But though every trip to the shop involved several hours of in-store socializing, there were rarely more than a handful of regulars at any one time. The basement-dwelling convention ancestors to today's flashy, celeb-studded cosplay-filled cons were where awkward tweens, pimply teens and potbellied 20-somethings got to realize how big their community actually was. Comic-Con began all the way back in 1970, during comicdom's so-called "bronze age," as the books began taking on more serious issues like drugs, alcohol and environmentalism -- and, yes, the first sci-fi convention was way way back in 1939 (Ray Bradbury was a featured guest at both!) while Star Trek had its own con culture in the '70s.
But it was the 1985 - 1993 speculator-fuelled comic-book boom that truly laid the groundwork for today's geeksplosion, despite its subsequent bust, by building a modern fandom blueprint and instilling a love of geek-culture into a host of young men and women who would go on to claim power positions across the broader pop-cultural industry. In Vancouver, comic conventions were held in a hall deep underneath Robson Square, a literal underground representation of our scene. The tables were lined with writers and artists who were obscure up at street level but veritable superheroes down below. My prize issue at one point was Amazing Spiderman #298 signed by Calgary artist Todd McFarlane, which was like a secret handshake -- if you knew why it mattered, you were one of us. In pre-Internet times, these face-to-face gatherings were vital. Yes, we were there buying, selling and trading Mylar-wrapped comics, but we were also, more importantly, cementing a fan-oriented subculture that would eventually go mainstream -- an end-result presaged by Tim Burton's fandom-fuelled Batman movies.
What mattered wasn't the breadth of a fanbase, but its depth -- and that would increasingly important once post-millennial pop-culture settled into its new narrowcasting business model, both in terms of understanding the power of intense niche audience and realizing their buzz-building influence on the broader audience.
Even as comic-collecting itself declined in the 1990s, its fan-oriented subcultural set-up spread to other groups who began joining forces for broader genre cons like Fan Expo while slowly turning their favourite things, be it The X-Files and Lost, Halo and Grand Theft Auto or Lord of the Rings and the contemporary comic-book movie, into mainstream success stories.
While I have fond memories of the dingy, underground comic-cons of yore, I'm couldn't be happier that my superhero-obsessed two-year-old, who will be attending his fifth (!) con this weekend, will only know fandom as a powerful cultural force and not a dismissive SNL sketch.