I wouldn’t consider myself much of a convention-goer. Large crowds make me nervous, merchandise is often too overpriced for my taste, and autographs have never made much sense to me. The whole thing just adds up to a sweaty, cramped ball of things that I don’t want to do or be near. In fact, I’ve only ever been to two pop culture conventions: PAX East in 2012 and Boston Comic Con earlier today.
And (sorry to spoil the ending for you) I had a fun time at both. It’s a fault of mine, I guess, that I find all the reasons not to like something before I bother to go experience it. Sure, both conventions featured their fair share of unpleasantness, be that in the form of physical discomfort or frustration with overly excitable fellow con-goers. But that’s a hell of a thing to get worked up about, people enjoying themselves. Instead, I’m going to focus on what I’ve found surprisingly enjoyable about the convention experience, both at a bigger, games-oriented con like PAX, and a smaller, comics-oriented con like Boston Comic Con.
Obviously, the fun of any convention is in the convening itself. It’s all about being able to share a space with a group of like-minded people to celebrate culture, to celebrate things that you enjoy and are fond of. Whether you express that feeling of inclusion and positivity in the form of dressing up, or filling a backpack full of T-shirts and posters, or just pacing around and ogling the scenery, you’re welcome to it. You’re welcome to experience the event how you want to, and (at least in principle) it’s a place free from judgment, juvenility, and jockish posturing. This isn’t some new phenomenon that I’m discovering; anybody who’s been part of a group of friends will tell you that it feels good to be included.
What I find interesting is that a pop culture convention, be it about video games or comic books, can make so many different people feel like they’re part of the same thing. The guy in the Iron Man duds feels a kinship with the genius who came up with a costume that’s half Batman, half Deadpool, and all because those two happen to be standing in the same building and are fans of products that are distributed via the same medium. Hell, we all know that it’s not canon for Iron Man to get along with Batpool, they’re just too different. But it doesn’t matter, because the uniting factor here isn’t personality, or opinion, or taste. It’s passion.
The ways that different conventions encourage fraternizing and camaraderie is interesting as well. When I went to PAX, I wandered around the show floor and was dazzled by all the flashy new games and the gargantuan booths, but it was all a bit daunting and intimidating. And yeah, I’ve never been to San Diego Comic Con or anything on that level, so maybe I’m speaking out of turn, but it was my first convention and I was humbled by it all. Yet, even among all that, I was able to carve out small, fun moments with my friends. There were rooms set aside specifically for people to play video games with one another, away from the hustle and bustle of the showroom floor. The game of Super Smash Bros. we had there was one of the best I’ve ever played. Not because I did particularly well, but because it felt special just to play, just to be able to call myself a “gamer,” even for a minute.
You can tell, I’m sure, that I went to PAX back in my more melodramatic days. But I went to the Boston Comic Con today, as my silly, jaded college-age self, with my silly, jaded college-age friends. I woke up this morning groaning, dreading the cramped convention center, the hours of walking, the general awkwardness and discomfort of it all. But let me tell you something: I stepped foot in that big hall with Allen and James, turned to the right, walked for a bit, and saw a guy dressed up as Darth Nihilus, a character from Knights of the Old Republic II. I nearly melted with excitement. I love that game! I love that character! I love this convention!
Once again, I felt that wonderful feeling of humility and inclusion that PAX had given me over a year ago. The three of us roamed around the floor for a while, admiring the action figures, the artwork, and the longboxes after longboxes of comic books. We soaked the event in for about an hour before breaking it down and creating a plan of attack. But that first hour, that hour when we didn’t know what we were looking for, we couldn’t help feeling that we had already found it.
And, just as at PAX I was given greater respect for the most basic form of the gaming hobby, so too did Boston Comic Con give me a greater respect for the most basic form of the comic book hobby: collecting. Pacing through Artists’ Alley, scoping out the prints for something cool to tack up on the wall, thumbing through stacks of books looking for just the right one, it all had the air of an archeological excavation, like I was going to find Tut hiding under a volume of Locke & Key. I was struck by how fun, especially in the age of digital distribution and the Internet, purchasing something physical can be. Going home with a bad-ass Gambit poster and the 2nd volume of Astonishing X-Men brings with it a special brand of satisfaction that image searches and PDFs never could.
There was one moment when I was flipping through a box of trade paperbacks that really got to me, really cinched the whole convention experience. I had finished with this particular box, and glanced at the one to my right, which a man was just finishing to peruse. He looked up almost absent-mindedly, more at the next set of books than at me. “Switch?” he asked. We were equals, collectors, archeologists both. He was going to find a mummy behind the ten copies of some Batman spin-off bullshit, and I was going to score a shiny new ankh.
“Yeah,” I said. “Of course.”