San Diego Comic Con 2013

comiccon-150x150It’s that time of year again. San Diego Comic Con was last week, and as it is the premier geek culture event of the year and we are a site that covers geek culture, I am obligated to say something about this year’s event, even though I am not able to attend.

Last year I focused on the problems of just getting to the convention, with record sell-out times. Everything I wrote about that is still relevant this year. The other area I focused on was San Diego Comic Con drifting from its original focus and becoming more of a media show, and in that arena there is more debate this year.

The crux of that complaint is that major portions of the show floor have been bought up by media companies who are pushing their various movies, TV shows, and other non-comic-book-related media. This has pushed out more comic-focused vendors and driven up the price of booth space.  To be fair, most of these media companies are focusing on product relevant to geek culture, but not exclusively. An example was a couple of years ago when there was a booth for the NBC show The Playboy Club which, let’s face it, was not geek culture. On the other hand, it was a small booth and the show did bomb.

There is also the complaint that panel time is taken up with shows that have dubious geek credentials, such as How I Met Your Mother and Psych.

But how fair are these complaints?

During the convention prominent comic writer Gail Simone went on twitter to address these concerns and ask some pointed questions.

The first point was to ask if fans were asking for more comic-focused content. If so, she pointed out that every major comic publisher and most minor ones had booths at the convention. She could not think of one that was not there. Also the majority of convention panels were comic industry focused. She said that if you took out all the other media at the convention, you would still have the largest comic convention. So is there really too much other media at San Diego Comic Con, or does it just seem that way because of what other media covers?

She does concede that small vendors and people in artist alley do get marginalized and could use more love. However, this could be said of any comic convention; it is just magnified at San Diego Comic Con.

The feedback from some of the web comic creators at the show illustrates that point. Randy Milholland, creator of Something Positive, commented throughout the show that he was not making enough money to justify the expense of traveling to the convention. He said he lost a few thousand dollars, and of course the time lost that he could have been working, so he says this will be his last year going. I have heard similar tales from Studio Fogilo, but they still attend; although I suspect more for contacts and publicity.

But I think the best summation of what is going on with San Diego Comic Con came from web reviewer Leo Thompson, who hosts the show That Sci Fi Guy. Thompson was explaining the difference between San Diego Comic Con and Dragon*Con. His conclusion is that San Diego Comic Con is a trade show, where Dragon*Con is a fan-focused convention. To build on his point, I would say that this would be like the difference between E3 and PAX in the gaming community . A lot of fans would go to E3 when it was open to the public, but it is acknowledged that it is an industry show; where PAX is very clearly focused on the actual fans.

If we assume that Thompson is right, the question becomes: is this a bad thing? My gut check is that if this were how San Diego Comic Con was openly presented, then no it is not; but right now that is not the case.

I think this bears more analysis, and I will look at it again after Dragon*con happens later this year.

In the meantime, please let me know what you think.


 

The evolving view of harassment in geek culture

 

John Scalzi

John Scalzi

Author John Scalzi has opened a new chapter in the ongoing debate about harassment at fan conventions. Scalzi is a successful science fiction author, and until very recently he was the president of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. A week after his tenure as president ended, Scalzi announced what he refers to as his new hard requirement for any convention that wants him as a panelist, participant, or guest of honor. The convention must have a very clear and readily accessible anti-harassment policy.  Said policies must include clear guidelines about what is unacceptable behavior, and where attendees can go for help in those circumstances. The policies have to be made available in places such as the program book or the convention website.

This comes in parallel to another recent incident involving Penny Arcade. You can find more specifics here, but in short Penny Arcade co-founder Mike Krahulik got into a fight on twitter over comments involving transgender issues. The commentary got heated and Krahulik made what many people felt were transphobic comments. Taken on its own it is bad enough, but there was also the specter of the “Dickwolf” controversy from a couple of years ago, which had many people starting to look at Penny Arcade and it’s convention PAX as a hostile environment. The irony here is that PAX has one of the strongest anti-harassment policies of any convention out there. Immediately people started distancing themselves from Penny Arcade, including one game company canceling their booth at the event.

During the Dickwolf issue Krahulik stuck to his guns, which turned a lot of people off. In the time between then and now, he and the people around him clearly learned from the experience. The two days after the transgender argument saw Krahulik issue multiple apologies, admit he has an issue of getting hostile when feeling threatened, and a vow to try to work on these issues. He also made a $20,000 donation to the Trevor Project as a sign of contrition. He also acknowledged that his behavior was damaging to the Penny Arcade brand.

So with these events having just happened, we are once again having the conversation of how welcoming the fan community environment is to people. The positive in both these cases is that there is clear recognition that there are issues and that they need to be dealt with. I also feel they show that progress is being made.

In the Penny Arcade case, in the past this issue would have just festered, but now there is acknowledgement that there was a problem and an actual apology. It is a step in the right direction.

In the case of John Scalzi, you have a prominent author using the cred he has built up over the years to attempt to influence positive change. As of this writing, several 100 people, myself included, have co-signed his pledge.

This does put me in a slightly awkward position, of course. My local convention, Norwescon, is one of the conventions currently lacking in such a policy. However, they aren’t ignoring it. They had a discussion forum that I participated in at this year’s convention about adopting such a policy. Also someone connected with the convention posted in Scalzi’s comment section that they are forwarding the discussion to the convention committee for additional consideration. It is all about getting these important conversations started.

Emerald City Comicon is also in the same boat. I expect they will be addressing this soon as well. At least I hope they do.

It is worth noting that San Diego Comic Con also lacks an adequately published policy. They have one apparently, but it is not where you could find it.

If you are looking for a good listing of which conventions do or do not have policies in place, the site Girl Wonder is compiling a database that can be found here.

While it is clear that we still have a lot of work to do, I feel hopeful that we are seeing positive change, and that geek culture is coming around in regards to how it treats everyone.

I’ll be keeping an eye on all of this and I am sure we will be talking about it again in the future.

The First Camarilla Convention: Courageous/ Necrocon

Couragous Necro ConIt’s time for another look back at the early history of the White Wolf fan organization, The Camarilla. Last time I wrote about the circumstances of its birth as I remember them. This time I want to look at a very specific event, the first Camarilla convention, Courageous/NercoCon.

Again, this is going to be based on my memories of events from over 20 years ago, with as much verification as I have been able to get from other people who were there. I am also going to liberally reference events from my previous Camarilla article, so I recommend going here to read that if you have not already.

I want to specify that this is not about any other Camarilla events, such as the kickoff event at Vikingcon, or any of the other early sanctioned events at various Northwest conventions. This is about the first convention that had a Camarilla focus.

Sort of.

The convention started life as just Courageous Con, named after the chapter of STARFLEET International that I was a member of. As this implies, it was to be a Star Trek convention. The head of our chapter had run successful conventions in Canada and wanted to start one in the Seattle area after moving here. This is all well and good.

However, during the time that the convention was being planned, The Camarilla was coming into being. As I said last time a good number of the original board of directors for the Camarilla were also officers in the Courageous. These same people were also involved in putting together Courageous Con.

So let’s just say enthusiasm over multiple projects started bleeding into each other.

Basically the idea started forming to have a Camarilla convention, but a lot of us were already working on Courageous Con. The solution was to combine the two and have a two–in-one convention. But how would you pull that off?

The answer was to run 24 hour programming.

You read that last sentence right.

Twenty-four hour convention programming. During the daytime hours it would be Courageous Con, and be devoted to Star Trek. At night it would be NecroCon, and be devoted to Vampire and the Camarilla.

I’m pretty sure that I am the first person who started referring to it as the Wereconvention, since it would transform after dark.

So we had to come up with 24 hours’ worth of programming, as well as guests for both genres. It turns out the programming wasn’t as hard, since both were different enough. The trick was getting panelists who were willing to stay up late for the NecroCon side, but even that wasn’t that daunting.

As for guests, we actually did pretty well. For Star Trek we secured George Takei, and for Vampire we had Mark Rein*Hagan and Wes Harris from White Wolf.

Everything looked like it was going well. But frankly, I would not be taking the time to write this down if that was how it ended.

The first hurdle came a couple of months before the convention. George Takei had to pull out of the con. George, like almost all Star Trek actors, had a contract with a company that put on Star Trek conventions around the country. The nature of that contract obligated him to go to a convention they were setting up and cancel his appearance at ours. The kicker is that this last minute convention was being held in Seattle, at a hotel only ten minutes away from where we were holding our con, on the exact same weekend.

Yeah, you are probably thinking the same thing I was, but I have no proof.

So there was a scramble to find a replacement Star Trek guest. The new guest ended up being Jonathan Del Arco. These days, you might know him as Dr. Morales from The Closer and its spin off Major Crimes. Back in 1993, he was best known as Hugh the Borg, from Star Trek: the Next Generation.

So we lost the Major Guest and had a competing convention down the road. But we still had the draw of the White Wolf guys, and the Camarilla was up and running at this point, and growing in popularity. So we were going to be fine.

Right?

Ok, let’s be honest, this was a pretty ambitious plan, running programming continuously for an entire weekend. Add to that the fact that it was the first time running a convention for a lot of the organizers.

And with that in mind, looking back I can honestly say, it could have been much worse.

When I think back on Courageous/ NercoCon, the first thing that comes to mind is why did the hotel think it was a good idea to book a Star Trek/ Vampire convention the same weekend they were also hosting a gathering of nuns? Not that this caused any real conflict, or led to any problems, it just added to an overall feeling of oddness that permeated the hotel the whole weekend. Okay, there was the one instance where someone who had over indulged saw them and yelled out “penguins!” Fortunately he was prevented from approaching them, and was carted off by friends quickly.

One problem that was just beyond anyone’s control was that the volunteer coordinator came down with the flu and was running a decent fever. This was on top of the lack of sleep we were all already operating under.

The biggest problem was just attendee behavior.  To this day I am not sure what the hell was up with this. I have been to some rowdy conventions before, but there was just something in the air at this one, and all evidence points to it being the vampire fans at the heart of it.

First was just out and out damage to the hotel. There was a hole in one of the walls, which who knows, it could have been anyone on that. The graffiti on the walls on the other hand was pretty clearly put there by someone into Vampire.

But really it was the beer slip-and-slide on the 3rd floor that really took the cake. The hole and the graffiti could have been the result of spur of the moment passion or alcohol-fueled bad decision making. On the other hand, someone had to bring the slip and slide to the con, indicating a degree of premeditation.  It was also dealt with pretty quickly and quietly, as the perpetrators managed to convince the hotel not to kick them, and basically the convention, out. I’m sure it being 3 AM on Sunday helped, as by this point the hotel was already fed up with us, so they just wanted to get it over with without any added drama.  I didn’t even know that this had happened until a month later. The convention chairman didn’t know about it until last month when I went online to confirm details for this article and someone who was there confirmed it.

Needless to say, in light of these events, the convention was a one-time only thing.

But I don’t want to leave you with the idea that it was all bad.

Jonathan Del Arco turned out to be a very engaging guest and everyone who interacted with him really like him. Likewise Mark Rein*Hagan and Wes Harris had a great time hanging out with the Camarilla crowd and the LARP with them went extremely well.  I will always cherish the look on Mark’s face when I led the Camarilla members in a rendition of the It’s a Small World After All parody I had written for the World of Darkness. It was a fascinating combination of pride and shame.

For me personally it was the first time I met the White Wolf guys, who in turn introduced me to the Wizards of the Coast crew. Within a week of the convention I started hanging out at the WotC offices at their invite, leading to my 5 year stint working there. That in turn led to my current job and, really, my life in general now.

I think looking back on it that the two-in-one convention was just too much. What we should have done was drop the Star Trek part after losing Takei and just focused on Vampire. We had a competing Trek convention down the road that siphoned off most of that audience anyway. If we had done that we would have had tighter focus, and I believe less chaos.

So that was the first Camarilla convention. There was not another specific Camarilla Con during the rest of the time the Board of Directors was located in Seattle. After the BoD was transferred to Salt Lake City it was attempted again, this time with a proper focus. Since then there have been many Camarilla Cons, and some of them have had memorable stories, such as the time they were in the same hotel as a Players ball, and a drive by shooting (for info on that check out this video). But none were as out there in concept as Courageous/ NecroCon.

As with my previous Camarilla story, if anyone from the original Board of Directors, or the Courageous/ NecroCon staff want to write their point of view of what happened, I will publish it here unedited.

The Dragon*Con Boycott issue

 

Dragon*Con Logo

 

Originally I had no intention of writing about the situation surrounding Dragon*Con and the calls to boycott it. Not that they weren’t interesting or relevant to geek culture, but others had made the same points I would and I didn’t feel I had anything new to add.

So what changed?

Recently I have been reading a lot of exchanges online about Dragon*Con and the boycott effort. The problem is that in a lot of those exchanges I have seen a lot of emotion and a casual disregard of facts. As a one-time journalism major and a fan of the @willMcAvoyACN twitter account I feel strongly that facts are important.  So let us take some time here and now to look at the facts as I have been able to learn them.

Dragon*Con is a for-profit convention founded in 1987 in Atlanta, Georgia. Originally a science fiction convention, it has grown to be more of a multi-genre convention, embracing almost all aspects of geek culture. It currently boasts an attendance of approximately 52,000.

One of the convention’s founders is a man named Ed Kramer. Besides working with the convention, Kramer edited several books working with such well-known authors as Neil Gaiman, Nancy A. Collins, and James O’Barr.

In 2000, Kramer was arrested and charged with molesting three teenage boys. Due to a combination of legal actions and health issues he has yet to face trial on those charges.  After the charges were made, Kramer was removed from Dragon*Con’s board and is no longer involved in running the convention; however, he retains his shares in the company. In 2009, Kramer posted a bond that allowed him travel privileges in order to attend his health needs and visit his mother. While on one of these trips in 2011, Kramer was caught in a motel room with a 14 year old boy leading to his arrest and further charges.  He fought extradition back to Georgia to face the original charges. Last January that extradition went through and he is back in custody in Georgia.

The call for a boycott of Dragon*Con comes from Kramer’s status as a shareholder. Kramer owns 31% of Dragon*Con shares, which means he is entitled to profits from the convention. In 2011 those shares netted him $150,000.

The call to boycott Dragon*Con was started in January by Nancy A. Collins. Her contention is that Dragon*Con has not done enough to remove Kramer as a shareholder, and that they should dissolve the corporation and reform under another name.

In February Dragon*Con made a public statement on the matter. It pointed out that Kramer has no hand in running the convention at all since 2000. It also points out that efforts have been made to buy out his shares of the convention but Kramer responded by suing them. They also explored the option of dissolving the corporation and reforming, but that was not a possibility right now. Follow up on that last point revealed that under Georgia law, a corporation cannot voluntarily dissolve as long as there are pending legal disputes, so Kramer’s lawsuits prevent that option. Some have suggested trying to force Kramer to sell his shares, but that cannot take place until after he has been convicted, since he is presumed innocent under U.S. law until then.

So those are the facts of the case. Where does that leave us?

Based on all the above facts, there are only three factors that will prevent Kramer from receiving funds from Dragon*Con:

1: He is finally convicted, at which point new legal avenues open up for the convention

2: He dies. The man does have health issues, including the need for an oxygen tank. One of the major reasons he has not faced trial yet is the contention by his lawyers that he is not healthy enough to sit through a lengthy trial. Based on that, It’s not farfetched to presume that he does not have that long to live.

3: Dragon*Con folds. Let’s face it, if the convention dies, that would prevent Kramer from receiving any more funds from it.

This leaves us with some of the back-and-forth debate that has being going on between those in favor of the boycott and those against.

The major point that those in favor of the boycott make is that denying money to the convention ultimately denies money to Kramer. This is a straight forward point, and can’t be argued with.

The counter that is made is that a financial loss to Dragon*Con can have a ripple effect on several people, including other employees of the convention, the vendors that depend on Dragon*Con as a major source of their annual income, and local businesses like the hotels and restaurants in the area.

Also on the anti-boycott side is the claim that despite the boycott, Dragon*Con is so big that it will still turn a profit.

The counter to this is that even if that is true, the boycotters can take comfort in knowing that their money did not go to this, and thus did not support Kramer.

There have been some suggestions that the current organizers of the convention just abandon Dragon*Con and start a new competing convention.

This is a really tricky one because it looks good on paper, but falls apart in reality.

Basically it would require creating a new convention from scratch, with no access to any of Dragon*Con’s assets. They would not have the advantage of the Dragon*Con brand name, and they would need to negotiate new contracts with new convention sites. They could not use the old sites, as they have multi-year contracts with Dragon*Con.

Is it doable? Yes, of course it is.

Is it something they are likely to do? No, because the hassle would be enormous, and there would likely be new rounds of lawsuits, not only from Kramer, but most likely the hotels and other venues they have multi-year contracts with.

In the end this is not the black-and-white issue that everyone wishes it was. Every person touched by this situation is going to need to do what their conscience directs them to do.

All I ask is that when deciding what your take on it is, you keep in mind the facts.

The role of the SMOF

 

Convention Registration line

 

I first encountered the term SMOF in the late eighties. I was just getting involved with actually helping run conventions and people would through the term around. Being inquisitive, I asked what a SMOF was. Based on the initial reaction I got from people you would have thought I had asked the Colonel what the elven herbs and spices were. Eventually someone took pity on me and explained that the term stood for Secret Masters Of Fandom. Basically it was a term for the elder statesmen of the convention scene. There were no real criteria for becoming a SMOF, it was basically something that was bestowed on someone based on longevity, activity, and how well-known you were in the community.

Had I not taken a decade long break from conventions I would probably be a SMOF myself.

But what does a SMOF actually do?

That can vary quite a bit. Many of them are convention organizers, so they are the people that provide the meeting ground for other fans. Others are people who were convention organizers but have stepped down, or are just very active members of the community that have been around for years. SMOFs tend to take on the role of advisers, or at least commentators on the goings-on at conventions.

So really what they do is advise, or in some cases kibitz. And recent years have really facilitated this with the advent of mailing lists and message boards.

In some cases this can be useful. These are people who have been around the block in regards to the community. On the other hand, they can be a pain in the butt, as they have been doing it forever and that can make some of them very resistant to change.

An example of this occurred recently when one convention, Norwescon, made a change to its registration process by introducing a new computerized system that would scan barcodes on printed receipts.   A group on the SMOF mailing list got very vocal against this system. They did not just object to the barcode scanning; they felt that convention registration should not even use computers, since conventions were able to run registration for years and years before the advent of personal computers.

At the same time this group of SMOFs were complaining that Norwescon was not a real fannish convention because it covered “Non-Fannish” subjects such as podcasting, gaming, and film making, and ignored the “real fannish” subject of fanzines.

So clearly these SMOFs were not happy that time has marched on and fandom has evolved.

To be fair, there were other members on the SMOF list that were defending Norwescon, and saying that change is not bad.

I think it is important to remember that with a group as loosely defined as SMOFs, you cannot paint them all with the same brush. But like any group, it is the loudest members that come to define it, and for the SMOFs it is the complainers.

And this is unfortunate, because in the end most SMOFs are going to be the best resource the community can hope for.  They are the people who have been in the trenches the longest. They have made the mistakes and learned from them. And those that are afraid of change are not the majority.

The trick is making sure that their knowledge is passed down to the next generation in a useful way. The best SMOFs know that bitching on the sidelines is not the way to do it. Staying engaged with the community is.

At Norwescon, there was one guy I know to be a SMOF. He has been involved with the running of Norwescon as long as I can remember, which means at least 30 years. These days he has to use a walker. But he is also still involved with the convention. When a forum was being held about a major change to the convention’s policy, he spoke up and his statement carried both the weight of his experience and the acknowledgement that a new way was needed.

This is SMOFing at it’s best.

So there you have it, the good and the ill of SMOFs. We as a community are fortunate that the good comes out on top.

 

 

Comic conventions growing pains

 

Crowd at San Deigo Comic Con

One of the most noticeable factors about this year’s Emerald City Comicon is the attendance numbers. It was a recorded breaking year of approximately 64,000 attendees, which was the maximum the Washington State Convention Center could handle. For the first time ever, the convention sold out, with all three day passes being gone about two weeks before the show, and only a handful of day passes available at the door, which were sold quickly. I heard people on the floor saying that it is now the third largest comic convention in the country. This is explosive growth for the show, which only drew 20,000 attendees in 2010.

Clearly there are several factors that play into this. As the show grows it is able to attract higher caliber guests. It also benefits from a good reputation amongst pros, with many saying it is their favorite convention of the year.

But I think another factor may be at play, and it involves San Diego Comic Con and its attendance issues.

To explain this theory I first need to explain the parallel that a friend alerted me to.

This came to me by way of my friend Matt. Matt carpools with me to work every day, formed the writers group I belong to, has worked with me for over a decade, and is my proof reader / editor for my articles here. He is also a ten year veteran of Burning Man.

For those not in the know, Burning Man is an annual event that takes place in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada. It is an Art/Alternate culture/self-expression-driven event that requires high levels of attendee participation.  It started an explosive growth in the late 1990’s that lead to it reaching a max capacity of approximately 56,000. In 2011, for the first time, it sold out before the event. The 2011 sell out included all discount tier tickets selling out in half a day. This now appears to be the norm. Many feel this is due to it catching the attention of mainstream culture. It has also left many veterans feeling disenfranchised from the event.

What Matt says this has done is caused an increase in what is known as regional Burns. These are smaller Burning Man-style events that take place around the country. This started with an event in Texas called Burning Flipside, organized by Burners (the self-applied name for people who attend Burning Man) completely separate from the main organization. The idea spread, and Burners in other places formed organizations to put on their own, similar event in their area. It has even spread to other countries.

They started as events that allowed Burners to have the Burning Man experience if they couldn’t make it to the main Burning Man event. Now, in the wake of increased difficulty in getting to the main event, some Burners are turning to the regional Burns as their main outlet and forgoing the main event all together.

As Matt explained this too me I saw clear parallels with the comic conventions. In 2008 San Diego sold out before the show for the first time ever. The following year the event sold out months ahead of time. By 2011 the event was selling out within hours of tickets becoming available.

Looking at the timeline of Emerald City, you see that it took a major jump in attendance in 2011. So my theory is that because it is becoming impossible for most fans to get tickets to San Diego they are turning to the other comic conventions. I looked at a few other conventions numbers, and those that I could find generally show attendance jumps around the same time. In the interest of fairness, I want to point out that I have no other data to back up my theory, such as surveys.

One other thing that I have been hearing is that both fans and pros like Emerald City, as it is still focused on comics and related media, where San Diego has branched out to the point where it is really a media con focused on TV and movies, be they genre or not. This gives Emerald City and the other regional shows an advantage in reputation.

If I am correct you are going to see growth at other comic cons continue. This does have another issue that needs to be considered: the fact that Emerald City itself sold out this year. Selling out a week or so before the show isn’t too bad, as it did give fans plenty of opportunity to get tickets. But what happens next year? After all, it took a couple of years before the San Diego sell outs were counted in minutes instead of months.

Part of the answer is expansion. This can take two forms. The first is actual space. Right now both San Diego and Emerald City have maxed out their venues. In the case of San Diego, there is always the option of moving to another city with a bigger venue, but pressure from the city and reluctance by the convention committee has prevented that through at least 2015. Emerald City could still use space in nearby hotels if they can negotiate with them. Other than that, there are not a lot of other options for the Seattle show, as it wouldn’t make sense for them to move.

On the upside, Emerald City is exploring the other expansion option, starting a secondary show. Staff from Emerald City are involved in the promotion of a sister show in Portland Oregon called Rose City Comic Con in September. Originally a separate show, Rose City has teamed up with Emerald City to help the show grow. This is a good move, as Rose City is still small but has potential. It is also far enough away from Emerald City both in distance and time of year, to offer up the convention experience without cannibalizing the Seattle show.

Overall this kind of growth is good for geek culture. It shows that there is enough interest to support multiple shows and that the culture is thriving.

In fact the only downside is for San Diego. As the smaller shows grow, more people will not bother with San Diego. At some point this could result in fan abandonment. While not certain by any means it could damage and even potentially kill off the show.  This is also a danger that Burning man could face.

Clearly the lesson here is to manage growth. A challenge when there is so much demand. I will be very curious to see what happens to all of these shows in the next year.

Blackface Cosplay

 Cosplay is a big part of geek culture, especially at conventions. I have mentioned it before in discussing how people react to it and the effort people put in it. I recently attended Emerald City Comicon and of course there were a ton of people cosplaying.

Unfortunately there were a few costumes that caused something of a stir.

I don’t normally refer to the thumbnail pictures I use here, but this is an exception. The picture I chose today is from Emerald City this year. If you are not sure what you are looking at, it is a man dressed as Geordi La Forge from Star Trek: The Next Generation. The man is clearly white, and has (badly) applied make-up to attempt to make himself appear black. There was also a trio of kids dressed as Michonne from The Walking Dead and her two tamed zombies. These kids were also white and wearing make-up and wigs to appear black.

In both cases, when I saw them, I got the impression that none of them understood the history of blackface, and that not one of them were being malicious. This did not stop several people from taking offense, especially on twitter.  As far as I know there were no direct confrontations on the floor.

For those of you confused about why this would be offensive, I suggest you look up the terms “blackface” and “minstrel show.”  The quick version is that there was a theatrical tradition that had white performers put on make-up to appear black, with exaggerated features. These shows are a major source of many negative stereotypes of African-Americans. These shows were common up to the beginning of the civil rights movement. Since then, due to these connections people appearing in blackface are consider a racist insult or at the very least racially insensitive.

I want to be clear that I am not saying you cannot cosplay a character of a different ethnicity. At the show I saw very well done She-Ra, Wonder Woman, and Superman costumes done by African-Americans. The difference is that they did not attempt to make themselves look white. They just showed up in costumes of characters they liked and owned it. In fact there is a great Tumblr site, Cosplaying While Black, that you can check out. This is not completely free of controversy as there are some people not comfortable with seeing their favorite characters being portrayed by a different ethnicity. I do not feel these people have a leg to stand on. Just because you are uncomfortable does not mean the cosplayers needs to conform to your tastes.

Unfortunately there are a lot of people using the exact same argument to defend the blackface cosplay. I do not find these equitable arguments.

Basically it comes down a couple of factors.

One is that while blackface is still viewed as a form of racism I think there are a lot of people that are not familiar with it and so had no idea how offensive they were being.

The other is good old fashion white privilege. I assume that these people did not know it was wrong or even take a moment to consider the ramifications. I think that even the attempts to defend them come down to white privilege. For those not sure what I mean, white privilege is the perceived advantages and attitudes that come with being born white in our culture. It also is used to refer to the inability of people born white to understand the perspective of other ethnicities, such as why a person in blackface would be offensive.

And to be clear, I am a white man of middle class background, so I can fall into this trap myself.  The reason I usually don’t is that I have been educated enough to know the history and to avoid making those mistakes.

In the case of our four unintentional offenders at Emerald City Comicon, I think the man in the thumbnail is just ignorant and will hopefully learn from this to not go there again. In the case of the kids I think their parents let them down by not educating them on how their choices may not go over as well as they hoped.

And if not I think the world will provide the needed education soon enough.