From Iceland — The Geeks of Gotham

The Geeks of Gotham

Published March 10, 2006

“I liked acting in Catch and Release because they gave me a really big trailer.” Kevin Smith, known by his screen name Silent Bob, is bragging. He’s entitled. More than 10,000 fans have filled the basement of the Javitz Convention Centre to celebrate him and his colleagues in comics and comic-based film. He has been answering questions for two hours, and will continue until they drag him from the stage so that Todd McFarlane, the man who popularised Spider-Man, and who created Spawn, will tell a disgusted crowd that he only cares about market influences.
“I need a really big trailer because I need a really big bathroom,” Smith says, stepping away from the podium to show the size toilet he needs. “I have such fat thighs that if I don’t spread ‘em wide, when I go to take a shit is streaks all down my legs.”
There’s a brief silence.
Then the crowd erupts.
Many of them know exactly what Mr. Smith is talking about—likely more than Mr. Smith, who is not nearly as obese as he claims he is. The rest of us are absolutely stunned that a celebrated director, writer and overall cultural force just created the single most disgusting mental self-portrait likely ever put out there.
Silent Bob, the Likeable Loudmouth Reformed Sociopath from Jersey
A tall black kid with acne, a sports jacket, and a red Flash sweatshirt gets to the mic.
“Kevin, I came here to get my $18 back. I think we all know that you let us down with the Black Cat and Spider-Man series, and you owe us. It’s a disgrace.”
Even this won’t get Kevin Smith down. He’s a man determined to connect with his fans, to break down any wall between artist and fan that might exist, and a man determined, most of all, to entertain. He does it with the energy of a sociopath; and he let’s slip that, in fact, he was a sociopath at one point in his life.
In one of his many 20-minute answers to ten-second stupid questions, he tells a person who asks “How do I make a film?” to rack up $30,000 in credit card debt. He then goes on to explain why he dropped out of college after one semester. The reasons: 1) Kevin Smith grew up in New Jersey, moved to New York for school and got into a high-rise dorm. He promptly took up the habit of throwing things at passers-by from the 8th floor. First water balloons, then other things. He went home to New Jersey one weekend to find a note to his parents explaining that the future director came up with the brilliant idea of filling lawn-sized garbage bags with water and dropping them out of an 8th story window to scare NYU students—Smith attended the New School, temporary institution of another famous dropout, Jack Kerouac. Speaking to thousands of comic nerds, he explains how lame the RA was for sending a note to his parents. 2) Kevin Smith, the future director, went to college to be a writer, and instead of studying, he stood outside the Saturday Night Live offices “waiting to be discovered by Lorne Michaels as the funny quiet fat kid.”
There are more heart-breaking confessions suffused with geek logic and a desperate desire to be liked, trusted, and to be honest at all costs. To differentiate the kind of logic and motivation present among Kevin Smith and the best of the crowd at the First Annual New York Comicon, let me refer to Mr. Smith’s Brokeback Mountain joke. Those of us who have sat through the months of borderline-retarded homophobic Brokeback jokes from Jay Leno and other guy-next-door straight white assholes might say it’s impossible to even broach the subject of Brokeback without coming off dull.
Kevin Smith, though, lunged full on into his Brokeback routine. Asked if he, the director of Chasing Amy, identified with Ang Lee regarding the criticism Brokeback Mountain got from the conservative right, Smith said “Brokeback Mountain isn’t a gay movie. Other than…” and he spit on his hand and imitated Heath Ledger’s emblematic scene.
To Smith, Brokeback was just a story of longing. He then explained his own interest in gay scenes, as motivated by his brother, who is openly gay and married. Smith wanted to make movies his brother could watch and at least have something he identified with. Smith then pointed out that, genetically and otherwise, he was “one cock in the mouth away from being gay” himself. Not the most insightful comment, but when repeated five times, it begins to get peculiarly amusing.
If They Can Do That in California…
Comic conventions have been growing in appeal over the last decade. Last year, San Diego’s famed Comicon brought Peter Jackson and King Kong, David Cronenberg and A History of Violence, Bryan Singer and previews from Superman, and a massive set piece from Corpse Bride. When Catwoman flopped miserably at the box office, it was seen as doing so because it failed to properly court the geeks, whereas X-Men, directed by Mr. Singer, succeeded, according to even the director, because it obeyed the geeks.
King Kong did well, Cronenberg’s A History of Violence was worshipped by critics, and Sin City opened a whole new genre of comics to the mainstream. It seemed only natural that a comic convention would become a massive cultural force in New York, the birthplace of the modern comic book.
A day before flying to New York, I spoke with Neil Adams, a key innovator in comics who revived X-Men, reconceived Batman as the gothic hero that would be interpreted on the big screen, and, coolest of all, had a superhero sidekick get addicted to heroin (an addiction was partially treated with a superhero bitch slap).
Adams told me it was a matter of “civic pride” to have the conventions back in New York City. “The French will say that America is responsible for three things art wise: jazz, the musical comedy, and comic books, and the French know about art,” Adams told me.
About the bond between film and art, he couldn’t help gloating. He points out that Star Wars was created because George Lucas wanted to do Flash Gordon but couldn’t get the rights, that the Wachowski brothers based the Matrix closely on comics. “I met Christopher Columbus one time on a Hollywood back lot, and he ran across the lot to meet Neal Adams the comic book artist…[George] Lucas is a comic book fan. [James] Cameron is a comic book fan. They all are,” he tells me, leaving me to guess how close he might be with Hollywood royalty.
On the plane over, I am thinking about the mobs of Hollywood stars that will be packing the New York Comicon. X-Men III is just launching, Superman is approaching, Spider-Man 3, set in New York, is approaching completion, the Wachowski Brothers, (ahem, according to comic geeks, they are now just siblings), have just made an enormous Natalie Portman vehicle written by the best comic pen in the business, Alan Moore. A New Yorker, Michael Chabon, recently won a Pulitzer Prize for writing about New York comic culture. The festival will be enormous.
First Two Free, After That $3
On arrival, though, there are just lines. As far as the eye can see. The New York State Police have been called in to control the geeks, who have arrived en masse for an event that only holds 10,000. In fact, when Kevin Smith is speaking for two and a half hours for thousands of fans, there are thousands more who have waited in a nauseating line the entire time he has been speaking.
The inside of the comic book convention is not a flight of fancy, a celebration of a jazz age art, but a mob of ugly people in a tight space holding out dollar bills.
The energetic and entertaining Neal Adams who held forth at length about the social implications of the festival returning to New York, now sits at the largest booth in the convention signing books next to a sign that says “autographs: first two free, after that $3,” which pretty much says everything.
Wedged between geeks talking about the size of Spider-Girl’s tits, I duck out of the crowd and find a table with a balding, blond guy typing away on a Macintosh at a convention table. There is a giant sign next to him: “CHRIS WYATT.”
Away from the crowd, I ask Mr. Wyatt how he enjoys the festival. He tells me he’s from California, and, love of New York aside, this convention is not very similar to the one he likes to attend.
“In California, the festivals are much larger, and they focus on diversity. People are having fun. Here it seems to be more about…” And he gives the slightly ashamed expression that Californians make in place of the word “money.”
Mr. Wyatt turns out to be the Executive Producer of Napoleon Dynamite, a film that he points out I should never have seen, as it was never distributed in Iceland. Like the character he helped bring to the screen, Wyatt presents the most wholesome view possible of geekdom. He is explaining the positive energy of comics and imagination, when a girl of 14 dressed in an ultra-tight Supergirl outfit approaches him. Her mother pokes her head in, introducing the girl as an enormous fan of the film, and asking for an autograph.
“And who should I make this out to?” Wyatt asks.
The 14-year old arches her back, curves her neck slightly, and whispers “Supergirl,” holding her mouth open and pouty after speaking, prompting Wyatt to avert eye contact and blush slightly.
He will tell me later that the girl “was a little too old to wear a costume like that” before moving away from comics altogether, and simply saying that if Icelanders want to watch Napoleon Dynamite or his next movie, Beneath, and they can’t get it at theatres, they have his permission to just steal his films.
Spider-Man Doesn’t Bring Anyone In
In the press room and the next day in the newspapers and on television, the first New York Comicon is regarded as a sensation. Few reporters care to comment on the frustrated fans, on the lack of quality product, or on the overall ickiness of the event—all indications are this was exactly what they expected. The only limitation is the lack of good images to run in a newspaper, which is solved with a photo of a guy in Spider-Man pajamas.
Comic book culture has completely flooded New York, but people with only casual knowledge of the genre wouldn’t know it. At Barnes and Noble on 14th Street, there is a massive graphic novel section. On every subway car, I see at least one person reading a standard comic book, and one reading manga—comics are more popular than even tabloid newspapers. Natalie Portman and Hugh Jackman posters are everywhere.
I visit the most celebrated comic book shop in Greenwich Village, Forbidden Planet, which had originally coordinated the convention only to pull out a few months ago. Only one person in the store had been to the convention, and he admitted it had not gone well.
“But it doesn’t really matter. It has started. Next year it will be bigger. The press are already writing about it, and no publicity is bad publicity. The disappointment won’t stay around,” he tells me.
He then hints that New Yorkers really aren’t impressed with superheroes. “The big draws, the things that bring new readers into the store all the time are the comics you don’t see as much at the conventions: A History of Violence, American Splendour and Sin City, that’s what people are interested in now. Spider-Man doesn’t bring anyone in.”
I talk with a bleary-eyed employee at Forbidden Planet, one of the majority of people interested in comics who wouldn’t go near the convention.
Why didn’t you go? I ask him.
“I couldn’t think of anything about it that interested me,” he says, then looks out over racks of alternative comics. A series of further questions get single word responses.
I think about telling him that Kevin Smith was entertaining, but realise the guy really wouldn’t care. For him, like most readers in New York, comic books, like literature in general, are pretty much something you keep to yourself. Making an ass of yourself over it all is for people from California, or, worse, Jersey.
The best way to get to New york:
icelandair flies direct Flights from Keflavík to new york.
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Icelandair provided tickets and a stipend for this travel piece.

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