Fifteen-year fans: the "Gathering" united by a '90s Disney cartoon

    A decade ago, when Anthony Zucconi met Andrea Ivanovs, they weren’t exactly themselves. He was dressed as sleazy mob boss Tony Dracon; she was dressed as the gargoyle form of New York City policewoman Elisa Maza. Their personas were rivals, but they must have looked cute together — enough to be awarded the title of “Cutest Couple” from Greg Weisman, one of the very men who created both characters.

    Exactly one year later, Zucconi and Ivanovs were in costume again. This time, he was a self-serving, pony-tailed CEO named David Xanatos; she was the same Elisa Maza, but in the character’s human form. On the masquerade floor, he asked her to marry him. “I knew I wanted to propose at the ‘Gathering,’” he says. “Because without it, we wouldn’t be together.”

    That “Gathering” was, and is, the Gathering of the Gargoyles, a convention held by hardcore fans of the animated Disney television series “Gargoyles.” From June 27 to 30, the 12th annual Gathering will host about 200 devotees at the Hotel Orrington, a block from the Northwestern campus. Fans and friends will arrive from California, New York and even overseas to discuss Gargoyles semantics, browse “Gargoyles” artwork, participate in a “Gargoyles” radio play and “mug” (interrogate) a member of the show’s original production team.

    What about this semi-old cartoon is so inspiring for them? The Gathering’s Web site tells a poignant truth: for its followers, in unexpected ways, the show “brought us together and in some way, small or large, changed each of us.”

    “We were making something special”

    In 1991, then-28-year-old Greg Weisman was a Disney executive heading a team to develop new shows for the Disney Afternoon programming block when the idea for “Gargoyles” came to him. “I was always fascinated with this idea of gargoyles,” he says, “that you put up something ugly on your wall to scare away something worse.” His team originally pitched it as a comedy series, but Disney CEO Michael Eisner didn’t bite. So Weisman revamped the concept with less-cute critters and a darker, semi-Gothic tone.

    His timing was right. With the recent success of Beauty and the Beast, Disney felt ugly was hot. In 1994, the show made its debut on Disney Afternoon, and quickly gained a following. As part of a syndicated block, free from network censorship, Weisman was able to push the envelope a little further, exploring themes as complex as genocide and inter-species romance. Consequently, even parents could enjoy the adventures of animated, speaking gargoyles transplanted from 10th-century Scotland to the rooftops of modern-day Manhattan. In their new home, the intelligent beasts wake from stone each night to fight foes like Xanatos, the anger-filled gargoyle Demona and reality-TV stars “The Pack.”

    “It wasn’t dumbed down,” says Jennifer Anderson, known as “CrzyDemona” in the community, who began watching Gargoyles in 1994. “It was enough that me and my husband could watch it, and my four kids loved it as well. It’s got a little something for everyone.”

    Fourteen years later, Anderson is the volunteer president of Gathering of the Gargoyles, Inc., the non-profit organization that manages the convention. She has attended 10 conventions to date.

    Weisman said that, while he knew from its conception that Gargoyles was something special, “I never could have imagined that years later we would have any conventions, let alone 12.”

    Salvaging a series

    Few animated shows are as long-lived as “The Simpsons”; most are lucky to last more than a season or two. “Gargoyles” met an ignoble demise: Disney assigned a completely different production staff to the third season, retitled the show “The Goliath Chronicles” after the main character, and released 13 episodes so reviled by the community that they still refuse to acknowledge the third season’s existence. The show was quickly canceled in 1997.

    That could have been the end for “Gargoyles.” Instead, with the help of the then-new Internet, word began to circulate through mailing lists. People began to talk of a convention, and a woman named Mae Li offered to host it in New York. Patrick Toman, a college junior at the time, learned of the event through Station 8, a pioneer online forum centered around “Gargoyles.” “In the fall of ’96, I first got the Internet,” he says, and instantly “started looking for ‘Gargoyles’ sites.” Today, Toman is one of only three fans to have attended every single Gathering.

    After the second convention, also in New York, the Gathering went on tour across North America. In 1999, it was in Dallas; in 2000, Orlando. The convention left the States for the first time in 2004 to be hosted in Montreal. Members of the tight-knit community greet each iteration as a focal point in their year — a chance to make new friends and reunite with the old.

    “It’s like a family reunion for us,” Zucconi says (and Anderson uses the exact same words). “We all live so far away that it’s the only time we can see each other. I’ve become close friends with people from every walk of life.”

    Bringing friends and family together for the Gatherings, however, is no easy task. Susan Leonard, 41, of Lincolnshire had to begin planning this year’s convention in Evanston almost two years ago. The annual conventions survive, she says, thanks only to the dedication of fans.

    More intimate than Star Trek

    At Gathering 2008, the four days of festivities will be jam-packed with constant “Gargoyles”-related activity. Panels have names like “Combat & Weapons” and “Gargoyles Biology & Culture.” Attendees audition for and perform a radio play based on the show. The highlight event, the masquerade ball, takes place on Sunday night. Participants are encouraged to dress as a favorite character (called “cosplay,” short for “costume-playing”) and dance until midnight.

    Comparisons to Star Trek conventions, long infamous for their oft-crazed “Trekkie” attendees, are inevitable. The two series even share a number of actors: John Rhys-Davies, Jonathan Frakes and a dozen others have both lent their voices to “Gargoyles” and appeared on a version of Star Trek. But Patrick Toman, a member of both fandoms, says there’s a core difference at the conventions: intimacy. At the much smaller Gatherings, “you’re not in awe looking up at [special guests] — you get to talk with them person-to-person,” Toman says. “I think if I had to choose between a big Star Trek con and a Gathering, I’d choose the Gathering.”

    This year, those guests will include Weisman, Adcox and Keith David, who voiced the gargoyle Goliath. They are flown in and accommodated at the hotel for a weekend, then sit for free at “Mug-A-Guest” sessions where almost any question can be put forth. While guests are treated like celebrities, their fans are often also their close friends. Weisman is more like a friendly patriarch than a looming superstar, though fans like Leonard aren’t shy about calling him “absolutely brilliant.”

    “I work in what, emotionally, can be a pretty tough business,” Weisman says. “I go to this ‘Gargoyles’ convention once a year, and I get an ego-boost that just carries me through into the next summer.”

    Married with children?

    Groups like the Gargoyles fanatics often fall into a category of “wispy communities” — groups that interact little outside of their respective conventions, says Northwestern University sociology professor Gary Fine. In these groups, Fine says, “you’re not likely to find many men and women who have children. When you get engaged [or] married, each of those are forces that push you out of these voluntary subcultures.”

    But Fine might be surprised at the Gathering. The convention-goers do return to ordinary lives and jobs after the event: Leonard is a dog-breeder, Toman a structural engineer, Morgan a residential counselor. And the immediacy of the Internet lets them stay in touch through fan work and forums.

    In addition, many members of the community do indeed have kids. Leonard is a mother of two, and Jennifer Anderson’s kids range from 11 to 18. One, Stephanie Scoggins, 18, says that “Gargoyles” has been a part of her life for as long as she can remember, and she passed it along to her younger siblings. “They were exposed to it as soon as they were able to focus on a TV,” Scoggins says.

    And most fans find their friends and relatives supporting of their unique interest. “My family think it’s great that I found someone with a similar interest,” says Andrea Zucconi. “They don’t have a problem with it. But my grandmother’s still kind of scared.”

    Of her husband?

    “No!” she laughs. “Of the gargoyles!”

    Geeky and proud of it

    For many “Gargoyles” fans, the 2008 Evanston Gathering will be the central four days of their year. They’ll be doing what they love, with the people they consider both inspirations and friends.

    They will create memories, as with last year’s Gathering in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., when Tony Zucconi and a group of friends all got tattooed with the show’s “Phoenix Gate” symbol. “If that doesn’t show the love for the show, then nothing will,” Zucconi says. “The Navy has given me the power to protect people all over the world, but Gargoyles was what kept me going through the hardest times.”

    Andrea liked the tattoo; she provided the drawing. “We’re all terrible geeks,” she says cheerfully. “But we’re proud geeks.”

    Proud geeks, indeed, and ones with no intention of renouncing their geekhood. Plans for the 2009 Gathering are already in place. And so just as the series’ gargoyles live in clans, so does the clan of Gargoyles fly onward in their noble—geeky—quest.


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