Performance, Gender and Comic-Con

Ten years ago, attendance at Comic-Con—the largest comic book convention in the world—hovered around 40,000 attendees; in 2008, the number had grown to around 125,000. While attendance has more than tripled, the amount of floor space for the convention has only doubled, insuring more comic book geeks per square foot than anywhere on earth. With the growth came cries from comic book purists that the convention has lost its way, that comic books had been displaced by television and film projects that may have only tangential or non-existent links to the comic book world.

At the same time, mainstream media coverage of Comic-Con has become extensive, as evidenced by major articles in TV Guide and Entertainment Weekly. Comic-Con is now the epicenter of the buzz for most genre films and television series, and studio executives venture into the great, unwashed mass of nerd-flesh to gauge audience reaction to their upcoming releases. In my experience, this reaction can be trusted more than any random focus group. The lukewarm smattering of applause that followed the trailer to Aeon Flux signaled that movie’s box-office death long before it was released into theaters.

While Comic-Con has become a key stop in studio publicity tours, the coverage of the Con often focuses on the eccentricities of the attendees, especially those fans who dress up as their favorite characters. The vast majority of the fans featured in press coverage are women in outfits ranging from the modest to the pornographic; when men are featured, their costumes tend to be less revealing although often skin-tight. To use Henry Jenkins’s term, the fans are “poaching” these characters, taking these comic book figures and making them their own, the underlying implication being the distinction between the (often) corporate source and the fan manipulation. What makes Comic-Con interesting is that the distance between “original” and poached icon diminishes and the two often collide; an individual dressed as a comic book character may stand up at a panel and ask a question of an actor famous for playing that character or even the author/director who created the character. Comic-Con is the Fermi Lab for reception studies, giving even the casual observer the opportunity to watch the cultural process of poaching twist and turn in on itself in amazing ways, especially in terms of gender politics.

Part of this strange dynamic is that when most celebrities appear at Comic-Con, they—whether genuinely or not—adopt a kind of casual garb and attitude that signals to the fans that they are “one of them,” answering questions with patience and/or a sense of humor. The extent to which the fans want to treat them as “real” people is clear by one of the unspoken (and at times spoken) rules of the Q&A sessions: do not try to network while asking questions. Fans who try to solicit scripts or get jobs are routinely booed and shouted down by other fans. Although the fans may never have physical contact with the stars (although that may happen as well), these panels work to embody these figures of the fan imaginary, to give them a corporeal reality that was absent before. The fact that these stars tend to dress modestly—jeans and t-shirts are the norm—does nothing to lessen their sexual allure to the fans or to de-sexualize their bodies. Female celebrities will be greeted with hoops and hollers and asked how they “could be so very hot,” and male stars can be treated in much the same way.

The fans who create costumes go through a very kind of reverse corporealization process. While the stars show themselves as being “real people,” the fans who dress up—sometimes as these stars—transform their bodies into something new, often something more sexually aggressive and provocative. This brand of “cosplay” forms the basis for one of the most important events of the Con: the Masquerade, a huge contest for homemade costumes. While star and fan share a certain link, news coverage of the event does not place the two on the same level. The fans who indulge in costume-play are shown as freaks, in the same way that coverage of gay pride parades focus on those wearing fetish gear. The stars and directors assume a position as creators, as the originators. Those fans who do more than simply consume the product are singled out as eccentric nerds.

The physical layout of the convention center replicates this split between creator and imitator, between original and copy. On one side of the center are Hall H and Ballroom 20, the two largest rooms, along with a series of smaller rooms. Hall H houses the biggest names—usually film and television stars and directors—who appear to show sneak peeks of their upcoming projects and to answer questions from fans. Room 20 usually focuses on television but can be equally as hard to get into. This last summer, fans for the show Lost and Heroes were lining up 16 hours ahead of time in order to ensure that they would get into Hall H.

Leaving Hall H, you walk across a large patio and a massive autograph area, in which celebrities sell their signatures to waiting fans. Once you leave the autograph area, you enter into a space that five years ago used to contain the entire convention. On the top floor are rooms ranging from quite small (50 seats) to rooms that hold hundreds of attendees; once again, lines for the more popular panels stretch down corridors and exit the building.

Leaving this space and going down two sets of stairs leads you to the “floor,” the mercantile heart of the Comic-Con, 52 aisles long and 5 aisles wide with 9000 exhibitors. Unlike Hall H, with its sense of orderly lines and fixed seats, the floor is an equally crowded but dynamic mass of fans, mingling in close quarters as they jostle for position to see exhibits and to purchase the objects of their fascination. It is here, on the floor, that fans parade in their homemade costumes, often pausing to take pictures with other fans, and it is here that some of the most interesting action takes place in terms of gender.

Comic-Con has a growing number of female attendees and an increasingly vocal gay/lesbian presence, but the Con is still territory dominated by straight men. The women who masquerade as popular culture characters often dress in a highly sexual manner, adding fetishistic touches to already sexualized characters. This last summer, a woman dressed as Ms. Marvel added thigh-high stockings with lace tops to the costume, replacing the plain, black leggings of the original design. Women dressed in this way often stop to take pictures with adoring male fans, who then post them to websites.

It is easy to criticize this behavior as sexist, especially given the presence of superheroine porn on the internet, much of which plays out elaborate rape fantasies. Yet, there is a sense in which these women at the Comic-Con occupy a position of power. The characters they poach and embody are often figures of strength; you will see many women dressed as “bad-ass” characters such as Wonder Woman or Jean Grey and none dressed as Lois Lane or Mary Jane Parker.

The power that these women possesses does rely on and operate within the confines of male voyeurism, although some of the female fans seem relatively naïve to the sexual politics of masquerade play; I overheard one young woman dressed in full costume complaining that people were looking at her. Other female costumed fans seem very aware of how they inhabit a certain power structure and how they can push its limits, and it is wrong to assume that this activity is defined only by straight sexuality. A few years ago, during the height of the popularity of Pirates of the Caribbean (that is to say before the horrendous sequels) a great number of individuals sauntered drunkenly around the floor dressed as the pirate Jack. What I found wonderful was that more than half of them were women, drag kings masquerading as Johnny Depp in full costume and beard (an activity commonly known as “crossplay”). Many of the costumes worn by men possess a potential erotic charge that crosses lines of orientation, especially those tight-fitting costumes that reveal male genitalia. The queer aspects of these costumes are most fully evidenced in those worn by the anime/manga fans. The source material for these costumes mandate a certain level of sexual ambiguity, given the sexually subversive nature of many of the gender-bending heroes.

Ultimately, what keeps this fan masquerade from falling into pure sexism is the carnivalesque quality of the convention floor. Exhibitors routinely use beautiful women to lure in the supposed straight male customer to their booth; porn stars will sometimes work at booths, selling their films. It is a simple point, but it is one that makes a great deal of difference: the fans making these costumes are doing so because they are fans, not to make money. The women and men who parade themselves around the floor wearing costumes that may amount to a relatively small amount of spandex do so because they enjoy the reaction they get, the feeling of transforming themselves into someone or something else. Many of the individuals who LARP at the convention—male and female—do not possess the typical “superheroic” body type, thus calling into question these often unattainable body standards.

This element of performance sometimes extends off of the floor of the convention and into the more staid, controlled arena of the panels. Ironically, despite the fact that these individuals are on a stage, the panel participants (the comic book writers/artists, stars, directors, etc.) often play it resolutely “straight,” describing their work and answering questions in order to appear as “natural” as possible. At times, these individuals even appear bored, which may be a part of their performance. The problem is that no matter how engaging the artist/director/star may be, the format of the standard panel—particularly with the more popular figures—suffocates any chance of improvisation or subversion: the star is introduced, the crowd applauds wildly, at some point a clip is shown, the star says how much he or she enjoyed working on this project, they answer questions and then leave. The fans may approach the dais, but the line between those who create and those who consume is never broken.

Those stars who cross that line—who begin to perform, not just appear—may not only subvert the class distinction between fan and star but the codes of gendered behavior as well. The set-up of the standard panel replicates a patriarchal power structure, the same one evidenced in the traditional classroom, in which the star/teacher appears at the head of the class and imparts knowledge. Major fan favorites such as Nathan Fillion or Bruce Campell use the panel as a performance space, often satirizing their own fame as well as their sexual appeal, thus undermining their own position (while simultaneously endearing themselves to their fans).

Not surprisingly, many of the more radical examples appear in the panels dedicated to comic books and their creators. At the 08 Comic-Con, Linda Barry transformed her talk on creativity into a performance piece, asking the audience to recapture the power of child-like play. By doing so, she refused to position herself as the authority. During the same convention, Eric Powell—the creator of The Goon—subverted the standard Q&A structure by staging his own exorcism, conducted by Reno 911!’s Robert Ben Barant and Thomas Lennon. Once the exorcism had failed, Powell—who has created a wonderful persona based on a boozy style of hypermasculinty—invited fans to join him on stage to help answer questions.

My favorite example may be “Bob Stencil,” a “reporter” who covers Comic-Con, acting as a mash-up of comic book geek-dom, Rat Pack style sexuality and Hunter S. Thompson gonzo journalism. Stencil—I do not know his real name—interviews fans and celebrities alike, often mocking the pretensions of both. Comic-Con regulars have come to expect and look forward to his off-putting questions, which often puncture the reverential mood of the panels (video of Stencil can be found at

I do not mean to imply that Comic-Con is a utopia of unfettered and subversive performance, but comic book fandom offers an incredible opportunity for reception studies. What needs to be done is more work interviewing the fans who participate in costume play at the Comic-Con, as well investigating the interaction between their poaching and the entertainment industry. The Comic-Con and comic book fans in general should be studied in this way since the art form lends itself to fan poaching. Unlike film or television, comic books (as well as animation and video games) are not fettered by the constraints of the photorealistic. In his excellent work This Book Contains Graphic Language: Comics as Literature, Rocco Versaci argues that

…it is impossible for a comic book creator either to hide entirely or to project complete realism because of the medium’s use of illustrations. That is, the comic book aesthetic projects unreality to the some degree because every comic book is a drawn version of the world, and therefore, not “real.”

Fans who dress up as Angelina Jolie must measure up to the “real thing,” an act that can never be accomplished by its very nature; fans who dress up as Tomb Raider, Wonder Woman or Spiderman escape these constraints since this character already has multiple incarnations. Most comic book characters who have a long publication history—with notable exceptions—have been drawn by many artists and have gone through many iterations; more so than film or television celebrities, the comic book character represents the fluid nature of stardom and the possibilities it presents to its fans.

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  1. Thanks for your insights into both the exhibitors and exhibitionists. Of course, this doesn’t seem to be a place where my comics nor myself would be comfortable, as I work with printed matter. Could it be that I am a purists? Perish the thought! From the sound of your review, actors, directors, performances, have taken the place of artists and writers on the panels.

    The leap from ‘role-playing’ games that are based on fantasy comic book characters to making a person’s avatar real is an interesting step. After all the creation of a person’s comic book persona made flesh is more then slipping on a pair of tight fitting tights and a cape! The transformation is itself a creative act. Perhaps the graphic novel/printed comic has become a relic of the past. I like to think that relics have a curtain reverence paid to them.

  2. Pat:
    Thanks so much on your report from Comic Con! The discussion on textual poaching and the play with gender was fascinating. As Marilyn notes the move into more extended performance, which breaks down artist/audience barriers as in the Bob Stencil character is really evocative of how much our interactions with media are truly morphing. Take a look at the website by the mixed media innovator, Lance Weiler, for an amazing look into how games are changing into transmedia events, where the audience plays a significant role in shaping the game. Weiler calls these Alternate Reality Games (ARG) “extended media experiences,” and necessitate a range of responses in the participants, from blogs to wikis and beyond.


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