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Culture Con: Forgotten Histories of the Fan Convention, 1939-2015

Activity: Talk or presentation typesInvited talk

The convention has been the primary location for mass fan gatherings for over 80 years. From the first World Science Fiction Convention (WorldCon) held in New York in 1939 to the most recent San Diego Comic-Con in 2015, fans of all ages, nationalities and races, men and women, have enjoyed the unity of coming together and celebrating their favourite media or popular culture texts: whether literature, comics, films, TV, animation, sport, games, collectibles or memorabilia. The convention has provided a familiar and safe place for fans to meet, exchange, and communicate while perhaps not enjoying positive press or similarly appealing spaces during the daily routine of life outside the world of what they like most. While the convention allowed for emotional connections between fans and actors, fans and fans, it also served as a space where commodities such as toys, props and autographs could be bought and sold. This paper uses primary material held in the Zine Collection in the Special Collections Archive at the University of Iowa to reappraise the history of the fan convention. I argue that while some critics have seemingly written off the contemporary con as a commercial enterprise they in fact remain very close to those early conventions which were organised by fans and for fans. The physical locations might have grown bigger and promotional emphasis may have changed according to contemporary marketing strategies but conventions are still about fans who organise events and programs aimed at fans – the core activities of any con. Historical documents (including programs, maps and posters) suggest that the blueprint of the convention remains very much fan driven, despite the marketing hype that surrounds such events at Comic-Con. Combining theoretical approaches from the study of fan geographies, tourism and pilgrimage with textual and historical analysis of fan archives this paper attempts to reappraise the significance of the fan convention in the creation and growth of fan identity and community.
10 Nov 2015

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