Exploring nerd culture at one of the city's nerdiest events.
At Toronto ComiCon, you could buy a stuffed Minion dressed as Batman, Superman, or the Flash. I know this because I held a Minion Superman in my hand. Earlier in the day, I walked past a booth that was selling a laminated art print of a Minion dressed as a Star Wars stormtrooper and a full-sized Batman made entirely out of Lego. “Lego Batman,” indeed, is a popular franchise in and of itself, now encompassing three video games, several animated TV specials, and a major motion picture from Warner Brothers to be released in 2017. I think these products are probably symbolic of something or other in our culture. But god help me, there’s only so much time one can spend thinking about Minion Batmen before one goes mad.
Whatever it’s symbolic of, it can certainly feel all-pervasive, and if you’re one of those people who laments how “every movie is just a superhero movie these days,” Toronto ComiCon is not for you. Since its relaunch in 2010 under Wizard Entertainment, the event has come to rival summer’s Fan Expo as a destination for cosplay, merchandise, corporate partnerships, and celebrity appearances. But unlike the famous San Diego Comic-Con—where the likes of Robert Downey Jr. and Ben Affleck will stop by to stump for their cape-and-spandex epics—the Toronto event remains a viable spot for fans to find some actual comic books.
Even just a decade ago, “comic book conventions” still carried a certain nerdy disreputability. I ask Brian Morton, working the booth for Toronto’s venerable Silver Snail, if comic culture really is taking over the world. “It can feel that way, but go to the Sportsman’s Show and tell me how much comic culture you see there. Go to the car show,” he says. “It’s not taking over the world, but it’s gotten a lot more mainstream.”
“Has the fact that there have been so many movies and TV shows based on comics increased the number of people who are actually interested in comics?” I ask.
“No! It’s increased revenue for theatre owners. It translates a little bit, but not long term. They like the movies: a lot of people don’t even know there are comics still based on stuff. Some of the publishers, like DC, have been pretty bad. They have a Supergirl TV show on, and they don’t have a Supergirl comic. Bad marketing. Tie it in,” he says.
“That’s funny, because you’d hear that in the ’60s: the Adam West Batman show basically revived the comic.”
“And then, after Adam West, Neal Adams—revamping the character, making it more of a Dark Knight detective, pre-Frank Miller—revived the character in the comics. But the thing with the TV show is, ‘Omigod, everybody knows Batman,’ someone will go out and buy a Batman comic if it looks like the show, but the Batman show lasted three years. It burned out. So do a lot of people in that crowd that are reading comics. Like, the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies book. When it came out, it spiked—people read Jane Austen. Now…?
He shrugs. “It’s a cycle—everything’s a cycle. I think it was Will Eisner who said that comics go on a ten-year cycle. We had a little valley and we’re starting to peak again, and it just runs and keeps running.”
“I feel like there’s a perception going around the comic culture has taken over the world. Do you feel that?” I ask.
“Yes,” says Barry, working the One Million Comix booth. “Next question!”
“That was very well-stated—I like that.”
“Thanks. But, sometimes I hear that people who get interested in comics from the movies and TV shows don’t necessarily stay with comics.”
“False. Next question!”
“False? Uh… do you get a lot of new patrons who…”
“True! A hundred per cent true!”
I chuckle. “Well, how are you enjoying the Con?”
“Listen. When you have The Big Bang Theory on every night and those guys are wearing Flash T-shirts, Green Lantern T-shirts, they’re discussing comic books—that’s an advertisement for comic books. People are dropping hobbies like hockey cards in Canada—I know tons of people, thousands of people into hockey cards who are selling them off, they’re getting into comics. It’s the herd mentality.”
“Why is that? Do they just want to be part of a crowd?”
“That’s exactly it! You know how people are—if the Joneses paint their garage red, the guys next door are going to paint their garage red, right? If you really wanna look at it from a psychological point of view, it’s suggestion. That’s all it is. You see it all around you, and all of a sudden you say, ‘Hey, I think I’ll start collecting Batman [comics].’ But where does that idea come from? Like this guy right here from Australia, did you hear what he said?”
“Oh, well, he married a Canadian girl; he wants to start collecting comics. I get this all the time. I get guys coming in and spending big money. They don’t even know what they’re doing!”
“Do they stick around and become regular customers?”
“Yeah, a lot of them do become regular customers, but people come in and out of everything.”
“Did you feel a large responsibility taking on a franchise that means so much to people?” I ask Jonathan Frakes, better known as Riker from Star Trek: The Next Generation, and one of Toronto ComiCon’s headlining guests. I feel a pang of shame knowing that, as with any Star Trek-related question, he has undoubtedly been asked this at least five million times.
“Well, I didn’t know what the responsibility was. I wasn’t a sci-fi fan. I knew Kirk and Spock and Bones, but I didn’t really understand the place that Star Trek had in the popular culture until the resistance to Next Generation was felt by all of us in the beginning. It was a very reluctant, reticent audience for our show, which took about three seasons to shake off. Now, I appreciate that we were blessed to be part of a certain popular culture, but at the time, I didn’t understand what that mantle was.”
“Has the culture of fandom around Star Trek evolved? I feel like fan culture in general has gotten only more monolithic in the last 25 years.”
“It certainly is,” he says. “For our show, it’s a nostalgia-based fanbase. Like, doing Comic-Con in San Diego where all the new stuff is—we don’t even have a place there. We don’t have a presence there. But to come to a show like this, where there is an opportunity for the fans of the show to bring their kids… our fans are old, y’know, so they’re bringing their kids.
“But I go to these shows and I see the Walking Dead guys are killin’ it. It used to be the Harry Potter kids. It’s the current—whatever is current. And I think people are crazy not to do this if they enjoy being out with the people.”