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A Cell's Eye View of San Diego Comic-Con

It’s a freeloader’s delight, if you charitably overlook the extravagant cost of room and board: San Diego’s Comic-Con International – founded in 1970 as the Golden State Comic Book Convention, by a fanatical crew of forward-thinking nerds – is a celebration of advertising slyly disguised as something like philanthropy. It is a unique opportunity for toy manufacturers, movie studios and publishing houses to give back to the fans, often in the form of complimentary t-shirts, posters, key chains and other disposable keepsakes.

Hardcore loyalists, some of whom have been attending annually since the convention’s early days at downtown San Diego’s U.S. Grant Hotel, stand in line for hours – sometimes days – to catch exclusive, first-look trailers for upcoming blockbusters, most of which will eventually land on YouTube for convenient home viewing. Others brave similar waits for the chance to spend seconds in the presence of their favorite stars (hello, Joss Whedon!), who grace their posters and DVD inserts with an autograph, sometimes for a fee. (The going rate for a William Shatner signature at this year’s Star Trek Las Vegas is $90.)

Of course, some people still attend Comic-Con for the comics. The floor is packed with artists, illustrators and storytellers – some legendary, like X-Men and Iron Man creator Stan Lee –  and many more who aspire to be Lee. But there’s a reason the last weekend in July is traditionally thought of as the biggest date on the Hollywood calendar, and it has nothing to do with Action Comics #1, which sold for 10 cents in 1938 and is now worth an estimated $350,000.

Today, Comic-Con gives TV, movie and video-game studios a unique platform to unveil their Next Big Thing, whether it’s The Adventures of Tintin – represented at this year’s convention by a little-known spokesman named Steven Spielberg – or Allen Gregory, the new FOX animated series co-created by Superbad's Jonah Hill. A-listers show up to press the flesh and drop a few strategically timed sound bites, and fans travel from around the world to bask ever so briefly in their glow.

That probably sounds like a cynical appraisal of Comic-Con, and on some level it is. The convention floor is oppressively crowded; hotel rooms are scarce and prohibitively expensive; street traffic inches forward at a pace sluggish enough to all but ensure sunburn; and the comic-book lovers who started the ball rolling more than four decades ago have been largely pushed to the far edges of the main stage, makimg room for big-budget popcorn fare like Conan the Barbarian, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance and Cowboys & Aliens.

Only at Comic-Con can you pass a line that stretches for miles and have the following exchange: “What are you in line for?” (Awkward pause. Several seconds of embarrassed soul-searching. And, finally, an honest admission.) “I don’t know.” It speaks to all that’s great and terrible about the convention: It’s a shameless hype machine, where fans give so much of themselves on the sometimes-false promise of small, ultimately insignificant returns.

And yet, those returns can deliver a momentary rush of satisfaction that seems to make it all worthwhile. Where else can you find Destin Pfaff (Bravo’s Millionaire Matchmaker) and horror icon Tony Todd (Candyman, Hatchet) greeting each other like long-lost bosom buddies and mingling with the masses for an evening of free beer, cheeseburgers, air hockey and ping-pong?

Where else can you listen to pop-culture innovators like Lee, Spielberg, Shatner, Whedon and “Party Hard” mastermind Andrew W.K. revealing the secrets of their handiwork, in the flesh, all in the same four-day stretch? And where else can you spend your summer vacation with thousands of likeminded nerds, dweebs, freaks and costumed geeks – I use those as terms of endearment, mind you – who rise up to embrace their passions with such gleeful abandon?

Only at Comic-Con, depicted (shoddily) here in a series of pictures captured by my first-generation DROID. Enjoy.