It was there on the 1100 block of the convention floor, my back to a table full of Dr. Who memorabilia, that I had no choice but to watch a de-helmeted Boba Fett lock lips with a pink-haired Black Widow. When that grizzled, intergalactic bounty hunter finally came up for air I realized that I knew him. He had lived next door to me with his wife, a wife who was definitely not dressed up as a pink-haired Black Widow that evening.
He looked at me like a man who enjoys breaking rules before he and his cat-suited gal pal shuffled away into the current of bodies, lost in the swarming crowd of militant, know-it-all fanboys busily arguing the semantics of fictional universes. I wouldn’t see that promiscuous Boba Fett again for the rest of the convention, and that’s how both of us wanted it.
I had gone too far down the rabbit hole by that point, beyond the place where lesser fans had failed. I was knee deep in the decadence and depravity of pop culture, swallowed up in the full indulgence of the American obsession. I had reached the dark heart of geekdom—this was Comic Con.
It all started with a bang. Two of them, fired from the confetti canons of the dead-eyed Jazz Bear who had ridden into the press conference early Thursday morning on a chopped up motorcycle, Dan Farr—the man behind the Con—riding pillion. It was quite the entrance, and one that filled the room with exhaust. A nauseating reminder of how over-the-top the next three days would be.
The press conference was heavy with the stink of celebrity worship as reporters climbed over one another to shake the hands of the washed-up celebrities and ask them the same questions that had been asked a thousand times before. And I was no better. I was swept up in the tumult, right along with the best and worst of them.
Maybe it speaks to the power of nostalgia, but meeting two of the original Power Rangers or shaking hands with Kevin Sorbo is a surreal experience. And it’s an undeniable fact that meeting Peter Mayhew—who you might not recognize as the giant, walking carpet, Chewbacca—made me feel like Han Solo, just for an instant. And that’s even with Mayhew resigned to a wheelchair looking tired and bored like he’d seen it all before; like even though his life have moved beyond that “galaxy far, far away,” he’d met too many people whose lives hadn’t.
It was a haunting image that I couldn’t shake even distracting myself with the sensory overload that defines comic conventions. Over the three days I tried to distract myself from the idea of the meat-market celebrity worship we’d subjected the people to, often slipping in and out of as many panels as I could. None of them held the mystique and revelry of the hallowed Hall H from San Diego Comic Con, but they were still a necessary part of the convention experience, a pleasant escape from the chaos of the convention floor and a distraction from the inhumanity of the whole affair.
One panel I had arrived too late to get a seat and was left standing in the back of the room next to the door as panelists discussed the virtues and vices of dungeon mastering with pen and paper. In a segue, the moderator turned to the audience, “who here has an Atari 2600?” he asked as three quarters of the room eagerly raised their hands, looking for approval as they laughed at each other pleased with their impeccable taste in vintage gaming systems.
I wanted to shout out “How many of you have a 401K? Or health insurance? Or who here has bought a new car off the lot?” But before I could open my mouth they had returned to talking about Dungeons and Dragons, so I swallowed my question and quietly exited the room.
The one true escape I found was the film festival. The films weren’t spectacular, most of them filled with actors doing the best they could with trite dialogue and cheap effects, but it was a place where I could sit in the dark without being required to talk to anybody. It was air conditioned and it was quiet. I was able to enjoy the cinema and forget the madness just outside the doors.
I was left thinking that maybe that’s what it was all about. Maybe this rabid fandom was a chance to escape the intricacies of everyday life. Perhaps this was the new American Dream, not to build something or to own something, but to love something passionately and give it its own meaning. But if that was the case, how much of this new American Dream was a lie? How much of this American Dream, this pop culture obsession, had a time limit? How many other childhood heroes would end up bored, disgruntled or disenchanted?
After three days of stepping into panel discussions, losing myself in the madness of the convention floor, escaping into the darkness of the movie theater, and considering this question of what it all meant, it was suddenly over. The lights went out and the convention floor closed. Then tens of thousands of people exited the convention center and walked out into the darkness; sweaty, tired and carrying their swag. Makeup running, purchases in hand, exhausted from the overload of contact and stimulation—real life reigned once more.
A half hour later and all that was left were the few stragglers who couldn’t or wouldn’t or didn’t want to let go. They took those last few moments of the weekend and tried to hold on so desperately for as long as they could. And I couldn’t blame them. I was still there, watching, and for all my doubts and all my questions, I knew I had enjoyed myself.
Three days I was with over 70,000 people who loved things unabashedly and took deep pride in that love. Somewhere between the idea and reality was a place where 401Ks and car payments weren’t as important as enjoyment. I would never want to call it escapism, because it was something larger and more meaningful than that. It was a redefining of priorities.
So, I stayed too, looking over the tattered remnants of that weekend, swag in hand. What was once a bustling event, filled to capacity with the population of a small town, was reduced to a few grown men playing with plastic swords—the whimpering remnants of a colossal event. And there’s a sadness in that, an energy that only existed in that space for that time and that felt so potent and tangible, but was lost in the failed light of a Saturday evening in September.