Paul D Smith
Thoughts from the convention floor
This essay was originally published in October of 2016.
I had a great time at RocCon in Rochester, NY this past weekend. I sold more books than I ever have at a convention and met a lot of really great people. Unlike other cons where I have sold books, this was a multi-day adventure, so I got to spend a lot of time immersed in this comic/science fiction/fantasy culture.
For those of you that don’t really know what I mean by a “con”, it is short for convention and they are a celebration of all things comic book or science fiction or fantasy related. When a con is happening, people come from miles around to enjoy some time with those who share their interest and even hopefully meet some celebrities. For example, you could have come to Rochester this past weekend and met the Hulk himself, Lou Ferrigno, or even Naomi Grossman, who plays Pepper in American Horror Story.
But the huge draw to a con is something affectionately known as cosplay. It is a term that simply describes the process of dressing up as your favorite character from whatever media you enjoy and hanging out with other such devotees. There are usually cosplay contests as well, with the winners often taking home cash prizes. Anyone can cosplay. You can order your costumes on-line, cobble them together from items at home, or, if you are serious, create your own costume from scratch. This phenomenon is what draws the media attention. Most non-convention goers have seen cosplay on the news, usually from coverage of the San Diego or New York Comic Cons, but cosplay happens at all conventions, large or small. Hard core cosplayers will go to multi-day conventions and have a different costume for each day. One such individual at RocCon was Spider-Gwen on Friday, Elsa from Frozen on Saturday, and Supergirl on Sunday.
I found myself in an interesting position this past weekend. I was at this event for three days, and got to experience it through two different sets of eyes. The first was through the eyes of the con attendees. Those folks were there to celebrate their passions and fandom, whether it be in street clothes or dressed as their favorite elf, superhero, or Pokemon trainer. And, for them, the convention was just that; a celebration. They walked the aisles and stairways, laughing and smiling, shoulder to shoulder, arm in arm, and often hand in hand. They attended the discussion panels and got to hear about what is coming next for Star Trek, or speculate about Star Wars episode eight, or hear from the Hulk himself what he has been doing all of these years. I saw lots of joy and smiles and laughter. But I also saw something else; acceptance. You see…well, I’ll get back to that.
The second set of eyes was that of a collection of non-convention goers. I struck up a friendship with two of the limo drivers for the guests of honor, who, for some reason, made a point of stopping by my table each day for a smile and a chuckle at what was going on around them. They were con newbies, or connoobs (look, I made a new word!). There was they guy who was attending with his buddy and his son. He told me he’d lost sixty pounds over the last year, and I congratulated him on that accomplishment. I met a few parents as well, who were chaperones for their children who wanted to experience a convention. The reaction was pretty universal; wide-eyed disbelief. The limo drivers said a couple of cocktails helped them cope with the crowd a little easier. My newly-fit friend didn’t understand how some of the cosplayers could dress the way they did and struggled to understand their body image. The parents, well, in their time this kind of thing didn’t exist. They couldn’t understand why people would even want to do this.
The days went by. I got to give some writing advice to a small panel of listeners. I had some great conversations with Glenn, the former firefighter and Joe, who is in broadcasting. I met Sal and Chris, artists across the aisle from me who drew lots of custom work for fans. The last half of the last day came, and a gentleman who I had seen all three days struck up a conversation with me. I’m going to call him Rob. You see, Rob told me how he really struggled in high school. Whatever genetics Rob got at birth, height did not come with it. Rob is probably not even five feet tall, and he said he was always viewed as the little, weird kid. He didn’t have friends. And, he told me, he still doesn’t have friends. I responded with a concerned expression, and he said there is one person (ONE person) about an hour away he would like to be better friends with. However, he was afraid to engage with that person, because he doesn’t know if that person would want to be friends with him. The fear of rejection was more powerful than the reality of loneliness.
Then there was Jean. Jean was a young artist a few tables down from me. She was friendly but quiet, and every day we checked in with each other on how sales were going. On day three, I got to stop by Jean’s table and really admire her colorful, abstract art that she had collected into graphic novels. Jean’s mom was at the table, and I told her how I admired her daughter’s work. Jean’s mom was very proud of her daughter. You see, Jean is a high-functioning autistic. She uses her talent to bring awareness to mental health issues. Her mom beamed as she told me about her daughter, and was at the con as support, giving Jean much-needed breaks throughout the day. I would have liked to have talked to Jean more, but now I understand why those opportunities didn’t come up as I would have liked.
Finally, as we packed up on day three, the vendor next to me was putting his merchandise away. We’ll call him Tim. Tim shared with me that he had made his way through college, but always struggled with interviewing well and never landed a decent paying job. He works at a place that assembles high-end sporting gear and absolutely hates it. His parents are failing in their health, and he doesn’t get paid well, so he still lives at home. As we put our books and papers and pencils away for the last time, Tim said something that I still can’t shake. He said, “I don’t know why I am hurrying. It’s not like I have anything to go home to.”
Rob, Jean, and Tim weighed heavily on my heart as I hauled my tote of leftover books out of the repurposed Kodak cafeteria. Tim’s words echoed in my mind as I rushed to get on the road to spend some quality time with my wife, boys, and hyperactive dog. I left the theater and saw a trio of Pokemon cosplayers kneeling on the ground. Pikachu, in the middle, was sobbing while the others rested comforting hands on her shoulders. I don’t know what she was weeping about. I can image what it could be, but it doesn’t really matter. Her sadness broke my heart, and I had a rapid perspective shift.
Acceptance. It is what the limo drivers, or my newly-fit friend, or the parents didn’t get. It is at the heart of the cosplay, and the panels, and the picture taking, and the hand holding, and the “Free Hugs” signs. It is what makes a person say that they don’t care what they weigh, or how tall they are, or their age, or their gender, but they love Batman and they’re going to dress up like him and hang out at a convention. You can go to a con and you will be accepted. Period. You like Superman? Wear a cape and an S-logo shirt and you will be accepted. You like Iron Man and the Minnesota Vikings? Wear some purple and yellow Iron Man armor with horns, and people will flock to get their picture taken with you. You like Pokemon, but are a new parent? Bring your baby dressed in a home-made Weedle onesie, and the entire aisle will ooh and aah as you walk by.
We have all struggled to be accepted, and we all know the feeling of being on the outside at some point in our lives. It is a basic human need; to belong. Many of us have families or friends or work mates that we identify with. But put yourself in the shoes of Rob or Tim for just a minute. What would it be like if there was, maybe, one or two weekends a year that you had to feel like you belong? Three hundred and sixty days of loneliness and isolation. What would you do? Would you perhaps turn to the TV? Or books? Or video games? Or anything that could – if only for a few hours – distract you from the reality that your only possible friend is an hour away and you’re not sure they even want to be your friend?
Three days of acceptance. Seventy-two hours to feel like you belong. When that is over, you walk out of the doors and reality hits you. Pikachu just becomes yellow costume material again. You fall to your knees, sobbing, while your friends try to console you.
My proverbial apple cart has been upset a little. I think with starting a family of my own, establishing a career, becoming involved in my community and so on, my geek flag doesn’t fly like it used to. Is that bad? No, of course not. Life takes us in interesting directions and what I have now I wouldn’t give up. But I learned that I have lost some perspective. Not for the entertainment value of comics, sci-fi, or fantasy; I grew up with that and I think it will always be a part of me. I lost perspective of the people. I was that kid in ninth and tenth grade that tried to fit in. I was an awkward teenager navigating the intricacies of social dynamics. Some of us figure it out early. Some of us take a little longer. And for some of us, it is a life-long struggle. This weekend was a reminder of that reality.
You may see a con covered in the news in near future. You may even drive by a venue where a parade of cosplayers cross the street to attend their celebration. When you do, try not to take the position of being that wide-eyed, non-convention goer. Reflect on those times when you struggled with acceptance. Remember the times when you were the Pikachu kneeling on the floor, trying to stop the tears. Don’t think of the Spider-men, and Gokus, and Eleventh Doctors, and Wonder Women all crossing the street together as nerd or geeks or social misfits. How about you think of them as you? Don’t laugh when the news break comes covering the local con while you and your friends sit with your football jerseys on, waiting for the game to resume. Aren’t we all dressed as our heroes, waiting for the fun to start? Acceptance and belonging comes in all shapes and sizes.
So when you see that cosplayer, that convention goer, don’t roll your eyes or go slack-jawed. Celebrate with them. Take joy in their joy. If you see them on the street, tell them they look awesome. Give them a high five or shake their hand. Ask if you can take a picture with them. Let them know they belong, and they are accepted. And to all of you cosplayers, con attendees, geeks, nerds, Trekkies, Whovians, or whatever you may call yourselves; thank you for this weekend. I see you. You are accepted. You belong. You have value.