HOY cover-feature art, courtesy of Eric J. García.

“C2E2: The After Party”
By Benjamin Ortiz, Hoy Contributor
“Fin de Semana” (Weekend Edition) cover feature
April 21-22, 2012

Arcade games in standing cabinets and classic Atari and Nintendo systems plugged into window-length TVs are pitching muddled hues across shadowed walls in a darkened warehouse, flickering bleary day-glow colors across murals, T-shirts, a ping-pong table and the dull, crackling light bulb of a popcorn machine, while hokey 8-bit tunes boom from amplifiers that make the cavernous space feel like the inside of a coin-operated “Space Invaders” game from 1978, punctuated by electronic crackles and hyped-up guffaws from spectators.

“You guys suck at this game!” someone squeals.

Mobile walls have been set up and wrapped in butcher paper, with buckets of colored sharpies and assorted pens so that anyone can draw or write when inspiration strikes. Lined up by these walls sit several folding lawn chairs marked with placards reserving them for such guests as Peter Parker and Clark Kent, perhaps for a tea party.

It looks like the exclusive clubhouse from every kid’s wildest dreams, but this rumpus room serves as headquarters for Chicago’s Threadless T-shirt design and warehousing operations, and it would seem that the CEO is a pre-pubescent boy who graduated directly from elementary school to textile mogul, but it’s a popular local biz hosting a Friday night after party sponsored also by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, celebrating the third annual Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo (C2E2) at McCormick Place last weekend.

And this party truly rocks the stuff of adolescent fantasy, except (maybe) for several kegs of beer and wine bottles against the wall, plus two rather tall, tattooed women standing near the bar and open-mouth kissing like we’re on the doomed planet of Krypton and there is no tomorrow. Their boyfriends look on eyes a-goggle and mouths agape, appearing every bit the teenage boys who have discovered their dad’s secret cache of magazines.

I’m hanging out with members of Megaton Crush, a young Chicagoland comic-book artist/writer collective of mixed Latino, Filipino and African-American heritage, and we’re talking about macho Mexican dads and how hard it is to convince some traditional parents that committing your life to pop culture ain’t a bad idea. And then, in walks Chicagoan Brian Azzarello, writer for DC Comics and author of the current “Wonder Woman” run and upcoming “Before Watchmen: Rorschach” title.

He’s a star, and obviously one of our own real-life heroes, so we start to gush with wide-eyed astonishment, cornering him with frenzied fanboy praise. “Do you remember that one comic you did? … That was COOL!” I tell him how much he’s turned me on to characters I didn’t really care about before, like his 2005 interpretation of Lex Luthor, Superman’s nemesis. “But I don’t think he’s a bad guy,” says Azzarello, explaining Luthor’s motivations for hating the all-powerful illegal alien from Krypton.

Obviously, comics are not just about superheroes anymore but about all of the fantasies, hopes, fears and yearnings that run through our minds whether to escape or celebrate life, and we share these pop artifacts with our kids to populate their dream worlds. Despite widespread stereotypes, comics are also not just about “the white male power fantasy” anymore, as DC artist Jamal Igle put it at the C2E2 “Black Comix Lounge” panel.

On that panel, Afro-centric artist Mshindo Kuumba I also said of the black community that “we want to see ourselves represented heroically.” All of us, of every race and background, want to imagine ourselves larger than life, more powerful and capable to deal with the real world, and so our fantasies and depictions follow apace. For some of us, these dreams of greatness explode off of the page or the screen or out of the images in our minds, and that’s where C2E2 comes into the picture, as the Midwest’s largest pop-culture expo and the chance to live your dreams in whatever fabulous tint or shade that strikes you.

A poster-board at one vendor booth invites participants to answer the question, “What does being a superhero mean to you?” Some answers: “Socially acceptable underwear on the outside,” and scrawled upside-down, “Man’s law does not apply.”

Thousands of fanboys and fangirls of every stripe and age converge on the sprawling McCormick expo floor with giddy, giggling, feverish glee. The colors, costumes and creative panache make for ultimate sensory overload. Here, a burlesque Stormtrooper in helmet and sleek fishnets; there, a brother dressed as Samuel L. Jackson in the role of Nick Fury, looking like he just walked off the screen; over yonder, children dressed in Jedi robes training to learn the Force; capes, Captains America, leather and vinyl and ridiculously high-heeled thigh-high boots. Perfect garb for fisticuff butt-kicking and saving the universe.

Every body type and size is on display here – shamelessly, nay proudly, with booties galore hanging out of juicy tights and luscious leotards. Chicago cartoonist Eric J. García and I prowl the expo and can’t help rubbernecking every few minutes. He notices “skinny geeks trying to turn themselves into super villains,” some in obsessively elaborate outfits and some in more threadbare do-it-yourself get-ups.

C2E2 encourages the carnivalesque motley masquerade with costume contests on every day of the expo, though they point out that no one should bring real weapons, under their Frequently Asked Questions heading of “Can I bring a sword?”

But for some of the C2E2 events, you might want to bring a magic wand (for Harry Potter-esque Quidditch matches, wherein teams in jerseys run around with broomsticks between their legs and chase after rubber bouncing balls to amplified theme music), a laser-blaster (for the “’Droid Hunt”), boxes of your comic-book collection (for autographs), make-up (to turn yourself into the walking dead for the “Humans vs. Zombies” live-action game) or maybe even your best hipster duds, for the speed-dating sessions or the discussion panel on “Dating Advice for Geeks, Nerds and the Like.”

And you might also want a pocketful of cash to blow at the vendor stalls offering vintage comics, action figures, wigs, superhero tchotchkes, on-site tattoos, posters, masks, rare DVDs, sci-fi lunchboxes, plastic fangs and finger puppets. Be ready to walk and elbow your way into the more than 100 panels and celebrity Q&A appearances that run from academic papers on anime and graphic novels to advice on how to break into comics as an artist or writer yourself.

As one artist puts it, C2E2 is “the show Chicago deserves to have,” in comparison to the big comicons of New York and California. “It wasn’t long ago that this was considered (negatively) geekish,” says Andre Chip, a ’50-something black man who drove to the show from Louisville, KY, and brought two wide boxes of comics for his favorite artists to sign. His eyes shine, because he just got writer Jeph Loeb to sign some Batman titles.

To be honest, it wasn’t that long ago I dressed up as a ninja in homespun all black and prowled my childhood hometown at night, thinking that I was learning the secrets of martial arts by dressing myself up as an assassin. Like Mshindo Kuumba I said on the “Black Comix” panel, “It’s important for us to tell our stories,” and that’s the heart of why people come to C2E2, to share their diverse, once-private stories colored by the mind’s unbridled wishes.

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