Face it Fan Expo: you’ve grown too much.
If I were to use word association techniques in describing this year’s Fan Expo experience, the first one that would come to mind is: cramped.
Here in Toronto, we are very proud of our “World Class City” status, how polite we are, how clean the city is and all that, but if there’s one thing we’ve blinded ourselves to, it’s our growth. Our infrastructure is steadily outpaced by our increasing population in addition to our tourism … and where you can see that is at Fan Expo Canada.
In its previous incarnations, Fan Expo had been held at the Exhibition Stadium and other venues but it quickly outgrew those locations and finally took the Metro Toronto Convention Centre as its most recent home. In the last few years it took both North and South buildings to house exhibitors, guests and other attractions. Fan Expo has grown to be the third biggest comic/sci-fi/gaming convention in the world. And if you are claustrophobic, this isn’t for you.
Migrating back and forth between the two buildings creates a bottleneck of sweaty, impatient and frustrated passholders who want to get between the comics and comic-guests in the South building to the celebrities, vendors, horror and gaming exhibits in the North one. It’s particularly difficult if you’re dressed as your favourite Transformer.
It’s tough enough to move within one building; the lines for tickets, photo ops and other attractions effectively block the traffic flow to the point that you are literally sandwiched between a burly security guard trying to maintain the integrity of one line and some guy in a Batman suit who’s growling at you in a gravelly voice that “he’s Batman, so get the hell off my foot.” Some people take their roles pretty seriously.
But even if you’re a VIP ticket holder, you are still subject to the mercy of a line. At Fan Expo, extra privileges don’t mean a lot if you’re in a queue with about fifty other people who bought the same pass as you did. Lines are the great equalizer when it comes to getting more geek on than your neighbor.
Still, that’s a dichotomy inherent with Fan Expo – the attractions are so great, that people are willing to pay for what they see as an extra privilege; but if everyone has it, then the purchaser doesn’t feel like they’re getting something special. For example, you can pay for the extra expensive VIP admission ticket package, but if you want a photo op with Nathan Fillion, then you still have to stand in line with someone who paid a regular admission price and spend more money.
It’s also the only game in town. If you want to meet a celebrity from your favourite TV show, or a famous comic book artist, then you’re going to Fan Expo. There have been a couple of competing cons in the past, but because the experience at Fan Expo is clearly a better one, then you’re coming here, no argument. Of course, this speaks highly of the connections the Fan Expo organization clearly has.
This year, Fan Expo outdid themselves with the collection of horror/sci-fi media stars. William Shatner, Nathan Fillion, Sir Patrick Stewart along with Edward James Olmos, Doctor Who’s Matt Smith, Elijah Wood and other mega-nerd draws really upped the photo-ops numbers this year. If there was a profit-making boom in Fan Expo’s ledger this year, it was probably because if this. While people could purchase tickets for photos with their favourite stars ahead of time, there was also yet another massive line for people to stand in to buy photos on the spot. Unfortunately, there was a problem with the advance ticket sales a couple of weeks ago in that the server was unable to handle the initial amount of people who tried to purchase online. Fan Expo was able to correct the issue, but a lot of people wound up purchasing photo ops in person, with cash payments the only way to purchase them.
In terms of comic guests, the line-up was light. While there were a good number of current successful artists like David Finch, Brian Azzarello or Andy and Adam Kubert, there weren’t any classic artists and writers from the 1970’s or 80’s. While the argument could be made that these creators aren’t popular enough today, it’s important to recognize that the demographic with enough disposable income to afford the comics that are worth anything are the people who read the comics in those years. People in their forties are the ones who will line up to get their copy of Giant-Size X-Men #1 signed by Len Wein or buy the $75 dollar hardcover compilations of Chris Claremont’s work. Unfortunately, neither of these guys were there this year or I would have been dragging a cartload of books with me. As I’m above all a comic guy, this was an area that I was really disappointed in.
Stan Lee made a repeat appearance this year, but his photo ops were located in the South building – away from the other celebrity photo people. It was difficult to make arrangements, given the bottleneck effect of moving between the two buildings. I would have gladly made arrangements to say hello to him again this year, but it was just too much of a hassle.
In terms of the Horror draw, they did a pretty good job of assembling interesting fan-favourites like Bruce Campbell and Robert Englund from Nightmare on Elm Street fame. It was also quite interesting and entertaining to see all manners of local talent, from make-up and special effects artists to writers, show off their skills and products. Toronto has a lot of talent that we export a great deal to our neighbours down south. So, kudos to Fan Expo for representing Canadian talent that is usually difficult to notice.
Science fiction was well-represented as well. Television channels like Showcase, Space and Teletoon all were in attendance and were definitely fan-accessible. Props from the popular sci-fi show Defiance were present in addition to television personalities like Teddy Wilson and Morgan Hoffman from the Space Channel’s InnerSpace roamed around the floor freely, taking photos with appreciative fans.
What really added to the sci-fi portion of the con actually came from fans in the form of fan-made projects like the 501st Legion, Canada Garrison (a Star Wars themed collection of Imperial Stormtroopers and other authentic-looking Star Wars characters), the Doctor Who Society of Canada, the Ontario Ghostbusters and the Toronto Browncoats. All these are grass-roots projects made large by the love of fans, and their stuff looks incredibly detailed and represent what a convention should be about – a collection of fans celebrating their fandom.
One area that is really growing in popularity and was included in a new section this year was cosplay. Cosplay Alley got some extra love this year with an increased section featuring famous cosplayers like Yaya Han, Jessica Nigri, Ivy Doomkitty, Nadyasonika and a collection of others. It was definitely something that added to the flavor of the event and may not be completely new, but the increased attention to the phenomenon was.
The usual vendors were present but in terms of a shopping experience, sales were difficult to find, or weren’t simply advertised well. Of course, the amount of crowds made it difficult to buy as it was hard for vendors to effectively communicate with their customers. Still, sales were made, people spent money and the layout was fairly well-organized. One product that every vendor had was the Funko POP line of figures that included superheroes, Game of Thrones characters and recognizable figures from other media. If there was a real product winner this year, it was Funko. There were even limited edition Stan Lee and Captain America figures available for sale at the Fan Expo store.
There’s no argument: Fan Expo Canada is where geeks come to frolic, but having that many geeks is a tall order for any organization to manage effectively. Maybe Fan Expo has outgrown the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, but the question that brings up is where else to have it? Of course, that places the responsibility of creating bigger venues on the city that is, ultimately, responsible for managing its crumbling and shrinking infrastructure.
Unlike San Diego, Toronto doesn’t celebrate its geek population. Perhaps it’s a function of its multicultural nature and that Summer always has some sort of cultural festival going on, but even that should underline a greater sense of civic responsiveness. When it’s time for the San Diego Comic-Con, the whole population gets behind the whole event, recognizing the tourism and perhaps its sense of cultural importance. Toronto needs to do the same. Fan Expo may experience challenges in the organization of such a massive geek culture undertaking, but ultimately that is dependent upon the venues they have to work with.
Hey, City of Toronto: get your geek on.