BEFORE I could enter the bathroom, a teen with chemical-green hair and cadaver-white facepaint swung the door ajar holding a pistol. The pistol was pointed at the ceiling, as though he wanted to avoid discharging it into someone’s stomach, but the orange tip showed the only thing it would be shooting was airsoft pellets.
I had just arrived at the Hudson Valley Comicon at Gold’s Gym in Poughkeepsie. The space was transformed for the weekend from a place to flex your deltoids at that bangin’ girl on the elliptical to an epicenter of nerd culture.
I was dressed neutrally, wearing a t-shirt and jeans, which is to say I looked out of place. Almost everyone had accented their garb with some fantastical cosplay accoutrements, and maybe a quarter were fully decked out.
Cosplay, in case you don’t know, is the art of dressing and acting like fantasy characters. You square.
A demonic Juggalo slouched by in an orange prison jumpsuit, wild black dreads sticking out of the flesh-colored sack he wore over his skull like dead eels. An altitudinous man hugged head-to-toe in turquoise spandex flipped through boxes of old comics. A pigeon-toed Superman minced by the Ghostbusters, who were chatting with Lara Croft, thigh holsters striping her legs below tawny daisy dukes.
Many of the costumes were impressive. Two teen girls had precisely replicated the looks of Princess Jasmine from Aladdin and Belle from Beauty and the Beast — no, not Belle in the beginning of the movie, you idiot, from the scene where Belle and the Beast dance — and it was obvious most costumes were fashioned by the wearers themselves.
The spacious gym was sectioned off into a series of alleys flanked by booths and tables featuring comic artists, costume-hawkers and memorabilia. There was a beer tent in the parking lot, but attendees inside had the option of hopping themselves up on old-school sodas from a cart that boasted “unlimited daily refills.”
A skinny guy with a giant mess of an Afro was peering at what looked like a grilled tarantula at Venison Joe’s Exotic Jerky booth.
“Oh, the tarantula’s edible,” the proprietor told the guy. “They’re ALL edible.”
The booth offered jerkies from python to mako shark, as well as knifes with agate blades and deer-antler handles.
The proprietor — Joe, I guess — was telling the skinny guy about a python owner who had come to the booth earlier.
“I’ve never had a person want to taste an animal they own,” he remarked.
I was flitting my eyes from booth to booth in one of the bazaar’s alleys when they flitted upon a short woman in heavy make-up donning a maid’s outfit.
She was a member of The Apoca-Lips Cast — the Hudson Valley’s #1 shadow cast for The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Tim, the troupe’s leader, said the Apoca-Lips Cast held the distinction of being the only Rocky Horror Show shadow cast in the Hudson Valley. The cast fleshes out screenings of the cult film with live performances, and Tim rattled off a list of the venues they had performed at over the last 18 years.
The Hudson Valley Comicon included a surprising number of women, or at least a number that surprised me, having never been to one of these things before. The crowd was pretty diverse, with a good number of teens and a smattering of families with children, and the only demographic trend I saw was that almost everyone was under 40.
There was also a surprising number of fake weapons. They ranged from samurais carrying long blades to a guy dangling a paintball gun the way you (and he) see marines holding rifles on TV. The weapon-bearers had to get all this past the checkpoint guarding the comicon’s entrance, and I imagine the quality of the replicas was based on how nervous they made the security personnel.
Wanting a smoke, I passed by a booth featuring a Star Trek Fan Club chapter (USS Henry Hudson NCC 1611, which makes it sound like the federation is unionized) and stepped past the checkpoint into the sunshine.
After I rolled a stoag, I pretended to not have a lighter and went looking for fuego. This used to be my method for chatting up girls in bars, but I’ve also found it’s a great tool for starting less-suggestive conversations.
The woman I found with a lighter was reticent, but the girl who came up behind us looking to bum a stoag was not. She had pallid facepaint rubbed over her cheeks, dark makeup bleeding from her eye sockets and was wearing a red Chinese cheongsam wrapped around her skinny frame, a luminous, technicolored baseball cap propped on her head.
“I’m zombie-chink-McFly,” she loudly informed me, a mishmash of the undead, Marty McFly from Back to the Future, and a racially insensitive Asian stereotype.
“Marty McFly from Back to the Future 2,” she clarified, the one where McFly impersonates his future son, so she was actually four characters in one, she needed me to know.
Her conversation was so rapid it reminded me of a train that had lost its brakes. She had volunteered at the Hudson Valley Comicon on Saturday, so had a VIP pass for the second day, she said, occasionally jumping from our conversation to greet other comicon attendees or comment on their costumes.
I was going to inform her one side of her cheongsam was unbuttoned, exposing her armpit and part of her bra, but she addressed this before I could.
“I was really into the whole butch-hairy-armpits-thing for a while and then I shaved but now it’s back,” she machine-gunned, proudly lifting her arm up.
I passed the VIP lounge on my way back inside, which was cordoned off from the plebeians by cloth walls and two security guards, just in case the non-VIP attendees tried to rush the entrance with plastic sabers.
“Furniture Provided by Raymour & Flannigan Furniture Clearance Center,” a sign posted outside the lounge read, which struck me as a genius marketing move (“My GOD, this loveseat cushions my chainmailed tush like a DREAM! — Where did you say it was from?”).
Across the gym was a kiosk where a swarthy man with a long ponytail, heavy tattoos and jumpy eyes was selling leather goods, including pouches, gauntlets, collars, cat ears and gasmasks (in case of gas attack). The kiosk also featured leather bras, and a trio of lady Ghostbusters approached the man asking where the C-cups were. A couple booths over, Jasmine and Belle were chatting to Disney cartoonist James C. Mulligan, and a woman asked the princesses if it was OK to photograph her toddler with them. The two posed by the toddler’s stroller, and he swung his head back and forth between them, unable to figure out which one he should grin at.
The Hudson Valley Comicon featured a series of panels throughout the weekend, and I wandered in for the 4 p.m. talk on cosplay.
The teen Joker sat with a few of his friends in front of me, deftly reapplying his sanguinary lipstick while checking his handiwork on his iPhone camera like he was about to be called in for a job interview. Six dolled-up and decked-out cosplayers with such names as “Jessilyn Cupcake” and “Deranged Dollface” sat behind a conference table to take questions.
“I’ve always wanted to expand into the cosplay scene,” a man queried. “Do you have any tips for getting started?”
The panel asked him if he was interested in cosplay just for fun, or as “an actual, money-making venture,” which is apparently a thing.
He said it was just for fun, and the panel suggested the best way to get into it was to meet a community of other cosplayers.
“Your best bet is to just go to a convention and talk to people,” a panelist said. The man looked daunted by the task before him, and nervously sat down.
The panel’s MC saw a girl in her mid-teens with her hand raised and approached her with the microphone. The girl was short and chubby and had been intensely taking notes in her lap, her legs crossed and her back bent over the pad, curled into herself like a pretzel.
She had bent herself back to the pad after raising her hand and seemed startled when the MC thrust the mic at her.
She positioned the mic in front of her mouth, staring out from the crunched tangle of her limbs.
“I have very bad social anxiety, so if I stutter a lot…” she trailed off.
“Me too!” exclaimed one of the panelists. The teen found her verbal footing, and asked about doing cosplay, expressing valid anxiety at the idea of parading around dressed like a cartoon character.
“It’s all about experience,” one of the panelists said, adding it was good to wade into the practice with other cosplayers.
“We’re all nerds,” another panelist said. “We all have that story about being shoved into a locker. That’s why we do cosplay, as an escape from reality. And it’s good.”
Back in the parking lot, two guys dressed in full Storm Trooper regalia kvetched through their helmets about the heat, which had climbed into the 70s. I used my no-lighter method to start a conversation with an older woman from Poughkeepsie who was working the event.
The woman was a comicon devotee and was volunteering for the occasion. She ticked off the comicons she had worked at — in Atlanta, Jersey, Raleigh, NYC — and said she was only occasionally paid for her service. She mostly did it for the love, describing the comicon volunteers as a “big, dysfunctional family.”
As we looked towards a food cart, a large man pulled up his t-shirt and started rubbing his belly for some reason.
“NOT necessary,” the woman commented.
The New York City comicon “had a lot more latex,” she said, which was in shorter supply here, “probably because it’s more family-oriented.”
“What, is the one in the city just kinkier?” I asked.
“It’s just people letting their freak flag fly,” she responded. “But you gotta have some respect — if you’re 300 pounds, don’t be dressing as Princess Leia attached to Jabba the Hutt — you ARE Jabba the Hutt.”
I had arrived at the tail-end of the weekend’s festivities, and a kaleidoscope of characters drained out of Gold’s Gym as I re-entered. Inside, proprietors were wrapping up their kiosks, and many of the workers now sat in circles on the floor, trading tips and stories from the weekend.
The barbells and pec-pumping equipment would return the next day, and the occupants of the space would be dressed in gym shorts and tank tops, perhaps scanning the room for a marooned nerd to give a wedgie. Hopefully the nerd would still have their samurai sword.