Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Wizard World Toronto Comic Con: Where Subculture Becomes Community

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on April 18, 2012. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.  

Comic Cons: fun for the whole family (Photo by Krystle Burkholder)

I’ve long wanted to attend a Comic Con, but the prospect of going to San Diego has always been too expensive, and Toronto’s epic Fan Expo runs in late August when I am invariably out of town. So when the opportunity came to attend Toronto’s Wizard World Comic Con this past weekend, I jumped at the chance. But I have to confess that – despite my long-standing desire – I had little idea of what the event might actually be like.

When I first found out that I was going to Wizard World, a friend of mine described to me his experience of Fan Expo as being like “a party at the end of the world.” I haven’t had the chance to ask him precisely what he meant by this, but the description immediately called to mind the last episode the most recent season of Doctor Who which aired this past September. In that episode, we find The Doctor stranded on Earth at a point when time itself has collapsed and flattened, resulting in a scenario in which all of history is essentially happening at once: Winston Churchill and Cleopatra hold high-level summits and Roman centurions have to negotiate with flying dinosaurs. In my mind, this is what the Con promised – a world without boundaries, a place of all things and all times, all at once. And on that level Wizard World didn’t disappoint. I wandered the floor of the Metro Toronto Convention Centre amidst Imperial Stormtroopers having cigarettes with Warrior Princesses, Ghostbusters and pirates standing in line for pulled pork sandwiches, and an array of tiny Darth Vaders and Iron Men drinking apple juice from their sippy cups. The feel on the floor – among the kiosks selling an endless assortment of Big Bang Theory t-shirts, Star Wars figurines, graphic novels, and medieval weaponry – was of an unapologetic and unselfconscious celebration of all things nerdy. Fandom, without prejudice. And, to be honest, it was awesome. After all, how many places are there in the world where you can bring young children and buy a broadsword?

Photo by Mark Clamen
But in one significant way my friend’s description didn’t quite hold, and my weekend was all the better for it: this convention – unlike the 80,000-plus population of Fan Expo – was less like a party at the end of the world than a "meet and greet" at the end of the world. There was all the content but little of the overwhelming chaos I actually expected to find, and which I honestly wasn’t looking forward to. (I’m no fan of crushing crowds, and even less of interminable lines.) And if the experience didn’t rise to that intensity, it is to Wizard World’s credit. They organized an event large enough to do justice to the full scope of all the overlapping subcultures (from comic books, to classic television, video games, and film; from the subtle and elegant artistry of the comic industry, to the giddy pleasure of faux medieval battles and pillowed swordplay) without losing the humanity of all involved. There was an intimacy to this weekend’s event that was as much a draw as the celebrity headliners.

Conventions and conferences of all kinds need to be a certain size to generate the “enclosed universe” feel that makes them such potent experiences, and here Wizard World took over the Convention Centre (also the site of Fan Expo) with confidence, producing an event large and organized enough to draw real talent, yet small and free-flowing enough to generate real feelings of community and allow grassroots impact. From my conversations with other attendees and the visiting artists, it was clear this was an experience shared by many.

Despite warnings by the organizers that space would be limited at the panels and Q and A’s, I was never turned back at the door. The panels were all fun, no-stress affairs. People still lined up (especially for the heartthrobs like Paul Wesley of the hit CW series The Vampire Diaries), but it was hardly necessary.

The first panel I attended, an informal Q and A with Eureka star Colin Ferguson, set the tone for the entire weekend. Since it was still on the wrong side of noon on a Saturday morning, the room wasn’t packed, but Ferguson (a local boy – born in Montreal and raised in nearby Oakville) took it all in stride. Charming, self-deprecating, and oozing confidence, he led the small crowd of Eureka fans in an informal conversation. With the first episode of its 5th and final season airing earlier this week (on SyFy in the States, and on Space in Canada) Ferguson spoke frankly about the show’s recent cancellation, which turns out to have been an early casualty of the famous Comcast purchase of NBCUniversal from GE, and how much he misses working with Eureka’s cast and crew. It was a low-key, but warm and inviting hour.

Each of the panels I attended over the next two days was run in the same fun, free-wheeling way, a good-naturedness that extended to the audiences themselves. Even when, inevitably, the panel’s celebrity guests ran late – Jeri Ryan (Body of Proof, Star Trek: Voyager) was more than10 minutes behind schedule, for example – the crowds took it in stride, invariably responding with laughter and good-natured ribbing to the disorientated host unexpectedly forced to make open-ended conversation with a packed room.

Dalek Auric and Colin Ferguson (Photo courtesy of The Doctor Who Society)

Personally, what I most anticipated was the promise of a Quantum Leap reunion panel with stars Scott Bakula (Star Trek: Enterprise) and Dean Stockwell (Battlestar Galactica). Though it’s been almost 20 years since I watched the show’s final episode, it was a real thrill to see the two actors banter and reminiscence about the now-classic series. And it made me appreciate what these fan-centred events are really about: the humanity of the attendees and guests alike. Later, it would be a pleasure to witness the unabashed humility of actor Sean Maher (The Playboy Club), who still seems a little stunned by the affection fans still have for Firefly, almost a decade after the show was unceremoniously cancelled by Fox just eleven episodes into its first season. If the celebrities enter the room as larger-than-life icons, they leave as people just as real as their fans.

But for me, the surprising highlight of the whole event didn’t come via the Con’s much publicized celebrity headliners, but by way of The Doctor Who Society, a Toronto-based group only a few months old. Their table, complete with a full-sized Golden Dalek, was one of the first things I saw when I arrived on Saturday morning, and they successfully made their presence known across the whole weekend. Testament to the event’s surprising intimacy was the impact that these few well-organized and enthusiastic fans had on the feel of the entire weekend. (Dalek Auric would wander the Con’s floors, threatening all he saw with “extermination” and making friends with celebrities and attendees alike.) The Society also delivered one of the most attended, and most enjoyable, panels of the weekend: a conversation with Canadian author Graeme Burk about his recently published Doctor Who companion book, Who is the Doctor (ECW Press, 2012). The room was packed with older and younger fans (I was sitting next to a ten-year-old boy who made a point of asking the first and last question of the session), and the one thing that bound us all was a simple love for the longest-running science-fiction series currently on television. With no sexy celebrity guests (unless you count the surprise appearance by Auric, which I suppose I should!), and armed with only a sincere and thoughtful enthusiasm for the series that was shared by everyone in attendance, Burk and the Society were the epitome of what made Wizard World so enjoyable.

The comic artists themselves – who, despite the mega-celebrities just a couple of metres away signing autographs to swooning fans, are the real stars of any comic convention – were eager to talk to fans and non-fans alike. If you've never seen it, the artists sit there, for hours in a row, basically talking and drawing. And if they didn’t enjoy it, I can only imagine how horrifying that could be!

Ben Grimm (aka The Thing), by Michael Golden
Before I arrived at the Con, I had given myself a small mission – a small, somewhat arbitrary task designed to give my wandering a bit of focus. I would try to track down a particular issue of Marvel's Fantastic Four from 2002 that I’d read about only a few weeks earlier – Fantastic Four (Vol. 3) Issue 56, to be precise. Among other things, it is the issue which established Ben Grimm’s Jewish background for the first time. He’s not the only, or even the most famous of Marvel’s Jewish characters – after its incorporation into the plot of the recent X-Men film series, no doubt Magneto would top that list – but for me, in light of Grimm’s gruff and street-smart disposition, The Thing is a much more fascinating story. It turns out that I found the issue almost as soon as I began looking for it. (A worthwhile if perhaps obvious lesson for this Comic Con newbie: apparently this is where they keep the comics!) And so while I was attending the back-to-back Sean Maher and Amy Acker (Angel) Q and A’s, my girlfriend decided to surprise me by commissioning a few drawings from some of the veteran artists, including Michael Golden and Rodney Ramos. Though neither of them were particularly familiar with The Thing’s recently established background, they each took up the task with real enthusiasm. (Golden took the job so seriously that he worked on it for almost three hours, and it was only once the event had ended – and the tables were being cleared away – that he felt comfortable enough to pass it off to her!) The generosity and enthusiasm of the artists is evident in the drawings themselves (see image above), and of all the things I will take away with me from this weekend, I know I will treasure these drawing for years to come, not only for their artistry, but for the humanity they represent for me.

Wizard World has a presence across North America, and the Toronto Con is only the beginning: in 2012, they are holding events in Philadelphia, Chicago, Ohio, Austin and New Orleans. Each event has its own unique guest list (Philadelphia includes special appearances by the cast of Starz’s Spartacus for example) and no doubt builds on local fan bases and organizations. I was initially concerned that the brand would take away from the local feel of the Toronto event, but the vibe of the space felt anything but parachuted in. By the end of the weekend, I felt like I’d learned as much about Toronto as I did about Comic Cons in general.

I await, as many do, Morgan Spurlock's new documentary Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope (which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival this past September, and opens for wide release this Friday). Filmed at the mothership of all Comic Cons in San Diego in 2010, Spurlock’s film promises to be a love letter to all things geeky, and to the fans that gather together at conventions, large and small, worldwide. A celebration of celebration – and, perhaps for the first time, I can honestly say I really get it.