back to the Black Table

As I walked past one of hundreds of booths, a woman clad in a velvety devil costume spoke, though not to me directly. She caught my attention in a negative way -- her skimpy two-piece hoisted her fake breasts so high they looked like SCUD missiles left over from the first Gulf War. I turned just in time to watch as she said to her equally revealed friend: "I feel like I'm going to throw up and my head frickin' hurts."

Such was the state of Wizard World, the annual comic convention held in August on the outskirts of Chicago. It was mostly a parade for the major comic publishers -- Marvel and DC both had their top artists and writers there for panels and autographs -- but it was also a scene tough for even the Velvet Devil to stomach.

That's because in a lot of ways, the convention has become something of a skin trade. In a land where geeks and dorks were the biggest customers, it quickly became apparent that to be a geek is to be at home with the plastic sensibility of mass media's sexual fantasies.

Comics have long been criticized for having too few female characters, and for portraying those few with bodies of monstrous proportions. The majority of comic heroines look like rubber bands have been cinched over their waists and the resulting pressure has bulged their bosoms. Indeed, it's hard to imagine how a heroine wins a fight; the villain need only look to where her ta-tas point to know where she'll strike. Yet, taking a look around the convention, it was clear this fantastical image had bled into the standard geek's reality.

And let me be clear, I mean no disrespect to geeks. I saw "X2" twice in the theaters and still count "The Neverending Story" as one of my favorite movies. I thought I would be more comfortable at the convention, and truly wanted to be. But as Captain Kirk said in Episode 14 of the original Star Trek series, "What would you have me do?" (True geek confession: I Googled that quote.)

There was, as mentioned, the Velvet Devil with stomach troubles, who turned out to be the most human of the women transforming geeks into gawkers. Perhaps the most disturbing example was the trumpeting of 'Banzai Girl,' a comic written and drawn by Filipino model Jinky Coronado. Certainly, it's great to see a more international presence in comics, as well as a woman putting out her own book in a typically male-dominated industry. But when an overweight white guy walks over and, with an exaggerated wink that looks like he just lost his eye in the back of his head, tells me I have to check out this really good book, I'm skeptical. And when I start reading said book and there's a break from the action for a "photo shoot," I'm worried. And when said photo shoot is of the author in cheerleader and schoolgirl outfits, I'm ready to vomit.

I handed the book back to the guy, with a smirk that I thought said "fuck off." It apparently said, "I'm with you, sketchy dude. We two are brothers." He told me I could buy all four issues for just $20.

Ms. Coronado is probably making money off her comic, and obviously has the right to pose in any way she pleases, prudish readers be damned. But the persistent hocking by the guy working her table -- he spoke in hushed tones like we were on Wall Street and his tip was about to blow -- is symptomatic. While sex is used in every medium to titillate and lure an audience, the pulp meets porn dynamic is a confusing one. Comics are, after all, the one true medium that relies solely on the imagination. What can be thought can be drawn. And yet, what good is the imagination when the comic proportions become real? Does the fantasy die?

Perhaps Court Jester has the answer: the fantasy doesn't die, it sells itself. So far as I could tell, Court Jester was a bad metal band that may or may not have come across a comic when the members were kids. One of the band members, looking like a guy who would ride in the sidecar of Al Jourgensen's motorcycle, called out to me as I walked by.

"Hey man, dig the music?" he shouted over shapeless metal.

"No. Not really," I said.

"CD's right over here, man. Only seven bucks."

He pointed to a display of CDs lined along the table. One of his lady friends bent over the albums, her breasts overhanging with all the allure of two voluptuous goiters. I kept walking.

That type of uber-pimping was rampant: women were used to sell something when it wasn't clear what was being sold, or if there was a buyer. He heard me tell him I didn't like what he was selling and I never even broke stride. Yet, he was unfazed. It becomes clear at moments like these that while comics are the wares, the medium for the message is a bursting pair of funbags. And if the medium is the message, as Marshall McLuhan says, Court Jester is now selling skin.

All the while, there were more innocent, ignored moments at the convention. The saddest sight of the day was Lou Ferrigno sitting in a corner, strumming his sausage-fingers on the table, waiting for someone to approach wanting an autograph. Here's a celebrity with legitimate funnybook cachet -- the original on-screen Hulk -- and he went disregarded for a lack of boobs. The behemoth even had to stretch a t-shirt over his weightlifter tank top; he was that cold and alone.

Lowrider Magazine drove the point home. Though not a comic, it maintained a relatively large presence at the convention. The magazine had a woman whose name, I think, had the word "ass" in it somewhere. I couldn't make out her entire name thanks to the crowd surrounding her table. Still, the silicon bounty of her black leather bustier -- like two armadillos stuffed and tanned -- rose above the throng.

The crowd definitively lingered longer at hers and the other more revealing booths. They cast furtive glances as they pretended to be interested in what was on the table. It's possible some bought items simply because they felt they'd hung on too long. Though I've never been to a nudie bar, I'd guess the discomforting way the crowd quietly ogled Miss "Ass" is not unique. Somehow, the comic convention had traded the fantasy on paper for the up-close-and-personal kind. No wonder the Velvet Devil felt sick to her stomach. The comic proportions of her body were only at home in two arenas: a strip club and a comic convention. She was probably making a lot less money at her place of work and, in the end, there was little difference between the two.