Where else would the sight of Jude Law rubbing shoulders with Elvis dressed in a Stars Wars Stormtrooper suit seem perfectly natural but at the San Diego Comic-con International?

The annual trade show and fan festival of all things even tangentially related to comic books runs from July 14—18 this year, when nearly 90,000 people are expected to converge in San Diego for a four-day extravaganza that brings out the pop culture nerd in everyone.

While comics publishers small and large will be promoting and selling their top book offerings for the rest of the year (see sidebar), the show has emerged in recent years as a kind of "Cannes for fans." It's the place where movie studios, videogame companies and, increasingly, book publishers, roll out their latest projects, in a surreal mingling of ordinary fans, creators and über-fans wearing chafe-inducing, homemade costumes. It's ShoWest, E3 and Toy Fair combined in one exhausting binge of books, movies, panel discussions, merchandising and comical fan fervor.

This year, DC, Marvel, Viz and Tokyo Pop will be making major book announcements, and so will New York trade publishers who are jumping into the graphic novel field and looking to make their presence known on the comics side. Scholastic will have a booth for the first time, spotlighting its ongoing publication of Bone, Jeff Smith's acclaimed fantasy adventure, and the new teen-directed graphic novel Queen Bee by Chynna Clugston. Disney will be a full player, with numerous creator signings and panels promoting the W.I.T.C.H. line of graphic and prose novels for teens, a new Pirates of the Caribbean graphic novel and our first look at the acclaimed fantasy series Abadazad since Disney rescued the rights from bankrupt CrossGen. Del Rey Books, a longtime science fiction exhibitor at Comic-con, returns this year to promote its growing manga line. And more editors than ever from New York houses are planning to attend, just to see what all the hoopla is about.

Authors of many kinds will also be soaking up the spectacle. Ray Bradbury is a featured guest this year—as he was at the very first Comic-con in 1970—as are science fiction authors Robert Jordan and Richard Morgan. B-movie superstar Bruce Campbell will be doing double duty, promoting his new book, Make Love the Bruce Campbell Way (St. Martin's), and his new comic, The Man with the Screaming Brain (Dark Horse).

But how did a comic book convention get to be the number-one venue to promote pop culture in North America? It goes back to early days of the SDCC—convention organizers always saw the connection between comics and the larger world of mass entertainment.

"Frank Capra was a guest in 1973," said David Glanzer, director of marketing and public relations for Comic-Con. "George Lucas was a comic book fan, and in 1976 his people had a booth and made a presentation on something no one had heard of called Star Wars. They sold pre-production art for $1.50." Even in the pre-Internet era, the appearance created a buzz among fans. Now, said Glanzer, "studios are catching on to the fact that this is a resource that can start a groundswell for a project." And it doesn't hurt that pop-culture nerds are known to spend liberally on their obsessions, and that spending carries over to all kind of merchandise.

Since the early days of Comic-con, Hollywood producers continue to show up at the San Diego convention in full force. Last year's show included major presentations for the movies Constantine, Sin City, Mirrormask and The Fantastic Four, with stars from all on display for the admiring hordes of fans. This year, ABC's Lost, the Sci Fi Channel's 4400, Aaron McGruder's new Boondocks cartoon show and the upcoming revival of the Superman film franchise, Superman Lives!, will all be spotlighted.

San Diego is also known as a magnet for film development, as executives from Hollywood scour even the smallest self-publishers for comics that they dream of turning into blockbuster movies.

Ford Gilmore, president of Illuminati Entertainment, a management and production company that represents a number of top comics artists, has been watching the evolution of Hollywood's involvement at the Comic-con since the early '90s. "The show has been on Hollywood's radar for a long time, but it used to be a little dinghy. Now it's the Titanic." And Gilmore isn't just an observer, he's a player, currently working on New Line's The Interman, a planned film based on Jeff Parker's self-published spy-thriller graphic novel. Another Gilmore client, comics artist Tomm Coker, recently directed his first film, the upcoming horror flick Catacombs, and his comics cred helped him get the job.

The success of films based on relatively obscure comics such as The Maskand Men in Black spurred movie industry interest in even little-known comics projects, Gilmore noted. After the first Spider-Man movie, it seemed that every studio had to have a comic book project in development. Gilmore also mentioned Max Collins's graphic novel The Road to Perdition. The success of the film provided a wake-up call and showed that comics weren't just about muscle-bound guys in Spandex, but that comics could become successfully exploited literary projects as well. Similarly, David Cronenberg's new film, A History of Violence, based on a 2004 DC Comics graphic novel created by John Wagner, got rave reviews at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, and the graphic novel could see much-revived sales when the movie is released this fall.

The San Diego Comic-con has also grown hand-in-hand with the ascendance of many top film directors who have turned out to be not-so-secret comics fans themselves. Such nerd-friendly auteurs as Kevin Smith, Quentin Tarantino, Guillermo del Toro and Joss Whedon started going to the show for fun, long before they went to hype their latest film projects. And movie stars who also happen to love comics, from Leonardo Di Caprio to the Wayans brothers, have been spotted cruising the jammed convention floors.

Film director Reggie Hudlin (House Party) has recently joined the growing ranks of Hollywood talent who are writing comics. (Smith, Whedon, George Romero and X-Men's Bryan Singer have all taken a crack at writing their own comics, to name but a few.)

Hudlin began attending the SDCC about five years ago on the advice of some comics creator friends, and very quickly caught the fever. "I conceived of my graphic novel Birth of a Nation there one year," he recalled, "and successfully promoted the book there two years later." This year, Hudlin's promoting his work on Marvel's Black Panther and Spider-Man, and now that he's a bona-fide laborer in the comics industry, he expects a very different, inside-comics experience.

Now it seems as though all pop culture roads converge on San Diego. "It always branches out," said Glanzer. "A comic can be a graphic novel or a periodical comic book. It can be for all ages or for an adult audience. It's all kinds of people."

But while nerd culture seems to have taken over the media entertainment spotlight, it still has its limits, Gilmore observed. "Being a nerd has become relatively cool for the past four or five years, but being an obsessive nerd is as scary as it ever was." Just like that Elvis Stormtrooper.

The Comic-con Book List While a few people may be checking out the new Harry Potter, slated for July 16 release, these are some of the books expected to make noise at Comic-con International: San Diego this year.
  1. Serenity (Dark Horse): Joss Whedon's cult hit sci-fi TV show Firefly is transformed into the movie Serenitythis fall, and this comics miniseries, penned by Whedon, serves as a prequel.

  2. Shojo Beat (Viz): Shojo Beat, the first American manga magazine aimed at girls, has just launched, along with a six-title line of graphic novels, ranging from the realistic Tokyo Boys and Girls (from the creator of Hot Gimmick) to the fantasies Fushigi Yugi: Genbu Kaidenand MeruPuri

  3. All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder (DC Comics): Superstar comics artists Frank Miller and Jim Lee collaborate on an all-new Batman story that is expected to be the top-selling comic of the year.

  4. Spiral Bound (Top Shelf): Newcomer Aaron Renier delivers a whimsical full-length graphic novel about ambition, morality and self-discovery starring an all-animal cast.

  5. Mome (Fantagraphics): An anthology of literary fiction in comics format by such rising stars as Gabrielle Bell, Anders Nillson and Paul Hornschemeier.

  6. Queen Bee (Scholastic): In the first new graphic novel from the Grafix line, Chynna Clugston follows two competing teenage girls who have the same secret power.

  7. Bizenghast (Tokyo Pop): This original manga series by M. Alice LeGrow goes goth with a series of eerie tales about a mentally disturbed girl living in an abandoned factory.

—Heidi MacDonald