The International Writers Magazine: Comment and Lifestyles
A Loose Guide to Conventions
Patrick J. Ferri Jr.
Conventions have risen to geeky prominence the same way that Steve Jobs and Bill Gates have. That is, while everyone has heard the names like ComiCon, E3, PAX, A-Kon and DragonCon, no one in their right mind has any idea what the appeal is.
I don't plan on thoroughly answering that either for the same reason that a software engineer at Microsoft wouldn't tell you what color Bill Gates' underwear is. It ruins the mystery. What I will share with you is a set of rules about conventions.
I developed my set of rules in 2011. My best friend Sean invited me to the twenty-fifth anniversary of DragonCon that September. Now, DragonCon is big. At the twenty-fifth there had been forty thousand -- Forty thousand! -- people had converged on one spot to collectively rejoice in their shared love for made up things. And I was one of them.
We all survive from day to day. (Most of us do anyway.) As far as a convention goes it isn't a rugged out-doors trek. There's room service if you're at a hotel and greasy cart-food for sale at about two times its usual price for the desperate but not the faint of heart. The more savings conscious can even leave the convention center to hunt down a meal. But you don't want to know about just surviving; you want to know what it takes to really live at a convention.
Although an overwhelming majority of conventions will never come close to the opulence of three hotels hosting a four day marathon of nerdy indulgence, there's always the potential for them to explode into an otherworldly carnival of sight and sound.
September waved its hand at me. My phone buzzed. Sean was calling. That seemed like a good place to draw up the first rule.
1. Don't go alone.
Thinking about my past experiences, I could say I had been to some conventions with Sean, some with others, and one by myself. I can safely say there is nothing more miserable than having a good time on your own. Every sappy Christmas movie can tell you that. Even if you go with a group, you might still be alone in that horrific Dickensian sense. Since I had spent time with Sean and his friends before, I felt that I had that base covered safely. A small step, to take but if you trip on the road out of Egypt, it will make forty years in the desert feel a lot longer. Speaking of wandering for forty years, that brings me to my next rule.
2a. Pack a Light Bag
No matter how you're going to weather your convention, if you're traveling to one, then you'd better pack light. In my case I was sharing a room for two with about twelve. The last thing I needed was overpacking. My luggage of choice is a blue American Football Association carry-all. Its convenient property of being able to scrunch up or bulge out makes for a great item that tucks and totes.
2b. And a heavy wallet.
I've come back from the best conventions with a parcel of souvenirs. There might be an artist whose work you recognize from a Sunday comic that you thought only you read so you would be delighted if they sold you a signed copy of their sketch book. Or you might run into a retired actor who's busy soaking up the last rays of his famous fifteen. They're the ones who take the deep cut into your savings. The year before I met Adam West, AKA the definitive "Batman." His autograph would have cost me another student loan.
||Even when you somehow manage to avoid the star studded-guest list, you might still find yourself mesmerized by the modern rendition of Agrabah's Bazzar. Usually lurking in a ballroom or materializing in any conveniently sized space, the dealer's room (or rooms!) is an impromptu temple dedicated to commerce that blurs the lines between gun show, black market, flea market, and just plain geeky.
Do you need a samurai sword made in America? A historical and authentic arm patch from a disbanded army unit? A novelty bobble head toy only sold in France? A foot tall ceramic figurine of Mickey Mouse? A foot tall ceramic figurine of Mickey Mouse in a naughty pose? A real-authentic-genuine-reproduction Superman suit? You can probably find it all in two booths sitting next to each other. That year I bought one of my favorite caps from an independent leatherworker who had her stall pitched at the corner of a dealer's room in between a Chinese family selling imported snack foods and a Texan man offering a wide array of reproduction uniforms littering the spectrum from schoolgirl to maid to Polish hussar.
3. Dress the part.
When I had been packing, I remembered something essential. Something urgent. I would need to look silly. I threw my hiking boots, a ragged old pair of pants, a sash and my work coat into my bag on top of the shirts and slacks I had stuffed in. For at least one day I was going to be a pirate. That's the third rule. Conventions are like Halloween. No adult can be spotted when it's going on. If you want to talk to Spiderman, you'll need to specify which one of the six sitting further down the bar. While dressing up in a costume is far from mandatory, it's also half of the fun.
|After all if you're going to be standing next to a female Iron Man (Iron Woman?) and shaking hands with Stan Lee's second cousin twice removed, why not wear that t-shirt with your favorite cartoon character on it? So what if it's Donald Duck. When Sean and I had been busy trying to talk up a pair of twins wearing white cat ears, there was a three-hundred-and-fifty pound man no less than five feet away wearing a blue short skirt and an exceptionally revealing tank top. If I hadn't been trying to focus on the twins, my restrained horror at seeing this mountain of man spilling out of his costume would have given me the alertness to count his (many) chest hairs. I recognized that he was dressed as the teenage heroine of a cartoon from the 90's. His costume was accurate down to the blonde wig with red-ribbon-tied pigtails. Sean was the brave one who approached and asked why he had burdened society like this. Short-skirt-nostalgia-mangave the most direct answer possible, "I love the show that's why." I felt exceptionally reasonable with a plastic sword belted to my back.
After the first day of the convention, Sean and I realized we had no idea what was going on. We'd chased skirts (badly), we'd gotten buzzed (badly), and we'd tried to save our money (badly). In order to make a greater use of our time we dropped by the admission center and scrounged for itineraries. Four pages of timetables later I realized the fourth rule.
4. Make a schedule, but don't rely on it.
At one moment, the schedule told me, there would be a panel of guest speakers in the Hilton, a lecture on the basics of "phrenology" in the Marriot, and a film that had never screened outside of Japan rolling in a ballroom at the Peach Tree hotel. It would be possible to see all three things at once if you didn't have to negotiate your way through forty-thousand other convention goers, up or down three separate banks of escalators, and then cross a street as well as a skybridge to traverse the three-hotel-large area of DragonCon's floorspace. So, I hedged my bet and circled the lecture as the primary diversion for that particular time. Why? I hadn't ever heard of the guest speakers (I googled them, they were actors in an 80's B list movie that Wikipedia politely called a "cult classic"), and I couldn't even pronounce the name of the film properly. At least in the lecture I would either learn something or have a laugh.
The schedule read like that from minute one of day one, with every hour and half-hour of the convention's schedule bringing a new wonder of the modern nerdy world to a packed hotel conference room near you until two in the morning, then starting again at nine.
I realized that even with the most liberal margins for time I wouldn't make it to half of them without making myself unhappy. It was a vacation. Not a marathon. I would want to chat up the cute girls wearing cat ears again (always in steady supply at a convention of any size). But that was fine. Because the fifth rule struck me as I dropped my dufflebag into the trunk of my beatup Chrysler sedan at the end of it all.
5. Don't bother being prepared.
I hadn't been prepared for a single outrageously fun thing that happened at the convention. I hadn't been prepared to get a stack of free books from an artist who'd studied under the man who made "Spy Versus Spy." I hadn't been prepared for Sean to come barreling in to the hotel room with a red headed girl named Cindy while I tried to sleep. I hadn't been prepared for the drunken misunderstanding surrounding her profound desire to see Sean's "enormous lightsaber" and her curiosity as to why I would have to leave if he was going to show it to her. I hadn't been prepared to shake hands with a Sci-Fi author whose writing had touched me in high school, and I certainly hadn't been prepared to wander into a ballroom at one in the morning to see Jefferson Starship doing a set of their greatest hits for a crowd that ranged from too young to have been alive during those hits to old enough to have been there for the first hit.
So take heart in this: If you can at least make it to a convention, and if it thoroughly suits your interests, you'll probably do just fine. It takes a real sourpuss to miss the mark entirely. Anyone who's half trying can find something to lift the heart in the middle of a raucous coming-together of people who have inside jokes for their inside jokes, fading stars that are still burning bright, merchants peddling exotic wears, drunks looking to wear costumes, costumers looking to get drunk.
© Patrick J. Ferri Jr. Dec 2014
ferripj at g.cofc.edu