Comic-Con International, the most powerful echo chamber for the gloriously gaudy side of pop culture, will brings tens of thousands of fans to San Diego this weekend to buy toys, vintage comics, games and just about anything else a fanboy could want. There’s plenty to do, but here’s a selective guide to some of the programming that promises one-of-a-kind moments that, well, you can watch over and over again on YouTube.
THE ONE: JAMES CAMERON AND “AVATAR”
Thursday, 3 p.m., Hall H
“The game-changer.” That’s the nickname in some Hollywood circles for “Avatar,” the December alien-planet saga by James Cameron and the first full-fledged film project for the director since he sank every box-office record with his 1997 epic “Titanic.” Cameron is beloved in the fanboy sector for the first two films in “The Terminator” franchise, “Aliens” and the underwater (and underrated) 1989 adventure “The Abyss” and he has been sitting on this project more than a decade waiting for effects technology to catch up to his story, which is a sort of futuristic “Dances With Wolves” about a tough-guy Marine (Sam Worthington) who goes native on a rain-forest planet populated by big blue beasties. The 3-D technology, the new motion-capture approach (producer Jon Landau calls it “emotion capture” because of its nuance) and the immersive nature of the story led to the whispers that this is game-changing stuff, like “The Matrix.” “It’s a good nickname,” Cameron said last week, “but only if it actually does change the game.” Cameron will be on the panel with stars (Sigourney Weaver and Worthington among them) and Landau.
HITTING BIKINI BOTTOM: SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS
Saturday, 10:30 a.m., Room 6 D/E
It’s the 10th anniversary of “Spongebob SquarePants,” that surreal saltwater fantasy about the denizens of Bikini Bottom. Are you ready kids? The cast, led by the rubber-throated Tom Kenny, will do a live table reading of a classic episode from the first season of the Nickelodeon series. There will also be a Q&A and the screening of a never-before-seen episode, titled “Greasy Buffoons.”
DO THE VAMP: “THE TWILIGHT SAGA: NEW MOON”
Thursday at 1:45 p.m., Hall H
There’s really two different Comic-Cons this year: The one for “Twilight” … and the one for everybody else. The oh-so-dreamy Robert Pattinson and other cast member will stroll to the microphone on Thursday and about 5,000 young girls (and some not-so-young girls) will scream, swoon and shake in a way that recalls the old ‘N Sync concerts but without the concert amps. The movie arrives in November and, we suspect, the shrieking will last until then. This slot of Hall H time will be split with other Summit Entertainment features, among them the promising “Astro Boy,” which is good news/bad news for the “non-“Twilight” panels – everyone will see them, but how many will actually be listening?
STAR-POWER: IRON MAN 2
Saturday, 4:00 p.m., Hall H
You want movie stars? Robert Downey Jr., Mickey Rourke and Scarlett Johansson are all expected for this panel, which is the first look at director Jon Favreau’s follow-up to his sleek and smart summer 2008 hit “Iron Man.” It’s not clear what Favreau will bring in the way of footage or sneak peeks (the movie just finished principal shooting last week) but the director is the master of working the crowd and, well, if things go slow he can just tell people to stare at ScarJo while Downey does one of his trademark riffs on the cosmos, Jello, foreign films or whatever else is bouncing around his charmingly nutty noggin.
KILLER COMICS: DARWYN COOKE’S “THE HUNTER”
Friday, 2 p.m., Room 4
The coolest graphic novel of the year is “The Hunter,” a retro-styled crime tale (it looks like “Mad Men,” it reads like “The Grifters”) featuring the sublime illustrations of Darwyn Cooke, the star artist behind stylish Space Age saga “DC: The New Frontier.” “The Hunter” is based on Donald E. Westlake’s 1962 novel of the same title, which introduced Parker, the scowling, implacable career criminal who was the basis for films such as “Point Blank” with Lee Marvin and “Payback” with Mel Gibson. The heritage of the project is interesting but really, all that matters is right there on the pages of the graphic novel. Cooke is also on a panel with other noir-minded comics creators (that one is Thursday, 2 p.m., Room 5AB), if you want to learn about more killer comics without capes.
TV BODY COUNT! “DEXTER,” “TRUE BLOOD,” “BONES”
Various times, Ballroom 20
Superheroes? Who said Comic-Con is about superheroes? Take these panels with the stars of three of the best (and sexiest) shows on television. “True Blood” (Saturday, 5:15, Ballroom 20) is the raunchy, gory and loopy Louisiana-based show about vampires who “come out of the casket” in modern-day America and spend a lot less time posing than the bloodsuckers in “Twilight.” The “Bones” panel (Friday, 3 p.m., Ballroom 20) features show-runner Hart Hanson and stars David Boreanaz and Emily Deschanel, who will be making their first big public appearance since rolling around in the sack together on the season finale. The new season of “Dexter” premieres Sept. 27 and everyone’s favorite do-good serial killer will be married this time around; star Michael C. Hall leads the panel (Thursday, 5 p.m., Ballroom 20), which will be moderated by KROQ-FM (106.7) funnyman Ralph Garman. ALSO: HBO’s “True Blood” is sponsoring this year’s Masquerade Ball, which begins Saturday at 8:45 p.m. also in Ballroom 20.
UNALIVE AND KICKING: ZOMBIE WALK
Thursday, 7:30 p.m., Corner of 4th and Broadway
More than 500 people have signed up to join this costumed parade of, well, zombies. The plan is to weave through the Gaslamp Quarter in something that might end up resembling a tribute to the late Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video. The real goal, though, is to promote the film “Zombieland,” which stars Woody Harrelson. To get you in the proper moldering spirit, professional makeup artists will be at the Sony Pictures set-up at Booth 4313 for free zombifications. Harrelson and other stars from the film will also be at Hall H on Saturday at 2:45 p.m. to discuss the film.
KEVIN SMITH: JUST BEING KEVIN SMITH
Saturday, 5:15 p.m., Hall H
The filmmaker, comics writer and fanboy icon is flying in from New York to charm and assault the ears of his constituency. The man behind “Clerks” and “Chasing Amy” is now filming the delicately titled “A Couple of Dicks” with Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan and while he may talk about that project specifically, he is just as likely to launch into an X-rated rant about, well, anything.
MEET JONAH AND ELI: WARNER BROS. FILMS
Friday, 10 a.m., Hall H
Pound for pound, the most revealing panel in Hall H may the rundown of upcoming Warner Bros. films, with cast and creators from upcoming features: The post-apocalyptic “The Book of Eli” (star Denzel Washington will be making his first visit to Comic-Con); the adaptation of the DC Comics western antihero “Jonah Hex” (which stars Josh Brolin and John Malkovich); “Where the Wild Things Are,” which brings together the vision of Spike Jones and the music of the Arcade Fire; and the reconstituted “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” this time with Jackie Earle Haley wearing the talons and striped sweater.
SPOOKY GENIUS: TIM BURTON
Various times, Hall H
The film director who brought the world “Batman,” “Ed Wood,” “Sweeney Todd” and “Beetlejuice” will be at Comic-Con as a guest speaker for the first time. First he will be part of the Disney 3-D panel (Thursday, 11 a.m., Hall H) to make the first public presentation of his darkly envisioned ”Alice in Wonderland,” which will star Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter. (That panel will also touch on the upcoming ”Tron” sequel and the Robert Zemeckis adaptation of “A Christmas Carol.”) The next day Burton will be back (Friday, 2:30 p.m., Hall H) as the producer of “9,” the animated fantasy epic directed by Shane Acker and starring Elijah Wood and Jennifer Connelly, who will join in the panel as well.
Photo: Mark Fellman / 20th Century Fox