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.