Last Saturday, eight weeks before Halloween, I spent seven hours mingling with several thousand pop culture fanatics dressed as everything from storm troopers to Superman. I had two objectives: first, get some great pictures; and second, confront my most vivid childhood fear. At 3PM that afternoon, I left with over three hundred images in my camera, an autographed 8X10 of The Incredible Hulk, and the suspicion that I was focusing on the wrong fear.
When I heard that Salt Lake City was hosting its own Comic Con, I assumed the event would be a poor man's version of my San Diego experience six years ago. Taking a drive downtown for a few hours to see Jonathan Frakes wouldn’t measure up to the epic road trip pilgrimage my sister and I took to Southern California to meet Ray Bradbury. Nevertheless, just before 8am on a quiet Saturday morning in early fall, I found myself standing at the back of a Honda Civic in the near-empty City Creek parking garage, trying to help my friend Jared decide which backpack he should bring into the conference.
One was a standard Jansport bag, safe and anonymous. The other was a replica of the pack Luke Skywalker wore in “The Empire Strikes Back” while he was training with Yoda on the swamp planet of Dagobah. Which wouldn’t be a big deal if a life size plush version of the 900-year-old Jedi Master hadn’t been sewn into it.
“A decision like this will tell you where you draw the line,” I told Jared.
I knew where my line was. I was wearing jeans and a “Seinfeld” T-shirt. The closest thing I had to a costume was my vague resemblance to Bruce Willis. The bag I carried was my camera bag. But Jared was the kind of guy who paid a man to etch a Boba Fett tattoo onto his shoulder. With grim determination, he strapped on the Yoda pack and slammed his trunk shut.
“Let’s go,” he said.
Comic Con and its related incarnations have become legendary for Cosplay, the official term for fans making elaborate character costumes. This is what I anticipated for the Salt Lake event, and that is probably what convinced the photojournalist in me to attend. As I approached the Salt Palace with Jared and his brother Richard, taking our place in line, I passed Wookees and Hobbits and superheroes, and in many eyes I recognized a familiar look. It was the same look I had every time I went to grade school in a Halloween costume or a piece of clothing that was slightly out of my comfort zone. It was a fear that I would be judged or mocked for exposing my true self to the world. Outside the protective walls of the Salt Palace, attendees were still in the "Real World," and I could sense their anxiousness to get to where the lobsters of the world could no longer drag them back into the barrel.
Just before 10, the doors opened, and the game was afoot. We crossed the obligatory garish carpeting of the main hallway before flashing our wristbands and entering the Heart of Geek Darkness. I wandered the conference floor, armed with $5,000 worth of overpriced camera equipment, poised to capture the insanity. As a naturally shy person—not unlike most of the attendees—I was nervous about approaching people to take their pictures. But getting pictures at Comic Con was like shooting fish in a nerd-shaped barrel. Any fear of approaching a patron vanished as I filled my memory card with Boba Fetts, Lords of the Rings, and the myriad residents of Marvel and DC Comics.
After a complete loop of the floor, objective number one was well in hand, and as a bonus I’d shaken off a distracting fear. But that wasn’t the fear I’d come to face, and as the clock wound to High Noon, it was time to man up.
Among the scattered memories of my early childhood, the most vivid remain the frights I would sometimes experience in front of a movie screen or a glowing television. My parents told me that I was terrified of the Jawas the first time I saw "Star Wars," and I remember taking Indiana Jones's advice in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" as I turned around in my seat and pressed my face into the plush red cloth of my seat during the Nazi face-melting climax. Those experiences resonated in the dark of a cavernous movie theater, but a weekly terror took place in my parents' basement as I crouched on the red shag carpet of our TV room. That was where my parents would watch "The Incredible Hulk," a weekly drama about a kindly, well-kept homeless man who would drift in and out of small towns, only to change into a green, beady-eyed monster when provoked. Unlike the monsters of the 21st Century, or even those of the 20th, the Hulk was not a rubber suit or a CGI insertion; The Hulk was a real human being in green makeup; he was a very real threat.
The Hulk was my own monster under the bed, a creature whose technical identity as a good guy was lost on my young imagination. I remember watching a behind-the-scenes piece on the show in an effort to overcome my fear, but seeing actor Lou Ferrigno sans makeup didn’t help, nor did the knowledge that the object of my horror suffered from hearing loss. The Hulk still scared the crap out of me. I don't know whether I just grew out of this phase or if it just went away when the show went off the air. But I can say that when I saw Ferrigno would be making an appearance at the Salt Lake Comic Con, the writer in me recognized an opportunity for poetic closure. So I got in his autograph line and prepared to do something brave for the five-year-old I left behind so many years ago.
Thirty years down the road, Lou Ferrigno was still an imposing real-life figure. His chest may not be quite as broad, but his long, veiny arms and large hands still suggest a man who knows how to handle himself. Down the celebrity row, David Prowse and Peter Mayhew sat at tables as wheelchairs lingered behind them, far cries from their glory days behind the masks of Darth Vader and Chewbacca. But Ferrigno still bounced from his chair to take photos with guests, glaring confidently from deep-set eyes under a dark head of hair as if we were all a cross word away from a green nightmare. The one thing he did have in common with his pop culture peers was a steep asking price: $40 for an autographed 8X10, and another $40 to pose for a picture. I chose the 8X10, and had him add a small dedication:
Don't be afraid.
Before I reached for my expensive 8X10, I shook Ferrigno's massive hand as a final peacemaking gesture. Then, my work accomplished, I returned to my barrel-shooting activities.
Events like Comic Con make me feel like I’m straddling an ideological fence. On one side are the diehard uber-geeks who swallow pop culture whole and use public events to release their alter egos in a flurry of painstaking Cosplay. On the other, grown men and women stare back at the geeks with disdain, mocking the juvenile silliness of their passions and reserving their own mania for socially-acceptable contexts like college football games. It’s hard to see the investment of the first group and not be simultaneously impressed and repulsed; just as it’s impossible to see the eye-rolling condescension of the latter group and nod in agreement while mourning their loss of innocence. I got off the road to Cosplay on Christmas during the fifth grade, when I ran into my living room and found a basketball under the tree instead of a pile of Star Wars toys. But that doesn’t mean I ever forgot my roots; I still saw “Phantom Menace” a dozen times in the summer of 1999.
At one point in the middle of my photo frenzy, I spotted a pretty girl standing beneath a tremendous mop of black and white dreadlocks. I asked if I could take her picture, then admitted my ignorance:
“So who are you?” I asked.
“I’m just me,” she replied.
I couldn’t tell if she was messing with me.
“Really?” I asked.
“What better place to be yourself, right?” she asked.
I muttered some response, smiled, and kept moving. She had me stumped. Was I hiding who I really was? Had I come to photograph the freaks because I secretly wanted to be one of them? Was it time to pull that leather fringe jacket out of my closet and start wearing it on a regular basis, not just when I had a Halloween party to crash? That night after I had uploaded my photos, I scrolled through them one at a time, marveling at the fascinating craftsmanship of some while shaking my head at the abject awkwardness of so many others. I pitied and loved and admired all of them, and couldn’t decide whether I related to them or whether I had outgrown them. I watched “The People vs. George Lucas” on Netflix later that evening, a documentary about a man simultaneously adored and despised by the same people who pack plastic Lightsabers in public, and in the morning I read an article on the 20th anniversary of the first season of “The X-Files,” a long-dead TV show that still sends pangs of excitement through fans’ spines whenever David Duchovny hints at another movie. Finally, I thought of the man I met at the convention, the Mr. Hyde half of The Incredible Hulk’s archetypal tandem. Who was real: Dr. Banner or The Hulk? And who was I playing?
I should have asked the girl with the dreadlocks when I had the chance.