Pop Culture

Why Do We Pay for Autographs at Cons?

This weekend was Space City Comic Con…an uneven success by the kindest estimates. Me, I had a good time playing father-daughter geek reporter team, though I did manage to get in a few of our typical con activities in between chasing the larger story.

One of those things was autograph hunt, or, more accurately, idol emotional moment hunt. See, unless you’re a collector hoping to add value to various kinds of pop-culture merchandise, I doubt you really give a damn about the price difference between a photo of William Shatner and a signed photo of William Shatner. I mean, signed posters and stuff like that are cool and all, but I got a cold dose of reality when I tried to estimate the value of my Dogma poster signed by Kevin Smith for my insurance company when it was destroyed in Hurricane Ike. The world, by and large, does not care that much about this sort of thing.

Which is why the price war in celebrity autographs in conventions increasingly seems weird to me. When I was researching my first convention cover feature two years back, a main source involved in the con scene from the ‘70s lamented the days when Roy Rogers and Johnny Weissmuller wouldn’t dream of charging fans to sign their names to a piece of paper or a picture. It was an expected part of celebrity and was included in the price of admission. People came to see the stars, and the stars would oblige their fans’ reasonable requests.

Now, it’s expected that each scrawl will be worth a set amount of money as a way to defray the cost of bringing the guests down. I’ve had several long conversations with John Simons of Comicpalooza over the hard reality of bringing in these big-name guests and what it means in terms of money (and trust me, this is a very complicated issue), but I’m not going to pretend that part of the reason is so that they can keep the entry price of the con down. After all, the justification goes, there’s lots of free exposure and activities to make up for it.

That’s true, but there's a big difference between panels and a brief face-to-face meeting with a beloved star. I’ve paid for pictures with John Barrowman and the signatures of other Doctor Who companions, but what was the thing of value was the simple few seconds to say, “I appreciate what you have meant to me.”

It’s very natural to want to have a tactile reminder of the experience, but I’m not sure that it’s worth what is charged. Most of the best experiences can’t be rendered in video or memorabilia. For instance, high on my daughter’s list of must-meets was Sexy Star of Lucha Underground. As a kick-ass woman who wrestles on par with the men in LU, she is my little arch-feminist’s personal superhero.

My problem was I didn’t really have anything for her to sign (DVDs or posters, El Rey. Get on it.) I knew from long experience that just to meet Sexy Star would be fairly easy, but a keepsake was more or less out of my budget after I paid $126 for getting the assorted Doctor Who companion autographs.

While we waited, my daughter sat on the floor, and accidentally the next person in line stepped on her fingers. Immediately she started crying and ran into my arms. Star saw this, finished up her picture and immediately came over to ask if my daughter was all right. It was the sort of human, wonderful thing that can sometimes happen.

After my daughter calmed down, I held her up to her hero and she told Star she was her favorite wrestler before shyly burying her face in my arm. Star reached out and pinched my daughter’s bicep. “You are very strong,” said Star. “And very beautiful.” My daughter was so invigorated, she showed Star the arm-twist and elbow combo I’d taught her right on the convention floor. Star clapped enthusiastically.

There’s no taking that home in autograph form. Just as there’s no taking home my daughter's meeting Colin Baker and being so intimidated by being in the presence of an actual Doctor that she literally hid under his table, unable to meet his gaze. I spent my time shaking Baker’s hand and telling him how much we enjoyed his audio plays. He called my daughter “charming, if seemingly invisible,” and that was just so Sixth Doctor that I’m not convinced I didn’t stumble into an adventure.

We did spend money on Billie Piper and Alex Kingston. As she always does for visiting companions, my daughter painted them pictures of the Tardis. Both women were very moved, with Piper in particular beaming down at her and saying, “Did you make this for me, my darling?” They were also both more than willing to record brief hellos into my voice recorder for my wife, asleep at home for a 12-hour night shift in the NICU over the Memorial Day holiday.

I also had them sign things. In Piper’s case, the 2006 Doctor Who annual, but in Kingston’s case, a copy of Bedtime Without Arthur by Jessica Meserve because Kingston read it as part of CeeBeeBies bedtime stories and it’s my daughter’s favorite. The latter is one of those utterly meaningless things from a collector standpoint, but impossibly meaningful from my daughter’s. It’s why the “value added” argument just doesn’t fly with me.

I remember when Frazer Hines and Gary Russell were Comicpalooza’s big Doctor Who guests back in the day. I spent a lot of time with both of them just chatting them up, particularly Russell, who is who I want to be if I ever grow up. I bought Hines’s biography and got him to sign it, but I also remember bringing him my novelization of “The Highlanders” and his apologizing to me that he had to charge me (Russell signed my copy of Invasion of the Cat-People for free because writers could not care less about this sort of thing unless it’s the latest new release generating royalties).

Last year at SCCC, my daughter gave paintings to both Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill, but only paid for Gillan’s autograph because money was tight. Darvill was, honestly, kind of at a loss, clearly wanting to reciprocate something for the little girl in front of him, but bound by con rules against doing so for free. It was the same weird note of apology I got from Hines when I asked him to sign The Highlanders, a book he neither wrote nor had anything really to do with besides having his likeness on the cover of the book version of his first adventure. By instituting this system, we’ve arbitrarily denied heroes the ability to touch the fans that their works have meant so much to. I’m not saying that autographs should be free, but I think we’re assigning a dollar amount to the simple act of seeing in person a hero that changed your life. That seems wrong.
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