A Throng of Gamers

Scott Gardner

A few years ago while in the USA I decided to visit Comic-Con, a massive gathering of video game, SF/fantasy, and anime lovers—and a cosplayer’s paradise to boot. At every corner of Comic-Con one is liable to collide with a Catwoman, plow into a Pikachu, or sideswipe a Street Fighter, all while the original portrayers or designers of these characters are elsewhere in the venue selling autographs. I thought it would be worthwhile to study the virtual depravity as an FPS (First-Person Snooper).

Since it was my first time to attend, and since as a vacationing English instructor I suffered from a lack of funds, luggage space, and imagination, I decided to take the risk of attending Comic-Con dressed as myself. At the train station I found the right platform thanks to all the faeries, androids, and pirates waiting there. Once aboard the colorfully crowded menagerie of a train, I overheard an exchange between two elfin creatures:

“Sit over there, dude.”

“But there are humans sitting there!”

The conference was, as expected, devoted mainly to sales: artwork, action figures, role-play games, the aforementioned celebrity signatures, and of course comics and graphic novels. Though not completely immune to escapist entertainment—as a kid in the 1970s I raced my friend to be the first to see the original Star Wars movie ten times, in the theater—I still found most of the Comic-Con merchandise kitschy and hyper-indulgent. Long ago, in high school, I had traded away my Dungeons & Dragons dice and chosen loud music for my antisocial teenage diversionary needs. (Certainly there have been legendary admixtures of rock music and romantic fable—all those Middle Earth songs by Led Zeppelin and Rush—but I was drawn more to the grounded social critique of, say, Suicidal Tendencies’ “Fascist Pig”.)

So now, decades later, there seemed little at Comic-Con that could lure me back into the Narnian wardrobe of fantasy that enveloped so many other convention participants. That is, until I discovered the t-shirts.

Just a few rows in from the entrance I noticed them, stacked at the back of some kiosks. Then I found a few sellers dedicated entirely to t-shirts. I was slow to take them seriously. I wasn’t impressed with basement-dwelling gamers’ tees telling me “The Force is Strong with This One.” But here and there I started to see some provocative styles matching my ironic and/or juvenile tastes. There was a “Shat Happens” tee with a grinning silkscreen of Star Trek’s William Shatner—unfortunately only available in ladies’ sizes by the time I found it. I also liked a particular steam punk design cleverly depicting rusty musical instruments reconfigured as rodent transportation. Finally, I succumbed and purchased a “DJ Yoda” shirt of the famous Jedi sporting sunglasses and headphones.

I think I bought five t-shirts in all that day. One purchase, though, convinced me that, after all, I wasn’t properly playing the Comic-Con Game. There was one humble artist standing in his booth at the edge of the action, promoting his indie comics publishing company. When I bee-lined past his selection of books to rifle through his pile of black “Immature Content” tees, he smiled philosophically and said, “I’ve sold a lot more t-shirts this week than anything else.” I tried to keep his mood up, praising his shirt’s sarcastic twist on the parental warning labels you could find on many sales items at the convention, but I could tell he was hurt to see his beloved comic book creations ignored in favor of a snide, one-off t-shirt. Avoiding eye contact, I gave him $20 for the shirt, stuffed it in my bag with the others, and headed for the exit. At the door, though, I was met by the Incredible Hulk, who seemed to smell me out as an interloper. He raised his arms to attack, but his stuffed green muscle shirt came untucked at the back, and his girlfriend had to turn him around to initiate repairs. I took that opportunity to escape with my booty back into the realm of humans.