SINCE it began in a hotel basement in 1970, San Diego's annual Comic-Con International has grown into a multimedia behemoth, with giant booths featuring the latest offerings from New Line Cinema and Lucasfilm Ltd., and appearances by A-list directors and actors.
Long gone are the days when Comic-Con "was just comic book fans getting together to buy, sell and talk about the comics and characters they loved," says Stan Lee, the legend who is chairman emeritus of Marvel Enterprises and founder of POW! Entertainment. "Today you have 100,000 people coming, and half of Hollywood shows up to promote upcoming movies and TV shows, look for new ideas and look for new properties to buy."
At Comic-Con, which runs today through Sunday at the San Diego Convention Center, it's easy to get star-struck. Last year, Jack Black, Natalie Portman, Kate Beckinsale and Charlize Theron were among those who appeared, and this year's lineup includes Hilary Swank, "Superman Returns" director Bryan Singer, Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes and "Lost" stars Jorge Garcia and Daniel Dae Kim. Fans are also headed to see the latest collector toys, sci-fi TV show sneak peeks and a specially prepared message from the set of the fifth "Harry Potter" movie, now being filmed in England.
Despite the glitz, though, the convention at its core is still about comics, cartoons and the people who make them. For them -- whether an artist, comic-book publisher, bookseller or a fan hoping to break into the industry -- it is four exhilarating and exhausting days of mingling and deal-making.
Much has changed for DC Comics artist Tim Sale since he attended his first San Diego Comic-Con 19 years ago. After meeting a DC editor there, he was introduced to writer Jeph Loeb, and together they went on to create the award-winning "Superman for All Seasons" comic along with a series of Batman stories that served as inspiration for last year's "Batman Begins" feature film.
As an established artist, Sale no longer has to hustle (he's currently working on a new Superman comic with writer Darwyn Cooke). As such, the 50-year-old artist reserves most of his time at Comic-Con for fans.
"The bulk of my time is spent sitting behind a little table with somebody standing in front of me, and I'm saying, 'How can I make you happy?' " Sale says from his Pasadena studio.
To that end, Sale spends hours signing comic books for a seemingly endless line of fans. In addition, over the course of the weekend he draws hundreds of head shots of Batman, Superman and Catwoman, many of which end up on EBay.
As tedious as that sounds, Sale says he tries to interact with fans as much as possible. "I'm always grateful that my funny little way of drawing has gotten popular," he says.
With all the movie stars, the Comic-Con is a gawker's paradise, and Sale admits he occasionally dons his fan hat. "Seeing Ben Affleck or Sarah Michelle Gellar doesn't do much for me, but a couple of years ago I got to sit near Marie Severin, and that was a real thrill," he says, referring to the woman known as "the first lady of comics."
In contrast to Sale, Comic-Con is almost all business for bookseller Stuart Ng, who specializes in books on comics, animation and illustration.
"It's our Christmas season," Ng, 43, says of Comic-Con. "Sales from the con account for one-third of our annual revenue."
Ng, a former archivist for the Warner Bros. collection housed at USC, initially shared a booth at Comic-Con when he decided to turn bookselling into a full-time occupation nine years ago. His business has grown, and it now occupies five booths stuffed with 7,000 pounds of books.
Many are out of print or cutting-edge European imports, which attract art students and industry types such as Chris "Lilo & Stitch" Sanders, Matt "The Simpsons" Groening and Mike "Hellboy" Mignola.
And though making money is nice, Ng says the best part of Comic-Con is meeting the artists, many of whom have become close friends. As a result, a number of artists will be signing at Ng's booth, including Pixar's Ronnie Del Carmen and Enrico Casarosa and Blue Sky Studios' Dice Tsutsumi and Michael Knapp.
In 1992, Top Cow Productions was formed when Marc Silvestri, along with a small group of other top Marvel artists, broke off to form their own publishing enterprises.
Best known for its "Witchblade" property (a comic that was later turned into live-action and animated TV shows), Top Cow has always had a strong presence at the convention. This year, that means a 20-by-30-foot booth with plasma TVs, banners hanging from the ceiling, poster and comic giveaways, and signings by artists and writers.
"We publish in 55 countries, and all these publishing partners -- along with distributors and buyers from Borders and Barnes & Noble -- come to San Diego, which is why we have to look strong," says Top Cow President and Chief Operating Officer Matt Hawkins from his Century City office. "Outside of Marvel and DC, we probably have the largest budget among the comic-book publishers for these shows."
Hawkins estimates his company's total tab for the conference is $50,000, and that doesn't take into account logistical problems.
"We have a staff of 50 for the show, and between booking hotels, which has to be done a year in advance, travel arrangements and coordinating signings, something always goes wrong," says Hawkins, 37.
"It's also five 14-hour days, and every meal, breakfast, lunch and dinner is a business meal."
Despite all the headaches, Hawkins says nothing compares to the Comic-Con in terms of buzz, marketing and media coverage. In addition, Hawkins notes that the show, given its proximity to Los Angeles, is the ideal recruitment center for up-and-coming artists.
"We're always looking for people with raw talent who we can bring in house and mold," he says. "I do four six-hour portfolio reviews a year, and I spend five to 10 minutes on each, even if they're awful. In the end, however, it's always worth it as we usually find one or two people to bring in."
Given all the publishers, TV and movie studio executives and artists wandering the aisles, Comic-Con can be the ultimate entertainment job fair.
One artist who hopes to take advantage of the networking opportunities is Sue Katowich, a 28-year-old transplant from New Jersey. Since moving to L.A. four years ago with an animation degree, Katowich has worked briefly with "Ren & Stimpy" creator John Kricfalusi at his Spumco animation studio, and last summer, she landed a promising job as a character designer for Paul Frank, a position that dissolved in February when Frank was ousted from his company in a partnership dispute.
Disappointed but not defeated, Katowich is up for a position at a major TV animation studio. While waiting for an answer, however, she'll be traversing the hall at Comic-Con with her portfolio at the ready for anyone willing to look.
"Most of the work I've gotten has always been through word of mouth," Katowich says. "I'm hoping to run into some friends who work at Nickelodeon, and hopefully that will lead to my getting to know a few more people."
Another networking opportunity happens for Katowich on Saturday night in the lounge of the San Diego Marriott Hotel & Marina. The hotel is the site of the annual "Sketchbook Session," an event at which scores of artists from all over the country, bound together by the drawingboard.org artist collective site, congregate to drink, talk shop and simply draw into the wee hours of the morning.
"It's the greatest way to meet other artists and just have fun," Katowich says. "Every year after the con, my e-mail box is full of notes from people saying, 'It was great meeting you, I really enjoyed your art.'
"And with any luck, one of those notes might just lead to a job," she adds.
Where: San Diego Convention Center, 111 W. Harbor Drive
When: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday
Price: Adults, $65 for four days; $25 for Thursday or Friday; $30 for Saturday; $15 for Sunday. Ages 12 to 17, or 60 and older, $30 for four days, $12 for Thursday or Friday, $15 for Saturday, $7 for Sunday
Info: (619) 491-2475, www.comic-con.org