So another Comic-Con has come and gone this summer, and you didn’t make it to San Diego again, now, did you?
(Open-palm slap to forehead!)
Well, here (bam!) is the next best thing, a way to experience all the spectacle and ceremony, all the weirdness and wonder, vicariously – and without (ka-pow!) getting assaulted by a costumed Catwoman in a hotel elevator.
Get thee to the Oakland Museum of California and check out the exhibition about this annual gathering of cosplay exhibitionists, “Sunshine and Superheroes: San Diego Comic-Con.” It’s a fun, freaky and fluorescent (vroom!) display tucked in the back corner of the museum’s history wing, as if such a frivolous pursuit needs to be kept far away from the serious subjects of California history in the halls, chin-pulling stuff like immigration, poverty and civil rights.
But (zoinks!) this tribute to the enduring appeal of Comic-Con not only celebrates the inherent zaniness and nerd-chic of the event, but turns an anthropological and pedagogical eye on the broader social and economic implications therein. And it does so with a set replete with all-caps exclamations (which, thankfully, I’ll stop imitating) and facts and interpretations inside dialogue bubbles set against the Lichtensteinian backdrop.
You can tell, stepping foot into the exhibition, that this is no mere fanboy idol-worship. Some deep thought has gone into the curating, lending the spectacle of some dude dressed as a Jedi or a dudette channeling Daenerys Targaryen of “Game of Thrones” an air of gravitas. As the introductory video shows, a local TV reporter cheekily asks a young man, “You take this stuff pretty seriously, don’t you?” The attendee, not amused by the condescending tone, replies, curtly, “Yeah, I take it very seriously.”
OK, so there’s serious scholarship bonafides. But there’s also a costume rack in one corner where you, too, can don Superman’s cape or Captain America’s uniform or outfit yourself in those flattering original “Star Trek” shirts. Geek out with impunity; museum guards won’t bat an eyelash.
The exhibition is a partnership between the museum and the faculty and students at San Diego State University, the third show in the series “What’s Happening, California?” in which California state universities are invited by Suzanne Fischer, associate curator of contemporary history and trends, to “explore contemporary issues in their communities.”
Sacramento State already had its turn last year, exploring how the two rivers define our area. But San Diego State apparently decided to boldly go where no museum has gone before and examine this pop culture phenomenon, which snooty, shushing museum types might dismiss as terribly low-brow. Fischer concedes some might see it that way. Her response: “At the Oakland Museum of Californa, we are interested in telling the experiences of all kinds of people in our state. ... We were absolutely delighted (with the project). It’s compelling and engaging.”
San Diego State professor Sarah Elkind, whose impressive vitae includes research heavy on environmental policy and urban infrastructure, said Comic-Con holds interest beyond just a cultural curio.
“One of the very interesting things about putting together the exhibit on Comic-Con is that the convention itself raises a number of ‘serious’ topics about public policy, economic policy and gender,” she said. “So we were able to spend the year developing an exhibit that was both really fun, and surprisingly serious.
“When it came to selecting the exhibit topic itself, I instructed the students to find a topic that revealed something important or central to San Diego and that would also allow us to try to tackle the kinds of controversies or topics that museums struggle with. They suggested Comic-Con because many of them are longtime Comic-Con attendees and because Comic-Con and the Convention Center expansion were very much in the news at the time. ... Once we scratched the surface of Comic Con, we found ourselves exploring a number of serious and interesting questions about San Diego’s and California’s recent history.”
True, that. As the exhibition details, San Diego is facing a public policy decision worthy of Sacramento. Just as the basketball Kings threatened to move to Seattle or Anaheim or any number of cities if a new arena could not be built, so, too, has Comic-Con threatened to leave San Diego if the city isn’t willing to upgrade its “outdated” convention center to support the hordes of action heroes who descend like mutant locusts on the seaside city each July.
In videos and displays, Comic-Con’s numbers are stressed – “$75 million in direct spending at the convention center, $180 million per year in total economic impact, an estimated 7,000 jobs for San Diegans” – and politicos, including mayoral candidates, fall all over the themselves pandering for the Comic-Con vote. As one pin-striped Suit enthused on camera, “This is the best people-watching week of the year in San Diego.”
Quick-cut images of costumed conventioneers fill the screens at the display. What’s an exhibition, after all, without exhibitionists? So there’s a fleet of Jedi warriors, a gaggle of ninjas, the blue bald-domed Dr. Manhattan, Kree from Marvel Comics, the “Transformers” rescue bot Blaze and Ronan the Accuser from “Guardians of the Galaxy” and enough steam punks to populate Dickensian London.
You don’t need to know the intricate backstories of the characters to appreciate the thought and effort put into, and zaniness achieved by, these examples of cosplay. That’s short for Costume Play – seems these Comic-Con habitues are avid portmanteau practitioners. Linguistic quirks aside, cosplay folks say they feel empowered when in character. In San Diego State student Parker Bray’s short documentary on cosplay, characters who dress from Jayne from “Firefly” to the Queen of Hearts from “Alice in Wonderland” let their freak flag fly.
“I'm not, like, identifying with the character,” Ben Cabrera, ninja, said in the film. “(But) being in character 10 to 12 hours here at Comic-Con, you do kind of sort of meld into the character, talking to other people taking photographs. It's pretty cool.”
The Queen of Hearts, a.k.a. Tayna Reimer, described the freedom of dress-up: “You go walking down the hall and everybody stops to look. It’s just a license to strut.”
By the same token, the exhibition is a license for museumgoers to lighten up. Go ahead, try on that Batman mask, that Wonder Woman bodice. No one will judge you. Those other exhibits, about the Dust Bowl, World War II and civil rights, can wait.