It’s a bird, it’s a plane—it’s another lame Superman joke.
Well, forgive the staleness. This year’s New York Comic Con, which is going on this weekend, celebrates the 75th anniversary of the definitive superhero with a panel and special exhibition. Superman is now relatively old.
Much the same way a 30-plus Tom Welling was able to portray a high schooler in the bygone television prequel “Smallville,” a certain sort of immortality seems to linger around the figure. Rugged, assuredly all-American, and morally unambiguous, Superman has a secret.
The reason he’s so beloved? We see ourselves in him.
In his 2006 book “Superhero: The Secret Origins of a Genre,” Institute of Comic Studies Director Peter Coogan argues that “the Superman/Lois Lane/Clark Kent triangle is easily read as a metaphor for ... boys’ conflicted feelings about girls—if girls could only see the true man behind the nerdy façade, they would flock to the skinny social outcast.”
“The superhero origin is a metaphor for adolescence,” he writes.
In short, a consistent, collective mix of egotism and insecurity pulses behind a long-lasting love for the superhuman, and within the past few generations, it’s exploded into the mainstream on an unprecedented scale. No longer is comic book iconography the sole property of nerds, or even books; there are movies, video games, television series, and action figures ad infinitum.
This weekend, the glossy and seemingly infinite Javits Center will be flooded by an anticipated 125,000 fans.
There’s certainly a very specific, if dated, stereotype surrounding the people who go to Comic Con. One of the PR emails leading up to New York Comic Con deployed the mangled phrase “Jedi-like knowledge,” doubtlessly netting the mouth-breathing “Star Wars” demographic, aka 100 percent of Comic Con ticket holders.
Except, not really. Ticket holders don’t particularly match the stereotype. You’d be hard-pressed to find a demographic underrepresented on the showroom floor this weekend. There are even babies decked out in their own tiny costumes (and slightly older babies who are definitely skipping school).
Besides, these days, it’s hardly abnormal to be a fan of, say, the Avengers. Last spring’s much-praised movie adaptation of the classic supergroup broke $1 billion at the box office.
To point out the obvious, things haven’t always been this way.
“By 1971, we were getting 3,000 people at the New York convention,” Paul Levitz, the former head of DC Comics and occasional visiting professor at Columbia, said. “That was the largest any comic convention had ever been. And we thought, it can’t possibly get any bigger than this.”
Levitz got into the business early: At 14, he started a small fanzine out of his bedroom, began hanging around the DC Comics office, and matriculated into the company’s ranks straight from high school. Thirty-some-odd years later, he became president.
But Levitz emphasizes that those who read comics tended to be a homogenous population, ergo the stereotype.
“When I was behind a desk, the average reader was upper income, upper education, they tended to be math, science, or engineering kids or creative arts kids,” he said, seated comfortably in his Greenwich Village apartment. “That’s a pretty dweeby population. The comic book readers were rarely the cheerleader and the football jock.”
The business has exploded since his early days.
“It was very easy to buy everything that existed,” he said. “I think probably from the time that I was 14 to my early 20s, by which time I was sort of too professionally involved to care that much, I got everything in the field free, or I bought everything. You could touch it all and know it all. It’s not possible anymore. Your house would explode.”
Next to the slick production that goes into today’s massive event, the original Con seems like a joke. ReedPOP began running the current NYCC in 2006, but incarnations have existed for decades. Levitz was there to see most of them—he carefully pulls out some of the original programs, amateur zines that bear more resemblance to something a riot grrrl might produce than the slick, 160-page magazine of this weekend’s Con.
Most of the text is handwritten or typewritten. One bears an article titled “What is a Stan Lee?” More than a few have attendance so small that they print the names of all the badge holders in the program.
Walk into the Con this weekend, and it’s easy to be overwhelmed. The sheer volume of stuff is staggering. Here are a few things there are a lot of: people. Long lines. Color contacts. Foam weapons and/or Spandex. Overpriced food.
There are also a lot of vendors who seemingly have no place at this convention. Comic Con has become a marketer’s dream—and potentially a nightmare. Despite the corporate influence that permeates almost every aspect of the conference, the fans are still undoubtedly in control. If the Comic Con crowd doesn’t like the sneak preview of an upcoming movie or device, they won’t be kind. If you ruin a geek’s favorite graphic novel, you’d better be prepared for the blowback.
It’s important to note that there are nuances between geeks, nerds, dweebs, and weirdos. The word “geek” is not pejorative, at least to those who bear the title. A geek is generally defined as a person who’s accumulated an almost encyclopedic knowledge of a specific subject. The label is something to rally around and find community in.
On Thursday, a young couple taking a cigarette break on the Javits curbside certainly felt it.
“Comic books actually brought us together,” said Elias Pomales, a 22-year-old New York native clad in a Spidey suit. “We were at a party, and I love talking about Spider-Man, obviously, and ... she—love of my life!—she’s just looking at me like, he knows something. That’s what set it in stone for me. She encourages my geekiness. And we need someone to encourage that in us.”
“Get your geek on!” howled his girlfriend, Rosalyn Delacruz. She’s Lady Deadpool for today, but is planning on switching to Black Cat for Saturday and Sunday.
“And that’s pretty much that,” he said.
Geekiness is the ultimate fandom. It’s deep engagement, born purely out of personal interest, and it can take many forms. If you want to get technical, the word for it is otaku, originally a negative term in Japan but later embraced by self-identified nerds globally. Otaku has entered the mainstream–but people aren’t necessarily happy with that. In an article for Wired titled “Wake Up, Geek Culture. Time to Die,” comedian Patton Oswalt bemoaned the popularity of things he once held dear, citing the creation of “weak” otaku. In many ways, his plaintive essay smacks of a possessiveness that is more often connected to hipster culture.
He writes that in the aftermath of “Watchmen,” “it seemed like everything that was part of my otaku world was out in the open and up for grabs, if only out of context. I wasn’t seeing the hard line between ‘nerds’ and ‘normals’ anymore. ... Pretty soon, being the only person who was into something didn’t make you outcast; it made you ahead of the curve and someone people were quicker to befriend than shun.”
What it’s all leading to, Oswalt says, is a horrible, lazy nostalgia that reaches backward, rather than forward, for inspiration.
One of his more biting indictments: “The coming decades—the 21st-century’s ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s—have the potential to be one long, unbroken, recut spoof in which everything in Avatar farts while Keyboard Cat plays eerily in the background,” he writes.
It’s not a new complaint. As the Internet spurs both a horizontal and vertical growth in the fanverse, the divide between diehard obsessives and casual fans is wider than ever. Internet forums can become particularly catty as a site of conflict between original fans and the naive newcomers.
But not everyone sees it that way.
“As far as any comic book movie’s concerned, the only thing I would just tell people is listen, these are our stories being brought to the big screen so everybody understands, and everybody gets the full comprehension,” Pomales said, radiating passion. “I mean, yes, us as fans, we’ve been in this since day one, but that just means we have to be more patient with people. There are children being born everyday who do not know who Spider-Man, Deadpool, Superman is, and it’s like, it is our job as the generation to kind of educate them the best we can.”
“Just the fact we can finally pass the threshold where we can watch things with 3-D glasses and watch Spider-Man swinging or see Captain America throw his shield, this is the best time to be a superhero fan,” he added.
Maybe, like Pomales says, it’s just comics culture’s time to shine. At any rate, the future looks bright: Comic books and graphic novels are gaining an unprecedented amount of respect. “MAUS” and “Persepolis” are mainstays on academic syllabi. Comics are finally a serious business, as well as an art.
And as the boom generations of comic fans mature into adulthood—complete with steady jobs and families—they don’t feel the need to shed their adolescent interests. Instead, they indoctrinate their offspring with a reverence for the material.
Take, for instance, Park Slope’s hip Bergen Street Comics. A generation is urging its children to pick up graphic novels, which are now being marketed toward younger and younger children.
The customers tend to be in their early 30s and dress in the sort of clean lines that suggest careers in architecture or graphic design, while their kids plod after them in miniature TOMS. In short, the customers are aging hipsters.
(“‘Aging hipsters,’” Levitz echoes when I ask his thoughts. “Terminology is a funny thing, but they’re basically also aging nerds in most cases.”)
Maryann Marrone and Deborah Alexander are in their third year attending Comic Con. As older elementary school teachers from P.S. 243 in Bed-Stuy, they don’t exactly fit the profile of your average Comic Con attendee. But they love it—and it’s integral to their teaching methods, thanks to workshops on tying graphic novels and comics into their curricula.
“I was very surprised to learn they offered these types of workshops,” Alexander said. “I thought it was all the costumes and the vendors. I didn’t realize it was going to be educational for us as well.”
They’re tough cookies: As one couple tries to cut the huge showroom line, they shouldered them out.
“Don’t mess with teachers,” Marrone said archly. (“Especially not teachers from Brooklyn,” her friend rejoined.)
The first year they came to NYCC, they only bought one-day passes, but ever since, they’ve learned from their mistake.
“We try to come at least one to two hours every day,” Alexander said.
Marrone, who works in the resource room, makes an effort to stock up on new novels for her students.
“They love it,” she said.
As this generational turnover occurs, so too does a shift away from the stigma surrounding what it means to be a nerd.
“We’ve come to accept the nerd in society as a positive figure, which was not the case when I was your age,” Levitz said, citing Bill Gates as a turning point. “So, I don’t know that it’s that comic book fans are less nerdy than they were a generation ago or that ... everybody’s gotten a little more comfortable with the idea.”
Mark Zuckerberg is another obvious figurehead. As tech blossoms into a hugely profitable sector, the longtime nerd domain of computer science is becoming a standard skill. In short, it’s hip to be square.
And of course, the Internet alone has played a huge role in proselytizing. It provides a new point of entry at every level: contacting creators, finding communities, discovering new material, and even self-publishing. Web comics like Cyanide & Happiness and XKCD have gained enough traction to allow their creators to live off of them.
“It’s a cottage industry now,” said Victor Bartorsky, a lifelong comics collector. (He estimates his collection to be around 19,000.) In Bartorsky’s free time, he draws his own comics, a skill cultivated from decades of doodling at his State Department job.
“You walk from table to table [in Artists’ Alley], and you see some guy and his girlfriend and his best friend and they’re publishing their own comic book,” he said. “I love that.”
Why do people get so otaku about Comic Con-affiliated material, enough so that San Diego Comic-Con (the marquee Comic Con, though not affiliated with ReedPOP) is maxed out at 135,000 tickets every year, and the whole city is given over to Con mania?
“I love to come here and meet the artists and whatnot, but the culture itself is what pulls me in like a magnet, you know?” Palomes raved. “Like a rat to cheese. I’m all over this. It’s not everyday you get to dress up like the amazing Spider-Man.”
“Like he said, the culture,” Delacruz said. “Everybody is comic book characters and anime characters and TVs and movies and it’s a whole bunch of pop culture, and it’s like, even though we’re all in different realms of the pop culture, we still unite as one. And it feels like a tight community, you know? I love that. Everyone’s like, ‘Hey Deadpool, Lady Deadpool!’ And I’m like, ‘Aww, wassup!’ I love it.”
After over 40 years in the industry, Levitz has seen it all. As a result, he admits, there’s not the same excitement as when he first picked up comics, citing the adage that sausages and laws are the two things one should never see the making of.
But does he regret it? Not really.
“I mean, I had one of the great jobs on the planet. Look at this,” he said, gesturing at the framed prints and illustrations on his living room wall. “I got to live my life among these incredible creative people. It beats the hell out of the real world.”
Comic Con runs through Sunday at the Javits Center, 655 W. 34th St.
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