Death of the Con

by Randall S. Frederick

In the Nineties, comic book conventions were small affairs, a forgotten relative to those held in larger, more progressive cities like Pensacola or Birmingham. Cliche as the description may sound, the ones I attended as a child were held in a single room on a floor of a hotel, walls lined with tables manned by pot-bellied men with neck-beards that immediately connected to a shrub of chest hair above the neckline of their faded t-shirt. Their perpetually grimacing occasional wives sat beside them, gently shaking their heads at grown men laughing over inside jokes or, in my case, at the gentle con their husband was trying to pull over a child. “Oh yeah, that’s a collector’s item right there!” the men would insist, even at times making small talk with one of my parents to authenticate the con. Larger conventions in Miami, New Orleans, or Dallas were, at best, an entire floor of the hotel kept outside of the view of respectable travelers but the scene was entirely familiar, whatever the zipcode or season. Amateur artists sat next to former television stars sat next to aged cult stars. Heavy makeup with ridged foreheads like a Klingon, wearing a colored flashlight on your belt like a Jedi, velvet-lined capes and photographable masks or horns and pointed ears or accessories were encouraged, but even among nerds, these practices were considered excessive and “extra.” Serious fans might have worn plastic extensions on their ears to look like Spock, maybe a particular color of faux-Starfleet to mark their seniority within their hierarchy of nerdarchy. A scarf or hat would indicate which iteration of Doctor Who they enjoyed, but serious fans politely kept their exuberance under control. It was, in some respects, like gay culture in exile – we were able to identify one another in public easily enough, clothing telegraphing signals to the knowledgable and initiated. As I entered my teens, I was aware that much of the culture was being left for the privacy of VHS viewing parties, basement conversations with friends. Even as my parents divorced and did their specific drugs of choice, they were sober enough to recognize the potential for abuse. Once, in the last days of their marriage, they took me to a hotel room, the kind with vinyl doors that could be folded up like an accordion into the wall. On the ride home, they argued bluntly in hidden language and then quietly in stage whispers from the front seats over my deficiency in social skills. Hadn’t my father noticed I was actually talking to people for a change? Yes, but what was my mother allowing to happen to me – a child talking to weirdos! 

One decade begat another, hobby shops became comic book stores became gaming dens, whisper campaigns. A lot happens in the underground, outside of popular culture. The conferences evolved, but only in incremental ways. Hotels began to see a consistent revenue stream and allowed vendor tables of self-published and stapled together “books” to become “expert” panels and then legitimate panels of experts to opine on the state of media and publishing. Neckbeards were being gently shown the door with their Xeroxed short stories. All of this brought slight movement within the community, but dissolved overnight with the birth of the Internet. Chat forums and immediate feedback on fanfiction allowed new conversations to take place outside of the annual family reunion the conventions had become. Internet killed the panel-con star.

This was before San Diego.

The first San Diego Comic-Con, the gold standard in pop culture, began in 1970 as the Golden State Comic Book Convention and quickly expanded to include science fiction television shows and films, popular arts, gaming, horror, Western animation, anime, manga, toys and collectible card games, video games, webcomics, and fantasy novels. By 2015, over 165,000 nerds, geeks, freaks, and dweebs were holding tickets to the conference. Nerd culture had gone mainstream with the unrelenting success of Spider-man, X-men, Star Wars prequels and sequels, Lord of the Rings franchise, Game of Thrones, and of course Harry Potter. Ticket sales proved a gold rush for movie studios, looking to build a marketing pipeline with the franchises.

Noting the success, Disney entered the convention game in 2009 with their own D23, featuring pavilions from Walt Disney Imagineering, showcasing models and tests for future attractions, discussions on corporate responsibility, and their own tables – not set up by fans, but by their own representatives and sales divisions, to emphasize kitchen appliances, projects for overseas troops and homeless shelters, consumer products for the home, costumes and props from the Walt Disney Archives, and Collectors Forum, where people from all over the country showcased and sold memorabilia. Not to be outdone, that first convention in 2009 included celebrity appearances included John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, Patricia Heaton, Kelsey Grammer, Tim Burton, Selena Gomez, Donny Osmond, Tom Bergeron, Kym Johnson, Betty White, Robin Williams, Joseph Fiennes, Johnny Depp in costume as Captain Jack Sparrow, and live performances by Miley Cyrus, and The Muppets.

San Diego capitalized on Hollywood’s efforts, taking over the convention center with high ticket vendor costs to justify celebrity appearances, larger venues, and more panels but the conference became even more legitimized through the inclusion of an untapped resource – scholarship. Pop Culture, in the interim, had taken over university departments like English and Intercultural Studies through grounded discussions on community and intersectionality, gender, and race. This, perhaps more than any other avenue, helped dismantle the exclusivity of fandoms and, in making an effort to move the conference toward equal representation and intersectionality, made them more presentable. Comic-Con made it possible for a gay teenager from Tupelo, Mississippi, and an Asian American living in Pasadena to share space and find common ground over their shared love of animated television. San Diego wrecked fandoms even as it simultaneously built new ones, gentrifying at every step. CBS’s “Big Bang Theory” continued to bring attention to Comic-Con, as the four lead characters make an annual pilgrimage. One season, the cast dressed up as the Justice League; another season, as crew members of the U.S.S. Enterprise of Star Trek. Fandoms were normalized, if homogenized, and “geek was chic,” as the saying went. The occasional wives of my childhood now appeared beside their (now) shaven partners, joyfully selling exclusives available only to collectors who had waited for the trend to vivify with vintage collections built over decades or signed prints from legends of the industries that had come together. 

San Diego did what so many small conventions had tried to do for decades, uniting nerds under a singular umbrella – no small accomplishment when the basis for any fandom is a strongly held opinion that too often separates the fan from the bourgeoisie. With the rise of YouTube tutorials, the convention now includes makeup and costume arts as well, something of a Pygmalion contrasted with the aging collectors and their faded comics sealed away in plastic sleeves. If these groups seem incompatible, that’s the point – Comic-Con, like Mecca, brings together different views and interpretations and practices for one shared experience of commonality.

But Comic-Con was something like Wal-mart to the mom and pop shops, those secretive dens of fantasy like the ones I grew up with. My father recalls that comic-book shops in Boston in the 1980s were “like sex shops. People knew what they were and where they were, but you didn’t want people to see your car in the lot outside.” He’s not entirely incorrect in making this observation. Monthly comic books were popular at drug and even grocery stores. My first comic “collection” was an adaptation of the 1990 film, Dick Tracy, based on the serials of the 1930s, and a couple of issues of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which was a popular animated show at that time. But serious collectors often sold other items, more mature content. “Novelty shops” with a curtained room or items behind glass. My father’s suspicion of vendors when I was a child makes sense – underground culture often makes questionable alliances. 

Like Wal-Mart, Comic-Con drained the “mom and pop” conventions, consolidating and then eradicating the small storehouses of heroes, indie printing, and tabletop games to make nerd-dom homogenous and palatable, if also removing flavor and color. Mainstream popularity necessitates this, as any high school playground will confirm. Along with the toys and trappings of fantasy, Comic-Con absorbed other small stores and trade shops, other corners of the market where collectors were willing to pay for fashionability and, at times, customization. Why slog through the smoky, often musty local store when the conference, like the carnival, would come to town with bright lights and soundtrack in a few months and a fan could be joined by friends – at least for a weekend – in a respectable forum? The “mom and pops” became even smaller, rarer, until their eventual demise. This is not some glib summary. Instead, it is an indicator that the diaspora who remained did so because they carved out their niche and adapted, joining crafters and artists who had also been set aside by the mass production of similar business practices – corporations pirating and then relaunching the “local game store” under a corporate banner, fresh paint to “wow” audiences before pillaging some more. The shops that remained were tucked away, existing only by commission or word of mouth. 

The conferences, meanwhile, became virtually extinct. Those who remained found the market decidedly different. Today, not all conventions are lined with movie stars and professional makeup artistry. Some are decidedly less glamorous. A few actively resist it, preferring the grotesque romanticism. I recently attended such a convention in New Orleans, Contraflow, to discuss some of my research on fantasy properties and new media. Admittedly, it was not a good fit but right away, I recognized this and embraced it. It reminded me of the conventions I attended as a child and, I think, allowed me to better understand the nostalgia of memories. In-between panels, I could drift entirely and enthusiastically as a fresh face as attendees were united in their resistance to Corporate Culture, their collective aging, reminiscence of the debatably good days past, and increasingly by their experience intentionally checking out of pop culture – some of the issues with which my research was concerned. More than one conversation fixated on how Game of Thrones failed “the real fans,” by which they meant those who had read the novels and knew the intricate turns of speculative fiction. The panels I participated in were entirely on point and were met with satisfied grunts from attendees with arms folded across paunches, their neckbeards winking and nodding with one another. There was much flattery and mutual respect, even if every conversation would end with a loud and firm gesticulation for emphasis on some similar insistence that real fantasy died with Tolkien. Everything that followed was cheap and fake, no matter how successful. It was unvarnished resentment, passive anger, that they had been displaced from the fandom and it felt like I was moving with a lost tribe. Like lost hipsters, these fans insisted that they had camped with fantasy “before it was cool.” 

Such conventions begin the decade-long death rattle, like hipsterdom, as participants begin to push responsibility to a new generation – their children, who now frequent the halls of hotels and staged panels in face paint, costumes, and the regalia of new fandoms. Such characters were present at this year’s Contraflow in New Orleans, parroting their parent’s cynical views and tempering it with an optimism possible only to the young.

“Hotels Cons just are not as big,” says Lucy Perry, a twenty-year-old who has been attending Contraflow “since sperm, basically.” Her friends, Pam Hills, Adam Rivas, and Orey Kimber were co-panelists addressing the future of these small conventions, Hotel Cons, with her. Hills and Perry have been friends since they were born, they claimed, and their parents have maintained a friendship since the 1970s. Visitors, like myself, who attended any of these panels would have, of course, observed in-jokes between them, shared glances, and an obvious compliment in their demeanors. Perry, for instance, was slathered in a dull bluish-silver body paint reminiscent of a dissected cadaver. She is outspoken, close to the shared microphone, bubbly and enthusiastic compared to Hills’ unadorned quiet, hunched, hair-over-the-face mumbling, but the unspoken traffic between them is entirely familial.

Kimber reveals a hint of nipple over her tight bustier while Rivas, the lone male of the panel, seems pleased to be a part of the lineup. Each, in turn, admit that the “hotel cons” – these smaller conventions that harken back to the time before Comic-Con – are on the decline. Possessing an obvious love for the meetings, the panels, and the tables where they sell belt buckles or custom incense along with other crafts, is not enough to thrive, if even survive. Kimber volunteers, “As soon as I bring up a convention at a hotel, people shy away.” It’s a shame, she says, because “I see this as a literary convention. You’re not here for celebrities. You’re here to meet emerging artists.”

Indeed, she is right. Conventions like Contraflow are cousins of the literary conventions I have attended since I was in graduate school; those who attend and present do so either for love of the craft or to make connections, to relax and mingle and meet those about to “break big.” Across the Southern Region, where I live and work, conventions are less glamorous than those found in metropoli like San Diego or New York, but they have found a very specific niche where they fit, a need they fulfill. For those conventions, they continue on happily with a constant stream of aging members retiring as another stream of graduate students looking to pad their CV take the retirees place. Still, at Contraflow, “attendance is declining,” Hills mumbles. “And the ones who do still come are dying off.” It’s an issue their panel sought to name and address, but of the eight people in the audience, none are new faces except this amateur sociologist in the wild. Various efforts have been made over the last decade to bring new attendees, but most have been short-term visitors rather than the family developed over decades. This is the Contraflow in New Orleans, I am told quietly. “They can’t afford to operate anymore,” Perry sighs wistfully. The fair has begun to fold up. 

“Some people call this Kenner-Con dismissively,” Rivas offers. New Orleans, like many large cities, has quietly adopted surrounding towns. Evidence enough is the New Orleans International Airport, which is not in New Orleans but the nearby Kenner. Even then, visitors who arrive in Kenner will drive through Kenner and Metairie or perhaps Harahan and Elmwood before arriving in New Orleans, proper. It was the Kenner police and emergency services who were at the vanguard of securing New Orleans after Katrina and, even today, Kenner Police are deployed as an added layer of security detail for football games and concerts some thirteen miles away in New Orleans. Dismissing Kenner is dismissing the real New Orleans, but there is no confusion in saying Kenner is not where tourists want to be with warehouses, fast-food joints, and gas station convenience stores. Kenner is the workhorse of the Greater New Orleans area, not the showpiece, like the Bronx to New York or Murfreesboro to Nashville. 

I cannot help but stop Rivas to debate the community’s merits. Kenner is essential and necessary, like any outer borough. He agrees, he says, but the message is clear: hotel conventions are the townies of the region. They may not get as much attention as the Box Cons who blow into town, but they still serve a role. The sense of rejection, he says, comes “because we can’t afford New Orleans anymore. The prices are too high.” His frustration is justified. Fans like Rivas and the Hills have kept fandoms alive and done the legwork, but the Box Cons have reaped the benefits, virtually erasing the legacy of care and faithfulness. 

An issue the smaller cons are facing is a loss of revenue. Specifically, the money just isn’t there anymore for marketing, which brings less foot traffic, which brings less revenue, in a continually dwindling erosion. Those who attend do so out of genuine love for the conference and to see friends. “I feel that’s sad,” Rivas laments, “Because teens and young people go to big conventions and don’t have any place to sit down and talk to new people or even your own friends who you brought with you to have fun. I mean, the big draw for me today is how welcome I was made as a kid, you know? The treatment I was given in the rooms with arts and panels – yes, even now, there are panels just for kids! We don’t throw them in a playroom with a babysitter!” 

Hills interject that Contraflow prides itself on the comfort they provide to attendees. At the larger conventions, which almost everyone here also attends, “there are so many good panels but you can’t go to all of them because you don’t have a place to sit. Here, you can sit in the hallways, the gaming rooms, and talk about things.” It’s not about competing with the bigger conventions, but rather the way they have been ignored and left behind, despite their efforts. “There is so much content, but that doesn’t bring in the people or the revenue. This year, for instance, we made a point of thinking about pronouns and how labels – female, non-binary, transitioning – make people feel more welcome. The best you can do is keep trying.” Another issue Hills brings up is security. Smaller conventions allow for cosplay that includes weapons, especially those handcrafted and tooled in smithshops. At other conventions, the panelists point out, even plastic weapons that are questionable – like swords or space blasters – need to be zip-tied into their holsters. Not so here. In fact, there isn’t a security guard in sight. The hotel “basically looks the other way. We’re weird. They get it. And nothing has ever happened, so it’s not a problem.”

There are, of course, playrooms with babysitters. It just so happens that the “sitters” are older gamers who buddy up with the younger gamers, sharing vintage games from the Nintendo 64, Playstation, or Sega Genesis. Even without security, there is a high degree of visibility and accountability among the attendees, which is somewhat deceptive. After the panelists step down, our conversation moves to the hallway before, finally, the lobby. 

There is, I feel, an effort being made to woo me, to work me or at least measure me out. It is an almost saccharine effort to assure me I would be welcome; there is a family here for me, if I want it. Whatever my sexuality, indeed whatever my level of mobility if the numerous wheelchair-bound fans attest, I would be accepted.

“I lost my virginity at one of these,” someone giddily whispers. The table laughs. I am now sitting with other attendees, where the conversation is bawdier. Like all conventions either large, small, or midling, there is a night life here. Perry giggles, “What people don’t know is we have free food and – if you’re twenty-one, at least – free alcohol.” Rivas cheers this and promises as many free drinks as I want if I stay the night. 

The sex, the table agrees, is an understated benefit. After all this time, even the parents begin to intentionally lose track of their older teens who, they know, will reappear soon enough. It makes sense for a convention held in a hotel instead of a tourist center, sports arena, or convention stadium. Hotel conferences, unlike the Box Cons, allow a great deal of privacy for those who seek it. Hotel Cons allow at least an hour for someone to disappear into a bathroom, or even one of the RVs and campers parked in the lot outside. Small conventions like these, located in hotels rather than convention centers, have become a mainstay outside of tourist season. One assumes that this is why the Kenner Airport Hilton turns an eye to what would otherwise be found objectionable, and besides – even as an outer suburb, this is still New Orleans.

In other areas of culture, such as literary conferences or publishing events, the McDonaldization of the arts causes niche to shrink. In the last year alone, I have attended three other conferences suffering from the expansion of corporate interests. Publishing houses see the benefit of sharing space and resources, generating multiple layers of marketing to secure larger attendance, even using consolidated power together for industry concerns. BookExpo (formerly the American Bookseller’s Association), for example, is more than a trade show; they create relevant programs, provide educational tools and information, showcase or host relevant business products and services, and engage in public policy and industry advocacy along with actively supporting and defending free speech in publishing and public discourse to protect the First Amendment rights of all Americans. Most conventions, when compared, are more similar to the family reunion the panelists and those around the table describe. The interests of those conventions ends at the door or, in the case of Contraflow at least, at the end of the parking lot.

Big Easy Con, one of the Box Cons held in New Orleans, took place a few days before Contraflow. It was attended by celebrities like Anthony Mackie (Falcon from the Avengers movies), Zachary Levi (star of Shazam), Brent Spiner (Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation), and “Weird Al” Yankovic. The previous year, at the height of his fame, Jason Momoa (star of Aquaman) attended for photo opportunities and signings. Big Easy Con is so well attended that it can only be housed in downtown New Orleans at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, a sprawling complex on the bank of the Mississippi River with 1.1 million square feet of exhibit space. Anything larger in Louisiana would require a sports arena. Across Louisiana, there are seven regularly scheduled pop culture conventions like this, and according to Sherri Craig, an instructor at Southeastern Louisiana University who regularly works for the regional conventions, the road to growth is simple. “If they want to expand, they need to do what people want, not what the programmers want.” Contraflow, she says, resists change. The programmers enjoy keeping their conventions small; it is a point of pride. “The ‘Family Con’ is exactly that – a family reunion. They don’t want to spread out.” Larger conventions like Big Easy offer “flashy things” that the smaller conventions have chosen to avoid. Other conventions like Coast-Con in Biloxi, Moby-Con in Mobile, and even to some extent Pensa-Con in Pensacola intentionally avoid growth not because they do not want to grow, but because competing with the larger conventions is just not financially possible. The resources are stretched too thin.” 

Matt Bruenig, writing for Jacobin magazine on small businesses and their efforts to survive in an increasingly globally competitive market, consumers – fans – tend to fetishize the mom and pops of the world. “This seems to be partially driven by the technical view that small businesses are a way to counteract corporate concentration and partially driven by the more aesthetic view that there’s something inherently just and beautiful about small-time entrepreneurs and mom and pop shops.” Indeed, there is a great deal of lip-service for smaller enterprises. A 2017 Gallup study showed “that 70% of Americans have ‘a great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’ of confidence in small business, more than three times the 21% confidence rating for big business.” Frank Newport, summarizing Gallup’s data, offers something of a sober prophecy that applies to the conventions.

“As American business moves toward bigness, fueled by a variety of economic and practical forces, the consumer, at least in theory, has a strong predilection to favor smallness. This creates what would appear to be an opportunity for small business – and an essential dilemma for very large business-to-consumer enterprises. The actual impact of customer attitudes on behavior, of course, is not always straightforward. If big business delivers lower costs and higher efficiencies, it’s hard for customers to resist, regardless of their underlying preference for small business.” Bruenig posits that what consumer say they want and how they actually behave are not always related, or even sympathetic. “Customers may, in theory, prefer Main Street small businesses to Walmart, but when the latter has appeared in local communities over the past five decades, it has almost always won out. And Amazon, one of the largest companies in the world based on value, is disrupting many small businesses that may be favored in concept by Americans but that can’t compete with the online behemoth’s selection of products and low prices.”

While fans enthusiastically say they prefer the smaller venues, they consistently buy tickets to the “box cons” or pre-scheduled, homogenous conventions – like Comic-Con – known for their substance. The “hotel con”, like the mom and pop, is not so much out of fashion as much as it is now increasingly too niche to compete. It is a beveled edge, congratulated for uniqueness while too unique to find success. 

The organizer of Contraflow, Frank Schiavo, was approached this year with an offer to join another Hotel Con and he agreed. The Monday following Contraflow IX, an emailed announcement made the partnership official. Next year, Contraflow and Mecha Con, another convention in the Greater New Orleans area devoted to anime, will be combining for the first time in an attempt to simply stay alive; competing individually with Big Easy Con would be quixotic, but together they might eke out a new existence. Contraflow alone hosts panels on copyright law, new roleplaying games in development, erotica, and cosplay tutorials along with the standard revisiting of cartoons from decades prior. This year, the conference hosted a writer for the short-lived Swamp Thing revival. The panels, tutorials, and talks are quality – it’s not for want of content that the crowds have thinned out. Specifically in New Orleans, one contributing factor has been the rescheduling of the venues as a result of weather conditions on the Gulf. The city sometimes requires tourist centers to cancel an event, creating a stacking of priority preference for a region that relies heavily on conventions and conferences. 

Craig points out that many conventions in the region are held in October and November because these are lean months for tourism when the weather varies greatly and tourists are slowing their travel, saving money for the upcoming holidays. “But remember there was the hurricane-that-wasn’t?” she asks, referring to an anticipated hurricane off the Gulf that never actually developed, but instead wore itself out before it could make landfall. Contraflow was supposed to be held earlier in the year, before Big Easy Con, but “They had to call the conference off and reschedule. The only weekend the hotel could accommodate was putting Contraflow right up against a few of the other conferences and, well, it wasn’t a tough call for many of us.” As an instructor for Southeastern Louisiana University, she notes that it’s not just other pop culture conferences. “Sigma Tau Delta,” an honor society for English and Literature students, “for a few years there, held conferences at the same time as other conventions across the Gulf and as faculty advisor, I had to go to those.” There are only so many resources and so much time to go ‘round.

///

Randall S. Frederick is a writer living outside of New Orleans.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s