“Worlds Within Worlds”: Shattering Conventions Explores and Exposes Con Culture

The author of Shattering Conventions: Commerce, Cosplay and Conflict on the Expo Floor, Bob Calhoun, with legendary comic book artist Jack Kirby at Comic-Con, 1992. (Photo: Bob Calhoun)
Posing with a hero: Bob Calhoun (right), the author of Shattering Conventions: Commerce, Cosplay and Conflict on the Expo Floor, at the 1992 Comic-Con with legendary comic book artist Jack Kirby. (Photo: Bob Calhoun)

‘Tis the convention season: Origins Game Fair, GenCon, DragonCon, and the 50,000 pound gorilla thundering over them all, San Diego Comic-Con International, aka “Comic-Con.” If 2103 were a presidential race year, political conventions would add more heat to the summer. Not to mention costumed re-enactment camp outs and religious revival tent gatherings. There’s no better time to talk cons than now.

(Photo: Bob Calhoun)
(Photo: Bob Calhoun)

Fortunately, an expert has just written a book about conventions, be they fandom-flavored cons or other varieties. Writer Bob Calhoun’s new tome is Shattering Conventions: Commerce, Cosplay and Conflict on the Expo Floor, an insightful and fun romp through what he calls “temporary worlds created in concrete convention centers and hotel conference rooms.” Weaving a quest narrative into his investigation of con culture, Calhoun is a clever guide into these communities of drooling fans, has-been celebrities, religious zealots, pro-wrestlers and plastic surgeons. In Calhoun’s estimation, “sci-fi nerds and rightwing extremists” are locked in a struggle for the hearts and minds of Americans. Their gladiatorial venue? The convention floor.

Calhoun’s previous books include the punk-rock/lucha-libre memoir Beer, Blood & Cornmeal: Seven Years of Incredibly Strange Wrestling and The Godfather of Grappling, a biography of martial arts and Hollywood stunt legend “Judo” Gene LeBell. He’s a regular contributor to Salon.com, where he writes about film and pop culture, and he also writes for San Francisco Chronicle, Giant Robot and Inside Kung-Fu. Plus, he works as a Senior Research Analyst at the University of California, Berkeley.

I caught up with Calhoun, who was on a break at Comic-Con San Diego, which he is covering for www.comicsbeat.com. In between presumably doing body shots with Mr. T, and hopefully connecting with his readers, Bob sat down with me, virtually, over our respective keyboards, to chat about his book, his take on Comic-Con, and the days he used to wrestle men in Sasquatch suits while drunks tossed food at him.

Ethan Gilsdorf: At what point in your thinking did you feel this idea of visiting conventions might actually be book-worthy investigation?

Bob Calhoun: We are one convention-going society. We choose our presidents at conventions. The biggest revolutions in electronics—the iPod, the iPhone, and so many others—have all been introduced to the world at Mac World or CES. The convention industry brings in $7 billion to San Francisco each year alone. There are books about Trekkies, and other types of fans, but there really isn’t a book about conventions themselves. I mean this country and our whole form of government was founded by a convention—the Constitutional Convention.

Auhthor Bob Calhoun, a little bit older and a little more beat up by Sasquatch. (Photo: Bob Calhoun)
Don’t mess with this dude: Author Bob Calhoun, a little bit older and wiser, and a little more beat up by Sasquatch. (Photo: Bob Calhoun)

EG: Our GeekDad readers should probably know Shattering Conventions isn’t just about fandom conventions like Star Trek cons or Comic-Con but really the gamut of the convention circuit—political, trade, religious, even pro wrestling and Elvis impersonators. Why did you decide to broaden your investigation beyond geeky cons?

BC: Some of that was financial to be honest. My original idea was just to go to comic book conventions, large and small, all over the U.S. When the reality of how much I’d be spending on travel for that kind of project set in, I realized that I could go to all kinds of different cons without leaving the San Francisco Bay Area, so I broadened the project out to include a gun show, a hemp expo, a Sasquatch hunter conference, and even a California Republican Convention where Mitt Romney did the keynote. I still did a bit of traveling though. I went to Portland for a Twilight convention, and I had to go to Vegas. Also, the whole book ends more-or-less in Washington D.C. with the Rally to Restore Sanity.

EG: Talk about your past experiences going to cons as a fan, as a younger man. What did they mean to you?

BC: Science fiction cons really let me know that I wasn’t alone in all this. Like so many other nerds of the time, my parents tried to discourage me from being so fanatical about science fiction and comic books, but at cons I saw adults in the industry who had success writing comic books or even selling them. Not only did cons allow me to be around other fans my own age, but they also showed that there’d be a place for me in the future.

The author with Mr.T. Some years ago. (Photo: Bob Calhoun)
The author, then age 22, with Mr.T, at the Comic-Con of 1992(Photo: Bob Calhoun)

EG: The photos of you with Mr T (that is you, right?) Jack Kirby and Stan Lee are amazing. You totally dwarf Kirby and Lee! You are a big dude.

BC: Thanks! I dwarf Mr. T too, but he’s got the muscles and the bling. Stan is sitting in that pic. He’s actually pretty tall. Stan just shows up at cons now and charges $55 a photo. At Big Wow Comics Fest in San Jose where that pic of me and Stan was taken, I was told that 680 people paid to have their pictures taken with him (including me). That’s nearly $40,000 just for sitting there. He poses for six photos a minute, so I only got 10 seconds with Stan the Man.

EG: In discussing your visit to one Star Trek convention, you write, “Although I wasn’t as uncomfortable as the Protestants who get roped into attending a Catholic wedding, I did have a trace of that feeling I get at such church events where I realize that I no longer know my prayers. Fandom had been as much or more of a faith to me than Catholicism ever was, and with Comic-Con on my schedule for the conventions book project, I was set to go on the major pilgrimage of a faith that I no longer quite shared.” So your fandom blood has run thicker or thinner at various times in your life? Can you discuss?

BC: I’m at Comic-Con right now, sitting on the floor by a free electrical outlet in the hallway. So many people around me are in a state of elation, almost religious ecstasy over seeing trailers for upcoming superhero blockbusters. I’m too cynical to give myself over to this, but I still envy these people. I used to get that worked up at fan cons over seeing George Takei eating a chicken dinner or even seeing the preview of the animated Batman show at Comic-Con in the early 1990s. I will say this though: Legendary Pictures has this big Godzilla exhibit somewhere around here to hype their upcoming American Godzilla reboot. I hear they have the original oxygen destroyer that Dr. Serizawa uses to destroy the monster in the original Godzilla King of Monsters in 1954. When I see that familiar prop, I’m going to geek out harder than anyone at least for a few seconds there.

EG: I like your idea that conventions are “neo-tribal gatherings.” Talk more about cons as chance to socialize with your tribe, with with people who “get you?”

BC: This is why conventions exert such a powerful pull on us, and this isn’t true only for fan cons, but also for professional conferences. Think about the Conspiracy Con for a moment. These are people who should never want to gather all in one place because then the CIA or the Free Masons or the reptilian aliens can get to them. But even the most paranoid people in our society can’t resist gathering at a convention to be with other people who are into the same things that they are.

EG: I also like your idea of cons as “temporary worlds.”

An image from this year's Comic-Con: xxx(Photo: Bob Calhoun)
Worlds within worlds: An image of the prison set from Walking Dead, on the convention floor of this year’s Comic-Con. It’s just steps from Snoopy. (Photo: Bob Calhoun)

BC: Right now, Comic-Con has worlds within worlds. There’s this section that looks like the prison from Walking Dead complete with barbed wire, guard towers and zombies. Across from it is a pirate ship hyping the new Black Sails show on Starz with one guy tied to the mast, and then Snoopy is posing for pics a couple of booths over. I’m on surreality overload right now.

EG: It seems conventions partly satisfy our urge to see, hear and interact with our heroes in the flesh, be they George Takei or Gene Simmons or a religious leader. Why are we compelled to meet our heroes in person?

BC: Conventions don’t just offer the chance to meet your heroes, but for the two or three days of that convention, you are all attendees. Your hero becomes your peer, at least for a few days. Besides being with people who share your passions, people also go to these things to try and make it, and interacting with your idols–even at $55 a pop–allows you the chance to follow their example.

EG: But I’m guessing one danger of this is that the Stan Lees or Mitt Romneys or Kevin Smiths might disappoint us, once we meet them?

BC: There’s always “a be careful who you meet” rule in effect with famous people. You meet one artist or musician that you love at a con, and they’re an ass****, and then you find yourself not liking their work anymore. Then you meet somebody whose work you used to hate, and they’re nice to you, and then you find yourself liking all this stuff that you hated for years. Sometimes it’s best not to meet these people.

EG: You used to wrestle men in Sasquatch suits while drunks threw food at you. Huh? Really? Where can I see this?

BC: In 1999. It takes some time travel, although I think Kaiju Big Battel still does shows around the Boston area. [Ed. note: Cool! Boston is the home of the interviewer.] I was wrestling guys in Sasquatch suits with Incredibly Strange Wrestling on the West Coast and they were dressing up in Japanese monster suits and wrestling each other on the East Coast.

beer_bloodEG: How did you get from Bigfoot wrestling to becoming a writer? I’m guessing some of that is covered in your previous book, Beer, Blood & Cornmeal: Seven Years of Strange Wrestling.

BC: I’ve been writing ever since I was five years old. I idolized Stan Lee and Forry Ackerman (the editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland). I think that wrestling was the frustrated author in me acting out all the comic book story lines that I wasn’t actually writing.

EG: You did a great job mixing memoir and reportage. Did you struggle to balance how much “me” to put into your book? It’s something I grapple with in my own writing all the time.

BC: You did a really good job walking that line in Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks, but it is tough. I found that sometimes I pulled back too much, and that there wasn’t enough me in it. In the end, the book is a first person narrative and I as a character in it am both the glue that holds it together and drives the story. I think the key to not putting too much “me” in these things is really enjoying telling other peoples’ stories as well as your own. That’s where the balance comes from.

EG: I know you are at Comic-Con this weekend—can folks track you down to get Shattering Conventions, and if so how? And can they wrestle you?

BC: I have a few copies of the book with me, and believe me, I’m happy to unload them before flying back on Sunday. They can tweet at me @bob_calhoun and tell me that they want a copy. That’ll probably the best way. [Or you can order it from Amazon or your favorite retailer.]

EG: Where else can folks meet you or hear you read from the book? Any events planned?

BC: They can check the website at www.shatteringconventions.com. I have applied for a vendor’s table at the Star Trek Con in San Francisco on November 8-10. Selling Shattering Conventions at a Star Trek con will really make this project go full circle for me.

You can read more about Bob Calhoun and Shattering Conventions: Commerce, Cosplay and Conflict on the Expo Floor at www.shatteringconventions.com.

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Ethan Gilsdorf is a journalist, memoirist, critic, poet, teacher and 17th level geek. He wrote the award-winning travel memoir investigation Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms. Based in Somerville, Massachusetts, Gilsdorf writes regularly for the New York Times, Boston Globe, Salon.com, BoingBoing.net, PsychologyToday.com, Washington Post and wired.com. He has published hundreds of articles, essays, op-eds and reviews on the arts, pop culture, gaming, geek culture and travel in dozens of other magazines, newspapers, websites and guidebooks worldwide. He has also published dozens of poems in literary magazines and anthologies. He is a core contributor to the blogs "GeekDad, "Geek Pride" on PsychologyToday.com, and Boston NPR affiliate WBUR's Cognoscenti blog. He is also a book and film critic for the Boston Globe, and is the film columnist for Art New England. He and author Noble Smith geek out and wax nostalgic about D&D and other nerdy pop culture relics at Dungeons & Dorkwards. He is a lover of ELO and a hater of littering. Sometimes he wears a tunic and chainmail, or these grampy pants. More info fantasyfreaksbook.com or follow on Facebook fantasyfreaksbook