With screenings and panels going on constantly, wrestling and robot fighting, vendors selling products you can only dream of, and the huge amount of cosplayers, MCM Comic Con Birmingham is an incredible experience from beginning to end.
Batman smiles at me with mild embarrassment as he breathes out a thin trail of smoke from his cigarette.
He’s encountering one of the biggest problems cosplayers face on a regular basis, and something rarely addressed in the pages of comic books and movies – overheating in his costume. Even though we’re standing outside on an overcast, breezy morning in Britain’s “Second City” of Birmingham, he’s already suffering from the effects of wearing a full bodysuit and mask. It’s something I’m familiar with, having worn a full Swamp Thing costume in the blazing heat of a South African sunny day several months before, although today I’m dressed as Wacky Raceland’s Dick Dastardly. I politely offer him a blast from a cooling spray I brought with me in anticipation of suffering the same fate. He accepts, and after he uses it we jovially chat about the logistics of wearing superhero costumes and why we do it.
We’re taking a break from the MCM Comic Con queue which has already swelled to thousands, everyone waiting patiently for the gates to open. Many are dressed normally, but they seem to be increasingly outnumbered by those in costume. It’s the calm before the storm, because the amount of people coming in is steadily rising. Later in the day, press officer Dave Axbey guesstimates that a minimum of 20 000 people have attended, an increase on the previous year’s figures – and that’s just for Day One. But in the morning, behind the scenes, it’s a flurry of activity as the race is on to make sure all the stalls are in place and looking their best, the special guests are ready to meet their fans and that ensure that everything runs smoothly.
Saying goodbye to Batman, I head back inside and encounter Peter, a representative of the Silver Sabres – a group of Star Wars Jedi knights who will be giving free lightsabre lessons to young padawans at the event. The Silver Sabres run full classes for adults and children alike, as they combine traditional martial arts and fencing with theatrical expression. From his Return Of The Jedi-style Luke Skywalker outfit and his LED lightsabre which glows with fierce intensity, he means business but is still looking forward to having a great time.
His group aren’t the only Star Wars enthusiasts there, with groups as diverse as Imperial guards, bounty hunters, rebel pilots, TIE-fighter pilots and Mandalorian troops. Plus, of course, there’s Darth Vader himself, who takes a few seconds out of his busy schedule later in the day to force-choke me. It’s all worth it, because Princess Leia gives me a smile afterwards and when she does I feel like Han Solo. The Force is clearly still strong in these people, and thankfully it’ll never dwindle.
The barriers finally open and the crowd surges in, although in a place as big as the NEC arena hall and with over a hundred stalls, stands, exhibitions and signings to choose from it’s hard to know where to go first. The crowd automatically divides between the big two initial choices: a gaming area, offering free plays of classic console games; and a full-size Dalek and TARDIS, alongside which people quickly pose for photos. It’s the experience of a lifetime for many fans, and everybody’s taking full advantage of it.
The movie promotions are underway too, and a giant Optimus Prime truck broods ominously, flanked by Bumblebee who’s more than happy to remind everyone of his popularity just by flexing his armour. Tom Cruise appears on a big screen, with footage from The Mummy proving that Universal’s new “classic monster” franchise series is far removed from Brendan Fraser’s antics of before. Meanwhile, the Ghost In The Shell stand sadly just waits to be noticed.
It’s all a lot to take in, but gloriously so. Stall after stall offers up T-shirts featuring favourite superheroes and movie references, while metalwork sculptures and sword-vendors start doing business. Independent comic book artists and writers man their stations as readers pick up their latest issues. Every stall seems to offer something for everyone, from life-size Gremlins to vintage collectables. I debate over buying a classic Chewbacca action figure from the ‘70s or a vintage Thunderbirds model of FAB-1. I decide to wait a while, but not before getting sidetracked into making some essential purchases of a Fifth Doctor-era Doctor Who patch and a Rocket Raccoon lapel pin.
Before long, the crowds begin to line up for photograph and autograph sessions. The Red Dwarf stars Robert Llewelyn (the snappy service mechanoid Kryten), Danny John-Jules (the evolved Cat, who also starred in Blade 2) and Chris Barrie (the hologram-form of cowardly super-jerk Rimmer, who also starred in The Brittas Empire and the Lara Croft/Tomb Raider films) smile and interact with their fans, and their popularity hasn’t dwindled over the years.
Llewelyn takes a quick time-out to chat with me, and we briefly discuss how Red Dwarf only has a cult following in South Africa, due to it never being aired on any mainstream channel. It’s a sad fact that a show named by Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory as an essential must-have in a time of emergency, and which has so much popularity that it was featured as a bonus level in the Lego Dimensions’ Fantastic Beasts pack, is still so little known in South Africa. Unfortunately, with the crowd around the actors getting bigger, as well as them having full interviews and a panel session later, Llewelyn pulls a face and gets back to work.
They aren’t the only celebrities with their hands full. Andrew Lee Potts of time-travelling/dinosaur battling show Primeval fame quickly gives a peace sign and a thumbs-up to his South African fans, while the cast of classic comedy ‘Allo ‘Allo continue to raise a smile with everyone they meet. I take it as a matter of personal pride that actor Richard Gibson – Flick of the Gestapo – warns me in character to “Be silent, peasant! Or I will have you shot!” Meanwhile, Starsky & Hutch stars David Soul, Paul Michael Glaser and Antonio Fargas look overwhelmed and overjoyed by their fan base. Doctor Who and Torchwood fan-favourite stars Billie Piper (Rose) and Gareth David-Lloyd (Ianto Jones) will be arriving soon, along with other Who alumni Greg Austin and Fady Elsayed, who play Charlie and Ram in the spinoff show Class.
With the event becoming a picture of controlled chaos, it makes sense to take a break and watch some of the wrestling on offer from Slam. Before the first event, the ring announcer gives the audience a lesson in how to get heat from a crowd, as he brings a young couple in to the ring. One of them, Wyatt, was then made a villain by the skilled announcer who playfully gets the crowd cheering “Wyatt sucks!” before the first bout.
Even before the match starts, wrestler Layton Cole cements his heel status by calling out a booing fan to talk smack to him on the mic, only to move it away when the fan begins to talk. It’s a classic move, and one which riles up the crowd even more. During the match itself, a standard heel/face showdown which includes some interference from Cole’s villainous manager, a steady grinding can be heard from another part of the arena as some other titans prepared to scrap – the fully-armoured robots, who are soon set to duke it out in classic Robot Wars and BattleBots fashion.
The excitement of the whole event seems to get to everyone. Witnessing two rival groups of Imperial troops ordering each other to “move along, move along”, makes me wonder how Palpatine managed to rule the Empire without getting a migraine. A trio of zombies have begun stalking the crowd, terrifying those unaware of their surroundings and presumably awaiting the screening of Seoul Station in the theatre. It’s the animated prequel to the critically hailed zombie film Train To Busan. Near the TARDIS, the Dalek has begun to go on a rampage, threatening to exterminate everyone in sight. It even asks one bemused cosplayer embarrassing questions about her outfit. Now seems like as good a time as any to take a breather and visit the courtyard outside.
For all the wonderful frenzy going on indoors, there’s one thing that cosplayers can always be counted on for, and that’s enjoying themselves in a controlled fashion. By the hundreds, they come and go, taking the time to pose for photos, talk to strangers like they’re old friends and admire the dedication and work put in to creating costumes.
While Beast Boy and Deadpool seem locked in a competition to out-crazy each other’s antics, Suicide Squad members gather and discuss the merits of the original Harley Quinn costume over the film version. The Doctor and River Song race towards their next mission, caught on camera by one of a dozen Jokers. Ghostbusters young and old talk about building a better proton pack. John Constantine chats with Harvey Bullock, while manga and anime fans of countless different shows literally spread their wings or twitch their tails.
Then Mr Blobby arrives.
Back in the early 1990s, Mr Blobby was a comedy character – a bulbous pink inflatable man covered in yellow polka-dots, who was a walking disaster area. The phenomenon which was Mr Blobby was understandably short-lived, and over the years many have questioned what on Earth the British were thinking when he was created. Now, for everyone’s entertainment, one fan has chosen to dress as Mr Blobby. His cautious walk around the courtyard culminates in him finally attempting to sit down on a bench, which is no mean feat when you’re a person encased in inflated plastic. After wobbling to a halt and finally composing himself, the wearer releases a valve and the air goes out of his costume with a slightly audible farting noise. It’s quite easily one of the funniest moments of the convention, and all entirely accidental.
After the impromptu comedy session was over, and with so many cosplayers giggling, I head back inside to see if I can get five minutes with the Doctor Who-related stars. Billie Piper is looking as upbeat and attractive as always, beaming smiles to every fan she meets, many of whom are dressed as their favourite characters from the franchise. I stop past the Class signing, and get a chance to chat with Greg Austin and Fady Elsayed, who seem to be in good spirits. Greg tells me that the rumours of Class’s cancellation are premature, because the ratings numbers from other countries haven’t come in yet. However, the pair seem quietly confident of the show being renewed – good news for their fans, especially after the cliffhanger reveal of the Weeping Angels.
Unfortunatlely though, I keep missing out on meeting Gareth David-Lloyd. Suddenly I know how Mr Blobby felt moments before: deflated.
In the Steampunk section of the arena, the ever-growing phenomenon is in full force. While a lecture is underway on upcycling steampunk costumes (all under the watchful eye of a retro R2-D2), I take the opportunity to pick up some vintage gauges from the guys at Verne Industries and investigate the creations of Mostly Curious Games, an art laboratory which offers (amongst other things) an incredible range of steampunk sci-fi art pieces, from Star Wars/Star Trek mashups to superhero masks. The Ewok-skin rugs are a must for anybody with a wry sense of humour about the pint-sized Rebellion allies.
It’s the same sense of humour apparent from one of the many Harley Quinns, who has taken the time to confront a Gotham cop next to the GCPD police car in a bid to go for a ride. Thankfully, KITT from Knight Rider is on hand next to them, and nobody’s going to abuse that. However, the hottest car there looks like it only just arrived in the future from 1985, as a replica Back To The Future DeLorean is offered up to the public to sit in. Just don’t try to ride the hoverboard.
For the kids there’s a reading section, with beanbags and books provided, watchfully minded over by a giant Minion, and even free superhero capes and face painting. For the adults there’s even more.
By the end of the day, I spot Batman again. I’ve seen others over the course of the day, from BvS Batmans to Lego Batmans, but this was the first Batman of the day. He’s removed his cowl and is smiling like a man come home. I don’t blame him; it isn’t Gotham and it doesn’t need to be. It’s a place where fans of all types can enjoy themselves and let rip, and where cosplayers can be themselves (or those characters they want to be). It’s then when I’m reminded of something we talked about before it all began, about why we do it.
It’s because we love it. And this is exactly the sort of place which allows that to happen.