I visited the Emerald City, but I did not find my tribe there. I took a Friday off work to join my friend Sean at the Emerald City Comicon event. He was given two passes by a friend who couldn’t attend the Friday festivities. While it was a four-day-long convention for lovers of comic books, role-playing and other games, and science fiction and fantasy art of all kinds, five hours was enough for both of us. No, we did not engage in cosplay, a portmanteau of costume and play in which people dress up as characters from favorite – and often obscure – comics, video games, TV shows, or movies. I rarely don a costume for Halloween, so it’s unthinkable I would dress up in the off-season. I stuck with my usual t-shirt and jeans attire. I my defense, it was a “Nostromo” t-shirt, so I could, if cosplaying bullies wanted to start trouble, make a half-hearted claim I was dressed as a crewman from that ill-fated spacecraft from the movie Alien. I hoped it wouldn’t come to that.
When we arrived at the Seattle Convention Center, we made our way to the main hall for the Outlander panel featuring Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan from the TV adaption of the novels about a woman, Claire, who time-travels from 1945 to 1743 Scotland where she gets caught up in the politics of the time and falls in love with Highlander Jamie. For an hour, the two stars took questions from devoted fans who had lined up for hours to express their love and appreciation for the actors and the characters they portray. My wife and I watch the show together, and I was fanboying. Arguably, I was fangirling, as Sean observed all of the people lined up to ask questions were middle-aged women. As a man, I was in the extreme minority. One of the women told Sam that, thanks to his My Peak Challenge program that inspires people to live healthier, happier, more balanced lives, she, for the first time in her life, thought of herself as beautiful. She thanked Sam with a cracking voice and tears in her eyes. I was caught up in the moment, sniffing back a tear and clapping heartily along with everyone else. Well, everyone except Sean, who gave me a sidelong glance, wondering when, exactly, I had turned into a woman. I didn’t care. This was fun.
After that, we ambled through the bigger-than-Costco aisles of vendors offering up every comic book, video game, t-shirt, and work of art a geek’s heart could desire. It was all intriguing, but the majority was beyond my ken. Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Firefly, and The Walking Dead are my science fiction staples, but I don’t read comics or play video games, so I didn’t recognize much of what was being offered for sale or paraded by clever cosplayers. We also visited a Lego expo, which included life-sized renditions of R2-D2, BB8, Wonder Woman, Captain America, and a Stormtrooper. Sean informed me that the artists had made good use of the SNOT technique, which is an acronym for Studs-Not-On-Top. Through some engineering voodoo, the little bumpy parts of the Legos were not visible on the surface of these plastic brick statues. I had no idea there were such significant advances in Lego construction since I was a kid.
The last stop, after a requisite trip to the beer garden, was a trip to the autograph expo, in which celebrities were camped out, ready to sign things and take selfies with anyone willing to spend between $50 and $100. I was unwilling to spend anything for someone’s signature, but it was cool to see Alice Cooper, Gates McFadden (Dr. Crusher from Star Trek: TNG), Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca), and others, even if it was from a distance. I don’t fault celebrities for profiting from their inscription or image, but I will not be one to fork over hard-earned cash for the privilege. I prefer my celebrity encounters to be coincidental, like meeting David Bowie in an airport, which is the highlight of my “Brushes with Greatness” resume, just ahead of the time I met Olivia Newton-John. She loves me, by the way. It says so on the piece of paper she signed (“To Todd. Love, Olivia Newton John”). You might think she was just writing a polite valediction, but you weren’t there. You didn’t see the love in her eyes.
After five hours at Comicon, Sean and I had seen enough. I loved the positive, judgment-free energy of everyone who was there. These people – thousands of them – were proudly being who they were, liking what they like, and doing cool stuff. There were more smiles per square foot than I’ve seen in a long time. I started the day following my usual pattern of not making too much eye contact with the people I walked past, so as not to seem creepy, but it quickly dawned on me that most of the people at Comicon wanted to be seen and were all too happy to stop and pose for a picture. Taking pride in your passions is a beautiful thing. I enjoyed the people-watching, but I felt more like an anthropologist observing tribal rituals than a participant in them.
My tribe was at a bar in Seattle two night later, where I attended a metal show featuring six thrash, groove, and death metal bands. My t-shirt and jeans were de rigueur in that crowd. I met up with similarly clad metal friends, both young (who have bands of their own) and old (including co-workers who joined the metal fun after spending the day at Comicon). I was the senior member of the clan, and the pinnacle of my evening was being up at the front of the barricade, singing along with Death Angel when lead vocalist Mark Osegueda stretched his hand out to me. I’m certain that he was reaching out to me specifically. Death Angel has been making great metal since the early 80s, and I think Mark saw a fellow graying headbanger in the front row and decided to shake my hand in recognition of my lifelong devotion to the metal arts. We were tribal elders acknowledging each other.
That weekend of geeks and metalheads got me thinking about tribal culture. While my kids were prohibited by their teachers from citing Wikipedia as a source in their scholastic endeavors due to it’s lack of reliability, I am bound by no such restriction, and I found two references there that intrigued me:
Stephen Corry, a British anthropologist, defines tribal people as those who “…have followed ways of life for many generations that are largely self-sufficient, and are clearly different from the mainstream and dominant society.”
Anthropologist Morton H. Fried[…] concluded that tribes in general are characterized by fluid boundaries and heterogeneity, are not parochial, and are dynamic.
The geek tribe has been around since at least 1966, when Star Trek debuted on NBC, and metal was born in 1968, when Black Sabbath began laying down the blueprint for heavy metal. That’s at least three generations of fandom for people who’s respective passions have kept them on the fringes of the mainstream. Both tribes include a wide array of variations on the respective themes, with too many sub-genres to count. Both have an openness, even a hunger, for new expressions, and both epitomize dynamism in their visual, verbal, and aural expressions. Pretty cool.
In the middle of one band’s set Sunday night, my metal sister Rachel tapped me on the shoulder, and I saw her holding up her phone for an epic selfie of the two of us celebrating our love for metal. I was having far too much fun to put on a good metal grimace, and the photo showed me grinning broadly. It was not a Facebook-worthy photo due to my expression of childlike joy rather than metal menace. Oh well, I love what I love.
Cheers to all of you who proudly join with others to fervently pursue your passions. You are not alone.