Forty or 50 kids shuffle around in the middle of a cement-floored exhibition hall with a three story ceiling. Some have brown robes draped over their shoulders, with Pokemon and Spiderman t-shirts poking through. One girl sporting the red leather jacket of Kat Everdeen from The Hunger Games waves around a cardboard arrow. Another teen wears a punk rock Boba Fett costume, with a great green Mohawk in place of the helmet. A black-haired, bespectacled boy of eight or ten points to his robe, now bunching up around his ankles: “My grandma made this.”
A round-headed man with a robust mustache moves to the front of the group. His full uniform and gray hair lend credibility to his commanding posture. The kids turn to face him―what was once a loose clump of people suddenly resembles a military formation, or maybe a backyard nerd militia meeting. The man is Joe “Kenpo Joe” Robello of New Bedford, MA, a black belt instructor-certified in eighteen martial arts. He begins pacing. Behind him, parents and spectators line a moveable wall. “Today we will be learning Jedi swordplay as taught by the great Sword Master Anderson, choreographer of such classic films as Robin Hood, Highlander, and Star Wars,” he announces. His voice pulses out across the empty space.
He tells the kids to spread their arms and maneuver around, so that they won’t hit each other. “Do not twirl your lightsaber,” Master Joe paces, “Do not twist your lightsaber.” A few students twirl; a few more twist. One tries both at once and sends his wooden kendo sword clattering across the floor. Joe smiles. This is the out of character portion of the class, he says, and gives a little bow to a boy in front of him. “Now, let’s begin.”
Joe turns his back to his young padawans and pauses dramatically. He flips up his oversized brown hood and flicks out the ratcheting plastic segments of his lightsaber. Bijouuuuuuuuuuuu. He turns back around to face his students, slowly lowering his hood again before re-sheathing. “The force is like water, it flows through you,” he says, his voice more gravelly than before.
How did it come to this?―backroom drilling mystic combat, indoctrinating children into some sort of iconoclastic struggle―I’m a pacifist for chrissake! Most immediately, I guess, it began with the Rhode Island Comic Con staffers lurching about on a rapidly degenerating schedule, first delaying the Jedi Training Session for an hour before directing everyone to the bottom floor of the Dunkin’ Donuts Conference Center, then back to the fifth floor. They finally sent them to the bottom once again, prompting the outrage and impotent refusal of one mother, indignant at another trip up and down three flights of escalators.
“A Jedi does not feel rage,” cautioned Kenpo Joe. I had to agree with him. The kids in official t-shirts were just working the weekend so they could see the DeLorean for free—so many little Dutch boys with their fingers in the dyke. It wasn’t their fault that Green Ranger and MMA Fighter Jason David Frank (aka JDF aka Fearless Frank) had to bump up his panel discussion by an hour, casting +5 disappointment on a line of Jedi hopefuls as he went high-kicking past, “Hya! Hya! Hya!”
Outside, an older professional staffer tried to soothe a pack of young volunteers, frantic and anxious to please the increasingly impatient fans. “Everybody just breathe.” He held his hands in front of him in a gesture of calm. As soon as he could shuttle away his little helpers, a fan dressed like Rogue placed herself in his path to demand some sort of compensation for the ever-shifting schedule.
I sat against the movable wall listening to Kenpo Joe talk about the eight angles of attack and eight basic positions of lightsaber combat, counting out a striking cadence for the budding Jedis to swing to, and I watched my middle school nerd friends and I swordfighting behind the goal with our lacrosse sticks, while our coach yelled at us to “pull [our] heads out of each other’s asses” and to “go back to [our] mom’s basements if [we wanted] to play ‘Dungeon Wars.’” Coach had taken up the president's hobby of making up words (“The wings are strategorically intrictal to the success of the team”); there was no reason to tell him that no such game existed. We wouldn’t have traded a million varsity letters or senior proms for all the late nights spent reading The Sandman and Hellboy―so we just shook our heads and went back to our plans for weekend WoW raiding, and one day, just maybe, a trip to Comic Con.
And now here I was, riding an escalator with a battered Stormtrooper and the most cartoonishly over-muscled Batman I have ever seen, for free! All it took was signing an agreement in which I promised not to ask for any autographs or interviews (under penalty of perjury), and Dan Stump was covering Rhode Island’s first ever Comic Con.
On the first day, the convention center hosted a beer fest opposite the Con, and the Dunkin’ Donuts people had set up a labyrinth of metal cattle chutes to keep the fanbases separate. This made matters infinitely worse, with disappointed beer-goers stuck next to the original Batmobile on one side, and the detritus of a thousand cartoon series stranded in a sea of hockey jerseys on the other. Frustrated convention center staffers tried to yell at the stray packs, to tell them which escalators they should go up and then down to loop around and find their peers, but they quickly gave up and just tore down the metal-railinged Berlin wall of nerddom.
I had never been party to a reunion so sweet. Clusters of fans shouted the name of each hero they passed: “Punisher! Black Widow! Yea!” Professional quality costumes traded tips with Salvation Army grab bags and steam-punk cliques. It took one elaborate Predator five months to craft his costume from latex resin. A slick, modern Capt. America spent all of October on his: he planned to auction it off and give the money to a ministry after the Con. Fans stuttered with excitement, nervously asking each other for pictures with their handiwork. Ten Jokers of various size and deportment stood in the press line, until one staffer called out that the costume contest was full. It wasn’t just franchised characters, however; most attendees were walking amalgams of their favorite things―a Pikachu hat with Link’s sword and a Batman t-shirt, or a Warrior’s leather vest and a ZZ Top beard.
I kept moving. “Get your picture with Marty or Doc! Get your picture with the 1967 Bat Cycle!” Pictures next to the Batmobile were free; getting in the driver’s seat cost ten bucks. Inside the main exhibition hall, vendors hawked comic books, action figures, posters, and autographed memorabilia. To the rear was the living museum: Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek casts, Lee Merriweather (Catwoman), Billy West (voice-actor for Futurama and Ren and Stimpy), Mike Edmunds (one of the Time Bandits, as well as the star of Men Without Hats’ breakout video hit, “Safety Dance”)―everyone sat at blue cloth tables to sign autographs and chat with the fans, while stands sold headshots for the signing. “You can do it, we’re behind you 100%. They’re just people,” said one Finn (of Adventure Time) to a friend, trying to pump him up to talk to Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca). A cast member of the Galactica recounted fond memories of one episode to Princess Zelda: “Probably my favorite, I liked the prison bars. I wish they had left me there longer.”
The local geek and freak industry was out in force: S&M Magazine, Morbid Films, the New England Horror Writers, Monster Haiku, even a reptile show. Makemeadragon.com offered to draw any dragon you could imagine for $12.95. The couple, a banker and an illustrator, eagerly showed me a Mario Dragon, a Garfield Dragon, a Penguin Dragon, and a Dragon hanging out with a cat, which I found to be a bit of a cop-out. Upstairs, the Green Ranger JDF was giving out high fives for free, but his handler announced that posters were $30, T-shirts were $30, signatures were $20, and a picture with the man himself was $10.
JDF called a pudgier, shorter clone of himself out from the crowd and posed like they were about to fight, while another member of his crew took a picture: “Good luck sucka!” He giggled and let a little kid pretend to knock him down. Another pressman told me that earlier in the day someone had fake-punched him in the face before laughing and walked away. “I thought it was just some dick but it turned out to be the Green Ranger.”
I went upstairs to meet an anarcho-geek friend at the costume contest. “Last night I was a drag-on,” my companion informed me, as a parade of DC, Marvel, and everything between gesticulated wildly by. “So I wore a dress and punched out some guy in a Nazi costume.” Nearby, a fire marshal began arguing with a cat-lady as he tried to clear the walkways which the attendees had clogged. “Go see if you can get any coke from Jake the Snake,” my friend advised, but I told him I was legally prohibited from asking the talent anything.
Later, I found the room where a scaled down version of the costume contest was being judged. Contestants walked to the front and answered questions from a panel of judges about their characters and costumes. “I am Dr. Grimm of Dr. Grimm Laboratories. I travel through time doing―well there’s a lot of science involved so I’m not going into that,” said one man in a top hat with a telescoping monocle. Strong, silent types gave only their name and rank. The skinny MC made half-jokes, punctuated by shouts or booing from the crowd. Thor waddled up to the front and declared himself the righteous fist of Asgard. He thrust his hammer, Mjolnir, into the air, and everybody in the crowd oh’d when it lit up from inside. The costume took him a year and a half of daily work. Needless to say, he took first place and won a gold VIP pass to next year’s Con.
The crowd favorite and best presentation winner, however, was the serial heckler Batpool―a relatively new character who fuses Batman and the wisecracking, fourth-wall breaking mercenary Deadpool. James Jwanowski had debuted this costume at the NYC Comic Con last month, and had dressed up as Deadpool for the two previous years. Recently, he had taken Batpool to a benefit for the victims of the Aurora shooting. “Batman was real upset,” he told me, indicating the hyper-muscled Dark Knight from earlier in the day, now standing in a corner with a COG from Gears of War. “He lost a lot of gigs. The Batman symbol, it's more than just a thing. It’s about rising above, you know? We went [to the benefit] as three different Batmans.” While we talked, an Ezio from Assassin's Creed asked Batpool for his contact information. This one had started an anti-bullying and -violence organization of his own―he wanted to work with Batpool in the future. I excused myself from the group and for some reason apologized for not coming in costume. “No, you write for the Daily Bugle,” Batpool cheered, “it’s just your alter-ego!”
Peter Mayhew uses a wheelchair now, but even sitting down, there is no mistaking his massive frame. His shaggy hair and the gentle, ent-like groan of his voice are enough to make anyone believe that he is every part the wookie he first played 35 years ago. At the last panel of Comic Con, he and Ryder Windham, author of over 60 Star Wars books, expressed hope for the future of the series, which was recently purchased from George Lucas by Disney for over $4 billion. “Fans own a piece of Star Wars,” Ryder says. “Or at least they think they do. They take it very personally . . . It’s beyond nostalgia.”
I picture the poster of Luke Skywalker with his lightsaber over his head outside the Ephrata, PA, movie theater where my dad took me to see the re-release of A New Hope in 1997. In my head, I rifle through the shoebox full of old Magic: the Gathering cards and DnD character sheets gifted to my nerd friends and I by a cool older cousin and fellow WoW player. Then I think about the Chewbacca action figure I picked up in the showroom at the first day of the Con, whose arms wave when I press his legs together. Even as I write, I continually reposition him so he can hold the Magic card (Otarian Juggernaut―a 2/3 artifact creature which gets +3/+0 when it attacks) that I picked up the same day. It makes me happy.
Mayhew laughs when he talks about the pairing of himself and “little Kenny Baker,” the actor who played R2D2. “There’s always someone different from you. There’s always someone the same as you . . . Star Wars has been good to us. I’ve been fortunate.”
On the escalator outside, a few gentlemen from the beerfest in backwards fitted hats jeer at a Red Ranger: “Go Go Power Rangers!” They give each other high-fives before crawling up their own assholes. The sun dances across a thin layer of dust on the hood of the original Batmobile. Another pair of bros with their sunglasses on indoors jab one another in the ribs and giggle at a well-crafted Princess Zelda. A man behind me holds a truly majestic Millenium Falcon replica against his chest. I tell him so. “Right? It’s even better with Peter Mayhew’s autograph,” he beams and then looks up and chews his lip. “Sometimes life can be sweet. May the force be with you!”
DANIEL STUMP B’14 is brought to you by City Gyro.