By Jennifer Smith and Rob Klein
This year, the San Diego Comic Con was pretty impressive. Those who have attended the show annually might gripe about some of the same old things: the crushing crowds, the endless miles of shuffling along that familiar grey carpet, or the Mrs. Field’s cookie carts that sell outrageously expensive bottles of water. They might also complain that the corporate presence has become so prevalent that mega companies are pushing Mom and Pop comic book vendors right out of the hall. They would be mostly right. Mostly. One thing that Con-goers must admit, however, is that the show has become such a media epicenter that vendors have developed an unspoken one-upmanship among themselves. This has resulted in a constant bettering of company displays, cool media previews, and, best of all, the inevitable avalanche of Con swag. It is heartening to see that fandom remains alive and well, which is why the show continues to grow. Comic Con has become such a unique and special scene that, perhaps in this case, bigger might just be better.
Speaking to hardcore fans before Comic Con even began, there was a lot of chatter about some of the items that might be out on display. When the subject of props and costumes arose, many had already heard that John Hurt’s original “Kane” suit from Alien (1979) would be making its public world premiere at the Prop Store booth. According to Prop Store CEO Stephen Lane, the suit was acquired from a British collector who had amassed a world-class Alien collection throughout the 1980’s. At Comic Con, the 33-year-old spacesuit was displayed on a special form within a Plexiglas case. Lane was proud to report that the intricately detailed suit’s lights still worked perfectly, and it was apparent that all of its insignia patches and hoses remained intact. Contemplating the suit, it was easy to imagine that you were on the set of Alien in 1979, when Ridley Scott first filmed it on a chilly soundstage at Shepperton Studios. It is one of the finest examples of English science fiction costume design and fabrication in private hands. Costume designer John Mollo not only created the costumes for Alien, but also had the same task for another film you might have heard of that was produced in England, called Star Wars (1977). The Kane suit is, Lane asserts, his favorite spacesuit in the company’s collection.
Interestingly, Prop Store doesn’t just offer props and costumes to the public for sale. They have become a leader in the research and restoration of film and television artifacts that would not otherwise exist. Several items at Prop Store were considered industrial waste by film producers and destined for destruction, but because of conservation and identification efforts, they have been rescued. Many of these pieces have remained in the Prop Store company collection, and are displayed at museums and at conventions like Comic-Con. The collection is comprised of some of the most famous and sought-after props and costumes in the world, as varied as artifacts from the Star Wars movies (1977-2005) to Jack Nicholson’s axe from The Shining (1980). As fun as it is seeing these items on film, it’s an extraordinary privilege to get a chance to view them in person.
There were other original items presented at Comic Con. At the fan-packed and nearly unapproachable Warner Brothers area they brought out the big guns, displaying the new Superman suit from next summer’s hotly anticipated Man of Steel. At an offsite area called “The Batcave,” Warner Brothers displayed all six Batmobiles. According to the Warner Brothers press release, the Batmobiles exhibited spanned from the 1966 television series’ converted 1955 Lincoln Futura to the Camouflage Tumbler, featured in The Dark Knight Rises (2012). Also generating excitement were the studio’s eye-popping lenticular posters for Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012). A few days before Comic Con, Sir Ian McKellen arrived early in Los Angeles in order to visit friends and rest up for The Hobbit’s Saturday panel. We had the opportunity to speak privately with Sir Ian about his visit to America. He said that his trip overseas this year was inspired by a question that he had posed to The Hobbit’s publicist. He asked: “Why should I travel to Comic Con, when I’ve already been there once before?” The publicist answered: ‘For the fans.’ That was enough for him to journey to all the way to California straight from work on The Hobbit. For McKellen, and most who attend Comic Con this year, it really is all about the fans, traveling to the ultimate epicenter, the supreme gathering of genre fandom.
The Mattel booth organized a large area dedicated entirely to the eagerly anticipated first ever release of the Mattel Hoverboard, a toy replica of Marty McFly’s famous prop from Back to the Future Part II (1989) and Back to the Future Part III (1990). A pretty female Mattel representative, cheerily outfitted in Back to the Future Part II 2015 neon future-wear, pitched the Hoverboard. Fans were even allowed to hold the board, even those frustrated because the item will not be released until November or December of this year. Amazingly, many observers we overheard actually asking that age-old question: “So, is this real, or what?” To quote the answer that Back to the Future writer and producer Bob Gale has maintained since 1989: “No.”
Finally, in a small room at Comic Con, a significant event occurred. The annual “Starship Smackdown” was held, a technical debate in which film and television starships from all time periods are compared in mock battles against each another. The final skirmish boiled down to a fight between two Enterprise starships: First, the 1966-68 TV series starship Enterprise NCC 1701, flown on her five-year mission during the years 2265-2270 under the command of Captain James T. Kirk, and the second, starship NCC 1701A, commissioned in the year 2286 (Stardate 8442.5) featured in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991). (The two final ships are not to be confused with the Excelsior-class Enterprise NCC 1701B, featured in Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994) and commissioned on Stardate 9715.5 in the year 2293).
As the debate reached its climax, attendees were enthralled to witness an audience member at the microphone, famous astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson (attending his very first Comic Con), speaking passionately about the matter at hand. Captured on handheld video and available today for view on You Tube, deGrasse Tyson delivered an intelligently reasoned, compelling and heartfelt argument in favor of the original Enterprise NCC 1701. After noting that the only starship in the debate older than the original Enterprise was the flying saucer from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), he deemed Enterprise “the most astonishing, awesome, beautiful, seductive, powerful machine that has ever graced the screen. Everything else…is derivative.” The room erupted in cheers. For moments like that, I’ll take that $4.00 water bottle.
Next year’s Comic Con will probably be great, too. The increasing magnitude of visiting celebrity star power along with the displays of film history’s greatest treasures really make one wish that they had the power to speed up time, and subvert the wait until next summer.