I have to admit that I’m a little overwhelmed when I first step into Fan Expo at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. It’s like stepping into an oasis. But instead of being filled with placid blue pools of water and palm trees, it’s filled with mint-condition comic books and an insane number of action figures (still in their original packaging!).
As I make my way down the escalators that lead to the Expo, I have to admire the amount of craftsmanship that many fans have put into their costumes. I see a very convincing Chell from the video game Portal 2 flanked by a couple of scientists who can only have come from Aperture Science. There’s a guy in a perfectly re-created Iron Man suit posing for pictures. There are some Stormtroopers gathered from the 501st (Toronto’s local Stormtrooper garrison), and a plethora of anime characters that I unfortunately can’t identify.
I’m not sure what to tackle first. As someone who enjoys sci-fi, fantasy, horror, video games, and comic books in equal measure, it’s a bit hard to choose since each interest well-represented. In the main convention area, I see a large sign that says “Ubisoft” and a man in a white cloak crouched down about to strike someone with an axe. Now I have some direction!
Approaching the booth, I see several people playing out the same scene in a demo of Ubisoft’s upcoming video game Assassin’s Creed III. I get to play a part of the game where the protagonist, Connor Kenway, has to track and then disable a ship called the Randolph. You get to pilot your own tall-ship and destroy two man ‘o wars that try to prevent you from pursuing the Randolph. The whole sequence is thrilling and makes me feel like Russell Crowe in Master and Commander. Sadly, the demo ends once you board the ship. Too bad.
I wander aimlessly for a bit until I see a giant Dalek in the distance. I gravitate towards the source and find a booth replete with Doctor Who paraphernalia and people dressed as various iterations of the Doctor. A large banner proudly proclaims that the booth is manned by the “Doctor Who Society of Canada.” I’m quite pleased when their co-founder, Paul Neale jovially agrees to be interviewed.
“So is the Doctor Who Society a forum for Doctor Who fans to share their interests?” I ask.
“It’s more of a social group for people who are Doctor Who fans to get together, whether it’s the new show or the old shows,” he explains. I note with excitement that he’s dressed as the Tom Baker Doctor Who, with a multi-coloured scarf and hat.
“We’re non-profit, we’ve got events every month… You don’t have to dress up to come, you can just come if you’re a fan of Doctor Who. We’ve done screenings, we’ve had pub nights. We’ve gone to different conventions. At Christmas, we had a toy drive for families where we collected over 550 toys!”
I ask Neale how important being charitable is to being a geek.“It is an important part of the geek thing to be able to give back! Geeks are really sociable, and very giving. And it’s a great way to help different organizations.”
After we’re done, I notice a friend of mine, Nathan, dressed up as the 11th Doctor. I corner him for an interview and ask how important costuming is for the fan experience.
“I think it’s a pretty big deal to be your character. It’s almost like wearing a band’s t-shirt, but more extreme. It’s like half showing off a painting or a sketch book and then the other half is wearing a band’s t-shirt,” he says.
“Do you think there’s an element of performance?” I ask.
“I can’t speak for everyone at cons. Some people wear costumes just to hang out. Me, it’s definitely about performance. I like the role-playing, I like acting,” he says. “I like to do only a couple of costumes and when I do it, I like to do the characters that I can either mimic well or can relate to.”
Thursday night’s main event is a Q and A with Fan Expo’s guest of honour, Stan Lee. Brought out with the cry of “1-2-3 Excelsior!” Stan the Man is hit with the usual barrage of questions from fans wanting to know what the next Marvel movie will be, or if he’s planning any new characters. I have to say, the most interesting questions didn’t come from the adults but from two little kids in the audience. One of the kids asks how Stan Lee got started in the comics business.
“I was about 17 or 18. And it all happened accidentally. I applied for a job at a publishing company. I heard they had an opening for an assistant. I must have been the only one who applied for the job because they hired me. They needed an assistant in the comic book department,” he says. “Joe Simon and Jack Kirby were there at the time and they were doing Captain America. And my job was to … get them sandwiches. Then one day Joe and Jack left. So the publisher said, ‘Do you think you can run things like a grown-up?’ And being 17..,I just said, ‘Yeah.’ And he must have forgotten about me because I’ve been there ever since!”
The best (though most awkward question) comes from another little boy. “My name’s Connor. What made you do the decision to give up being president of Marvel?”
Stan the Man seems to stare into his soul for a moment before answering. “I can’t make it funny. I’m just going to tell you the truth. I am not a businessman. And as president of Marvel I had to act like a businessman. I had to go to long meetings where they discussed their five-year plan. Now I’m a guy who doesn’t even know what he’s going to have for dinner tonight let alone think five years ahead for Marvel. If they were planning what characters [we are] going to do in five years, that would have been fine. But they were talking budget and expenses and finance. And I don’t know that kind of stuff. So I didn’t enjoy being a businessman. That’s why I resigned as president.”
The moderator, Kenny Wilson, asks: “Did you ever want to transform into the Hulk when you were at these budget meetings?”
Stan Lee looks at Kenny and then says: “No. No. I shouldn’t say this to you. I shouldn’t say it in public. But I don’t really believe in all these characters the way some people do. You see there’s a word called ‘fiction.’”
This comment probably gets the biggest laugh from the audience. Luckily, Stan hasn’t crushed the collective fan consciousness. After the Q and A, people excitedly talk about having seen Stan Lee in person in the same reverent tones that some people reserve for the Buddha or Jesus.
On Friday, I attend a wonderful talk about writing crime fiction given by Brian Azzarello. He’s written a lot of noir-style comics for DC and I quite enjoyed his crime epic 100 Bullets.
“You all read crime fiction right? Outside of comics right? Good because most of the best crime fiction can be found outside of comics. Though I’ve maintained for years that comics [are] crime fiction anyway. The heroes wear brightly coloured costumes and the villains wear darkly coloured costumes.”
I’m also able to attend another great Q and A session, this time with John Carpenter, the director of such classics as Halloween, Escape from New York, and The Thing.
Asked about growing up in the ’50s he says: “We didn’t have a youth culture per se back then. Monster movies [were] it. I just fell in love with them.”
“Now I expect there are a couple of fans of a film called Halloween in the audience,” says the moderator. This gets loud cheers and applause from the audience. “You’ve probably talked about this movie to death. How do you feel about it now?”
“I feel great about it. I made that movie when I was 30 years old. I was still trying to get into the movie business. It turned me into a director to be reckoned with,” he says. Carpenter also provides some insight into thae film’s main antagonist: “Michael Myers is on the edge of being human and a ghost. And that’s where the tension builds. He’s not really a person [...] He straddles the line between the natural and the supernatural.”
Carpenter also explains his motivations behind They Live his cult film about an average working man who, through the aid of special sunglasses, finds out humanity is secretly being controlled by aliens.
“They Live for me was this cry of rage against what was going on in America at that time with Reagenism,” he explains. “The ’80s have never left America. They’re still happening right now. The mindset behind that has never gone away.”
The John Carpenter Q and A is the last major event of Fan Expo that I attend. I’m not sure what to make of my overall experience. It’s been filled with enough stuff to explode any geek heart. The best part for me was being able to share my interests with fellow fans. Sharing is the main reason why fans gather at these conventions, so that we can talk excitedly for hours about these very specific loves we have. Maybe that’s enough for any event to be successful.