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Novelist Raven Leilani Reflects on Comic-Con and How It Supplemented Faith
The first time I went to Comic Con, I was looking for God. It was 2010, and it had been a year since I left my Seventh Day Adventist church. I was nineteen, tentatively agnostic, and hardwired for worship. In the absence of a belief system, my zealotry found new targets. Drugs, boys, the latent potential of my own body. I shaved my head, started running, and after a few parlors refused to work with my linguistic frenulum, I found a man with a parrot who agreed to pierce my tongue. All of it was busy work. Fandom kept me still. Between college courses and twelve-hour shifts at my part time job at Dunkin Donuts, I added new chapters to my fanfiction and responded to the reviews of readers who had been with me since I was thirteen. Between fieldwork and digitizing degraded illuminated texts for my college archive, I smoked in my room and played old JRPGs: turn-based role playing games where I fought Ifrits and managed the psychosis of brooding, male protagonists.
In hindsight, I can see that I was depressed, but a public-facing job always complicates this. Serving coffee turned out to be less about coffee and more about managing customers’ emotional needs. I knew about their marriages and the make and models of their first cars. I knew how to deescalate when they pulled knives or threatened to have me fired for insufficient whipped cream. I felt rootless, desperate not for religion, but for something adjacent to it—a congregation, a fervent, communal cause. A few nights after a former employee broke in and robbed the place, I called in to work and said I had a family emergency. The truth was that I was going to Comic Con.
At the time, my experience with conventions was limited. I had attended a small convention when I was fourteen, a laidback production at a local polytechnic university where five classrooms had been converted to showcase manga and cosplay accessories. But even on this small scale, the activities were deeply segregated. In the gaming room, I found myself surrounded entirely by men. I could feel their discomfort as I tried to secure a seat, though it was uncomfortable for me, too, to have come searching for community and instead be seen as an interloper. That a subculture of proud outsiders might still be in the business of exclusivity is an irony a lot of women are familiar with. To talk about fandom is to talk about credentials, and for women, our initiation is fraught with the kind of sexism that at best demands you present your bonafides to participate and at worst makes it necessary for conventions to release official policies on groping and upskirting. And of course, there is Gamergate.
To talk about fandom is to talk about credentials.
When fandom is good, it is earnest, generative. I felt it then, how the event had been loved into existence, how it was particular and communal. But for women, it is complicated. By the time I was in college, my fandom had quieted. The decision to go to Comic Con was a hail Mary of sorts, a means to feel the kind of joy I felt when I was younger and more pious, and it took nothing at all to suspend my disbelief. This is a crucial part of fandom, a willingness to treat the imagined as meaningful, the decision to eschew skepticism and engage earnestly. My primary belief system had collapsed, but I missed the communion, the part of both religion and fandom that is based not in isolated practice, but in a fervor to share the good news.
When I arrived at the Javits Center, that frenzy was already in the air. Even as I made my way through midtown, attendees were all around me, fussing with their cosplay, adjusting their wigs and armor in the rain. New York Comic Con is a four day event. Whenever I go, I feel enormous deference to the attendees who have been on the floor since the first day. I can’t explain how I know who they are—only that they tend to have already collected all the free swag by the time the crowd arrives on Saturday afternoon, and that there is a professionalism about them, even as they look markedly more tired than the new crop coming in. Because attending Comic Con requires stamina, a cursory glance around the floor will reveal varying degrees of duress. Someone’s costume will be falling apart, and the bathrooms will be repurposed, functioning for attendees like the telephone booth functioned for Clark Kent. The transformations that happen around you will be sneaky and awkward, occasionally proof of human ingenuity, and the whole time, it will be impossible to stay hydrated, so that the moment you step back out into the city, you will feel dizzy and light.
A fan cosplays as Harvey Two Face during 2017 New York Comic-Con.
Roy RochlinGetty Images
During my first con, I didn’t dress up. I didn’t have the tools or the will, and at the time, distinct black female characters were a little harder to find. We had Storm, Amanda Waller, Maxine Gibson, Vixen, Uhura, or nearly every character Cree Summer voiced, though even in this sample size, only a few have the kind of get-up you might immediately recognize. Luckily, the spirit of cosplay is fluid and improvisational, as much about the trick of replication as it is the pleasure of breaking the rules. Part of the fun is bearing witness to the reimagination and deconstruction of fan favorites, cosplays untethered from tired binaries and canon that elevate the medium into art. By the time I mustered the nerve to cosplay, I had already attended a handful of times. I bought a swimsuit from American Apparel and some tulle from A. C. Moore, and when it was time, I put on my go-go boots and set off into midtown.
My first time attending Comic Con, I was less conspicuous. I was able to observe and take in the traffic, the homemade mech suits, the Party City Spider-Men, the sailor scouts scattered through the audience as actors and writers take questions and chug Evian. At the panels, you see the most tender and persnickety incarnation of fandom, where fans interact with creators and let loose their theories and qualms. You sometimes get the feeling that fans have thought more deeply about these imagined worlds than the people who have made them, and this is the seriousness that encapsulates the kind of fandom that makes a person willing to become human cattle for four days. This is the kind of fandom that made Sir Arthur Conan Doyle resurrect Sherlock Holmes. A personal investment in the story, and in the case of fanfiction, the need for it to go on.
When this goes south, you can usually trace it to the same thing that makes these spaces inhospitable to people who aren’t white men—ownership masquerading as fandom, a joyless style of engagement which is more about policing than joy. This is the kind of fandom that rankles to see female Ghostbusters and sends animators off to fix Sonic the Hedgehog’s human teeth. Fans who define themselves by what they hate, who identify with the radical messaging of our most prominent fantasy and science fiction, who see no irony in their investment in racist and sexist abuse. Otherwise, fandom is a great source of creativity and self-discovery. For a lot of young women, it is a safe way to express and explore their sexuality. Thirsty fancams with boybands and fictional bishounen, smutty fanfiction that on occasion becomes a record-breaking series about BDSM. Not everyone is on the same page about whether it is okay to play around with the intellectual property of your idols, but at Comic Con, there is the possibility you might come face to face.
Mark Hamill seen outside of New York Comic-Con in 2017.
Hollywood To You/Star MaxGetty Images
At Comic Con, much like a concert where you make it to the stage and see the frontman’s bare feet, the distance between creator and audience is collapsed. I had been unable to feel this kind of proximity to God, but at a panel in the Hammerstein Ballroom, I listened to one of my heroes go into great detail about why he couldn’t shit. He couldn’t shit because of Comic Con, because the bathrooms were hell, and because he had been anticipating questions from fans about a character who he had no intention of bringing back. Everyone was exactly this familiar, the overlap between the panel audiences occasionally breeding inside jokes—the shared looks between veteran voice actors, the one enthusiastic fan who always makes it to the mic. Occasionally you are a few steps behind, as I was during a Mark Hamill panel, when I, a person who had at that point not seen Star Wars, thought everyone was there for the same reason I was: to see what the voice of the Joker had to say. But eventually you catch up, and at the end of my first Comic Con I knew my way around. The crowd became a thing that moved me instead of a thing I was moving against.
I had been to the comic book cages, to Artist’s Alley, and as they began to pull up the red carpet, it occurred to me that it was Sunday. I would have to return to my life. I would have to go to work and maintain the ruse of a family emergency. I got some ice cream and sulked near the Funko toys. I was already cultivating a post-convention depression when I saw one of my favorite voice actors across the way. I’d missed his signing table the day before, and I paused as I tried to make sure I had the right face. He stopped before I could ask and gave me a moment to speak. His wife was with him, and she sighed and turned away while we talked. I felt like a dumb, happy creep. I grew up with your voice, I said, and he smiled and thanked me with the ease of a person who had heard this many times before. I remember how the ice cream ran down my fingers, how I tried to be cool. I remember how strange it felt to hear the voice of a cartoon coming out of a human face.
I was surprised by how much I felt, but all around me, fans were peeking behind the curtain or in the throes of make-believe. We had all come for that contradiction of fandom—the need to tend to your most beloved imagined world and the urge to understand it so totally you are willing to seek out the seams. We had taken the fiction seriously enough to find the authors who were right alongside us, eating the same bare convention hotdogs, often fans themselves. For a while, I would describe Comic Con in the language I was most familiar with. I’d use words like church and epiphany to describe the four days I’d spent smelling the armpits of cosplayers and harried press. I’d tell the story of meeting the voice actor and try to describe the uncanny valley of a familiar, displaced voice, an accidental manifestation of what I’d been looking for and hadn’t been able to find through faith, proof that the fantastic can be made real.
Raven Leilani is a New York based writer; her debut novel, Luster, is forthcoming from Macmillan/FSG August 2020.
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