The eye contact at a comic book convention is fleeting, at first.
As I walked a slow path past the line of wrist-banded fans waiting for the start of Wizard World Austin on Friday afternoon, the eyes of each person looking in my vague direction met mine for an instant before immediately flitting downward to my t-shirt.
Beyond some scattered Jedi regalia and and errant Ghostbusters, the early arrivals on the whole were not cosplayers, but people with t-shirts bearing tribute to the things that brought them—iconic superhero logos and obscure video game in-jokes.
It so happened that I was wearing a shirt that pays a simple homage to Joss Whedon's short lived television space opera Firefly with the word "Browncoat," an elementary reference for the line of onlookers. But they didn't come to award style points: the eyes invariably returned upward, just as briefly, to meet mine once again, accompanied by a friendly nod of recognition.
These are my people.
By circumstance, I haven't been to a comic book convention of any sort since high school, when I was still collecting piles of Wizard magazines and living in Milwaukee. My uncle, a store owner, got me into the Wizard World Chicago for a few years in the late 90s, the country's second largest convention behind the San Diego Comic-Con. It was a madhouse, with thousands of fans, huge displays from the major publishers and acres of comics, toys and artwork for sale.
In the decade since, the idea of comic fandom, or just being a nerd in general, has crossed over into some sort of uneasy mainstream appeal; the internet has made it much easier to be a superfan of anything and to engage with that community of specific people that love something just as much as you do.
As the San Diego Comic-Con has tripled in attendance, it's also shifted in focus from comics and artists to celebrity-filled panels and movie screenings. Comic sales have plummeted as precipitously as book sales, and Wizard magazine stopped printing in January of this year. Wizard entertainment still publishes news online, but mostly exists to maintain its satellite tour of conventions, including Wizard World Austin (itself a refugee from Dallas a few years back).
What appeal does the Austin convention have, I wondered? With the internet, anyone can find rare titles without paying the admission. Beyond the die-hard fans of the various celebrities in attendance, who would I meet on the floor?
The answer, of course, is everyone. People that love wearing leather corsets and steampunk eye-goggles; people that relish the chance to dress in spandex and be the center of attention for once.
Friday was a tepid day, bustling but scattered. Saturday is when the costumes came out in force: X-Men, Avengers, aliens of every sort—even a Jack Sparrow that kept jumping into other people's photographs. But even with all the sights, comic conventions are still a primarily retail experience, but one not replicable in a single store or on Amazon.com.
Where else can you buy a longsword, Uncanny X-Men #244 (the first appearance of Jubilee!) and vampire contact lenses? It's the combination of the environment and the merchandise that will keep these cons going no matter how low comic book sales get.
If anything, the mainstream adoption of nerd culture has made the atmosphere of the convention more inviting and made conversations on the floor easier to strike up. I witnessed two people with the same bright orange-knitted hat (a much deeper Firefly reference than my shirt, trust me) high-fiving like lost brothers, and the traffic down the long exhibit hall aisles stopped frequently for strangers posing in photos together.
The memory of our favorite works of art never go away—and nostalgia dominates the programming at Wizard World Austin, with panels devoted to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Star Wars and even Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
The ease of connection in the modern era hasn't made comic conventions any less of events. It's made them all the more vital for creating new memories; for living a day in costume, finding new things to be fans of and meeting people with the same glint of boundless enthusiasm behind their eyes.
Wizard World Austin's final day is today from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Austin Convention Center.