Sci-fi conventions such as San Diego’s Comic-Con are under-the-radar hook-up havens. No, really.
By Shari Goldhagen
Photographs by Leslie Simmons
DO I STILL READ COMIC BOOKS? I do. Have I ever flicked the bean to some well-written Smallville fan fiction? It’s possible. (Hey, I’m a writer; a good metaphor turns me on.) But I generally keep these proclivities to myself (except when confessing them in international men’s magazines). When I think of large groups of people gathering to celebrate such geeky pursuits, I picture hundreds of men who look like Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons arguing over who would win in a Roshambo between Han Solo and Captain Kirk.
So I was more than a little surprised when my friendly neighborhood comic-book-store clerk told me she was looking forward to this year’s New York Comic Con because “conventions are all about the sex.”
Yeah, right, I thought. In other news, the world is flat and simultaneous orgasms occur readily outside of Smallville fan fics.
“Really,” she said. “It’s all these people you see only a couple of times a year at hotels, you’re all into the same things, people are dressed up, you’ve been flirting online for months…It’s pretty hot.”
Hmm…it seemed logical, as Spock might say, but all those clunky costumes, those awkward people—was it even physically possible? There was only one way to find out: I had to don cape and cowl and infiltrate the nerd hordes to see for myself if these geek gatherings are actually hook-up havens.
There are more than 100 fan-based sci-fi-related conventions each year in the U.S., but the granddaddy of them all is San Diego Comic-Con. The not-for-profit show began in 1970 with 300 comic-book junkies gathering in the basement of the U.S. Grant Hotel, according to David Glanzer, the event’s director of PR and marketing. While notable guests did include legendary comics creator Jack Kirby (Captain America, the Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk) and sci-fi legend Ray Bradbury, it seems safe to say that that show was not “all about the sex.”
Its name and venue varied, but the event became an annual shindig, eventually finding a permanent home in the San Diego Convention Center. Other media have gradually moved in on the action, too, including the videogame industry and movie and television studios, all of which use Comic-Con as a launching pad for anything with a sci-fi angle. The show has generated bona fide star power in recent years, with actors making the rounds in superhero garb. Tickets for last year’s event sold out weeks in advance, and attendance reached 126,000, according to Glanzer.
Sure, but was that 126,000 paunchy men with goatees giving Vulcan nerve pinches and re-enacting epic lightsaber battles (the literal and, quite possibly, the figurative kind)? “It used to be pretty male-dominated,” says Glanzer. “But in the past ten years that’s really changed. Things like Japanese anime have really brought a lot more women and girls to the show. Last year attendees were about 40 percent female.”
This year’s event, which runs from July 23 to 26, is the 40th anniversary (note to nitpickers: There were two cons in 1975), and it could be the biggest yet, with attendees expected from around the world.
Some of the exhibits themselves have been about sex. At the 2007 show, porn legend Jenna Jameson was on hand to promote her Virgin comic, Shadow Hunter. Comics legend Stan Lee showed up to promote Pam Anderson’s Stripperella project. “There have been a lot of crossovers between adult entertainment and the comic industry,” says Glanzer. “It really just depends on what’s coming out in a given year.”
Yet when I look over the program for the July show, what jumps out is the popular annual panel “Starship Smackdown,” which seems to be the living embodiment of my worst-case Comic-Con scenario: fanboy factions arguing over whether the U.S.S. Enterprise could outrace the Millennium Falcon. That really wasn’t selling me on the “these things are all about sex” concept. Clearly I needed to do more research, so I tracked down some attendees.
“A friend I’d met at SDCC introduced me to this illustrator online and we started talking, mostly about graphic novels,” says Cathy, 30, a lithe brunette photographer who loves indie comics and attends several conventions a year. “At Wizard World in L.A. a few months later, I felt someone brush my arm from behind, and—it was so weird; we’d never met—I knew immediately it was him.
“The attraction was instantaneous,” she continues. “Within an hour of meeting we were full-on making out behind the convention center. I went back to his hotel room an hour after that, which is something I would never normally do if I met a guy in a bar or wherever. We ended up dating for three years.”
A similar chemical reaction occurred between writers at rival comics publishers DC and Marvel when David Gallaher saw Valerie D’Orazio speaking on a panel at the 2007 New York Comic Con.
“She was this cute blonde, and I was just captivated by what she had to say,” Gallaher says. The feeling was mutual: When Gallaher, 34, stood to ask a question, D’Orazio says she made a silent bargain with God that she would never ask for anything again if she could get with Gallaher.
After the panel the two started chatting, and D’Orazio—a writer for Marvel’s upcoming Cloak and Dagger title—told Gallaher that she, uh, wanted to discuss some scripts. Gallaher, a DC writer currently working on High Moon, was a little slow to get the hint, but eventually the two got together. On their first date, they saw Ghost Rider—a movie based on the flaming-skulled Marvel hero. For date No. 2, Gallaher had an artist draw D’Orazio a custom picture of Supergirl. “Our third date was more intimate,” says Gallaher. “I don’t think any superheroes were involved.”
Two years later they’re still together, but not all hook-ups at these events have to blossom into true dork-love. After spending their convention days hawking illustrations in Artists’ Alley, or standing in line to get autographs from the cast of Heroes, attendees have a chance to get their intergalactic freak on once the lights go down in the exhibit hall.
The big cons—SDCC, NYCC, and Alternative Press Expo—all have VIP parties with open bars, which can lubricate the social interaction for sure. You’re not going to go home with Jessica Alba in her fuck-tastic Fantastic Four garb, but as Vic Holtreman of ScreenRant.com notes, “There’s a lot of hitting on people and flirting; there’s a feeling of community.” And any celebs in tow are well aware that a review from a popular fan site can make or break a sci-fi movie, so they’re at their most approachable.
The VIP rooms are nice, but percentages are better if you cast your line in more local waters. “There are a lot of hotel parties in people’s rooms. You just bring some booze; everyone is always really friendly,” says Eva, a 27-year-old who works in publishing. “My friends and I want to do things on the cheap, so we often cram a bunch of people—six or more—into a room, and sometimes we take shifts sleeping.”
The Do Not Disturb sign gets a workout all weekend, says Eva, who was a very naughty elf at I-CON last year. (That’s short for Island Convention, an eclectic annual event held in Suffolk County, Long Island). “I’d been dressed as an elf from Lord of the Rings, and went back to this guy’s room,” she says. “All of our clothes were gone, and we were sort of crashing into walls, then I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, and I noticed that I’d left my pointy ears on, and I just started laughing. It kind of broke the mood.” This, friends, is the fantasy-nerd equivalent of black dress socks.
Mary, an 18-year-old college student and longtime conventiongoer, sums up the Comic-Con hook-up phenomenon most succinctly. “People who are awkward feel more comfortable at conventions because they assume all comic-book people are awkward as well,” she says. “So they’re like, ‘I’m awkward, you’re awkward—let’s flirt.’ ”
My research is complete, the concept is starting to gel, and I’m ready to be embedded on the front lines. My theater of operations will be the fourth annual New York Comic Con, the unaffiliated East Coast response to the San Diego extravaganza. Among this year’s top attractions are Joss Whedon—the man behind cult TV hits Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel—who will be unveiling his new show, Dollhouse, and the cast of Fringe. There is also some sort of lightsaber fighting lesson going on, which I make a mental note to avoid. The New York event doesn’t rival San Diego yet, but it’s no slouch; some 77,000 heroes and villains overrun the Jacob Javits Center for the 2009 edition.
Contrary to popular conception, most convention attendees don’t don anything for these events more elaborate than, say, an Iron Man T-shirt , but I am going at this full-throttle this year. Or let’s say mid-throttle: I won’t be competing in the costume contest—an event hard-core fans spend months preparing for—but I am fully committed to the “Sexy Robin” outfit I’ve procured from the drugstore chain Ricky’s NYC. It consists of the world’s least practical crime-fighting attire ever—a low-cut red and green dress that comes to about mid-ass, green gloves, a teeny tiny yellow cape, and a domino mask. It’s actually pretty close to the original Boy Wonder design, but I’m hard-pressed to think of a time I’ve been more naked in public.
But journalistic duty calls, and into Gotham I go! To be fair, not all the costumes are NC-17 fantasy fodder—for the men, anyway. There are plenty of Rorschachs—trench coat and inkblot mask—from this past winter’s hit Watchmen, along with a heaping helping of Heath Ledger Jokers. Some of the women are in corseted medieval-ish getups that appear more uncomfortable than naughty. But generally speaking, fangirls who chose to dress up are dealing with the same wardrobe options as swimsuit models. Skintight bodysuits for Black Cat and Catwoman; the public panties of Wonder Woman, Zatanna, and Power Girl; and dozens and dozens of slave Princess Leias—almost 30 years since the release of Return of the Jedi and that damn metal bikini still bangs the gong for the guys. The Most Exposed Skin award goes to a woman dressed as Batman villain Poison Ivy; she’s wearing a red wig, green body paint, and one strategically placed fig leaf. I can’t penetrate her swarm of followers to get close enough for an interview.
“There’s no denying that you get hit on constantly when you’re in costume,” says Kristin, a 21-year-old paleontology student poured into the court-jester costume of Joker’s gal, Harley Quinn. “I love being able to wear interesting, sexy outfits that appeal to me aesthetically while also showing off my body. It’s the best of both worlds; you can be a geek and still look hot!”
Lauren, an investment banker who’s dressed in DC heroine Black Canary’s black leotard and signature fishnet tights, agrees. “It’s different than being out in the real world, even if you’re wearing something revealing, because people are assuming you’re a character,” says the 27-year-old. It also provides readymade opening lines. “One guy just asked for my number. He said, ‘I don’t see Green Arrow [Canary’s on-again/off-again love interest] around, so I figured you’re free.’ Hey, it’s better than, ‘What’s your sign?’ ”
A high school student named Jill spends a good ten minutes explaining that her costume—from some Japanese anime cartoon—is actually a variation of a male character’s costume, which makes the skimpy top a little confusing. “Guys find gender play really hot,” says the 16-year-old, with a frightening amount of authority. “I always hook up at conventions.”
And by doing nothing more than donning a feather boa (fandom unclear), Bill, who writes indie comics—and who, feather boa notwithstanding, is into girls—informs me that he met his “24-hour lover” during a preshow party the night before.
“She just came over and said, ‘Don’t you look fabulous,’ and then we went to her place,” he says. “I think she took ‘24 hours’ quite literally; we didn’t make it to the show until a 5 P.M. screening.”
Then there are the less self-aware. Jennifer, a softwarecompany project manager, is rocking extremely revealing Wonder Woman gear complete with the kind of red rubber boots that are found only at the most fetishy sex shops. And yet she insists guys aren’t checking out her barely there bustier. “I really just do it for the kids,” she says, and I want to tie her up with her Lasso of Truth to see if she really doesn’t know that Wonder Woman’s creator, William Moulton Marston, was big-time into bondage.
Despite all the goodies on display, there’s an understood “look but don’t touch” policy … most of the time. “I was in my Superman costume last year, and this girl asks to take a picture with me,” says a 23-year-old artist in said Supersuit. “So she’s got her arm around me, but right before her friend takes the picture, she just reaches down and grabs my crotch. And I just looked at her and was like, ‘Did you just …’ and she giggled and said she wanted to know what Superman’s junk felt like.”
Once I get past the fact that my T&A are on display, there’s something exhilarating about being Robin. People line up to take photos with me. A pack of teenage boys hums the “dun nun ah dun nun ah” theme from the sixties TV show starring Adam West; I get three more marriage proposals than I’ve gotten in real life. Yet no one is pushing too hard. It’s like people just want to be near me—only it’s not me; no one knows who I really am. Then I realize I’m still wearing my press credentials. Clearly I have not mastered the techniques of guarding one’s secret identity.
Later, a giant of a man in a very official Batsuit joins me in line for a bottle of $4 water. I look at him and he looks back at me, irises extra blue against all the eye black under his cowl.
“You know there was a girl Robin,” he says. “Stephanie Brown.”
“Actually, if you count Carrie Kelly in The Dark Knight Returns, there were two girl Robins.” I stretch the words out, making them luxurious, and curl my lips into a crooked come-hither grin.
Batman’s smile is slow, seductive—and really freaking creepy with the head-to-toe-armor. Other than his height and the set of his jaw (not bad, but no Christian Bale), I have no idea what this guy looks like, but I do feel an instant familiarity and comfort level with him. If we were making out in my apartment and he unearthed my secret stash of Detective Comics, I wouldn’t have to invent a story about how I was just holding them for a friend.
“Yes, I forgot about Carrie.” He gives me a long once-over. “Will I be seeing you back at the cave tonight?”
Really? Really? Did some guy actually just say that? And yet, in this environment, in this hyperspecific context, it’s almost persuasive; it’s nearly charming. Since you already know my secret identity, I’m not at liberty to reveal if I visited the Batcave that night, but I can tell you this for certain: Yes, these conventions are all about the sex.