Comic-Con can be a pop culture clash


SAN DIEGO — Director Jen Soska and her twin sister came to Comic-Con with one gory aim: Gross out as many people as possible with blood-soaked footage from their upcoming independent horror movie, “American Mary.” And indeed, clips from the film about a broke medical student who starts performing underground surgeries attracted a healthy crowd of onlookers to a room in the San Diego convention center.

“We wanted to physically make you ill!” Soska told the audience cheerfully.

Two doors down, Nickelodeon was touting its roster of children’s programming, including its upcoming “The Fairly OddParents” Christmas TV movie and “T.U.F.F. Puppy” Halloween special, designed to appeal to grade-schoolers.

PHOTOS: Comic-Con invades San Diego

Meanwhile, down on the exhibition floor, a buxom woman in a white blazer without a blouse talked up a graphic novel called “Whore,” at a booth across from the one where DreamWorks Animation was giving out posters from its family film “The Croods.” Nearby, plush Pokemon dolls were on sale just a few strides from a table filled with racy comic book titles with “Adults Only” stickers strategically covering body parts.

Begun in 1970 as a small comic-book convention attended mainly by adult men, Comic-Con International is now a multimedia smorgasbord attracting more than 125,000 people annually — including throngs of women, toddlers, school kids and teens. Yet the pop culture expo, which wraps up Sunday, still retains much of its original freewheeling, anything-goes character, a phenomenon that can create some jarring juxtapositions.

The Walt Disney Co. and Playboy. “My Little Pony” and “Zombies vs. Strippers.” SpongeBob Squarepants and “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Stroller parking and a weapons check for costumed attendees — it’s all here, to the enjoyment and sometimes befuddlement of exhibitors and pass holders alike.

“It’s a pop culture free-for-all,” said Margaret Loesch, president and chief executive of the Hub, a children’s network that is promoting its shows “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic” and “Transformers Prime.”

“It’s families with kids and Mom and apple pie, and then you turn around and you see someone dressed in a thong with horns glued to their head. It’s so eclectic it’s surreal.”

On the exhibition floor, booths are mainly grouped by format — comics are with comics, video games with video games — rather than by the intended age of the audience. Still, organizers say they take some measures to help families wade through the wildly divergent content, according to David Glanzer, director of marketing and public relations at Comic-Con International.

“Comic-Con has always been open to all ages, but we’re a little more savvy now to say: If this is your focus, here’s where you go,” Glanzer said, as a giant Snoopy walked by.

Trying to navigate all of this on Thursday was the Foley family of Cypress, dressed as characters from “The Avengers.” Erin Foley, sporting a Black Widow costume, was buying oatmeal at Starbucks for her 1-year-old son Indiana, a miniature Hulk. Husband and father Shea was bouncing the infant carefully to avoid the quiver of arrows he wore on his shoulder as part of his Hawkeye get-up.

“Where else can you dress like this and not get locked up in a loony bin?” said Erin Foley, wearing a black bodysuit with bullet bracelets made from spray-painted glue sticks. Longtime Comic-Con attendees but here this year for the first time as parents, the Foleys said they had a strategy for enjoying the adult offerings: Grandma. They planned to hand off Indiana before taking in a panel on new Warner Bros. movies, including the Superman reboot “Man of Steel.”

Kid-friendly panels are marked in the program, on-site day care is available if Mom and Dad need grown-up time to commune with zombies and serial killers, and notoriously ribald panelists are deliberately scheduled later in the day.

Yet skin-baring costumes are common — the rule of thumb, Glanzer said, is they should be “appropriate for what you’d find on a beach” — and no one bars an 8-year-old from sitting through a panel for “Dexter,” the graphic Showtime series about a serial killer, or from trying out a video game rated Mature for violence.

Outside the convention center, movie studios hold free screenings of upcoming films and give away merchandise to drum up buzz among the young adults who make up Comic-Con’s core audience, but deal-seeking families often show up, too. At least two young children were spotted with their parents at a screening of the R-rated action comedy “Hit and Run,” where they collected free shirts adorned with an image of a Lincoln Continental and a slang phrase that refers to a woman’s breasts.

Inside the convention center, Comic-Con panels are like mini theater events, starring often-unpredictable artists.

At panel presentations, name placards come with a warning on the side facing the speakers: “Please be aware that many members of your audience may be under the age of 18.” But enthusiastic cursing can rile up an audience.

Last year, filmmaker Guillermo del Toro unleashed a fusillade of swearing in an afternoon talk with fellow director Jon Favreau. “Oh, it says watch my language,” he said, reading his placard but only accelerating the pace of F-bombs.

With footage of Comic-Con panels appearing on YouTube almost immediately after they finish, and with audience members tweeting and blogging every word, studios have sometimes blanched at how their talent present themselves.

“We talk to the studios and say: Be aware, now there’s instant media,” Glanzer said.

At a panel this year for the final “Twilight” movie, a woman in the audience asked star Robert Pattinson what advice he’d have for his character. “Keep it in your pants,” Pattinson blurted out to a room packed with preteen fans. When he was chided by co-star Kristen Stewart, Pattinson admitted, “Sometimes I forget there’s an audience even out there.”

The king of potty-mouthed panelists is filmmaker and comic book store owner Kevin Smith, whose very blue stream-of-consciousness talks at Comic-Con are an annual tradition and a reflection of the event’s roots.

“Comic book stores — some of them are not women-friendly, some of them are not family-friendly,” said Rob Salkowitz, author of “Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture.” Smith “represents a certain element of fandom, 30- and 40-year-old guys in their cargo shorts and hockey T-shirts. He has a direct line right to their ids. Comic-Con encourages people who are presenters to keep it clean. Could they be better at that? Yeah, I think so. But you don’t want to completely delete the edginess.”

Many parents have their own strategies for making it through Comic-Con without scarring their children. Beth Pollard and Brad Kirkegaard of San Diego pack snacks, an iPad, toys and, crucially, noise-canceling headphones for their 5-year-old daughter, Amelia, and 1-year-old son, Jack.

The headphones come in handy, Pollard said, for blocking out the sounds of scary movie trailers and profane panelists.

“She sort of tunes it out anyway,” said Pollard, who was waiting in line with Amelia to see the “Twilight” panel and footage from the animated movie “Frankenweenie.” “It’s one for me [‘Twilight’] and one for her.”

PHOTOS: Comic-Con invades San Diego

Times staff writer Nicole Sperling contributed to this report.