Call it the ultimate irony of the digital revolution, but the meek have finally ascended. Or more accurately, the geeks have.
Alpha nerds like Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Malcolm Gladwell and Nate Silver stand astride our world like Colossi with pocket protectors. Steve Jobs became a prophet and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has brought his own form of suave to high-minded thought.
Hollywood has a surfeit of comic, graphic novel and fantasy-based films from sources such as Stan Lee and J.R.R. Tolkien. They only added to the longtime popularity of Star Wars and Star Trek franchises.
Television has followed suit. The success of “Game of Thrones,” “The Big Bang Theory” and “Sherlock” — he’s a walking intellect with shabby social skills, after all — only add to the zeitgeist.
The uncool is now what’s cool. Even in traditional Mobile, a longtime stronghold of athletes and debutantes, it doesn’t take much to discover nerd culture that arguably began when software mavericks QMS became financial titans in the 1980s.
When Rando Dixon was crowned champion of the Mobile Arts Council’s 2014 Art Throwdown — an annual beat-the-clock challenge and fundraiser for the umbrella organization — it was a victory on several fronts. Dixon’s chief pursuit is comic-book art, a medium traditionally dismissed despite the efforts of Roy Lichtenstein.
July 4, 2012 saw the birth of another American dream when Daniel Westbrook unlocked the door at his FOS Comics in west Mobile. FOS? Fortress of Solitude.
“It had been something I had wanted to do since Mobile’s last shops closed in the early 2000s,” Westbrook said. “My grandparents would take me out to buy old comic books. This was something to remember them and something I loved as a kid.”
While comic sales were available at the west Mobile flea market, an exclusive storefront with hours beyond the weekend was absent. The niche was open.
“Originally we were down the road at Skyland shopping center where the bowling alley was,” Westbrook said. “We outgrew it our first year in business which is why we moved up one shopping center to Skyline.”
In 2013, 99 Issues Comic Books & Gaming opened across from the University of South Alabama. Success was so immediate, another location opened in Daphne in November 2014.
“We’re on the verge of opening another one in Fairhope,” owner Chris Barnett said in January. “I’ve got a location over there but I’m not ready to reveal it just yet.”
What’s his secret? It’s a familiar formula of locale and timing.
“This area is just starved for this kind of thing,” Barnett said. “It’s people that grew up with it, plus little kids are coming around to enjoying it.”
Stretching beyond stereotypes like Jeff Albertson, “The Simpsons’” Comic Book Guy, Barnett is tying his store to more common adult pursuits. He will partner with downtown nightlife institution Hayley’s Feb. 8 to welcome two stars of TVs “The Walking Dead” into his store, who will then head to the LoDa drinking hole to watch the show air that night.
“I go to all the major conventions in the region — Atlanta, New Orleans, wherever,” Barnett said. The revenue and connections on those circuits are vital.
“I really like Dragon Con,” Barnett said of Atlanta’s annual Labor Day event, where attendance last year was officially estimated at 63,000. “There’s normally a college football game, an Atlanta Braves game and a NASCAR race going on that same weekend, maybe Gay Pride week going on as well and it makes for a wonderful mix of people and culture.”
The pros of cons
Online ticketing service and event organizer Eventbrite suggest comic conventions spawn an accumulated $600 million in economic activity annually. The popular festivals of geek chic focus on more than comics, pulling in science fiction, anime and horror enthusiasts to boot.
The 28th version of Dragon Con generated an estimated $55 million in direct economic impact. Festival organizers said it also generated more than $115,000 in donations and 500 pounds of food items for local food banks.
Barnett proffered New Orleans’ Wizard World as the largest con within a four-hour drive, guessing it had around 30,000 attendees. That status might not last long.
“We’re expecting 25,000-30,000 for 2015,” Manda Manning said in December 2014. “All our VIP weekend passes are gone and our day passes go on sale in January.”
Manning is marketing director and spokesperson for Pensacola’s new convention Pensacon, whose sole outing in 2014 was the best kind of shock. Homegrown by local sons Mike Ensley and Ben Galecki, big dreamers and veterans of convention culture, the promotion team developed a strategy for limited resources with billboards at Dragon Con and San Diego’s Comic-Con, where estimated 2014 attendance numbered more than 130,000.
“We expected maybe 10,000 (people),” Manning said. “We had 17,000 on the first day. We found out the Bay Center has a capacity of 15,000 and we got to know the fire marshal real well.”
Manning attributed the phenomenal success to the number of downtown businesses that climbed on board, with activities stretching out across all adjacent blocks downtown. Merchants were ebullient over receipts they claimed were the best of the year.
Manning said they raised over 2,000 pounds of food for Manna Food Pantries in 2014. An economic study estimated the impact as $1.4 million, with 5,000 hotel room nights generated.
“Everyone was very well behaved. We didn’t have a single incident or arrest,” Manning said. “They’re all coming together as fans and it’s like one big community.”
The nascent convention made sure to start by treating its headlining special guests with the utmost hospitality. The difference was noted.
“They have begun spreading the word through friends, the circuit and the industry,” Manning said. “I think that will help us in the future to help us bring bigger name guests here.”
The guest list for Feb. 27 through March 1 is loaded with familiar names from franchises such as Star Trek, Star Wars, Dr. Who, Game of Thrones, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, X Files, Battlestar Galactica, Planet of the Apes, The Addams Family and Guardians of the Galaxy. That’s in addition to a number of artists, authors, musicians and cosplayers.
“It’s interesting to see generations of families here because the parents will be totally into other guests and the kids will be into someone else that their parents don’t even know about,” Manning said.
Mobile’s version of these gatherings — Mobicon — is readying for its 18th year, according to spokesperson Michael Steelman but it has a longer history.
“Originally it started in the ‘80s, was Mobi-Con and was run by some local comic book stores. They reorganized after things fell apart and made it a nonprofit,” Steelman said. He joined up around a decade ago.
The event has changed calendar slots and locations. Originally in early May, they have moved to Memorial Day weekend as part of the geographic shift.
“We started out at the hotel on the Causeway that was ravaged by a hurricane,” Steelman said. “Then we moved to the Beltline for 10 years but we outgrew that so we’ve come down to the Riverview. We found better rates for our attendees down there.”
Steelman said they capped 2014 attendance at 1,100. He said they also rotate their charitable giving between various causes.
“Last year we donated $7,000 to the Teal Life Foundation, which helps women with ovarian cancer,” Steelman said. “This year we’ll be doing Woody’s Song School for autistic children.”
Early on, Mobicon was centered around gaming. That has changed with the times as 2014’s tally of more than 50 vendors attested.
“We partner with Mobicon and set up with them every year since they’re our local con,” FOS Comics’ Westbrook said. “I travel personally to the different cons in the region, too, probably three to four a year.”
“We try to do anything that would be fan-related: comic books, horror, science fiction, gaming,” Steelman said. “Cosplay was something that has really taken off lately. We’re looking at having our first ever cosplay guests.”
A portmanteau of “costume” and “play,” cosplay has become one of the most visible elements of comic conventions nationally. An Emmy-winning public television documentary “Cosplay: Crafting a Secret Identity” revealed the intensive labor and creativity that grips devotees.
Individuals boast elaborate home workshops engineered for skills like metal smithing or plastic fabrication. Others have turned the hobby into full-time occupation, forging a career out of creating impeccably detailed costumes, film-worthy creations employing a number of crafts.
Texan-turned-Mobilian Thomas Leytham was a self-described “anime nerd” when he went to his first convention in San Antonio three to four years ago. A larger experience followed.
“Then I went to one in Los Angeles and it was awesome,” Leytham said. “I was hooked.”
Calling himself a “casual cosplayer,” he seeks to hone his skills through associations with other players. There’s also the matter of funds.
“Cosplay is expensive,” Leytham said. “I would love to but I have to be more stable with my jobs. The time and skill and making it to shows takes a lot.”
One of Leytahm’s chief collaborators and inspirations is Katie Carwie, a passionate Mobile cosplayer who came by her skills honestly. It’s a legacy tied to one of Mobile’s deepest traditions.
“My grandmother is a famous Mardi Gras seamstress. She made most of the trains for the court,” Carwie said. “If it wasn’t for her I don’t think I would be as into sewing as I am and I don’t think I would believe in myself as much. I learned everything from her.”
Another anime fan, Carwie said she attended around 15 conventions last year. About six of those were as a guest by the alias of Mina Cosplay.
“Some of the places will actually pay you to come to them but I haven’t put myself out there as much,” Carwie said. “I have been approached for it. I’ve worked as a ‘booth babe’ for a couple of conventions where they paid me to stand near their booth to draw in people.”
The hobby takes a toll. There’s both time issues and costs of costumes, fabrics, materials and wigs among other expenses and to a sushi chef like Carwie, it’s sizable.
“Each costume is about $200 to $300 to make. Convention costs can get up to about $500 and getting there is about $200,” Carwie said. “So you’re spending thousands a year and when you look at that it makes you think you have to stop.”
With continual revisions, her average costume can eat up as much as 200 hours. That figure mirrors what another of her collaborators estimated.
“One staff I made probably took a couple of hundred hours,” Stephen Kennedy said. “I’m a perfectionist though.”
His job at Home Depot provided Kennedy with access to the wood, resins, fiberglass and metals he needed to make the prop for Syaoran, a character from the manga series “Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle.” It was sanded to a mirror finish with 2,000-grit sandpaper and also contained 556 individual wooden sticks that were hand-painted and hand-glued while the bottom and top were copper and brass.
“I prefer to work with my hands so I don’t do a lot of metalsmithing,” Kennedy said. “Some manipulation and soldering but no welding.”
Kennedy taught himself needed skills, including sewing. He cosplays with his wife Hope in tandem costumes normally drawn from Japanese comics.
The Kennedys crossed paths with Carwie at an Atlanta convention then discovered they lived across Mobile Bay from each other. When she needed an elaborate axe for a recent costume, Carwie turned to her new friends.
Other, less friendly interactions are also a part of the cosplay world. Sexual harassment has become a hot-button issue with conventions, vexing participants.
“There’s people that sometimes they’re like, ‘Oh, can I take a picture with you,’ and they’ll grab you in an awkward way and you just have to say, ‘I’m sorry I’ll take a picture with you but don’t touch me like that,’” Carwie said.
She’s had to ask security personnel to intervene at other times. The misperceptions come frequently.
“Yeah, people ask me about it and they’re like ‘Oh, cosplay. That’s a fetish thing, right?’” Carwie said. “No, there’s nothing dirty about it. I’ve worn costumes that didn’t cover very much but that’s exactly what the character wore and I wanted to replicate and bring to life the character. I didn’t want to just parade around in a skimpy outfit.”
She is also capable of objectivity. Things she sees at conventions raise questions with her.
“I think the main problem is a lot of people thinking like lingerie is OK for people to wear to conventions, or they’ll take a regular costume that might be OK fully clothed and turn it into something that goes too far,” Carwie said.
The result has been the rise of the “Cosplay Does Not Equal Consent” movement. Both Manning and Steelman readily note awareness and security measures.
Even so, respect can be hard to come by. In the way Dixon’s comic art was once marginalized, cosplayers can encounter the same.
“I think cosplay should be taken more seriously because these people have skills your average person doesn’t have,” Carwie said. “People will look at it and be like ‘oh well, that’s just a costume.’ I’m like ‘well, here’s some fake fur and a sewing machine. Make me some goat legs and tell me how long it takes.’”