Mark Simpson goes over to the Dark Side at Comic-Con
(Out magazine, September 2009 – uncut version)
‘I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe,’ confides Batty, the beserker droid played by Rutger Hauer at the climax of the 1982 sci-fi classic Blade Runner. ‘Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I’ve watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate…’.
Yeah? That’s nothing. I’ve seen over 125,000 nerds in full flight, nostrils flared with the scent of freebies, limited issue action figures and the possibility of glimpsing Gandalf on the other side of a hall the size of the Death Star’s flight deck.
Every fibre of my body is screaming: RUN! RUN FOR YOUR FUCKING LIFE!!! But I can’t move. An inch. I’m completely surrounded. Who would have thought nerds were such pack animals? The San Diego Convention Centre, all 615,701 square feet of it, is full to bursting point with people who have left their dank, toy-stuffed bedrooms to don their favourite costumes, circulate the hundreds of stands and booths, countless talks, lectures, panels, fill their ‘swag bags’ with promotional pap – and bash them into me.
I can hardly breathe either. Who knew so many Americans could have such poor personal hygiene? In the UK, my birthplace, this would be unremarkable: but I always imagined that in the US bad breath was a Federal Crime, BO positively unconstitutional. Apparently I was mistaken.
And while this vast crowd is mostly male and mostly under 40, I’m not getting much in the way of cheap thrills out of all this gratuitous close proximity. I flew all the way to San Diego, home of the Pacific Fleet, several USMC bases, and a huge gay porn industry – and I went to Comic-Con. ‘FREE HUGS’ seems to be a popular T-shirt here, but although I’m as much a freeloader as the next journo I can’t say I’m exactly tempted.
Comic-Con is a mind-bogglingly huge yearly celebration of pop culture that began forty years ago as a simple swap-meet between geeks with boxes of surplus comic books. Today it includes pretty much every genre of pop culture from video games to card games, anime to fantasy novels and is a favourite stomping ground for Hollywood, featuring promotional appearances by big Hollywood names such as Robert Downey Jr, Johnny Depp, James Cameron and Peter Jackson promoting films like Iron Man 2, Avatar, District 9, G.I. Joe, The Twilight Saga: New Moon and Alice in Wonderland. Comic-Con has become the Godzilla of pop culture and has swallowed Hollywood whole – though some old-timers worry that Hollywood and Corporate America has swallowed Comic-Con.
The crowd is moving, and taking me with it. Towards some escalators that loom up ominously ahead like an unexpected waterfall. ‘STEP THIS WAY! YOU LOOK AWFULLY TIRED! – STEP THIS WAY! – TRY TO SMILE!!’ bawls a middle-aged escalator supervisor lady to the crowd. But I think she means me. At the bottom of the escalators I pass a booth selling ‘Star Trek Cologne’: ‘Tiberius’, ‘Khan’ and ‘Red Shirt – Because tomorrow may never come.’ A young man dressed as a Vulcan asks the seller ‘Why no Spock fragrance? After Zachary Quinto played him in the new movie he’s the hottest of the lot!’. Pause. ‘Or so my girlfriend tells me,’ he adds quickly.
Swept along by the crowd again towards the Lego stand in the middle of the main hall I bump into Michael and Cesar, Comic-Con veterans in their early thirties doing what a lot of people spend a lot of time doing here: waiting in line. I ask if I can hang with them – and escape the crowd – and very kindly they agree. But what are they lining up for? ‘Limited edition toys and books, explains Michael. ‘You line up for a lottery ticket, which then gives you the chance to line up again to buy a toy.’
‘That doesn’t sound much fun’, I say.
‘Hah! But these are limited edition Star Wars toys!’
‘Guys, I’m the sort of person who gets a rush out of throwing things away. The idea of collecting things fills me with dread. Think of the dusting!’
‘Oh, we like to hoard!’ says Michael. ‘I’ve got a garage FULL of SW figures! Over 3000! And hundreds of vehicles!’
‘Do you guys actually play with the toys?’
‘No,’ says Cesar, ‘I don’t take them out of the box. It decreases the re-sale value’. Cesar is trading to help pay for medical school. Michael for his part always unpacks them: ‘I don’t sell them and I like to play with them a bit before I put them into storage.’
Both from San Diego, Michael is gay and works as an administrative nurse, while Cesar is straight, married father of two, and is studying to be a doctor. Michael is very friendly and talks very fast; Cesar, a shy Mexican American chap, is quieter but has twinkly dark eyes that seem to say a lot. His backpack is completely covered with cute Star Wars badges like ‘Star Wars Republic Commando’, ‘Rogue Squadron’, ‘Revenge of the Jedi’.
How did Michael get involved in the nerd lifestyle? ‘My dad was in the military and a strict disciplinarian. We weren’t very close to him. He bought us off with toys, I suppose.’ So George Lucas was your adoptive father? ‘Yes, you could say that. I had the entire collection when I was a kid. Sold them when I was a teenager because I wanted to buy a car. But then I regretted it later and bought them back.’ So when you became a man you put away childish things – and then got them out again? ‘Yeah,’ laughs Michael, ‘Adulthood wasn’t quite what it was cracked up to be.’ ‘You can say that again,’ says Cesar, who is currently in the process of getting a divorce.
This is probably part of the reason why nerd culture is becoming much more mainstream – if not actually dominant. Nerdism is crossing over and coming out. After all, in a consumerist, single-mom society most boys are being fathered by Playstation or Nike. ‘Do you like Star Wars? LOTR?, asked a promotional flyer I was handed as I lined up to enter the Convention Centre. ‘How about Lost? Harry Potter? Big monsters, talking robots and sexy aliens?’ Well, doesn’t that cover pretty much everyone these days? Throw in computer games, which are an increasingly important part of Comic-Con (and a bigger industry than Hollywood, even catching up with porn), the nerdish ‘rejects’ of yesteryear are becoming the norm.
Nor is it just a boy thing any more: the arrival at Comic-Con of legions of screaming teen girls for the ‘Twilight’ event prompted some Comic-Con traditionalists to walk around with placards declaring: ‘TWILIGHT RUINED COMIC-CON’.
But what is the deal with the Star Wars figures? What is so compelling about them for a grown man? ‘They remind me of how I felt watching the film,’ explains Michael. And what is that feeling? ‘Oh, TOTAL EXCITEMENT!’ Love? ‘Yeah, maybe!’ ‘I think of them like a diary,’ explains Cesar. ‘Or like the way that smells or tastes can remind you of memories.’ Cesar’s family background is very similar to Michael’s. ‘My dad ran a restaurant and worked very long hours. He wasn’t really around. He bought us off with toys.’
It seems toys can buy you love. Cesar and Michael met on the way to the 3rd Star Wars Convention in Indianapolis seven years ago. ‘He was on the same flight as me with his girlfriend,’ recounts Michael. ‘We were stuck on the fucking tarmac for two hours with no air conditioning MISERABLE. We got to chatting – we were inseparable from that moment on. In 2008 Cesar stood in my wedding party. He is truly one of my best friends’ says Michael. Cesar chest swells visibly at this. ‘We go to all the conventions together and are inseparable.’
I ask Larry, Michael’s husband, if he feels jealous of Cesar at all? ‘Oh, no!’ laughs Larry. ‘I’m just glad I don’t have to go to these fucking circuses with Michael!’ Larry shares Michael’s love of Star Wars and 80s Brit band Duran Duran, but not Comic-Con: ‘I’m a proper nerd – I don’t do crowds’. Michael married Larry before same-sex marriage was banned again in California in November last year. Larry, an office manager in his early thirties, has an easy-going demeanour and a wry sense of humour.
SW was the entry drug again: Larry attended the first showing when he was just five years old. Dad was a USMC Vietnam vet working as an alarm installer who wasn’t easy to get close to. ‘You didn’t know who was going to walk in the door – the coolest dad in the world or the asshole. He had us help him build a 25ft model of the USS Hornet in our garage – with working elevators. And then he tore that apart and we built a full size Apollo capsule. And then an F-14 cockpit – in which all the electrics worked.’
He sounds a bit manic-depressive, I suggest. ‘He wasn’t very happy with his job. Either way, I ended up keeping my distance from him and became more interested in toys.’ Like Michael he sold his SW collection to buy a car when he thought he’d grown up – but later changed his mind and started buying them back. ‘Being an adult, whatever that is these days, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. As my father kinda demonstrated.’
Taking a breather outside the convention hall with Michael and Cesar, while a staged fight is going on involving men sweating in the June sun thwacking each other noisily with swords, I ask if Comic-Con a kind of nerd Pride. ‘Yeah, I guess it is in a way,’ agrees Michael. ‘We used to be fearful of those words. But now we tend to use them of one another. Kind of like gay people with ‘queer’ and ‘faggot’. And like gay people we don’t like it so much when others use them.’
‘I think things are also changing so that you can see a few jocks in their muscle Ts coming to this event now, with their girlfriends.’ Before I can ask him where?? Michael points to the sword-thwackers. ‘I mean, I look at a bunch of guys beating the shit out of each other in plastic armour and think it’s crazy, but is it really so different, or more crazy than collecting action figures?’ Geekiness is in the eye of the beholder.
Touched by Michael and Cesar’s friendship and fired up by their enthusiasm I join them in queuing up for a couple of hours outdoors to see the ‘Star Wars Spectacular. Sweating and blinded by the Southern California sun we’re finally herded into a vast darkened, frigid auditorium where, projected onto a vast video screen Anthony Daniels, AKA C-3PO, is on stage sucking George Lucas’ cock. Metaphorically, of course. Even camper in the flesh than in his famously courtesy droid costume, pursing his lips and flapping his hands about, Mr Daniels, is enthusing in a very scripted fashion about the SW Music Tour (basically: you watch clips from Star Wars while a live orchestra plays the soundtrack). ‘The size of it!’ he exclaims. ‘I didn’t fully realise how big it was until I saw the video of it afterwards!’
Daniels turns out to be the highlight of the ‘Spectacular’: he’s followed by various fat, bearded no-neck George Lucas lookalikes from Lucasfilm’s marketing department, droning on about forthcoming SW computer games, introduced by a couple of lamely ad-libbing male and female local TV presenters in Luke and Leia outfits. Hype about hype isn’t always terribly interesting. Even for die-hard fans.
First Michael and then Cesar turn to me half way through and say: ‘This sucks. Let’s go.’ And we do. I really hope it wasn’t my Dark Side presence that brought them down.
Adam May is not attending Comic-Con this year. ‘I’ve only been to Comic-Con once,’ he tells me on the line from his home in Atlanta. ‘I have a panic attack just looking at photos! It’s sensory overload for me.’ I hear you. ‘I manage to make it to Dragon Con here in Atlanta quite often. And of course the Star Wars Celebration Events.’ Of course. Adam, 33, a graphic artist who describes himself as ‘Atlanta’s answer to the wrong question’ has the distinction of being the first openly gay Star Wars action figure. Many are called; few are chosen.
Adam’s plastic obsession began the first time he saw Princess Leia. ‘Carrie Fisher with those buns on her head – she really was my first gay experience. Star Wars helped Adam grow up, in a manner of speaking: he had a speech impediment as a child, and by repeating Luke Skywalker’s lines over and over he help himself ‘talk it out’. He also remembers that when his mother took him to see a child shrink she’d buy him a figure. ‘I was a latch-key kid. An “oops” that my parents didn’t expect. We had an “account” at the little shop down the street, so I could get all of the comics and candy that I wanted. My folks never said a word about it.’
Contrary to my impression of Nerd World as somehow pre-sexual in a post-sexual world, it seems there are such things as superhero sex parties. ‘I’ve been along to a gay one as a voyeur’, confesses Adam. ‘I’m not really into dressing up – or superheroes. My heroes are in music – like Morrissey and James Maker. The parties are not really out-and-out sex. Lots of frottage, and depending on the costume, there is kissing, licking – and whatever else you can do with your mouth. Some bondage and role-play: the Evil Joker tying up Boy Wonder, that kind of thing.’
Other gays mostly recoil in horror though when they find out Adam’s plastic habit. ‘They typically assume I’m some strange man-child. I joke that the 80s jingle: “I don’t want to grow up, I’m a toys R Us kid!” wasn’t just a jingle. It was an oath!’
‘I know many SW collectors, straight and gay, who refer to their spouses as SW widows. My partner thinks a smattering are cool – he has a pristine Maximus Prime toy – though most are tedious to him. But I’ve reach the point where I don’t care what anyone thinks about my toy fetish. That said, I do try to keep my gay friends away from the Three Storey Toy Box. I have a collection of about 10,000 action figures – with all of the accoutrements that go with them (space ships, play sets, light-sabres). The stairwell in my house has a wall that is 2 1/2 stories of shelving, acrylic risers and every SW figure that Hasbro made.’
Including the one they made of Adam himself after he won a competition to have a SW action figure based on him. He chose the name Stormy Sevenspire – an anagram for Steven P. Morrissey. ‘I had hired a make-up artist to paint me up as I wanted to be in action figure likeness. I made sure the hair was just the right kind of quiff.’
Adam knows this kind of thing can make some people dangerously envious, but isn’t sure who is most likely to ‘shank’ him: hardcore Morrissey fans or Star Wars obsessives. Watch your back, dude.
‘Please. Again. No flash photography,’ announces the MC. ‘This is an amateur contest. So, if we want to encourage people to dress up in off-balance outfits they can’t see properly out of for us to laugh at for nothing – and I think we do – it’s probably not a good idea to kill them.’
It’s the final night of Comic-Con and I’m attending the famous Masquerade Ball with my new best friends Michael and Cesar, in which those not fortunate enough to have been turned into an action figure by George Lucas have to do it themselves. With papier mache and sticky-backed plastic.
So someone dressed as an AT-ST Walker stalks the stage, followed a little later by someone dressed as Luke Skywalker singing ‘Star Wars Cantina’ to the tune of Barry Manilow’s ‘Copacabana’. But my own personal favourite is She-Woman confronting Skeletor with a full backing troupe and singing Britney Spears’ ‘Womanizer’ at him while wagging her finger in time to the music.
‘Yes, I’m sure he learned something from that,’ comments the MC drily.
Skeletor may not have done, but I certainly did. By way of confession: I had been a little miffed that San Diego airport on my way to Comic-Con: the bearish airport security officer looked me up and down, smiled and asked: ‘Here for Comic-Con?’ But I needn’t have worried. I’m not a nerd. And that’s not just the voice of denial.
Truth is: I’m not nearly man enough to be a nerd.
Adam May’s Star Wars blog