In Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope, Morgan Spurlock gazes directly into the Heart of Dorkness—the annual Comic-Con in San Diego that began in 1970 as a gathering of comic book writers, illustrators and the fans who love them. In recent years, the event has completed its transformation into a pop culture garden from which Hollywood seeks to simultaneously seed, harvest and extract profit. In doing so, it’s become about almost everything else but comics.
Spurlock’s film acknowledges and at least cursorily examines this shift—both in nerd-lebrity interviews (Kevin Smith, Joss Whedon, etc.) and with the story of Chuck Rozanski, the president and CEO of legendary Mile High Comics—but ultimately, and appropriately given the current state of the event, Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope has a difficult time staying focused on comic books.
The documentary represents a noticeable departure from Spurlock’s earlier efforts, if only for the marked absence of himself as central character or principal commentator. Instead, the film presents five neatly packaged story arcs placed amongst a targeted array of interviews and brief, order-imposing spans of narrative—all amidst the event’s multi-media panoply.
There’s Rozanski, whose journey to Comic-Con represents a quest for at least another year of fiscal solvency (and a more lasting financial absolution should he successfully part with his most prized possession, a comic book valued—by him at least—at half a million dollars). There are Skip Harvey and Eric Henson, each an illustrator hoping to upgrade his lot from “amateur” to “professionally employed.” There’s James Darling, who hopes to surprise Se Young Kang, his somewhat adhesive girlfriend, with a marriage proposal at a Kevin Smith Q&A, and there’s Holly Conrad (and her crew), an aspiring costume designer, trying to pull off a Mass Effect 2-inspired group performance sequence at the Con’s Masquerade contest.
By the end of Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope, these five main stories have gone through all the obligatory paces found in these type of docs—from initial quest to obstacles introduced and (in some cases) overcome to lessons learned and morals delivered. All in all, Spurlock’s latest is a crisply packaged and competently paced affair.
It’s also pretty damn frustrating. There’s no real exploration of what fuels the passion of a Rozanski, a Conrad or a Harvey, or any of the other collectors, cosplayers and other conventioneers who make a Mecca out of a Comic-Con. (This shallowness makes the film more “Skin” of Dorkness than “Heart.”) The myriad interview segments with nerd heavyweights and simplified story arcs can’t prevent Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope from feeling like anything more than a long well-crafted teaser reel for a season’s worth of reality programming on the G4 network.
There’s Rozanski’s exasperation at the difficulty of transporting his comics to the Con because “LucasArts owns the loading docks.” (Now, that episode would be interesting.) Or, speaking of Rozanski, how about The Adventures of Mile High Comics Man and his Protégé? Tell me more! (Really, I want to know more about the glancingly introduced, pierced twenty-something female who has been designated “protégé” of the longstanding largest comics operator in the United States, if not the world.)
The Holly Conrad Chronicles? I’m there. (In fact, can we just include every frame of footage involving her and her crew in the extra features section of the Blu-ray?)
Granted, in complaining about stories untold, there’s always the danger of committing a cardinal sin of film reviewing—condemning a film because it is not what the reviewer wants it to be rather than simply judging it on the merits of what it’s trying to be. And to be fair, there’s really no sense that Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope is trying to be anything deeper or more meaningful than what it is. Nonetheless, it’s difficult, particularly in a documentary so filled with interesting threads left dangling, to not be left frustrated by everything that’s left unsaid, unanswered or unexplored.
Maybe the Prequels will cover some of that.
Director: Morgan Spurlock
Writer: Jeremy Chilnick, Morgan Spurlock, Joss Whedon
Starring: Holly Conrad, James Darling, S.K. Darling (as Se Young Kang), Skip Harvey, Eric Henson, Chuck Rozanski, Kevin Smith
Release Date: Apr. 6, 2012