of The Incredible Hulk #181). Second, the sprawling compound of displays devoted to Star Wars: snippets from the animated Clone Wars series blaring high overhead on miniature movie screens, endless displays of collectibles and memorabilia, and living dioramas of the series’ vast cast of characters. Third, the CAPCOM video-game tournament platform — challengers taking on masters, with hi-def screens aiming in all directions to allow spectators a view of the action. Comics, movies, television, and video games — behold the popular arts.
The spectacle is overwhelming. If you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for, the sum total of it starts to make you numb. It’s hard to really focus on anything, because anything has to compete with everything. Still, that doesn’t stop the pros from doing their damnedest to catch You-the-Consumer’s eye, because, of course, the real game here is selling stuff, either by getting you to buy now (comics, collectibles) or by building enough buzz that you’ll buy later (movies, video games).
It starts before you even get inside: A baby hawking Showtime’s serial-killer drama Dexter grins from the back of Gaslamp pedicabs, young women hand out fliers for the upcoming film 9, and an entire café has been made over for the SyFy Channel. But let’s pass them by; let’s head inside, where the selling is inescapable.
Check in, get your badge, head on over to the tables to get your lanyard and your plastic welcome bag. There it is, on the side of the bag, on the side of over 100,000 bags: a great big ad for Dante’s Inferno (the video game, not the poem). A badass warrior dude, shirtless but with a red fabric cross stitched to his chest, glowering out from under his chainmail hood and holding a scythe with a handle that looks like an oversized human spine. Lost souls lurk at the edges of the image. “Rating Pending,” warns the ad. “May contain content inappropriate for children.”
There are many bags here at Comic-Con, bags advertising Superman, the Watchmen director’s cut, Ghost in the Shell 2.0, and on and on. But getting those bags depends on being in the right place at the right time, snagging one before they’re all passed out. This here is the bag that everybody gets. This is the bag that everybody sees, and what they see is Dante’s Inferno.
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Appetite aroused but not satisfied? No problem. Head on over to the Electronic Arts display, where you can see the game’s reboot of Dante in the flesh. Dude is suitably buff, and I’ll be dipped if they didn’t manage to make it look like that red cross really was stitched to his chest. Behind him, consoles provide the curious with bits of brutal, lovingly detailed gameplay. You’re Dante, of course, but you’re not shrinking from the horrors you behold; you’re fighting them. A damned soul writhes at your feet. “Filipo Argenti: Punish or Absolve?” You pull out your dagger — the one shaped like a crucifix — and plunge it into his skull. He explodes in a burst of light, and you are informed, “Filipo Argenti has been punished.”
On another level, you need to leap onto a giant’s back in order to saw his head off with your scythe; a burst of flame erupts from his neck before he topples. Your victory sets you up to battle the enormous King Minos, Judge of the Damned. The trick here is to latch onto his forearm, then launch yourself up to his face so that you can do some real damage. When Minos falls, you grab his forked tongue, drag it out of his head, impale it on a spiked wheel, then crank the wheel forward until the spikes pierce his ugly jaw and ultimately split his skull. Blood spatters hit the screen. Later, you’ll run up against an enormously obese woman who never stops vomiting noxious piles of green goop — until you kill her. If you die, you’re sent off with a line from Canto IV: “Without hope, we live in desire.”
Jonathan Knight, the game’s executive producer, stands behind the players, listening to their reactions. “We wanted to do a game that was set in hell,” he explains. “We did a lot of research, and obviously, Dante’s Divine Comedy is the definitive view of hell. We decided to do an adaptation of the poem and turn it into a video game. We wrote a whole new story to fit on top of the poem — you have the same characters, the same geography of hell, but this takes it to a new level of drama and action. We decided that the hero character would have a really dark past — a crusader who’s committed all these sins.”