On Thursday, I walked into my first comics convention. Actually no, that’s not true. I did go once before, in the early ’90s, back when I was in high school, to a small and somewhat sad gathering in the Seattle Convention Center. But that was a long time ago. Before “cosplay” was a verb. Before it took an act of will to find a multiplex that wasn’t screening a superhero film. Before celebrity directors and actors made regular pilgrimages to San Diego to woo the comics-loving horde. Before the New York Comic Con outgrew even the massive Jacob Javitz Center and spilled down 34th street into the Hammerstein Ballroom.
Still, walking into the New York Comic Con (or NYCC as it’s known, a for-profit derivative, unaffiliated with the flagship San Diego event), I pretty much knew what to expect. By this point, the comics convention is itself a cultural monument, arguably even more than the comics, movies, or TV shows they were created to promote. So it wasn’t shocking to see the Doctor Who costumes or the shameless corporate branding or the bemused parents dragging wide-eyed kids through the food court or the Star Tours-sized lines to get into the panel discussions. Nor was the overwhelming aura of ferocious positivity, the background thrum of excitement and glee that pervaded even the most banal booths and panels.
For a time, this intensity—the fervor with which con-goers identified with their favorite cultural products—marked them as outsiders. Now, it is a common approach to the world.
Comic cons, after all, are celebrations of fandom—and not just any fandom, but that all-consuming kind of fandom, the kind of fandom that causes you to memorize which issue of The Walking Dead featured the grisly eye-orbit-licking scene or that induces you to hug a stranger who happens to be wearing a Thor costume. For a time, this intensity—the fervor with which con-goers identified with their favorite cultural products—marked them as outsiders. Now, it is a common approach to the world. We are all binge-watchers and recappers, theorizing and obsessing over and loving and critiquing every episode or song or feud or tweet emitted by our favorite entertainers. Fandom has spawned its own academic discipline, fan studies, with foundational tomes like Textual Poachers and Understanding Fandom. In a prescient 2007 essay, fan scholar Henry Jenkins writes that fandom will become increasingly relevant in the digital economy, calling it “the testing ground for the way media and culture industries are going to operate in the future.” “The old ideal might have been the couch potato,” he writes, “the new ideal is almost certainly a fan.”
It’s still easy to feel a guilty twinge about our obsessions. Not long ago, cultural critics worried that irony was destroying our ability to truly engage in the world. Now, they worry that a lack of critical distance is destroying our ability to face the world as it is. A few months ago, when the New Yorker ran a brutal parody called “Prestige TV in the Time of Climate Change,” in which bougie shut-ins ignored a weather apocalypse to discuss the House of Cards finale, it touched a nerve. But it also touched a nerve when, hunting for any information I could find about Breaking Bad during the Season 5 interregnum, I stumbled across a video of a panel from a 2012 convention. As the moderator introduced Aaron Paul, he yelled out his character Jesse Pinkman’s outgoing answering machine message: “Yo yo yo 1483…” Before he could finish, the room erupted in cheers. I got chills. I wished I was there.
Fandom About Fandom
Now I am. I file into an overstuffed hallway to hear Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman discuss the show’s next season, the comic’s coming 150th issue, the associated videogames and novels and cruises. I catch an early screening of a pilot for Expanse, a new space thriller series on the Syfy channel, and during the subsequent Q&A hear the show’s creators discuss whether they will be able to incorporate all of the source novel’s profanity. (Spoiler: Nope.)
The audience greeted these documentarians as celebrities too, making them fans of fans of fans of Back to the Future.
But more than celebrating any specific properties, the best panels celebrate fandom itself. Kevin Smith, introducing a panel to discuss his fanboy series Comic Book Men, talked about driving past the Javitz Center and seeing someone dressed not as a superhero but as him—a fan dressed as a fellow fan. (Smith then went on to spend five minutes describing a fight scene from the Netflix series Daredevil in excruciating detail, a display of ostentatious fandom that won a hearty round of applause.) The rowdiest panel I attended was about the film Back In Time, a documentary about Back to the Future fans. The documentarians presented themselves as Back to the Future fans, but also as fans of other Back to the Future fans, like the guy who spent more than $500,000 to buy the original DeLorean time machine. The audience greeted the documentarians as celebrities too, making them fans of fans of fans of Back to the Future.
At the end of the panel, the filmmakers made a surprise announcement. In Back to the Future II, Marty McFly travels forward in time, to 2015. In honor of reaching that year, Pepsi had created replicas of the Pepsi Perfect bottles featured in the film. These were hot items; con attendees who dressed like Marty McFly had a chance to win one, and I had already noticed the telltale red vests peppering the expo hall. The filmmakers unveiled three of the precious bottles. “Does anyone want one?” director Jason Aron asked. “I feel like Oprah Winfrey because everyone in this room is getting one!” He directed us toward the back of the hall to collect our booty. Before the event, I had rolled my eyes at the promotion, a two-decade long-con of corporate sponsorship. But here, surrounded by red-vested Marties, whooping and stampeding toward the back of the hall, I couldn’t help but feel a begrudging thrill as I grabbed my goddamn bottle of Pepsi Perfect.
What can I say? I guess I’m a fan.