I realize I kind of blew my anecdote about the guy at Comic Con who compared the prices of Little Nemo collections and call girls. I think he came off as crude, indulging in some sort of locker-room bonding. I didn't capture his fragility and cautious neediness. He was an older Chinese man, thin and small-boned, at once timid and abrupt, who first avoided eye contact and then held it (through very thick glasses) with a slightly unnerving determination. His voice was soft, with one of those accents that play unexpected tricks with rhythm and emphasis. Not "CALL girl" but "call-GIRL."
At first he seemed to view my friends and me as nothing but obstacles to be shooed so he could get to the Nemo volume, but instantly he made what I've come to think of as the Nerd Shift: Sensing that the person next to him might be open to listening to his interior monologue, might even turn out to be a kindred spirit, he pounces on the opening. From my Comic Con experience, I'd even guess that his "Can I get to that?" or whatever it was he said, oddly, instead of "Excuse me," was an opening to start a conversation. I know it's even possible that he had no interest in Little Nemo at all, and that any $120 book would have done to open a conversation about call-GIRLs. Because it did seem to be the call-GIRLs he was hungry to talk about, the passion he wanted validated by other men at the Con.
Earlier the same day I'd experienced another Nerd Shift, though one not quite as disorienting. While my friend Joe was waiting to pay for some old comics, I found myself glancing over a wall full of autographed 8x10" glossies. It was a shot of Adam West as Batman, grimacing and lifting a smoking bomb over his head, that caught my eye, but from there I moved on to see what other ghosts of my childhood were enshrined. Suddenly I heard someone next to me saying, "I can't believe he's gone." At that moment I was looking at a picture of Sebastian Cabot from Family Affair, so in fact I had no trouble believing he was gone—but then I realized that my neighbor, a 30-ish, heavy-set fellow laden with rolled-up posters sticking out of plastic bags, was talking about the portrait next to Cabot's. It was of a younger, hipper actor I didn't recognize, wearing some kind of modern science-fiction costume.
"I didn't know he'd died," I said. I do that a lot, letting myself be led into conversation where I'm totally at sea. Partly from excessive politeness, but partly because I learn a lot that way. And I learned that this actor had died suddenly in his early forties, and that another actor from the same show had also died recently. Then, as if sensing that my interest was more polite than genuine, my new acquaintance asked, "Do you watch Babylon 5?" I admitted that I did not, but it was sad that those men had been cut down so young. "Yeah," he said, and walked away.
This wasn't rudeness. It's the ethos of the place, the way of the Con. Most Con-goers, I suspect, are there to walk the endless aisles, look at displays, see people in costumes, pick up free stuff, hope to catch a glimpse of a TV star, pick up some buzz about the next Superman movie or Lost season. But the true nerds, the heart of the whole show, are there for one, or both, of two clear goals: to acquire more objects for their collections and to find other people who share their ruling passions. That's what my son did, when he flew down to spend the last two days there with me, hunting for vinyl Godzilla toys and using the shopping process to open conversations with dealers and fellow customers who knew them as well as he does. "What do you think of the new six-inch Bandai Hedorah?" Or whatever the hell he was asking.
It's what I used to do, when I was deep in the comics world. My social skills are more nuanced, so I could juggle a much wider range of conversational topics before making my own, much more subtle, Nerd Shift. Or maybe it's just my compulsion to be liked that led me to validate other people's obsessions first ("How about those Padres?") before leading them to what I really wanted to talk about: like DC western comics from the '50s in which Carmine Infantino inked his own pencils.
Walking through the Con is like trying to get through the Ginza at rush hour, and in response I usually develop a Japanese-style self-containment. Don't stop, don't stare, don't make eye contact, don't make any wild arm movements. But sometimes I like to see the people I'm passing. Meet their eyes, even, and try to catch a glimpse of who that is inside the t-shirt reading "I Want to Believe" or "Why So Serious?" or "Property of Dharma Initiative" or "Talk Nerdy to Me." Typically, when I make eye contact, there will be an instant in which it is returned, usually with a hint of a question—who are you, are you going to speak to me, do I know you, should I know you? And then it will shrink away, the eyes narrowing a little with a soft pain, shifting to the side.
Like me, these are shy people who want to make contact. But where just any small talk might be pleasant elsewhere, it's not enough at the Con. For four and a half days at the Con, where a fellow worshiper of nearly every pop-culture fetish can be found, it is possible and essential to seek people who will share our obsessions and our vast bodies of esoteric knowledge. There is no time to waste with people who only want to engage in pleasant small talk when there is someone else out there, perhaps in the very next aisle, who will instantly be able to reflect back our own devotion to Babylon 5, Carmine Infantino, Godzilla. Even the sad collecting of call-GIRLs. For the pop-culture geek, for the collector or obsessive whose emotions are deeply entwined with a body of bigger-than-life characters and vivid iconography, this is human contact at its most intense. That's why packs of fans will swoop by talking so loudly and so quickly and so all at once. They're riding the crest of a high.
That's why dressing up at the Con is also undressing. Shedding the disguise of shorts and t-shirts that says, "I'm pretty much like the rest of them," and instead standing naked as a lover of Pirates of the Caribbean or Shrek or Cowboy Bebop. Sure, it's about showing off and attracting mass attention too, but the real satisfaction is connecting in an instant, at a glance, across a room with people who get exactly why we are Jedis, Klingons, samurai, vampires, wizards, Spartan IIs, Jokers, Harley Quinns. This is the way we live now: specializing, self-identifying, collecting, acquiring, branding, niching—and then yearning for reconnection.
(Photo by Kevin Baird)