This past weekend was full of thoughtful analysis, lovely people, and cheesy dance moves. Ideally that’s what all my weekends would be like, but this particular one was spent at Nine Worlds Geekfest in London.
Nine Worlds is distinct for its focus on inclusivity and exploring the relationships between geek media and its fans. As a result, the convention is feminist and LGBTQI-friendly with a panel track dedicated to race and culture. There are also meetups and social events during the con where attendees can meet new people and make friends. The con is only in its second year, but the range of events and vendors suggests that the organizers already have a clear idea of how to operate effectively within their niche.
I was scheduled to speak on panels for the Academia track and the Race and Culture track. Since this would be my first time as a convention panelist, though, when I arrived on Friday I had no idea what was going to happen.
Friday: Deviation from the English language
The Nine Worlds registration area was unlike any I’d ever seen before. In addition to the usual program and lanyards, there were “My pronoun is ___” badges – particularly useful for trans and genderqueer attendees – and clips in red, yellow, or blue to denote communication preferences. Red was for those who didn’t want to be approached, yellow for those who only wanted to be spoken to by people they already knew, and blue for people who were happy for strangers to start conversations with them. The main bathrooms were labeled as “Any Gender Toilets,” with signs informing us which bathrooms had sanitary bins or urinals.
I had to head straight to my first panel, where I was presenting my academic paper on mute Asian female assassins in contemporary comics. I’d done this before (at the International Graphic Novels and Comics Conference last month), but not at any sort of convention. The row of microphones on the table gave proceedings a press-conference feel, which made it seem as though people needed to hear my thoughts on comics right now.
You get a lot more laughs at conventions than at academic conferences. Although some of the panels in my presentation were stereotyped to the point of nonsense, no one at the comics conference even cracked a smile. At Nine Worlds, however, people were a lot more relaxed, so the beret- and onion-string-wearing French men jousting with baguettes on bikes was the comedy moment I’d hoped it would be.
The paper following mine dealt with how alien characters in sci-fi reflected anti-immigrant sentiments. The Phantom Menace got a mention, as did the Men in Black trilogy and the TV show TheNewcomers. While I was already aware of the Phantom Menace racism, I hadn’t noticed the Men in Black racism before (mostly because I only saw the first movie when I was a child), and as the presentation went on I wondered how on earth the filmmakers got away with feeding xenophobic sentiment so egregiously.
Nine Worlds scheduling does leave a good amount of time to eat, so I was able to have a leisurely lunch in my hotel room with some Friday daytime TV before heading to a panel on the portrayal and perception of superheroes.
I was pleasantly surprised to see three panelists of color – authors Taran Matharu, Barry Nugent, and Stephanie Saulter – as well as a woman (Jenni Hill) in the moderator’s seat. Only one out of the five people at the panelist desk, author Nick Harkaway, was a white man.
The panelists talked about the definition of a superhero beyond the possession of superhuman physical powers, characterizing someone like Batman as a superhero due to his more-than-human capacity for not giving up. They also discussed superheroes as preservers of the status quo rather than agents for social change, and pondered what life would be like if superheroes existed in our world. The issues raised weren’t any that I hadn’t thought of before, but it was good to hear them being discussed by a panel made up mostly of women and PoCs.
The next panel I attended was on sexual violence in comics. Panelists were a mix of women and men – including academic and feminist cultural critic Will Brooker – which implied a heartening recognition that depictions of sexual violence affect everyone. Of course, Alan Moore’s work came up several times with regard to both male and female characters. For instance, the panel noted that in The Killing Joke, the Joker’s treatment of Commissioner Gordon, who is stripped naked and forced to wear a BDSM-style harness, could be read as sexual violence (alongside the assault on Barbara Gordon). This led into a comparison of how violence against men vs. violence against women is portrayed in comics, using examples such as the assault committed against the male protagonist in Invincible. The panel also touched on the unforgivable use of rape as an “empowerment” origin story for women and how, in addition to trivializing the seriousness of sexual assault, it implies that women only seek to assert themselves or gain power if something is terribly wrong in their lives. Overall, the panelists dealt with a difficult and emotionally loaded issue in a sensitive, thoughtful way, and I left feeling that the discussion had been an enlightening one.
After such a heavy topic, I decided that the evening called for some lighter entertainment. I went to the “Only a Moment” panel, which used the format of the long-running BBC Radio 4 game show Just a Minute and applied it to geek culture. Four panelists – Elizabeth Bear, L. M. Myles, Kieron Gillen, and Laurie Penny – had to talk about topics put forward by moderator Paul Cornell and the audience “without hesitation, deviation, or repetition”. These included:
- My worst convention experience
- The day I woke up as a dragon
- If I were a Disney character
And my personal favorite:
- My favorite tongue twister
In Just a Minute, whenever someone mispronounces or stumbles over a word, someone will invariably call them on “deviation from the English language.” And sure enough, it happened at Nine Worlds when Kieron Gillen kept saying “twister” as “trister” — ironically, in the “my favorite tongue twister” round.
There was just enough time to grab a drink and chat with some friends before closing out the night with an 80s dance party. I threw some shapes (as they say in the UK) and did the Time Warp with Will Brooker, several cosplayers, and one of the con organizers, who was wearing impressively vertiginous heels.
It was just a bit before 2 AM when I admitted defeat. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had a day of personal revelation and truly ridiculous dancing ahead of me.
NEXT TIME: Filipino comics chat; the al-Ghuls go Welsh; and Mom gets a fanbase.