The con is becoming blandly efficient and the merchandise largely predictable—but the fans still bring the spirit.
Fan Expo has come and gone for another year, and again, it was full to bursting—although this edition probably featured the best space management of any year of the convention so far, with only Saturday being truly packed. On Thursday, Friday, and Sunday, walking around was relatively straightforward and, at times, could even be done in a leisurely fashion. This year’s most popular convention cosplay was “soldier from Attack on Titan,” which hits all the necessary elements for a truly popular costume—it’s trendy, it’s fresh, it’s not too bulky or too warm, it’s relatively straightforward to make from regular clothing, and it lets cosplayers march around in large groups without looking ridiculous (as happens when you have a large group of Jokers or Eleventh Doctors all communing), putting it on par with Stormtrooper and Ghostbuster as opportunities for cosplayers to indulge their inner conformist.
Most panels went off without a hitch. There were, of course, a few cancellations (Richard Dreyfuss and Karen Gillan were the big no-shows), but that happens at every convention. The section heads I spoke with were of course frazzled, as they were running large segments of one of the biggest fan conventions in the world, but they weren’t complaining bitterly—and they’ve done that in some previous years. It seems that, on the organizational side, Fan Expo is at last running relatively smoothly.
Of course, the price of running smoothly is a certain degree of homogeneity. The retail experience appears marked by two different approaches. The path to financial success at this point seems fairly well-determined: offer a lot of the familiar, and offer it cheaply. The artisan dealers—offering the likes of steampunk-ish accessories, clothing, custom earrings, or jewellery; or showcasing their own custom woodwork or their own prints, and so forth—were largely reporting on Sunday that they weren’t sure they would break even on their table fees: “We get a lot of gawkers, a lot of window shoppers. Not a lot of sales, though. Nobody comes here to commit,” explained an independent jeweller. (A lot of them now treat the convention as more of a marketing cost, a chance to hand out business cards and get their products seen for later consideration, and every sale they make is a bonus.)
But those who dealt in low-cost original tie-ins to existing popular media (buttons, cheap sketches, T-shirts) did well—although they offered caveats. “If I have to do one more Tenth Doctor sketch, I might track down David Tennant and murder him,” said an indie comics artist. The successful artists and dealers have learned that the con-going audience mostly don’t want to find the new and unexpected: they want to find things related to what they already know. If that sounds cynical, rest assured this cynicism was on the lips of literally everybody trying to make money at the convention.
Of course, the big vendors all made tons of money—but they tend to stock the same stuff: the same T-shirts, the overstock comic trade paperbacks they couldn’t sell at regular price, and those Funko dolls that, we are fairly sure, are breeding in a slow, steady attempt to usurp humanity’s place as the planet’s dominant life form. Every year, there are fewer small dealers; they’re getting squeezed out as outfits like Stylin Online take up more and more floor space (this year expanding to three separate—and large—stalls, all selling the same shirts). It seems like a cliché to say that the con floor is getting more corporate, but that’s what’s gradually happening—and far more rapidly than at other cons, such as the San Diego Comic-Con (which literally took decades to approach the state Fan Expo’s already reached).
This is not to say that we should consider the convention’s primary purpose to be selling merch. The primary purpose of any convention is for fans to come together (at least from the perspective of the fans). And in that regard, Fan Expo appears to be a success. Every female fan, guest, and dealer I spoke to enthusiastically stated that they felt the con was a safe and welcoming space (granted, one artist commented with a little irritation on one attendee who requested a commission that was sexual in nature—but she was careful to mention that she didn’t feel harassed; she’d simply felt that the request was kind of pathetic). Representatives from Toronto Gaymers were enthusiastic about the space that the convention had given them and the positive reception they had received from con-goers.
So this is where we stand now: a convention that works, a model of increasingly bland efficiency, where the only spirit to be found is provided by its attendees and not its design. It appears to be good enough.