This weekend I went to the MCM Comic Con in London. It was a poorly organized, over crowded affair with very little going for it. On the plus side, I got to attend a question and answer session with the lovely Edgar Wright and had the pleasure of meeting one of my favourite television writers of all time, Jane Espenson. My friends have always looked at me strangely when I tell them I’m excited to go to a convention, so I wanted to share some thoughts on why conventions don’t deserve the bad rap they get.
My first convention
I still remember my very first convention. It was a tiny affair, held in the Plano (Texas) community center – the same place they held the Amish crafts fair in. The event was a Star Wars specific convention, with Anthony Daniels and Dave Prowse attending. I was ten years old and wearing my coolest R2-D2 and C-3PO t-shirt. There were tables and tables of every kind of Star Wars memorabilia imaginable. I wanted to buy everything but my ten-year-old shoestring budget wouldn’t stretch very far.
Of course, what I had really come for was the autographs, particularly Anthony Daniels. I was in the queue, waiting patiently, when he came down amongst us. He could only stay for another half an hour, so he would have to stop… at the woman with the broken arm, standing right in front of me. I felt my face turn a bright puce; the tears were ready, with ugly scrunched-up facial movements that even a mother doesn’t love. My mother says she looked at him pleadingly, desperately, until he changed his mind, and said he could fit in everyone until the pregnant woman a few behind us.
When it was my turn, I was so nervous I barely spoke to him. He could tell I was a convention virgin, and asked me if I would like a photo with him. While I busied myself in a deer-in-headlights daze, my mother cursed her stupidity for not bringing her camera (oh, the days before smartphones, how did we survive?!). Dave Prowse was a grumpy asshole, barely grunting any acknowledgement that I existed. But it didn’t matter. I had met actual people who were in the best movie ever made. It was the best moment I’d ever had and I treasured the copy of my Star Wars Omnibus (novels) that I had them sign.
There are several different kinds of conventions and it is important not to mix them up. With each type comes a different kind of attendee (for the most part, you then have people like me who like to blend among all of them).
1) Single universe conventions: For instance, a Star Wars convention or Whedonverse. My first convention as an adult was of this type – Red Dwarf Fan Club’s Dimension Jump. What I particularly like about this kind of a convention is that you know that everyone there is a kindred spirit. They are all major geeks for that one show or film, so you know instantly that even if you are the shyest person around, you could easily start a conversation with any person there. Famous examples of this kind are Empire Day and Creation Entertainment’s Star Trek con.
2) Comic-con: Even non-geeks will have heard of San Diego Comic-Con. These days San Diego is an important event for production companies to build hype for their upcoming blockbusters – this is not a place for the C-list celebrities no one remembers, but something A-listers are required to attend as part of their promotional duties. While San Diego has departed somewhat from its original purpose, standard comic-cons are just that: conventions featuring comics. There is, I admit, a lot of crossover with generic popular culture cons, however.
3) Popular culture conventions: This kind of convention is the most common, and the most generic. A lot of ‘sci-fi conventions’ really fall under this category, as they cover a multitude of genres, mediums (films, television, comics, books, games, anime), and levels of geek-out.
4) Autograph events: These are the conventions that make me shudder a little. This is where washed-up sports stars and bit-part actors tend to end up. I wouldn’t even include it if I hadn’t heard others refer to these as conventions. Please don’t. Just pretend they don’t exist, they have none of the fun or sillyness that goes hand in hand with other conventions.
Five reasons you should go to a convention and one reason not to
When people find out that I am a regular attendee at conventions, they either develop a quizzical, confused expression or start looking at me as though I were some kind of leper. How could someone so normal looking be one of them, they wonder. People come to the idea of ‘conventions’ with their own preconceptions – but none of them ever ask me exactly why I like going to them. Sure, they involve a lot of queuing, and that’s never fun, but trust me, there’s oodles of fun to be had at a good convention.
Isn’t every girl’s favourite past time shopping?! Ok, so it isn’t mine, unless you’re talking about memorabilia/geekery shopping! I hate clothes shopping, but nothing is worse than shopping for shoes. But looking through countless booths of all kinds of geeky goodies is endless fun. Wanting to buy everything, even the ridiculously priced nonsense that I wouldn’t really ever want in my house is part of the fun. I’ve never walked out of a convention having bought too much, but I’ve picked up a few items I’ll always treasure. For instance, while I was studying screenwriting I picked up a book of Buffy the Vampire Slayer scripts. It was great to be able to study actual scripts for a show I loved.
2) Be yourself
Cosplay is synonymous with conventions. People show up wearing all sorts of outfits – especially if the con is featuring anime or manga, you never know who will end up catching the tube with you. While Cosplay is something I have always avoided (a kind of imaginary line I drew early on – if I don’t cross it, I’m still somewhat normal, right?), I do love that people feel comfortable enough to be themselves at conventions. It isn’t just the extravagant Alien costumes, or the giant teams of (new) Battlestar Galactica pilots, but the thirteen different Arnold Rimmers in gingham dresses, wigs, with Mr Flibble puppets. Out in the ‘real’ world one might be ridiculed for loving their favourite show that much, but not at con. Come for the geekery, stay for the friends.
3) Meet your icons
This is where every fangirl or boy gets to freak the fuck out, jump up and down, have burning red cheeks, and forget how to form actual sentences. I like to thrust my chin up in the air and think I’m better than all those screaming idiots… ‘I’m able to chat to them, they’re just celebrities’, I say haughtily. Lies! I saw Leonard Nimoy (with three bodyguards in tow) walking in front of me, and was so mesmerized by the vision that I almost followed him into the men’s room. Me? Cool? Never! These people that I grew up hero-worshipping are real live, actual people. I can see them in front of me, I can talk to them, and when I watch my DVDs when I get home I get to yell at the tv excitedly ‘I’ve met them!’ How could anyone really argue that meeting their idols wouldn’t be awesome? So what if it was organized for a large group and I paid them for an autograph (or not, Jane Espenson and Brad Bell rock!)? I have an ever-growing collection of autographs and photos that I will keep forever. More than that, I have awesome memories of idols of mine smiling at me!
4) Artists draw you pictures
Comic book artists are unique in that they can offer you something no one else can. Joss Whedon couldn’t make you a short film, Ronald D. Moore couldn’t write me my very own episode of Battlestar or DS9, and it would be tricky for even Bill Shatner to act out an episode of Trek within the confines of an autograph booth at a convention. But a comic book artist can draw you a personalized picture of your favourite comic book character. This is an incredibly personal experience and it is unbelievably awesome if you love that comic and that artist. This is why my sketch of Bigby and Snow White by Fables artist Mark Buckingham has pride of place above my desk.
5) Friends are forever
When I first moved to the UK, I came over a week before the semester started (I was starting a year on exchange at the University of Bristol) to go to the Red Dwarf convention. I didn’t know anyone and I hadn’t been to a convention since my photo-failure with Anthony Daniels. The first night of the convention consisted of a Red Dwarf trivia quiz. I sat nervously on the edge of the table farthest to the back… when an equally timid young girl, also by herself, sat next to me. Since that day, we have been firm friends. We have been to countless conventions together since; I even went to her wedding.
The not so awesome
Not everything at conventions is totally awesome; I’ll give you that. I have always hated the bad attitude that surrounded ‘norms’. That pack mentality when a convention attendee sees a curious pedestrian giving them a funny look. The venom with which they treat people who don’t like what they like is palpable, and quite frankly disappointing. I don’t think anyone with a geeky passion could say they managed to go through their life without being teased about what they like, so why tease others? You know how much it sucks guys, so lay off!
And then of course there’s Hentai. ‘Nuff said.
Conventions can be great fun. All I really have to say is – don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.