Trodamus

My First Con: Thoughts on Chicago’s C2E2

In My Girlfriend Does Not Play Video Games, Webcomics on April 16, 2012 at 5:21 pm

As the title says, I’ve never been to a con before. I’m not even sure what I went to was a “con” in whatever classical sense that might govern these sorts of things. It wasn’t called “Chicago Comic Con” — I think that’s a different thing — but in the end there were comics at the McCormick place convention center. Did I have a good time? Will I be attending future cons?

No.

Actually, wait a second.

It isn’t that C2E2 was not enjoyable. It was that I was incapable of suppressing my rational thought processes enough to enjoy what was put in front of me. All of the booths, panels and cosplay could not stand against my rising tide of scrutiny or my pervasive skepticism about what exactly was on offer here.

To put this in perspective before going on, I’m a kind of infuriating Schrödinger’s comic fan, where I talk a good game but collapse under direct observation. I enjoy the idea of comics, and I enjoy hearing my friends excitedly tell me why such and such recent event was cool or sucked, but I don’t tend to buy or read comics myself.

As an outsider that ostensibly appears very interested in the subject matter, the con was like walking through some elaborate joke where my casual interest was stretched to the point of absurdity. This isn’t the most evident in the panels — the cosplayers and porn-hawking art booths provide that — but the panels provide the best examples.

Days before the event I’d planned out an itinerary that showcased my disdain for autograph lines and a general interest in discussions around the issues in comics. Most of the panels I’d wanted to see fell on Saturday  so that’s the day I bought tickets for. I avoided what I might call “fan appreciation” panels like those held by the fourth and fifth male and female leads from The Walking Dead and stuck to conceptual discussions instead.

Our first panel was “The Future of Superheroes” held by the AV Club that I assumed were legitimate fixtures in the Chicago comics tapestry but in actuality I had no idea who they were or how they might be qualified to lead this panel. My thoughts going were that this panel might discuss how superheroes are evolving from being anthropomorphic power sets that rely on the hero/villain dichotomy to something more nuanced and multifaceted. Or maybe, with movies and webcomics beginning to produce original non-Marvel/DC heroic works, the discussion might focus on casting a wider net on what we mean by “superhero” or how that’s generally expanding now that many non-comic fans are becoming superhero fans. Or … something.

Instead, the panel basically had one question: will superhero comics be around forever. Answer: yes!

The panel had zero self-awareness and no ability to discuss comics as anything other than a fan that feels like the lumps of ostracization are somehow badges of legitimacy. A large portion of the hour was given towards paradoxically touting the artistic value and flexibility of the medium while expressing skepticism about whether comics about people with powers but no costumes could even use the term “superhero” — a concept everyone at the panel clearly felt threatened by. Audience members expressed staged amazement that, with the rising popularity of comic-derived shows and movies (most especially The Walking Dead) that none of their co-workers have gone up to them about the base comic (“everyone knows that I’m a big comic nerd” more than a few people prefaced).

It did not occur to them that these people might have zero interest in comics even as they line up to watch comic book movies and television shows. And that this is actually okay. I don’t think it occurs to them that, just as there are these people, there are also plenty of people that want to read comics but don’t (like me), because our brief forays into doing so have shown us how poorly the comics industry treats its fans.

When I read a comic, I see a number of ads within the panels themselves for other comic lines (“See Spectacular Spider-Man #134! -Ed”). If I choose to ignore these references, the next issue is fraught with references to a story I never read and stars characters I don’t recognize. This, assuming I managed to pick a good starting place. Where do you hop in when a story has been going on for decades? I want to read about Tony Stark has he is before becoming Iron Man and enjoy his progression from just surviving with the cave armor to eventually allying with SHIELD. This would be decades of comics with a number of choices among retellings and reboots.

This issue was acknowledged and they briefly name dropped a dozen good “entry” comics to get into things. These were more “so you like comics” recommendations. They didn’t address this fundamental flaw but just looked at it as “one of those things,” not realizing that they should finish the statement with “that’s killing the industry.”

So one down.

Next up was “Before Watchmen”, a panel that I had, in my naive underinformed state, believed would discuss the impact of Watchmen on comics if focusing more on the nature of the bronze age of comics untainted by it’s massive influence. I talked this up to my girlfriend, who was incredibly interested in all of this new information about comics, that there were different ages that had different tones and focuses, the comics code and so on. She was excited. She even wanted to watch Watchmen with me, something she’d refused to do prior to this. I was excited too.

Turns out it was a DC “exclusive peak” (hours before all of what they discussed would go online as part of their preview event, mind you) about the new Before Watchmen line that delves into the past and origins of the names and faces of Alan Moore’s seminal graphic novel.

It should go without saying that they had little to say regarding the artistic integrity of doing so, how these stories would tie into the literary merit of the original work or anything other than the most kid-gloves presentation of a contentious topic.

And the audience loved it! Even as the panel mediator basically asked each artist and writer the same question (“How awesome is this? How awesome are you? Great!”), fans cheered and loved it. Even as the panel had one woman contributor that was very clearly assigned to the “girl’s book” of the Silk Spectre that was afraid to talk because she knew no one cared about her efforts to expand the women-unfriendly world of Watchmen into something a bit more inclusive. Because this was after the “DC has a lot of rape in it, doesn’t it? Hahaha! Get it? Rape? For no reason but for the semblance of depth for our token female characters? Ahhh,” segment of the panel.

We left early to continue to the “Culture of Steampunk” panel. Again, I thought this might be some kind of interesting dissection, Victorian versus Edwardian steampunk, clockpunk versus gearpunk versus steampunk, different fictional works within the genre, discussions of the “punk” misnomer in the nomenclature, steampunk-adjacent movements like diesel punk and so on.

Instead, the panel was lead by people that basically created Chicago’s steampunk nightclub, who basically talked about how to make outfits and what music to listen to. They talked about themselves and how they got into the “movement” — which was interesting, to be sure, but not quite why I was there.

Lastly we had the webcomic panel, described as the folks from Blind Ferret and Explosm screwing around and that they might — might — answer questions.  True to form this was the most entertaining panel, lead by people that might have been comic fans but didn’t wear it on their sleeve like other attendees and mostly joked at each other’s espense. Ryan Sohmer was his famed prickish self, generally seeming to disdain the panel and the con in general but at this point I was in no hurry to disagree with that attitude.

All around the panels were booths stocked with various independent purveyors and comic shops. Why comic shops at a comic convention? Aren’t people there to buy comics directly from the source? This was interesting, especially when I found the two chaps from Dystopia Rising, an indie pen and paper RPG. We chatted briefly on a nicer level regarding post apocalyptic settings being well suited for adventuring and I left with their core rulebook, having spent ten dollars more than what Amazon offered.

But that felt good. They weren’t too turned inward on their own hobby. They could still talk to someone like me and have a normal enthusiastic conversation.

Beyond that there were clothing and costume boutiques, there to remind you that you could have spend several hundred dollars to come in costume like roughly a quarter of the con-goers did. Price gouging here turned me off of buying a new hat like few things can.

My girlfriend and I discussed at length why these people do what they do. She thinks it’s because they never really found an identity — something you’re supposed to do in high school. Instead they wandered and landed here, and decided that this was the identity they wanted, and that this was the place they would fit in, for a whole three days out of the year.

I’m not saying that there’s something wrong with geeks or liking comic books or anime. I like all of those things, and I can go toe-to-toe with most of their fans for name dropping and plot discussion. But there are these people you look at and something is just off about them? C2E2 (and other cons, I imagine) is where they all end up together feeling like a family, when they should be going to a bar and learning how to be social. Or whatever.

Same thing with the cosplayers, who through a combination of hats, corsets, mirrors and distraction try to get the attention that their sweatpants and ironic t-shirts fail to garner every other day of the year. No one understands them, but the truth is there’s not much to understand. They just like comics.

The most uncomfortable part is art row, where artists hawk their wares and seem desperate to accept nominal amounts of cash to briefly and poorly sketch on request. These tables are made up of a progression of original work which, failing to be sold, transforms into innumerable “fan” works (Deadpool and Wolverine by dozens of different artists!), which eventually slips into the danger zone with the blatantly pornographic imagery. Did you want to see what your favorite heroine would look like with huge breasts and no costume? Great place for that.

It is without a single trace of irony that one panel stated that there seems to be no comics you can give to young girls. Growing up in comics inspires these girls to dress in skin-tight skin-showing outfits that will titillate the men of these cons by verisimilitude to the objects of their objectification in mainstream comics. It isn’t a friendly place for women in general despite the many women fans that seem to accept the status quo, but the end result is that I would never take a young girl (or boy) here for fear of what she would learn about herself or how to interact with others.

Phew.

This whole last part may seem very judgmental. I like comic fans. I feel that they (in theory) have a good head on their shoulders and with moral standards told in stories such as Spider-Man they can’t be bad people. Comics are fun and exciting, and a ton of people make an interesting living within it and on its periphery. Cons are a place to feel part of the majority, where everyone likes what you like and you can shake hands with people out there living the dream.

But much like myself, I just don’t think it really stands up to direct observation.

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  1. Sorry to hear your first (and last?) con experience was so mediocre. I’ve never been to a comic book convention, so I can’t really comment on what one is like or how this one compares to another or whether they did anything explicitly wrong.

    I do get the impression that you may have expected too much of the panels, and that you were treating them as more intellectual discourse (which don’t get me wrong, I’d love) than the self-gratifying pats on the collective backs and promotional events that these often boil down to. It is unfortunate to hear that many of these panels gave an impression of being so belligerently inclusive, as it does inform much of my love/hate relationships with comics as a whole.

    I do read comics regularly enough, and spend enough money on them every month. Except, everything I read is licensed or extended off something I already like. I’ve been enjoying the current Buffy and Angel adaptations for the last few months and I’ve been giving the Archie comics Sonic the Hedgehog series (which I used to love) another go. I’ve been reading trade volumes of the Farscape continuation which I’ve been steadily enjoying (despite much of the art being kinda awful), Batman Beyond has been pretty cool and I’ve absolutely been loving the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series.

    I can’t say I spend money on anything really independent (which makes me a bad patron of the arts), but I also don’t indulge in the comic mainstream either for exactly the reasons you’ve stated: it’s too riddled in longterm continuity and numerous reboots. I want something with some degree of story, scope and intention to conclude (which most of the stuff I’m reading does work towards). Yet, of course, the longevity of these characters, enforced by this approach, is what has kept them relevant long enough to get live action films which I’m far more exciting for.

    In my case for cons, I’ve been going with El Wife to Anime Expo for the last few years. We tend to hear a lot about how this is hardly the best anime convention, or how it used to be better before they moved it to L.A. from Anaheim (I guess it got too mainstream and accessible). We don’t usually check out many panels unless they’re interviewing someone whose done a particular work we like, and I spend a chunk of my time checking out the booths to get anime paraphernalia and imported games that I might find difficult locating otherwise.

    The artist’s alley at AX sounds enough like what you’ve described, though I usually don’t see as much adult material in that section, funny enough (that’s reserved for the booths hawking imported doujinshi at escalated rates!). I think in some cases those individuals selling their dozen different drawings of Popular Character X might well be legitimate artists trying to get recognition somewhere to start their careers, either with those same characters or in that same field.

    I do disagree with your girlfriend’s assessment of why people embrace this lifestyle, though there are some people for whom it’s most likely true. Much of it comes from loving something enough that you sort of orient your life around it- and maybe it’s to fill a void made by the fact that so many people’s lives turn out unextraordinary (or even a lack of motivation to do anything extraordinary). I’ve often enough thought about my own life and what I would be doing with it if I wasn’t trying to build my own ideas and projects up; in truth, I’d probably do something similar, perhaps shooting for a better job than the one I’m currently holding (because it’s friendly to my schedule), but otherwise sinking a little into the worlds others have created in order to make up for the monotony of my own.

    In the end, I suppose you should measure a convention by what you get out of it. I go to it as a sort of shopping mall of eclectic goods (which, sadly, I’m paying to get into) surrounded by a mass of charmingly/humorously/sexily/bizarrely dressed people, with the occasional panel or event to check out and pad things out. Of course, I also don’t go out expecting to find intelligent discourse, and merely settle for being thrilled if I should happen to find some.

  2. My brother told me something similar, that among the many things you’ll hear about being at a comic con, intelligent discourse (used the same words) is not among them.

    He also seemingly summed up my creeping attitude about the whole thing:

    “The fact that comics have ALL KINDS of problems – fan problems, pricing problems, depth problems, women problems – it’s not surprise that the con has all the same problems.”

    Which is a larger part of it. People at comic con are fans of comics that are, not generally what they aren’t or could be.

    I don’t really agree with the “fill that void in your life with STUFF” idea. I’m fairly well fulfilled. This stuff is leisure time to me. I really like some of this stuff and enjoy talking to others about it but it’s not as part of my self-identity like it is for some of these con goers. I imagine there’s a good number that also just consider the con fun too, like a party or costume show, and not the rare opportunity to show your true self and self-identify with random strangers … but yeah.

    I am aware of the artist thing. Most of the front tables, nearest to booths, had issues they’d worked on for sale and signing. Most of the rest of the tables were just artists making a living though. My brother also points out that this is a networking / portfolio building opportunity for many people like the artists and costume designers. I think others just use it as you say, a shopping mall with a cover charge, one where it’s nominally more acceptable to buy a 20×30 Powergirl boob poster.

    As for what I got out of it: a generally fun afternoon that I was glad to leave behind for a night of sucking oysters and martinis down and thinking of the many ways I’d like to thank the sea.

  3. Well, regarding “filling one’s voice with stuff” as you put it, I do think people take it to different extremes, depending on lifestyle, company, relationships as well as whether or not one is just prone to obsess over such things. Really, it varies from person to person- I still play video games pretty hard compared to half the people I know these days, though I also exercise fairly regularly, drink, watch anime, etc. I consider the gaming my primary hobby, but it’s also informed by how I live and who I live with (though I’ve also operated on some mantra that I wouldn’t keep company with someone who couldn’t at least tolerate my gaming hobby).

    Anywho, getting off base now from cons.

    I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with enjoying the con-going cosplaying lifestyle- it’s a way to unwind and have fun, if that’s what you consider fun. I do understand that it can sometimes come off as less inclusive, especially when, yes, you have a room full of people who can’t fathom why someone doesn’t completely get the hobby that you enjoy. It would be like telling someone they should get into video games just because they should, and really, who would say something like that? :-p

    Also, when is Power Girl anything less than boob? I think I first saw her in one of the DC Animated Universe movies, and I couldn’t notice anything but that. And I don’t mean that in a sexist way- just, tragically, observational.

  4. Power Girl, when written best, is a pastiche of criticisms regarding kryptonians, DC’s muddled recombinated multiverse, and women in comics in general: a refugee from one of the Earths that disappeared during Infinite crisis on multiple earths, she’s kind of like a female Tony Stark without the need for power armor. Owner and CEO of a huge, successful tech company and a formidable hero in her own right, she has to put up commentary from both the people she rescues and the public in general who either ogle or criticize her assets through her boob window or generally making the wrong assumptions about her intelligence or capabilities based upon her chest. She’s similar to She-Hulk in this way: a character whose exploits (both in and out of universe) wouldn’t be cause for discussion but as they’re female, there’s a lot of judgment passed around.

    When poorly written, she’s cheesecake.

    I suppose it isn’t inclusiveness, but a lack of self awareness that bothered me at some of these panels. Inclusiveness comes from knowing that comics aren’t for new readers, but sometimes I feel like these people don’t even know what they’re talking about. But then again, see also expecting intelligent discourse at the comic book flea market.

  5. Ah. She’s generally come off as likeable enough from what I’ve seen of her as a superhero, but I’ve not known a lick about her background or who she is as a whole. Well, the more you know…

  6. So…your first con…in theory only apparently. I’m forgotten again.

  7. Oh Jack, how could I forget that? I know a more accurate title would have been something like “my second con” or “my first con that used more than one medium sized room.” In truth, this was more akin to what I was expecting out of a “con” — packed shuttle buses ferrying people from all around Chicago to the McCormick Place convention center, loads of people in Costume, panels with guest speakers, that sort of thing.

    What we went to was more like the floor area of C2E2, with some artists and more than a few shops hawking wares and trying to make connections in the community.

    Still fun though.

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