Last bank holiday weekend I accepted an unexpected invite to MCM London Comic Con -or MCMExpo as it’s known in hashtag land. This annual event, held at London’s least attractive Olympic venue the ExCel centre, is billed as the UK’s biggest popular culture weekend , whilst it does cover a fairly broad range of interests I’m guessing fans of EastEnders, Everton FC or the NME wouldn’t find too much to interest them. No, MCMExpo is a place where a large number of similar yet distinct sub-cultures converge. With comics, cosplay, steampunk, anime, sci-fi and more catered for, it is as close as one is likely to get to a full scale mobilization of British “geek” culture.
Once a fringe pursuit linked by small conventions and arcane messageboards geek culture has, in recent years, emerged from the sidelines. Cinemas are dominated by comic books heroes and the biggest comedy on American television is The Big Bang Theory. Of course, not all the tens of millions of people who have seen the Avengers movie care particularly deeply about it, but if even a small percentage do it’s still a hell of a lot of people. The internet – in particular sites like Tumblr and Deviant Art – has let the various fandoms of the world interact and express themselves. What was once thought of as solitary and lonely has become incredibly social.
Arriving at the ExCel by DLR, it was immediately obvious something strange was happening when I spotted the world’s most famous plumber on the platform.
I followed the plumber through the station like Alice followed the rabbit and as I approached the ExCel, things began to get curiouser and curiouser. The forecourt outside the conference centre was heaving with people dressed in strange and fantastical costumes. I retreated to the relative safety of the station gangway to wait for the friend who had invited me on this strange expedition. Shortly, I was joined by a man dressed as a woman dressed as a cat. I think that was what he going for, I’m not entirely sure. Perhaps, he was one of those Otherkin that you get on the internet these days.
He had a large boom-box wired up to an iPhone which he played some sort of J or K pop-metal off. Neither his sartorial or musical choices were particularly to my taste but he had certainly made an effort. My friend arrived shortly and we then proceeded to spend the best part of two hours queuing to get into the event itself. Immediately in front of us in the queue were a couple of over-excitable Power Rangers. I could have done without their antics to be honest, though it was pretty funny when one of them got twatted by a passing Jedi’s lightsabre.
The main hall was incredibly crowded, people dressed as everything from X-men to Hunter S Thompson milled past stalls selling an incredibly wide-range of artefacts. Two stalls, directly opposite each other, summed up the crazy breadth of the event: cute Japanese plush toys sat parallel to full size katanas and samurai swords. Coming days after a man had been beheaded with a machete mere miles from where we stood this was a little disconcerting.
It was like an alternative economy had been created, a massive mall where SNES games could still be sold for double figures and grown men could sell My Little Pony merchandise.
Yes, the Brony subculture – post-adolescent males devoted to “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic” were in evidence. One slightly disturbing stall advertised something called: “Buck: Legacy The Pony Dungeon Fantasy Exploring Game”.
I didn’t hang around to find out what this particular game entailed. It was probably perfectly innocent. Probably… Was there any political meaning to the event or was it just the Westfield in cosplay? The only directly political stall I saw was a feminist stand where you could get “Fake Geek Girl” t-shirts and what appeared to be prints of Caitlin Moran.
An interesting counterpoint to this, was that a table where soft-porn startlets were offering autographs was possibly the least popular stall in the whole hall.
Indeed, these glamour girls seemed massively out of place. Perhaps, in years gone by they would have been a better fit. They suited old stereotypes: sexless nerds, handing over their hard earned for a fleeting moment of plastic pleasure. But the geeks of 2013 don’t need to pay for their pleasure, as the myriad signs held by strangely attired teens and tweens attested, hugs here were free.
Gender wise, the gathering was hardly the sausage-fest one might have once expected, the fangirls of Tumblr were very much out in force. It was also far more racially diverse than any rock festival I’ve been to and unlike the majority of rock festivals the culture consumed wasn’t merely Anglo-American: the influence of East Asian culture seems deeply ingrained in this burgeoning culture. With its mashing of styles, eras and media it sort of feels like the young – and sometimes not so young – earnestly and enthusiastically embracing globalisation and technology, carving out something new from a fragmented world of pop-culture detritus.
Depending on your taste it was a vision of utopia or a vision of hell. It was a place where a Street Fighter competition could be regarded with the passion of the Champion’s League final. Well, the crowd was more Sunday league sized, but maybe one day. Perhaps video-game fans should stop debating whether games are art and ask whether they are in fact a spectator sport.
In many ways the event had a similar atmosphere to the Reading or Leeds festivals, except without the alcohol or indie-kids. It had that same febrile feeling you get when youth twists corporate content to its own ends. Of course, much of it was opportunistic marketing but there was a heartening disparity between the giant posters for forthcoming Vince Vaughn movies hung from the rafters and the wayward cosplayers that walked beneath. There was an innocent friendliness underlining it all, everyone just wanted to have a good time.
Take these guys above; making an important point about the gender in comics by accessioning a Deadpool costume with a french maid’s dress or possibly just dicking about. Who knows. Anyway, the juxtaposition of fairly accurate costumes and mundane normality did lead to some odd scenes such as, superheroes having a coffee break.
Lost looking seditionaries / members of Anonymous / Old Holborn cosplayers:
Time Lords getting Mr Whippys:
For many years I have felt a mixture of ambivalent resentment to the kind of people who voluntarily label themselves “geeks”. Sure, I read a few Star Wars extended universe novels in my youth and I still occasionally enjoy an episode of Dr Who, but surviving secondary school one of the things I learnt was that the qualities most closely associated with “geek culture” – devotion to fiction, ostentatious verbosity (I know right…), lack of interest in physical activity – were also qualities closely associated with getting a slap. Why celebrate the qualities keeping you down? But at the MCMExpo the geeks were in the majority, the outsiders were the insiders, though I am sure hierarchies and cliques develop here too.
By the end of the afternoon I had started asking people to pose for photographs. In the real world this kind of behaviour could possibly also get you a slap but here people were more than happy to pose for complete strangers. Maybe “geek” kids are just as symptomatic of their generations narcissism as anyone else but the act of asking felt somehow warmer, more generous than the average Instagram selfie-snap. I asked for a shot of the group below as they seemed to encapsulate the spirit of the the thing, and I was intrigued by the girl’s massive tail.
The chap in the middle with the bowler hat was the de-facto leader, he spoke with an amazingly confident manner for a man who appeared to be dressed as an Edwardian tramp. They had all apparently met on the internet and were meeting in the flesh for the first time. The two on the left where dressed as something to do with Pokemon and seemed rather amused by my lack of knowledge of arcane Pokemon lore. I told them I was a tourist which I guess I was: unable to truly enter into the spirit of things, observing them for future blog reportage, they on the other hand – though also likely to chronicle their adventures online – were in their element. Who knows if they are popular at school? Maybe this was the one weekend a year when they come out of their shells or maybe the old stereotypes are dead and the geeks are now the cool kids. Somehow, I doubt it.
As I made my way back to London’s hip and vibrant East London the Comic-Con crowd dissipated till there was only me and one obvious fellow attendee on the Overground. Outside of the ExCel the girl in Japanese Lolita fashion seemed even more extraordinary. Note, the look of incomprehension – or possibly indifference – on the face of the gentleman behind her. I asked if I could take her photo and she agreed: outside of the Comic-Con environment taking random shots of strangers seemed slightly creepy again.
She was quite shy but we chatted a little about the convention, then she disappeared back into the world and the convention vanished with her. As an outsider, I was sure I had seen something important, that in this colourful spectacle I had seen a mobilization of a new youth movement. I had seen a movement at present still slightly nebulous but on the verge of taking over the world: a rush and a push and the land would be theirs. Or maybe it meant nothing. Maybe, I was the one in cosplay, pretending to be that lad from Vice who goes to club-nights and learns something about the state of the nation, maybe I was trying to impose on meaning something I didn’t really understand. What I do know is that whatever is happening here is happening without the blessing of culture’s traditional gatekeepers. Kerrang!, NME and MTV, The Guardian, Vice and Vogue: this is happening without your permission. Yeah, someone at Tumblr is probably making mega money out of it all, but the kids are providing the content. Who knows where it will end maybe the geeks will inherit the earth.
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