The impossible has happened. Being a geek has finally become trendy.
Even in my 30s, I still have trouble describing the giddy excitement I feel every time I walk out onto a convention floor. It’s all there: Fantasy, sci-fi, Japanese animation, comics, life sized models offering unique photo ops, sellers peddling all possible variations of memorabilia, costumed enthusiasts putting on live shows, and all other manners of “cosplay” (short for “costume play”) parading about the venue floor. Elaborate as it may sound, these are just a few of the staples expected at any event worth its salt. Larger conventions can already have fans salivating with a single glance at the program. Special appearances, autograph and photo sessions with actors and personalities famous in these circles are lined up side-by-side with lectures given by those in the comic, TV and film industries, making for a spectacle once considered the shame of all who attended. In recent years, the “geek” label has lost its stereotypical home with middle-aged virgins sporting thick glasses, braces and suspenders, and has instead been embraced as an element of pop culture.
Whovians, Buffistas, Thronies, Potterheads, Tributes, Ringers, Evageeks, Moonies, Trekkies, Warsies, Hunters and more congregate to further immerse themselves in what can only be described as a veritable tsunami of the imagination. Nowadays, there are as many outlets for fans as there are stars in that galaxy we keep hearing about so far, far away. The events that fuel them now span the globe, catering to fans both young and old. Today's mainstream following of geekdom, however, is nothing like the original lineup of social outcasts who, like the punks of a later era, were often ostracized for the object of their passions. Their insignificant, informal conference room gatherings functioned in much the same way late night concerts in dingy backwater clubs did (minus the cool, rebellious status that came with them) by giving like-minded people an opportunity to validate themselves, their perspectives and their interests.
The beginnings of the cons we know now can be considered no more than humble - even on the best of days. For the first official con, we have to go back to New York City’s Tri-State Con of 1964, which was attended by just over 100 people. Now, compare that to 2015’s San Diego Comic Con, which recorded a whopping 167,000 attendees. So why the spike in popularity? This is an area of untapped potential in the eyes of sociologists, who have stepped in to try and decipher the con, cosplay and the massive interest that has made events like the San Diego Comic Con a mecca for fans of the obscure and mainstream alike.
What has been determined is that such events offer its visitors a sense of belonging, free of judgement and ridicule. Editors of It Happens at Comic-Con: Ethnographic Essays on a Pop Culture Phenomenon and pop culture scholars, Ben Bolling and Matthew J. Smith, have described the importance of the phenomenon to their field as being deeply rooted in the fact that “they offer the promise of a safe space for people to freely and honestly express their feelings, habits, and behaviors surrounding media consumption.” Furthermore, in the case of the NCComicon, Smith adds that, “the growth and success of that particular convention can clearly be attributed to the organizers’ interest in fostering a community around the event, so that the event almost becomes a celebration of the community, itself.” This sense of community and belonging is one of the pillars of the experience, creating a place of inclusiveness that appeals to a wider audience than was ever anticipated.
It is has also been suggested that deindividuation, or the loss of one’s self-awareness in large groups, is a factor in the conventions’ appeal. Though not all convention-goers dress up, this is considered to be particularly true of many cosplayers, as the intricacies of costume design already provide them with a creative outlet which, very often, displays a talent for detail. What it also gives them is a chance to shed their skin, as it were, and don, not just the garb of a character, but their spirit as well. A person who would normally be described as passive can play the role of a caped crusader or armored warrior, abandoning their own nature to become someone or something which may stand in complete contrast to their own personality. For those at the top of the cosplay ladder, such as famed cosplayer Yaya Han, learning to become your character is even more important than the work put into the costume. After all, it is a combination of costume-crafting skill and performance that wins both competitions and admiration.
There’s no reason why this notion should surprise the average Westerner. After all, who didn’t grow up loving Halloween? The fun of it all came directly from being able to assume a new identity of your choosing, on a day when all of your peers were doing the same. The better your costume, the more praise you received. The carefree abandon we once took for granted as children is something that is often lacking in us as adults. After all, why couldn’t the pursuit of recapturing youth incorporate the playfulness that comes with dress up and the added pride of crafting your own costume?
Society is a fast-paced, ever-changing storm and, while the way in which we all choose to take shelter varies, there can be no denying that we all have an inborn need for escapism and acceptance, especially now with the Western world under the constant threat of attack. The unending beat of what and who and how we are supposed to be can be a sneakily decisive factor in the path our lives take. The freedom in temporarily throwing off the mantle of the daily drudge and removing the seemingly constant glare of disapproving eyes is one in which we don’t often indulge. If we consider the dangers that now exist in the world around us, is it really so hard to believe that some of us still want to be heroes?