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On Dipping An Introverted Toe In The Comic-Con Ocean

Christopher Petrone, of San Diego, CA, towering over attendees in his handmade, to-scale Chewbacca costume.
T.J. Kirkpatrick
Getty Images
Christopher Petrone, of San Diego, CA, towering over attendees in his handmade, to-scale Chewbacca costume.

The first time I took one of the online Myers-Briggs inventories and it spit out that I was an introvert, one of my friends questioned the results. Specifically, he said, "Are you sure you weren't holding the test upside-down?"

I wasn't, though. Crowds challenge me, as do bustling parties, as do chaotically noisy environments, as do spaces I can't get out of quickly. So I'd pretty much made up my mind that I'd never set foot at San Diego Comic-Con, which scores pretty high on the Writhing Humanity scale. Let me put it this way: Have you ever been right outside a stadium when a truly huge sporting event or a concert let out? Where you're just getting shoved along, you can't really go anywhere except as part of a river of humans, and you suddenly realize that if you were viewed from above as part of this gathering, you'd suddenly realize the insignificance of your existence?

Much of the San Diego Convention Center, inside and out, is like that nonstop for about four days.

But this year, we had an opportunity to take Pop Culture Happy Hour to Comic-Con for a panel discussion (thanks to Stephen Thompson's mother, Maggie, a comics luminary) (Maggie does the "In Memoriam" segment at the Eisner Awards, if you want to evaluate that luminariosity for yourself). It was right at the end of my two-plus weeks at press tour, so I was on the west coast anyway. Why not? (We'll be posting the audio of the panel as our weekly show this Friday.)

I would love to tell you here that it was not as bad as I feared, that the esprit de corps overwhelmed any anxieties, swept away any discomfort, and made me forget about my sense that if there were a fire, we'd be screwed. I would love to have come home feeling that I'd battled my own bustle-avoidant tendencies as successfully as my buddy Glen Weldon did last year when he wrote a series of Comic-Con diaries that I encourage you to read.

But, perhaps exhausted from press tour, perhaps simply unsuited to it, I freely admit that I was a toe-dipper. Not inclined to endure long lines either for high-profile panels or for the chance to buy stuff, I spent about 15 minutes on the show floor, clinging to the perimeter, before taking my bulging eyeballs right out of there. I did not dive. I waded.

And the first thing I learned — confirmed for myself, really — is that Comic-Con is much, much less weird than a lot of people who don't attend it make it out to be. I encountered so many contemptuous tweets about it in absentia, so many assumptions that this was, at best, some kind of Weirdo Dude Ranch where, for once, freaks have the opportunity to be among their own. And I'm not saying there's none of that, particularly if among freaks and weirdos you count those who would wryly attach that label to themselves. It is, quite clearly, a haven.

But I dare you to watch the documentary America's Parking Lot and conclude that the extreme football fan tailgaters profiled therein — who tend to be tagged as extreme in their enthusiasms but not socially derided — are less weird than the people of Comic-Con.

Let me get this out of the way first: People take a lot of pictures of the costumes, because they're cool. But most of the folks I saw there taking in panels and shopping on the show floor were not in costume at all. It's not the Star Wars cantina. It's more like you're walking through a crowd of people and most of them look like the people you'd see at the mall, and then suddenly one of them is Wonder Woman. As our own Petra Mayer talked about in her really excellent radio piece this weekend, cosplay is an extremely creative DIY hobby, not much different from anything else you might make yourself just to show people that you made it, just to make it, just to do something interesting. And again, why is it any weirder from putting on face paint at a football game while wearing a player's jersey?

I did go to a couple of panels while I was there, and here's how I picked them: I went into the first room that was open. Why? Because most of the things I was extremely familiar with fell into the category of "too much waiting in line," so I was stuck with the unfamiliar. So why not gamble?

I first wound up in a panel of women who do fan art and fan fiction surrounding the current TV incarnation of Teen Wolf. And you know what they were like? They were a lot like every other panel of geeky young writers I've ever seen. They spoke intelligently and thoughtfully about writing and creativity and what they like and don't like to make art about. They talked about the responsibility they feel when they write about mental illness and thoughtfully chewed over the idea of creating transgender characters to add to what's sort of a preexisting universe. They rolled their eyes at a video that was circulating in which Teen Wolf actors were placed on the spot and asked to read fan fiction aloud for yuks, shrugging it off as a cheap effort to make actors uncomfortable on camera and get them to dump on their own fans.

What filed into the room next was a jam-packed panel called "IS IT STEAMPUNK?" Now this, costume-wise, is the old-timey, goggle-wearing droid you are looking for. (Yes, I am mixing my everything. Shhhhh.) Roughly defined, steampunk is Victorian-era-ish science fiction (think goggles and gears, as far as the aesthetic), and I had the biggest blown mind of my entire Comic-Con experience when I learned that at least to these steampunk people, the greatest steampunk movie is understood to be ... wait for it ...

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

I was not prepared for this!

The "Is It Steampunk?" panel included Andrew Fogel of The League Of S.T.E.A.M.; Claire Hummel, who worked on Bioshock Infinite; Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett, who write the adventures of the "steampunk robot" Boilerplate; and Thomas Willeford, who makes steampunk stuff and arrived dressed as Steampunk Iron Man. They basically tried to define what exactly steampunk is — and distinguished it from other faux genres and subgenres including "clockpunk" and "dreampunk" — and then voted on various examples from pop culture as to whether they are steampunk.

The verdict: Back To The Future III is probably steampunk. As is the aforementioned Bioshock Infinite. But not Cowboys And Aliens. Thus began the most interesting discussion of Cowboys And Aliens I have ever heard.

They pretty much acknowledged, you see, that the 2011 film fit the definitions they'd given of steampunk up to that point: It is in fact science fiction of the right era. It has gadgets. It is, to use Willeford's definition, "an adventure in a speculative past." (He later acknowledged that despite that sweeping conceptual definition, without gadgets, he doesn't consider it steampunk.) But they still felt like it wasn't steampunk. Why? Weeeeell, there are aliens, so it's alien technology, not man-made technology, and it doesn't really have the aesthetic, and, hmm, well, you know what it came down to?

They don't think it's very good, so they have trouble calling it steampunk.

It was a very interesting little distinction. In a way, this gatekeeping exercise seemed awfully silly to me at first: why does it matter whether a particular movie fits or doesn't fit the definition? What is the value in fussing over definitions? But this Cowboys And Aliens business was really enlightening. The lines between defining and evaluating are very, very blurry. When are you really classifying according to a neutral and factual definition, and when are you saying ... "I don't like it"?

That's not a real superhero movie. That's not a real romantic comedy. That's not hip-hop. That's not literary fiction. That's not fusion. He's not a movie star. She's not a critic.

This isn't pop culture. This isn't a story.

The point of a steampunk panel — the point of Comic-Con in general — is not only to hang around with other people who like the same things you like. It's also an opportunity to experience uncut enthusiasm itself. How does it work? How does it operate between groups of people? How does it change the way we approach culture?

Comic-Con isn't nerd camp, it doesn't smell, it doesn't feel sad, nobody seems desperate — it's just not that weird. If anything, you know what's weird? What's weird is me vibrating from anxiety because I can't see the door. The thing itself is just ... an event. It's just a concentrated blast of engagement with things, with all of its attractive and unattractive aspects, with all of its commercialized and obscure and handmade and mass-marketed tchotchkes. You can look at the guy standing in line for a hotel shuttle with a numbered Comic-Con exclusive Shadow Stormtrooper figure, and you can think, "Nerd." Or you can think, "That dude loves that movie/franchise/universe so much that he stood in line with several hundred other people for the privilege of buying that, and that is fascinating."

So yes, it's still true that it freaks me out. But it's not the costumes, and it's not the attitudes, and it's certainly not the people, who were almost unreasonably lovely (as they must be to survive packed in like sardines, please pause here while I dab my brow and take a sedative). It's just a lot. It's a lot. Perhaps more than any other pop culture thing that has ever existed, Comic-Con is ... a lot.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.
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