San Diego celebrates geekdom one night early

North America's largest comic book and entertainment media convention, the San Diego Comic-Con, returns for its 41st year of comics, video games, TV shows, movies, and rampant fan costuming.

SAN DIEGO--Wander around the floor of the San Diego Comic-Con on Preview Night, and it's hard not wonder: If this is the night when the vendors, publishers, and creators hit the show floor, what's it going to look like when all the fans are there?

There were attendees in costumes, artists drawing on cars, publishers showing off their characters in new media, and limited-edition convention specials for sale.

The convention drew more than 130,000 visitors last year, and four-day passes to this year's convention sold out before last year's had ended. The conference is growing in scope and attendance, with the event drawing major attention not just from fans of comics and pop culture, but from Hollywood and the entertainment moguls just a couple hours north of here by car.

The most apparent combination of comics and technology was at the Viz Media booth. The San Francisco-based manga publisher, known for importing titles like Naruto, Dragonball Z, and 20th Century Boys, teamed up with software publisher Autodesk to promote a charity benefit for Japan relief efforts called Art for Hope.

At the Viz booth, Autodesk senior product manager Christopher Cheung was drawing on a Motorola Xoom tablet with his company's just-released Sketchbook app for Android. The app, which is also available on iOS and Windows and Mac desktops, allows artists to draw with tools that replicate pencils, markers, and brushes, as well as digital art basics such as layering, color replacement, and blending effects.

Viz and Autodesk have contracted artists to create original drawings using Sketchbook and will collect the results in a book to be published this fall. All proceeds from the book will go to tsunami relief efforts in Japan, said Jane Lui, Viz's publicity and events manager.

Another company also showing off its forays into digital was Dark Horse. Earlier this year, the company released its own iOS app for buying and reading its comics on iPads and iPhones. That in and of itself isn't really notable anymore, with many comics publishers providing at least some of their books in one digital format or another, often through a licensed app built by a third party. What makes Dark Horse's app more or less unique, said Mark Bernardi, Dark Horse's director of special programs, is that the publisher developed it in-house.

A charity promotion with Viz Media and Autodesk has them recruiting artists with a digital hook to raise money for Japanese tsunami relief. Here, Kyle Runciman of Autodesk shows how the desktop version of the program works with a Wacom Cintiq. Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

Bernardi, who is effectively the product manager for the Dark Horse app, noted several features in the app. Like other comics apps, you can buy comics within it and use the app to read them. It also offers two storage methods: the Bookshelf contains all your locally stored comics, which you can read without an Internet connection; while the Library is cloud-based storage that you can move your comics to when you want to free up local space.

More San Diego Comic-Con 2011 coverage
• Comics apps from Archie to zombies

However, just because it was Preview Night didn't mean that there wasn't a lot of fan service going on. Artist Ken Lashley was hired to draw his interpretation of key "Star Wars" moments and characters on a BMW, while Marvel Comics built its booth to look like the Shield set from next year's "Avengers" movie and was allowing fans to take photos on the set. Although BMW wouldn't confirm it, it's likely that the car will be given away during the convention.

Elaborate television and film sets were impossible to ignore, try as one might. The media booths, with their significantly larger budgets, had significantly larger booths. A humorous "Walking Dead" set replicated a scene from the first season of the post-apocalyptic zombie show, based on the hit comic book, where fans could get handcuffed to a pipe and pretend to hack a hand off with a handsaw, while Warner Animation pimped its superhero cartoons from classics like Looney Tunes to modern comics adaptations like this fall's "Batman: Year One" release in a booth that was at least twice as large as the DC Comics booth that was often their source. Even the DC booth itself was heavily beholden to seeing its characters adapted into other media. As noted Batman comics and animation writer Paul Dini said on Twitter, "nearly one-quarter of the DC booth is devoted to Arkham City," the upcoming Batman video game.

Popular comics artist Ken Lashley has been hired by Lucasfilm and BMW to illustrate key Star Wars scenes and characters on a car. Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

This arrangement has been going on since the days of the Superman and Batman radio dramas, and comics have been adapting other media, as well. Dark Horse's big announcements for the evening were two new comics adaptations of vampire novels by P.C. Cast and Guillermo del Toro.

Entertainment that has no relation to comic books also gets a lot of attention at Comic-Con, even on Preview Night, because of the larger Hollywood budgets. ABC, for example, promoted its new "Pan Am" series with women dressed in classic Pan Am stewardess outfits who gave tours of a mock Pan Am jet interior.

There were fan cosplayers, as well, although not as many showed up on Preview Night as are expected during the main days of the convention. More than a few children came dressed up with their parents,; one woman came in a dress made from old "Empire Strikes Back" curtains; and one industry media outlet hired a barker to promote them.

Of course, this being Comic-Con, the barker was clad only in an American flag Speedo bathing suit.

 

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