Comicon and Carnival
Spending time at the Phoenix Comicon the last few years has been a strange experience – the last few years I have participated less in the programming for the event and have instead made it a point to collect a crew of people in matching costumes to parade around the event. I use the word “crew” specifically because this most recent year it was used by one of my friends and it stuck with me because of its similarity in use to the word “krewe” used to describe the participants in Carnival.
For the uninitiated, Carnival is the festival that occurs right before the Christian season of Lent and involves parades, public celebrations and elements of masquerade and circus. Masks and dissemblance play a large role in the festivities and the social order of everyday life is often completely overturned. In many regions of the world, it was the only church sanctioned revelry permitted and was seen as a necessary release from day to day obligations. Mikhail Bakhtin quotes a letter in his seminal 1968 text “Rabelais and His World “ from a 15th century theological school that notes “Wine barrels burst if from time to time we do not open them and let in some air.” Phoenix’s Comicon occurs at the end of the school year, and for many pop-culture savvy students is a release from repetition of school and an opportunity to engage in anarchic play with friends and strangers.
Carnival’s origins are suspected to derive from the Roman festivals of Bacchanalia and Saturnalia suffused with medieval folk culture. Feasting, masks, permitted degrees of lawlessness and role play feature deeply in these traditions. Comicon is not much different – there is food, masquerade, games and a general sense of lawlessness that is barely restrained. The sacred cows of popular culture are often lampooned in a manner not dissimilar to the Spanish Holy Week tradition of insulting the figure of Christ. Irreverence towards sacred icons is often a way to intensify their sacred nature for participants, and Comicon’s sly humor regarding its icons is no different.
The Comicon practice of cosplaying as characters from our shared pop mythology bears striking similarities to the masquerade employed by Carnival krewes. In particular, one juxtaposition best illuminates these similarities – that of the Midnight Robber and Deadpool.
The intimate details of the comic book character Deadpool’s life are the subject of many lengthy wiki entries out there, and chances are if you’ve ever attended a pop-culture convention you have seen a variation on the character– Zombie Deadpool, Dragonborn Deadpool, Joker Deadpool, Mandalorian Deadpool, etc. Deadpool’s personification in cosplay takes countless and often very personal forms. A common theme in the presentation of Deadpool by cosplayers is that he is mischievous, irreverent, and prone to insane rambling. He is one of the most recognizable presences at an event like Comicon.
The Midnight Robber of Carnival is a character that is marked by several features that are common to his countless presentations. The Robber is colorful, speaks in boastful rhyme, and has a costume that is different from individual to individual but has several basic rules – The iconic Robber has a wide-brimmed hat, a cape, carries a loud whistle and is often conceptually dead or undead. Drawn from old west novels and cinema, the Midnight Robber’s “Robber Talk” is just as key a part of the presentation of the character to the crowds of Carnival as Deadpool’s iconic brand of humorous fourth-wall-breaking insanity is to the crowds of any pop-culture event.
There is no rulebook that is consulted when a Carnival participant chooses to construct his Midnight Robber persona save for the folk tradition that has come to surround the character. The same can be said of Deadpool – while there is an extensive body of lore surrounding the character, it is rarely consulted with any dogmatic approach when a con-goer chooses to construct a Deadpool cosplay. As long as the characteristic mask of Deadpool is present the cosplayer is Deadpool, or at least some variant of him. I would go so far as to guess that many a Deadpool cosplayer has chosen the character without anything more than a passing familiarity with the folklore that governs his physical presentation within the context of a convention.
It is in this juxtaposition that the act of shared theater and community building that both Comicon and Carnival personify become more clearly parallel. The act of shared theater requires a common folkloric tradition, and for many Americans pop-culture is that common folklore – One need look no further than Star Wars to see this truth. The popularity of cons suggests that there is a deep need that goes beyond simple fandom that is sated by these events.Carnival and ComicCon are both a coming together of people with similar cultural touchstones to engage in informal play. For many participants, both events are less about their ostensible themes and more about revelry and community. Krewes form with mottos, themes and even color pallettes, and cosplay groups often engage in similar behavior – choosing a specific group of characters to play as or create themed variations on, be they steampunk, gothic lolita, etc. It is the context of these events that makes the act of masquerade socially “normal” and the interactions between cosplayers are often in-character, much like the interaction between Carnival participants with one another and the crowd. Both events draw people there to view the spectacle without necessarily participating. For many, I think cosplay at cons fulfills the same cultural need as Carnival does in the many places it is celebrated.
What do you think?