How Wakandacon, the first Black Panther-themed convention, escaped the fan con curse

How Wakandacon, the first Black Panther-themed convention, escaped the fan con curse

August 13, 2018 0 By Nazmul Khan

“I’m a planner, and my dream, my whole life, has been to buy a house,” says Dave Barthwell while standing at a podium in front of several hundred mostly black attendees at the end of the first Wakandacon, a three-day convention of cosplay, workshops, tournaments, and panels, all celebrating the Afrofuturistic possibilities inspired by Marvel’s record-breaking movie Black Panther for black people. “I’ve been saving for it my whole life. And I emptied my savings to throw this—”

Suddenly his voice breaks, and he has to stop and step away from the mic, tears spilling over. The other four organizers, who are sitting at a long table next to the podium, have already said their tearful piece of this closing ceremony; Dave’s just joining the club. His younger siblings Ali and Matt get up to hug him. (Later, offstage, Ali teases him, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you make that noise or cry like that.”) Meanwhile, the audience has burst into applause and cheering, which continues for a good 15 seconds, uninterrupted, as though the filling of dead air is an act of solidarity. Finally, he continues.

“This is something we all needed. I know what it costs. I know the wages we pay to the world outside of this space. Out there—” His voice gets thick again, as he pauses to compose himself. “Out there, they try to take so much from you. They try to tell you that you don’t matter, that the dreams and the hopes that you have don’t matter. That you’re weird or broken or wrong. And, after a while, you start to believe it.

“But not here. Not this weekend. We set out to create something inclusive, informative, fun, to connect people and do something new, something free, where people could try new things, and find support for who they are. A lot of people have thanked me this weekend, but I wanted to thank you, in turn, because this has meant so much to me.”

Vendors sold art, jewelry, clothing, records, face-painting, and more in the Exhibitor’s Hall.

Here, in the basement of the Hilton Downtown Chicago over the first weekend in August, the Barthwells — Dave, 35; Ali, 29; Matt, 26; and friends Taylor Witten and Lisa Beasley — have accomplished something both time-honored and nearly impossible in today’s commercialized fan culture. With virtually no experience among them, the five Chicago natives successfully organized and hosted a fan convention for roughly 2,000 fans over three days, all while knowing that several groups of first-time organizers had recently attempted similar feats and failed catastrophically and very publicly.

Wakandacon started as a tentative, nerdy idea: how can black people make Wakanda, the utopian advanced African nation where Black Panther takes place, real? By the convention’s end, that idea had blossomed into something all nerds have searched for, at one point or another, but that black fans have rarely been able to truly enjoy: a space where you can love what you love fiercely alongside people who look like you and share that passion — a place to belong.

(Disclosure: I originally heard about Wakandacon because Ali and I are friends. I also used to edit her Bachelor and Bachelorette recaps at Vulture.)

The process of organizing to find fellow weirdos in an alienating world has a rich history in geek spaces. In January 1972, the first major Star Trek convention was pulled together by a motley group of fans at the Statler Hilton in New York City. There were plenty of Trekkies nationwide (a grassroots letter-writing campaign had kept the show on the air for its third and final season), but at that point, physically getting together with others who shared a love for Trek’s utopian future was challenging, to say the least. And they were mostly limited to small, local gatherings or bigger, more generalized science fiction and fantasy cons.

“Isolated fans… were hiding their love for Star Trek because they had no one to share it with,” one organizer, Joan Winston, wrote in her 1977 memoir, The Making of the Trek Conventions. “[They thought] they were alone.”

She and her fellow founders expected 500 Trek fans to show up that weekend in New York. They were met by a throng of over 3,000. As Winston would later put it, “We lit the fuse, and fandom burst into flame.”

Half a century later, the fan landscape has changed radically. Thanks to the internet, modern fandom is anything but isolated or alone. Nerd networks have grown exponentially larger and more connected, giving millions of people instant (and often cursory) access to fellow obsessives. And because this is America, that new terrain has invited monetization: major conventions are being held everywhere, year-round. Many of the biggest are now being run and hosted, at a major profit, by event companies like ReedPOP (which produces New York Comic Con), games developers, and major Hollywood studios.

But one large group of fans is still hungry for what those Trekkies finally found in 1972. Geek culture, like everything else, has still been historically dominated by cishet white men, even though it’s a marginally more accepting corner of society. And as fandom has grown more commercialized, thus becoming more accessible and socially acceptable than ever, that inequality has been reinforced and even validated.

Ironically, in many ways, the mainstreaming of geek culture has created an even uglier version of the racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism that’s already experienced by marginalized people who like superheroes or science fiction. Stubborn, privileged fans’ jealous guarding of a culture they see as exclusively their own has created an overtly hostile environment for these fans, both in online spaces and at general fan conventions.

A dance break in the video games room and contestants in Saturday night’s cosplay contest.

That’s to say nothing of the double alienation of being a black nerd (or “blerd”), an identity many geeks of color have described as being caught between two worlds. In one, black identity can leave blerds alienated over their passion for what’s seen as a white pastime. In the other, white geeks are trying to keep them out of the fandoms they love anyway.

Then there was Black Panther. In February, King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) became the first black Marvel superhero to headline his own movie. Directed by rising star Ryan Coogler, the film, a sweeping epic set in a secretly wealthy and super-advanced African nation called Wakanda, became a cultural sensation almost instantly. Not only did black audiences demolish the box office — plenty saw the film multiple times, memes and hashtags proliferated endlessly, and several celebrities bought out entire theaters to ensure black kids could see it — but the film also received almost universal critical acclaim. As Carvell Wallace explained in The New York Times Magazine, Black Panther and Wakanda “function as a place for multiple generations of black Americans to store some of our most deeply held aspirations. We have for centuries sought to either find or create a promised land where we would be untroubled by the criminal horrors of our American existence.” Since its release, Black Panther has broken numerous box office records and grossed $1.3 billion worldwide, both because the movie is great and because, for black people and especially black Americans, its value has been immeasurable. Overnight, it turned millions into fans — fans whose passion and market power could no longer be ignored.

Not long after the Barthwells announced Wakandacon back in March, two extremely high-profile amateur fan conventions went down in flames. Tanacon, the brainchild of 20-year-old YouTube star Tana Mongeau, was positioned as counter-programming to VidCon back in June after Mongeau had a bad experience with the major YouTube gathering. Planned over just 30 to 40 days and set up at a hotel around the corner from the Anaheim Convention Center (where VidCon takes place), Tanacon descended into chaos almost immediately. Overhyped online as a “free” convention with perks for those who paid $65 for VIP tickets (most of which sold at a nominal $1), it was oversold five times beyond the actual capacity of the Marriott Suites event space. Thousands of fans — including many with VIP tickets and others looking to buy tickets at the door — were stuck in the hot Anaheim sun for hours on end with no food, water, or shade. VIP “swag” (which was advertised to be “worth quadruple the price of the ticket”) amounted to Tana-branded condoms and assorted stickers. Security and local police ended up forcing the convention to shut down after just one day. Fans and would-be attendees were furious; many likened it to last year’s now-legendary one-percenter music-festival catastrophe Fyre Fest.

But for Wakandacon’s organizers, the other con disaster was more concerning. When Universal FanCon was originally conceived back in 2016, it was envisioned as a fandom convention for geeks of color, designed, as Clarkisha Kent wrote in an extensive report for The Root, as a “(safe) space… by the marginalized and for the marginalized… a con that centered us and was not hostile to our existence.” Organizers officially launched a Kickstarter for $25,000 in January; in a matter of days, fans pledged over $56,000 to make it happen.

Then, in April, just a week before the con, it all fell apart. In an elaborate, painful series of revelations Kent referred to as “the greatest modern betrayal that had rocked the nerd community from head to toe,” FanCon organizers abruptly postponed the event indefinitely, declining to explain why or provide refunds for the backers, vendors, and fans who had purchased travel and lodging and taken time off of work or school to attend. Many concluded that FanCon had failed to pay the deposit for the hotel space and room blocks. Others speculated that one more experienced organizer may have been connected to several previous cases of convention embezzlement and cancellations. The prominent site Black Girl Nerds was part of the fallout, as well; its founder and editor-in-chief Jamie Broadnax was among the main FanCon organizers, and when she denied knowing anything about the group’s financial woes, her network of readers and contributors returned fire with receipts in the form of screenshots of her Twitter bio before all hell had broken loose.

The betrayal encouraged contributors to come forward with horror stories about being forced to write for BGN gratis, often for weeks, before getting paid laughably meager rates and barely receiving any editing or feedback on their efforts. The whole fiasco deeply scarred the fandom sector that would be Wakandacon’s main audience, leaving many doubtful of the abilities and financial solvency of new convention organizers promising a safe space for marginalized fans.

When I asked Ali in April how the meltdown was affecting her and her co-organizers, all she’d say was, “Oh, we’re aware.” Later, though, she explained: it was a real challenge, especially at first, to earn the trust of would-be attendees. “People wanted to see our bank statements,” she said.

Proving to their target audience they were legit and not another group of grifters looking to make a dollar off of hungry fans was just the beginning of their expectation management campaign. The website they built for the convention (Dave Barthwell runs web and graphics design business by day) looked so official that organizers say many fans and potential vendors who were aggressively emailing them were surprised to discover the event was being put together by five millennials with day jobs, not a corporate events company.

To combat this, and provide further accountability for wary fans, they decided to put their faces on the project, adding bios to the site, creating a video promo, and doing the rounds on local Chicago TV news. As they explained to me, they also chose not to seek out or accept help from organizers with more convention experience; several reached out, but most were white men, and the group needed to maintain both ownership and the integrity of the event’s philosophies at all costs.

Those philosophies guided almost every call they made about what kind of event this would be, from the size of the venue (they also considered Chicago tourist destination Navy Pier, which would have allowed for more attendees but cost four times as much as the Hilton) to the money they spent (providing Wi-Fi would have cost $45,000, nearly two-thirds of their initial budget) to the big names they invited to attend. (The most famous people officially scheduled at the convention were Erika Alexander of Living Single and The Cosby Show fame, who came to connect with attendees over her diversity-in-Hollywood nonprofit Keep It Colorful; Mark Willis, a Black Panther stuntman; and two of the film’s concept artists, people who could tell Wakanda’s “real story.”)

“Spending the time that we did on getting the philosophy right really helped at least us understand what we were trying to do,” says Dave in the green room after the closing ceremony. “Because, I mean, we could have gone in a lot of directions. Everything is expensive. So it’s like, ‘Okay, what is this? Does this support the mission? Is it about one of those … things that we’re trying to promote here, or is it just someone who’s really cool that we would love to take some selfies with?’”

Organizer Ali Barthwell greets a high school friend.

Ali and Dave Barthwell touch base with volunteer Kathy Crotty, who headed vendor registration.

Ali adds that a headliner for Lollapalooza — which was being held across the street in Millennium Park on the same weekend, an extreme case of cognitive dissonance if there ever was one — had reached out, offering to play a separate Wakandacon show… for a cool $100,000. They considered it, but then realized they would need to sell separate tickets and potentially raise more funds, which would bump up against their goals of keeping the con affordable and centering marginalized fans.

“You don’t know who else is gonna show up to a show like that,” she says. “The last thing we wanted was some drunk 19-year-old coming over from Lolla in his dad’s boat shoes, hassling a black woman dressed as liquid vibranium. That just wouldn’t have worked.”

The winner of the cosplayer division in the cosplay contest Saturday night dressed as liquid vibranium, the metal that drives Wakanda’s advanced society.

And Wakandacon, as they describe it, was about “bringing a crucial resource to an underserved community.” That meant dealing with unique issues, from hired security guards showing up armed (both the organizers and the hotel asked the off-duty and retired cops to lock up their weapons or leave; they chose the latter) to putting weekend passes on good-faith layaway.

“Even at $35, even at $40, there were a lot of people struggling to even make that. I had to shake a lot of hands,” says Dave. “Some people said, ‘I don’t have it today, but I’ll give you 10 dollars, and I’ll come back on Saturday and I’ll give you 20, and then I’ll come back on Sunday and I’ll give you another 10.’ Or, ‘You got PayPal?’ Or, ‘I gotta wait for this check to clear, I ain’t got no money.’ But I shook all the hands, and everyone came through. They paid what they said they would.”

The result of these concessions was an inaugural convention that, while relatively small, turned out exactly as they planned: Wakandacon had one of the healthiest atmospheres I’ve ever experienced at a convention full of complete strangers.

“I never felt like someone was gonna grab me, or touch us, or say something. I haven’t had any dudes be weird to me, or anybody else,” Ali says. “People were really respectful. They asked to take photos with people in cosplay, and those people got down on kids’ level to pose for photos. It just felt like everyone was just a little more comfortable.”

Vendors in the Exhibitor Hall.

“I heard from a lot of the exhibitors, too, who said they felt like it wasn’t a competition,” adds co-organizer Taylor Witten. “Like at other cons, [they say] it felt like you had to compete with other booths and aren’t being supported [by the organizers], or that celebrity power is the focus.”

“Last night, I went to go clear out the press room,” Lisa Beasley chimes in. “There were like 50 badges just laying around, and it hit me that somebody could have taken any of these badges. I had had two pens and a highlighter in there, and they were all still there by the end of the day.”

Earlier, at the closing ceremony, several volunteers — many of whom were the organizers’ friends and family, including the Barthwells’ parents — took a moment to share their own sentiments about the weekend.

“I do a lot of community work, and what you usually run into with organizers is sometimes they’re running too fast, or they can’t slow down to notice you,” said Nicole Humphrey. “And what I’ve experienced here is this intent, this ‘I see you. You are helping us by being here.’ I think that’s really unique and really beautiful, that not only was I able to meet you all, but also connect with you all. Even after this, I know you care.”

In total, the Barthwells estimate that the weekend cost roughly $60,000-70,000. Dave reports that they’ll break “directly even,” which, they told me back in April, was the goal.

“I wish, beyond wish, that I had a big ol’ stack of cash to just hand to each of these people, for all of the hard work that they’ve done, and I hope, beyond hope, that there is some way that I can make that happen at some point,” he says in the green room. All the signage and step-and-repeats are rolled, and the leftover badges are stacked into boxes and bins behind him. “I don’t know how we’ll get there.”

The crowd applauds the organizers’ closing remarks.

That’s the million-dollar question. When the siblings made the rounds in the marketplace earlier today to thank each vendor and booth for being a part of the convention, everyone first thanked them for making Wakandacon a reality, then immediately asked when the next one would be. The refrain Ali eventually settled into after a few queries was guarded, but optimistic: “It could look a little different next time, but we’ll be back.”

In the green room, I ask them whether they’re concerned about being able to scale up the human approach they’ve taken with this first Wakandacon as it inevitably grows, as attendees tell their friends, and as more skeptical fans see proof of concept.

“When I think about people worrying that the bigger it gets, the more it [loses the authenticity and closeness that makes it special], I try to think of it as not scaling up, but scaling out,” says Beasley. “It’s more about the resources we can pull in. More vendors, more of a support staff for us. I’m kind of glad we didn’t have all the volunteers that we needed this year. We figured out a system that works, which, going forward, is a system we can keep.”

Photography by Devon Maloney / The Verge

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