Morgan Spurlock, long known for socially conscious documentaries like Super Size Me, his look at the fast food industry, or war on terror exploration Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?, is taking on a more personal passion in his latest movie. Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope follows aspiring comic book artists taking their portfolios to publishers, costume-builders preparing for the masquerade, comic book vendors facing down an age of digital publishing and declining paper sales, and even a couple heading into an engagement at Kevin Smith’s Hall H panel. And Spurlock talked to geek icons ranging from Stan Lee to Joss Whedon about what it means to come to one of the largest geek gatherings on the planet — or as Whedon put “My tribe! I have found my tribe!”
I spoke to Spurlock about the cultural capital of geekdom, the rise of digital comics publishing, and whether the geek community needs to think harder about sexism and racism. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
How long have you been going to Comic Con? How has it changed since you’ve been there?
The very first one I ever went to was in 2009…The comic book conventions when I was a kid, it would be some crusty old guys selling comics, and there would be some collectibles there, and a guy from Star Wars signing autographs in a corner…It’s 180 degress and ten miles away. There’s beocme mainstream success in all of these genres. Video games are now as big as movies. You have comic books that have become number one franchises…It’s become cool to like these things…before, you were the weirdos, the nerd, the freak. Now the weirdos and the freaks are running the franchises. What’s happened is there’s a tremendous cool factor that’s settled in around liking this stuff. It’s cool to wear that out loud.
One thing I noticed about the documentary, which I quite enjoyed, was while you’ve got some women in the mix, there wasn’t a lot of discussion of institutional sexism at Comic Con. You’ve got a guy wrangling slave Leias, but no look at how booth babes are treated or the fact that Comic Con doesn’t have a sexual harassment policy.
There’s tons of things that people would love for this film to talk about. And I’ve made a film that’s what I feel is about the heart and soul of Comic-Con. For me, I made a film that was about the fans. We made a film that has a very strong female character talking about what her passion is, breaking in to this design field. I just wanted to tell a story that got to the heart of fandom.
But given that fans have become so powerful and there’s so much cultural capital you get for being a geek, is it time to stop acting like we’re marginalized and start looking at ourselves as a community internally, particularly at how women and people of color are treated within it?
Sure. I mean, I think that anyone who goes to Comic-Con today will see that there’s a tremendous amount of women at Comic-Con today, as fans, as well as creator. This idea of it being a kind of geeky boy’s club isn’t relevant anymore. I feel like these are things that are kind of transitioning away automatically. I don’t think you need to kind of turn them into a story of their own. For me, as someone who goes there as a fan, I feel like it’s still a place for people with talent to find opportunities. The idea of Comic-Con as geek job fair, we met tons of young comic book artists who were going there to try to pitch their work…male or female, black white or otherwise.How permeable do you think the industry is? It was incredibly cool to hear that Holly, the costume designer who became a Mass Effect consultant after her appearance at the masquerade, and Eric, a member of the Air Force who landed a job drawing comics covers, had found a way in, and their work is incredible, but do you think the comics industry is uniquely good at reaching out and finding new talent?
I think breaking into anything easily is rare. I think going into a situation for the first time and having someone be excited about what you do is rare. William H. Macy, when he kind of came out in Fargo, he said ‘It took me 20 years to become an overnight success.’ Eric Hansen’s been sitting in his house drawing for 15 years…finally all that practice and the courage he got from his friends to send him there put him a position of success…I took a film to the Sundance film festival 8 years ago that changed my life. Those are magical moments.
Is the industry staying nimble as it’s gotten larger and more intertwined with corporate products?
Just as there was kind of a democratization of filmmaking years ago with the advent and the release with low-budget, pro-sumer editing software, that changed movies forever. The publishing world is going through the same kind of continental shift. These big, giant publishers aren’t going to be as necessary any more…you can reach [fans] directly, as a creator. You can sell stuff to them directly…you can have more money going to you than ever before…It’s finding the audience that can support you enough to make that happen…At the end of the day, no mater how DIY you are to cut out the man, it still takes time to build that following.
How do you think digital publishing is affecting comics sales and art?
I buy more comics now than I ever did as a child. People always say that Comic-Con is killing the comic book business…I think the comic book business is just a dying business. People aren’t buying physical paper comics as much as they used to.