Back in the springtime, I decided not to go to the San Diego Comic Convention. I’d thought about attending. A big sci-fi event in my hometown that I’d never actually attended? Maybe I should try it once. Ironically, a promotional magazine I found for Comic Con was actually what turned me away from the idea, aspects of sci-fi/fantasy/geek culture that I could do without. [flipping the pages] Jeez, cosplay? Forgot about that shit. On no, Dungeons & Dragons? Count me out.
But between now and then, I’d moved about 40 miles closer to the convention center, and I had two roommates who were going, so I let curiosity win out.
Now, I am a nerd (or possibly a geek, depending on your definitions). I have a heavy grounding in sci-fi, fantasy, comic books, video games, computers, horror, metal, punk, goth, anime, and all sorts of disdained subcultures. And even with all that, I was way unprepared for Comic Con. I’m told that more than 100,000 people attended over the course of the 4-day event. My head exploded several times.
Well, let me back up and put on my media analyst hat (or media analyst cat-ears, as the situation warrants). While Comic Con used to be a place for sci-fi/fantasy fans to gather, sell things to each other, dress up, and meet their idols, it has transformed quite a bit with the boom in other entertainment media based on comic-books. In addition to all its original functions, Comic Con is also a huge advertising opportunity for movie studios and broadcasters and toymakers and video game companies to impress, woo, and generate buzz among their target market. Hell, some of the ads and products had nothing to do with comics or sci-fi; they were just new movies that they thought would appeal to the geeky.
For this reason, and my aversion to advertising, I’ll try to talk about the convention without actually helping to promote any company’s products.
Well, except this one because it was such a surprise to me: was I the only one who didn’t realize how popular the Naruto anime is? I feel like it’s the year 2000 and I’m saying “what’s a ‘pokemon’?” I mean, I knew that Naruto must have some fans, as it is broadcast on the popular Cartoon Network, but jesus! I saw no fewer than 200 people wearing copies of the headband worn by the show’s characters, and probably a good 40 people dressed as the main character from head to toe. Easily the most popular costume there. Not Batman, not Darth Vader, Naruto. Weird.
First of all, let’s say a few words praising “not following the rules”, or at least “not following the herd.” We arrived at the convention center, and there was an immense line outside. One of our posse had been to the convention on a previous day, and told us that this was not the line to get tickets, because you bought tickets inside. So, rather than wait politely outside for an hour in the crushing heat, we just found a door, walked in, and bumbled around until we found the ticket line. I think we waited a grand total of six minutes. Bam. There was one funny moment when an apparently untrained security guard tried to tell us that we couldn’t buy tickets unless someone who already had a ticket went and bought them for us. “You need a ticket to buy a ticket?” (I pled for sanity, but it didn’t work).
I had every intention of snapping all sorts of photos for the event, but my borrowed digital camera didn’t charge up overnight. So I decided to just keep a list of what crazy costumes I saw on people walking by. I gave up on that as well, after it got too crazy. I could print that list here, but most of y’all probably wouldn’t know half the characters and we’d all be wasting our time.
My favorite costume I dubbed “V for Boxhead.” He was a skinny white guy wearing a tank shirt, high-cut denim shorts, and a Guy Fawkes mask (the mask worn by the main character in the movie/comic “V for Vendetta”). Then, he wore a small cardboard box on his head, covering the mask, and held a small rake in his hand. Who was he supposed to be? No fucking idea. I saw him multiple times the first hour, usually in the grip of security guards. It is my theory that security kept seeing his really short shorts and thinking that he should be expelled, only to find out from their superiors that there were no rules against that, and then had to let him go. Wash, rinse, repeat.
While Comic Con has all sorts of panel discussions and movie screenings and celebrity appearances, what blew me away was the main floor. Literally hundreds of booths for comic book sellers, t-shirts, toys, collectibles, models, video games, movies, art, and clothing. Most amazing to me was the number of indepdenents, comic book creators who aren’t affiliated with the top (and seemingly only) comic companies. I wonder if those guys sell enough to make ends meet. If so, it makes compelling evidence for micro-media: instead of a few companies producing media products for millions, we can have thousands of creators making media for an audience of thousands, or even hundreds. A lot of these indie comics were great, wonderful art and style (although I don’t know if the writing was any good, didn’t take the time to stop and read any). And of course, some were crap, bland drawings were the characters barely maintained consistency from panel to panel. But the worst were the indie comics that tried to convince you that they were Big and you Should Know Who They Are, trying to make you feel like you’re the only one who’s never heard of Gunslinger Raccoon and the Deviant Squad or something.
Even more shocking than the amount of osbscure/indie/tiny comic companies was the number of gothic obscure/indie/tiny comic companies. I’d never thought of goth and comics being much of a match. Now I know better.
And I was surprised and disappointed at the number of indie comics trying to break through by focusing on super-sexualized female characters. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was.
One of my favorite booths was the insurance booth. One brave visionary thinking that maybe he could sell some policies to nerds who want to protect their comic collections. I doubt he got much business.
The crowd seemed… pretty normal. While it would be easy to imagine such a gathering to be a freakshow of nerd stereotypes, it didn’t look that different that a crowd you might see working at a gas station or reading on a college campus. Maybe more tattoos than usual, slightly younger, more Superman t-shirts, and I’m pretty sure I heard some guy speaking Klingon, but otherwise not too different from the mainstream. And although you might expect it to me a strictly male affair, there seemed to be almost as many men as women (in the audience. The comic creators are still predominantly male).
Now, some truly crappy pics taken on my camera phone:
Pretty much the sterotype of a comic convention, what you’d expect to see. Superman, Supergirl, Robin, Batman, Batgirl. I think Green Arrow and Hawkgirl were just out of frame. No, those two people in the front aren’t supposed to be heroes, they just jumped into the picture.
Various Batman villains. The Joker was pretty impressive. Lara Croft seems to be checking them out in the background.
I was very pleased to get this picture of Galactus, Devourer of Worlds, in line to buy a hot dog.
Sadly, this trio of pictures gives the misleading impression that everyone was dressed like a comic book superhero. Not true. First of all, maybe 10% of the crowd was in costume, compared with 90% who weren’t. As I mentioned before, Naruto was the most popular costume, followed by characters from the Kingdom Hearts and Final Fantasy video games, followed by stormtroopers, Darth Vaders, a number of Jack Sparrows (mostly female, interestingly enough), and enough Fetts for a bounty hunter family reunion. Overall, I’d say that the costumes ran 75% anime/anime-esque video games, 15% Star Wars, 10% superhero.
At one point, I walked along the line for folks waiting to enter the Masquerade Party, most in costume. It looked like these folks could get up on a small stage and have a bevy of photographers take their pictures. One guy dressed like an anime samurai was on this stage, kept posing dramatically with his sword. His face was drawn up in an enormous grin, and he was obviously having the time of his life. I felt a cold disdain for this fellow as I walked by, not certain why, until the words for it leapt out and tackled me once I rounded the corner. “You’re not really a samurai, you jackass! You may be dressed as one and be getting photographed with a sword, but you’re still not a samurai!” I suppose that was a bit harsh, but I really have a thing against self-delusion. I think that plent of these folks dress up like these cool characters and think that some of that cool the rubs off onto them. It doesn’t. Wolverine is a badass mutant who tears up his enemies with his claws. You’re a dude with fake blades coming out of his hands. Not really the same thing.
I could of course launch into a long, sociological essay here about comics and fans, but I’ll keep it short. Once upon a time, we had folklore, stories of heros and villains and fools that were what we’d now call “public domain.” No one “owned” King Arthur or Ananzi the spider or Paul Bunyan. Everyone knew enough core elements of the characters and their worlds that just about anyone could create their own stories about these figures. Of course, the same is today. Who among us couldn’t make up our own story about Batman or Captain Kirk or Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Harry Potter? Stories are told and re-told, and in the process, those worlds and characters are affirmed, re-created, refined.
It also seems to me that comic creators as well as the current entertainment media nexus are heightening this process. Comic book companies take decades-old characters and reshape them, re-contexualize them, sometimes even rewriting the characters’ history and origins. As comics move from the page to other media (TV, movies, video games), the stories are again retold, and trimmed back as much as possible: which elements are absolutely necessary for this character to be this character?
It’s long been a theory of mine that “nerds” are people who like figuring out the rules. They often enjoy science and math and computers becaure there are systems of rules that can be learned and mastered and understood. I think that this drive to figure out the rules also pushes them into these fantasy and sci-fi worlds. What are Superman’s powers and weaknesses? How does a warp engine work? How far is Rivendell from Gondor? Many of the mega-fans I’ve met are people trying to get to the bottom of these fictional things, see them as a whole. Possibly, I would guess, because the real world is too irregular and complex to comprehend the same way.
I bought two graphic novels (”really thick comics”) at the convention, one of which was amazing and deserves some mention. Uncle Sam is a surreal political comic with fantasically realistic artwork, about a confused, hallucinating man who is either the centuries-old personification of America, or a homeless man losing his mind (or both, I suppose). A lot of dark humor and fierce reality in there.
In conclusion, Comic Con was a big thing that happened.
Oh, and I’m pretty sure that Nicolas Cage was high.
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