For the longest time, conventions were Valhalla for me. Growing up on a small island in the middle of the Irish sea meant that culture, certainly pop culture, was something that washed up on the shore in fits and starts. The closest we had to a multiplex was two whole screens, there were three bookshops, a couple of video shops and every year the same four metal bands would play during TT week. Nothing wrong with a bit of The Almighty, or even Status Quo, but when your cultural options are as bounded as your geographical location, it can get old.
So, conventions, for me, were the place I would eventually end up. It would be like Cheers, I’d walk through the door into an infinite, yet somehow intimate, room full of fellow geeks and they’d all say my name and the audience would cheer and then Kelsey Grammer would get a spinoff show. It would be easy. It would be GREAT. It would happen as soon as I went to the mainland.
None of those things turned out to be true.
Worse, when I went to my first convention a few years later it turned out to be…300 people who all knew one another getting drunk. No welcome. No cheer. No infinite hall of acceptance. No Valhalla.
I almost left. At times over that weekend I wished I had, but I persevered and had some fun. Not long after I went to the Bristol Comic convention for the first time. At that point it was the largest comics convention in the UK and by this time I was working for a store and writing for online sites so I knew it was going to be better. I was even part of a smallpress book coming out at the show.
So, up we rocked to this hub of comics culture and found…a couple of thousand people who all knew one another getting drunk. The next couple of days included, in no particular order;
-Discovering that every other staff member for the site I was writing for at the time had press lanyards and no one had told me.
-Introducing myself to two of the editors, chatting for five minutes and overhearing this conversation as I left:
‘Who was that?’
‘Alasdair Stuart, I think.’
-Attending a silver service award dinner, hideously over dressed, to find the seating plan had been abandoned, no one had bothered to show up to accept their awards and we were being shown 1940s SuperPup episodes on a badly designed, overlit projection screen between courses.
I didn’t both going to cons for a long time after that. When I did it was a little more successful with later Fantasycons (The 300 people event) leading to me meeting some of my closest friends and World Horror Con in 2010 leading to me being recognized as the host of Pseudopod for the first time. That was a fun experience, and did wonders for my increasingly tattered self confidence.
But none of them were Valhalla. None of them were that space where I could feel relaxed and off guard. For lots of other people, including good friends, those Cons are home. For me, they’re places I visit, nothing more. I decided, a little while back, that was the case for every con. It wasn’t something I was wired to connect with. I was a lone wolf who walked…alone…
This month is going to test whether that’s correct. By the end of September I’ll have attended three conventions; Nine Worlds, LonCon and FantasyCon. I’ll be writing about each here and trying to work out whether there are any that I really fit in at.
Nine Worlds happened last weekend. Based on my experience there, LonCon and FantasyCon are going to have their work cut out for them.
Nine Worlds is two years old, having funded a massively successful Kickstarter last year. It’s not so much a convention as a series of conventions flying in tight formation. There’s a book track, a comics track, an LGBT track, a Geek Feminism track, a Food track and so on. Each one is crammed to the nines with panels, presentations and workshops. To give you an example, my schedule for the con looked like this:
Friday: Realities of Podcasting panel
Saturday: Blurred Lines: What to do when a comic or comic creator whose work you love does something you disagree with
Sunday: Ask A Professional. Secrets of the book trade.
In between all that, I sat in on a Fight Scene construction panel, one of the two New Voices readings, the first two minutes of a presentation on Joss Whedon’s interaction with tropes and not nearly enough of a frankly brilliant panel discussion about the ethics of digital media and the difference between podcasters and ‘big’ media.
Oh and we were taught basic swordplay by Miltos Yeromelou, who played Syrio Forel on Game of Thrones. That led to Marguerite using Aikido to flamboyantly gut me with a short wooden sword in front of a room of cheering friends. There were a lot of highlights of Nine Worlds, but that was right up there. I’ve not done any form of martial art for close to three years at this point and even that brief, 70 minute return made me smile for the rest of the day. Miltos is a phenomenal teacher; engaged, positive, focused and very funny and if you get the chance to sign up to one of his classes, do so. Every age group, every body shape, every level of ability was in that room and we all left with a smile on our faces.
The smile basically stayed all weekend. I didn’t connect with everything I saw, and virulently disagreed with a couple of panels, but I never once felt left out. Nine Worlds is the first con I’ve seen that’s taken immense care to make everybody feel welcome, regardless of interests, orientation or social confidence and I saw it pay off again and again over the weekend. Tiny little gestures like offering free badges with how you’d like to be referred to (‘He’ ‘She’ ‘They’ ‘Hir’ ‘Zie’ etc), making the toilets non gender specific and the inspired communication peg system all combined to make it feel like a con that was massive and sprawling but could be approached on your own terms and pace. They, of course, took some flak for doing this sort of thing but any convention that tries too hard to be inclusive is going to beat 300 people getting drunk in a dusty hotel bar any day of the week and twice on Sundays for me.
What I really connected with though, was how much it pushed me intellectually. I’ve blogged elsewhere about how the Realities of Podcasting panel finally helped me connect with the podcasting community but there were others that took that even further. The Digital Media panel not only crystallized a lot of why I love doing what I do but showed me different ways to do it and ways to engage with the creative freedom (And positive ethical restraints) of doing what I do. Barry Nugent and Steve Aryan, who ran the podcasting track, did a phenomenal job putting together challenging, inclusive, inspiring programming and I’m very hopeful they’ll be back next year. They certainly deserve to be.
Likewise, Hazel Robinson and Charlotte Geater put together a raft of individualistic, insightful panels for the comics track. In fact, where Barry and Steve’s work helped crystallize my viewpoints on podcasting, their work helped open up my perspective on comics.
We’re in a really interesting time with comics right now. They have never been more mainstream than they are and anyone who thinks differently clearly hasn’t been to a cinema for the last five years. More importantly, there’s far more willingness to not only feature female and non-white characters but make them the focus of books. She-Hulk, Ms Marvel and Captain Marvel are the best books on the market right now, I’d argue, and the fact Ms Marvel issue 1 is on its sixth reprint is an amazingly good sign.
Yet female characters are still either marginalized, overlooked or flat out killed far more often than they’re featured, whilst POC characters are still the exception rather than the rule. That’s even before you get to the ongoing discussion about the treatment of Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy and the increasingly deafening absence of any female-led Marvel movies.
We are, to use an immensely obtuse metaphor, at the bit of The Italian Job where the bus is balanced on the cliff edge. The instinct is to pull back. That won’t help. The industry needs to embrace change because if it does, the only things that will follow are more positive change, better books, more readers and the survival, and massive expansion of one of the most versatile artistic forms on the planet. How we do that is a conversation the industry is going to be having with itself for the next few years and thanks to Charlotte, Hazel and the other panel members I got a really good idea of some different perspectives on that conversation.
Like I said, inspiring, challenging stuff and that’s what Nine Worlds is made of from top to bottom. It’s an event defined by engagement and enthusiasm, one that’s as inspiring as much as it’s entertaining. We volunteered for next year inside 24 hours and are already planning new stuff to pitch and hopefully present. I’m genuinely excited about it and that’s not something I’ve ever felt about a con before. It’s not Valhalla, it’s better, a huge sprawling conversation about popular culture that’s open to everyone. I’ll see you there next year.
Next up, LonCon! See you in a week.