williamThis weekend over 50,000 people flocked to Salt Lake City, UT for the inaugural event of what will hopefully become the annual Salt Lake Comic Con. In chatting with family and friends about this event I realized that not many lay people even know what Comic Con is, so as a normal-person spy, I’ll tell you what I learned. Because I knew I was covering this event as a member of the press, I planned the type of article I thought I might write ahead of time. I knew that I was coming into the Salt Palace Convention Center with a lot of preconceived notions so in my head I was already writing a piece about how Comic Con is not what you think it’s going to be. Turns out:

1) Comic Con is exactly like you think it’s going to be.

My notions of what Comic Con would be like come almost exclusively from episodes of TV and from the 1999 film Galaxy Quest. The first minute of this video will show you what I mean:

I expected crazy costumes and people having extremely ardent and detailed conversations about conflicts in invented worlds. I expected that I would have to step to one side to let life-size replicas of R2D2 scoot by (which totally happened to me) and I assumed I would run into at least a dozen anime costumes that involved very full skirts and neon hair and that I would be completely unable to place.

All of those things were true. Even the tables of actors signing autographs part was true. This year’s comic con featured an impressive line-up of celebrity visitors including William Shatner, Adam West (the original Batman), and Stan Lee who was the original co-creator of characters you have heard of like….oh, I dunno, Spiderman, the Hulk, X-men, the Fantastic Four and Iron Man. It was Lee’s presence at the event that finally whet my appetite enough to attend. He’s 90 years old now and I can’t imagine creating something completely from my mind that becomes so prolific and real to people that they can argue vehemently about the minutia of a setting and person that wouldn’t exist without me.

I was fascinated by the motivating factors that lead someone to pay $50 or $100 or $500 to meet someone or get an autograph or get a picture taken with them. I understand actor-love, I met Tom Hanks this summer and chatted with him for part of an afternoon and a little part of me geeked out about it. I get it, but being at this convention made me realize that these people aren’t just fans of these actors. That chunk of change isn’t about interacting with a talented performer; it’s about a fantasy world that you sort of desperately wish was real, being 100% fictional and then getting the chance to meet someone who’s actually been there.

2) Comic Con is much more than you think it’s going to be.

That said, I must now admit that Comic Con had much more to offer than just a bunch of confirmed stereotypes. It is absolutely a convention of a bunch of self-identified nerds as I suspected, but it is also a love-fest where people get to finally hang around a bunch of people that really like the stuff they love and laugh at the jokes no one else ever gets. Essentially, it’s like someone set up the best date in the whole world where you have all the most obscure, impossible stuff in common with that other person. At the first panel I attended, there was a boy in a [to me unidentifiable] costume that people kept asking to photograph. He was sitting tucked away in the middle of the back section of seats in the room and then suddenly someone in the front called out, “Stand up, Gambit!”

The boy stood and the room vocally reacted and then began to applaud for his impeccable imitation of the X-men character.

What a victory for him. What a moment of total acceptance and admiration from a room full of total strangers. I’m not working under the assumption that this boy doesn’t have tons of friends in other settings, but as a frequent wearer of unappreciated Halloween ensembles I would love to just once to have everybody get it. That is what Comic Con turned out to be, it seems, a place where everybody gets it. Even if the scope of what “it” is goes way beyond what this humble attendee first expected. I thought Comic Con only included superheroes and comic book characters and television programming that takes place in outer-space, but I saw the Ghostbusters there, took a picture next to one of the dinosaurs from Jurassic Park and saw a panel about how to become a best-selling author. Turns out Comic Con can include any medium or story that has the power to transport you.

3) More than one imagination goes into the creation of anything.

Perhaps to this point you’ve read from me that I do not count myself among the fans of sci-fi or fantasy stories. In that you are mistaken. I’m pretty sure I chose the special edition re-release of Star Wars: A New Hope as my birthday outing in 1997. I have watched all three extended editions of The Lord of the Rings series in a row in one sitting before. Also, I believe in the Loch Ness monster. I don’t know what it takes to get geek-cred, but I have enough not to blindly pooh-pooh fandom.

I attended an unofficial sneak-peek panel of the next film in The Hobbit series and was floored to find that one of the panelists was Manu Bennett who played the role of Azog, the white orc/terrifying antagonist of the first Hobbit film. I was shocked to learn that he only knew he had the role a few days before beginning to shoot. He was charming with his lilting New Zealand accent and commanded the room in quite a more radiant way than his character does in the film as he told us anecdotes of playing the part. The whole thing was done in motion capture, so in addition to having only a few days to study and develop the character he was largely performing in a completely empty room, wearing green spandex and largely having to suspend his disbelief about the setting he was to appear to be in.

He told us how Peter Jackson had him sit in his suit on a similarly neon pommel horse and told him, “now you’re sitting on a white warg—it’s a giant wolf” and Manu said “ok, a warg. Do I know the warg? Is it my warg?” He then took us through his filming the confrontation scene in the film and how he was alone in a room and simply had to imagine the forest around him and imagine that he wasn’t sitting on a giant green two-by-four, but a ferocious doglike mythical creature. Peter Jackson talked him through the moment when he needed to imagine that they were now throwing flaming pinecones at him and the whole scenario sounded totally ridiculous when you imagined Manu alone in a room acting the whole thing out.

But the scene in the movie is brilliant and intense and you believe in the seriousness of the stakes and the investment of his character in the situation. You think when you watch a bit of fantasy that you have simply peeked into the imagination of one person, but even just that one scene comes from the minds of J.R.R. Tolkien, Peter Jackson, a huge special effects team, dozens of actors and Manu in green tights in a room by himself. They all had to leave the world behind and believe in some other place enough to be a part of creating it and what you see is a composite of all of their minds in to this one fantastical setting that becomes so complete it almost feels real.

I was duly fascinated by a panel on the creation of the Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyland. We were taken through the renderings and sketches of several different key Imagineers on the project and, though the drawings were beautiful, it was clear that no one of them had won out in what we see today in the Haunted Mansion (at what I truly believe is the happiest place on earth). It was clearly a joining together of all the ideas that produced that final flight of the imagination (in your very own doom buggy).

Collaboration is a miracle and it was amazing to move in a sea of thousands of people who just hoped to contribute the products of their imagination to all that creation.

4) These people are bigger fans of their things than I am of mine.

One of the central attractions of the convention was a room full of booths from various vendors that seemed to offer gear for anyone from any story you could imagine. The room was continually crowded and full of the excitement and anticipation of discovering all that there was to see and to buy. I felt a little overwhelmed by the whole thing, but I didn’t hate running into every third Superman that actually had the biceps to fill out the suit.

I milled about a little aimlessly all the time wondering what someone could fill a room this big with that would get me that thrilled to enter it. Maybe booths about movies and stars from the golden age of Hollywood? Or booths about different cultures and languages or travel destinations? It was sort of disappointing that I couldn’t land on my thing. I was astonished by the passion and knowledge some of these people had for the world of a particular story or for a TV series. It kind of made me feel like I’ve been wasting my time by not becoming such an expert in something or a lover of something.

Realistically, I am an expert at a few things and a lover of many things, but as I listened to one fan tell about how he spent years campaigning to try to get this particular show back on the air or at least made into a movie, I couldn’t imagine being involved in something that micro-specific for that long. They eventually did get their movie made, it came out over 8 years ago and it still occupies enough of his time that he goes around presenting about it at conventions and holds charity screenings of the film and reminisces about the one scene that he got to be an extra in. It amazed me to see such enduring passion for something like that. It made me wish I spent less time napping and more time becoming ultra-familiar with Calvin and Hobbes or Seinfeld or something else that brings me lovely snatches of joy. Perhaps that kind of passion and time focused on something fictional sounds trivial or pointless, which brings me to the last thing I learned at Comic Con:

5) Passion is never pointless.

There is chance that even after learning all these new things about the Salt Lake Comic Con, you may still think that to travel hundreds of miles to convene and gush and learn about things that aren’t real is silly or laughable or even stupid. I can’t speak for the return on the cost of gas and hotel and Dippin’ Dots (c’mon, it’s the ice cream of the future and you can only get it in novelty settings!), but I can tell you to be able to feel deeply about something, to be excited by something, to just adore something is one of the privileges of the human condition. To develop a passion for something, to allow something to get your little motor going can alter your entire view of life. Too many people go through life engulfed in the dullness and disappointment of it and never allow anything to perk their special interest. It’s a strong thing to say, but I think people like that die having never lived. So, if it’s Klingon or airbending that gets you going, at least you get going and we’ll see you next year.