Friday People Are the Best People: The Beauty of a Single Fandom Convention
Alisha K from Nerd Park debates the pros and cons(no pun intended)between a multi-fandom convention and a single-fandom convention. Nerd Park was at both Grand Rapids Comic-Con and Supernatural Con in Chicago.
As nerds, there is always a longing to go to that Mecca of all things geek: the convention. Whether it’s the big kahuna San Diego Comic Con itself or smaller, local conventions, the desire is great in nerds across the globe. At conventions, we’re able to connect with our fellow nerds, dress up as our favorite characters, and simply bask in the camaraderie of those with similar interests from a multitude of fandoms. At Grand Rapids Comic Con a few weeks ago, for instance, I was able to talk to fans of comics, TV shows, movies, gaming, and pretty much anything else I could think of.
There are conventions out there, however, that don’t have as much breadth as the multi-fandom convention. These tend to focus on a sole fandom or genre, with just one show or book series or movie or franchise at its center. Star Trek is famous for having these since 1972. There are assumptions to be made for these conventions: they’re smaller, with smaller audiences and interests. Programming must be thin, the celebrity guest list pale and measly. Overall, is it worth it to go to a con that only has one focus? What exactly is the appeal if it can’t appeal to everyone?
ChiCon Grand Ballroom. Image courtesy of Nerd Park
I was asking that very question when I took off October 23 in the wee hours of the morning to head out to Rosemont, Illinois to Creation Entertainment’s Salute to Supernatural Chicago (lovingly branded ChiCon by fans). The convention is one of seventeen annual convention stops dedicated to the CW show Supernatural. Currently on its eleventh season, the show has accumulated a large fan base which has made the convention scene for the show a massive success.
Personally, I attended the last day of ChiCon in 2013, merely to take a photo op with Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki, who play Dean and Sam Winchester on the show, respectively. It was a blur of a day, and I honestly don’t remember it being “fun”. My sister and I drove to Michigan City, took a train into Chicago, took a subway into Rosemont, walked down to the hotel, and basically rushed into our photo op. The op itself took about ten seconds, and while we had good bragging rights and an amusing story, we didn’t have much else. We got something to eat, looked at some merch, saw the boys’ panel, and then took off on the forever long journey home. In all, it was more traveling than anything, so I had to question whether the smaller, single fandom convention was worth the time (and the ticket price) in the long run.
Alisha in cosplay. Image courtesy of Nerd Park.
Over the next couple of years, I began hearing through the Tumblr community how thrilling the convention experience was for them. Only able to judge from my personal experience, I was hesitant to give ChiCon another shot. Was I really willing to pay for something that wasn’t really going to pay off in the long run? Finally, a couple months before the 2015 convention, I caved and used money I got for my birthday to get a weekend pass to the convention. And to say that I was blown away would be an understatement. To put it in show terms, it was like being put in the middle of the barn where the angel Castiel made his first appearance in the season four premiere, “Lazarus Rising”–sparks flying and all. (If none of that made sense to you, go locate the nearest Netflix and educate yourself. You’ll thank me later.)
Everything about my first experience had grown in the two years since I had been gone. For one thing, the convention was now being held at the Hyatt Regency, right next to the Donald E. Stephenson Convention Center (where the massive Wizard World Chicago convention is held every year) and just down the road from the Westin (where my first ChiCon was held just a couple years earlier). This was not just a few nerds roaming around a hotel lobby any more. There were fans crawling the halls, the restaurants, the gift shops. The new, bigger hotel had provided a much bigger space for people to roam. At the same time, though, this wasn’t the crowded mosh pit of a typical con. There was room to move, despite the fact that the vendors had been moved out into the hallway outside the Grand Ballroom where the main stage was. Mobility has always been an issue at conventions, so to see a breathable vendor space and an ability to travel easily from one place to another was refreshing.
Richard Speight Jr. Image courtesy of Nerd Park.
The Grand Ballroom, where all the main programming was being held, was much less crowded that Friday afternoon, as well. When I had been there last, there had been people filled to the brim, where you could hardly see the main stage. But that first day, there were many pockets in the seating area where everything was quite visible. As the weekend went on, the seats began to fill in, but for those first couple of days, it was perfect. The programming itself was nerd heaven. The panels took place all within the Grand Ballroom, one after the other, and only consisted of question and answer sessions with the stars of the show. It started out on Friday with the show’s smallest guest (Tyler Johnston, who played angel Samandriel in season eight) all the way to Jared and Jensen on Sunday afternoon.
What really amazed me in these panels was the fact that most of these celebrities were not afraid of their fans. When you go to a celebrity panel at a larger convention, the celebrities have to stay where they are for fear of being groped, grabbed, attacked, and what have you. But here, the guests weren’t afraid to mingle in the audience. Several times, when Rob Benedict (who plays scribe Chuck Shurley on the show) played with his band Louden Swain between panels, he would jump from the stage and run through the aisles, holding out his arms and welcoming high fives from audience members around him. Ruth Connell (who plays evil witch Rowena) got so close to me during her panel that I thought I would faint. Mark Sheppard (King of Hell Crowley, on screen) has a penchant for making fun of his panel attenders and did so mostly up close and personal with many of them. In short, these celebrities were not afraid of fans, which can’t always be said of guests at other conventions. At the larger gatherings, celebrities are hidden away like precious gems from evil dragons. But here, they were just people answering questions for other people.
Mark Sheppard and Ruth Connell. Images courtesy of Nerd Park.
There was more than just question and answer panels, as well, and these extra things made this convention truly unique. On that Friday night, the fans were invited to do karaoke with some of the celebrities. A miraculous amount of people showed up, and it was just like a concert, complete with a “mosh pit” (though, it’s pretty hard to mosh to Backstreet Boys, so we kept it pretty civil). The fans could sign up to sing a song, and if their name got picked, they were welcomed on stage and could sing with the stars of the show. At a bigger convention, this would be absolutely unheard of. Not at ChiCon, though. At ChiCon–and every other Supernatural con–this is normal. This is the experience.
1st Photo: Richard Speight Jr. and Rob Benedict at ChiCon Karaoke.
2nd Photo: Osric Chau and Travis Aaron Wade at ChiCon Karaoke.
Images courtesy of Nerd Park
What was truly amazing about this convention was the sheer friendliness of everyone in attendance. Regular conventions normally consist of randomly roaming vendor halls, possibly attending panels, and then heading off after you’ve had your fill for the day. The most human interaction that you normally get if you haven’t come with someone is asking to take a picture of someone’s cosplay. Maybe–if you’re really lucky–someone will admire a geeky shirt you chose to wear and then have a brief conversation about that.
At ChiCon, though, I made a miraculous amount of friends. For starters, I decided to room with some people that I had met through Tumblr, something that was guaranteed to get me to break out of my shell for starters. I spent the first couple of days with one of my hotel roommates, but once I became immersed in the activities that the convention had to offer, the new friends came swarming in. I ran into one of my teammates from this year’s GISHWHES (Greatest International Scavenger Hunt the World Has Ever Seen, run by Supernatural‘s Misha Collins). While waiting in line for karaoke, I played a rousing game of Cards Against Humanity, complete with fandom related cards. In line for the Saturday Nigh Special concert with Louden Swain, I found a person I was following on Tumblr was sitting right across the hall from me. That turned into me hanging with her and some other Tumblr people hanging out the rest of the night and the next day. I had to think: would this have happened if I were at a regular convention? The audience reach would be so broad, it would have been next to impossible to know whether someone you follow on social media was there. With the single fandom focus, I knew that several people that I followed (and who followed me) would be there in attendance.
When I had returned home late on Sunday night (actually early Monday morning, if I’m being accurate), my first reflections were “Man, that was one of the bests cons I’ve ever been to.” Since 2012, I’ve probably gone to four or five conventions a year, but this one topped nearly all of them. The sheer personality, the brothers-in-arms quality that everyone had there. It all added to the experience. It made the convention become something bigger than just a fan gathering. It made it an experience. It made it a memory. It made it something worth going back to. That’s something that I hadn’t gotten in one Sunday there two years ago. It’s not something I’ve gotten at a multi-fandom convention in three days. It’s something much greater.
Alisha with Mark Sheppard. Image courtesy of Creation Entertainment.
We like to think that more is better, but with a single fandom-focused convention, there is so much more that is brought to the table. Every person there is brought in for the same reason: they love what comes along with that particular piece of art. Multi-fandom conventions cater to everyone, but it loses a lot of heart that way. You’ll run into a few people with whom you share a common bond, but the chances are smaller. You walk through the doors of a multi-fandom convention, and you wonder “Do I really fit in here? Is someone going to judge me because I don’t like what they like?” But when I walked through the doors of ChiCon, I knew right away: I was home.
At the beginning of the programming on Friday afternoon, Richard Speight Jr. (trickster Gabriel on the show, and MC for the weekend) commended all who were there at the very beginning of the convention, those who didn’t just show up for the show’s main stars, claiming “Friday People are the best people.” And I have to agree. Those who want to come not just for a day, not just for something to do, are the best people. Those who come for an experience, something that they can take with them wherever they go, are the best people. Not in the sense of superiority, but in their sense of fulfillment. Those who come for the single fandom-focused convention, not just what appeals to the greatest common denominator, will be much happier in the end with their convention. I’m definitely not saying that I’ll never attend a multi-fandom con ever again. Definitely not. But I also will not discredit the single fandom convention, either. I’ll never look at these conventions ever again and think I shouldn’t attend because I’ll be bored. I’ll think back on my experience at ChiCon and remember the personal joy I got out of the panels, the people, and the atmosphere. I will forever remain a Friday Person.
By Alisha K