“Is this your first time at Comic Con?” I ask the woman standing next to me. She’s dressed in a steam-punk outfit that is both familiar and that I can’t name.
“I’ve been coming every year since it began.” She beams and points to a younger woman sporting a purple cape and a bejewelled forehead. “My daughter was still a baby the first time I brought her.”
“She’s Raven.” Josh whispers to me as applause breaks out and the crowd of a couple of thousand surges into the Javits Centre for the start of New York Comic Con 2017. He tells the woman that he has cancer and that The Reach for a Dream Foundation has granted his wish to come to New York Comic Con.
The event is vast: 165 000 people are due to attend over four days. Later on we are told that Thursday was the right day to attend. By Saturday the crowds will be so dense that there will be no option but to follow the tide of fans that stream through the concourse and into the gargantuan halls.
“I want to start in Artist’s Alley.” Josh tells me and we follow a buxom Wonder Woman down the escalators. Artist’s Alley is less of an alley and more seven-lane highway dedicated to creativity. The giant box office hits from Marvel (Avengers, Iron Man, Captain America) and DC (Man of Steel, The Dark Knight) spin out from universes created by the people in this room. If the movie is the Batmobile then these people are its engine.
At first glance it’s uninspiring. The room is a windowless conference centre, perhaps the size of a cricket pitch. Row upon row of tables spread out in front of us, each manned by an illustrator, artist or writer of comics and anime. The lighting is bad, the acoustics are worse. The carpet is the maroon and cream geometric pattern favoured by conference centres built in the 80s and 90s. Most booths are no more than a folding steel canteen table. Chris, Shannon and I follow wide-eyed as Josh darts amongst the crowds from table to table, picking out the artists who work on the comics he favours.
It’s noisy and crowded and yet I begin to notice something unexpected and just a little bit magical. This tribe is responsible for the storylines and artwork that has fuelled the super hero phenomenon but they appear remarkably humble. They seem thrilled that so many people love their work. There’s a sense of walking into giant playroom where the kid who owns all the good stuff is excited that you want to come and play. It’s alluring and startlingly different from the ego and pretence I expected of the entertainment industry. One of the DC artists holds up the queue of autograph hunters to chat to Josh about his cancer and to draw him a Batman. No one seems to mind. They get to chat to too.
The sense of innocent adventure seems to carry over the ticket holders.
I expected the cosplay fans, fully decked out in their characters outfits, to be ridiculed but there’s none of that. A middle-aged Wolverine and his child smile and have their photo taken by a spandex-dressed vintage Robin. Platoons of Star Wars’ storm troopers make way for giggling teenaged Powerpuff Girls. Surly looking teenagers call out compliments to people dressed in costume. Men in super-hero t-shirts and baggy jeans admire each other’s signed copies of obscure graphic novels. Strangers see our “my first NYCC” Badges and congratulate us like we have been given the password to enter their secret tree-house.
Hours later we walk out with tinnitus blunted hearing. We look for a cab and I notice that Joshua’s eyes are purple smudged. He stops every few metres to rest his hands on his thighs. The New York crowds jostle us and scold us for walking too slowly. It doesn’t matter though because beneath the fatigue there’s a sparkle in his eyes and a grin on his face that I haven’t seen much of this year. Shannon and Chris and I smile to each other, relieved that Comic Con has been everything he hoped for. Josh doesn’t notice. He’s too busy explaining the story of how The Joker drove Batman mad in a single day.