It may be tightly secured to a patch of lawn-space, as opposed to ruthlessly marauding through an awe-struck Manhattan, but for a period of 24 hours at least the unmistakable figure of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man towers above the citizens of Wrexham, the manifest consequence of Ghostbuster Ray Stantz’s catastrophically misguided attempt ‘to think of the most harmless thing, something that could never, ever possibly destroy us’.
As a precursor to what we are about to experience – the sense of fun, the imagination, the joyous ambition – it’s an especially fitting means of welcoming over two thousand expectant visitors to Wales Comic Con. And though the term ‘visitors’ is used here very much in the V sense, a sudden influx of myriad alien life form to a broadly trusting urban populace, there does not appear to be an ounce of discernible malice amongst these Hellboys, Hit-Girls, and space cadets – no live guinea pigs were consumed in the making of this event. Moreover, and for one day at least, the restrictive received wisdom of social etiquette is quietly discarded to the outer regions of the galaxy. And you know what? It feels great. The formidable looking dude in the Keep Calm And Demand Trial By Combat t-shirt who might otherwise radiate an element of menace within a city centre pub setting assumes instead the role of amiable bit-part player in a riotous pageant of tribal masquerade; an environment of celebration and palpable kinship that straight society can only dream of.
As a first time visitor to Comic Con – in Wales, or anywhere else – I’m at first struck by the apparent absence of any actual comics. And though this initial impression is ultimately punctured by the good people of the Chester Comic Company, a cheery bastion of the medium amidst an eye-catching sea of competing interests, it’s not hard to see how conventions would struggle to exist on comic books alone. In keeping with the spirit of its international mothership, the San Diego Comic Con, (now into its 45th year), and prevailing contemporary tastes, the Wrexham event also sets out to provide a platform for much broader aspects of the popular arts and their respective subcultures; an approach that encompasses TV, film, science fiction/fantasy literature, gaming, costume play and, erm… wrestling. I never quite got the wrestling bit, but it seems to have its place. Either that, or nobody’s ever sought to bring it up for fear of offending the wrestlers. I mentioned it once or twice, but I think I got away with it. So yeah, wrestling. That’s part of it too.
Yet as much as Glyndwr University acts as a perfect multi-attraction convention site this will always be the kind of event where its peacock parade of costumed punters is the real show in town. Wrexham does Wales proud in this respect. Its countless ‘cosplay’ attendees, the Daredevils, Leias, and Whovians of this world, the weekend warriors of fantasy escapism, provide a spectacular visual display. So much so that the woman sat next to me at one of the numerous Q&A sessions confesses to feeling like ‘a bit of a dick’ having decided not to dress up. I nod knowingly, as we both look down at our conventional natural fibres with a collective sense of shame. The talk panels themselves, with themes ranging from Potter to Torchwood to Star Trek, are expertly managed and wholly engaging. Like much of this Comic Con they are testament to both the exceptional conference-hosting facility and an evident desire to treat its customers, its community, as guests rather than commerce-fodder. The talks are free to attend, skilfully hosted, and at times gleefully anarchic.
‘Are there any kids in today?’ Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s Nicholas ‘Xander’ Brendon asks, as he gazes out at a vast audience that contains an evidently fair proportion of them, before swiftly adding ‘…well you should fuck off now then!’ It’s an instruction that’s greeted with remarkably good-natured laughter by parents and children alike, even those who kids been sagely advised by sporadically anxious mums and dads to ‘muff it’ at appropriate points. Brendon, true to type, puts on a sterling potty-mouthed show of admirable candour and unabashed eccentricity. He refers to his friend Joss Weddon, the show’s writer, as a ‘word Nazi’, citing his perpetual refusal to permit deviation from even the tiniest element of the script. He uses the phrase ‘smoking pole’ on more than five occasions. He writhes in his seat theatrically under light inquisition, provides elongated answers to questions that haven’t actually been asked, and responds splendidly to an enquiry as to what his favourite song is from the renowned musical episode ‘Once More With Feeling’ by conducting an excitably compliant audience in an impromptu acapella rendition. The fact that the actor manages to make it to Wrexham at all would appear to be solely at the discretion of the Florida Police Department who recently arrested him on suspicion of trashing his hotel room. Again. Nicholas Brendon might not be a vampire slayer himself, but he slays this midday audience and then retreats from the fray to a lengthy and rapturous ovation. God knows what he’s up to at the moment, but I’d venture that there may be a fair few Holiday Inns in the North Wales area who’ve since run out of those cutesy ‘please make up my room’ signs.
Comic Con is a triumph, both in its execution and its celebration of those whose interests thrive within the margins. It exists as a celebration of those who aspire to a different ideal for living. Those whose existences are driven by a sense of personal liberty and the intrinsic right to be whoever they want to be in this dreary monocultural world that appears only to reward conformity. All in the knowledge that there is a fine line that exists between reality and fantasy.
Or as Batman himself said when challenged about the validity of his civic jurisdiction,‘What gives you the right? What’s the difference between you and me?’
‘I’m not the one wearing hockey pads’.
All images and artwork by Craig Austin and Dean Lewis.