It wasn’t too long ago that "Star Trek" fans were mocked, "Star Wars" was irrelevant, and comic book readers had to hide their hobby past the age of 12.
A lot has changed over the past 15 years. Geek culture is now popular culture.
There are at least five major fan conventions in the area through September with notable celebrities. Among the highlights: William Shatner and Joe Montana headline this year’s Nickel City Con in Buffalo. Original "Star Wars" cast member Peter Mayhew, who played Chewbacca, returns to Ontario in June for the Niagara Falls Comic Con.
And another "Star Wars" cast member, Jeremy Bulloch, who played Boba Fett, joins Burt Ward at RocCon, Sept. 15-17 at Kodak Event Center in Rochester.
Depending on the guest, getting autographs and pictures with the stars can be pricey, but for fans, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to see their heroes and villains live.
“It’s all entirely up to the fans and what sort of questions they ask,” Mayhew said of his interactions with fans during a recent telephone interview. “Everybody has their own ideas. I enjoy it.”
Beyond conventions, more fan events are scheduled throughout the summer. The Buffalo Bisons have two promotional games for "Star Wars" and superheroes scheduled this year. Filmmaker Kevin Smith, a geek himself, will be at Helium Comedy Club for multiple appearances.
“Everything has flipped on the reverse,” said Sherri Lyn Litz, a local superhero fan who as a child wore Wonder Woman underwear when she discovered the 1970s series with Lynda Carter. “Everything that I got picked on as a kid is cool now. Not only that, but we need heroes in real life. I don’t even know if it’s considered geeky anymore, because it’s cool to like superheroes now.”
Litz is a member of the Superhero Alliance of Western New York, a local group whose members dress up as their favorite characters. Within the fan community, it’s called cosplay, and it’s only grown more popular as geek culture has exploded. Litz enjoys putting on makeup and costumes to become characters like Catwoman and Gamora.
As a child, Anna Swannie of Williamsville dressed up as Princess Leia for Halloween. In 2011, she saw a group of costumed "Star Wars" fans called the North Ridge entertain the crowd at a Bisons game. Now she is a member, dressing as Princess Leia as she appeared in the various movies.
“It’s an opportunity for somebody to step out of their own skin a bit and become a character they somehow relate to,” said Swannie. “We select characters that we identify with on a personal level. It’s not for everybody, but if it’s something you want to try, I say go for it. As long as you’re having fun, that’s all that matters.”
Groups like the North Ridge and Superhero Alliance have taken their inspiration for fantasy heroes to become good guys in real life with fundraisers and appearances. The North Ridge raises money for Compass House of Buffalo, a shelter for runaway and homeless teens. The Superhero Alliance also participates in charity events and visits.
“You stay upbeat,” Litz said. “You want them to have some kind of escape from what’s going on with them. You’re in character, and it’s actually fun. That is one of my favorite things that cosplay brings to my life. Being a part of this group that brings so much to the community has improved my life as well.”
Fandom is also becoming more diverse, as more female and minority characters are represented onscreen. “Wonder Woman” finally sees her first feature film release this summer, and Marvel Studios is prepping “Black Panther” for early 2018. While it seemed Leia was the only female in the "Star Wars" universe back in the day, the past two movies in the franchise both starred women as the lead characters.
“It’s the strong female portrayals that get me every time,” said Litz. “You see so much in media where you see women portrayed as lesser than, subordinate and subservient. That’s why I’m drawn to comics, because that’s an opportunity to be treated equally, empowered and strong.”
“It’s great in all the genres, whether it’s DC, Marvel or Star Wars, they are bringing more powerful, strong lead women characters to life,” Swannie said. “It’s so exciting for young girls to have these role models. Everybody can be a Wonder Woman.”