Though I’ve been a lifelong comic book reader with a reverence for the creators behind the content, and an enthusiast of the geekier aspects of pop culture, I didn’t experience my first comic book convention until my late 30s. By the time I learned of such things, the financial resources needed to attend a convention were far out of reach, and I was living snugly behind the too cool for school façade of my teen years. As an adult, my growing aversion to large crowds kept me at a distance. Also, I regarded the comic conventions a gathering reserved for of overzealous weirdos that like to dress up in spandex and capes. I wasn’t that much of a weirdo…right? Since 2009, my local comic book shop has hosted a summer convention called ComiConn. Each year as the date draws closer, flyers advertising the con find their way among my weekly comic purchases and copy of Comic Shop News. Succumbing to curiosity, and wanting to support my neighborhood comic shop and the comic book industry at large, I set aside my crowd anxieties and attended the 3rd annual ComiConn.
I quickly wove my way through the dense crowds to the showroom area, digging into comic long boxes and vintage toy bins offered up by the vendors. Shoulder to shoulder with fellow fans, my crowd anxiety fell away as I focused on filling in the gaps in my Swamp Thing collection. I began to feel a dizzying inability to focus, a sensation that was not wholly unpleasant. There the crowded convention rooms of a Marriott hotel was a vast assortment of much of what I loved in American pop culture and I began to feel at home.
I was in awe at the volume of people who turned out for the convention, a colorful mix of attendee, both costumed and civilian. The crowd was peppered with Batmen, Spider-men, zombies, harajuku, and more. I started to feel an inexplicable sense of sympathetic embarrassment for the cosplayers. Socially, and outside of the mid-Fall months, costumed adults are generally regarded as a bit odd. But what was the harm? Certainly, seeing a young child in a grocery store line in April, dressed as Batman seems entirely normal. I wonder what age wonderment and abandon are outlawed. The cosplayers presence certainly added flair to your otherwise run-of-the-mill crowd. After all, seeing a guy dressed as Batman merely signaled that I was among people with whom I shared a common interest. Had I forgotten the Halloween of my freshman year in high school when I visited the local mall dressed as Tim Burton’s Batman? Apparently I had.
On Halloween of 1989 my mom dropped me off at the mall, which was hosting a safety conscious trick-or-treat event. In a misshapen, store-bought Batman mask, and a homemade costume of spandex and cardboard, I walked the corridors of the brightly lit mall as the Dark Night. It didn’t matter that I was a slightly pudgy teenager in flimsy cardboard body armor that reeked of spray paint and rubber cement. I was giving in to my fandom in the geekiest way and enjoying myself in the process. Every so often, a camera wielding parent would stop and ask Batman if he’d mind posing for a photo with their delighted child. I’d oblige by fanning out my cape holding the pose until the shutter committed us to film.
I can’t help feeling a little mortified by this disclosure, and I’m just now realizing that I hadn’t even shared it with my wife until today. It wasn’t sympathy embarrassment I was feeling for the cosplayers at that my first con, it was self-shame. Somewhere along the way I started to feel embarrassed about my geekier tendencies and segregated them from the rest of my life. In seeing the cosplayers, I recognized a closeted part of myself. When did I become so inhibited? What happened to my imagination and childlike abandon?
It’s socially acceptable for a sports fan to show support and adoration for a team by wearing a hat or shirt bearing the team logo or going all in and wearing official replica team jersey and painting their faces with team colors. Con-goers aren’t that dissimilar to sports fans, only we choose to show support for team Batman, Star Trek, Firefly, Spider-Man, Doctor Who, and so on, while the conventions are like our Superbowl, or the world cup. We gather to celebrate imagination, creativity, and wonderment
Since attending our first ComicConn, my wife Miss So and I have attended six more conventions. Apparently we enjoy the experience. In them, we have found our tribe. Much like the parallel play we once employed as children, we engage in an adjacent experience with like-minded people. We’ve met some of our favorite artists and writers, attended enlightening panels, and met a few celebrities like Michael Maronna and Danny Tamberelli of Pete and Pete, as well as a member of the Dalek Empire, who was just lovely in person by the way.
We’ve enjoyed digging through vintage comics and toys, and taking home some rare finds like an Automan action figure that I never knew existed, but had to have, or the Batman vs The Incredible Hulk giant-sized comic book crossover that I always wanted. I even got to experience the mechanics of a TV show when I bought Miss So a vintage plush Chewbacca in front of the Toy Hunter cameras. My segment never aired which is a shame because I thought that my employment of the Jedi mind trick as a haggling maneuver would have been some good television. Such celebrity encounters and consumerism may seem like nothing more than celebrity worship and materialism respectively. Perhaps, but they fuel my creative nature. They are inspirations that keep me from second guessing my own ideas and concepts, and most of all they help to remind me of who I am.
This is not to say that fan conventions are a utopian safe haven. Capitalizing on the current geek chic trend, some of the larger conventions have become bloated homogeneous events that cater to a broader audience. Unfortunately, some members of this broader audience possess an ignorance of and lack respect for the represented subcultures. I hope that such members are a small minority in these or any population.
Recently, Miss So and I attended Special Edition NYC, a strictly comics oriented offshoot of New York Comic Con and were truly inspired by an unlikely duo. We stood in line to have Andy Diggle sign a copy of Swamp Thing that he’d penned, and reached his table just as a pair of young comic book fans approached. The two boys didn’t have anything for the writer to sign they just sputtered out questions for the industry pro. The taller one, a boxy kid that looked like an adorable mini Phillip Seymour Hoffman, did most of the talking as his sidekick, a skinny kid that reminded me of Sanjay from Sanjay and Craig, looked on in awe. Noticing a stack of Robert Kirkman’s Thief of Thieves, they asked Diggle how it was working with Robert Kirkman and professed their love for The Walking Dead. Perhaps surprised that such young kids were reading The Walking Dead, Andy Diggle asked the boys if they read the comics. Mini Phillip Seymor Hoffman proudly stated that he was all up caught up with the comics, to which Diggle admitted, “You’re farther along than me.” They went on to talk to Diggle about writing The Losers and hi experience having the book made into a movie. Finally, they asked if Mr. Diggle had any advice for aspiring comic book writers such as themselves to which he offered, “Read a lot of comics, and keep your scripts short.” They politely thanked him and moved on to the next table. Though I had come to the table to see Andy Diggle, the two young fans stole the show. I watched them in admiration as they hung on every bit of wisdom offered up by the writer. They were here on business, and I’d witnessed them networking with an industry bigwig. It reminded me of myself at that age when I spent most of my time drawing pictures of Swamp Thing and Batman in hopes of one day landing a job at DC Comics. Though awkward, the kids were unmistakably confident and clearly unashamed of their fandom. Suddenly I wanted them to sign my copy of Swamp Thing and ask if they’d mind taking a picture with me. I didn’t of course, because that would be weird. I don’t doubt that they’ll be behind a table doling out wisdom and signatures at some future con.
Realizing that we had managed to complete all of our intended Special Edition tasks in the first day, Miss So and I found ourselves with spare passes for day two. Not wanting to waste the passes, she caught up with the duo at the next booth and asked them if they could use them. They were appropriately suspicious at first but warmed when Miss So complimented mini Phillip Seymour on his T-shirt. It read, “How to Pick up Chicks,” and depicted a cartoon of a stick figure lifting a baby chicken off of the ground. To her compliment he replied, “Thanks. It’s my way.” That kid is my hero.
After assuring us that they would run it by their parents first, the kids politely thanked us for the passes and disappeared into the crowd. I don’t care if they scalp them outside; if anyone deserves the passes (or the cash the scalping yields) it’s those two. They are the kind of true believers who make the most of their fandom and imaginations, and I hope they never let it go. Sharing a crowded room with unabashed devotees of the imagination, young and old, costumed and incognito, is what I find so enjoyable about fan conventions.