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At comics convention, the serious side is taking over

SAN DIEGO — The clouds never lifted at the Comic-Con International fan convention on opening day Thursday. Inside the meeting halls, neither did the gloom.

Once a year for the past four decades, comic book and fantasy fans dressed in Batman suits or carrying light sabers have descended on San Diego to trade collectibles, see trailers for new Hollywood movies, and maybe speak a little Klingon. But as fantasy has become big business — seven of last year’s top 10 movies were either science fiction or comic-book inspired, or fanciful enough to rate a spot at Comic-Con — a new anxiety has settled over the convention over the future of the business and over comics themselves.

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Panels at this year’s conference at the San Diego Convention Center include comics and the plight of indigenous peoples, feminist writers and censorship, progressive politics in comics, and, of course, the many financial and copyright issues created by the explosion in Hollywood’s interest.

As a certain archvillain might ask: Why so serious?

“It’s frightening,’’ said Lisa Vizcarra, a science teacher at Carquinez Middle School in Crockett, Calif.

Vizcarra, who seemed to set the day’s tone, was speaking to a Comic-Con audience about a looming pedagogical crisis: Students, distracted by video, are no longer responding to comics as an educational tool even as schools increasingly use them in their curriculums.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do, and that’s why we’re here today,’’ she told a room packed with listeners.

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The issue for the conventioneers was that, after struggling since the 1970s to have the comics taken seriously, they have now succeeded, perhaps too well. The geek culture has been around long enough to create a tenured, intellectual elite, and, by and large, these professionals see nothing but trouble in the fantasy world.

Many of the day’s more serious analysts were participating in the 20th Comic Arts Conference, a gathering of fantasy-oriented academics held in conjunction with Comic-Con.

“We still get asked, is it a real conference?’’ said Peter M. Coogan, one of the organizers and the director of the Institute for Comics Studies in Missouri.

On the opposite end of the sprawling convention hall, at a seminar called ‘‘The Comic Book Law School,’’ Michael L. Lovitz, a copyright lawyer, was hammering away on another serious matter — the ins and outs of work-for-hire, the employment term that has become a critical legal issue in multimillion-dollar battles over the ownership of characters like Superman and the Fantastic Four. Everyone paid attention, but no one seemed to be having fun. Someone in the crowd sighed audibly when Lovitz, in explaining a point of law, noted that unicorns aren’t real.

“Sorry,’’ he said.

Many stayed in the room for the next session, also sponsored by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, about censorship and the female artist. In the end, there wasn’t much discussion of the law. But the panelists seemed to agree that comics-minded men are not as open-minded as they claim to be when it comes to comics-minded women.

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