It used to be lonely being a geek, but with the huge Comic-Con convention underway on Friday it's clear that, more than ever, comic book geeks have a lot of friends from around the globe.
Comic-Con International, which saw its 38th annual bash kick off this week, is expected to see record attendance in 2007 with more than 124,000 people turning up in San Diego to meet like-minded lovers of comic books and superheroes.
Hollywood invaded Comic-Con a few years ago as movies based on crime fighters like Spider-Man and Batman caught fire at box offices. This year, graphic novels are holding sway over more fans, and Japanese anime makers are out in force.
It's gone mainstream, said Mark Irwin, 36, who has been coming since he was 12 years-old. It's not about comic books any more.
Nick McWhorter, special projects manager for graphic novel publisher Dark Horse, called Comic-Con a pop culture event.
Hard-core comic collectors and fans still flock to Comic-Con, but newer forms of graphic arts are gaining crowds. Some 60 Japanese anime cartoons are playing each day, and popular Japanese graphic novels called manga are drawing fans.
The influence of Japanese arts is so strong that people dressed as manga or anime characters -- unidentifiable to the uninitiated -- now outnumber those in costumes from Hollywood's Star franchises: Star Trek, Stargate and Star Wars.
Graphic novels, which are the comics' younger and, some say, more sophisticated sibling, are more common this year.
THE HOLLYWOOD BUZZ
It's not all sci-fi and superheroes, it's movies and novels, said McWhorter. These (conventioneers) are the people who get out on the Web and blog and create a buzz about this stuff -- they make it happen for us.
In recent years, Hollywood has taken notice of the fans at Comic-Con, and their ability to create publicity for movies. Hollywood has again come out in force this year.
Movie studios including New Line Cinema, Warner Brothers, Paramount and Sony Pictures are showing previews of films like Beowulf, Resident Evil: Extinction and Shoot 'Em Up while also scouting for little-known comics or graphic novels to transform into a movie.
Stars like Clive Owen, Ed Burns and Kate Beckinsale will appear on panels, as will the cast and crew from television series including 24, Lost and the new Bionic Woman.
Oscar-winning actor Nicolas Cage is scheduled to appear with his son, Weston, to promote the launch of their own graphic novel later this year.
But despite Hollywood's huge presence, the times are changing at Comic-Con as die-hard fans of Star Wars find themselves mingling with the anime-loving crowds.
On Thursday, a tall girl with blazing pink hair, latex dress and fishnet stockings passed a Star Wars Stormtrooper and picked up his fallen light saber.
May the force be with you, he said, thanking her.
Whatever, she replied.