Dispatches from the Minneapolis Comic Con ‘nerd prom’

The adventure begins

Comparing the Wizard World Minneapolis Comic Con to San Diego's Comic-Con International, which I attended last July, would be a little ridiculous. Whereas SDCC's estimated 130,000 attendees took over downtown San Diego for the better part of a week, last weekend's local event didn't even take over the whole Minneapolis Convention Center. Any comparison would be like pitting a show at First Avenue against Woodstock. But it's unavoidable, so I'm going to do it anyway. Sorry.

I came to the Minneapolis event with my 9-year-old son Max, who is a second-generation nerd (I hope it's clear that I will be using the term "nerd" in the non-pejorative, self-including sense). I grew up with Darth Vader, Captain Kirk, and Doctor Who's Tom Baker, whereas Max is more familiar with Anakin Skywalker, Captain Jean-Luc Picard, and Doctor Who's Matt Smith. Max has wanted to go to a Comic Con since hearing my stories from San Diego, and while I don't think he's ready for anything nearly as overwhelming as that experience  (I know wasn't), his mom and I thought a smaller, local event like this seemed like it would be a great place to start.

Besides, this was the last year he'd be young enough to get in free.

Fry and Bender of Futurama fame.

When the doors open, we all hold our plastic wristbands high, as instructed, and enter in an orderly fashion. You know the reputation of soccer hooligans? Comic and sci-fi/fantasy fans are pretty much the opposite. In San Diego, parts of the exhibit floor were so crowded they were virtually impassable without some form of lubricant. And yet everyone was unfailingly polite. If you accidentally ran into people, they would apologize to you at the same time you were apologizing to them.

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Maybe it's a result of growing up terrified of alpha-types, but a teeming throng of nerds will teem as considerately as any throng can teem. That holds true here, too. Add a layer of Minnesota Nice and you've got a very friendly, if reserved, crowd.

Max and I arrive an hour before Friday's 3 p.m. opening so I could get some pictures, avoid any entrance delays, and give Max some practice in a vital skill for attending cons: standing in line. Getting into these things can be confusing, given all the different methods and levels of admission available, but there are plenty of volunteers in yellow T-shirts helping everyone figure out where to go. That is of particular value this weekend, given that this crowd likely has a higher-than-normal percentage of people who can't see where they're going at any given moment.

Long line at Comic Con

Because, yes: There are people who came in costume, known as cosplayers. This is probably what many outsiders think of when they think of comic cons, because it's the cosplayers who make good visuals for the media. Not everybody does it, in the same way that not everybody in the 1960s was a hippie, but there are fewer than I'd expected here. Maybe one in 10 people has on something he or she wouldn't wear to the store. Eight out of the other nine, including Max and me, content ourselves with some kind of fandom T-shirt (or skirt or dress or hoodie or hat), and the final tenth probably came as a guest of a fan.

The costumes themselves run the gamut from simple to elaborate, well-known to obscure. There are several familiar looks from Star Wars and Star Trek around, but I also spot a young woman dressed as Gordon Freeman from the computer game Half-Life, and a couple who has shown up as characters from the throwback cult film The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra. Those are just the ones I recognize; there are plenty of deeper cuts whose carefully engineered appearance mean nothing to me. Some cosplayers seem to specifically enjoy embodying little-known characters, possibly to increase the mutual thrill value when someone does recognize them as … well ... that tall bald steampunk dude with the creepy white contact lenses, for example.


One fan group's costumes outnumber all the others here, though, and that is Doctor Who. (They even outnumber people dressed as Castiel from Supernatural, a character I just learned about this weekend.)

There are probably a number of reasons for this. One is that the Doctor's recent looks are relatively easy to emulate: Just throw on a jacket and a bow tie; suspenders and fez optional. More significantly, the celebrities are a big part of any con's draw, so the appearance of former Doctor Who leads Matt Smith and Karen Gillan at this event certainly exerted some special pull among local Whovians.

But on Friday, we are there to see William Shatner. One end of the exhibit hall is mostly given over to two small, draped-off photo rooms and the taped-down lines marking the waiting lanes to get into them.

Confession: We sprung for a "VIP" experience, which means that when we ordered our advance tickets, we paid extra for the opportunity to pose for a photo with one of the comic-con circuit's big-name celebrities; receive a photo and autograph from said celebrity; and jump to the front of the lines to do so.

As the curtain draws aside, we get our first glimpse of the former Captain Kirk, perched on a stool and smiling somewhat vacantly at the camera as the flash goes off maybe every ten seconds, each time with a different person or group flanking him. He doesn't seem chatty with most folks, but he greets Max warmly, probably gratified to still have fans who were born after he was on Boston Legal, and kindly reminds my somewhat star-struck kid to look at the camera. I just have time to recall that he also directed Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, and we're out of there.

Getting his autograph goes equally smoothly. Given the long lines, there's a premium on getting the fans in and out of the celeb's presence efficiently, and we Minnesotans are only too happy to comply. The only thing less Minnesotan than holding up the line is bugging celebrities.

From left, Sean Patrick Flannery, Wizard World CEO John Macaluso, Dean Cain, Lou Ferrigno, Jason David Frank, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges

And there are more of them here: 22, to be exact, most of whom I have heard of. Minneapolis mayor Betsy Hodges, wearing a Wonder Woman T-shirt, presides over a ribbon-cutting alongside former TV Superman Dean Cain, former TV Hulk Lou Ferrigno, Green Power Ranger Jason David Frank, Sean Patrick Flannery from Boondock Saints and ubiquitous character actor and Minneapolis native James Hong.

They're here for part or all of the weekend -- available for autographs and photo ops -- as are Firefly's Nathan Fillion and Adam Baldwin; Brighton Sharbino and Michael Rooker of The Walking Dead; Ian Ziering from Sharknado; the original Freddy Kruger, Robert Englund; James Marsters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and fourth Ghostbuster Ernie Hudson. Arrangements for autograph-seekers are less elaborate for some of these celebrities, particularly for comedian Gilbert Gottfried, whose booth entirely lacks autograph-seekers when we pass by.

Saturday is rather a different scene. One of Max's friends from school joins us for our visit on the afternoon of the second day, when the weekend means there are bigger crowds on the exhibit floor. There's also a much higher percentage of cosplayers. Max feels like he's already seen it all, because it doesn't take long to walk down every aisle of the display floor, unlike in San Diego, where it was an all-afternoon project.

Max said Friday that Comic Con "seems to be mostly shopping," and he's not wrong. Booths here sell T-shirts, posters, toys, stuffed animals, pins, badges, photos, action figures and lots more, representing fandoms like  Star Trek, Supernatural, The Big Bang Theory, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Pokemon, Doctor Who and even the occasional comic book property, plus others too numerous to mention and occasionally too obscure for me to recall.

Something called Attack on Titan seems to be huge right now, judging by the overlapping-wings logo I saw everywhere, whereas Star Wars, Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings seem to be on a relative decline at the moment. Most of the vendors appear to specialize in items you can't get anywhere else, or any more, or in person, or certainly not all in one place like this. It's a big part of the draw. Sure, you can probably order a pizza cutter shaped like the starship Enterprise on the Internet, but a.) that's not a good story, and b.) will you remember to do that?

Nerd badges for sale

The boys spend a couple of hours at a select few of the 94 vendor booths, buying a couple of items and mooning over many more. Then they decide they've had enough and we all head to our local comic store to savor the bounty of Free Comic Book Day.

One might question the wisdom of scheduling a Comic Con in conflict with FCBD, but Comic Cons aren't just about comics any more and probably haven't been for a long time. Here, as in San Diego, the comics dealers occupy large but largely neglected booths where depressing, tightly packed banker boxes are expected to compete with the snazzy, shiny, blinking, buzzing, hangable, playable, wearable wares of the vendors around them. At least here, they're in among the popular booths rather than shunted away en masse to some off-center side spot where nobody has to look at them, so maybe they'll do okay after all.

The more glamorous comic-related booths are in Artist's Alley, where most of the 91 artists and creators at the show display, sell and sign prints of their work. I don't generally know the names of comic book artists, but Neal Adams and Bob Layton are here and they appear to be big deals.

In the meantime, I've missed my chance to get a glimpse at Nathan Fillion at his autograph booth, and by the time we make it to the comic store, the selection is pretty picked over and I end the afternoon seriously questioning my priorities.

Waiting for Nathan Fillion

May the Fourth is supposed to be Star Wars day, but inside the convention center it is unquestionably Matt Smith Day. More than half the people here for the last day of the Con are in costume, and more than half of those are dressed as the Doctor, one of his companions, one of his enemies -- or, in one case, the blue TARDIS in which the Doctor travels through time and space.

When I arrive, they all seem to be in line to get into Room 101, the massive lecture hall where the big-ticket panels are taking place. San Diego's most popular panels take place in the convention center's Hall H, which is legendarily hard to get into because everybody else is already in there. When I see the line winding through the whole Minneapolis Convention Center, I have a stress-flashback to the four hours I spent one afternoon in July, waiting in a queue that was more than a mile long, only to still be outside the building by the time everything I wanted to see in Hall H was over. Today, however, I witness the initial opening of the doors to Room 101, follow the line all the back to the end for what seems like forever, join it and manage to be one of the hundreds if not thousands of people who take their seats to hear the Eleventh Doctor speak.

Joined by a moderator for a simple Q&A session, Smith is witty, self-deprecating, patient and keen to stay out of trouble when put on the spot with questions like "Who is your favorite companion?" After attending this panel, I am looking forward to catching up with the last few seasons of Doctor Who, particularly if I can forget some of the spoilers I've already heard.

Max, who stayed home with his mom for the morning so I could experience part of the con without having to supervise a 9-year-old, arrives later in the day. By this time the exhibit floor is pretty "been there, done that" for him, but to be honest, he's a lot more excited about the idea of a photo with Matt Smith than the one with Shatner, which we booked long before Smith's participation was announced.

In this case, we've forgone the VIP expense so we can experience the proper method of waiting for this kind of thing: Forever. It's not too bad, though. As on Friday, it's quite well-organized, with the line divided into short lanes so we can all see people coming out of the photo room in various degrees of euphoria after being in the presence of the actor. It's scarcely an hour before Max and I are in there with the photo crew quickly shuffling us through, and Matt Smith chattering with him even more kindly than Shatner did. After collecting our print, we head out as the staff is peeling the tape off the floor and the vendors are offering their increasingly desperate end-of-show discounts. So that was a success.

In fact, I'd say that about the whole weekend. What I liked about Minneapolis Comic Con is that you can actually experience it. SDCC is so huge, with so many experiences, events, people and places (many of which require special wristbands, and almost all of which require waiting in line) that one is conscious of missing 99 percent of it any given moment. I don't even have my schedule from that event any more, because it took up too much room on my bookshelf.

Go go comic con

Wizard World, on the other hand, has provided an event that's much more manageable for attendees. Everywhere you look at SDCC, there are despair-inducing lines and crowds surrounding everything you want to do or see. Between the costumes and the suffering, great swaths of it look like Dante's The Lego Movie. But everyone at the event in Minneapolis this weekend seemed to be having fun, with the possible exception of Gilbert Gottfried.

It's a touring show, so it's not going to draw people from all across the country -- and it doesn't really need to. I'm certainly glad I didn't have to buy a plane ticket for it, and I don't think I would feel the need for another three-day pass when it comes back to town.

But there's another nice thing about these conventions, these events, these things that Max affectionately calls "nerd prom." And that's the knowledge that everyone around me is into something nerdy or geeky,  just like I am. This may sound like an odd thing to say about an event people wear costumes to, but when a con does its job, it creates a safe space where people can be themselves.

It's like a kind of alternate reality, one that you miss when you return to the real world and people's T-shirts bear logos of sports teams instead of superheroes. The staff, vendors, celebrity guests and attendees pulled that off, and that's a lot more important than constant activity and sensory overload. Max and I will be back, even though he will need his own wristband next year.