By Hannah Means-Shannon
It’s about 9 in the morning on a Saturday. The sun seems almost too bright; it’s getting a little humid out. I’m staring at a pair of cherry red, patent leather stiletto heels. The girl wearing them, waiting on the concrete train platform, has on a long black dress, a leather bodice, a sharply angled black bob and lipstick to match the shoes. Next to her a guy is wearing a kind of hybrid ninja costume with gothic flare, a deep, shadowy hood from which a pretty good special effects scar is visible on his face. On the train, I see five kids traveling together with their father, holding hands in a “don’t get lost” line. There’s a three-year-old Batman, a nine-year-old Wonder Woman looking after the younger ones, and their energy is building. I was drowning in fans by the time the train arrived and the fans poured across the street. I nearly collided with an ethereal girl dressed as Neil Gaiman’s Death, who smiled at me, gestured an apology and waved goodbye. For some reason, she was headed in the opposite direction.
I’ve been to a few comic conventions before, though I’m relatively new to the whole fan culture thing, few enough not to be sick of them yet, enough to find them fascinating even at their most mundane. I want to know why people come to cons, and in many cases, why they dress up. Cosplayers were out in force and retail was half the show, but Stan the man was the undisputable star of the show. Before the initial tide of guests hit the floor, a long line had formed to visit a moment with Stan Lee and get his autograph. It was all very orderly but the line remained in place most of the day. I could see why it was tempting. The mythology of comics demands creators. If characters reach the level of a pantheon that pervades culture, like Superman or Spider-Man, for instance, anyone involved in that conception is catapulted into the stratosphere of deification. Stan realized that long ago and built on both: the rise of characters as cultural figures, and the public identification of their creators as interpreting ambassadors. Whatever cynical commentary one could produce about the economic drive to sell autographs, it brought something to the con that Stan was there. Meeting Stan was the closest thing fans could come to meeting “the real” Captain America, Spider-Man, Iron Man, or the entire fleet of Marvel super-heroes. And these people were looking for heroes, dressed up as if the costume might attract like to like. As I passed the Stan Lee line, Death nearly collided with me again and laughed. This time I laughed too- it was getting weird. Her costume and make-up were excellent, the full body-paint pallor treatment. I wanted to tell her “You’re getting that smile just right”, but it would have been a kind of intrusion, breaking the rules of the game.
Sitting down for a cup of coffee at the rather pristine and civilized rest area full of round tables with white tablecloths, I was joined by a family of superheroes. The kids ranged from Superman to Captain America and Thor, well into middle school in age. The costumes were good, but partly hand-made with pride. Tinfoil was allowed. When Dad sat down with the trays of chicken fingers, the penny finally dropped for me. He was Tony Stark. He even bore more than a passing resemblance. A Stark Industries t-shirt barely concealed a glowing arc reactor embedded in his chest. It was clear that I had managed to sit at the cool table at lunch.
The books for sale from vendors were particularly strong in nostalgia for the Golden and Silver Age, well packaged and preserved. Collections and reprints of those works were also ubiquitous and many people were carrying those tomes around as if they were worth their weight in gold. With reprints, we can go back in time and meet those heroes again before they grew up into who we know them to be today. We know that it wouldn’t be a new story, but part of the same story. I spied rows of drinking glasses overlaid with brightly colored characters, and walls of t-shirts warping known heroes into variant art styles but the costume booth, particularly, caught my attention. Prepackaged, with a certain level of quality (cloth, at least, not plastic)- these took me back in my own memory. I could vividly recall dressing up as a kid. I had at least two superhero costumes at different times in my life; of that I am certain. I remember them very clearly when plenty of other memories seem to fade away. It wasn’t just that I felt like I was becoming the hero when I put on the costume; it was that I felt like I was becoming part of something bigger. I was entering the story. I was joining the narrative. Putting on the costume meant that plots were happening all around me, other characters were demanded and certain settings, too. It was a gateway drug, putting on a cape. It wasn’t just about transforming myself, it was about transforming everything else around me.
Maybe superheroes aren’t about individuals in isolation despite the obvious draw of those factors in superhero stories. Maybe it’s the fact that they are not in isolation at all, but part of this whole attractive narrative framework. It may seem like a forgone conclusion that people come to comic cons to be part of something, especially if they wear a costume, but I think it’s bigger than that. Being part of the con is only the beginning. They are looking for other heroes. They want to be part of the story. Death crossed my path one more time as I was leaving that weekend, but this time I spotted her first and waved. She made a kind of “back at you” gesture. It was like I was catching on.
Hannah Means-Shannon is a comics scholar and medievalist who has published articles on the works of Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Grant Morrison in the International Journal of Comic Art, Studies in Comics, the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, reference books, and upcoming essay collections. She is working on her first book for Sequart Research and Literacy Organization about Neil Gaiman, blogs about Alan Moore for Sequart, and teaches at Georgian Court University in New Jersey.