Having survived my first C2E2 experience, I feel like writing a comic nerd version of Allen Ginsberg's Howl. I've seen the best minds of my generation build their own Astromech droids, wear homemade Witch-King costumes and spend their money on life-size Hound helmets. I've seen necks tattooed with Rorschach's symbol and dresses embroidered with a map of Westeros. I've seen Transformers' Bumblebee dance to TNGHT's "Higher Ground."
So yeah, lots of things to see at a comic convention. In the words of Chicagoan Nick Gonzalez, who I met walking into C2E2 last Friday, "there's so much stimulus you don't know where to look, and then you end up accidentally looking at someone's booty."
Music festivals and gaming conventions are the same way stimulus-wise, albeit with slightly fewer latex-clad butts at the festival. But though I've been to several music festivals and gaming conventions in my time, until last weekend I had never been to a comic convention. This is probably not a shocking fact on its surface, since I’m sure most of the people reading this article have never been to a comic convention before, either. But the difference between those people and me is that I own a Blue Lantern sweatshirt (Blue Lanterns are comic book characters almost identical to Green Lanterns except, well, y’know). If you’re thinking that the kind of person who owns a Blue Lantern sweater but hasn’t been to a comic convention has some deep-seated identity issues, you’re basically right! I've spent a lot of time in my life attempting to deconstruct any possible label that could be placed on me, often before anyone else probably even thought of doing so. I'm now sure this all has to do with comic books, and it took me until this year’s Chicago Comic Convention (C2E2) to realize it.
I did not go into this year’s C2E2 expecting any kind of identity crisis. As a good little Medilldo, I went in with a specific journalistic angle, a Question that I wanted an Answer to. The question was this: “What is the point of a comic convention in 2014?” What does it mean to be a comic fan when millions of people flocked to theaters to see Captain America: The Winter Soldier opening weekend? The answer to this question turned out to be a lot more obvious than I thought.
In addition to a hosting a giant exhibition hall and Artist’s Alley (where aspiring comic book artists can buy booths to showcase their talents and wares), C2E2 also offers panel discussions on various topics within “geek culture.” I found some interesting feedback to my journalistic question at the first panel I went to. Titled “Zombies and Time Travelers and Vampires, Oh My! Why Geek Culture Matters,” it involved a couple professors from DePaul University and Columbia College justifying why they’ve spent their careers studying fantasy and sci-fi television shows. Since they only had the room for an hour, each of the five panelists barely had enough time to give a summary of their background and research before the panel was over, but Columbia’s Dr. Sharon Ross still managed to briefly touch on my concerns.
“One of my questions is, what gets lost when elements of geekdom go mainstream?” she asked quasi-rhetorically. “If being a geek is cool, does it lose its edge? After all, on the outside you see things more sharply.”
That’s kind of what I had been thinking, although when I asked Gonzalez about it, he had a slightly different take.
“The Walking Dead TV show is so big right now, but how many people have actually picked up an issue of the comic?” He asked rhetorically. “I think it just builds greater contention between fans of the original source material and people who just watch the stuff.”
Even though the characters and stories that have long been associated with nerds now parade across the television and movie screens of millions of Americans, it’s done little to affect the concept of nerds. A lot of people watched the latest Captain America movie, but only some of those people were fans of it. Only some of those people went to C2E2 and wrote “Hail Hydra” all over the giant public whiteboard.
As an example of what nerd means today, you may have noticed that we’re 2-for-2 with people asking rhetorical questions in these quotes. It probably has something to do with the fact that every time I heard someone talk out loud at C2E2, particularly during the Q&A segments of panels, it felt like I was listening to an audiobook of a message board thread. Obviously C2E2 is frequented by all manner of people, but this does suggest that a decent number of attendees spend a lot more time communicating on the internet about things they love than in person.
I know this because I’m one of those people. Every time I told someone via text message that I was at a comic convention this weekend, I used a “lol.” I’ve long since learned that if, mid-conversation, I started talking about some of the things I’m most interested in (say, Bill Willingham’s long-running comic Fables, which I have read in its entirety), no one would have any idea what I was talking about. I’ve lost at least two jobs and made at least one party very strange doing exactly that. Recently I took to Tumblr for some fanboy ranting, knowing that I simply had to say something somewhere.
My anxiety about being labeled a nerd or weirdo because of the stuff I enjoy has actually made me anathemic to any and all kinds of labels. The very moment I realized that my music taste (something I actually can talk about at some parties) was called “hipster” by certain people, I embarked on a 2,000-word feature to bust the “hipster myth.”
C2E2, by contrast, is a place where I could talk at length about the comics I love and get a nonchalant response along the lines of “yeah, totally.” The Blue Lantern sweatshirt I’m usually too embarrassed to explain barely impressed the guy walking next to me carrying an actual, physical life-sized Blue Lantern battery prop (to say nothing of his friend with an arm tattoo of every Lantern symbol), or the dozens of cosplayers walking through the convention in homemade Witch-King costumes. It was pretty liberating.
That freedom, that acceptance, was obvious from the very beginning of my con experience. Wandering around park paths outside of Lake Shore Drive, looking for some kind of entrance to McCormick Place after getting some faulty directions from Google Maps, is where I first ran into Gonzalez and a friend of his. I asked them some questions (y’know, like a journalist), and then I ended up just hanging with them all of Friday. It was awesome.
That’s the kind of place C2E2 is, and that’s the point of a comic convention in 2014, Charlie Brown. Identity crises are common throughout the world of comic books and nerdity, but at a comic convention you can actually feel secure in that identity. Liking comics doesn't feel weird when the guy walking next to you is wearing hiw own homemade Iron Man costume.