Sunday, September 2, 2012

Conventional Wisdom

Several years ago, I had the chance to go spend a weekend in Toronto with a good friend of mine who was there for grad school. It just so happened that the Toronto Fan Fest was happening at the same time I would be there, and a favorite webcomic artist of ours, Ryan Sohmer of Least I Could Do, was looking for booth babes. As my friend is both a) a babe, and b) happy to let people give her things in exchange for being able to admire her, she applied for and got the job. This meant that we both got to go to the convention, and I wandered the floor taking in the sites while she hawked books while wearing a chain mail bra.

This was the first time I'd ever been to a convention for anything. Several friends of mine had sung the praises of New York Comic Con, and I'd heard of a few others happening in places I'd lived, but I never had the time or inclination to actually attend. Also, throughout much of college I was in a phase of my life where I was very concerned with my outward persona, so letting people know I read comic books? Watched anime? Had - gasp - seen all of Star Trek? These things were not topics I brought up outside of the presence of two or three friends from high school, why would I intentionally go to a convention advertising my interest in all that nerd stuff?

I'll tell you why, because that nerd stuff is awesome.

Walking through the convention in Toronto, being inundated by booth after booth from major comic book companies, indy film studios, costume makers, video game companies, artists, designers, - this place really had it all - I was struck by how many amazing things I loved they'd managed to cram into one place. Even more amazing, all those things I loved, there were people walking around in costumes dressed up like the characters from them! That's a thing you can do?! Before that point I'd always imagined "dressing up for a convention" was for people who had a Starfleet uniform in their closet.

I was wrong. I was stunned by how accurate and well done these costumes were. Everybody was there; there were Spider-Men, Batmen, Jokers, Ash's from Evil Dead, people from anime, people from movies, whole groups of people in coordinated costumes walking around. A patrol of Storm Troopers was walking the halls. Street Fighter characters would assume fighting poses for mass groups of photographers. People in steampunk outfits wandered around next to cylons. This place was like nothing I'd ever seen.

And I knew as soon as my friend and I left the floor that day; this is something I wanted to do.

At least once, sometime in my life, I wanted to get a costume, go to a major convention, and just walk around.

Unfortunately, as time went on and my Toronto experience faded, it seemed like that goal was going to be lost to me. The opportunity never really arose, and I never put much time into seriously pursuing it. I would bring up the idea from time to time, but usually the case was had neither the time or the money to put an outfit together, I didn't know whom I'd want to dress up as, there wasn't any convention conveniently nearby, or some combination of the three. Ultimately, I had pretty much forgotten the whole idea.

Until earlier this summer, when I got a phone call from my friend Matt.

Matt's been a friend since high school, and whereas I always shied away from embracing our mutual love of geek culture, he embraced it without hesitation. By the time this summer rolled around, he'd been touring the convention scene for years. He's been Space Ghost, he's been Ash, he's been Green Arrow, Magneto, Bucky, Arsenal, and a few others I'm forgetting. He was in a band that played at conventions and was featured in videos. He's got models and filmmakers as close friends and collaborators. Long story short, Matt didn't waste the time I did being concerned about his image, and as a reward the universe made everything geeky he did become awesome.

And he got to meet Ryan Reynolds.

We'd talked off and on about going to a convention together in costume at some point, but it didn't seem like it was ever really going to happen. Until Matt joined a group called the East Coast Avengers. Under their banner of charity work, they assemble cosplayers from all over to do all kinds of great work with kids, and also have the opportunity to connect with one another to plan out group costumes. Matt was in the process of putting together such a group, and he'd hit a snag. He was missing a key component to make the group perfect.

"David," he said, though he probably said "Dave," as he's maybe the only person I let call me that, "I'm putting together the Dark Avengers, and I was wondering . . . do you want to be The Sentry?"

Basically Superman, but more handsome.

"YES," I said before he even finished his sentence.

Just as simple as that, it was happening. Thanks to the incredible assistance of fellow Gentleman B. Graham's costuming skills, and Marilyn Johnson Design, the Sentry was brought to life. Or back to life, I guess. He's dead in the comics. Anyway, moving on.

I won't lie - at my age, I was kind of worried about how appropriate my attending an anime convention, especially in costume, would be. This worry wasn't exactly alleviated as I waited for entrance the first day at the end of a line of teenagers that wrapped around the building. The vast majority of them were already in costume, and dressed as characters I had never seen before (apparently there's a webcomic called Homestuck and it's a whole thing). This apprehension left me when I actually entered the convention center and saw that not only was there a huge population of people my age or older, but that to pretty much everyone there, age was less a "what are you doing here?" question and more a "you're how old? Then why don't you have a better costume?" question.

(My costume was thankfully suitable enough to impress, so thanks again, Ms. Graham.)

One thing I came to understand pretty quickly was that some people dress up simply for the sake of doing it. They might not have any particular liking or understanding of who it is they're dressing up as, but a good costume gets them attention. One guy walking around was wearing full body armor, a mask with heavy hair extensions, and carrying around a leafblower converted to look like some kind of insanely unnecessary Rob Liefeld-inspired gun. It was roughly 1700 degrees in Baltimore that day, when you factor in the humidity. The man had an inspired costume idea and he was going to wear it, simple as that. The same goes for the guy who showed up dressed as Iron Superman.

His secret identity is mild-mannered billionaire Clark Stark.

Of course, it was hardly the over-dressed men garnering the most attention. In a building full of teenagers and twenty-somethings, nearly half the con-goers (also an acceptable term for people dancing in a line, but unacceptable for addressing people from the Democratic Republic of the Congo) were girls dressed up in something either tight, revealing, or some combination of the two. I think I should say that a lot of these costumes were fantastic, with some incredible attention to detail and obvious love and care put into getting everything just right. Some of them actually made me regret that in the years since that first convention I've more or less stopped watching any anime, because I definitely think I would've been even more impressed by some of the costumes if I knew who they were supposed to be.

Where my first instinct was to think that there was something inherently sexist about it all, I quickly realized that wasn't what was going on at all.. The women at the convention weren't dressed in suggestive costumes because someone was making them (well, I suppose there's a whole societal argument to be had regarding that . . .) but because they wanted to be. The guys put time and money into their costumes for the same reason; people like being admired. If they've got something, they like showing it off and knowing other people appreciate it, and a convention like this gives them an excuse to do it where it's perfectly socially acceptable (inside the walls of the Convention Center, anyway) to do so. For example;

They showed up to dinner in those outfits.

The girl in the middle was also a part of the group I was in. That was one of at least 3 costumes she wore over the course of the weekend, including one with wings on it and platforms that made her about 7 feet tall. She had a small section of the center completely to herself so that people could find her and take pictures of her.

She's also a working professional with a career that totally does not involve wearing super hero outfits in public. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the percentage of people who go to conventions and actually make money off of their costumes is . . . statistically insignificant. People do it because people like feeling attractive. Men and women like feeling desirable. When I was on the convention floor and people ran up to me and stopped me because they wanted a picture with The Sentry, that was a really good feeling. You feel good, you feel wanted, you feel sexy. It's like being a really, really nerdy celebrity.

Of course, it does help that this happened at a time in my life when I'm in good enough shape that when someone asks "hey, want to wear tights in public?" I can respond "do I?!" I'd be lying if I said everyone's costumes were completely appropriate for their body types. You know what though? They had the gumption to put the outfit on and go out in it, for the same reason all the really good-looking people did. So more power to them, really.

The only part of the entire thing I really found objectionable actually came in the Artist's Alley. This is where all the comic and manga artists show off their work and try to make some sales. It's also, apparently, where it's totally okay to showcase row after row of drawings of suggestively posed superheroines with giant boobs and little, if any, of their costume on. One, simply from a practical standpoint, the internet is a thing that exists and where that kind of stuff can be obtained for free. Two, the sexism in the Artist's Alley made me flat out uncomfortable.

This is actually as close up a photo as I can show without it getting inappropriate.

And I really hope that someone at some point takes notice of this. I understand the audience they think they're pandering to - a bunch of horny teenage boys with not much other hope of seeing a naked girl - so they're making the art they believe will bring in some money. To that I say, you're really doing a disservice not only to fans of subcultures like comic books and anime by promoting that kind of stereotype, but also to the enormous amount of people I saw walking around with their significant other, or at least in mixed company. I felt uncomfortable and embarrassed at some of the artwork being displayed, I can only imagine how the thousands of girls walking through the Alley felt.

In the end, I got to not only see some great costumes (I was thinking of putting up a list, but it would be impossible to narrow down a list of the best ones there, it was all so impressive), but meet a lot of really cool people and finally accomplish a goal of mine I'd set down years earlier. Will I ever do it again? Hard to say. I certainly haven't "caught the bug" like Matt has, but I'd be lying if I said doing it once didn't make me consider all the other cool characters I could dress up as. Right now I'm leaving it at this; I had an amazing time with amazing people, and something I've wanted to do for years got done. Can't ask for more than that.

Finally, while I was walking outside the Convention Center, which is located right next to Camden Yards (all on Pratt Street, by the way), the O's game was just letting out. This created a very auspicious mixture of baseball fans and otaku, but fortunately there's a happy intersection. Judging by his colors, at least, Naruto is the biggest Orioles fan in anime.

Blieve it.

Until next time.

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