SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - Like wannabe Dark Knights answering the call of the "bat signal," throngs of grown men wearing tights and capes converge this week to revel in all manner of superhero lore and merchandising at the 39th annual Comic-Con Convention.
More than 125,000 people are expected to attend the four-day event, which opens Thursday, to indulge in a veritable feast of the latest in comic-related books, movies, toys, games and memorabilia.
Tickets to the convention, which has grown to encompass large doses of science-fiction, fantasy and comedy fare as well as the more traditional comic book genre, sold out months ago and are being scalped on the Internet for upward of $400 apiece, organizers said.
Many attendees admit they come for the traditional Superman fan club soirees, rare memorabilia exhibits, and panel discussions on topics such as the "Klingon Lifestyle," derived from the famous "Star Trek" TV series.
However "the Con," as it is known among fans, has changed considerably since its inaugural meeting nearly four decades ago, when about 300 geeky fans milled around piles of musty comic books. Long catering mostly to men, many of whom dress as their favorite superheroes, the event has sought in recent years to attract more women and families.
Hollywood studios in particular have turned Comic-Con into a major event for various film and television promotions that now account for about a quarter of the convention's offerings.
With blockbuster films like Batman sequel "The Dark Knight" heating up the summer box office and rocketing the superhero genre to new heights, Comic-Con has become a key marketing platform for studios seeking to tap the media-savvy, word-of-mouth enthusiasm of comic book devotees.
"When fans are excited about something, they become evangelists and, in turn, they become buzz-builders at a very grass-roots level, and that is an extremely valuable asset in this cluttered environment," Warner Bros. Television Group executive Lisa Gregorian told Reuters.
For example, Warner is going all out to promote J.J. Abrams' upcoming sci-fi TV thriller "Fringe," which debuts this fall on the Fox network. An extended pilot for the series will be shown at two different venues, Gregorian said.
"This is a way to reach audiences intrigued by genre films," said producer Joel Silver of Dark Castle Entertainment, who will attend with cast members in tow to promote several movies, including "Ninja Assassin" and the Guy Ritchie-directed thriller "RocknRolla."
Lionsgate's upcoming action drama "The Spirit," based on Will Eisner's comic strip about a dashing ex-cop who returns from the dead to fight crime, also will be showcased.
"Star Wars" fans will get their fix from a presentation for next month's release of the computer-animated movie "Star Wars: The Clone Wars" and a related TV series slated for the fall.
Jeffrey Godsick, marketing president for specialty studio Fox Walden, said Comic-Con is "bigger than Sundance" and "more like Cannes" in terms of the variety and the worldwide exposure it offers as a showcase for new films.
Fox Walden is renting two cars of a passenger train to ferry critics and reporters to the convention from Los Angeles a day early while immersing them in a "pre-event" featuring the sci-fi film "City of Ember," which opens in October.
This year at least four major film comedies will be added to the preview mix at Comic-Con, including "Disaster Movie," "Tropic Thunder," "Pineapple Express" and "Hamlet 2."
"We always made movies that had a countercultural youth side to them, and we've always been closer to that kind of alternative, cutting-edge side of Comic-Con," Focus Features executive James Schamus said.
Editing by Steve Gorman and Philip Barbara