Photos and Review: Everyone wants to be a hero at Comic Con 2017

Tabletop gaming provided by Mindbridge Foundation at Cedar Rapids Comic Con. Saturday, Feb. 4, 2017. -- photo by Sofi Shannon
Tabletop gaming provided by Mindbridge Foundation at Cedar Rapids Comic Con. Saturday, Feb. 4, 2017. — photo by Sofi Shannon

Lt. Coriolis is what some might describe as cantankerous. But there’s nothing she prizes more than her job: a lead investigator at a local, private firm known as AEGIS. They are fundamentally an independent police force, but intercept numerous criminal activities.

Coriolis lives in Halcyon City, a sprawling metropolis that attracts eccentrics. The city is Coriolis’ world. And in her world, I’m a sprightly 18-year-old, part of a new generation, trying to make it big as a superhero. I’m precariously balancing responsibility and hormones. I want to earn the respect of my adult role models, but I also want to kiss someone dangerous. Many people don’t accept me for who I am. On one hand, some retired superheroes of old think I’m a fraud, someone attempting in vain to lead the life of legends. On the other, people like Lt. Coriolis believe that individuals like me should sign up for a registry in order to stymie us from “going dark” with our powers.

As any aspiring super would know, Halcyon City is where one makes it or breaks it in the world of superheroes and supervillains. As a result, the city is in a tug-of-war between good and evil, and in constant repair from the collateral damage. I live alongside three other teenagers in Halcyon City who are supernaturally inclined: the Shield, who is the youngest of a legacy of heroes and obsessed with his hubris; Mosi, the bulldog kind of fighter with an appetite to defeat evil; and Miasma, the youngest of us at age 17, who works at a print shop by day to hide his true identity as a masked vigilante from the ones he loves.

I participated in this imaginary lived-experience at a tabletop role-playing exhibition of Masks: A New Generation, run by David Miessler-Kubanek of Corridor Games on Demand, on Saturday, Feb. 4 at Cedar Rapids’ Comic Con. Now in its third year, the con brought over 10,000 people to the Double Tree Convention Center in downtown Cedar Rapids for a series of panel discussions, a bazaar of vendors, tabletop and video gaming and a cosplay contest.

“[At these conventions] you see pop culture in many forms on display,” says Dennis Cooper, a graduate student in library sciences at the University of Iowa and co-curator of the UI Library’s Special Collections of comics and fanzines. “People are letting their geek flag fly. It’s a safe space to find other fans interested in these kinds of fandoms.”

Cooper, alongside Peter Balestrieri, Special Collections curator of Science Fiction and Popular Culture at the UI Libraries, gave a presentation on the UI’s vast catalog of pre-1985 comics and fanzines. They discussed how communities arise surrounding fans’ interpretation of the lore found in popular series. Identities are therefore reinforced by the shared consumption of pop culture; social media and internet forums today further bolster communication and community-building.

Other presentations included the history of comics, a how-to on crowdsourcing funds for board games, a question-and-answer with voice actor Michael Hogan, a recruitment for the Star Wars 501st Legion, and a history on the origins of seminal tabletop gaming system, Dungeons & Dragons.

“They come from the same mother,” says Frank Mentzer, author of early edition D&D rule books as well as the tabletop incarnation of 2001: A Space Odyssey, referring to the myriad entertainment media on display at Comic Con. “We laugh about some of it now, and I’ve laughed about writing some of it [in the past].”

Mentzer traced the fantasies found in comic books, science fiction and gaming to the Greco-Roman empire’s “naturalistic fiction” of gods and goddesses — the supernaturals who dictated the moon, the sun, the seasons and so on. That is, all the forms of entertainment at Comic Con revolve around telling stories about the world, its creatures and its consequences.

“Comic books are all about fantasy worlds and escapism,” says Casey Shelangoski, who exhibited the Pathfinder tabletop gaming system on behalf of Tempest Games, a retail store in Cedar Rapids. “Everyone wishes they were a hero out slaying dragons instead of going to algebra.”

Because of that shared interest in building a world that exists outside the everyday, fans of comic books, tabletop and video games and cosplay naturally congregate at the same forum. It builds a community based on a fantasy world that can reinterpret history, grapple with current society and postulate the future.

In this setting, dragons aren’t necessarily a part of Asian mythology, but creatures that might exist today or emerge tomorrow. Furthermore, this openness of interpretation acknowledges the fluidity of identity: The superhero need not be whitewashed, need not be a man or woman but can be androgynous, or need not seek heteronormative romance. The world and its possibilities aren’t confined.

Though these fandoms are typically viewed in traditional forms — print, dice and costumes — the internet not only proliferates culture and community, but evolves interface with them. Just as televisions and discs cannibalized tabletop games into video games, Oculus Rift and other virtual reality apparatuses might bring forth the next revolution in the gaming experience.

Bryan Rennekamp, volunteer at Corridor Games on Demand, a collective of indie gamers, points to virtual reality devices as a future platform for conventions like Comic Con. He also sees how pre-existing platforms can easily assimilate virtual reality through gameplay and communication.

“There’s a lot of divide with the internet.” Rennekamp says. “But it’s also the opportunity to enhance gaming communities with Skype and Google Hangout … Essentially, these games are acting games.”

As I acted out a teenage-wannabe superhero fighting a monster known as a photovore, a building-sized globule that amasses surrounding light to strengthen itself, my teammates and I saved an innocent scientist; I leapt over a bus stop to catch and shield the falling man. But we had to face the consequences of our actions. In order to force the monster to let go of the man in white scrubs, we had to fling an empty vehicle towards the creature. The photovore dodged the car, dropping the scientist. That didn’t stop the car from being sent through the third-story window of a high rise, which, to our luck, was already vacated.

AEGIS’ helicopter arrived to the scene moments later, corralling and absorbing the monster into a lightless vat. Lt. Coriolis, who already had a negative disposition towards me, gave me only a slight nod of approval for my stunt. We were sent a bill for the property damage 30 days later. It was another routine mission, another calculated decision made together by four teenage superheroes.

Pioneers like Mentzer ruminate about the core principle of gaming and the history of fandom: human interaction. “Whatever toys we create,” he says, “are always going to come back to people.”