The Observer, Junior and our young nephew from down in Lower Arkansas got down to Hot Springs for SpaCon over the weekend, the multiday geekfest that’s one of the bigger pop culture conventions in the state.
The Observer grew up way out in the weeds and sticker bushes of Saline County, pre-internet, pre-pop-culture, pre-cable and MTV, so we managed to miss the explosion of stuff like that, where people can get just as into their favorite TV show or movie or comic book as some folks we knew back then got into Chevy or the Dallas Cowboys, bass fishing or attempting to wow the unseen Almighty by whipping up the best Mexican cornbread casserole for the church social. The internet, for better or for worse, allows the different and unusual to find their kind in this big ol’ world. When it’s kids who want to dress up like Wolverine, it’s a fine thing. Neo-Nazis? Not so much.
It’s a shame we missed the “con” game, really, because The Observer would have probably made a damn fine geek, with our head for trivia and quick on the draw with a glue gun. Comic books were around back in the Stone Age of our childhood, of course, but we never quite took to them, always too impatient to have our fictional pleasures doled out to us one colorful spoonful a month. Novels were always more our speed. Junior’s as well, try as we might to push him toward one cultural beachhead or another when he was a kid. As any parent can tell you, trying to push a willful child toward an interest you think he or she should have is like trying to shove the Battleship Missouri uphill on rollers made of Vienna sausages.
Our nephew is way into all that noise, however, and so Uncle Observer and Cousin Junior were happy to ferry him to SpaCon. He made himself an outfit for the occasion: some obscure monster we’d never heard of but which he assured us haunts the dreams of The Youths these days — a few sheets of fleshy tan foam rubber, haphazardly and deliberately hacked up, then glued back together over a form. With the mask on, his head was transformed into an eyeless, flesh-colored meatball crisscrossed with faux wounds and adorned with a wide grin of horrid teeth. Wearing the weddings-and-funerals suit every 13-year-old boy is obliged to have in the back of his closet, he emerged as a truly unsettling nightmare. How he saw to walk with that thing on his head is a mystery for the ages, but it was pretty damn impressive for the work of a mere lad.
The Observer has never been to a big comic book convention, but this one was a beaut: several hundred people milling about, row on row of geeky vendor booths set up in a convention center ballroom, plus laser tag and video games and autograph opportunities with sorta-celebrities like the no-longer-kid who played Eddie Munster. The vast majority of those in attendance were representing some pop culture passion, either through T-shirts or full-blown costumes. An 8-foot robot was walking around. Another dude — clad in a buckskin loincloth, a crown of metallic thorns, and a head-to-toe white spandex unitard that even covered his face and head — dragged a huge red cross around the convention center the entire time we were there, with Junior soon dubbing him Creepy Christ Superstar. Then, of course, there was Nephew, who spent the whole time walking the floor stiff-armed and silent for maximum weirdness, giving only a slow thumbs-up anytime someone approached him and asked to take a photo with him. Dozens did, from adults to kids, old dudes to fetching young ladies. At 13, The Observer would have killed The Batman for that sort of attention.
At Nephew’s age, The Observer was an awkward boy, never quite comfortable in this skin we’re in. Too heavy, too awkward, too weird, kind of an outcast for our odd pursuits and our thoughts of more than who the Razorbacks were playing this week. But here was Nephew and a couple hundred other kids just like him who had found each other and the place they belonged, unashamed in their love of the nerdy, colorful, altogether wonderful things they happen to love, and to hell with those who would judge them for it. Watching him thronged by folks eager to snuggle to selfie distance with the horrid monster that boy had made in the light of his desk lamp from foam rubber and his own imagination way down in the dark depths of South Arkansas, The Observer couldn’t help but be just a wee bit envious, there among the teeming tribe of the geeks.