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Wizard World Chicago 2015: where zombies, yoga and sci-fi speed dating converge

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Thanks, Wizard World. I feel welcome.

When I heard that Wizard World Chicago 2015 would be going on this weekend from Aug. 20-23, my first reaction was hesitation: should I try to cover it or not? As a geek writer I of course wanted to, but it had been several years since I even tried attending a public event that big and crowded. Struggling with Lyme disease and biotoxin illness has made such activities excruciating and almost unbearable. And I had only relocated to Chicago two and a half months ago so I wasn’t sure if I was ready to start covering local events yet.

On the other hand, my lifestyle of being confined to a small apartment all day, every day, in a city as vibrant as Chicago was starting to threaten my sanity and I needed a compelling reason to get out and do something (or try to). So I applied for two last-minute press passes for myself and a friend who agreed to serve as my helper, but I kind of half-hoped that my press application would get turned down so that I’d have an excuse to not go. As it turned out I was approved so I gathered my resolve, packed my meds and plenty of energy-boosting snacks and decided to use this con as an experiment to see how much I could handle.

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No con is complete without the presence of representatives from the 501st Legion.

After sending our ride request to Uber, and a somewhat nailbiting ride from our reckless Uber driver, my friend and I found ourselves still in one piece at the entrance to the goliath-sized Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in the Chicago suburb of Rosemont. I felt equal amounts of excitement about my first con in years and trepidation about how much physical pain I was setting myself up for by coming to this thing (see the “spoon theory” explanation).  So instead of trying to cover everything I decided to limit my reach and not bother with the celebrity events as I knew that covering them would take more energy than I was able to spare. I decided instead to focus on smaller panels and events that interested me more personally.

The first thing any Wizard World attendee will notice upon entering the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center is of course the bustling crowd and the cosplayers. While the latter are not quite as legion as what you might see at San Diego Comic-Con International or the New York Comic Con, there were nevertheless many attendees in some sort of costume with lively pockets of crowd magnets here and there, like this guy:

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This Soundwave cosplayer didn’t care at all about being credited in the photo caption. Such dedication to the art and art alone! (EDIT: Due to so many people asking what his cosplay name was, he now has the new monicker of SNDWV Cosplay.)

Press registration was smooth if a bit slow. As soon as we got our bracelets I headed over to the wheelchair rental area but was dismayed to learn there weren’t any left. It’s not that I can’t walk, and my cane is usually sufficient for short strolls, but a wheelchair becomes necessary for anything that involves more than a couple blocks’ worth of walking which most comic cons definitely do. After a moment of doubting whether I could really do this without a wheelchair, I shrugged and thought, “Hell, I’m already here. Let’s see what happens.”

As it turns out I was able to cover a bit more than I thought I’d be able to, but not without the help of a Venti-sized coffee first from the Starbucks that, to my inexpressible relief, was housed within the convention center.

Talking ‘The Walking Dead’

After fueling up on caffeine my indispensable helper and I ambled over to our first panel titled The Walking Dead Phenomenon: Why All the Zombies? which sought to examine the huge popularity of zombie stories and what it was about them that people found appealing.

Dr. Travis Langley, editor of The Walking Dead Psychology (see our review), moderated a panel including the author Scott Kenemore (The Zen of Zombie), Brendan Riley (teacher of a zombie-themed course at Columbia College), John Sloboda (artist for AMC’s Walking Dead show) and Michael Witwer (author of Empire of Imagination), and the man who is as responsible for the prominence of zombies in pop culture as anyone else one you could possibly think of, filmmaker John Russo, co-writer of the seminal Night of the Living Dead, whose creative ideas for that film were arguably more critical than even director George Romero’s.

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From left: Moderator Dr. Travis Langley asked panelists John Russo, Scott Kenemore, Brendan Riley, John Sloboda and Michael Witwer (not shown): “What makes zombies so popular?”

Deep-rooted fears about the loss of control and survivalist fantasies were suggested as being among some of the reasons for the massive popularity of zombies. The panel also talked about the different psychological effects of slow zombies versus fast zombies and the relevance of the zombie genre for the 21st century. I found some of the most interesting statements came from Professor Riley of Columbia College, who drew numerous parallels between zombie stories and common fears that everyone could relate to. In all honesty, the influential John Russo was an honor to behold but he had a slight tendency to meander somewhat from the moderator’s questions and tell old filmmaking war stories (which were interesting to be sure, but I sensed that the audience wanted more Walking Dead stuff). I also finally got a chance to say hello in person to Dr. Langley, whose work I’ve admired from a distance, and was pleased to see he immediately recognized the Pop Mythology name, which was gratifying.

Army of Yogis

After resting on one of the convention center’s blessed couches, we moved on to catch the tail end of the quirkily titled Army of Darkness: A Narrated Yogic Adventure presented by the Minneapolis-based YogaQuest which offers a unique blend of yoga instruction coupled with fan-fiction storytelling. The session was led by Justine “JustiniYogini” Mastin, founder of YogaQuest and yoga instructor, and Jenny “Warrior Princess” Milos, YogaQuest scriptwriter and also yoga instructor.  Part of the self-professed mission of YogaQuest is to bring health consciousness to a community not exactly known for its healthy lifestyle, and to show that “yoga doesn’t have to be quiet and contemplative – it can be just as weird as you are.”

I was intrigued by YogaQuest because it fell under the concept of what I call Applied Geekism, or the use of geeky material (in this case, fan fiction) to make non-geeky material (yoga) more appealing for those who might not ordinarily be interested in the latter. And so I asked owner Mastin how these “yoga adventures” work. She explained that scriptwriter Milos first chooses source material for adaptation, such as Evil Dead, and then writes a script assigning specific yoga poses to specific words such as the names of characters, actions and objects. A typical yoga session involves four stages: warmup, teaching the students the poses they need to know for the quest, the quest itself (with Milos reading the script while Mastin demonstrates the poses), and a cooldown. In the process, students get a workout while being entertained and engaging their favorite fandom.

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Participants waged peaceful war against the forces of evil in YogaQuest’s Army of Darkness: A Narrated Yogic Adventure.

Mastin said she started YogaQuest because she saw a gap that wasn’t being filled. “At a convention I was attending [one] year, I looked around and found that there weren’t options for attendees that focused on self care,” she said. “I realized that the corporate students that I taught had plenty of teachers, and I wanted to teach people who didn’t have a teacher. I started working on a way to make yoga accessible and fun for the geek community – my community.”

I then asked Mastin what other things, besides YogaQuest, that she thought could help spread awareness in the geek community of the importance of taking care of our bodies.

“[…] There are many ways that geeks can engage with their bodies and their communities that incorporate geeky sensibilities and fandoms,” she answered. “Some of the ideas that we suggest to folks is taking the things they love and finding a way to incorporate wellness into that, instead of trying to fit themselves into a wellness box that wasn’t built for them. Try listening to the Doctor Who soundtrack while you’re walking or running and pretend you’re trying to get away from Daleks, or ride a stationary bike while you watch your favorite show and pick up the pace during the dramatic scenes, or find a group of like-minded people and when you get together for role-playing games, add some physicality to the rules.”

Sounds like good advice to me!

“Rise From Your Grave!”

We had some time to kill before the next panel so we stopped by the DeVry Gaming Lounge sponsored by DeVry University where, to my delight, the room was filled with arcade games from the 80s and 90s, all free to play – all you had to do was press the 1 or 2 player button. I went old school and played a few rounds of the 80s classics Galaga and Ghosts ‘N Goblins, the latter being one of the hardest games from that era I can remember. A pair of genial-looking twin brothers looked on with goofy grins as I skillfully maneuvered my bearded knight out of a particularly tight jam.

“I would have died right there,” one of them remarked. Yes, young padawans, see the master at work.

After thoroughly impressing the twins my friend and I finished off with a short round of the 90s favorite Altered Beast, and as the game began with Zeus famously proclaiming, “Rise from your grave!” I imagined my own worn-out body being re-energized.

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Aw, yeah, that’s what I’m talkin’ about: 80s-style arcade gaming. I’m proud of these children.

After some more rest we walked the con floor a bit, checking out the vendors and artists displaying their products. Let me tell you, attending a con without disposable cash is an exercise in masochistic self-deprivation. Don’t do it. Better not to go at all. At the RIPT Apparel booth it was all I could do not to implore my friend to buy me a t-shirt parodying Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon poster with Daredevil in place of Lee’s iconic pose. At the Dice Dojo booth, with its shelf of 50% discounted board games, I nearly plopped down on the floor and howled like I once did as a toddler when my mom refused to buy me a Spider-Man book in a supermarket. Yes, strolling through the Wizard World Chicago vendor floor without money is like reliving a slightly modified version of the blurb from the 1978 Superman movie: You’ll believe a man can cry.

Playing the Diversity Card

Though we’d only been at the con a few hours I was already getting very exhausted and feeling ready to leave, but I was determined to cover as much as I could since I knew this was the only day I’d be able to attend.

Our next panel was How Independent Creators Can Help Solve the Industry’s Diversity Issues. Given the topic, it was predictably held in a smaller room than the zombie panel but it was a thoroughly engaging 45 minutes thanks to the well-spoken panelists:  Dean Haspiel (Beef With Tomato), Gavin Smith (All Superheroes Must Die), and Onrie Kompian (Yi Soon Shin) along with moderator Victor Dandridge (The Samaritan) discussed numerous kinds of diversity issues in the industry encompassing race, gender, sexuality and class. The panelists acknowledged real problems in the industry while also talking about the importance of introspection and of owning up to the quality of one’s work instead of automatically playing the race (or gender/class/sexuality) card when things don’t go one’s way and saying something like, “They didn’t hire me because I’m Asian [or fill in the blank].”

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From left: comic creators Gavin Smith, Dean Haspiel, Onrie Kompan, and moderator Victor Dandridge discussed the industry’s diversity issues.

I was able to chat briefly afterwards with panelists Onrie Kompian and Dean Haspiel who were both gracious and even sympathetic to my challenge of trying to cover a con as a disabled writer.

“I don’t even have Lyme disease and I already feel like I need a nap,” quipped Haspiel (I’m paraphrasing his exact words which I don’t remember).

I particularly bonded with Kompian, a local Chicago talent and creator of the comic/graphic novel series Yi Soon Shin based on the life and accomplishments of the eponymous 16th century Korean general whose military genius saved Korea from a Japanese invasion. We chatted about our mutual interest in Korea, and it was exciting to learn that he had traveled to both Suwon and Tongyong, my parents’ respective hometowns, the latter being where General Yi kept his primary military base.

“Engage!”

By this point I was ready to curl up on the very plush-looking lap of a Scooby-Doo cosplayer and go to sleep but was determined to check out one more attraction, the Sci-Fi Speed Dating event, a Wizard World Chicago tradition that has been going on for four-and-a-half years. Sci-Fi Speed Dating is exactly what it sounds like, speed dating, except that the participants are all self-professed sci-fi geeks. Now, it’s a common fantasy among geeks to be able to find a partner who shares their passion for pop culture fandom – someone who “gets” you – but does it actually work out in reality? What’s the success rate?

Ryan Glitch, owner of Sci-Fi Speed Dating, said that after 250 cons, “We are at 63 marriages, 37 engaged, over 100 couples dating seriously, and 19 babies as of two days ago…. so I’d say at least half the participants get real dates.”

Seems like pretty good stats to me. As for why the guys had to pay an entry fee but the ladies got in for free, “Men should always pay for the first date,” he said. “It’s old school but it shows respect and admiration.  Plus, cons are heavy on guys so it’s just the same as ladies’ night.”

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Sorry, guys, but this lovely young lady from Sci-Fi Speed Dating is already taken, and there’s no way you can compete with Baymax.

I looked around the room where every guy and gal was engaged in animated conversation with a prospective candidate until every couple of minutes or so Glitch, dressed as a Jedi, would holler, “Three, two, one… switch!

Silently, I asked the Force to be with these eager singles and then left to continue my own mission.

A few other things I saw that were cool or noteworthy during my wandering were the horror-themed area on the second floor where they had the Basement of the Dead attraction, a kind of zombie laser tag, which looked like a bucket load of fun and which I would have tried if not for my medical condition. And in a clever bit of thematic situating, adjacent to the horror vendors and attractions was the Heartland Blood Centers who had set up a blood donation station where I noted, with appreciation, that a number of con attendees were giving blood.

Hail to the King, Baby

With pain and exhaustion starting to flare up with a vengeance, the last thing I wanted to make a point of checking out before throwing in the towel was the second annual Bruce Campbell Horror Film Festival. As a big fan of both horror movies and Bruce Campbell, I was thrilled to learn that Campbell chose Chicago as the location for his festival. Here again, I knew I wouldn’t be able to cover the festival extensively, but I wanted to be able to say that I had at least taken a look around.

When we arrived at the Muvico Theatre across the street from the convention center, a screening of Fright Night was just reaching its end. Fright Night is one of the 80s horror movies that turned me on to the genre in the first place so we stuck around for the Q&A with director Tom Holland who talked about how he made Fright Night at a time when the horror genre was not getting the kind of widespread love and respect it gets now, and how his film was also one of the earliest successful examples of fusing horror and comedy together.

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‘Fright Night’ director Tom Holland (center) talked about the numerous ways his film blazed a trail for both vampire and horror-comedy movies.

Speaking of horror, I was now feeling like the last surviving character in a horror movie so my friend and I decided to call it a day and sent another ride request to Uber. Fortunately, this time our driver was a quiet, gentle fellow with a cool, comfortable car, and once we got home I climbed into my coffin like a weary vampire escaping the dawn and slept – oh, how I slept – but not without first resolving to beat my chronic illness so that in future years I could once again rock these kinds of events like the healthy me once did.

Maybe next time I’ll even join the YogaQuest workout. Groovy.

*Special thanks to Krista Ann Williams for her assistance with this post. Krista makes handmade books, everyone! Check her site out! 

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About The Pop Mythologist

The Pop Mythologist is the founder and editor of PopMythology.com. He has been a staff writer for the nationally distributed magazine KoreAm , the online journal of pop culture criticism Pop Matters and has written freelance for various other publications and websites. Connect on Google+

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