I’m attending the 2010 New York Comic Con with several goals. Primary is my mission to track the elusive Knobelsdorf in its native environment, and ascertain the veracity of its claims pertaining to its “game.” I’m also here to examine the critical concentration of geek culture, and see how it’s evolved since the last convention I attended, twenty years ago. In particular, I aim to analyze the gender ratio, its relative attractiveness, and how this affects the romantic climate. The stereotype is that there are ten males for every female,1 any female has her choice of sex-starved mates, and all the choices are bad. However, according to legend, a slow trickle of socially competent and desirable participants have joined the fray, and these new desirable males can seek out the desirable females and take their pick, as long as they can keep from slipping on the drool of beta males. The Knobelsdorf claims to be a member of this new breed of Comic Con male, and I aim to prove or disprove it. Also, I want a sonic screwdriver.
1:15pm, Harefield Road
I have a notebook, a camera, a pen, $140 in cash, a pack of cigarettes, and I’m wearing shades. I am also over-dressed for the weather, so the heat may be an issue. I’m very late, and hungover.
As I finish my brunch, I realize I’ve lost the cap to my pen. Should have brought the clicky one.
Brunch is $15.
I didn’t investigate the website very carefully, except to get directions. There are a lot of pictures of semi-famous people and some interior maps which I don’t look at, mostly because I see the word “outragity” in large, bold letters on one page and give up. It makes me question my own phrasemashing tendencies, and the line between irony and idiocy. The confirmation email sports jokes I would have found hilarious sixteen years ago: “Don’t try to get tricky. We have ninjas and robots waiting to respond at a moments notice. Our staff of superheroes can verify the legitimate buyer by checking photo ID.” I crook exactly one third of my mouth in a way that suggests I understand they were trying to be funny.
1:45, M train
I once wanted to hold a game convention2 in my adopted hometown of Hancock, Maine. My parents vetoed the effort. It was a difficult moment for them, as they were trying to instill liberal, egalitarian ideals in me, but were forced to say, “those things can… um… attract… certain kinds of people.”
I was floored. How could my parents be so ignorant? If I had disobeyed them, and overcome the improbability of getting a bunch of gaming enthusiasts together in the middle of rural nowhere, my parents would have been proven right, in their non-committal sort of way, as I later met the nearest gaming enthusiasts, and they were creepy as fuck. It was half a dozen thirty-year-old men in various states of marriage and impregnation with a couple of remaining wives and five or six high school girls. I wasn’t privy to the complex and illegal sexual details, since I got the hell away from them as quickly as I could.
Still, as I ride the subway to my destination, I’m a little excited.
There’s no denying my inner geek; it hides in the back of my brain and, when nobody’s looking, hopes vampires are real.3 The rest of me accepted the absence of the fantasy world and got used to living in this one.
But at the comic con… maybe the mass consciousness of fantasy obsession creates its own kind of fantasy world. Not an actual fantasy, but the kind of alternate social norm that’s occasionally achieved in underground raves and secluded goth clubs, or Simon’s Rock college. Maybe this will be a shadow of the my long abandoned dreamworld; the soft space between living and wanting, the place I really belong.
This is also worrying, because if it’s true, my girlfriend will dump me.
I get off the train, and, after a couple of minutes of getting my bearings, go the wrong way. I realize this when I hit a Starbucks I’ve never seen before, with a revolving door, which I’ve never seen in a Starbucks. I step in for a short coffee.4
The line is unusually obnoxious, even for a midtown Starbucks. A couple in front of me is debating over the pastry display a full eight feet from the customer-free register. When the cashier finally drops a passive aggressive “I can help you over here,” they continue to debate for about fifteen seconds. Behind them are a couple of flaky girls. The guy that decides to help them flirts awkwardly for the duration of their order. When he gets to me, he pauses to stare at a tall red head. His eyes follow her out the door, then he says “damn, that is a fiiiine red-headed lady.” It’s a painfully self-conscious and amateur composition in misogyny. I crook exactly one third of my mouth and place my order.
I spend the next two minutes trying to decide if the kid reminds me more of the geeky kid from Pretty in Pink, the short kid in Angus, or the forensic scientist from Dexter who everybody thinks is a pervert. I wonder if the kid would rush to comic con, or if he would say “oh that’s for freaks” and deny himself the opportunity of having sex before twenty-five. Then again, it is New York. I’m so preoccupied with all this, I walk out the revolving door without milk or sugar, and have to do one of those embarrassing full rotations back inside.
Between going the wrong way, the Starbucks, and stopping to write this description of the events, I’m another twenty minutes down. I should be at the convention by three. It ends at seven, so depending on the line, I’ll have four hours of entertainment. The ticket was forty, so I’ll need to get at least ten dollars of entertainment an hour. As I start walking, I reflect on what a terrible reporter I would make.
3:00, Convention entrance
I have arrived. There was no line, and I have an official looking piece of plastic around my neck. Now I need to locate the Knobelsdorf, and a beer, in reverse order.
3:25, Food court
First impression: This place is a madhouse. There are tens of thousands of people here, about half of them costumed, from full ghostbuster to realistic Iron Man to generic schoolgirl/kitten. Watching them, I’m surprised at how most of them aren’t doing anything. Some are just passed out; the rest are either taking pictures or hamming for the cameras, or throwing compliments at each other. The compliments are mostly limited to “awesome sword,” because, even here, “you look like a hot underage theme prostitute,” appears unacceptable, and it’s the only other option.
I’m in line for what claims to be a place selling Brooklyn Lager, which is listed under imported beer. I’m positive that Budweiser, the only beer listed under domestic, made a longer trip to get to Manhattan. This line is substantial, and slow moving. No sign of the Knobelsdorf.
After twenty minutes in line, I’m told they don’t have any beer because of a bureaucratic error, and I’m sent around the corner to another place that turns out not to have beer. I’m parched, so I buy an apple juice.5 That place tells me to go to the third floor.
I don’t know which floor qualifies as the third floor, since I’m two floor below ground level, but I start heading up. I ask a few people where the beer is, but nobody seems to know. Finally, as the last person I ask says, “I really don’t think they have alcohol here,” I realize I can see a shelf of Heineken over his shoulder. I thank him and weave my way toward the shelf.
There is no one else trying to buy this beer,6 and they don’t even bother to check my I.D. I realize for the first time that many of the smokers I saw outside probably can’t buy their own cigarettes. I also realize I could theoretically have had this beer an hour ago.
4:10, Feature area
I go for high ground, for cell phone reception and to observe the Magic The Gathering group. These kids are exactly the same kids I played with in high school, and exactly the opposite of the kids I played with after college. In its marketing genius, Magic The Gathering penetrated both the geek market and the stoner market, and the people who give it up at twenty for the video games they can finally afford are immediately replaced by the people who want to look at pretty pictures and can’t afford anything. Still no sighting of the Knobelsdorf, so I make my way down to the feature area.
The only comparison I have for the navigating feature area is trying to get on the 6 train at the morning rush hour. Each step is fought for. It is a solid mass of people; the smaller girls are being protected by their boyfriends. I would compare it to the feeling of being fifteen rows back at a Primus concert, but it’s actually worse. At the concert, nobody’s trying to go anywhere and they’re making room to smoke joints when necessary.
I’m not interested in most of what’s going on, which is good, because resisting the flow of the crowd is futile. Some dance thing is happening involving a Michael Jackson video game and a bunch of young kids gyrating on a stage in front of it. I think he would have approved.
There are a lot of zombie and vampire video games and paraphernalia; I try to get a closer look, but a confused set of parents is fighting the flow and shouting for their kids, so I get swept up in an eddy and spit into a side corridor, where I catch my breath.
The floor area is about the size of a super Wal-Mart, and every square foot that isn’t explicitly roped off is occupied by a person, sometimes two. Screens are flashing, robots are grinding, noise is coming from every side. It congeals into a storm of media, I can barely separate the stimuli, and it all looks fake.
There’s nothing for me here, and I’m obviously not going to find the Knobelsdorf. I don’t think I could find an elephant in this room. Everything is a mass of flesh and audiovisual chaos. I escape.
I head for the PC games area, and next to the console and comic book section, everything here is painfully tame and quiet. It blends into the art supplies section, which might have interested me an hour ago, but now it just looks like another long column of color. I do notice that camera crews are interviewing all the most attractive and scantily clad girls who are old enough to sign their own release forms. When TV ruled the visual media, and there were fewer options, they would have interviewed at least a handful of men, maybe even someone responsible for organizing the event. Now it’s a tongue in cheek game of seeing how close you can get to sexual titillation without shouting “show me your tits.”
I stumble on the autograph area. Personally, I refuse to accept that anyone deserves money for their autograph more than me, so I wouldn’t get one for myself, but I catch a glimpse of James Marsters,7 and consider going to get a signature for my mom and a couple of ex-girlfriends.
The autograph lines are sort of like a reverse slave auction, if that makes sense.8 There are forty foot columns delineated by ropes, each column terminating at a celebrity. The line for Marsters is curling into the main walking area, the line for some guy I’ve never heard of is two people. If I could get a bird’s eye picture, it would be a bar graph of popularity for B celebrities.
I’m getting hot again, and my back is starting to give out on me. I should have brought Tylenol. I see a guy in a hulk suit about twice his size, and I pity him.
On my way out, I see an Iron Man as steam punk costume, and it’s amazing. But it hits me that he can’t possibly expect to talk to anyone through that, and there doesn’t seem to be a way to get it on or off with any expediency. He is here for the cameras alone.
I see a place to smoke a cigarette, and make a run for it.
The people next to me are discussing the latest fashion in shouting memes at people. Screaming “CARD GAMES ON MOTOCYCLES” at Yu-Gi-Oh! cosplayers seems to have fallen out of favor. I feel old. Some of the conversationalists are so young I can’t determine their sex.
When I was in college, memes were a debatable, random name some guy was trying to push on us, and you could argue whether it was valid to even make the effort to come up with a name for “ideas that spread through culture.” We may as well drop the issue now, because the latest generation uses it in casual conversation.
As the costumed children discuss the cultural landscape in terms I barely recognize, I realize that cosplay, or costume play, has no play at all. Its sole purpose is to perpetuate the memes, cartoon fluff, and amateur photography. All that happens is people dress up in costumes and take pictures of one another; it’s the desire to make fantasy come alive warped and abstracted into pure self-absorbtion on a massive scale. The totally immersive and addictive video games two rooms away are nothing compared to this; it’s pure narcissism, and not even creative: there’s no currency in being obscure or unique. Only the most dedicated imitators of the most popular cartoon and video game characters are approachable over the wall of alienation. In the smoking area, the groups mingle like a high school dance, meeting only briefly and shyly. It’s true most of them are in high school, but many of them are not.
I am in the middle of the apex of sexual submission to commercial branding. This is the most failed subculture of all time, living on mostly because its occasional hot, scantily clad female member is so, so hot, and so, so scantily clad.
While lying on my back, chain-smoking, I finally find the Knobelsdorf. Between the cosplayers and my delirium, he seems like the most normal person I’ve ever met. I bum a light off him for another smoke. He says he’s done well networking for jobs, but has acquired none of the females’ phone numbers today, though he got two yesterday through text messages. I tell him I’ll need to verify the texts, but I cannot go on to document a mating ritual in person. The crowd makes me feel sick.
I have failed in every purpose, both overt and secret. The truth of the Knobelsdorf’s claims remains a mystery, I could document nothing of interpersonal interaction in the morass of flash and noise, and I didn’t get a sonic screwdriver.
Outside, a man in a Boba Fett helmet is playing the soundtrack from Amelie on an accordion. I am at once renewed, and undone.