I have never been to any kind of Comi-Con, which has been a huge blight on my geek cred. I’d tell myself it wasn’t a big deal, that conventions are more money-sucking machines trying to make a profit than places for a community to gather and bond. But while that isn’t exactly wrong, it was also a convenient way to not feel left out, to convince myself I wasn’t missing out on something cool. I’m pretty good at self-delusion.
But then Wizard World announced they were coming to Cleveland, and I finally had my chance. Travel and lodging wouldn’t be an issue; this was right in my backyard. Huzzah! Finally I could be one of the cool kids!
So I set aside this past Sunday to just get lost in this crazy world and see what I had been missing. It was time to find out if these conventions were really worth the hype and to also hope they aren’t too overrun with furries because I have a phobia and things could get pretty bad.
Once I pick up my pass I walk through the entrance. The first thing I notice is how much the whole thing feels like a flea market. Granted, a flea market full of people wearing bow ties and fezzes and without the smell, but still a very similar feel.
The first set of booths I see are selling various toys and figures. Some sell board games. For a good number of the aisles, I’m basically walking through a toy store with a cover charge. And a fairly expensive one at that. There are shelves upon shelves of POP! Vinyl figures, because even though you can get them virtually anywhere, it’s totally worth a couple extra bucks to get them at a convention.
The further back you go, the more specialized the booths become. What start out as toys becomes posters and prints, custom made paintings and, of course, weapons. Various artists are on hand selling and signing their work. And then there are the celebrities, from whom you can buy autographs and get photo ops with whichever one gives you the biggest Dork Boner.
It all costs a pretty penny (also many dollars), but it is also REALLY COOL STUFF. Even including some of the general merchandise in the front, the entire place is just full of fantastic things any geek would want to hang up in his/her home or put on his/her shelves. It’s sensory overload, really, and with everything in such close proximity, it is designed to get you to spend as much money as possible.
“This is what you wanted,” it says, as it begins to suck the money right out of you because how could you NOT want a flask made like an NES cartridge? And it is expected that you buy things, because why else be there? In this sense, the convention is like an El Rey for the geeks, dorks and nerds of society.
But cool, let’s say you’ve come to terms with draining your bank account. We’re throwing caution to the wind here – let’s splurge on some celebs! You buy photo op and autograph tickets (because they are sold separately, naturally) for your favorite famous people. It’s time to wait in line. Then another line. And another line. Lines lines lines lines lines.
Honestly, this is something I knew going in. Of course there would be long lines to meet Bruce Campbell or William Shatner or that guy from the CW show your girlfriend loves. But even knowing this I was not prepared for just how much of the experience it would take up. I only waited in line for one photo op (Karen Gillan, because I am a good Whovian) but as I walked around afterwards I watched as others went from one line to the next. It was like Cedar Point, but instead of getting to go on a roller coaster at the end of each line you got a few seconds of a standing with a celebrity while being infinitely more excited about it than they were.
Don’t get me wrong, I have zero regrets about waiting in line to meet Ms. Gillan, no matter how briefly. That’s one of the upshots of being a fanboy; there is zero objectivity so it’s never a waste of time. But as I walked around and saw people waiting in other lines (sometimes still in the same line as I made my way back a half hour later) I began to question how worthwhile it really was. Removed from my own fanboyishness, it seemed like an awful lot of money and time to spend for maybe ten seconds with someone who will more likely than not forget your existence in an hour. From a rational standpoint it is ridiculous. Yet, every time I looked at the picture I had gotten, it didn’t seem so outlandish. It most certainly seemed worth it. If I learned one thing from this Comic-Con, it was that there is no objectivity in the land of fandom. If there was, fandom would be a lot less fun.
While the major celebrities spend as little time as possible with their fans, the artists are a whole different matter. They are more than willing to shoot the shit with you as walk by, even if you have no idea who they are and have no intention of buying their stuff. Artist Billy Martin, who draws for the Nickelodeon TMNT comics (and was the guitarist for Good Charlotte, go figure) got me talking by commenting on my Game of Thrones tattoo. Unlike the proprietors of the other booths, he wasn’t making a sales pitch. He just wanted to talk, and it was really cool.
Most of the other artists were like that. I stopped by and hung out with Shawn Coss and Kris Wilson of Cyanide and Happiness fame. They were doing free custom sketches with the purchase of their merchandise, and standing there talking with them as they sketched was great. Yeah, it was a way to increase sales and make money, but they also were genuinely happy to be there and meet fans. These were the kind of interactions I had hoped would be the norm at the convention.
Across from their booth I also found a Game Library. Here there were a slew of various kinds of board tabletop games, free to rent, and an area where people could teach each other how to play their favorite games. Amidst all the booths selling their various goods, this area struck me as a place for genuine community. More so than anywhere else it felt like this was the spirit of a convention, like-minded people getting together and sharing what they know.
As the hours went by and my disposable income dwindled, I decided it was time to head home. My first Comic-Con had left me with mixed feelings. In a lot of ways it was exactly what the cynical part of me had expected, a money-making operation whose concern was first and foremost making a profit. In essence, the entire point of being there is to spend money, whether on cool toys and art or celebrity encounters.
And yet, I will still come back next year. Because even though the whole thing is about making money, there is no denying that what they are selling is amazeballs. I managed to grab the fourth issue of the original Ninja Turtle comic series (!!!!!) and was pretty happy about it. If I had planned ahead better and brought more money with me, there were loads of other things I would have happily bought. It’s consumerism, but consumerism of all the things I find cool and interesting. So, the best kind of consumerism.
It’s a unique experience. A marketplace catering to a specific yet diverse segment of society. A store where you will meet people you wouldn’t meet anywhere else, or at the very least see them in a way you wouldn’t anywhere else. Try going to the mall and finding people dressed as the cast from Attack on Titan. Comi-Con is capitalism at its most fun, where buying things is treated more like an experience as opposed to a purchase. It’s a weird way to think of it, but it is probably the most concise and honest description I can think of.
Also, I avoided furries, so I am still able to sleep at night.