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Bob Calhoun, a.k.a. Count Dante of Incredibly Strange Wrestling fame, is now coming off the top rope in another ring. In fact, he infiltrated several Battle Royals, a.k.a. trade shows and conventions, in numerous contexts, throughout 2010, all for his new book, Shattering Conventions: Commerce, Cosplay and Conflict on the Expo Floor.
He risked life, limb and emotional sanity in the process. A security guard tossed him out of the Moscone Center in San Francisco. He rode with swarms of fanboys at various ComicCons. He accosted racist neo-Klansmen paranoids at ConspiracyCon, which was held in Santa Clara. He engaged people dressed as Klingons, Chewbacca, rodeo clowns, vampires, Gene Simmons, Maximus from Gladiator and furries. He even interviewed Republicans.
In the book, oddly enough, cosplay emerges as the common thread, whether it's politics or Sasquatch. Calhoun compares those attending Tea Party rallies dressed up like George Washington to those in Vulcan costumes at a science-fiction convention.
Throw in belligerent protesters from the Westboro Baptist Church and the counterprotesters, who always seem to show up, even if it's just one person, and you have a textbook example of the dark underbelly of America at its most fascinating: the convention.
"I kept seeing the same pattern over and over again," Calhoun told me. "From that one self-protester to the counterprotester, it kept playing out—this battle for the soul of America—with cosplay as one of the main weapons utilized by both sides. That was the weird byproduct of going to different conventions."
Things didn't always work out during Calhoun's infiltrations. At the 20th Congress of the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons in San Francisco, Calhoun didn't even get to see the show. Like countless dudes in countless scenarios before him who couldn't finagle press accreditation for something, he tried to railroad his way through, via the sound guy.
He even wore a suit because he wanted to hang out with plastic surgeons and learn about the culture of breast-implant manufacturing, but it didn't work. The sound guy snuck him into the basement area, but Calhoun was never able to make it to the expo floor. A security guard with a German accent chased him out. The sound guy did promise later to sneak Calhoun into a neurologists' convention, which he said featured cadavers, bone saws and formaldehyde.
"They drill into human heads at those things," Calhoun enthused.
The South Bay appears throughout the book. At ConspiracyCon, which unraveled like a steel cage match in the Santa Clara Marriott, Calhoun observed rants about Jewish-lineage Luciferians, involuntary human implants from the CIA and plans for an engine that runs on cat urine.
Convention centers, at least the good ones, always seem to pride themselves on how many simultaneous events they can manage. It's part of how the sales reps flaunt the various configurations and square footages of the expo floor, the breakout rooms, pre- and post-function spaces, and column-free ballrooms.
Calhoun approaches the insanity from the opposite perspective. He wonders what happens when WrestleMania Fan Axxess erupts in the same venue as an Asperger Syndrome in Education summit.
In a similar scenario, Calhoun dreaded not being bilingual when he found himself at the Santa Clara Convention Center as a Latino Pentecostal conference unfolded right next to a Steampunk convention. It fired his curiosity and left him wondering what the Spanish-speaking religious folks really thought about those people in top hats, corsets and C-3PO suits.
"We go to the conventions to be with people like us," Calhoun said. "But then the convention centers will serve two or three groups at the same time, so it becomes a concentration of more than one crazy, cultlike culture." Pretty much like professional wrestling.
All in all, Calhoun is just as much a journalist as anyone. In Shattered Conventions, his intrepid curiosity at least loosens the lid on an oft-ignored slice of the American character. After all, didn't a convention start this country?
By Bob Calhoun