The Big Con (Or: Carter Works Through Complicated Feelings about Comic Con Culture and How it Relates to Modern Fandom)

By Carter Glace, Staff Writer

Despite my professed love of comics and pop culture, I have had a black mark on my ‘fan record.’ Despite running this column for almost three years, I have yet to visit New York Comic Con. Yes, one of the biggest comic based events on the east coast is within casual walking distance from me and I missed it again. A part of it is the cost, another is never being able to find tickets, and the dates never seem to match up with my schedule. But I think one of the biggest problems I have run into is the what Comic Con has become.

It isn’t a particularly profound or bold notion. Many people mark the year the concept of ‘Comic Con’ completely changed as 2008/2009, where “Twilight” became one of the biggest sensations of San Diego’s Hall H. It’s hard to believe now, but that was scandalous of the time; a book to film franchise not related to comics, sci-fi, or ‘classical nerd’ culture association. But it was a hit, and set the precedent for anything ‘pop culture’ to be included. “Glee”, “American Horror Story”, whatever the big film of the summer is.  The Comic Con brand has now become synonymous with all things pop culture, making it one of the most jam-packed and crowded events of the year. Perhaps the underappreciated result of this is the transition of ‘nerd culture’ from something fringe and small to massive, sprawling, and omnipresent. Nerd culture is pop culture. Marvel is cool. “Star Wars” is cooler. “Star Trek” is cool. And that growth has occurred almost simultaneously with the altering of Comic Con.

I don’t want to pin this as an exclusively bad thing, because it isn’t. How could it be? A shared film universe of Marvel characters is the biggest movie franchise on the planet. Nerd culture has become more diverse and progressive than ever (it’s hard to ignore that a lot of the complaints about Comic Con selling out came from a predominately white male base). In many ways, we’ve ‘won.’ The things that would make you a punch line of 80’s and 90’s sitcoms make you ‘cool.’  And as far as cross-pop cultural discussion goes, anything that encourages people to break out of their respective bubbles and discover new franchises is a victory in my book.

But it has also been unwieldy in many ways. It makes the Cons virtually impenetrable due to sheer size. An event that was already crowded is a nightmare if you do not feel comfortable around large numbers.  While there is still plenty of space for smaller comic makers to push their work, it’s hard to not see them taking a back, back seat to Hollywood and guest appearances. And I don’t even know where to begin with disasters like Marvel’s planned panel this year with Northrop Grumman, a defense contractor (I was originally going to write about that, but I need more time to think of worthwhile discussion beyond ‘what they hell were they thinking?’).

But I would argue that the changing of Comic Con and the mainstreaming of nerd culture has also been one of the biggest proponents of making nerd culture nightmarishly toxic. “Entertainment Weekly’ argued that this change in post 2000 fandoms changed fandom in one critical way:

“When you think of fandom pre-2000, the idea of a fan is split pretty cleanly: There’s the Fan-As-Living-Encyclopedia, who can spout minutiae from Steranko’s entire run of Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.; and there’s the Fan-As-Living-Freakout, the screaming hordes in A Hard Day’s Night who love the Beatles so much they start crying. Twilight at Comic-Con somehow fused those two fandom aesthetics into one; you could camp out for days speaking with serious fluency about the changes made from book-to-film, but you could also scream into near-unconsciousness whenever Pattinson answered a question. Anyone could be a megafan of anything–and more and more, “anything” was going to be at Comic-Con.”

I would argue this has also manifested itself in maliciousness, pettiness, hostility to change/progressivism and a general sense of toxicity.

Look no further than this weekend’s Great Fandom Embarrassment: The Szechuan Sauce Fiasco of 2017 (I promise this is the last time I reference “Rick and Morty” for a while). McDonald’s promotional event in which they brought back their Szechuan Sauce in honor of “Rick and Morty” ended with lines of angry fans screaming, harassing and rioting, forcing the police to be called in some cases. The specter of fans of an animated Cartoon Network show berating fast food employees who aren’t even being paid a living wage is bleak. Fandom has become big, unwieldy, toxic and destructive, and I think there is a direct link to nerd and pop culture blowing up.

Now, it is reductionist to just blame Comic Con for this. Internet culture owns some of the blame, and perhaps this toxicity has always been there, and New York Comic Con has done a much better job keeping its scope in check while encouraging smaller creators than its San Diego counterpart. But the exponential growth of Comic Con and nerd culture has made it big and unwieldy, often for the worse.

But despite my complaints, I hope to some day go to NYCC. Because even with my jaded, hopeless view on fandom, the spirit of those earlier cons still exist. They exist in the remaining small booths of artists and creators, sharing and exchanging their wonderful work. In the tireless cos-players whose work never fails to be incredible and inspiring. And in the thousands of people who brave crowds, heat, and cost just to share their enthusiasm with their fellow peers.

I am struggling to make peace with these two different sides, because as frustrating as it has been to see nerd culture become over-sized and impenetrable and toxic, the sheer sincerity and joy so many have—so many of my own friends—at conventions makes me want to love them. Perhaps the evolution of Comic Con really has captured modern fandom, and it’s maddening extremes. Oversized yet intimate, corporate driven yet with so many new avenues for the little guy, sincere and cynical, toxic and loving.

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