The Face Of Modern Fandom
Fan Expo Canada 2016 Is A Pop Culture High Point.
Moore’s law dictates that the processing power of computers doubles every two years. It explains why clunky Motorola flips evolved into sleek smartphones in less than a decade. While it’s far less quantifiable, geek culture’s reach is also rapidly expanding – let’s call it Lee’s Law (after Fan Expo’s esteemed guest, Stan the Man). Geekdom reached a tipping point during the mid-2000’s and the effects of its broadening reach are everywhere: Soccer moms can name-check Tony Stark, non-gamers wander the streets playing Pokémon Go, The Walking Dead is TV’s hottest commodity, and even Blue Bloods’ target demo (hi mom!) can tell you what “The Comic-Con” is.
So what exactly sent fandom careening towards a head-on collision with the mainstream? Whether it’s the Marvel Cinematic Universe, iPhones, or Netflix is irrelevant; these platforms are just highways funneling us towards the same destination: A pop culture singularity. Fan conventions or cons, are the nexus of fandom. At cons, our interests; movies, TV, comic books, anime, and video games all converge like a pop culture Voltron.
Last weekend, Fan Expo Canada (North America’s third largest pop culture event) took place at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre in downtown Toronto. Over the course of 4 days, nearly 130,000 attendees poured through Fan Expo’s gates. The event draws fans from all walks of life: If you can relate to those basement dwelling, D&D playing kids in Stranger Things or attended midnight release parties for the Harry Potter books, then Fan Expo is right up your Daigon Alley.
Fan Expo Canada’s steady spike in attendance is a clear indication of fan culture’s explosion. In 2006, the event drew just over 40,000 attendees. In 2015, that number ballooned to a staggering 127,000. During that same period, San Diego Comic-Con’s home, the San Diego Convention Centre, has remained capped out, drawing in the range of 130, 000 attendees a year.
This year’s show featured over 900 retailers selling everything from mugs, t-shirts, and backpacks to taxidermy rodents dressed as Krampus. If a brand can fit on it, vendors are selling it. You would have to walk down some off-limits corridor in order to not see fans forking over their hard-earned dough. This is where my cynicism bubbles up to the surface. Attendees walk the showroom floors with a wide-eyed, “take my money right now” look on their faces while vendors stand on the sidelines like a band of rabid wolves. Are fans showing up in droves so they can flex their nerd cred? Are they plastering themselves with logos and wearing costumes to overcompensate for the years of burying their passions beneath layers of shame? After looking long and hard, one soon realizes multiple things are simultaneously true: Fans are dropping crazy amounts of cash AND enjoying a sense of community AND they’re also having the time of their lives.
There is a moment towards the end of the Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ trailer when Han says to his hairy companion, Chewbacca, “Chewie, we’re home.” Although Han is referring to stepping onboard the Millennium Falcon, he may as well have spoken directly to every outcast, nerd, enthusiast, geek, gamer, dweeb, jock, rebel, dork, cosplayer, casual fan, and super fan that passes through Fan Expo’s gates. For anyone who ever cared deeply about some form of entertainment, walking into Fan Expo feels like coming home.
Fandom wouldn’t be the monolithic force it is today without the internet, but, nothing replaces the feeling of looking someone in eye and knowing they inherently get you. Whether it’s relating to a woman that put 100 hours into Fallout 4 or a guy who spent a year working on his Groot cosplay outfit, at Fan Expo, fans from disparate niches find their kin. It’s rare that we form these kinds of connections in our day-to-day lives. It’s why for some, Fan Expo is the biggest weekend of their year.
Fan Expo isn’t just the most exciting event of the year for fans. Everyone from the semi-retired lady working security at the media entrance to the celebrity guests look forward to this event. Throughout the weekend, I made my way through the ocean of attendees, asking people what’s so special about these events.
Burlington Ontario’s Ken Kapalowski could be out right now, cruising the streets and claiming his well-earned placed in the, I wish I were that guy hierarchy. Despite not being a mad-scientist, Ken owns a replica DeLorean, the time-travelling car from Back to the Future (flux capacitor and all). Ken says it was his wife that turned him onto attending cons. “You just look like a crazy guy with a time machine in the garage,” she told him. “Do something nice with it!” Ken now puts proceeds from events like Fan Expo towards the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.
Comic book writer/screen-writer, Sterling Gates, came to Fan Expo promoting his run on DC’s Adventures of Supergirl. “Fan Expo Canada is known in the comic’s community as being a very comic book-centric show, which is great for us,” he told me. “We want to come and talk about what we’re passionate about and talk about our projects and Fan Expo is a great space for us to do that as well as a great space for us to network with one another.”
Actor Kevin Conroy, the legendary voice of Batman (Batman: The Animated Series, Rocksteady’s Arkham Series, Batman: The Killing Joke), enjoys the atmosphere at these events. “I come to these things really, mostly to interact with the audience,” he tells me with a huge smile on his face. “I love interacting with the audience. Batman has a unique relationship with his audience. The character is so beloved, it’s amazing. People are passionate about him and they kind of project that onto me. I’m just a voice. I’m just the actor who does the voice. But to be in that position of sort of representing him to the people who’ve invested so much in him. I get incredible personal stories from people of what this character meant to them growing up or going through a difficult time in their lives. A military guy came up yesterday and said, ‘I had PTSD and just watching that show helped me so much through my recovery.’
Conroy attributes his love of interacting with audiences to his stage acting background. “There’s nothing like interacting with an audience,” he said. “In recordings, you don’t get to do that. In TV and film, you don’t really get that. There’s none of that juice. But when you come to these, this is where you get it. It’s fun.”
Actor Jason Mewes (one-half of Fan Expo’s non-cape wearing dynamic duo, Jay & Silent Bob) lives a very public life. He’s constantly out on the road with his buddy, Kevin Smith, interacting with fans and sharing his love for everything geeky. I asked Mewes if he still gets excited attending events like Fan Expo. He’s quick to answer, “I do, especially Fan Expo.”
Upon arrival, Mewes immediately checked out what other celebrity guests would be in attendance. “I was looking at the guests because I didn’t know all the guests that were going to be here,” he says. “From that alone, you could see the awesomeness. Joffrey, from Game of Thrones, just so many really cool guests they have here, and then the vendors too. So yes, I get very excited. I do dig coming to shows in general, but very excited to come to Fan Expo especially.”
Let’s face it, fandom is an easy target. It’s easy to point fingers, laugh at, and judge those who wear their passion on the outside like an exposed nerve (plus it’s hard to look cool cosplaying as Muppets). It may be cool to stay in, sending out snarky tweets while watching The Bachelor ironically, but at the end of the day where does that leave you? Fan Expo encourages us to bask in the warm glow of acceptance and understanding and forge bonds with people that aren’t afraid to care. In those moments, fans, exhibitors, and even celebrity guests each experience meaningful human connections.
Fan Expo isn’t about roaming through countless aisles of merch tables or waiting for Hollywood to drop the latest blockbuster movie trailer. It’s about experiencing a sense of community that lacks the cynicism that’s so pervasive in our day-to-day lives. Wonder Woman writer, Meredith Finch, had this to say, “It always gives me a new energy to go home and I feel like my creative juices are flowing again. I do find that to come to a convention and have that fan interaction, it helps me with the process.”
Whether your process is writing a blog, curating a colorful Instagram feed, or sharing the most unbelievable stories with your friends, Fan Expo provides a shot of adrenaline to your creative spirit. Who couldn’t use at least a tiny bit of that?