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Tuesday, June 17 2014

ComicCon Postmortem

Sunday afternoon, at Denver ComicCon, my friend Len and I had the wonderful opportunity to lead a panel discussion on the way that comic book superheroes can exemplify a philosophy of individualism (unprecedented topic for ME, amirite?). It was a phenomenal experience, and I wanted to share some parting thoughts on the discussion, my reactions to it, and the convention in general.

After the convention, I had dinner at the home of some friends, one of whom asked me a question that basically boiled down to, "What do you see at one of these conventions?"

It's a really interesting question, inasmuch as you see such a broad spectrum of fandom. "ComicCon" is, in a way, the wrong name, because it was less a convention strictly oriented toward comics, as it was a geek fandom convention in general. Walking the floor of the convention hall, one could see not only comic book vendors and fans dressed up as comic book characters; one also saw displays of merchandise related to Star Wars, Star Trek, The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, Doctor Who, the video game Assassin's Creed, and various Japanese animation ("anime") franchises.

As for the fans who dressed up in costume, these too ran the gamut. (For the uninitiated, "cosplay", short for costume play, is the name given to the hobby of spending HUGE amounts of time, money and/or effort crafting costumes that replicate as exactly as possible, in as much detail as possible, various characters from fandom.) One of the interesting things about conventions from year to year is observing which characters show up the most; this year, I saw the most people dressed as Loki from the recent movies "Thor," "Thor: The Dark World" and "The Avengers"; there were also innumerable Batmans, Dr. Whos (Matt Smith's version with bowtie and fez seemed the most ubiquitous), and Wolverines from the X-Men franchise.

I also saw people dressed as a lot of lesser-known superheroes, Star Wars characters, Star Trek characters, anime characters, video game characters—in fact, lots of characters whom I had no idea about. I consider myself a fan and a geek, but as with everyone else, I have my areas of "expertise," and then I have areas about which I have no clue; video games and anime would be among these.  Other attendees no doubt had the same experience as well, the sense that, no matter how passionately devoted to "geek culture" one might be, there will always be another new corner to explore.

Which led to my revelation.

For many of us who consider ourselves geeks, junior high and high school were some rough times, socially speaking. We were the outcasts. We were the dorks.  We were semi-permanently relegated to the outer fringes of our mini-society. The primary defining characteristic of the group we found ourselves in, the one thing we had in common, was what we weren't: cool, popular, accepted. Being Other was enough, it seems, to bind us together somehow. Beyond that one touch point, though, we were as varied in our interests, our motivations, our capacities and dispositions as can be imagined.

We were individuals, truly and intensely. There was never any real pressure on us to conform, because there wasn't really any single standard to conform to.

Which may explain some of the ready acceptance this project has found among my fellow geeks. Each of us knows that, no matter how much commonality we might find with other geeks, there is almost no one who shares our exact matrix of interests and passions. Each of us intuitively understands what it is to be oppressed, overruled and shut down by a majority that doesn't remotely understand our concerns. And each of us knows what it is to stand up for our right to self-determination, to NOT have the democratic majority determine our path for us, no matter how alone we might be.

So I suppose, in retrospect, it shouldn't have remotely surprised me to find that, as the discussion on individualism in superhero comics progressed, though there were several different viewpoints and perspectives expresses, most everyone there seemed to "get it," on some level or another.

Our framing question was "Where do superheroes get the moral sanction to take the actions that they take?" Several people brought up the idea of individual Natural Rights, before Len or I had the chance to.  One lady invoked John Locke. Another fellow brought up the Constitution and the Founders. Heads nodded when I mentioned the Non-Aggression Principle.

A lengthy discussion of the nature of morality ensued: what is right, what is wrong, how can we know the difference? There were some predictable expressions of the idea that all morality is subjective—but countered by the clear argument that slavery is never right, that the Holocaust would never, ever be right, no matter who writes the histories. One fellow tentatively endorsed the idea that "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few," but when I invoked the "Watchmen" storyline that saw one character decide to kill half the population of New York City in order to save billions, he saw the point immediately.

In the end, Len and I left the convention vastly encouraged. It seems that people really do understand, intuitively and without much prompting, how important individual rights are, how wrong it is for some to presume to dictate to others by force, no matter how well-intentioned they might be. And though there are troubling signs in modern American culture that point in the opposite direction, maybe the problem is not so much that a philosophy of individualism is being dismissed, as that the lessons are not always carrying through into people's actions.  And that may be a much simpler problem to address.

What a great time we had; what a great convention!  What a great time it is to be a geek! And I can't wait for ComicCon 2015!

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