Jul 23 2012 3:30pm

San Diego Comic Con, Tragedy, and the Family of Fans: A Handful of Thoughts

On Thursday night I stood in line outside the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, TX, two and a half hours before the midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises. A girl in a Suicide Squad Harley Quinn costume was handing out free promotional Batman: Earth One comics, and there was a Burton-style Batmobile parked right by the theatre’s front door. The Batmobile’s stereo was playing music from the Burton Batman films on a loop, which meant that I ended up hearing “Batdance” about a dozen times before they finally let us into the theatre.

The familiarity of the scenario was unmistakable: the outlandishness of the hour (out on a school night for a movie that wouldn’t be over until 3:00 AM!), the long lines of people who were actually happy to be in line, because at the other end of it was something exciting that they’d been looking forward to for days, weeks, months. There was a guy dressed as Ra’s Al Ghul in a natty black suit, his beard trimmed just so. Another guy showed up in a Bane mask, and a woman in a Julie Newmar Catwoman costume strutted by. People wore their Batman t-shirts, and some had donned capes and cowls and masks. It was as if San Diego Comic-Con had come back to Austin with me.

This essay started out as something about San Diego Comic-Con. It has since been overtaken by events.

Like a lot of people, I spent most of Friday feeling pretty fragile. Also, apparently, a little melodramatic. It being human nature to look for patterns in events, even where no true pattern actually exists—apophenia, as William Gibson would say—SDCC 2012 was suddenly bookended in my mind by death.

Many of us felt a chill when Gisela G. was struck and killed by a car on the Tuesday morning before the con, allegedly while crossing Harbor Drive against the light in a hurry to get back to “Camp Twilight”. There have been accidents at SDCC before, but the fact that Gisela’s death was perceived by many as being directly related to her status as a fan gave the tragedy extra significance.

Some of the more cynical among us—myself included, I admit without pride—were gloomily unsurprised as well; we’ve watched the crowds and the camp-outs got bigger every year, and some of us side-eye Twilight in particular on this count. There was grief and genuine sympathy for Gisela’s family and friends, but also, in some circles, a sense of tragic inevitability. It wasn’t easily forgotten, either; when you passed through the Hall H line, you would pass a floral tribute left there under the tents. You would feel sorry and sad, offer a quiet salute, perhaps.

So then the convention happened. I had about 1200 words cranked up for you about the way SDCC has changed since my first trip there in 2005, when you could just breeze in to Hall H a half hour or so before the V For Vendetta panel. I was also going to agree with Jeph Jacques about how SDCC has become its own fandom, with its own self-selected group of rabid regulars who are there as much for the sheer experience of the con itself as for any specific thing they see there, and how that’s fundamentally altered the nature of what SDCC is and what it accomplishes for the professionals who are there to get their work out in front of an audience.

I’d planned to write about my chagrin at the shifting, in some cases decreasing, value of SDCC attendance for comics artists who aren’t there under the imprimatur of the Big Two or another publisher with some weight to throw around. Also about how, on the other hand, I actually really enjoy the diversity of the all-you-can-eat media buffet on display—I’ll take a salad plate of TV panels, a meat-and-two-veg of movies and comics, and a dessert of Masquerade and Gaslamp celebrity-spotting, thanks!

But it was a busy four days and it took me a while to recover from the thing and I kept putting off finishing that piece, and then the Dark Knight Rises mini-con experience ate up my Thursday evening, and then I woke up on Friday. You know what the first thing was that I heard on NPR when the alarm went off.

Over at Badass Digest on Friday, Devin Faraci wrote, “Even when it comes to a film as mainstream and popular as The Dark Knight Rises, you have to be a real movie lover to get in line for a midnight show. These were our people, and every single one of us should feel the pain of their loss.”

I’ve been avoiding cable news, but I can still tell that the rising tide of shouting that inevitably follows a tragedy like this is picking up predictable levels of force. I glimpsed references on Twitter to suggestions that theatres disallow people from cosplaying for movies, and talking heads who think that midnight showings should be stopped. There are a lot of reasons why I think those discussions are exactly the wrong things we need to be talking about right now, but I’m not writing this particular piece to talk about the politics of gun control.

Maybe it’s apophenia again, but it seems to me that Gisela G., the 125,000 people at SDCC, and the dead and wounded of Aurora are on some level all part of the confederation of nerds and geeks and fans, we with our irrational enthusiasms and willingness to do ridiculous things to be close to and to experience the things that we love. At the Doctor Who panel on Sunday morning, Matt Smith declared, “If the world was a bit more like Comic-Con it would be a better place, right?”

At the time, I scoffed. Sure, Matt—tell that to the big film studios bringing their marketing poledances to the con, and the crowd of paparazzi and fame-seekers swarming around a movie star the moment he shows up in the small press aisle. Can you really say that with a straight face when you have people all but fighting over cheap cardboard tat because it’s got the logo of some film on it?

“It would certainly be a world with more medieval weapons in it,” Chris Hardwick replied. “And a lack of cynicism,” Smith said. And that, they agreed, was the best thing about SDCC: the fact that it’s a place where you can go crazy about the nerdy things you love and not be judged. Leaving aside the fact that I’m pretty sure some fandoms do get judged more than others, they’ve got a point.

I’ll be honest with you: there were a lot of times last weekend where I was feeling pretty ambivalent about SDCC. When I couldn’t get to Alison Bechdel’s spotlight because it took me nearly half an hour just to get out of Hall H; when I had to line up at the crack of sparrowfart just to go to one panel, because the audience demand for movie and TV publicity is throwing the management of the convention out of balance; when I was trying to get to a booth on the other side of the expo floor and literally could not move through the crowd in places. This is getting too huge and too out of control for me to handle anymore, I thought. It’s jumped the shark, man. I liked them before they got cool.

But in a way, this vast confederation, this community, is like a blood family; I will tell you all the things that are wrong with my second cousins and half-siblings until the cows come home. But the minute you raise a hand—or a gun—to them—it’s on, you bastard. You hurt my people, and I won’t stand for it.

So we pull together, ducking our heads under the news cycle crossfire to donate blood and funds to help the victims and their families, and we mourn. Amidst all this we need to remember the best qualities of these stories we love: the generosity, compassion, heroism, loyalty, love—“intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism”, to quote Craig Ferguson.

The disturbed individuals who take all the wrong messages don’t change the fact that these are the stories we have told each other to keep the darkness at bay, the big damn heroes we have created, that we aspire to be. Everything else aside, that’s the best part about being a fan. We need to keep telling these stories, even at times like this—especially at times like this. Those better angels of our nature must burn all the more brightly against the dark.

Karin Kross lives and writes in Austin, TX. She would like to thank Emily Asher-Perrin for her help and advice with this.

1. Tumas-Muscat
Brillliant article and quite a great edning there. It's one thought which came to my head - all the way here in Malta where the Comic-Con culture is still catching on - that inevitably in times like this some would blame the actual geek culture as facilitating such atrocities. And, like you, I also thought that in reality such tragedies go against what fans love about their heroes and aspire to.

As a man who tries to live out his faith as much as possible, being a fellow fan actually helped me feel even closer to these fellow fans in my prayer. So I say long live the fan community; you're wierd and may get rabid and into trouble sometimes, but we love you nonetheless.
2. kidentropia
Beautifully written. And that last paragraph just made my eyes fill up with tears. It´s so damn frustrating, just hurts so much, that the little things that give us joy, a simple, wonderful joy, are also vulnerable to manipulation, horrible manipulation by pure evil. And i know, of course, that there are a lot of political factors involved; even though i live in Venezuela (or maybe specially because in Venezuela, where violence and insecurity have permeated almost all of our living instances) and politics are totally different, i still understand some of these policital elements. But this was an act of pure, crazy evil. Which is perhaps worse. It´s more chaotic, more random, in a way; scarier, because you can´t make sense of it. It corrodes the very little certainty you can hold on to, the smallest amount of control you have in your life.
Again, great article.
Shoshana Kessock
3. ShoshanaK
A gorgeous article and your last paragraph made my heart break all over again about this tragedy.

We share our dreams in the dark of theaters to believe in stories, worlds and ideas that may never be in real life. We stand together as believers in the creative imagination given form. And when someone damages that, it's a harsh wind in the dark trying to put out those lights. The rest of us feel it and, though we might feel melodramatic or silly or confused by the feeling, we understand deep down why it hurts us. It's the same spirit that links us in celebrating our nerdery in SDCC, NYCC or any other place, and especially in the dark of theaters where we come to enjoy. We understand the spirit that you unites us. And we remember.

Again, beautiful article.
Paige Vest
4. paigevest
I think you touched on the reason why I'm close to breaking down every time I read an article about this horrific tragedy. Why I can't bring myself to watch any of the videos and why I can't get through a post that talks about the dead and who they were and what they were like... it's as you say, because the people in that theater were MY people.

I feel a kinship toward them because I was *also* sitting in a theater (~600 miles South of Aurora) watching the same movie that they were watching with the same level of anticipation, excitement and awe that they were feeling when hell broke loose.

It's always a tragedy when someone, for whatever twisted reason, takes it upon themselves to randomly murder strangers. Always. And I always feel a sense of outrage when this happens, no matter who the victims were and no matter who took it upon themselves to play executioner. But this shooting in Aurora hit a bit closer to the old ticker than have the many mass shootings that came before and I didn't realize why it hit so close to home until now.

Though I don't personally know any of them, they are my people and everyone present were victims of terrorism that night. I mourn the loss of the dead and my thoughts continue to go out to the survivors, to the families of all of the victims, and to the community.
5. charles Le Blanc
Bravo! You so eloquently put into words the feeling I am Sure Many of Us "Con'ers" are feeling. Geek Culture allows For more tolerance even if we still argue over which is better Star Wars or Star Trek. Yet we celebrate all things Nerdy. We get together to celebrate fictional birthdays of beloved tv or movie characters, We aspire to be half heroic as our larger than life heroes… We area community of Lovers, we Love Life, art, music, and everything in between. We've gone from being social outcasts to the toast of the world. But we still are wounded easily, we have hearts of gold (for the most part) and therefore any tragedy in Fandom hurts us all. I say that from now on at every Con they should have a Heroes hall Dedicated to fans where Fans can put up little notes to those lost to the great Beyond, no matter the Manner of their death.
Thank you For Sharing.
Live Long and Prosper!
6. Pamela K. Kinney
Wonderfully written. Though I have you beat on remembering a San Diego Comic Con when it ws smaller, as from 1972-1984 I attended it--held at the El Cortez Hotel and later the first convention center downtown, where they said there was 5,000 one year. Personally, I think people have been discovering what the older fans knew about for years, that these cons exists--even smaller cons are growing in size.
As a fan for years and a writer of said genres too, the stories in these TV shows and movies from Star Trek to Star Wars to Serenity and in the books and short stories; should be the right of every fan to enjoy and relish in all safety, just might make all this tragedy a bit easier to swallow.
8. RyanBrown
Beautiful article. Thank you for writing it.
9. DHMCarver
A great piece, with interesting reflections on what ComicCon has become, and who it serves, and how this connects to the tragedy of Gisela G.'s death and the massacre in Aurora. Yet before we go too far down the “If the world was a bit more like Comic-Con it would be a better place, right?”, we have to ponder these cold, hard facts. From what has been reported, it seems that James Holmes was part of the geek fandom, a twisted cosplayer from Hell. All of us who love sci-fi, fantasy, etc. use it as a welcome escape, and if we get obsessed, the obsession is usually mild. But sometimes there is a darker side to that in which most of us find joy. Holmes brought that dark side to the movie theater that dreadful night. . . .
10. S.M. Stirling
No, geek culture wasn't to blame. What was to blame was that a guy with genetic predispositions hit the (inevitable) stressors and his brain started sputtering and throwing out sparks. If he didn't think he was the Joker it would be something else. Demons, probably, in most times and places.

We crave the illusion of control(*); that if we did X or didn't do Y, the Bad Thing wouldn't happen.

But there is nothing we can do, realistically speaking. We're not in control and never will be. Sometimes the anvil drops on your head and it's totally random and chaotic and unpredictable.

You can't lock up and medicate people like this ahead of time, because the symptoms are always ambiguous -- there are millions of others who show the same sort of behaviors and don't crack.

The truly terrifying thing about happenings like the Aurora massacre is that they have no larger significance; they say nothing about our culture, or the world, and the only thing they say about human beings is that sometimes our brains malfunction. Which is scarcely profound or surprising.

It's a black hole, the lid of the world cracking and people falling through.

(*) this is much of the attraction of conspiracy theories; they posit that someone is in charge and making things happen, even if it's the bad guys.
11. JustacarguyBlogspot
You are a damn good writer, and observant as well. I think you covered the Con very well. So I will address something you closed with, the size and unbalance that the Con has evolved into. I've pitched a fit in the SD Union trib story about the lack of online ability to sell tickets properly, the incompetancy of the management to properly arrange panels to allow the fans of each to see the events they are coming from far ans wide to get to. (Korra and Community were blown out by Firefly fans.. but most never stood a chance due to daily passes registration opening about a day after they had a chance to get in line early enough to see thier Community and Korra panels) I even emailed Glanzer directly. I never had the time to see the Exhibit floor til Sunday. It's also my first time at the Con, because buying tickets has been a fiasco, I had to get a media pass worthy website, and get it approved, to get in. Talk about walking round the world to see your back door. (I'm a San Diego resident since 95) Anyway, compliments on your writing, and your coverage. If you ever are single again, and move to San Diego, I want to date you!

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