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Baltimore Comic Con: Journey into the Heart of Nerdness

Photo by Joe Newman

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Baltimore Comic Con 2013 See more Baltimore Comic Con 2013 photos on my flickr page.
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Behind me, a guy dressed in a White Power Ranger costume was deep in a discussion with a fellow Baltimore Comic Con-goer about where the other Power Rangers might be today if they were actually, you know, real people allowed to outgrow their spandex superhero getups and move on to hum-drum adult lives.

Billy, the Blue Power Ranger, would most definitely be a college professor, while Tommy, the Red Power Ranger, would probably have become a lawyer. Oh, and Zack, the Black Power Ranger — it would make perfect sense for Zack to open his own dance school and become an instructor. The dude was always dancing.

Maybe anywhere else such a heart-felt discussion between two adults about a campy 90s’ kids show might have raised a few eyebrows, but at the moment, I was smack dab in the middle of the largest gathering of nerds and geeks that I’d ever seen — and a passionate conversation about superheroes was hardly going to turn any heads.

Baltimore Comic Con 2013

Nerds as far as the eye can see

If there was any doubt whether Baltimore could turn out the nerd crowd, then the entrance line that wrapped completely around the 425,000 square-foot Baltimore Convention Center on Saturday easily put that thought to rest. And that was only the folks who bought tickets in advance. There was an even longer line of people waiting to buy tickets.

My friend and colleague Chris Pabon surveyed the scene proudly and noted there were scores of children there with their parents.

“Don’t forget this angle for your blog — the nerds are reproducing and bringing their kids! We’re not going to die out anytime soon,” Chris said.

And for the record, when he made this proclamation, Chris was dressed as The Shadow in a black fedora, leather trench coat, cape, gloves, and a flowing red scarf wrapped around his face, as well as two replica .45-caliber handguns in shoulder holsters under each arm.

Baltimore Comic ConIf anyone was qualified to give me an assessment on the ascendancy of nerd culture, well, The Shadow knows.

These days, everyone wants to be a nerd. After all, who wouldn’t want to be the brains behind the next billion-dollar tech startup or the writer of the next best-selling series of fantasy novels?

Here’s the point in the story where I should back up just a bit. While many of the comic book fans who descended on Baltimore’s bustling Inner Harbor on Saturday and Sunday proudly embrace the nerd or geek label, don’t make the Hollywood mistake of thinking they all fit into the archetypes found on shows like The Big Bang Theory. If you insist on clinging to the cheap punchline that nerds are creatures of stunted sexuality, then you’ve obviously never been to a “Con,” where you’ll find a lot more cleavage on display than pocket protectors and horned-rimmed glasses.

Organizers of the Baltimore Comic Con says this year’s gathering was the largest in its 14-year history. And unlike some of the bigger, better known Cons, Baltimore’s Con remains loyally devoted to comic books with no flashy movie or television tie-ins like you’ll find in San Diego or New York. This is a Con for comic book fans, casual, hard-core and, well, people who just really dig dressing up as superheroes.

From the Baltimore Sun:

“The Baltimore Comic-Con is one of the last pure comic book conventions in the country,” says Maryland artist Frank Cho, whose work for Marvel has included drawing Spider-Man, the Avengers and Shanna the She-Devil. “In the past 15 years on the convention circuit, much of the focus has shifted from comics to movies and TV and video games. But the Baltimore Comic-Con is still only about comics, which is refreshing and great.”

Baltimore Comic Con 2013

It’s a tribe thing

By the end of this year, Chris will have attended nearly a dozen Cons, from Emerald City Comicon in Seattle to RingCon in Bonn, Germany next month. He’ll have spent hundreds of dollars on autographed pictures and sketches, not including the cost of admission, travel and, in some cases, lodging. As just one example, the chance to get his picture taken with William Shatner at ShoreLeave Con in Hunt Valley, Md. cost $80. An autograph from Shatner — the actor who no matter how big his waistline gets will always be remembered as the dashing hunk Captain James Tiberius Kirk — cost another $75. And that’s just one celebrity get. On Chris’ DC Nerd flickr page, he has pictures of himself with scores of other stars, ranging from the famous to the obscure.

What drives the obsession?

“People have a fundamental need to belong to a tribe,” Chris said. “When I’m at a Con, I’m with other people who get me.”

I get it.

Harley Quinn and Deadpool at Baltimore Comic Con 2013

Dr. Who?

I went to Baltimore Comic Con with Chris because I thought it would be a great place to take pictures (my current geeky obsession) but my own journey into the heart of nerdness started decades earlier. As a child of the 70s, I plopped down a couple quarters each month for the latest issue of Captain America and Falcoln and whatever other title caught my eye. I’m not sure why or how I became a fan of Cap and what that says about the kind of kid I was or the type of adult I became — but I’m pretty sure there’s something in there that’s pretty telling.

By the time I was in sixth grade, I had read the college editions of Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid. I devoured Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain. I played Dungeons & Dragons in high school and was on the debate team. I’ll go so far to admit (albeit not without some trepidation) that as an adult, not only have I played World of Warcraft, I even ran my own guild.

(I just read that line to my wife and she laughed and said, “I don’t even know what that means.” The funny thing is, if I could convince her to go camping with me in the desert, which I did last month, I’m pretty sure she’d dress up with me and go to a Con. There were a lot of couples at the Baltimore Comic Con, including Ashley and Adam who are pictured above as Harley Quinn and Deadpool. That hammer Harley Quinn is holding? Ashley made it herself out of two hat boxes. Adam said Deadpool is his “go-to” costume because it allows him to act like a jerk. Though he seemed like too nice of a guy to really be a jerk.)

I get the the hero and villain thing and the obsession with fantasy worlds.

But that doesn’t necessarily qualify me as a nerd, geek or dork. And yeah, there’s a distinction. If anything, I’m more of a geek, than a nerd, though at times I feel like a dork. The delineations being that  dorks are socially awkward creatures, geeks are driven by obsession and nerds are brainy types who intersect in both circles of awkwardness and obsession.

The rise of the Internet and personal computers certainly empowered a new generation of nerds and geeks, who suddenly were not only the smartest people in the room but also the very people we could literally not live without. If you’ve never needed tech support, well, then you’re probably either a nerd or geek. Or living in a shack in Montana.

That my nerd bonafides were lacking was made clear to me as I admired one of the “propaganda-style” posters displayed at the Monkey Minion Press booth. Portland artist Duane Ault uses superheroes and sci-fi references in the posters in place of  say, Uncle Sam and Rosie the Riveter. I casually asked if one of the posters with a bunch of robots on it was an Iron Man reference. Um, no, said Ault, who shot me a friendly if somewhat pitying looking. Those are cybermen from Dr. Who. And, as Chris later informed me, technically, cybermen are androids, not robots.

There’s a big difference from being a fan of the Game of Thrones and being able to recite not only the heraldic sigils of Westeros’ ruling houses but the makeup of their family trees, as well.

Baltimore Comic Con

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Actual Conversation

Me: Do these t-shirts come in X-Large?

Vendor: We have medium through 5-XL.

Me: Um, there’s such a thing?

Vendor: We have all the “Con” sizes! We had someone just ask for a 6-XL.
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POW! WHAM! CHA-CHING!

For a first time Con-goer, Baltimore Comic Con was a little overwhelming. It reminded me a little bit like being in a crowded, frenetic foreign marketplace for the first time where it’s hard to concentrate on any one thing because there’s just so many new strange things to see.

I admit I felt a little out of place weaving through the throngs of costumed superheroes and attendees wearing all sorts of comic-book related t-shirts. There were rows and rows of comic books, graphic novels, action figures, art work, trinkets, t-shirts and anything else a fanboy or fangirl might possibly desire — but I really wasn’t feeling a great urge to buy anything. If anything, I was a little envious of the devotion of my fellow attendees.

Is there anything greater than to be completely surrounded by something that you’re extremely passionate about? Trust me, if this had been a camera and electronics show or a social media convention, I would have been as geeked out as the next guy.

Baltimore Comic Con 2013 I mean what comic book fanatic wouldn’t want their own $25 bottle of the legendary Stan Lee’s signature line cologne? It follows up on last year’s release of The Avenger’s set of cologne, which came in the fragrances of the Hulk, Thor, Captain America and Iron Man. Lee, who is to Marvel Comics what Hugh Hefner is to Playboy, wasn’t to be outdone by a bunch of superheroes, said Danielle, whose father’s Lutherville, Md. company, JADS International, makes and markets the cologne.

What does Stan the Man’s cologne smell like? Well, it wasn’t really my style but it has been described as a mixture of “Bergamot, ginger, white pepper, basil and violet with accords of cedar, vetiver and musk.” Danielle assured me it’s a hot seller at the Cons with both the guys and ladies.

Chris laid out some cash on sketches, including some drawn and signed by artists from the popular Cartoon Network show Adventure Time, and another print signed by comic book artist Josh Adams, son of the famous D.C. Comics artist Neal Adams.

Mostly though, I think he was getting a kick out all the people asking to take pictures of him and with him. As far as I could tell, he was the only Shadow among the dozens of Wolverines, Banes, Storms, Supergirls and Jokers.

Baltimore Comic Con 2013

If I was at a different place in my life, I would have been going crazy over the superhero memorabilia and art work. As it was, I made three purchases: one of those cool propaganda posters from Monkey Minion Press (signed by Ault), a random issue of the Fables graphic novel (upon Chris’ recommendation) and the first issue of a comic book called the The First Law of Mad Science by writers Mike Isenberg and Oliver Mertz, two earnest guys dressed in lab coats whom I imagine before self-publishing their own comic book were not much different from  the thousands of people who shuffled past their booth last weekend.

Mertz tried to explain the plot behind their comic to me. It was too loud and he spoke too fast for me to follow along but I gleaned it was set in the “near future,” was about something called “Cyber-Eyes” and involved a sinister conspiracy that threatened mankind.

They’re facing some tough competition in the graphic novel / comic book arena, with hundreds of new titles competing for attention each year. I really liked Isenberg and Mertz because they’re first-timers who had a dream, found artist Daniel Lapham online, raised money through a modest Kickstarter campaign and are making a go of it. And while some of their more established counterparts at Baltimore Comic Con were selling signed sketches for upwards of $20, Isenberg and Mertz both signed my copy of their first issue for $3.99.

I’m pulling for them to make it, and if they do, I’ve got their first issue signed in gold sharpie.

All photos by Joe Newman. See more photos from Baltimore Comic Con 2013 on my flickr page.

Joe Newman

I'm Joe Newman, multi-media story teller, non-profit do-gooder, international street photographer, serious poker player, intrepid traveler. Bourbon drinker.