Comic readers may suffer from stereotyping, but people who attend comic conventions have a far harder time trying to convince others of its merits. Little else symbolises so absolutely the anti-social, awkward nerd, than a man (sadly, the stereotype has yet to fully encompass women) in a costume pretending to be a hero from his favourite franchise. The adult who spends a small fortune on a handmade, but still, very plastic Captain America shield (I met him. He said it wasn’t an ordinary plastic shield). The person who scolds you mercilessly with the line “it’s not comics…it’s manga”. (As though they’re different. A film made in Japan is not called something different to a film abroad. It’s the same medium!). While it’s true these people exist and somehow survive (do you reckon that the majority of people versed in spoken ‘Klingon’ are also proficient at cooking , first aid or basic DIY? It’s a baseless theory that I like to entertain because I’m mean), they hardly represent the wide variety of people who attend.
Some go for the sole purpose of dressing up, the only time outside of Halloween that they have an excuse to. Those who love textiles, use it as an opportunity to create something a little more unorthodox, to push their talents toward more challenging and unusual clothing. Some come to meet movie stars, for autographs and selfies. Others come for the comics on sale, the music played, the parties organised, or just the news on the next superhero film. Some people go just because it’s fun, and don’t need the toys, or comics, or costumes to have a good time. The atmosphere alone is worth it. I first came to one of these conventions thanks to my sister.
My sister loves anime and manga, and the prospect of her spending an entire day rummaging through cheap books, DVDs and buying ‘Death Note’ memorabilia drew her to London. She was, however, only fourteen years old and my parents were not happy to let her wander through London alone all day (safe reasons aside, the hole family is acutely aware of my sister’s tendency to panic on subway systems. It’s something to do with all the lines and colours. She’s equally terrified of tunnels and tubes you find in hamster cages). My parents did not relish the idea of calming her down every twenty minutes over the phone, or escorting her themselves through a crowd of cosplayers, and so, drafted me in their place. My job was simple; to bring her back at the end of the day, still alive and still partially sane and preventing her from buying anything too dangerous (like a sword, a baton, knuckle dusters. Anyone who considers Harley Quinn as their role model is someone you prevent from purchasing their own novelty mallet).
Neither of us had costumes, but luckily about a third of the people who came didn’t either. Those who did were a surprising amount of help on the journey there. We were walking aimlessly because I had foolishly allowed my sister to guide us, and we found ourselves staring fruitlessly at a subway map, mounting panic in her and frustration in me. But fortunately, Batman came around the corner to save the day. Followed by Mario, Jean Grey, and a gang of Final Fantasy characters.
“Here. Let’s follow them” I said, leading after them.
“Umm, I don’t know” my sister replied, watching them pinch their capes so it wouldn’t get caught in the door. “We don’t know for sure if they’re going to comic-con…”.
“Get on the train with Batman before I hit you with a subway map”.
My sister’s anxiety quickly died down with every stop when more and more people in cosplay filled the carriage. It was here that I started to learn the essence of practical dressing. Sometimes character accuracy should be a second priority. To give my first example, ‘L’ the detective from ‘Death Note’, was pressed up against us in the crowded train. It’s a simple outfit; white top, jeans, ragged ’emo’ hair and…no shoes or socks. The character was almost always barefoot. The gentleman beside us, in his infinite wisdom, had been walking the streets of London barefoot (and if you don’t know London, I assure you that you don’t want to try that. Not even me and I’ve made a habit of such behaviour). Not that this fact changed my sister’s opinion, who gleefully jumped at seeing her favourite character.
At the building, there was a line to get inside. A long one. This was in November and a particularly cold one at that. There might well be heating, carpeted floors and hundreds of bodies inside to generate all the warmth you need, but you’d need to wait two hours before you could get there. Standing out in the frost and wind in minus one or two degrees takes a bit more fortitude than standing barefoot on the subway train. Especially when you realise nobody in a costume brought a coat. Batman had wrapped his cape around himself, L was hopping up and down, I saw Mario hug Bowser.
But worst of all, was this one woman dressed as Rikku from Final Fantasy X-2. Women in comics and video games are pretty sexualised to begin with , so it’s common to see girls in a lot less than men (it’s weirdly acceptable to be half naked if you’re Poison Ivy, but not so much if you’re you buying your groceries in Tesco). Dressing how you like, using costumes to give yourself confidence, feeling empowered and sexy in your own skin and all that stuff is lovely. I’d only suggest that this young lady shouldn’t have worn nothing but an yellow, string bikini and scarf in sub zero temperatures (I have my oppressive, conservative moments). She was dying, and rarely for me, I mean that in its more literal sense. Despite the scores of men who were probably quite happy to watch her, I’m sure they’d all agree that keeping out of hospital is more important than sex appeal (although who doesn’t find hyperthermia sexy?).
Further ahead, a group of guys all dressed as stormtroopers, had grown bored waiting and had decided to walk up and down the queue. Occasionally they’d stop, pull ‘Pikachu’ or ‘Jack Sparrow’ out of line and start their questions. “We’re looking for two droids” or “let’s see your papers”. Whenever they did, someone else in the queue would suddenly shout out “these aren’t the droids you’re looking for!” and the stormtroopers quickly shuffled their hostage back in line with a “these aren’t the droids…move along”. Lots of role-playing like this at a comic convention. But eventually they got to Rikku.
“We’re looking for two droids, Ma’am. Ma’am? Hey miss, you alright?”. It’s odd seeing four stormtroopers be so kind to the general public, loudly brainstorming ideas on how to acquire a coat or blanket. Turns out they’re not as ruthless as you think.
My sister was on a mission that day, and she wasn’t going to let me jeopardise it by being cautious, or as distasteful as it sounds ‘brotherly’. She had to find Afro Samurai, Chibi dolls, Final Fantasy stuff and lots more. I, on the other hand, had to make sure I didn’t lose her in a swarm of anime fanatics. This builds a suspicious image. One younger girl dashing away, eyes wide, while an older bearded man chases after her, snatching at her clothes and snapping “get back here, dammit” (I should have come dressed as the Grim Reaper). My sister was far too impatient for something as trivial and useless as walking it seemed. During these pursuits, I narrowly dodged a viscous, liquid web missile fired by spiderman demonstrating to some fans (good God, I hope they were webs…). I did not dodge the free manga that was thrown into my face by a staff member into the crowd, who quickly assured me that ‘School Rumble’ was worth the slap. And I also ran into Darth Vader who became severely aggravated when I didn’t pretend to be short of breath when he raised his hand at me.
My day was entirely spent on the run. I also got a chance to fend off a dozen teenagers wearing signs around their necks that read “Free Hugs” (who normally pays for hugs?). I enjoyed watching a man wearing a costume comprised of cardboard boxes, gradually infuriate every single person he tried to slide past in the crowd. I found an actual puppet of the ‘Great Gonzo’ (easily the highlight of the day, as all muppet fans would agree). And then there were the actors. I found Derek Jacobi, a man I grew up watching in the brilliant ‘I Claudius’; a real heavy weight classical actor that I loved. But his autograph cost over forty pounds, and a three hour wait in a queue. I wasn’t prepared for that, not with a sibling in tow who might at any moment dive into a den of sailor-moon girls. So I resigned myself to some hit and run tactics. Derek Jacobi was surrounded by security and the queue extended down to the end of the hall, a line that I sprinted beside. Both security and actor saw me coming with a fright. In silent, frozen shock, they were too slow to stop me. A few feet away from the barrier, I lifted my camera, snapped, and promptly sprinted back off. That’s how savvy I am; I saved forty pounds and I still got Derek Jacobi’s confused face frozen forever in a polaroid. All I had to do was ignore the dagger stares of all the superheroes still stuck in line.
By the late afternoon, the excitement was wearing down. Dr Who made a speech on stage (the actor from the TV show. I know it was ambiguous), and all the doctor’s assistants in the crowd swooned. Batman met Joker and after some teasing banter, I saw them head off to get a coffee together in the late afternoon. My sister at last, had lost the energy to run. She claimed to have seen Rikku again in a red cape; we’re still unsure if she mugged superman, dated him, or one of those kind-hearted stormtroopers purchased it for her. By four, my sister’s mission was complete, and we returned home flanked by a log procession of worn out pokémon.
It’s an interesting experience, whether you’re into all this stuff or not. The atmosphere alone is enough to entertain (and shock. And terrify. And make you wonder where the crazier fans go at the end of the day). It’s a place for the likeminded to gather and play, and that’s something you don’t see every day.
(As much as I detest puns, this guy below is called ‘Thorgi’).