As SDCC and the local Massively Multi-Genre Convention, ConnectiCon, draw to a close, a niggling thought keeps appearing in the corner of my mind, hiding there, whispering and slinking around. The thought is prompted by a single comment from a young man today (although it was just one of many comments passed to us). We brought Monster to ConnectiCon since it’s fun and he’s interested in comics and video games. A group of teens were playing Rock Band, and after one of the songs, I asked if Monster could just play the drums for one song, that was all he’d sit through but he wanted to play. The young man very sweetly agreed saying he had to go anyway. As he stood up, he turned to us and said, “I just want to thank you for bringing him. I really wish my parents had done something like this with me. What you’re doing is awesome.”
Someone, a young maybe 14 year old boy, thanked us for bringing a 3 year old to a Sci-fi/Horror/Gaming/Comic convention. Something about the way this young man said it, with a hint of sadness and a glint of true appreciation, made me realize that there is something special about these kinds of conventions for a lot of young people.
ConnectiCon is local, predominantly New England, even more predominantly Connecticut and Western Massachusetts. It’s small, compared to its peers like SDCC or NYCC or Anime Boston. However, it’s getting bigger. Significantly bigger than last year, the organizers seemed to have a hard time keeping up with the crowd. Pre-ordered ticket sale lines were easily an hour long wait after 8am Friday morning. One panel got so crowded that the organizers did not know how to clearly set up the line for the panel and had to do some public relations damage control asking the speaker to come back the last day for an impromptu panel in the Main Hall. Efficiency did not necessarily seem to be one of the main fortes of the weekend, and we overheard conversations about people being so upset that they wouldn’t come back next year. One of the comments passed included, “This has been a small con for the last few years, but it has a lot of potential and it’s not clear if the organizers are prepared for what it could be.”
A lot has been said here and elsewhere about the “rise of Geek Culture”. A short, undetailed summary of reasons includes rebooted shows done well (Dr Who), huge comic based movies (The Avengers, Spiderman, Batman), and the combination of the need for what previously were considered “geeky” skills (computers, engineering, math) to excel in a global society and the connection of previously socially disfranchised individuals through social media. Add all of these factors together, and you a perfect storm of factors contributing to this “new” culture, or at least its social acceptability.
Meanwhile, when reporting on ConnectiCon, a local news outlet started its newscast with “No, it’s not Halloween.” This aside, while innocuous, pertains to the niggling thought creeping in the corner of my mind. Some locals complained of all the teenagers meandering the streets of Hartford. Some locals made comments about the costumes or wondering what anyone would see in this. Adults, teens, and small children all engaged in cosplay throughout the weekend. In a lot of ways, it’s kind of magical to walk around, not as a voyeur, but as someone engaged in the process. Monster dressed up all three days – Captain America/Dr Horrible on Friday, Thor on Saturday, and Ironman on Sunday. Given his excitement, he talked me into joining him as Black Widow on Friday morning and (a modified) Loki on Saturday. Watching people’s reaction to a tiny kid dressed up, engaging in their world and their culture, and welcoming him in the warmest way? That is the pro of cons. People stopped continually to talk to him and several “cosplayed” with him in impromptu “fight skits” allowing him to “kill” them and playing to the crowd. Some of the organizers, dressed as Avengers, even mentioned that they had noticed him, had been looking for him yesterday (when he was home with his grandparents while we geeked out alone), and had put together a small certificate for him for his cosplay. They then encouraged us to enter him next year in the Juvenile category (“He doesn’t even have to go on stage if he doesn’t want to”) because no kids ever enter it. The shadowcasters, RKO Army, saw Monster in his Dr. Horrible costume watching the show and were willing to let him meet “Dr. Horrible.” Even more impressive, Monster saw “Captain Hammer” who was taking down the cameras, and said, “I want to meet Captain Hammer”, and the actor stopped what he was doing, ran to the back, got his gloves, and posed for a picture. People not only welcomed him, but they included him.
This inclusivity is the Pro of the Con. Here, no one is weird. Here, even if you’re new to the crowd, a lot of times the crowd will accept you. I watched as adults engaged a three year old to help him get into character. On the last day, we arrived around 9:00am, and a group of ‘tweens/teens were standing around dancing. Monster’s eyes lit up at the music and dancing, and he walked over. They not only spoke to him, but they engaged him. They cosplayed little fight skits with him. One was so thrilled that Monster knew what a sonic screwdriver was that he hugged Monster, looked at us, and said, “he’s mine now! He’s coming home with me! I love this kid!” It was a moment wherein these young kids, whom everyone demonizes as immature, showed a maturity level beyond their ages. They not only welcomed him; they truly embraced him as one of them. They recognized themselves in a younger kid. They spoke to us and told us their stories of the weekend until their panel started. They explained their costumes in some cases. They allowed Monster to dance with them. They included him in a way that, perhaps, they do not feel included by others. They did unto others.
People outside of the con went to view and see the spectacle. The spectacle of cosplay is a large part of the con. Underneath that spectacle, however, lies a dedication to the art of crafting incredible costumes. People take pride in this work. In some cases, they included lights or other technologies to enhance their costumes. This dedication melding with creativity and engineering belies the idea of it being Halloween-like. These are people – young and old – engaging in hard work that gets recognized. They put hours of heart and soul into some of these costumes, wearing them only to a place where those around them are willing to and open to appreciating them. They recognized, for example, the homemade quality of Monster’s Dr Horrible costume (granted, it was put together with hem tape and glue…but the “attempted craftsmanship” was appreciated) or took a moment to ask how I made my Loki horns (knitted, with wired and non-wired glittery ribbons, horns covered with mod podge to keep them stiff). People appreciated the art of the craft, not just the spectacle of the costume. This appreciation of others and others’ work brings people together in a way that is part of the love of the genres. People came together because they love the genres, then they give homage to the genres by re-enacting them by spending hours painstakingly recreating them. Then, they come together to accept and encourage all different handiwork. This sense of community through craftsmanship is one of the hidden beauties of the con. Inclusion through shared interests and effort defines the experience.
However, lest people think these young kids are simply loitering dressed as a bunch of fictional characters, the dedication of the true convention attendees is seen in their commitment to attending the panels. The panels range from music to art discussions to meeting celebrities in the genre to discussing feminism in the comic and sci-fi/horror cultures. When we arrived on Sunday at 9am, the group of ‘tweens/teens abruptly stood up and migrated toward the escalators to go see a panel. Sure, they’re dressed as fictional characters. However, in an age where young people are zoning out, these kids were awake, dressed (some in detailed costumes), and motivated to LEARN. They engaged their brains on a summer Sunday for a reason not required by the formal education system. As a society, we yell and scream and do much tooth gnashing that our youth is disengaged, is refusing to analyze, is spending more time watching television or playing video games than reading. However, on one bright Sunday morning, a group of like-minded young people were off to listen to a lecture (or, as I put it for the three year old, “go to circle time”) simply to…learn more. Yet, society still assumes that these cons are about dressing up in funny costumes simply to cavort in an imaginary world.
This is where that young man’s appreciation not only for how we’re raising our kid but for how we’d accept whatever he’s interested in makes me vaguely sad. Society assumes that if something is not productive then it has no purpose. SDCC and NYCC are so large and have such commercial focus, complete with the inordinate collections of celebrities in the genres, that people forget the basic principles for which they were created. They were created to bring people together to share and discuss and educate themselves in a community that supported their interests. Throughout the weekend, young men and women – in their teens/twenties – congratulated us or told us that when they “grow up” they want to be like us. Some thanked us for encouraging our kid. We allowed him to be himself (in what was, sometimes, a rather embarrassing feat of crowd playing). We understand that there is spectacle to a con. However, we also see that the community, the acceptance, and the inclusion that form the foundation of the greater cultural structure support that glittery (or light uppy or makeup encrusted) facade. There are many pros to the cons.