Riding Shotgun: Geek Nation (East Coast Chapter)

A trip to the scary comics convention.

On May 11th, I, your guide to the quirky little world of popular culture, had the pleasure of attending the largest comic book/pop culture convention ever held on the East Coast: Wizard World East.

Wizard Entertainment, publisher of such fine periodicals as Wizard, Toyfare and Inquest Gamer, decided to double their yearly convention duties by creating a sister event for their annual Wizard World Chicago convention. Held over a three-day period at Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Convention Center, it drew tens of thousands of comic and pop culture fanatics and treated them to a endless array of television and movie personalities, artists, writers and dealers (the kind that sell merchandise, not crack).

I think it’s safe to say that it was a knee-slapping, rib-tickling, ass-spanking success. Each satisfied little attendee I’m sure has a story of their own filled with laughter, heartache and drama. I don’t know those assholes though, so here’s mine. And in Bridget Jones style, no less.

April 25: Used last $20 on my credit card to order ticket for May 11. By ordering early, will not have to stand in line and will get free exclusive Spider-Man comic. Would like to attend for all three days, but have no place to stay in Philly and am afraid of how much money I’ll spend if left to wander dealer booths for three days. Look at guest list for 20th time. Very excited to see Kevin Smith of Clerks fame as well as Grant Morrison, one of my favorite comic writers (see second Funnybooks article for more info).

May 2: Ticket arrives. Has shiny hologram on front. Am very excited. Mmm … shiny.

May 9: At work, download directions to Pennsylvania Convention Center. Is in central Philadelphia. Will have to leave early. Have never driven there and will probably get lost with, or without, directions. Later that day I buy cheap, disposal camera to immortalize experience (convention, not getting lost).

May 10: Drive up to my parents’ house and celebrate early Mother’s Day. Spend night so can be hour closer to Philly. Have trouble sleeping because of different bed and growing excitement. Also am apprehensive about getting lost.

May 11:
Cigarettes smoked: 16
Money spent: $150
Marathoners run over: 3
Small children punched in the neck in order to get to select merchandise: 12

7 a.m.: Only got four hours of sleep last night, but excitement and adrenaline makes me bright-eyed. Convention starts at 10 a.m. It is an hour-and-a-half drive to the city. I leave at 7:45. Forgo breakfast for diet of cigarettes and Diet Pepsi.

8:45: Have reached Philly area via Interstate 95. See sign for Exit 17, Broad Street, which is what the directions say I need to take. Quickly realize I am near Veteran’s Stadium and know that I am far off course. Should be on 676, but am actually on 611. It has begun.

9:00: Accomplish several more wrong turns, but have made it to central Philly using road atlas. Am 20 blocks away from desired location and there’s a marathon being run. Police intermittently block off streets. Hear coverage of convention on radio. I am convinced they are taunting me.

9:50: Make it to convention center and park. Worried about car because locks don’t work, but am parked in seventh floor of garage. I travel down the elevator, across the street and into convention center to register and wait in line to get inside. In my bag are a few comics that I want signed, cigarettes, my notebook with a list of comics I’m looking for and some gum. Want to keep it light. Will add weight as day progresses. Double-check bag and see that I’m ready to rock ’n’ roll.

10:00: At front entrance, realize I have forgotten cheap, disposal camera. Walk back across street, up elevator (takes three tries to get floor right. Did not know at time that I was on seventh floor) and get camera. Double-check to make sure have everything. On way back, pass Marvel editor in chief Joe Quesada on crosswalk.

10:15: Finally registered. Have free comic and bag of other goodies (stickers, postcards, etc.) and have entered the main floor. Hall is the size of a football field, and then some. It’s packed to the brim with exhibits, showcases, dealers’ booths and pop culture celebrities. Already filling up as thousands of people have gotten here early as well.

Something you have to understand about conventions like this: they bring out the widest display of aberrant humanity. There are the comic geeks who make up the bulk of the attendees, and while they come in a wide arrange of shapes, sizes and colors, there are an abnormal amount of 300-lb. 18-year-olds with thick glasses and horrid acne.

Note to that group: T-shirts two sizes too small are not best fashion choice to hide figure. There’s also — due to some weird marketing crossover between comics and counter culture — a large contingent of goths replete with torn black and silver piercings. There are parents with children, boyfriends with girlfriends and vice versa.

I’m amused to see a girl in a Spider-Man T-shirt dragging her reluctant boyfriend behind her as she goes from one booth to another. And even though many of these culturally-niched individuals wouldn’t be caught dead with each other on a weekday, there’s a general mood of acceptance and camaraderie. We are all there for the same reasons, after all.

I spend the first hour and a half in a walk-through of the hall floor. Hundreds of thousands of comics, toys, magazines, posters, videos, DVDs, statuettes and original artwork are packed onto racks, shelves and boxes. Have $250 in wallet. Resist urge to blow it on mint condition X-Men #4.

Near the back are tables for the movie and TV folk. Most are empty as it is early, but Lou Ferrigno (of Hulk and, currently, King of Queens fame) is already happily signing autographs. He’s entirely too smiley and cheery. Wish he would just growl, scream “Hulk Smash!” and toss a table at somebody.

See a long line near back corner of room. Ask convention employee, who tells me it’s the line for Kevin Smith autographs. Line is forming two hours ahead of time and you have to buy tickets for it. Am disappointed, but cheer self up by perusing display of vintage Star Wars figures.

12:00 p.m.: Go downstairs and outside for cigarette. Have spent only $20, have crossed some comics off of my list, and am suffering from sensory overload. Have completely forgotten mood created by getting lost in downtown Philly. Have to walk around to front of convention center to get in again. Will have to do this many times throughout day. Wave stupidly at network television crew filming attendees going in the front door.

12:15 p.m.: Line for Kevin Smith is 500 people long now. Have decided will only commit myself to one long line for the day. Smith is great director, but at another table Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely and the entire Kubert family are signing autographs. Make economical decision and commit to second line. Line stretches around back wall behind signing tables, but have faith it will move quickly.

12:30: Moving at snail’s pace. Can’t even see Morrison and folks. Am taking on faith that there is an end to this line.

1:00: Have been listening to two guys talking behind me entire time as feet go numb and knees become volleyball-sized nodes of pain. Nitpicking their favorite artists and talking about sexual conquests, one gentleman spends 15 minutes extolling the virtues of friend-with-benefits relationship he has with girl named Michelle. Describes in excruciating — and surely exaggerated — detail.

(Note: if Michelle is reading this, stop having sex with 30-something comic reader named John. He has a big mouth.) Have to resist throttling him with bare hands.

1:08: Have gotten around to front. Can see end of line now. Spirit is bolstered by sight of people am waiting in line for. Morrison looks like rock star — shaved head, black suit. Has written Chris Claremont on sign in front of him. Grand joke is funny to .09 percent of population.

Quitely and he (they are artist and writer for New X-Men) are joking with people in line in barely decipherable Scottish brogue. Get comics out of back for signing. Realize have left “Origin #1″ that I wanted Andy Kubert to sign at home. Very sad have not optimized my line-standing experience as am very antsy and tired now.

1:45: Have made it to front of line. Have listened to fans making attempted small talk with artists for hour now and decided most sound like jackasses. Expediency and fatigue add to decision to replace small talk with simple “Thank you”s. Get Joe Kubert’s autograph on old issue of Tor. Quitely, Morrison and Ethan Van Sciver sign New X-Men. Get another Morrison signature on issue of Invisibles. Kubert smiles and signs his name in legible block print. Morrison’s John Hancock is barely decipherable scrawl that others will have to take on faith is his signature.

1:46: Immediately after exiting line, have feeling of wild freedom like having just been let out of prison. Decide will stand in no more lines for rest of show. Am very hungry, as have not eaten since day before.

1:50: Stand in line for 10 minutes for cheesesteak and soda at refreshment counter. Irony not lost on me.

2:00: Bring food outside to eat in warm, cheerful sunlight. Look through program and realize have missed Kevin Smith’s panel on upcoming Jersey Girl movie project. Am too happy eating cheesesteak with gooey cheese-food product to give a shit. Decide to spend rest of day wandering instead of going to panels and programs.

2:15: Back inside now. Shouldn’t have eaten cheesesteak so fast. Am questioning gastrointestinal viability of gooey pseudo-cheese. Visit View Askew booth to peruse Kevin Smith-related merchandise. Purchase Chasing Amy DVD signed by Smith and Mallrats T-shirt for girlfriend (she’s one of two women I know who enjoyed that movie). Recognize guy who takes my money as one of extras from Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. Stomach soon settles into contented silence.

2:25: Discover Transformers booth with previews of upcoming DVD and one of the toys from the “Transformers: Armada” line. Drooling with anticipation, but not allowed to touch. Teenager standing next to me has the largest afro I’ve ever seen on a Caucasian. I refrain from giggling. Catch sight of Ray Park (Darth Maul from Episode I and Toad from X-Men). Is shorter than I expected.

2:30: Near back corner, March ’95 Playboy Playmate is signing autographs. Feel very sorry for her as she poses for pictures with aforementioned comic geeks. Does not look like she’s having any fun at all. Have no idea why Wizard would think that there would exist any audience crossover between comic books and Playboy. (Editor’s note: writer has been a Playboy subscriber since 1998.)

2:40: Peter Mayhew — the man in the Chewbacca outfit from the first Star Wars trilogy — is also signing in the back. Looks scarier than Wookie counterpart. Like cross between Herman Munster and Riff-Raff from Rocky Horror. Group of Star Wars fan-boys in stormtrooper garb are clustering around him. Have never been to a convention where these types have not been present. Suspect some sort of blast-armor fetish.

2:45: Spend next hour and thirty wandering booths with money burning hole in pocket. Mark off more items from list of comics-to-get. Find booth with boxes of comics marked 99¢ a pound. Am tempted, but books are dreck and bag is also causing shoulder and back to ache.

Get autograph of Joe Lisner, creator of Dawn, which I don’t read, but happen to have an issue of. Bump into World Wrestling Federation’s Matt Hardy. Large man, but no comparison to Ferrigno. Check out Episode II figures. Yoda’s got a lightsaber? Sweeeeeet. Are awesome, but can get cheaper at Wal-Mart.

Stroll through Artist Alley, where lesser-known artists are signing autographs and selling original art. Have no idea who these people are or why I should buy their art for $300 a pop. Sensory overload of earlier has toned down to a constant, manageable buzz.

4:15: Outside for cigarette again. Am approached by young man — mid-twenties, bad sunburn, glasses, rastafarian-style hat — who introduces himself as (and I am convinced I am hearing wrong) Ras. He asks me if I write poetry, stories or other short pieces, I tell him that I might and what the deal is. I like to get to the point when accosted by people on the street.

Ras works for Expressions Journal, a small paper dedicated to publishing poetry, fiction, opinions and various counter-culture ramblings. Based in Wisconsin, he’s in Philly visiting friends and thought he’d see if he could get some subscribers at the convention.

Being a regular contributor to an independent publication and thoroughly believing in karmic reward/retribution, I donate 10 bucks and get a paper and am signed up for their mailing list. Flipping through the paper, I realize that it has a vague rastafarian revolutionary feel and that all of the employees have the prefix “Ras” in front of their names. Interesting content, but am wondering if I just gave a cult my phone number.

4:20: On the floor again. Am nearly run over by herd of knee-biters whacking at each other with plastic lightsabers. While flipping through comic box, find copy of X-Men #25 where Magneto rips adamantium out of Wolverine. Have been looking for it all day and gladly fork over cash. Find booth with anime DVDs for sale. Find one that has woman being raped by demon with ten penises on the cover. Forced to ponder social underpinnings of Japanese culture.

4:55: Growing weary and wanting to sit down, I walk to one of the panel rooms where X-Men writers, artists and editors are discussing future of X-titles. Am only mildly interested, but happy to be off feet for first time all day.

5:45: I leave during question and answer session. The con is closing in 15 minutes and, satisfied with my bag of goodies, I head back to the car to beat the rush. Pissed that parking cost $19, but relieved that car was where I left it.

6:00: Able to extricate myself from Philadelphia with only one wrong turn. Legs aching and back sore, I consider making some pit stops on the way home. I wonder if the comic shop is open.

Article © 2002 by Steve Spotswood