Comicpalooza 2016 Day 3: Charities, Hallway Musicians and Why Costume Contests Suck

The final day of Comicpalooza is always my favorite. Most of the top-quality guests and programming are still going on, but the crowds are usually thinner and less in-your-face. It’s particularly fun if you stay in one of the hotels catering to the con crowd that serve free breakfast, as you watch late-night revelers and tired parents munch their way through bacon with traces of last night’s face paint and cosplay makeup still in their eyes.

Kidding aside, if you’re looking for real human moments, the last day of the con is the best. My wife got to meet and chat with Eliza Dushku of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame, getting her to sign the special Breakfast Club-inspired variant cover of Angel + Faith Season 10 #16. Dushku wished me a happy Father’s Day before moving on to the line, which was much smaller than the day before. My daughter also got to shyly peer out from my arms at the massive form of Peter Mayhew. As far as she is concerned, Star Wars is little more than a movie series about Chewbacca, and though she was too intimidated to shake his hand, she did smile when he called her gorgeous.

Things like that are just easier when everyone’s initial excitement has damped down and things run on a lower energy level. A smaller push from the crowd also got me a chance to investigate some of the charity and activist booths that are increasingly a part of the big conventions.

For instance, Ben & Jerry’s, of all people, had brought an ice cream van out to park on the con floor near the food court (Saint Arnold had a beer garden nearby as well, and I’m really impressed the brewery managed to make any dent in the full nelson Aramark has on providing food and drink at the George R. Brown.) In addition to handing out pretty decent-size bowls of new flavors, Ben & Jerry's was also signing people up for voting reminders. Not registering, just a chance to get on a mailing list for a postcard to tell you to vote in the election this November.

Now, I’m sure this has the helpful side effect of getting a bunch of people in the Ben & Jerry’s marketing database, but it’s still a nice thing. “This is a very important election,” said the woman running the booth. “They want you to vote.”

Stuff like that was all over the place. The Ronald McDonald House in particular combined the absolute best of comic conventions and community outreach. The people who collect Happy Meal toys aren’t all that numerous, but there is a pretty strong subset of toy collectors interested in full sets. RMH was offering singles from recent runs for a $1 donation, complete sets for $5. By Sunday, most of the big properties, like My Little Pony and Skylanders, were gone, but it was still a neat thing to do in a good cause. RMH's work helping parents stay close to their hospitalized children through the housing the organization provides is more than worth the buck I threw away on yet another small, plastic version of Twilight Sparkle.

I also ran into the people at Be the Match. They go to big events collecting volunteers to have their DNA collected in a database for people eligible for bone marrow transplants. One of the organizers told me that comic conventions were the ideal place for the group's work because comic fans tended to sign up nearly four times as often as other groups.

“It’s the hero mentality,” she said. “They see something and aspire to be like it in some way.”

One of the most excellent things I found on the last day was the return of incidental hallway musicians to Comicpalooza. The first few years that I covered the con, you couldn’t swing a lightsaber without hitting someone dressed as Link playing an ocarina or a ukulele player busting out a Final Fantasy tune. That just seemed to have faded away over the years. There have been a few big musical acts in the geek world that have stopped by, but the only musician of note joining the 2016 convention was Frankie Banali of Quiet Riot, and he only for Q&As.

However, this year the food court was being serenaded by Otaku Acoustic. The three-piece act plays anime covers using a heavily Texas country and pop Mexican flavor to the tuneage. According to singer Melanie Jackson-Perez, they were the only band they knew who were 2016 guests ready to play.

Anime is not really my thing, so it’s hard for me to tell you exactly how faithful their renditions of various theme songs were, but it did bring back a DIY sort of punk ethic that is always in danger as the convention grows ever larger. They’re a Houston group hoping to start making their way into geek-friendly venues like Neil’s Bahr and maybe some of the comic shops that host small concerts. Over the past several years, places like 8th Dimension have hosted some pretty choice, if niche, touring acts in their game rooms and on the sales floor. It’s one area of geekdom that is still growing and finding new audiences. It’s good to see it still has a toehold in the biggest show in Houston.

This was the first year my daughter decided to cosplay in a homemade costume. I spent the better part of the night before the convention opened with scissors, glue and extra-large pipe cleaners creating a Tentacle Kitty outfit for her. It wasn’t bad, if I do say so myself, and I only glued my hands together four times.

Since Tentacle Kitty is a popular character, though not mainstream like, say, Spider-man, she got a fair amount of attention the first day. People wanted to take her picture, and she felt like a celebrity. That’s why she decided to enter the costume contest.

As an old Rocky Horror convention-goer, I’m sort of against costume contests. Honestly, I don’t know why we can’t just organize a parade or a fashion show by theme for people to showcase in instead of pitting people against each other in a way that always leaves someone crying. My opinion was not swayed by the children’s cosplay contest at Comicpalooza.

Don’t get me wrong; the people running and judging could not have been nicer or better organized. They were lovely. It’s just the process. Obvious stage moms and dads hissed their directives to their children, hoping for a ribbon. Original ideas were biased against as opposed to accurate replications. In the end, some kids won and some didn’t, including mine. Most of those were fairly devastated in a way that seemed to make even the winners sad. Because they’re freakin’ children.

At first my daughter allowed herself to be consoled by a version of Spider-man made by a very talented balloon artist. Then she went up to the Extra Life booth, where donations netted you coins to try to knock down the massive card towers. She failed to bring one down, but knocked some satisfying holes in a big one. That seemed to make her feel better. Like the RMH, it was for a good cause too. They use stuff like this and video game marathons to benefit the Children’s Miracle Network Hospital.

Bribery and destruction behind her, she was still a little down. That’s when I reminded her of all the people over the weekend who had squealed in delight over her costume. All the people she had made a little happy just by dressing and being her. That’s always going to be better than ribbons and even prize money, and I think if cons thought more in those terms, there would be a lot fewer crying kids.

All and all, 2016 was probably the best year Comicpalooza has had in terms of the experience. Its organization was so crisp that my family did more than they ever had before just because they could. Despite the recent scandals of Space City Comic Con and Anime Matsuri, it looks like Houston as a geek culture destination is here to stay. See you next year!
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jef Rouner (not cis, he/him) is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner