The Panopticon of Celebrity: Thoughts on Chicago Wizard World ’14

Last weekend I paid a lot of money to sightsee another human being up close. I had a great time, but I’ve been thinking about the fundamental weirdness of it ever since.

I’d never been to a big, multi-fandom convention before Wizard World Chicago, but it’s something I’ve seen my friends get a lot of joy from for many years. When I found out my favorite actor from my favorite movie this year would attend, I decided to take the plunge, and so I wound up with a Sebastian Stan VIP Pass (really, that’s what it says on the badge I wore around my neck all weekend). The VIP experience promised early access, faster lines and better seats, though I honestly only bought it because I couldn’t figure out where to buy the individual tickets online. It also entitled you to a couple of con exclusives, including a limited edition Guardians of the Galaxy comic and a huge lithograph of your nerd icon of choice.

The con ran from Thursday through Sunday, so on Thursday night I decided to head up to Rosemont, near O’Hare Airport, to pick up my things and scope the place out. After some tragedies as far as getting to the convention center on public transit (for all who follow, it turns out you can walk a few blocks to the building from the Blue Line), I made it there as the day was wrapping up. People were totally in costume, milling around and carting bags of merch. I was already delighted. Then I got my swag.

That’s when I knew everything about the weekend was going to be hilarious. 

Photo on 8-21-14 at 8.36 PM

Hilarious and full of hunks. As soon as I saw this, I broke down laughing at the registration booth and pretty much kept laughing all the way home. This portrait seemed like such a mismatch between what the Wizard World people thought I found wonderful about Sebastian Stan and what actually delights me about him. Someone asked if I’d get him to sign it, and I thought about the weirdness of signing all those matinee idol versions of yourself for people wearing holographic lanyards plastered with the most blandly handsome version of your face. It sounded like the Twilight Zone par excellence.

That night I found out that my photo op, as a VIP, would come at 12:10 on Saturday. The organizers advised us to be in line at least half an hour beforehand. For the next two nights, I admit, I was too giddy to sleep because I could not stop shrieking and giggling into my pillow about the ridiculous thing I was about to undertake. I fretted over what pose to ask for — lots of people from the June convention in Philadelphia had portraits ranging from the irreverent to the absurd, all of which are wonderful, and I wanted mine to be memorable. I polled my friends, who suggested swing dancing (WWII-era Bucky Barnes loves to dance), fingerguns (per a recent Instagram post of his) or fistbumps, high fives or just plain hugs.

I arrived early on Saturday morning, as advised, dressed in a vague way as Peggy Carter, Hayley Atwell’s amazing ’40s field agent who sees the greatness in scrawny Steve Rogers even before he’s Captain America. (As it turns out, red lipstick, a cream silk shirt and an olive drab skirt with heels will get you recognized quite a lot; I was very pleased by the number of thumbs ups, high-fives and photo requests that ensued.) I wandered around for a bit, getting a sense of the autograph area and acclimating myself to a space where Lou Ferrigno was hanging out ten feet away and I almost walked into David Boreanaz. On the other side of the hall was a merchandise area, where I saw the first of an astounding number of katanas, lightsabers and Funko Pop! bobbleheads for sale. Teenage me, especially the teenage me who grew up in southeastern Ohio with only dial-up Internet access, would have had a coronary.

I wore this nonsense all weekend.
I wore this nonsense all weekend.

There seemed to be only so much to see without straying too far, so I decided to get in line for the photo. I wound up between a dad and his two kids and a group of friends who’d flown in from as far afield as London and China to attend the con. One of the girls and I found we’d just finished degrees at Northwestern (she in law, I in journalism) that year, which was great; we became line buddies right away, since she was awesome and a lot of fun to talk to. Another convention, for YouTube and social media superstars, was sharing space with Wizard World, and every so often A Hard Day’s Night-caliber screams rang out all over while teenagers stampeded toward their own meet’n’greets.

The photo op area was really a long row of blue curtains; security guards made sure no one made a break for the celebrity guests within. My moment of truth was fast approaching, and I still hadn’t really decided what to do. I’d sort of thought I’d leave it up him — “What are you bored of doing? Let’s do the opposite of that.” But then the line started moving, and when it condensed, I realized I couldn’t have been more than 15 people back. When we got close enough, you could see through the curtains, and there was a blobby white figure staying put and posing, and all of a sudden the handlers hurried us inside to deposit our bags on a table, and there he was: known goober Sebastian Stan.

Given the sometimes elaborate poses I’d seen from Philly, I’d sort of imagined you’d have a few moments to chat and discuss your photo. The reality was that you got about 15 to 20 seconds tops before someone yelled at you to keep moving. Despite having virtually no time to think, a lot can still happen in that amount of time. Somehow I fixated on his shoes right before it was my turn: white boater shoes. He’d just been in Rome for his birthday (which we know because he and his girlfriend were Instagramming cute/sassy photos from the trip), and he looked tan and relaxed. (You know these things when you’re part of a fandom. It gets weirder that you do once you meet the dude in person.)

“Hi!” I said, trying to just smile and be classy, because Sebastian Stan is 23 months older than me and it’s not a big deal, it’s not a big deal, don’t be that fan, don’t be that fan.

“Hi,” he said, and smiled.

“No hugs!” the handlers yelled.

Oh shit, I thought. I’m taller than him in these heels.

“Can I get a hug?” I asked, hoping maybe the hug could be the precursor to a conversation about a pose, and because Sebastian Stan got in trouble at his last convention for giving too many hugs, and everyone loved him all the more for it.

“Sure,” he said, and so we started to hug.

“Look at the camera!” I think the photographer yelled.

Not actually a representative experience.
Not actually a representative experience. (Source)

My brain sort of whited out, and neither of us seemed to know quite where to put our arms. I tried to figure out what to do with my head, because I am 5’10” and was wearing inch-high heels, and I was face to face, eye to eye with this dude. He was slighter than I’d anticipated, slimmer, of course, than the muscle-bound Winter Soldier. The corner of his jaw seemed very sharp. We didn’t actually follow through with the bump-chests-and-squeeze part of the hug.

“Thank you!” the photographer might have yelled. “Next!”

“Thanks,” I think I said, and went off, baffled, to collect my bag and lanyard.

I waited for my line buddy outside the curtain flap, and we had a moment of Ohmygosh that really just happened while we waited for her friends to follow. Her friend, unfortunately, was having a panic attack, and so we waited for a little bit, peering in on the stream of photo ops, waiting to see if she’d come through. Sebastian noticed us, and out of nowhere, leaned back on one foot and made a bonkers face at us. Like, a little-kid-roaring face. You couldn’t not crack up.

Oh man, I thought later. You gotta make your own fun.

Shortly after that, my line buddy and I were chased away, and we split up, promising to find each other in the autograph line at 3. The photo wouldn’t be printed for about 45 minutes, so I wandered for a while. I had brought a certain amount of cash, in anticipation of wanting to spend money at the con, but I was more interested in experiences than things, it turned out. The remaining photo ops with Sebastian Stan were sold out, so if this one turned out poorly, I wouldn’t get a do-over, but I did nab an autograph ticket for Anthony Mackie, the other Captain America scene-stealer, because I figured I’d be sad if I lost out on that chance.

Anthony Mackie as perfect, perfect Sam Wilson
Anthony Mackie as perfect, perfect Sam Wilson

It was during this time I discovered that I had missed an entire half of the convention area: the real merch floor, plus Artists’ Alley. Teenage Esther was definitely dead and gone; I was a little more skeptical, although if I had been in a storefront and not at a crowded, seething con, I might have spent more time (and maybe a little money) on the boggling array of nerdy t-shirts and hoodies. One artist was offering commissions of con-goers, in costume, as pin-ups. A friend of hers who was hanging out at her booth talked me into it, so she snapped a picture from behind her table and told me I could pick it up by the end of the day or tomorrow.

When I finally did claim my photo op, I shrieked and broke down laughing all over again. They were all laid out on a table, a huge array of dream encounters on blue backgrounds. I was prepared for something hilarious. I was not prepared for what I got.

Still laughing, I promptly bought a rigid $5 plastic sheath for the print and hid it in my bag, because I couldn’t keep looking at it.

Eventually it was time to get in line for another encounter.

I managed to find my line buddy and her friends, who had at last gotten through their own photo ops. The autograph line was where you could actually talk to the stars. Many had brought them gifts; I saw people give Sebastian a fleece blanket, a gorgeous handmade book of Winter Soldier cartoons and a bottle of Grey Goose vodka, which made my funny-but-heartfelt postcard of a vintage Wienermobile seem quite minor in comparison. I was mostly looking forward to the chance to chat; the thing I’d brought to sign, a Little Golden Book about Captain America I’d found at the National Museum of American History a few weeks earlier, was basically a gag.

Meeting Sebastian for the second time was a lot easier, especially because I had a great opening gambit.

“So,” I said, pulling out our photo op (only intending to show it). “We took a real good prom photo…”

He took it from me and his whole face lit up. “Yeah we did!”


(I’m going to laugh forever about his hands on my waist. Because they’re wonderful. Every person I’ve showed this to has said it’s something along the lines of the most adorable thing they’ve ever seen, and I will say this: I love how happy I look, even if we could be actually interacting a bit more, rather than both just looking at the camera. Which makes it a great prom photo, really, and I didn’t have a date to prom both times I went, so — it all evens out. What a worthwhile 15 seconds of my life.)

Aw, Sebastian, you nerd. <3 "To Esther, I'm coming for you... WINTER"
Aw, Sebastian, you nerd. ❤ “To Esther, I’m coming for you… WINTER”

We did chat, and I gave him the postcard (he approved of the image) and tried not to ramble. I asked him if he might deface the Little Golden Book for me. My hope was to show him the illustrations inside, which are very cute and deeply, deeply silly. He wound up signing the cover; the Sharpie beaded a little on the laminated cardboard, but it was getting time for me to move on, so I tried one more thing.

“Can we get a selfie?” Other people were getting selfies; some were even getting hugs from across the table.

“Yeah,” he said, already moving on to the next person. “Just get it ready.”

I told him I was hoping for a non-prom photo, so, you know — silly faces. I made a stupid face, and had to snap three times because my phone has a terrible camera and the images kept coming out blurry.

Sebastian Stan did not make a silly face with me (maybe someday), but the picture was still basically worth it.

2014-08-23 14.57.20
Awkward, but representative.

Anthony Mackie was a lot more low-stakes, and super, super fun for it. While we were in line, a cheer went up on the floor. It was Stan Lee, who, as it turned out, headed for the front of our line and got handshakes, hugs and photos with Sebastian and Anthony. My line buddy and I were about ten feet away, peeping through the curtains, because how could you not?

"Where'd my junk go?" Thank you, Anthony.
“Where’d my junk go?” Thank you, Anthony.

When I finally met Mackie, he played jealous that he wasn’t in my prom photo, and laughed when I told him I still had to eat. (I don’t know how much the talent makes off comic cons, but the organizers must make a mint.) He did look through my Captain America Little Golden Book, and seemed so taken with/horrified by one image that he did deface it, as it should have been.

The rest of the con, for me, was panels. On Saturday, I attended the Guardians of the Galaxy panel, despite not being terrifically invested in the film. The actors who played my two favorite characters, Dave Bautista (Drax the Destroyer) and Michael Rooker (Yondu, the space redneck bounty hunter), were appearing, and they were a hoot. On Sunday, I nabbed a great seat for the Stan Lee panel. My verdict is that I want Stan Lee to be my self-aggrandizing old Jewish grandpa — he was phenomenal, and very funny. (Happily, he was also quite limber for a 91-year-old.)

The Captain America panel was a freaking delight. There’s not a whole lot to say that’s not better expressed by just watching the video. I had a great seat about six rows back, directly in front of Sebastian’s seat, and the girls in front of us left their chairs empty to stand in line for asking a question, so we had a straight shot at each other. That was pretty cool.

Immediately after the panel was probably the oddest moment of the con for me. We’d all been chased out of our seats following the Stan Lee panel, to prevent people from nabbing good seats by just staying in the room. While we were milling around near the doors, Stan the Man himself came out from behind the stage and walked off to whatever his next commitment was. Everyone cheered; he was greeted like a superstar, which was only fitting, and it was greatly enjoyable for him and us both.

It's a Tumblr thing, don't worry about it.
It’s a Tumblr thing, don’t worry about it.

A new line buddy and I decided to lurk in the hallway, just for a minute, to see if the same (super)heroes’ welcome would accompany Sebastian Stan and Anthony Mackie — just one more chance to show up and tell them they’re cool, as I thought. I was even wearing a t-shirt I’d had made that I was super proud of, and would have enjoyed explaining in person, if the photo ops hadn’t been sold out.

Sebastian came out first. He was walking alone, hands in his pockets, and wearing a generic, face-concealing baseball cap, the same kind Bucky Barnes sports as he stares at his own face on a Smithsonian display panel after the credits in Winter Soldier. Everything about him radiated Don’t look at me. I think he saw me looking, and I pretended to need something in my bag. He just seemed very, very done with Being On, and he still had a slew of photo ops and autographs to get to next. Even watching after he passed, you could see the crowds start to notice him; some people hustled forward, and others surged back. He looked more like I’d expected from a distance. You could recognize his gait and the shape of his shoulders. He looked taller when I wasn’t wearing heels.

What a weird job, I thought later.

And of course, I don’t know what I saw there. I’m the extrovertiest introvert: I love people and am very gregarious, but when I’m done, I’m just done and want to escape. I could have been projecting. My reaction could have been entirely about me, and how I’d handle all that looking. Certainly when we’d make eye contact at random times — and I often felt like this was because I tended to be the tallest person in line — I felt a bit like a creeper, and didn’t want him thinking of me like that. (And what does he care about me?)

Online, in that ecstatic flush of people sharing their encounters after, I read a lot about what Sebastian smelled like or what his muscles felt like or what sweet thing he’d said or signed or done. During the panel, he was the one who said he thought people had too many outlets for communicating sometimes, and that he keeps a lot of his thoughts and opinions to himself. (I’m paraphrasing, and possibly misremembering, but I did find his “Guys, you don’t actually know me or anyone else you’re here for” striking.)

buckyprogression1 buckyprogression2

As fans, we want to know the people who excite us, and simultaneously, we engage in gigantic, incredibly in-depth conversations about those people and their work entirely outside the scope of their access. I don’t just mean we talk about how handsome (or hilarious) an actor is, although there’s certainly plenty of that; but fans write amazing, compelling, terrifically insightful essays all over platforms like Tumblr about acting choices and cinematography and script-writing and background. Wizard World gave us a hunky lithograph; meanwhile, one fan asked for Sebastian’s thoughts on whether Bucky had been drafted, as his serial number would suggest, or if he enlisted, and Sebastian gave a thoughtful, character-driven answer and everyone in the hall swooned.

Fans also build deep, exciting and very real friendships around those analyses. It’s no wonder we bring so much emotion and expectation to the chance to meet the person behind it all. But we paid for the privilege. It’s a transaction, and I’m participating too, by sharing all this. The experience and the artifacts are currency, I’m aware. I came away from Wizard World not entirely sure how I feel about the whole system. On the one hand, as the previous 3,000 words indicate, I had a blast, and am very grateful that the celebrities I met were so generous with their time, energy and physical space. (I had the opportunity, because he had no line at the moment, to thank LeVar Burton for Reading Rainbow and some of the greatest parts of my childhood. He fistbumped me and said how much he appreciated hearing it.) On the one hand, it’s a dream come true.

On the other… what a weird job.

I had one more transaction to close out on Sunday after the Captain America panel. The pin-up artist hadn’t had a chance to finish my commission the day before, so I made my way back to her booth in Artists’ Alley. I had my hair back and was not remotely in costume; I don’t think she recognized me until I got a bit closer.

As it turned out, it was worth the wait, because Becca Whitaker (whom you should support, because she take commissions online too) pretty much drew the version of me that I most aspire to:

So that was it. Then I went home and lay in bed for a while, more than a little overcome by the whole thing. On a much smaller scale, the experience of being looked at, between being drawn by an artist and posing with other fans for cosplay photos, can be pretty neat. I’m not immune. I’m very happy that I get to think and write about it after, though. As far as jobs go, I think I prefer that one.

I still keep hiding that prom photo, though. I don’t know whether to bury it or buy the most outrageous, tacky frame for it that I can. The whole experience was, in a word, hilarious — but now it’s also real, and the people involved are real, and the more you think about it, the weirder and weirder (in all kinds of ways) that gets.

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