Fan Expo Vancouver demonstrated the increasingly blurred line between pop culture consumers and pop culture producers.
Vancouver and its suburbs have always had a thriving media and culture scene, what with the area’s ties with the international film, television, and video game industries and a culturally and creatively diverse population, so it does seem strange in retrospect that it’s taken so long for a major pop culture convention to find its way to the BC Lower Mainland and take root. I’d been looking forward to attending this year’s Fan Expo Vancouver since the event’s 2012 debut, which was, by my own account and the account of the organizers, a much bigger success than anyone originally envisioned. Fan Expo Vancouver 2013 promised to be even bigger and better.
For many people however, Fan Expo Vancouver is a comic book convention, even though it embraces film, television, and video games as well as comics. On the train to downtown Vancouver Saturday morning, I could overhear people talking about “going to the comic-con” and taking in the sights of people in costume and maybe picking up some signed comics and posters. There is an actual Vancouver Comicon, an intimate, small press-heavy gathering of local talents, retailers, and fans that’s been in existence in some form or another for the better part of the past fifteen years or so, and I do wonder how that event’s organizers feel about its identity being so rapidly and thoroughly co-opted in the public consciousness by an event that doesn’t even have the word “comic” in its name.
Getting off at Burrard Station, I made my way on foot to the waterfront Vancouver Convention Centre. This year’s Expo had been relocated to the East side of the venue to accommodate the expected crush of attendees. Even at the early time of 10:00 AM, a line for the entrance had already snaked its way around one side of the building and doubled back on itself, a buzzing throng of bonhomie and home-made costumes. I had no doubt that stretched out its full length, it would have extended at least four city blocks. A very faint, slightly sweet, slightly spicy aroma that I was familiar with from my younger days hung in the air. Ah, I thought, it’s 4/20, and chuckled quietly at the mental image of celebratory tokers negotiating the chaos and din of the Expo and trying not to to freak out at the sight of a lumbering Warhammer 40K Space Marine in full armor.
Luckily, writing for the Comixverse does come with some privileges, as I could bypass the line and head to the press registration table. I was a little surprised that even there, a line had also formed. There were some half-familiar faces from last year’s event, but I didn’t remember seeing as many members of the media then. The wait at the press table was longer than I thought it would be, and it was 10:40 by the time I was fully credentialed up and handed my official Fan Expo press pass.
There is always that initial sense of disorientation when stepping into any large convention or exposition venue. I had thoroughly studied the map of the hall the night before and I actually had a print version of it in my hand, but it was like making sense of the middle of a book with the table of contents. Pockets of attendees formed in front of and around booths and tables, cosplayers stopped in the middle of aisles to take photographs of each other, gawkers gawked, and everywhere the straight paths that the map told me were supposed to be there had been replaced by circuitous, arbitrary, and constantly shifting walkways bordered on both sides by heaving masses of people. I latched onto the Stylin’ Online Tower Of T-shirts as a visual marker, a lighthouse of geek-chic polyester-cotton to help me navigate the sea of excited humanity and brewing con-funk that was the Expo floor.
My first stop was the Back to the Future DeLorean Time Machine exhibit. Oliver Holler and his wife Terry hand-built their replica of the iconic vehicle—an item on the couple’s bucket list—several years ago after Oliver was diagnosed with terminal cancer. When the “terminal” portion of Oliver’s diagnosis turned out to be premature, they decided to turn their personal project into a rolling symbol of hope in the fight against Parkinson’s Disease. Partnering with Back to the Future star Michael J. Fox’s non-profit Foundation for Parkinson’s Research and official Back to the Future site BTTF.com, the Hollers have driven their custom DeLorean replica across North and South America in an on-going campaign to generate awareness about the disease and help raise funds for Parkinson’s Disease research. (To donate to the Hollers’ efforts, click here.)
Speaking with Terry Holler at their exhibit reminded me of popular media’s power to spur in people the capacity to do great and special things. The Hollers sought refuge and solace from the ravages of a terrible disease in their shared love for Back to the Future, and having survived that brush with mortality, they were now using the cultural currency of the film to help those facing similar circumstances to the one they faced. One can grow quickly jaded when immersed in the business of writing about popular culture and its products—staring directly at the commodification of creative ideas can have that effect on even the most ardent fans of popular and commercial art—and many of us have developed, whether we care to admit to it or not, a certain level of immunity to the sense of awe and wonder that normally accompanies encounters with the artifacts of fantastical art and fiction. But listening to Terry Holler animatedly talk about building the Time Machine, driving across the continent in it, and meeting all sorts of people in the course of their campaign would soften the heart of even the most cynical pop culture observer.
What the Hollers did with their custom DeLorean is just one of the more striking examples of how fans are no longer just consumers of pop culture, but active participants in its creation and propagation as well. Oh, it’s been happening since the days of hand-stapled fanzines, and the history of comics, television, video games, and film is full of stories of fans who have crossed over into the creative side of the industries, but we are at the point where the ease of sharing the artifacts of fan culture with the general public, whether they’re hand-built replica cars or detailed costumes or fan-fiction and fan-art, has created an immediacy and level of fan-creator interaction that is novel to the Blog/Social Media/DeviantArt/YouTube/BandCamp/Scribd Era, and we are now at once consumers and producers of popular culture, regardless of where we think we fall on the fan-creator divide.
At the Phil Jimenez vs. Stephen Sadowski sketch duel, Jimenez recounted how his editors at DC Comics have grown keenly aware in recent years of trends in cosplay, and have given him instructions to make his costume designs and re-designs for superheroines more “cosplay-friendly,” such as cutting down on high heels and making the costumes more practically modest, in the hope that they are adopted and popularized by the cosplay community at large. Jimenez expressed his doubts about how effective such a strategy would be and I have to agree with him. Cosplayers are a resourceful and creative group, many of whom seem to expressly embrace the challenge of translating the more ridiculous costumes into real-world garb and unless the editors are cosplayers themselves, directing character designers to pander to what they think cosplayers want can lead to all sorts of design problems, not the least of which is that the superhero costumes may look more practical and realistic, but in Jimenez’ words, “less fun” as well.
The cosplay phenomenon is a source of endless fascination for me. On the surface, it seems like nothing more than people playing a more involved version of dress-up, but look past the superficial aspects of it and a picture of a gender-progressive and what could even be described as a post-racial community emerges: There are men dressed as female characters, women dressed as male characters, white cosplayers dressed as black superheroes (thankfully, no one as far as I could tell thought to show up in blackface like at the recent ECCC), Asian cosplayers dressed as white characters, and every other gender and racial distinction-crossing cosplayer-costume pairing you can think of. I don’t want to over-analyze it or make it out to be more than what it is, and there’s no reason apart from optimism on my part to believe that these sympathetic values carry over into cosplayers’ lives outside the Expo’s confines, but I am heartened by the fact that so many cosplayers do not allow the conventions of gender and race to limit how they want to express themselves through their costumes.
Still, cosplay coverage carries with it some potential problems. Last week, Penny Arcade Report‘s Ben Kuchera wrote an article that got Internet tongues wagging. In his piece, Kuchera brought up the notion that “sexy cosplay” picture galleries are a necessary evil in games journalism, one that he would rather do without if only the economics would allow for it. And yes, on one hand, it is a little skeevy and exploitative taking and posting images of amateur female cosplayers in the occasionally revealing outfits, knowing that the appeal of seeing “sexy cosplay” is bound to drive up page hit counts and bring in advertiser dollars. But on the other hand, documenting them live, it’s impossible not to sense the feeling of pride cosplayers have in their work and the sheer enjoyment they get in interacting with their peers and basking in the attention and pageantry of it all—the Fan Expo Vancouver cosplayers even managed to stage impromptu events of their own that were some of the most popular of the Saturday events, taking over the venue lobby for mass photo-shoots and appropriating one of the halls for an unofficial best costume and make-up awards ceremony—and I have no problem whatsoever with encouraging their sense of community by sharing images of consenting cosplayers online. Throughout Fan Expo Vancouver Saturday, I found myself going back to a specific passage in “sci-fi feminist” Courtney Stoker’s “Oh, You Sexy Geek!” PCA/ACA 2012 presentation:
The pressure is on for geek women to position themselves as sexy consumable objects for geek men. When they do so, their decision is framed as a freely-made choice. On the other hand, men’s behavior in reaction to sexy cosplay, like leering, sexual harassment, or other forms of objectification, is usually framed as inevitable and natural. The pressure women feel to perform “sexy” for their fellow geeks is usually ignored or dismissed, and the conversation becomes similar to the “Oh, You Sexy Geek!” panel at Comic-Con, in which the problem is framed as about geek women, not geek culture. Are women selling out, or being empowered?
The answer to that question is that it’s more complicated. While women performing sexy for their fellow geeks are unquestionably doing so within a culture that encourages this performance and values women merely as decoration, they may also be using sexy cosplay to subvert that culture’s objectification of women.
Are female cosplayers subverting the raunch culture that is itself a subversion of feminist ideals? I have absolutely no idea, but I find the competing suggestion that female cosplayers in sexy outfits are simply out to seek validation, consciously or unconsciously, from male Expo-goers to be somewhat reductive, and doesn’t give enough credit to the intelligence and gender-issue awareness of the men and women who attend and take part in these events. All I know is that in the cases of the cosplayers I photographed and talked to, it was the visual design and character profile, as well as the level of craft and commitment devoted to the costume and the role-playing that initially caught my attention.
I left the Convention Centre at about 7:30 PM and headed towards Cafe Deux Soleils for the “official unofficial Fan Expo Vancouver after-party” (as opposed to the Official Fan Expo Vancouver After-party at the Vancouver Fanclub) to rest my aching feet and meet a fellow student in Christy Blanch’s pioneering “SuperMOOC” class. The stage’s superhero-themed improv comedy act felt a little flat for me, but maybe I was just all superhero’ed out from the day’s events. The stage show closed out with a burlesque performer—I think it was Sherry Hymen of the VanDolls—doing a number dressed (and eventually undressed) as Captain America. Was I looking at a transgressive performance? What did it mean for a female burlesque performer to take on the guise of a male superhero in her act? Why Captain America? For whatever reason (likely having something to do with quickly downing three pints of Black Plague on an empty stomach—don’t judge, taking photos and jotting down notes is thirsty work!), I just didn’t feel like answering those questions. It was the end of a very long day, and as I stepped out onto a suddenly breezy Commercial Drive, I couldn’t wait to get home and sack out. The waking dream that was Fan Expo Vancouver Saturday was over, and it was time to sleep.