NEW YORK--The first thing I saw upon picking up my press badge at the New York City Comic Convention was Heroes actress Hayden Panettiere: perky, chatty and accompanied by a security detail of Star Wars stormtroopers.
Panettiere and her Darth Vader-worthy entourage soon disappeared, but it was a fitting start to the day. NYC ComicCon, which ran Friday through Sunday, might not be as massive or iconic as its famed San Diego counterpart, but it was certainly a spectacular event. Celebrity appearances ran the gamut from Stephen King to Stephen Colbert; mascots in Pikachu costumes bumped elbows with Star Wars fans dressed as Boba Fett; and posters for the Kevin Smith movie Clerks 2 were displayed side by side with Superman memorabilia.
The ComicCon was less a geek fest than a pop culture overload, with the cumulative forces of comic books, television, movies, video games and art all thrown together inside the massive glass walls of the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in midtown Manhattan.
And that was what I, as a comics convention neophyte, found most surprising. Yes, plenty of aspects of NYC ComicCon fit right into my preconceived image of such an event: hordes of people, many in costumes, lined up for autographs with luminaries like Stan Lee, perusing stacks of vintage comics and brand-new graphic novels, or checking out the latest Japanese manga titles.
Yet I was struck by how many of the booths were stocked with merchandise and memorabilia that didn't seem to have a whole lot to do with comics in the traditional sense. There were trading cards for TV shows like Lost and Veronica Mars; figurines of horror movie villains from A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; and test runs of the new massive multiplayer online role-playing game Pirates of the Burning Sea.
And unlike the American International Toy Fair, which had taken over the Javits Center several weeks earlier, NYC ComicCon did not shy away from video games. Visitors could play anything from Karaoke Revolution: American Idol to Guitar Hero II to the latest Pokemon titles for Nintendo's DS console.
In short, at NYC ComicCon, the definition of "comics" seemed a bit liberal.
"I would define comics as just words and pictures together," said Austin English, an employee and artist at the pop-culture outlet Giant Robot, one of many exhibitors that strayed quite a bit from the comics-convention archetype.
Words and pictures, however, didn't really come close to describing it. Giant Robot, which was founded in 1994 as an Asian pop-culture zine, has since expanded to a full-out magazine, an online store, and art galleries in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York. Its NYC ComicCon booth was stocked with colorful toys, stuffed Uglydolls (a big hit), and back issues of Giant Robot magazine.
But English insisted that Giant Robot was by no means out of place at the convention.
"A lot of the artists that are in Giant Robot's galleries do underground comics, but they're also fine artists," he explained. The irreverent online comic strips featuring the Uglydolls might not bear much resemblance to the action serials of the Justice League, but the influence is certainly there.
Thinking about ComicCon that way--as a massive display of comics' pop culture legacy, in addition to the comics themselves--created more leeway for many of the other exhibits. For example, it was easy to see comics' impact on the NBC serial action drama Heroes, which was represented at the convention with trading cards and other merchandise in addition to Panettiere's appearance.
Then there was the memorabilia from filmmaker Smith's movies like last year's Clerks 2. Smith himself is a comics artist and has created tie-in comics for many of the movies produced by his View Askew Productions company. There was also a prominent display from News Corp.'s Fox Atomic Pictures, a division of Fox Films Entertainment that focuses on action and horror movie releases, often with graphic novel or comic tie-ins.
"People who like comic books like a lot of very rich, dramatic fiction," said Russell Williams, CEO of Flying Lab Software, which was showcasing its new online role-playing game, Pirates of the Burning Sea. He admitted that Flying Lab's new game had no formal connection to comics.
But Williams, who is himself an avid comic book reader, said that there is "a lot of crossover in that sort of dramatic, flamboyant, Errol Flynn, superhero kind of style." Comic fans and gamers are drawn to that kind of narrative--Williams pointed out the ubiquity of Star Wars at the convention. It hadn't started out as a comic either, but it fit right into what that fan base loves: an action-packed story about good and evil.
And the convention-goers, likewise, didn't seem to care that Pirates of the Burning Sea had no comic roots: the demo stations for the game, which is slated for a June launch, were a hot destination at the event.
There were some purists, of course. A handful of attendees at ComicCon passed grudgingly by the Sony PlayStation 3 stations and Family Guy action figures, making a beeline for the "real" comics. But most of those at the Javits Center didn't seem to mind the intrusion of Pokemon, horror movies and Dance Dance Revolution.
Comics, I learned, cast a broad net. But perhaps it's better to say that they cast a wide web. Or force field. Or laser beam?