Through the looking glass

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The Montreal Comiccon, making its eighth debut this weekend at Palais des congrès, is an amalgamation of ‘geekdom’—a place where the various streams of geek culture coalesce into one exciting weekend. The representation of interests runs the gamut from Plain Jane board games to intricately detailed cosplaying, with the whole eclectic occasion accompanied by celebrity guests and corporate sponsors. It has grown from an event hosting fewer than 700 people in its first years to over 32,000 attendees at last year’s convention. And that’s just Montreal—the San Diego Comiccon (SDCC) hosts over 130,000 people each year.

Comiccon and SDCC have their roots in the original comic book convention format—where local comic book shop owners could liquidate their stock in one sitting and fans from all over the area could gather and meet each other. However, the ‘comic book convention’ has grown into something far greater than its humble origins could have ever predicted.

It has been a few years now since the geek movement started gaining momentum in popular culture. In 1989, Batman grossed over $400 million dollars. Marvel Studios jumped on the bandwagon starting with Blade in 1998, then Spider-Man in 2000. And it’s a good thing they did— Marvel’s The Avengers is the third highest grossing film of all time, at a titanic $1.51 billion. The Dark Knight, too, shattered people’s expectations about what a superhero movie could achieve in plot development and characterization. These films have not only done well commercially, but have also been met with critical acclaim and widespread appeal. People started taking these movies seriously, and by proxy, the community that existed around these franchises.

The growth of conventions begs the question—is it the fans who are changing, or is it the way that people view this particular subculture?

Several individuals immersed in this community have offered their perspectives on the evolution of geek culture.

Among them is Cliff Caporale, the programming director for Montreal Comiccon. Caporale described Comiccon as “a genre convention for fans to get to meet some of the people behind the things they love most. It’s also a chance to be surrounded by like-minded people that share similar interests. We hope to please as many geeks as possible, even if you are only 0.5 per cent geek.”

Caporale explained that they wanted to expand the event to cater to more fans.

“After a few years, we wanted to grow the event. We were able to add a diverse selection for fans, and expand further into other genres like horror, Franco-Belgian comics, anime, and fantasy. This year we take it further, adding Canadian pop culture, geek improv, and music.” By widening the scope of the convention’s offerings, more and more people will likely be able to find themselves at home in this community.

To Caporale, the diversity of interests in geekdom is most definitely a benefit for the city.

“Montreal Comiccon [is] becoming one of the city’s spotlight events,” he said. “Montreal has a very interesting cultural identity that can allow for the city’s Comiccon to become a true international event. You won’t find another genre convention that will have a cast member from Star Trek, one from Galaxie près de chez vous [Quebec’s most popular—and maybe only—sci-fi show from the late 90s], a North American comic book artist, and a Belgian comic book artist in the same room.  It’s pretty cool that we’ve gone from being a tiny event seven years back to become one of the top 20 genre events in North America, and in the top three for Canada.”

But other people have been noticing a shift in what people consider ‘geek culture’ as well. Alain Veilette is one of the owners of Foonzo, a video game bar located on 1245 Drummond in the heart of downtown Montreal, and has experienced these changes firsthand. Acting as a nexus between geeks and providers, Veillete has been able to closely observe the changing attitudes toward geek culture.

“It’s more and more socially acceptable [to be interested in this culture],” Veillete says. “Video games that are coming out today—a lot of them gross more profits than movies. I just saw a couple of pictures in L.A. of this huge building downtown, and the building was covered in a huge poster of Grand Theft Auto V. It may not sound like much, but I mean could you imagine? Fifteen years ago, you would’ve only expected Nike to appear up there.”

However, with such a wide array of interests represented in conventions like Comiccon, some fans have expressed concerns that ‘geekdom’ has started dividing. Alex Havas, a U2 computer science student at McGill who describes himself as a geek who was “born with a controller for an umbilical cord,” shared his thoughts on the issue.

“The idea is that ‘geek’ has now become a [synonym] for ‘obsession,’ and to try to unify [those terms] under a single flag is kind of silly. Really, the best way for any sort of unification within geek culture is to live and let live. You can keep rivalries, as long as they’re fun. [For example], ‘Who would win in a fight, Star Trek Redshirts or Stormtroopers?’”

Havas shed further light on other dichotomous attitudes regarding geek culture, explicating the division between perceptions of the community.

“There are two sides: there’s ‘casual geekdom,’ which is very acceptable. Say you like Game of Thrones. That’s high fantasy with dragons and knights and stuff, and that’s fine, but then you say you go to bed with one of those full-body anime pillows…”

As such, Havas has been wary about the development of people’s attitudes toward the concept of ‘geekdom.’

“There’s a bit of apprehension about people saying things like, ‘Oh, we love geeks now!’ It’s like, ‘No, you don’t like my geek. You like this glossed-over kind of geek.’ There’s heavy scrutiny on people who are not already established as inside the group already. [Before,] it didn’t matter [what you were interested in]. As long as you waved that banner proudly, you were one of us. Now there’s this kind of— I think— fear of homogenization; the idea that there’s one image of [the glossed-over] geek that no one wants to conform to.”

Beatrice Soucy, a first-year medical student at Université de Montréal and a self-proclaimed geek, has also noticed such changes within the ‘geek culture.’

“When I was younger, I went to a school that didn’t care for geeks. Then I got into university and realized people had the same interests as me. I think the public has been opening up in a way. Video games are more accessible than [they were] a generation ago.”

But Soucy has noted that though changes in attitudes have occurred, there is still a gender-based stigma that exists in the subculture.

“People are still surprised when I end up ‘showing’ myself as a geek,” Soucy said. “Some guys will actually hate girls being there. They don’t like girls trying to get into their niche, so [they] can get kind of aggressive or demeaning about that,” Soucy said. “There are still very sexist games and costumes. The moment we start criticizing it, there’s so much hate from the community. [might be] why there aren’t more [female] gamers out there— it’s because they face such shunning and rejection that they don’t really see the point [of getting involved].”

Veilette has noticed a promising trend, however.

“We’ve only been around for two and a half years, and I don’t think it’s long enough to really see a huge shift, but there is noticeable change regarding female gamers. Honestly, I think that they’ve been out there the whole time.”

Caporale corroborated Veilette’s observation.

“Our audience was generally male, 70-30, when we first started, but as time has gone on, we are starting to see it be closer to 55 per cent male.”

Alhough it may not be simple to pinpoint the way this subculture is changing, it’s clear that these changes are manifesting themselves in multiple ways, whether that be through events like the Montreal Comiccon or through the types of people who frequent Foonzo on a Friday night. And though some people may have identified with this community since the day they could read their first comic book panel, whereas others are only starting to discover their favourite video games and superheroes, maybe being able to articulate exactly how ‘geekdom’ is changing isn’t what’s important. The evolution of Comiccon and ‘geek culture’ may mean different things to each individual, and that can truly contribute to the complexity of this community. Embrace it; live long and prosper!