By Amanda Vernon
Here is a confession for you: I expect people to back out.
Even though my brother-in-law hammered the armor for his Cloud Strife costume himself, I thought he would decide our comic convention plans were too nerdy. He calls it common sense every time he does something that requires talent, so imagine him, 6-foot-1 with a severe jaw line, standing in a crowd of people holding signs like “Free hugs” and “Look at me I’m better than Wolverine.” I thought he wouldn’t find the sense in the St. Louis-based convention. He used to work as a mechanic in his father’s shop but now he works for the railroad. And where does blue-collar common sense fit into the world of fandoms?
Leaving behind his red GT mustang, we crossed the small bridge from the hotel to the convention center, and the tension eased from his shoulders. The irony was that he fit here, almost better than the small town he had grown up in: Sikeston, Missouri. The anonymity suited him.
My sister and I had never fit anywhere, though. Seventeen moves in twenty-one years is my personal best, and we have called four countries home. It could be that the final attempt at fitting in was calling ourselves nerds. After all, they weren’t checking passports at the convention center doors.
My brother-in-law’s best friend went to the convention too—he planned out a different costume for each day—and he took a single look at me before he posed a rhetorical question like judgement.
“You just know you’re the top of the food chain, don’t you?” he said.
Maybe it was the hair I had dyed black to look like X-23—Wolverine’s biological daughter. Or maybe it was because I had spent a-then eighteen years pretending like I fit when I didn’t. I couldn’t. I learned I was American when I was 10, or that was just the year I accepted it.
And for all that flimsy, projected confidence, I never would have gone to the convention alone. Dressed in combat boots that my friends called my “butt-kicking boots” and wearing fingerless leather gloves that people said made me look like a biker chick, and I was intimidated. Social anxiety would have kept me on the walls. But with family standing next to me, I could be strange because I wasn’t strange in isolation. Maybe that is the true appeal of fandoms—to blue collar, white collar, and any culture. Because don’t we all feel a little strange at some point?
That’s why it worked so well my junior year of college when I began living with Jessica Barton—self-proclaimed nerd and francophile. I would say Frenchwoman, since she lived the first eleven years of her life in France, but her passport is bound to disagree. Still, we fit because whoever it was that had the idea first, nobody protested when we decorated our dorm room like true broke college kids, with posters of every fandom we are in (the two marvel posters are mine).
We connected over our shared label first: missionary kid. But that soon progressed to the nerd label and then friendship felt inevitable. Awkward silences? No more.
But while I have been a nerd since my father sat me down and terrified me with the monster that shoots out of the sewage water in the first Star Wars movie (read as: the fourth), Jessica credits her first fandom to freshman year of college.
“My best friend Melissa introduced me to Doctor Who and fandoms,” Jessica says, a poster of that very fandom conveniently on the wall behind her.
But after ten minutes of discussing Doctor Who, the beginning is rewritten.
“Wait, I lied!” The confession comes out with a mixture of amusement and shame. It seems an appropriate reaction when she says, “It was Twilight. I was thinking about the first time I really fit it. It was a bad fitting in at the end of eight grade in Richmond, Virginia. For the first time I was in the place that people had always called my home, the place I felt least comfortable, and it was the place I was supposed to be from. But in Twilight…it was this world where everyone’s problems weren’t really that bad. I had a friend and we would just talk about the books and movies. We never had to talk about reality once.”
And that is the warning sign posted at every mile marker into the fandom community. Turn back now. Up ahead you will lose all sense of reality. Take the next exit to escape all your problems.
Seth Davidson grew up in Belarus from the time he was eight until just before his senior year of college. He probably never expected to attend an anime convention in Memphis a few years ago. And while he admits to enjoying it, he also remembers the after-hour shows he did not attend, like the Tokyo strip show and furries after dark. It would also be hard to forget a man with alcohol heavy on his breath loudly sharing his sexual exploits. Not everything can be avoided.
The interview was meant to be a short one. It lasts over an hour, and the cafeteria shuts down. We relocate to a barely lit booth, the change in setting echoing the drop in our conversation from the benefit of fandoms to the ways they can go wrong.
“Some of these people, this is what they’re living their life for,” he says, finally comfortable with the phone between us that he knows is set to record. “They’re trying to find something to fill in that gap, and this is what they’ve found.”
The accusation has also been made that fandoms encourage people to stay locked in their rooms, not socializing. Maybe they even breed discontent.
When Seth visited America at 15-years old, he remembers saying, “I don’t want to go back; I want to stay and be a normal teenager,” because he found community in the church youth group. On weekends they would all get out their xboxes and play Halo.
“I didn’t have a community in Belarus after all the American families started leaving,” he says. “We lived next to a school, and I wish I had taken a soccer ball out to the field and kicked it at the goal. I guarantee kids would have come out and joined me. Soccer is the universal language.” His voice lowers to a murmur, his eyes not focusing on me. “I wish I had done that, but I didn’t.”
I am biased, probably. I grew up in Turkey where soccer is the most important sport. There were parades in the street; it didn’t matter who won—parades of victory and of protest. But I have to think that any shared interest can become that universal language. It can go beyond the ice breaker and become a foundation.
And to that end I meet with intercultural studies professor Dr. Jean-Marie Walls Friday in her office. Tea in hand, she sits beside me, leaving the chair behind her desk ignored. She soon shares her son’s experience during their first summer trip to Quebec where he played baseball. The car they drove had Tennessee tags. They arrived at night, and the streets were empty.
He turned to her and said, “Everybody’s looking at us.”
Middle of the night and he just knew everyone could tell they did not belong. That belief disappeared when he stood on the mound as pitcher of the baseball team and when he was declared MVP at the end of the summer.
“We became connected with the community through baseball, sitting next to the other parents, cheering,” Dr. Walls says.
For all the nerds who are convinced their interests are too weird to be accepted: they are weird, but maybe in a way that every interest can be. And for all the people who look at fandoms and think they are bizarre: what do you spend your time on?
Fandoms are just a different way to connect, a different community—a community that can cross geographical, racial, and cultural boundaries.
Sports? Fandoms? Tell me the difference.
In the crowded convention center, the costumes are the rallying effort to stand out. The conference room is reminiscent of a warehouse, gutted of tools and machinery and filled with wildly colorful banners that advertise for Flash, Green Arrow, and the numerous other shows. People in flip flops and red-stringed lanyards stand as the contrast of this new normalcy, and if anyone finds it odd they are not donning the identity of someone else for the day, no one says it. Everyone becomes a splash on the comic convention canvas.
For me, I was not an eighteen-year old with an ambiguous cultural identity and a question mark in answer to “Where are you from?” I was, and still am, a nerd. I am a Marvel fan. Jessica is a Whovian. And Seth is a fan of Trigun, Attack on Titan (me too, I might add), and more.
Before the convention my senior year of high school, I had never engaged with the fandom community. It was on the Saturday of the convention that I attended an artist’s panel. Amid a crowd of people wearing any manner of absurd costumes, everyone might as well have been in uniform. And there is a comfort in that.
I never saw Caleb Rush, but he assures me he sat two rows in front of me to the left, even that he heard my question to the artist that day. But I never saw a man vaguely reminiscent of an IT Crowd character dressed like an eighties villain who never stopped smiling.
I can tell you he is obsessed with anime. He recommended I watch Steins Gate. He is learning Japanese, and he lives in St. Louis. By some random coincidence, he knows my sister. And even though we were in the same room four years ago, we have never met—unless you count me accidentally walking in while he was Skyping my sister. We talked then, briefly. He decided we were friends, and somehow, we are.
Because it does work that way.
My roommate says it better: “If someone is in a fandom I love, I somehow trust them more. You have groups of people who don’t really know each other, but they can say, ‘Hey, I’m struggling with something. Can you help?’ and people in the fandom will try. You can count on it.”
Is it the same as striking up a conversation in a sports bar because your favorite team is playing and the person next to you is cheering too? Honestly, I don’t know. I have never been in a sports bar, and I do not have a favorite team (not an American one, anyway). Zero credibility here. But I do know friendships can grow from any interest.
David Banister, an intercultural studies major and also a Jedi judging from his Facebook picture, shared that his love of fandoms started where mine did: Star Wars.
“I think people can use fandoms in a shallow way, but I also see that as being an entryway into a relationship,” he said. “My high school was consolidated from three separate schools. It was three different cultures coming together, and Star Wars was one of our points of contact.”
But this is America, the country at war with itself culturally. Half the population is bemoaning the loss of real relationships. We are all too busy with our smart phones, you know. I don’t deny it. We are all watching too much television, too. It gives fandoms a bad name.
My roommate said even she used to think of “nerds” as being “basement living, video gaming, glasses wearing, snack eating, people who barely get out of bed.” Like an afterthought, she added, “I think I still kind of feel I have to apologize for being a nerd.”
The question is, who else has to apologize for liking something? No doubt they exist, but should they have to exist with an apology constantly on their mind?
Dr. Walls says, “People operate under the assumption that identity is one thing. This is me. This is not me. We often don’t acknowledge the complexity and beauty of who we are as humans.”
During the course on race and reconciliation with the group of Union and Lane students, Walls shared pieces of her story. Inconsistent pieces. She said, “I think we have this false impression that all the pieces of me fit together like a perfect image.”
We are too afraid people will not see us, all of us. And the irony is fandoms are comfortable with accepting the many identities. After all, I’m no X-23.
When I, my sister, and my brother-in-law walked into the convention center, we made our way to the “shopping” area.
I have never been a fan of crowded places—the raised voices all blending into one giant roar of noise, people pressed close enough you can smell their breath. Walking into the convention hall, I assumed that would be what I would find: discomfort masquerading as a good time. And, if I’m being honest, that existed on the convention floor. But somewhere in the middle, the deafening roar of everyone trying to make themselves be heard abruptly cut off, like we had wandered into a vacuum. The wavering notes of a high pitched instrument, resembling a flute in tone, began to play.
A woman stood behind a booth, a polished blue piece of ceramics work held carefully in her hands as her fingers moved to cover the two rows of open holes. Like a pied piper, she drew everyone from the chaos and into the music.
“She’s playing the Song of Time,” my brother-in-law explained.
People were getting misty eyed. It was from a game that people grew up with: Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Years of memories played on a small piece of ceramic and everyone stopped.
When the music ended, people bought their own ocarinas, and then strangers were practicing with each other. My sister bought two. They are hanging on the wall of her and her husband’s apartment in Lincoln, Nebraska. Another memory with strangers you could talk to without asking, “Where are you from? What do you do for a living?”
In Italy it is rude to ask what someone does for a living because it does not matter. They believe no one is defined by a job. They’re right. Identity cannot be bound by labels—not really—even if some of us wear the label of nerd proudly.