This past weekend (9/13) the wife and I paid a relatively brief visit to the Granite State Comic Con in Manchester, New Hampshire.
It was Karen’s first visit to such a thing and, truth to tell, one of only a handful of non traditional conventions I’ve been to myself. (Well, I don’t count business conferences, military training conferences or paintball tournaments/trade shows among the latter – entirely difference animals…though some of the stuff on display at those military conferences were reminiscent of Terminator: Rise of the Machines….)
Anyway. I went for business purposes (after all, we have been shepherding a comic into production for well over a year now – David Gerrold’s A Doctor For the Enterprise; you can’t tell me you’ve not heard of it yet, but if you haven’t, look it up!) related to the comic and some possibilities in terms of licensing, but I also had another purpose.
For multiple years now (say, from about 1976 on when SF Expo reared its ugly head – quickly decapitated by FANDOM. It didn’t take long for that commercial monstrosity to be labeled SEXPO – and for the crew from a successful NASFiC to launch what would become Dragoncon, the mutant commercial spawn of non-commercial fandom) I have held the line against gateshows, fan-run conventions that step over the non-commerciality line and any variation on that theme that is primarily oriented towards making money first and celebrating fandom second.
Why, you may ask? Well, for one thing, traditional conventions can’t defend themselves against the money influence; well-run and managed commercially oriented shows will always have more money for promotion, for market research, for advertising; the bigger they get, the more money they make, the bigger they get.
That alone would not be a problem; the SF community (and indeed everything in society) has at its base commercial interests – the selling of magazines, comics, books, television shows, films and ephemera. But traditional conventions are reserved as a safe space deliberately kept free from the influences of that money; you can’t buy a panel to promote your latest whatever; producers are also fans, so there’s no fee for autographs, no waiting line to talk to a Big Name, no money spent on give-aways or premiums to engender fan squee. The whole idea was – this is a bunch of friends and fellow travelers who get together in a random city on a regular basis just to be with one another, reaffirm their belonging, learn new things, make new friends.
Commercial shows, by necessity, create a wall of separation between attendees and the entertainment. Attendees buy a ticket to get in. At traditional conventions you buy a membership. You are not a source of revenue only, you are part of a community, with an equal voice and – depending upon your behavior – equal stature.
Finally, commercial shows present a distorted view of fandom (to be a fan is to pay money to be entertained) and, because of their often gargantuan reach, the view they present has been (may already be) the prevailing concept of fandom. Which does not bode well for the future survival of traditional fandom.
My attitude has, unsurprisingly, colored my perception of these shows. With rare exception I don’t like to harbor unfounded prejudices, so my secondary purpose in attending the Granite State Comic Con (remember that’s what we started talking about way up at the top of this piece) was to see how closely my perception was still in line with reality.
I came away with mixed results. None of them negative.
No mixed results in the competency, management or other logistical departments; the crew that run this show have it dialed in, for sure. Registration was a breeze, cost was way low ($20 per adult), parking was easily had and the venue itself was packed – almost up to but not over the unacceptable level. You want people to have the impression that the entire world is attending, but not as a human traffic jam. Aisles were packed, but you could make steady progress from one table to the next.
There were plenty of cosplayers in attendance as well – both inside the convention and walking the streets of downtown Manchester (if you werent’ sure how to get to the venue, all you had to do was follow a random Ghost Buster, Deadpool, Victorian Vampire-Showgirl walking down the street); staff were plentiful, visible and very friendly.
The convention itself has estimated their two day attendance at roughly 8,000, by-passing Loncon3’s on-site membership by over 500. (Distressing when you realize that Worldcon draws internationally and has been conducted since 1939 while Granite State is an up-and-coming regional convention with a handful of priors).
There was quite a lot of good stuff on offer and on display: comics, naturally, artists as well, toys, collectibles, t-shirts and authors (a handful of indies were hawking their projects). Several organizations and shows as well…and the equivalent of bid tables for up-coming comic cons. Shout outs to: Topless T-Shirts, the SciFiSaturdayNight podcast, the New England Independent Writers org, Rhode Island Comic Con, Double MIdnight Comics, Jetpack Comics and something called New England Super Megafest. Prices were reasonable and
everyone seemed happy and seemed to be having a good time. There were familiar sights – knots of fans having intense (or humorous) conversations thoroughly ignoring whatever was going on around them, snatches of overheard conversation that almost always involved something genre as the obvious subject, overheard joy upon the discovery of a must-have!.
But the feel was different, at least for me. traditional conventions feel, for me, like stepping into my living room and finding it full of friends, some of whom have Hugos and Nebulas on their mantles (if they have mantles). This convention felt more akin to a flea market. A well stocked, surprisingly reasonable and pretty happy flea market, but that sense of needing to make money or spend money was there. (I don’t say this to be negative: I love flea markets, Karen can tell you that – I’m always convinced that someone is going to have entire runs of both Amazing AND Astounding on sale for five bucks! What I am saying is that for someone coming from a traditional convention background, the atmosphere is different. And it is obvious that at least insofar as this convention is concerned, the atmosphere was just fine for the vast majority of attendees.)
So, my check on my prejudices complete, have I changed my mind? To a degree. I’m more willing to check out other non-traditional conventions (I’ll be going back to Granite State next year). It was readily apparent that those attending were getting their money’s worth and satisfying the needs of their inner geeks by being there. It was also apparent that most of the attendees would be lost at a traditional con. I now understand much better why many who move from these kinds of conventions to traditional conventions come away feeling as if they weren’t welcome, that there was “nothing to do”, that they are “just a bunch of people sitting around talking in closed groups” and the like.
I understand the divide much better now. It is most definitely one of degree, not one of kind. Most of the stuff the Granite State attendees are into, I’m into. They don’t get more or less excited by those things than I do. Their experience is not a lesser one, it’s a different one. Having gone, I feel I’m better informed on the state of things, and have refined some of my ideas regarding bridging the fannish divide.
Later on this week, we’ll be posting David Decker’s photo gallery from the Granite State Comic Con.