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culture

A Fan Expo Debriefing

Fan Expo is the largest sci-fi/horror/anime/gaming/comics convention in Canada. Torontoist sent Christopher Bird to it, because nerds are his people.

We swear to God we did not get him to pose this way. It just happened.

Every year tons of people show up to Fan Expo in costume. Some are amazing; many are not, but are at least still charming in their way. We were deeply impressed by a Strong Bad who stayed in character by lounging around and telling all the “ladies” to admire his “rock hard abdominals.” (Which he did not have, in keeping with Strong Bad’s character.) A number of superhero costumes this year were particularly realistic, especially a War Machine costume that looked like it was a for-real suit of power armor. But the best costume of the entire show, from this writer’s standpoint, was one girl dressed as Mary Poppins in the animated penguin dance/”Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” sequence, both because the costume itself is utterly perfect and because in person she had Julie Andrews’ personal style down to a T.

Sadly, she did not seem to have a Burt in attendance. Heads up, dudes who can affect a terrible Cockney accent! There's an opening for you!

Trends are detectable. For the first two days of Fan Expo, the most prominent subgroups of costume were Doctors Who and Team Fortress 2 characters. These are two nerd costume groups that have two things in common: they are generally easy to construct (an Eleventh Doctor needs only a tweed jacket, bow tie, and optional fez; a BLU Spy is a blue suit and ski mask, and optional cigarette case) and they encourage group costuming so a bunch of friends can go in theme together (a team of RED or BLU, a Doctor and his companions). Naturally, both Team Fortress 2 and Doctors Who would be outnumbered by “person from anime series” or “superhero,” but those are far more generic categories. At one point we witnessed a BLU Spy and an Eleventh Doctor pretending to fight over a fez, which is an in-joke that only makes sense if you are familiar with both Team Fortress 2 and the most recent Doctor. This is dedication unmatched.

Until Saturday. Saturday was when the Jokers showed up in force. The Joker is to individuals as Doctors and Team Fortress are to groups: it’s a very easy costume (all you need is a suit and makeup—and the suit is somewhat optional) and it works well for either a solo cosplayer or a couple (with an inevitable Harley Quinn riding shotgun). There were Heath Ledger Jokers, straight-from-the-comics Jokers, Arkham Asylum video game Jokers, and even a Joker who was channelling Cesar Romero from the 1960s Batman live-action TV show. Their dedication to the costume nearly outshines the fact that everybody is sick to death of people in Joker costumes. But not quite.

The other trend that was interesting was the large number of girls dressed up as Link from The Legend of Zelda. This is not to say that the Links were competitive, numbers-wise, with the Jokers or the Doctors. But the Links were, almost to a man, not men. Who can say why Link, of all the costume possibilities in the world, is the one that attracts the most genderbending?

Maybe it’s because when you go to cons in costume, you’re attending, in a way, as someone else entirely. Cosplayers mostly don’t like it when you take candid shots, and it’s not because they object to the pictures being taken (99 out of 100 cosplayers will start posing if they see you’re so much as carrying a camera). It’s because in a candid shot, they’re just a person in a costume, but when they get an opportunity to pose, they are Link, or the Joker, or the Doctor. Candid photos rob them of the opportunity to be somebody else.

...and then he had to get on the streetcar home.

The Marathon

“It’s not a sprint. It’s a marathon.” That’s what a geek dad on the floor says to the four kids he’s escorting past the dealer booths. He’s trying to explain to his kids that the trick of coming out of the con having not spent all of your money is to check what each dealer has first, and then make a list of everything you want to buy, and then prioritize. This is logical and cautious, which is why practically nobody at the convention does it.

Which is good for the dealers, since for the most part they’re strategically pricing their goods. Things that they want to get rid of—single issues of comics, used toys, and everything else that, if it sells at any price, they come out ahead—these things are cheap. Newer goods, like shirts, recent graphic novels, and fresh collectibles, however, are priced high: a cursory examination of these prices shows that it’s almost always cheaper, and usually much cheaper, to buy these things from Amazon or similar internet sources, and that’s before you consider the fact that you’re paying admission for the privilege to shop.

Why yes, that is indeed a "Pepsi Challenge" T-shirt for sale there.

(Corporate dealers don’t have to price strategically, because they can afford to sell at just over cost and still come out ahead. Hence the enormous booth for Kre-O, Hasbro’s new Lego knockoff, selling Kre-O Transformers box sets at extremely low prices. We played with the loose bin of Kre-O for approximately one minute before feeling dirty, and wandered over to the giant Lego sculpture of Hagrid to make our souls right with the Lego world. If Mega Bloks are a regrettable one-night stand, then Kre-O is a $10,000-a-night call girl, but you’re still cheating.)

The single issues and the priced-to-sell stuff are loss leaders to get you to buy things at greater expense than you otherwise would. Everybody knows this: the dealers, the convention, and even the fans. What’s interesting this year is that, according to several dealers (all of whom requested anonymity) it’s not working as well as it used to. One dealer explained: “They went to four days this year, and it used to be three, and don’t get me wrong, it’s still good for us. But we’re paying more to be here, and they’re buying less. Maybe it’s the recession, maybe it’s because four days makes it less intense, I don’t know. But they’re buying less. That’s something nobody wants to see, right?”

Or at least, they’re buying less new stuff. The old stuff seems to be moving quite well. Buyers hovered eagerly over a dealer specializing in old 1980s toys, salivating at the sight of a boxful of first-generation Transformers, spending hundreds of dollars to purchase all the playthings they couldn’t get when they were kids – which is of course often the entire point of the dealers room.

DIY

In an interesting reversal from previous Fan Expos, the “create comics yourself” panels were much more heavily attended than the “how to get work in superhero comics” panels. Possibly this is because everybody who would have attended the latter now knows that they amount to “do something on your own first, then we’ll see if you’re good enough to work on Ant-Man.

Indeed, the do-it-yourself panels were packed full of ambitious nerds who didn’t know what they needed to do to become the next great comics superstar, but knew that they didn’t know and wanted to rectify that. These were nerds of the type who figure that conventions such as Fan Expo are just like professionals’ conventions: an opportunity to network. (Which is not an incorrect perception, of course, but we say this to distinguish them from the nerds who just show up to shop and party.)

Our pictures of the panels were all lousy, so here's a picture of that Strong Bad we mentioned earlier. For the LADIES.

The creative team of Kill Shakespeare—well, one of them, apologizing for the other two’s customs issues—led nerds through the process of bringing the Shakespeare-mega-mashup-adventure comic to publication. He attempted to discuss business plans and pitching. The attendees took in all of his explanations and stories with grace, but from the get-go it was clear that, although they were grateful for any nuggets they could get, that wasn’t what they were there for: at the beginning, when asked why they were attending, people shouted out, “how to write comics!” “Pacing panels!” “Editing!” “Lettering!”

Which is why Ty Templeton’s Comics Boot Camp was such a success. The comics veteran is an excellent teacher and every year this panel draws in fans, and more importantly helps them with basic comics skills, teaching them the first words of their new and larger vocabulary. But, outside of the panel, envious non-comics nerds muttered. “Why aren’t there panels for making your own webseries?” “I wish they had intro panels on zombie makeup.” The comics community is leading the way in teaching its fans to become contributors, but the other aspects of the con need to follow their lead—not least because there’s no customer like one who views him- or herself as part of the process.

Draco Malfoy And The Secret Identity

Every Fan Expo, and every fan convention, really, has a hit guest; this year’s was Tom Felton, a.k.a. Draco Malfoy from the Harry Potter movies. Felton made appearances on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and every single one was mobbed. Felton’s lines got so long they started to absorb other lines, leading one observer to wonder why the line for Ethan Phillips was so enormous: “There simply cannot be this many teenage girls who care desperately about fucking Neelix.”

Not pictured: the other half of the Tom Felton lineup.

Which there weren’t, of course. Other guests were simply overshadowed by Felton in every respect. Dozens of people lined up to see Larry Hagman (wearing a white J.R. Ewing–style cowboy hat), but Hagman was able to exit through the Fan Expo crowds unmolested and easily. Felton, meanwhile, had to escape through the back tunnels in the heart of the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. Right now, immediately following the second Deathly Hallows film, the world is in the final stages of Peak Potter, so that’s what Tom Felton has to do, for now.

At least until he starts balding, anyway.

Photos by Christopher Bird/Torontoist.

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