Ninth Art - For the Discerning Reader -

Conventional Wisdom: Pac-A-Wac-A-Wowie

To mark this summer's convention season, Ninth Art has turned to some of its contributors to discover their reminiscences of convention seasons gone by, beginning with Alistair Kennedy's encounters with the costumed con-goers of San Diego.
04 July 2003

San Diego, more so than Chicago, Bristol or even Angoulême, is the centrepiece of the comic book convention and festival calendar. It's here that hearts are broken, exclusives are signed and projects are unveiled.

Any attendees at last year's SDCC will have borne witness to one of the most singular features any convention could hope to boast. A collection of the most bizarre, freaky and sometimes terrifying characters ever associated with comics, all interacting in a way that would have Evil Ernie running in terror.

No, not a sneak preview of a new Grant Morrison Vertigo title - the downright surreal denizens of the convention floor.

Costume competitions and masquerades have been part of convention lore for many years now, and it's not at all unusual for someone to spend months honing a particularly elaborate or complex fashion to unveil at a con. What's more unusual, however, and something not often seen outside US-based conventions (in comic book circles, at least), is the phenomenon of the con-floor costume.

Most convention-goers, when not browsing through back-issue bins, are normally to be found queuing for sketches, watching panels or sitting in the bar. This is not the modus operandi of the permanently-costumed attendees. They can be seen patrolling the aisles of the cavernous San Diego convention centre, often not just in costume, but 'in character'.

While it would certainly be churlish for any convention-goer to seek to ridicule the habits and pastimes of another (is that an issue of GI JOE in your pocket?), it has to be wondered what such people get out of the convention - do they really pay $60 just to stroll around in an aircraft hanger with no air conditioning?

That was the question facing me and some friends last year as we sat around our barbecue at the beach after a long day's conventioneering. We were hardly the pinnacle of fashion ourselves - a Spider-Man top is a Spider-Man top, basketball vest or not - but the point stood. We'd chatted with SUGAR BUZZ's Woodrow Phoenix and CATHEDRAL CHILD's Lea Hernandez, seen Tony Millionaire serve tea to his audience and heard Pete Milligan talk about how Grant Morrison had gone straight to bed after his transatlantic flight "because he's a big girl". What had the floorwalkers achieved? Bunions?

The only answer we could come up with was the rather uncharitable viewpoint that they could only be looking for attention. Again, nothing wrong there - a lot of these people had clearly spent a long time putting their costume together, and they were well within their rights to seek some kind of recognition for their efforts. But just how far would they go to get that attention?

A few burgers and a good number of beers later, a rather cruel plan had been lit upon. X-STATIX devotee and drinking buddy to the stars Dan Apodaca had brought his digital video camera with him in order to document the event. The worst offenders on the con floor were to be commemorated for time immemorial on high-quality digital film. But that wasn't to be the end of it.

The previous evening, also spent in the company of our old friend Mr Beer, had seen a conversation of a shamefully geeky stripe - our collective nerd knowledge had been unable to remember the catchphrase used by Pac-Man in the early-'80s cartoon that bore his name. Yes, I know, we're not proud of ourselves. However, the version we eventually decided on as closest to accurate - "Pac-A-Wac-A-Wowie" - was, we decided, too amusing to be tossed aside as a product of our drunken pop-culture geek-out. And so the two ideas were wed...

"Hi, we're making a mockumentary about the con for our drama class, and we're trying to get as many distinctively-dressed people as possible to say 'Pac-A-Wac-A-Wowie' for the camera. It's a catchphrase from the old Pac-Man cartoon, you know."

Nobody was to be saved from our wrath. The first target was a rather bemused young lady employed by a video game company to stand at their booth dressed in a PVC top and shorts and hold a big gun. Any worries she may have had about looking silly must have been instantly dispelled when she saw the other costumed characters file past her, and she seemed only too keen to pose, pout and perform our preposterous phrase - she, it seemed, got the joke.

Then came the Ghostbusters. Dig, if you will, the picture - instead of starring Dan Aykroyd as he was in the early 1980s, gangling and goofy, the Ghostbusters on patrol at SDCC seemed to feature Dan Aykroyd as he appears today, all girth and guns.

What was presumably a husband-and-wife team with a love for the films had squeezed themselves into boiler suits, constructed replica proton packs and were merrily striding around the convention, posing for photographs and being as generally genial as could be expected in the heat. They happily submitted to our straight-faced ridicule, and we couldn't help but feel a little guilty as we walked away - they had been so... well, nice.

More obvious targets followed. A man in head-to-toe pastel tie-dye languidly waved a peace sign and a cuddly Cthulhu at us. A terrifying couple kitted out in cat's-eye contacts, fangs and angel wings turned out to be the cutest, most accommodating people we spoke to all day. And Yoda, though a little quiet, was a good sport nonetheless.

Pretty much everyone we spoke to agreed to say the slogan for the camera, and those who didn't were still polite about it. We were starting to feel a little guilty - it seemed that the people whom we had thought to be merely attention-seekers actually just enjoyed wearing the costume and did so for no reason other than it made the convention experience more fun.

But before we could beat ourselves up too badly, we spotted a genuine comics icon at a sketching table, idly chewing on a sandwich. It was Marty Nodell, GREEN LANTERN legend. If we could only get a creator of his stature to spout our ridiculous gibberish for posterity, then that would surely cap off our little project better than the umpteenth Lara Croft. It was with trepidation that we approached him - he's not the youngest of gents, and if we were going to have him unwittingly take part in our video then at the very least we could show a little respect beforehand.

Alas, it was not to be. Having attempted to broach the subject, he looked up with a snarl on his face and told us in no uncertain terms (sadly unrepeatable here) that he was having his lunch and could we kindly leave him to it. We were sent scurrying away in search of a fat bloke dressed up as Sailor Moon or someone else who was an equally deserving target of our ploy.

An hour of real time and five minutes of video footage later, the Sunday afternoon of the convention was winding down, and we retired to peruse the fruits of our labours. Sure enough, it was funny stuff. And we came to realise that even those who hadn't got the joke would have found it funny anyway had they known.

In point of fact, the costumed floorwalkers had been the most amiable attendees we'd encountered in four days - certainly more so than the scrawny grease-monkey who, in shoving his way through the crowd with all the social grace of the SARS virus, managed to push me into the Cheapass Games stand. You know who you are.

So did the reality match the cliché? Were these folks really the sad cases, disconnected from reality, destined to be mocked? Not at all. And if you're planning on attending SDCC, and someone there catches your eye, then why not strike up a conversation? You're likely to find someone who, instead of rabidly hunting down back-issues of WITCHBLADE with a glazed-eyed fervour, has actually come to the convention to have a good time.

Just don't interrupt anyone's lunch.

Alistair Kennedy is the coordinator of the PunchDrunk Pop blog and a former editor for Robot Fist.

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