Freaks and Geeks: A look at Fan Expo Vancouver and fan culture

By Alison Roach

Within 10 minutes of walking into the Vancouver Convention Centre, I’d seen Batman, Jack Sparrow (complete with swagger), a girl in a wig and fishnets (and not much else), an inhabitant of Avatar’s foreign planet, and Iron Man blasting his theme from a boom box. When I’d first been invited to attend Fan Expo Vancouver, I expected it to be all about comic books and shows set in space, but it quickly became clear that this was something much larger than that. This was a day for fandom.
In late April, Fan Expo came to Vancouver, proclaiming itself “Vancouver’s first major comicon.” Though Fan Expo has graced Toronto since 1995, it hadn’t made it to the west coast until now, and the waiting audience responded eagerly. By the time the doors to the convention opened at 10 a.m. the line was already curling around the waiting area, with dozens of people joining every minute. By noon, the line extended outside, covering the sidewalk all the way down to Canada Place, half a city block. Half an hour later, the line was cut; the centre had taken in all the fans it possibly could.
What lay inside was a carnival. After braving the line, attendees descended down the rabbit hole into the bowels of the Convention Centre, diving into a world of storytelling and fantasy. The core of the expo was a huge space, jam-packed with merchandise booths, signing areas, photo op and gaming spaces, and an authentic Batmobile at the centre of it all. It was an enormous jumble of $1 comic books, fan t-shirts, and attractions (most of these in costume). Looking around, you could spot homages to everything from Labyrinth, to Star Wars, to Portal, to Ghostbusters. This was a fan’s paradise, and it extended way beyond comic books: it was a celebration of pop culture.

The headliners of the convention included Lou Ferrigno (the original Hulk), Kevin Sorbo (yeah, he was Hercules), John DeLancie (of Star Trek fame), and Kristin Bauer (foul-mouthed Pam of True Blood). And of course, Adam West and Burt Ward, the original Batman and Robin. The guests weren’t confined to a single genre either; guest Alan Ruck is still recognizable as Ferris’ best friend Cameron in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Tom Felton, the sneering blonde from Harry Potter, was supposed to appear as well, but, in a typical Malfoy move, cancelled at the last minute. Odds are that these names ring a bell and you would recognize these actors, even if their faces don’t materialize to you right away. Or maybe you’ve loved them as a part of what made your favourite show great. I know I was pretty fucking excited when I realized that I was going to be in the same room as Nicholas Brendon — Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Xander. I had only seen every single episode, twice. No big deal.

The convention was like a festival; like Halloween. There was a feeling that you could be anyone or do anything without judgment. For an entire hour I sat beside a man that dressed up as Dr. Evil, and he didn’t break character once. When another fan beside us mentioned that he was going to school to become a lawyer, the doctor looked at him slyly; signature pinky up , and remarked, “Oh, so you’re on your way to becoming . . . evil.” At Fan Expo, no costume was too outlandish, no reference too obscure. This was the antithesis of hipsters: instead of not caring at all, they did care. A lot. They cared about special effects, character arcs, mythologies, and on-set happenings. It didn’t seem to matter how long ago these actors and creators had put their work out into the world, these industry conversations were still important to those having them.

Fan Expo was not only a chance to become the characters that you love and admire the most, it was a chance to interact with them. Throughout the day, actors were available for autograph signings, photo ops, scheduled panels and Q&A sessions. The panels for newer shows were a bit more formal, but the sessions with veteran actors whose characters have been revered for years were easygoing conversations. At the open John de Lancie Q&A panel, Zack Mead, a nervous fan, came up to the microphone to ask the former Star Trek: The Next Generation actor a question. Mead pointed his camera at de Lancie to capture the answer. De Lancie, amused, quickly pulled out his own cell phone and, mirroring the fan, pointed it at Mead before urging him to ask his question. The crowd laughed with Mead, and cheered as he asked de Lancie a question about his cult role in My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. Afterwards, Mead said that he had come mainly for de Lancie. “He’s a phenomenon.”

This was the case for other appearances. Nicholas Brendan of Buffy fame joked comfortably with the audience, acknowledging his tendency to use higher than PG-13 language: “So if you’re 12 and under, go fuck yourself.” He did his signature Snoopy dance and sang a snippet from the fan-favourite episode, “Once More with Feeling.” When asked what was the most interesting thing he’d ever received from a fan, he answered, “Gonorrhea, probably.”

Adam West and Burt Ward took things to a whole new level. 50 years of being cultural institutions, and friends, made the pair of them something to behold. Throughout the day I asked dozens of people what they most wanted to see, and the most popular answer by far was Adam West. The original Batman series aired between 1966-1968, but the men who played the original Batman and Robin are still legends. The room was packed, and on the stage the pair was relaxed and cavalier. They reminisced about on-set shenanigans (“Remember that time I ad-libbed that line about the Batgirl statue Burt? ‘Don’t touch that golden pussy!’”), and reflected on the show’s satire and controversies. West, whose booming drawl has made Family Guy’s mayor of Quahog famous, even shared a line from the latest episode: “I need to see your penis!” The hour ended sensationally, when a leather-clad Catwoman purred an indecent proposal to West about meeting up later. West and Ward left to an enormous wave of applause.

There was also a significant and recurring reference to the city that ran throughout the day: two new shows that were being promoted and discussed in panels — Continuum and Primeval — both shot in Vancouver. The idea of the city as ‘Hollywood North’ is nothing new, but these two shows are doing something different: Stanley Park is acknowledged as Stanley Park, street signs are shown, and local haunts are features. As one of the producers of Primeval pointed out, one phrase can sum up the reason behind Vancouver’s sudden attraction: the Olympics. The world knows our city now, and Vancouver can be shown as itself. The director of Continuum remarked, “I’m proud of my city, and I want to show it off.” Sure, these two shows deal with the revival of dinosaurs and time travel, respectively, but those dinosaurs are destroying Vancouver, not Vancouver masquerading as Seattle. This trend seems to signify a welcome shift in the perception of this city. One attendee asked the panel of Continuum cheekily: “In 2077, why haven’t you done anything about the Lions Gate Bridge?”

Fan Expo was an event where costumed fans were able to go up and talk to one another without hesitation. The environment was open and easy to navigate because everyone was there for the same reason: they loved entertainment culture. Approaching someone in costume was easy, because they weren’t themselves; they were the character you recognized from that movie, or TV show, or video game. A man in a full Iron Man costume and another in an equally decked-out Halo soldier getup stood and posed for pictures with people for the entire day. Their enthusiasm made it seem as if they were being paid to do it, but when I asked them what their role in the convention was, Iron Man answered with surprise, “We’re just here as fans.” I’m sure that every single other person at Fan Expo would have said the same thing, star guests included. Everyone was there to pay tribute to pop culture, to show how much they cared about these shows, their characters, and their stories. They were all there to be fans.