In the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center just outside Chicago, I bump into a crowd of Jedi wearing Obi-Wan-style robes and munching popcorn. I change direction and slip around the Star Wars fans, who are just a few of the thousands of people attending Wizard World Chicago, the second-largest comic book convention in the country.
There’s a large crowd of kids in X-Men costumes in front of me, and I take out my camera. When I was at the height of my comic-book fandom (now more than a decade ago), the X-Men titles were by far my favorites. There were two things I especially liked about the team of mutants: The X-Men were outcasts, and they had strong, capable females on their team. Sure, those women were drawn with wildly disproportionate bodies, but they were also given equal page time as the men. Gleefully I snap pictures of the costumed kids, who look to be about my 20-something age. Even though I only occasionally read X-Men these days, I get a pang of happy nostalgia and wish that I was friends with these folks, wearing my own skintight costume and parading around the convention.
But I’m here to work. Looming in front of me is the place where I’m working: a massive, 15-foot high t-shirt booth that features eight walls of merchandise and shirt designs ranging from zombie versions of Family Guy characters to Spiderman bedecked in glitter. I worked for the T-shirt company briefly when Wizard World visited my hometown of Philadelphia, and the company offered to fly me to Chicago to help sell T-shirts there as well. Interested in the adventure, I said yes.
While walking back to my assignment guarding the 2X and 3X shirts, I pass the wall of girls’ shirts. The girls’ shirts kind of suck. For some reason, T-shirt companies seem to think that even if a girl likes comic books or cartoons, she’d only wear a shirt showing her love for these things if it has a really feminine design. Thus there’s a pink South Park shirt, a Batgirl design in a retro-tattoo style, and perhaps most inexplicably, an X-Men crop top. While I do enjoy a shirt that fits my curves, I’m completely perplexed as to what section of humanity thinks, “You know, I really like the X-Men…but I also want to show my midriff!”
The girls’ section is also across from one of two booths selling Utilikilts, which are kilts with utility pockets. Yes, there are two booths selling kilts with utility pockets. This is one of the most interesting pieces of the comic book convention, the strange mish-mash of non-comic-related vendors and guests that pepper the convention floor. In addition to buying kilts, convention attendees can also purchase silver jewelry, browse metal-band patches, and meet famous wrestling personalities. But that’s what’s wonderful about the convention as well. It’s kind of like a nudist colony, and I’m not just saying that because of the overweight woman I saw wearing only underwear and a pink mesh sheath over it. This is an incredibly accepting place, where if you want to walk around almost nude, or dressed as the Flash, or with your children dressed as the Flash, that’s OK.
But even though Wizard World is an accepting place, I still don’t find it to be as open-minded as I want it to be. Later, when I go on break, I end up in a booth with graphic novels that are 50 percent off. While there I find the only volume I’m missing of Preacher, a notoriously violent, sexually explicit, and religiously offensive comic. Holding it in my hand, I look at some of the other comics sitting out on the table. While I’m doing so, the middle-aged man running the booth stares at me and proclaims, “You look like you’d like cute.”
“What?” I ask.
He gestures to another graphic novel I’d been flipping though on the table, The Plain Janes. I had heard something good about it somewhere, but I couldn’t remember where or why.
“It’s cute,” says the guy. “You look like you’d like cute.” I pay for my copy of Preacher and leave, put off.
I know that comic books are a traditionally male hobby, but part of the reason I enjoyed comics and science fiction when I was young was because those pursuits gave me the opportunity to talk to guys as equals, and they treated me as one. I expected to find the same respect at the comic convention. But I was also naive enough to forget that in the gap between first reading comic books and attending the comic book convention, everyone went through puberty. And while the guys I knew when I was younger — as well as my few current comic-reading friends — might have been able to ignore the massive breasts on X-Men’s Rogue (or at least were smart enough to not talk about them around me), a lot of the guys at the convention seem hyper-aware of anything with tits.
That’s why, when I go to the bathroom later, I’m not really surprised to find three Suicide Girls, the goth/punk/emo alt-porn models, in there with me. They’re not at the convention to discuss the sweet new Magic deck they made or storylines from Marvel’s Civil War; they’re there solely to provide eye candy. With their tight black dresses, dyed hair, and prominent tattoos, the Suicide Girls are like the real-life versions of overly sexualized superwomen — different enough from the average woman to be exciting, but normal enough to feel safe. The X-Men’s Rogue is attractive because she has a dangerous power while remaining a sweet Southern belle. Similarly, the Suicide Girls might be lauded as hyper-feminist porn because the girls sport pierced nipples and aren’t dominated by men in their photos, but the vast majority of Suicide Girls are also skinny white girls who shave their vaginas. They’re mainstream-friendly counter-culture.
|A Prom Queen Suicide Girl.
And they’re at a mainstream-friendly convention. As much as my geeky heart wants to proudly believe that non-geeks would call Wizard World stupid and think the people who attend it are weird, I have to admit that dressing up as the Joker doesn’t seem all that dorky when The Dark Knight is one of the most highly anticipated films of the summer. And while I’m poking around at the convention, I see almost no “alternative” comics, not even the big ones like Daniel Clowes’ tales of unrequited love or Harvey Pekar’s intensely personal stories, even though both were the subjects of films.
The Suicide Girls and Wizard World can only be alternative up to a point; after that they would cease to be as popular and, perhaps moreover, as profitable. Unfortunately for me, that means that at Wizard World, the Suicide Girls set the bar for what girls are supposed to be — cute and kind of alternative, but still seen more as sex symbols than nerds.
Standing at the mirror next to the Suicide Girls, with my plain brown hair and white company T-shirt, I like to think I look like more of a nerd by comparison. But what I really look like is approachable. Attainable. And when I go back to the T-shirt stand, someone says to me, “Where do you get your hair cut?”
I look to my left. It’s the guy with shoulder-length blond hair at the patch booth. He has a cell phone up to his ear.
“I do it myself,” I reply.
“It’s fucking hot,” he says. I don’t know what to say to this. It’s a compliment, so I’m supposed to smile, but I’m taken aback by how forward he thinks he can be. “Thanks,” I say, a little dumbfounded. He starts talking into his phone, then looks back up at me.
“My wife,” he says, and makes a “yap yap” talking motion with his hand. • 14 July 2008