My friend Douglas Wolk was kind enough to show me around Comic Con during press and professionals day on Thursday, and after we’d wandered through Artist’s Alley and the Cultyard, and I’d spent entirely too much money on comics (seriously, I ended up with a 13-volume, foot-high stack of books home on the train Saturday), he asked me for my ethnography of the festival. His Kindle Single about the interaction of fan culture and marketing at San Diego Comic Con is a must-read and captured a lot of what I was thinking.
My experience of pop culture, other than buying movie tickets, or books, or music, is not particularly consumptive. I’ve never gotten into action figures, or costumes, and while I have some 1950s and 1960s Archie Comics in plastic at home, I don’t collect the vintage stuff either. So the level of consumption was, if not surprising, exactly, forcefully striking. There are people walking around with bags half the size of my body specially designed to hold everything they buy, and apps that show them all the free comics they can get. It’s really easy to get convinced that you genuinely want to buy, say, a wooden sparring sword or a beautiful pocket watch (I resisted. I didn’t get the drunken She-Hulk tattoo I warned I might fall for, either.) when you’re surrounded by stuff. And I can imagine that Cons might be kind of stressful experiences if you don’t have the luxury to, as I did, get a little financially carried away. And I appreciated that for every booth trying to get me to buy Buffy pint glasses and extremely expensive manga action figures, there were places selling off inventory, or vintage comics for a dollar or 50 cents.
The other thing that stuck with me was the experience I’ve never had before, of being in a place essentially without a visible social hierarchy. Some of that is because this is a temporary community, and some of it’s because everyone there is pulling a Clark Kent, taking off their workaday clothes and putting on what makes them comfortable and most them, whether it’s Chuck Taylors or some really fantastic ladies-fit purple Mandalorian armor. But despite the fact that the audience ranged from black teenaged hipsters, to parents with their kids, to the standard, stereotypical white-dude comic fans, as well as up and down the age spectrum, it was essentially impossible to tell who had power among the attendees. Cosplayers? They get looked at, and praised, and have their pictures taken, but getting what you want out of an experience isn’t necessarily the same as having power in it. Consumers? To a certain extent, yes: you might have to wait in a lot of lines, and pay money, but the entire experience exists for your stimulation. But by the temporary nature of the situation, there’s no way to tell who’s cool, maybe because for once, for a couple of days, it just doesn’t matter.
Oh, and if you want to see the panel I moderated with the fabulous Jane Espenson and the stars of Husbands, well, compliments of the lovely folks at Buffyfest, here you go: