The Whitehorse Convention Centre smells like fried food and too many warm bodies in one room. Alice of Wonderland greets me at the door. In the dim light it looks like the front of her dress is splattered in blood.
In one corner of the room Kevin Sorbo, star of the TV series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, is engaged in an animated conversation with a woman dressed as Spiderman. “Heads up!” he warns as a man swinging a light saber runs past.
This is YukomiCon, and I’m an outsider who has stumbled into the nerd kingdom.
Comic-cons, short for comic book conventions, began in the 1970s and have since exploded as world-wide phenomenons. The events celebrate comic books, films, science fiction and fantasy literature, and their related popular art forms. They involve workshops, panel discussions, celebrity autographs, and of course lots of dressing up as your favourite sci-fi or fantasy character.
At Comic-Con International in San Diego, one of the most popular in North America, upwards of 130,000 people attend each year. To put it in layman’s terms, comic-cons are a celebration of geek culture on a scale you’ve probably never seen before.
John Boivin, one of the organizers of the Yukon’s first-ever comic-con, can immediately sense I’m out of my depth. Looking around, it’s not hard to tell why. In this cape-clad, sword-wielding crowd, my jeans and sweater stick out like a sore thumb.
“Listen,” he explains patiently. “Nerds are just people with an intense interest on a focused subject. Comic-Con is just Spruce Bog for nerds.”
I begin to relax a little. It’s true. A woman dressed as a steampunk wench is delicately examining an old Nintendo gaming system. It reminds me of the way I would handle a custom made piece of pottery, or a new pair of skis.
“The last comic-con I was at was in 1981,” Boivin tells me. “Back then it was mostly about comic books and Star Trek. Now we have a whole variety of interests, from gaming, nostalgia stuff, board games, cosplay (short for costume play), digital art, inking. The whole thing is a broad expression of pop culture.”
In a time when comic-book storylines dominate Hollywood, the dividing line between where nerd culture ends and pop culture begins is increasingly blurry.
This week, for example, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Guardians of the Galaxy are battling it out for box office domination across North America and here at home in Whitehorse.
What casual theatre-goers may not realize is that each of these multi-billion dollar franchises is firmly rooted in comic-book history. The Guardians of the Galaxy first appeared in Marvel Comics in 1969, and the ninja turtles began as a comic-book series in 1984, preceding the cartoon series that ran from 1987 until 1996.
“There’s an interesting tension that goes along with that popularization,” Boivin explains. “Nerds feel they’re different, that their interests are unique, but the fact is their niche is larger than ever. Now comic-cons appeal to die-hard fans as well as the people just mildly interested in comic-book movies.”
If I’ve learned anything from classical history, it’s that if you’re going to infiltrate Troy, you’d better do it in hiding. Before sneaking in to the panel discussion entitled “Fan Chat: Out of the Basement,” I borrow a friend’s mask. It’s an impressive fur-covered construction I’m told will make me look “just like Bebop.” All I can tell as I make my wobbly way to the conference room is that the mask weighs at least 10 pounds and severely limits my visibility.
The panel discussion is underway when I arrive. A group of people sitting at the front of the room are engaged in a rapid, excited conversation with the packed audience. Character names are thrown back and forth, episode references fly fast and thick along with statements like “that’s so meta.”
Someone cracks what I assume is an inside joke and everyone laughs. I can feel the community in this room. There is a palpable sense of excitement mixed with relief here. It’s a place where people with sometimes marginalized interests can come together and discuss face-to-face things like niche cartoons that are much loved by them but little known by the rest of us.
Next door, several games of Warhammer are taking place. Land Pearson is head of the Northmen Gaming Club. Dressed as a Jedi, Pearson tries to explain the game of Warhammer. From what I can tell it involves two armies.
“The ones we’re playing with today are your typical dwarves, dragons, and elves – the fantasy ones,” Pearson says. Indeed, hundreds of miniature rats, dwarves and dragons, all intricately painted, line the tables of the large room. Players roll several pairs of dice, consult manuals and use measuring tapes to gauge the advancing armies’ approach.
From what I can tell it’s like a painstakingly manual computer game. “What we like about Warhammer is the face-to-face component,” says Pearson. “You don’t get that with a computer game. We meet once a week and a lot of time will go out for a beer or something afterwards. We’re a community, like a contemporary Lions Club.”
The more I look around, the more I realize the comic-book-loving introvert I thought I would find here doesn’t exist. Never is that more clear than in talking to Vickybunnyangel. This self-described cosplay fanatic has won multiple awards at comic-cons across North America for her elaborate costumes and embodiment of popular sci-fi characters.
“Cons are great because it’s a warm, welcoming environment for a typically introverted community. You’re in a place where everyone is into the same things you are. You don’t have to be worried about being made fun of because we all understand each other.”
Today Vickybunnyangel is dressed as Yuuko Ichihara from the manga series xxxHolic. She is styled as a geisha wearing a satin kimono with an elaborate wig and headpiece. Her eyes are blood red.
Like the genre itself, everything about her is exaggerated. “I have about 30 different costumes I’ve made myself. Every one of them has presented a unique challenge to me – it’s always a project or character I’ve wanted to tackle.”
Bunnyangel, who sells her portraits online and at comic-cons, travels to at least one ‘con per month. “I think (cosplay) is a liberating experience. Everyone loves dressing up for Halloween. It’s positive, you get to be someone else.”
As Bunnyangel says this, I think about the last Halloween costume I put a lot of effort into. I remember putting it on and for a few hours slipping into the skin of someone else. It was fun.
Staring through the narrow slits of my Bebop mask I take one last look at the hustling crowds. I may not be able to read a manga comic book – I’m told you read this Japanese-style comic right to left – but I can read a room, and for the many people here the Yukon’s first comic-con is a success.
Pavlina Sudrich is a freelance writer in Whitehorse who is interested in stepping up her comic-book game.