Many fans wandered Emerald City Comicon 2013 utterly lost this past weekend. The Pacific Northwest’s premiere comic book convention was bigger than ever before, occupying the entirety of the Washington State Convention Center complex, roughly doubling its exhibition space from previous years. Weary attendees slumped in the hallways like slain elves after the battle of Helm’s Deep.
Fatigue and overstimulation notwithstanding, ECCC 2013 offered an incredibly varied forum for fans of all ages, identities and backgrounds to gather in celebration of geekdom. With stellar guests, a full program of activities and tons of comic books and art, ECCC 2013 easily sold out on all three of the days it was scheduled. From March 1-3, the convention center was filled to capacity, more than 70,000 people in all. Comicons aren’t a hard sell in a nerdy town like Seattle, but the exponential growth of ECCC (more than tripling from 20,000 in 2010) signals a larger trend towards diversity and inclusiveness in comic book conventions. Here’s what the Emerald City Comicon got right in 2013, and why geek culture has become the heart of popular culture.
Comicons tend to create a comfortable space for fans to dress up, geek out and make that hyperspace jump from virtual to real-life contact with celebrities and creators from beloved comics, films, television shows, Web media and art. This past weekend, a carnival atmosphere reigned in downtown Seattle as street vendors hawked lightsabers and costumed convention-goers thronged the streets.
Random, magical encounters occurred left and right. Guests staying in the same hotel as Natalia Tena (the “Harry Potter” films, “Game of Thrones”) might have spied her walking around in a bathrobe. Other hotel patrons might have seen Adam West (“Batman”) popping behind pillars in a spontaneous game of hide-and-seek, claiming to be on a “secret mission.” At the convention itself, Wil Wheaton (“Star Trek: The Next Generation,” “The Big Bang Theory”) was probably standing right behind you at some point, whether you knew it or not.
Kids also got to play board games with Wheaton and Felicia Day, co-creators of celeb board game show “TableTop” on YouTube channel Geek & Sundry and excellent ambassadors for inclusive geekdom. At the Con, they encouraged their fans to host gaming events on March 30 for International TableTop Day, a holiday celebrating board games. While Wheaton mentioned he might be playing “Lords of Waterdeep,” he and Day offered lots of suggestions for games with more general appeal—“Ticket to Ride,” anyone?—to initiate more friends and family members into the joys of tabletop gaming.
Friendly and unapologetically nerdy ECCC celebrities such as Wheaton and Day also conveyed a profound message about identity. In Sunday’s Geek & Sundry panel, Day denounced pigeonholing and emphasized that people, including herself, are complex and should not be reduced to a type, explaining, “I’m just myself . . . I’m not one thing.” Seattle-based blogger Molly McIsaac, who experienced snarky comments in the past such as “You wear makeup, you’re not a geek!” echoed a similar sentiment. In her Friday panel, “I Can Be a Geek and Feminine,” McIsaac expressed it simply enough: “You can have a lightsaber and a tutu.”
The Comicon provided a space for self-expression and social commentary, notably through attendees’ costumes. Many in the female cosplayer contingent cheerfully attended the Con as male characters, and although fewer men dressed as female characters, the most eloquent critique of gender stereotypes at ECCC came from a guy cosplaying as the Hawkeye Initiative.
The fabled unicorns of the nerd world—geek girls—turned up in droves to ECCC. Gay couples wandered the exhibition hall hand in hand, and Northwest Press, a top publisher of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender comics, enjoyed a prominent place next to the “Walking Dead” exhibition area. Families dressed up in costume together, and bands of teenagers brushed past Baby Boomers along the endless aisles of Artist Alley. Shakespeareans and Trekkies waited together amicably in the line to see Sir Patrick Stewart.
The ECCC crowds attested to the broad appeal of geek culture across societal groups. This is not a new phenomenon; many pillars of geekdom, notably “Star Wars,” were always mainstream. What’s changed is the awareness that a community of geeks can exist that transcends labels. As author and vlogger Bonnie Burton (“The Star Wars Craft Book”) put it, “Geek is a way of life, not a type.”
ECCC 2013 assembled many outspoken personalities that have taken to the Internet or picked up pens to challenge assumptions about the kind of people who enjoy comic books and geek culture. Its panels on crowdfunding and professional development also instructed audiences on how to become those personalities.
The consensus at the Emerald City Comicon 2013 appeared to be that the future of comics and of geek culture more broadly lies in the hands of the geeks themselves. And geeks aren’t just one thing, like the Borg. “You have to write it if you want to see it,” explains graphic novel author Leia Weathington (“The Legend of Bold Riley”), but this might be the key to comic books’ promising future.
Geekdom encompasses a diversity of people who also tend to be quite savvy about technology and new forms of media. Now, paper-and-ink comic books certainly haven’t vanished with the advent of webcomics. ECCC guests included legends such as Eisner hall-of-famer Neal Adams, and exhibitors included top-notch publishers like Archaia, who produces both beautiful traditional books and innovations in the book form, such as the upcoming all-anaglyph 3D graphic novel by writer R.J. Ryan and illustrator David Marquez, “The Joyners in 3D.” Rather, creators have greater choices for expressing themselves both inside and outside of established media and distributors, with commercial success. For this reason, writer and Monkeybrain Comics founder Chris Roberson (“iZombie”) asserted, “Creatively comics have never been healthier.”
Unfortunately, growing pains at ECCC 2013 may have impacted the fortunes of this year’s exhibitors. The Artist Alley was split into two halves, and the sheer size of the convention diluted foot traffic past the vendor tables. Some artists and sellers found themselves shoehorned into spaces not conducive to their business—as did some guests. Wil Wheaton confessed his disappointment with the layout; placed in the gaming section, he and Day were separated from other celebrity guests—“[W]e sort of felt like we were at the kids’ table”—in an area too small for the kind of crowds they attract.
Still, ECCC has excellent chances of selling out again next year and overcoming these organizational snags. Already one of the top comic book conventions in the nation, ECCC can bring in great celebrities and inspiring talents that fans will want to see. Even this year, the green-shirted ECCC volunteer “minions” stepped in to resolve many problems that stemmed from the space issues, and for no other reason than wanting guests, exhibitors and fans alike to enjoy the convention. With this kind of energy and attitude behind it, the Emerald City Comicon can only improve.