You might want to sit down for this one, it’s going to come as a bit of a shock. I hate to be the guy who pulls the rug out from under you, who shatters the tender illusion under which you’ve lived your entire life until now.
The Internet didn’t always exist.
No, I’m serious. There was a time when people didn’t have the means to communicate instantly, to answer nearly any question, to check in on the hilarious antics of anyone’s cat, at any time, anywhere in the world.
It was a dark time. Marriages collapsed as the lack of Wikipedia meant that couples couldn’t resolve arguments with the click of a mouse. People starved to death, lost on unfamiliar roads, without their iPhone’s maps feature to guide them to civilization. Cats rode Roombas, dashed into paper bags, cuddled up beside dogs without anyone to witness their heart-breakingly cute hilarity.
I’ve been called a tough guy because I’ve been to war, but I think the real testament to my durability was that I lived through this Dark Age.
It was especially tough on nerds. We thrive on minutiae, esoteric cultural touchstones that are precious to us precisely because they are so rare. It’s hard to find a guy who can identify all the different types of Storm Trooper armor (and yes, that includes the Emperor’s Royal Guard) at a glance, who can tell you the THAC0 for a 3rd level Thief without having to look it up. When we meet those who can, we bond with them, reveling in a sense of cultural identity which I am assuming is the cousin to how Masai feel when they celebrate a warrior killing yet another lion. With a spear. By himself.
Anyway, with no Internet, it was harder to find one another, especially when reaching out to the wrong person could get you mercilessly teased, or worse, smacked around and stuffed in a locker.
To facilitate the location and bonding process, we nerds were drawn to gatherings known as “cons.” (And no, they didn’t involve tricking kindly old ladies out of their life savings). Generally held in hotels, these gatherings allowed a few hundred of us to bond in safety, reveling in our tribal songs (filking) and interpretive dances (LARPing). It also doubled as pretty much the only place on earth any of us would ever have a chance in hell of kissing a member of the opposite sex.
I lived for cons. My life was one interminable stretch of time between them, each a crucible I had to get through until the next long weekend among my own. They all had cool names playing on their root word: Lunacon, Balticon, Confusion, Boskone. Okay, so that last one kind of fell down on the job, but you get the idea. They were always put on by fans, run by volunteers, usually operating at a loss.
Science Fiction and Fantasy is one of the few genres where the majority of the pros come up through fandom, and cons were peppered liberally with authors, editors and literary agents, all doing their business networking in a morass of joy that gave them a uniform expression of I-can’t-believe-I-make-money-doing-this.
It was at cons that my burgeoning interest in the genre became a professional ambition. I met my agent at Philcon, sat in the lobby until 3AM talking about everything other than writing. I first met my editor and her assistant at a con.
Fast forward a-number-of-years-I-am-uncomortable-stating-because-I-am-really-really-old. A perfect storm of genre successes in popular culture (a string of outstanding superhero flicks, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, a surge in adult acceptance of video games, which are almost always SF/F based), and some literary successes (Harry Potter, Twilight, Eragon) helped propel Science Fiction and Fantasy into the mainstream.
At the same time, the pervasiveness of the Internet began to erode the old fan-run con culture. When you can find thousands of like-minded people at the click of a mouse, why bother traveling hundreds of miles to spend a weekend at an expensive hotel? The shared vocabulary was online. Everything, from role-playing games to fan-fiction, was available in an instant. Those who accuse Internet addicts of isolation are fools. The Internet is a fundamentally social phenomenon. It is a new way that people form bonds. Cons began to gray. The panels became repetitive, the programming staff focusing more and more on holding on to their salad days, while the genre moved on without them.
I don’t know when it first happened, but somewhere along the way, someone perked up and noticed that the con culture was still being applied to a small subsection of society, but revolved around a genre that was now immensely popular. The appeal was broad enough that people were willing to spend a lot of money for their articles of faith: action figures, specialized t-shirts, special edition DVDs, oceans and oceans of books.
Boom. The for-profit con was born.
There are comic cons all over the country now. It seems like every major city has one. While the old fan-run cons attract hundreds, these pull in tens of thousands, packing the largest venues of major cities so full that it takes an attendee 20 minutes to walk 20 feet. They transcend genre now, have become pop culture celebrations, pulling in film, television and gaming executives hawking wares from straight comedy to mainstream drama, with nary a superhero in sight. And there’s still more money to be made, with venue after venue springing up to meet demand. Wizard World, Dragon Con, the Sci-Fi Weekender.
There’s a tribal petulance for those of us who were there first, who saw the birth of the con and grew up in the bosom of its larval state. This new age of mega cons makes us want to shake our fists and call the beautiful people thronging the halls of the Javitts Center Johnny-Come-Latelys (and if one more model unilaterally declares herself “Queen of the Nerds,” I will go ballistic). They are, after all, the people who took our lunch money, who wouldn’t date us. Walk through Williamsburg, Brooklyn and you’re bound to see a guy who has never played D&D in his life sporting a “THIS IS HOW I ROLL” T-shirt, emblazoned with a 20-sided die.
But we go, of course. Comic Con is a focal point of my year, the happiest long weekend of the annual cycle.
And that’s because I remembered something from my early days as a writer. When my best friend hit it huge as a professional genre writer before I did, I made the conscious decision not to be jealous. A rising tide lifts all boats, I told myself, and it was true. His success didn’t hinder mine in the least. In fact, it helped me when my turn came.
The same is true here. I was drawn to cons of hundreds for the same reason folks are drawn to cons of hundreds of thousands: Because the genre is amazing, because a thing shared is so much more wonderful than a thing enjoyed privately. Because nothing in life can beat the simple animal pleasure of turning to a stranger and saying “That is so awesome!” and having them smile knowingly and say “it really is!”
It is a brief moment where we are not alone.
As I walk through New York Comic Con (or rather, as I ride the shoulders of my enormous colleague Sam Sykes to avoid getting trampled by the horde), I see the legions of fans thronging the aisles. In junior high school, most of these people likely wouldn’t have been my friends.
But they are now.
A rising tide lifts all boats. Man, it just keeps going up and up, year after year.
And the view from here is glorious.