FanExpo: freaks, nerds and corporate takeover

Are bigger comic cons better? Veterans Stan Lee and Lloyd Kaufman tackle the issue.

Photography Tom Henheffer

The cramped and kind-of-smelly halls are packed with blue-haired anime nuts carrying six-foot cardboard swords, gangly Chinese Checkers experts with an encyclopedic knowledge of Star Wars, and far too many fanny packs. The 15th annual FanExpo is Canada’s largest celebration of pop culture, and it brought more than 60,000 freaks, nerds and people dressed like ghostbusters to the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.

Like other events that were once strictly comic-book-centered—such as the San Diego and New York Comic Cons—FanExpo has exploded from a humble celebration of multi-paneled visual storytelling into a full-blown, corporate-sponsored pop culture bacchanal, combining horror, sci-fi, anime, comic book and video and board gaming conventions into one massive festival.

“Years ago I never would have dreamed that it would come to this, that a comic book convention could bring so many thousands and thousands of fans together,” says Stan Lee, former head of Marvel comics and the man who created Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, and dozens of other iconic superheroes.

He attributes the huge surge in popularity to new advents in film technology, which allow studios to more realistically transfer the fantasy of comic books onto the big screen. It’s led to polished blockbusters such as the three Spider-Man movies, two Iron Man flicks, and the upcoming Thor, Captain America, and Avengers films. The rebirth of these heroes, says Lee, is galvanizing old fans and attracting a new generation of comic, sci-fi and anime aficionados.

“When I first started going to them years ago it would be the case of a lot of kids and an occasional adult, some parent who had to come with the kid because he was too young to come by himself or herself. Today it seems to be more adults and occasionally you see a kid because the adult couldn’t find a babysitter.”

But while he’s positive about the growth, others say the fandom culture is beginning to get overwhelming.

“FanExpo is very poorly organized,” says Susan Calvert, a biotechnology student who dressed as Peter Pan and went to the convention with a group of girls in Disney costumes. “This year they kept selling tickets even though it’s full to capacity.”

Calvert says she still gets a kick out of the smiling children that frequently ask her for pictures at conventions, and that she’ll never grow tired of meeting new cosplayers (short for costume role players), but that after only a few years of going to cons, she’s already sick of the long lines and cramped space.

It’s a difficult situation. The root of the conventions, aside from the fans, are the hundreds of small exhibitors displaying T-shirts, custom-made latex masks, DVDs, comic books, art, and dozens of other types of wares. But those sellers are being dwarfed by mammoth displays from companies like Disney, DC, Rogers and Sony. Everywhere you turn there’s a 20-foot cutout of Iron Man, or a blue-LED covered display from the upcoming Tron sequel (replete with models in skin-tight outfits), or a bank of 20 TVs hooked up to Wiis and PlayStation 3s. It’s all meant to attract a new audience, one interested in meeting reality TV stars or watching the latest Twilight trailer—but it dilutes the experience for die-hard fans and makes it much harder for  independent distributors to get a foothold.
“It’s almost as if Hollywood has taken over,” admits Lee, although he insists the industry will benefit from all the attention.

Others believe the exact opposite. “The battlefield is littered with the bodies of dead artists’ careers because of the devil-worshiping cartel of international media conglomerates,” says Lloyd Kaufman, president of Troma Entertainment, the oldest independent film studio in the world, and a close friend of Stan Lee since the 1960s. “They’re destroying everything.”

Kaufman is behind extremely gory, low-budget horror-comedy movies like The Toxic Avenger, Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D and Class of Nuke ‘Em High. He’s been hawking his goods at conventions for more then 20 years, and laments the new presence of major studios and media companies over the last decade. “The people who are taking the risks, who are the creators, the earth changers, they get shoved aside and Justin Bieber becomes the centre piece,” he says. “There’s just too much of The Real Housewives of Cleveland and Lost.”

But even though Rogers employees are loudly pitching cellphone plans and Ernest Borgnine and one of the actresses who played Cat Woman are charging $30 for an autograph, Kaufman says the spirit of conventions will never change.

“They were founded by comic book nerds. Talent will always come out and the sweaty fat kid in the basement is going to be able to find people no matter what,” he says. “Most of the fans here are hardcore fans. There’s great cause to be optimistic.”

In fact, despite the long lines and greasy food-court pizza, most attendees seem happy—even the most battle weary klingons and decayed zombies.

Related: The 16 nerdiest sights at FanExpo

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