Where were all the Avatards at this year’s WonderCon?

The convention, held in San Francisco, is much, much smaller than San Diego Comic Con, and it’s definitely more comic book oriented than that annual supershow. Still, WonderCon is one of the half-dozen biggest conventions in the United States, and walking through the floor of the show I felt like it was saying a couple of things about the state of fandom in 2010.

Browncoats are here to stay. There was a huge Browncoat booth at WonderCon. Granted it was in the ‘fan club’ section of the floor, but it was massive, well organized, and had lots of stuff for sale. Next to it was a rinky dink and tragic booth for the TV show Jericho (I swear to God), and across the way was a booth for Avatar: The Last Airbender. But it wasn’t just the Browncoat booth (and for those out of the loop – Browncoats are the die-hard fans of Joss Whedon’s Firefly and Serenity); I saw a number of people in Browncoat outfits, wearing Browncoat identifying shirts, and with Browncoat buttons on their bags.

The Browncoats have always been a weird fandom – they’re really into something that just isn’t that good – but they’re obviously a loyal fandom. Like the Trek fans of the 70s, being the loser – the fandom that gets little respect and can’t seem to win any battles – is a powerful motivator. The best thing that happened to these people is that Serenity tanked.

The Avatards were missing. Three days at WonderCon and I didn’t sight a single Na’vi cosplayer. Wasn’t that supposed to be huge in 2010, what with their being Na’vi dictionaries and online tutorials for doing Na’vi make-up? Dressing as a Na’vi is actually perfect for a convention, where women who should be wearing more clothing take the opportunity to dress in either nothing or skintight spandex. There’s also a high level of sexualization of costumes, and the Na’vi come pre-sexualized.

So where were they? I didn’t even see much by way of Avatar merchandise; the closest was I saw two kids with Avatar Project backpacks with the name tag of ‘J. Sully,’ obviously some kind of promo schwag. Avatar toys, models, or posters were missing from the merch tables, and it would have been easy to believe that WonderCon was taking place before James Cameron changed the game.

Comic book characters ruled, but Watchmen was rare. I saw a couple of Rorschachs and a Silk Spectre – both longtime Con costume staples – but the flood of Watchmen characters I saw at Comic Con last summer was not present at WonderCon. And the Silk Spectre I saw was comic accurate as opposed to movie accurate.

That said, I saw a ton of comic book costumes, many of them hearkening back to the 70s and 80s. I saw a Patsy Walker, Hellcat costume (very well done!) and some classic X-Men costumes. Batman remains big, although the Joker wasn’t as present as he has been at previous comic conventions. WonderCon skews more towards comics than other geek properties, so it’s quite likely that this is why comic characters outnumbered all others.

Steampunk and anime hold their positions. Actually, steampunk could be growing. The most annoying geek subculture, steampunk was represented by a number of costumes and at least two tables of merch. I’ve been seeing a steady growth of steampunk at conventions, and while I think it has more or less stabilized, it’s possible that it was proportionately more visible at the smaller WonderCon than at the bigger Comic Con. I do suspect that it’s bleeding outside of the subculture – after all, even Disney is getting in on steampunk with The Mechanical Kingdom (real, as far as I know) – so it’s possible that steampunk video game or anime characters went unrecognized by me as specifics and were just filed away as generic ‘steampunk.’

Speaking of anime, they continue to be a strong component of conventions. There seems to be an unending supply of pimply 14 year old girls who want to wear cutesy hats and schoolgirl outfits that I’m assuming are based on something specific. There are always guys with oversized swords or weird things on their heads – I don’t recognize the specific references, usually, but I can get that it’s anime in some way. Having spent a couple of decades on the general convention scene I find it interesting that you rarely see grown up versions of these costumes; the 14 year old anime con-cosplayer of 15 years ago has either moved on to other costumes or has quit the whole scene altogether.

Star Trek is at the back of the bus. As a Trek fan I found very little to interest me at WonderCon. There were the usual toys, I found a couple of cool sericels from the animated series, and there were two big fat guys dressed as Klingons (people who dress as Klingons tend to be really tubby, I’ve found), but the hoped-for bunches of green skinned Orion Starfleet cadets were not to be found. And the JJ Abrams Trek was barely represented. I did see about six different people in the same Urban Outfitters Trek shirt, though – an original series design.

Where the hell did all the Trekkies go? Their numbers had been dwindling at non-Trek specific cons for years, and for good reason: their franchise was shit. But with the new movie energizing the franchise and making it the most fun, the sexiest and the best current scifi property, I  thought for sure we’d see more Trekkies showing up at WonderCon, and I completely assumed they’d be rocking the new movie outfits. It was not the case.

It’s lights out for Twilight. While Twilight had a major presence at Comic Con, there was very little of it at WonderCon. No cosplay (although it’s a tough costume to put together), and very little merch. In fact, the trailer for Eclipse was booed when it was played in the big presentation room. That’s a long way from the thousands of tweens who camped out overnight to get into Hall H at last year’s Comic Con. I’m not placing any franchise health judgments as a result of this; the Twilight crowd has infiltrated Comic Con, but they’re not regular con attendees, so they likely wouldn’t make the trek to San Francisco for WonderCon.

Star Wars remains king. You couldn’t turn a corner without running into something Star Wars related. As surprised as I was that a franchise as vital and refreshed as Star Trek was poorly accounted for, I was doubly surprised that a franchise as exhausted and lame as Star Wars was so popular. Jedi costumes have been popular for some time at these events – they’re easy for lazy fuckers to whip up – but the spectrum ranged from specific Luke Skywalkers to Twi’leks to the usual hordes of stormtroopers to even a guy doing Han Solo as Wolverine.

And the merch! Everywhere I went there was a ton of Star Wars merch on display. Toys, props, costumes, memorabilia – I overheard one guy say ‘It’s like Star Wars threw up in here,’ and I couldn’t have agreed more. In fact I’d say that I saw more Star Wars going on here than I have at a con since the release of Revenge of the Sith bummed everybody out. I suspect that The Clone Wars, which is hitting a very specific niche audience (much of which is made up of conventioneers), played a role in the dramatic Star Wars resurgence.

These are just some observations I made this past weekend; in reality you can’t judge fandom until July, when San Diego Comic Con really puts it all out there. Trends I saw at WonderCon may not be represented at Comic Con; likewise Comic Con could hold some major surprises for us. Still, it’s fun to look at fandom as it struts its stuff at these events and try to take its pulse.

UPDATED: There seems to be some folks taking offense at this article. I’m not sure why. Sorry that I don’t like Firefly or Serenity that much – neither does most of the world, judging by the numbers. That’s just the way it is. Nobody’s taking you to task for liking it.

As for claims in the comments that I’m ‘bullying’ convention-goers – how silly. I go to conventions. I bought stuff at WonderCon. I’m going to Monsterpalooza in LA this weekend. I’m just fascinated by the hardcore fanbases, the people who put on costumes and go to these shows. While this is a miniscule portion of the crowd of tens of thousands at WonderCon, I do think that these people are sort of the geek outliers – they tell us, in broad terms, what’s going on in the geek world, as does the kinds of merch available. If you think anything less than a celebration of these people is picking on them, sorry, but you’re wrong.

Photos from Generik11’s Flickr