Comic-Con, the annual feast of geek, crashed into the California coast in San Diego this past weekend, bringing with it more than 100,000 dedicated connoisseurs of such pop-culture delights as videogames, comic books, cartoons, sci-fi and fantasy series, and the Hollywood adaptations of all of the above.
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It’s marketing mayhem: Major studios teasing fans with exclusive previews or clues about plot twists for shows like Lost, handing out freebies or hosting panels that feature all the major stars—making appearances this year were teen heartthrobs Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart of Twilight promoting the next installment of the series, New Moon; the cast of that other beloved vampire series, True Blood; Scarlett Johansson and Robert Downey Jr. for Iron Man 2; the new Alice in Wonderland’s Johnny Depp and requisite babe for the Maxim set, Megan Fox of Transformers 2, just to name a few.
But the real stars are the fans who come dressed as their favorite characters, making Comic-Con a runway show like no other. Call it costume couture. It’s a masquerade ball for people with an itch for attention and recognition from like-minded nerds, with mega-points doled out for the painstakingly crafted ensemble where no minute detail is overlooked. Comic-Con’s sideshow of fans sporting superhero spandex turns into a microcosm of the celebrity culture and red-carpet fashion simultaneously played out on adjacent stages.
“The people in character costumes were like giant electromagnets that would cause major roadblocks in the aisles and on the streets as dozens of people would stop to admire, hug them and take pictures,” explains Love Ablan, a photographer from Los Angeles for i am 8-bit Productions who is documenting fangirls for a forthcoming book.
“They've rehearsed poses in the mirror for weeks leading up to the con,” says Jon M. Gibson, founder of i am 8-bit and co-founder of Nerdcore, a calendar of pinups featuring themes with nerd appeal, like comic-book superheroes, sci-fi or videogames. “It's pretty fucking cool. This is their time to shine, so no doubt, they're going to play the role as best they can.”
“The crowd pleasers were usually the most accurate costumes, or the ones that clearly took the most work,” says Ablan. “One guy had painstakingly crafted a homemade Transformers 'Bumblebee' costume out of cardboard and aluminum foil that was pretty impressive. Another guy made a dragon head costume for his wheelchair.”
Creative muscles weren’t the only thing fans flexed at Comic-Con, where scantily clad sirens were not an uncommon sight—companies would hire “booth babes” dressed as sexy versions of characters, while nerds did the metaphoric (and often times literal) Clark Kent-to-Superman transformation with the addition of a little stretch fabric. “Spandex is always king, and that stretches from the golden age of comics all the way to the modern,” says Gibson. “It's like a trendy club—everyone is getting checked out. Nice ass, good chest, powerful superhero jaw.”
Then there were those parading around dressed as real-life superheroes.
“The best costume hands down was Barack Obama with an entourage of half a dozen Secret Service guys,” says Ablan. “He had the look and mannerisms down, and the men in black stayed in character the whole time, talking into their headsets while scanning the crowds attentively. People were cheering and screaming, ‘I love you Barack!’ and "I voted for you!’ It was definitely unexpected, and really well executed.”
Some Comic-Con attendees turned promotional freebies from bigger film and TV companies into something worthy of a Project Runway challenge, taking giant vinyl swag bags and converting them into one-of-a-kind patchwork jackets and dresses, deconstructing, say, Harry Potter’s face or the logo from Dexter. “We were wondering if people had actually brought sewing machines with them and stayed up all night in their hotel rooms to make these clothes just for the Con,” says Ablan.
But for every look-at-me creation by a comic couturier, the majority of Comic-Con attire consisted of more subtle plays on nerd culture. “For the most part during the convention itself, the only-fellow-nerds-will-get-the reference humor T-shirt, cargo shorts, and glasses is the average look,” says Ablan. “There was one shirt for sale that read, ‘Roll the dice... it builds character’ which I thought was hilarious, but it probably doesn't make any sense to most people unless they've played Dungeons & Dragons at least once.”
Renata Espinosa is the New York editor of Fashion Wire Daily. She is also the co-founder of impressionistic fashion and art blog TheNuNu and a sometimes backup dancer for "The Anna Copa Cabanna Show."